Rediscovering Florida’s Panhandle
A Coast Reborn
When you mention vacation spots in Florida, most people think of Miami, Orlando or the Keys. Very few bring up the panhandle of the Sunshine State. In fact, many people have dubbed that area as the Forgotten Coast. For nearly 100 years, the St. Joe Paper Company has owned nearly 1 million acres of land, using it to farm the trees to make paper. Recently, St. Joe decided the land is more valuable operating resorts than farming timber, and is working with nearby towns and businesses to establish an identity and tourism base for the area.
Once upon a time, the Forgotten Coast was the Up-and-Coming Coast. In the early 1800s, it was an economic hub with trading posts, railroads and busy ports. In 1828, Apalachicola was the third-busiest port on the Gulf Coast. However, the region soon fell on hard times. Fever hit in 1840, wiping out a large portion of the residents; causing others to flee. Hurricanes struck the area in the 1850s, washing away the railroad tracks while the 1860s brought devastation associated with the Civil War. The few remaining residents fell into lives of fishing, farming and of course, logging and paper mill operation.
There seems to be a direct link between forgotten and preserved. The residents who stayed behind developed a healthy, protective attitude toward the environment. The region’s rivers, bays and beaches are absolutely beautiful. We were paired with Chef Chris Hastings, culinary advisor for the area, for a foraging tour. The goal was to go into the environment, meet the people, forage for regional foods and prepare them using local culinary techniques. Our activities included gigging flounder, catching crabs, harvesting oysters and collecting honey. Each activity was accompanied by a local expert possessing rich knowledge of the area and their craft.
Our trip started on the coastline called the Emerald Coast by locals (even though it looks more sapphire to me). White sand dunes and beaches accent crystal clear, blue-tinted waters. We checked into the WaterColor Inn. This award-winning 60-room boutique hotel sits on the beach and allows you to take in all the beauty with panoramic views of the water from large balconies and unique features like ocean views from the shower. It was recently named the fourth best hotel in the United States by Travel + Leisure magazine. We enjoyed dinner at Fish out of Water, WaterColor’s premier restaurant. Winner of the Best of Award of Excellence by Wine Spectator magazine, Fish out of Water dazzles diners with fresh regional meats and seafood prepared in their exhibition kitchen.
We started our foraging with a day of catching blue crabs. The clear waters of the Forgotten Coast, unlike the brown coastal waters closer to Houston, allow you to see your prey and cast your bait (chicken on a string) towards them. The crabs are easily hauled in and netted. For dinner that night, Chef Hastings set up a portable kitchen on the beach where he combined our day’s catch with fresh snapper, clams, fish stock and other local ingredients to make seafood bouillabaisse. The aromas from the pot merged with salty sea air as we sipped on wine and enjoyed the sunset.
We checked out of WaterColor early the next morning and drove east along the coast. Two-and-a-half hours later we pulled up to 13 Mile Oyster Company where owner Tommy Ward greeted us with firm handshakes and cold beers. The big, jovial Floridian explained the bays are excellent oyster farms because they are so far from most of civilization. The fresh waters that bring nutrients into the bay are not contaminated by factory run-off, septic tanks or other pollutants. The oysters are fresh and pure. After a quick overview, we loaded into boats and headed out to harvest oysters.
Oyster harvesting is a lonely business. Standing on a wooden boat armed with a set of tongs (which looked like two garden rakes joined by a pin through the handles), a good harvester can cultivate about 10 bags of oysters a day, for which he earns $10 per bag. The process involves working the tong handles back and forth while pushing the rake heads down into the oyster beds until oysters break free and can be lifted out of the water and dropped on the culling deck of the boat. Once a sufficient pile is on the boat, a piece of iron is used to break the clumps of oysters apart and measure them. Those living and more than three inches long are keepers; everything else is raked over the side before you start harvesting again. The work is monotonous but the views are gorgeous. Wild life abounds in the area including deer and bear; we were fortunate enough to see a bald eagle on our trip.
Back on land, we enjoyed a traditional shrimp and oyster roast. Oysters were served raw, steamed and broiled with toppings ranging from butter to Tommy’s signature topping of cheese, onions and peppers (tasting much like an oyster quesadilla). Shrimp were boiled and seasoned. It was kind of like a Florida version of a crawfish boil, complete with corn and potatoes.
The next stop was the Coombs House in Apalachicola. This restored 1905 mansion once belonged to the wealthiest man in town. Remodeled and converted into a bed and breakfast in the mid 1990s, this historic residence is filled with antiques and oil paintings from around the world. It is recognized as one of the best B-and-Bs in Florida. After storing our luggage, we put on a few extra layers of clothing and headed to the docks to meet our guides for an evening of gigging flounder.
The bays are very peaceful at night. While gigging, motors are turned off and boats are silently propelled by a long wooden pole. The pole is blunt on one end and has a gig on the other. The locals are very astute at the transition from poling the boat to catching dinner. When they are not guiding tourists, they earn $2-$3 per pound gigging flounder that are distributed to fish markets and restaurants throughout the southeast. They spend so much time on the bay the fishermen know who is gigging in the dark waters by the sounds of boat motors and the angle the spot lights are pointed into the water. On our trip the stars were brilliant in a cloudless sky. Porpoises splashed in the shallow water near us as they chased bait fish attracted to the light on our boat. However, we were not the best giggers. We caught five fish in four hours.
The next day we were drinking Tupelo honey meade wine before 10 a.m. This batch was proudly made by George Watkins, bee farmer, story teller and local historian. The wine tasting came after hearing about the trials and tribulations of running bees and bee hives around the Apalachicola River in quest of honey made from the blossoms of the White Tupelo Tree. Many blooms from the area can be the source of honey. Gall berry, Black Tupelo, Willow and Ti-Ti blooms all attract bees and produce honey. However, only the White Tupelo Tree produces pure, Tupelo-grade honey that will not granulate. Working with all honey is, “heavy, slow and sticky; and sometimes aggravating.” Bee keepers do this work while fighting bears and floods. Most of the honey from the area sells for about 70 cents per pound. Pure Tupelo honey sells for $2.70 per pound, which explains why they work so hard to maximize production during the one week White Tupelo Trees bloom each year.
Our trip ended with a scenic tour of the area in a small private plane. The flight back to our starting point took less than 30 minutes. Beautiful blue water and tons of timber were dotted with a couple of small towns and villages. The culinary adventure we took to the Forgotten Coast involved many of the activities Chef Hastings does as he works to create and define the area’s cuisine. You can join him on future outings. Activities will depend on the time of year and can include everything we did plus: shrimping (on a shrimp boat), scalloping, touring fishing boats and markets, visiting area farms and anything else a chef may do when searching for regional and seasonal ingredients. You’ll also dine in the area’s best restaurants. The trip runs $1,750 per person which covers all activities, lodging planned meals and gratuity, excluding airfare. Chris Hastings owns and operates the Hot and Hot Fish Club restaurant in Birmingham, Ala.
This forgotten coast is being rediscovered quickly. The St. Joe Company is already near final phases of development at the WaterColor resort area, 499 acres housing 1,200 residences and hotel rooms. Seaside, where the Truman Show was filmed, has been completed. Three other resort communities are currently under construction by St. Joe as well as several other projects along the 200 miles of coastline between Destin and Apalachicola.