For oyster lovers, Apalachicola is Florida's pearl. There are many reasons to visit Franklin County, that conglomerate of tiny panhandle communities often called the "forgotten coast" because of its non touristy, Old Florida vibe - the uncrowded, pet-friendly beaches on St. George Island, the St. James Bay Golf Resort in Carrabelle, charter fishing in Alligator Point and bird-watching in Eastpoint. For many people, though, there's nothing as satisfying as Apalachicola's world-famous oysters.
Most oysters are farmed, but Apalachicola, or "Apalach" as the locals call it, is home to miles of wild oyster beds that supply 90 percent of Florida's oysters. Apalachicola River and Bay converge with the Gulf of Mexico to form the ideal oyster incubator.
At Up the Creek Raw Bar, which overlooks Scipio Creek and the Apalachicola River, a small crowd gathers around a chalk board to check out the specials.
A delicate, pan-fried flounder cake served atop a mountain of house-made gnocchi drizzled with a light white wine cream sauce is a big hit. Chef Brett Gormley, an Apalachicola native, is known for his culinary creativity, and he has a special talent for marrying fresh local seafood with globally inspired flavors.
But first and foremost, this is a raw bar, and Gormley can shuck an oyster faster than you can say, "Pass the hot sauce." That's not something he learned in culinary school. Like many locals, he's been doing it since he was a kid.
When it comes to raw oysters, Gormley says less is more.
"I treat them delicately and add as little to them as possible," says Gormley. You want to enhance the oyster's actual flavor, not cover it with other flavors." Gormley knows not every oyster lover is a purist, content to eat them raw on the half shell, so he's happy to prepare customer favorites like oysters Moscow, raw oysters topped with horseradish-infused sour cream and a sprinkle of sustainable American caviar.
Gormley also prides himself on his oysters mignonette. He makes a mean mignonette sauce, putting his own spin on this French classic by adding fiery habanero peppers fresh from his garden instead of the milder white or black ground pepper.
The Blue Parrot Oceanfront Cafe is one of the few restaurants on St. George Island. In fact, it's one of the few businesses, and it's as close as anything comes to being a "happening place" on this 28-mile barrier island that can only be reached by crossing a four-mile bridge that spans St. George Sound.
City dwellers come to the island to decelerate because nothing more stressful than losing their favorite flip-flops while chasing their pooch in the waves ever happens here.
Rows of pastel-colored beach houses with names like "Amazing Sunrise" and the tongue-in-cheek, "All Daddy's Money" are hideaways for those who want nothing to come between them and endless stretches of exquisitely white sand.
There's not much here, and that's the attraction. No fast-food restaurants are here either, so for a quick but delicious meal, sun worshippers head to the Blue Parrot for a basket of crunchy, deep-fried conch fritters, peel 'n' eat shrimp or a plate of raw oysters.
Oyster enthusiasts can be assured they will get the very best the bay has to offer. That's because owner Steven Rash also owns the Water Street Seafood Company in Apalachicola, so only the cream of the oyster crop makes it to the Blue Parrot's umbrella-covered tables.
IF YOU GO:
WHERE TO STAY: Collins Vacation Rentals rents beach houses on St. George Island. 60 E. Gulf Beach Drive, St. George Island, 877-875-9062, http://www.collinsvacationrentals.com.
The Coombs Inn is a luxurious bed and breakfast housed in a Victorian mansion in downtown Apalachicola. It's close to shopping and locally owned restaurants. The beaches on St. George Island are a 15-minute drive. 80 Sixth St., Apalachicola, 888-244-8320, http://www.coombshouseinn.com.
WHERE TO EAT: Up the Creek Raw Bar serves not only raw oysters, but many elegant seafood dishes with an international flare. Open for lunch and dinner. Entrees $6.99-$15.99. (Prices on specials vary) 313 Water St., Apalachicola, 850-653-2525,
The Blue Parrot Oceanfront Cafe serves a variety of seafood entrees including local grouper, Gulf shrimp and fried or raw Apalachicola oysters. Open for lunch and dinner. Entrees $10.99-$24.99. 68 W. Gorrie Drive, St. George Island, 850-927-2987, http://www.blueparrotsgi.com.
ALSO VISIT: St. George Island State Park is home to miles of undeveloped beach. It's a popular destination for canoeing, hiking, kayaking, fishing and camping. 1900 E. Gulf Beach Drive, St. George Island, 850-927-2111, http://www.floridastateparks.com/stgeorgeisland.
ACTIVITIES: Journeys of St. George Island provides a number of guided kayak tours for wildlife viewing, fishing or snorkeling. Prices vary depending on tour. 240 E. Third St., St. George Island, 850-927-3529, http://www.sgislandjourneys.com.
SHOPPING: Grady Market, located in a refurbished ship's chandlery, is home to shops selling antiques, handmade gifts, clothing and more. 76 Water St., Apalachicola, 850-653-4099,