Prisoners and pelicans and bears — oh, my!

By Caitlin Kelly

Many people will never visit the bit of Florida where we just spent a brief five-day vacation. Its white sand beaches have the consistency of fresh brown sugar, but it doesn’t have, blessedly, rows of condo towers or huge hotels.

Tucked between Panama City to the west and Tallahassee to the east, closer to Alabama than the rest of the state, it’s called the Forgotten Coast.

photo: Caitlin Kelly
photo: Caitlin Kelly

Jose and I had each been to Florida several times, for work and pleasure. I’d visited Key West, Miami, Orlando, Tampa and St. Petersburg. But we’d never been here.

My father and his partner rented a house — like most on St. George Island, set high atop stilts — and invited us; we flew on points, rented a car and drove the 90 minutes west from Tallahassee, sharing our small aircraft with South Florida University’s women’s tennis team.

The very day we arrived, carrying our usual pile of weekend newspapers, The Wall Street Journal ran a cover story on Old Florida, naming only a few historic towns, one of them the one we were heading to, Apalachicola.

The town is tiny, barely 2,000 people, but cars lining the main street bore license plates from Maine, New York, Pennsylvania, others, like us, desperate to flee winter for a while.

There are many small, one-storey houses and several enormous, beautifully-renovated ones, Victorian-style, with large windows and gingerbread trim, painted soft yellow or pale green, and clearly the second (or first) home of wealthy outsiders.

There’s a small, narrow bookshop, in a building from 1900 and a place selling home-made Turkish delight. You can buy a natural sponge or a jar of Tupelo honey, all very exotic to a Yankee.

It’s home to fisherman, whose daily catch of fish, scallops, oysters and shrimp made for a delicious, healthy change from the frozen lumps imported from Thailand that pass as “shrimp” where we live.

Can you imagine this many oysters?!
Can you imagine this many oysters?!

To reach the town, we passed Carabelle, Sopchoppy and Panacea, then saw Lake Morality Rd. — leading to a state prison. We also saw multiple road signs warning us of bears, then bears with cubs.


In Florida?!

We also saw a neon-pink sign: State Prisoners Ahead.

Here are some of my images:

The biggest lichen I've ever seen: sponge-soft and hand-sized
The biggest lichen I’ve ever seen: sponge-soft and hand-sized
This lovely faded green seemed to appear everywhere; this is the door of an ancient barber shop in town
This lovely faded green seemed to appear everywhere; this is the door of an ancient barber shop in town





I loved driving across the causeway and having a pelican whiz past me, at eye-level, heading the opposite direction. The island is surrounded by marshland, filled with wildlife and birds: osprey, heron, pelican, bald eagles.

As we drove back to the airport, every pelican sat atop its own wooden pole at the water’s edge, and sunlight backlit the Spanish moss, draping from every tree.

Closer to Alabama than the rest of Florida, this region is definitely the South — with White Lily flour and pralines at the local grocery chain, named Piggly Wiggly, grits and biscuits for breakfast and hush puppies at dinner.

I stopped to photograph one of the town’s major industries — oysters — warned to stay far away from the loading dock by one of the workers. I felt like Tippi Hedren in Hitchcock’s film The Birds, as seagulls swooped past my head, diving into the growing mountain of discarded oyster shells dropping from the factory’s conveyor belt.

gull and oyster machine

We had poor weather — so cold one night we layered on multiple blankets — but it was still a brief relief to shed our hats, mitts, boots and coats for even five days, heading back to more bloody frigid winter for at least another month.

It’s too easy to forget how many other worlds are out there for the discovering. At the table behind us one night, a huge, burly fisherman, hands the size of plates, gently cradled his tiny baby, gurgling in her pink onesie. You don’t see that where I live, in manicured, overpriced, suburban New York.

Sunset, our last night. photo: Jose R. Lopez.
Sunset, our last night. photo: Jose R. Lopez.

How was your last vacation?

Or do you have one coming up?

17 thoughts on “Prisoners and pelicans and bears — oh, my!

  1. I can’t remember my last vacation! I’m happy to report though that this summer I’m going on a study abroad trip, so that’s going to be like a three-week vacation. Sure, I’ll have to study and whatnot, but its still going to be a vacation. At least for me it will be.

  2. i love your description of this lovely place, i never knew it existed and it sounds wonderful. it sounds like it has retained much of it’s old southern charm, and the slow and easy pace of life that is part of all that. i love the pictures too, and tell jose the sunset is stunning. i’ll be traveling soon, i just found out, and will post the details later in the week. i am so ready –

    1. Thanks…It seems to be the sort of place you come to through a connection; my father’s partner’s father (confusing!) had a house there, so that’s how she discovered it, and my father through her…They first saw it two years ago and really enjoyed it.

      You must be SO ready to flee winter by now!

      1. yes, some places are like that. they just manage to fly under the radar, and we are lucky to find them through happenstance and timing. and yes, i am sooooo ready )

  3. Martina Newhook

    Some people refer to that part of Florida as the “redneck riviera”. My partner is a native Floridan (a rare creature as endangered as the manatee), and he has a few relatives up that way. It is definitely The South, unlike the rest of the state.

    1. I was aware of the name before we arrived! It’s def. a working-class area, but a quiet change from the glitz and $$$$ of other parts of the state, which we’d already seen. The town still had plenty of charm and some good food…

  4. Jeff and I are going to Paris with friends for a flying weekend this month and we’re starting to play our 5th anniversary trip – we’re thinking Iceland!

  5. mylifeinfocusblog

    Florida is the ONLY place I go to for a vacation now. Love it there. Spent the month of January there and going back in April. I usually spend January & February in Florida. So sad I came back too early this year. Just in time for the Polar Vortex. Never again. Booked for Jan & Feb next year!
    Did the Europe thing, America thing, the Caribbean thing when I was younger. Now, I like going to one place, Florida, but spending time in different parts of it. Ditto with New York. Niagara Falls. Saratoga. Hamptons. NYC. Lots to see and keep doing.

  6. Oh boy. Well, most of my vacations are in Florida, because that’s where my mother lives, and now the oldest two go to school in Florida as well…My mother is a Tallahassee Lassie, who now lives in Fort Myers. The kids are in Pensacola, which is our old vacation spot. I’ve spent considerable time in Gulf Breeze, Tampa, Key West, Daytona, Orlando and Jacksonville as well — to be honest, I’m a little Florida’d out after 40 years of visiting it.
    For the last nine years, my husband and I have rented a cottage out on Sanibel Island, Florida, always the orange cottage, about 400 feet from the water. It’s our couple time.
    We hate to be hot, even though it’s -10 here today, we have no interest in the hot sun. But that doesn’t mean while we’re there we don’t enjoy playing tennis after dark, stuffing our faces with oysters, drinking too much and sleeping in! It’s just not what we would choose otherwise.
    I’m not sure when our next vacation is. Perhaps June or July? I suspect we will go to Florida, or maybe just the littlest girls and myself, to visit my mother and the children. If I can get my mother to come here for a visit, I’d much prefer to head north, perhaps an island. Provincetown or Mackinac would be a welcome change. It’s been so long since I’ve been UP the coast!
    It’s nice you had a reprieve. And even better that you enjoyed the contrast of the redneck riviera, so unlike Naples or Miami.

    1. This is a tough year for us financially, as we got whacked with a 2012 tax bill out of the blue. So the only vacations we can afford are frugal ones, at least for the next few months…So this was perfect. We cooked and ate all our meals at home except for two, and they were very affordable. I’m not wild about 90+ degree heat so I was OK with the weather, although 70s versus 50s would have been more pleasant.

      Naples and Miami are very glitzy and not so much our taste. I’ve been to Miami a few times. I’d rather go back to Key West, but have been there 2 or 3 times already — too many other places left to explore. I’d like to see some of the Caribbean islands: St. Lucia, Bequia, Grenada…

  7. Loved your description and photos. I’m actually originally from that general area–the Northwest Florida Gulf Coast; and if you aren’t aware, natives call the whole panhandle “The Redneck Riviera.” Glad you had a nice time–too bad it wasn’t warmer, but from the looks of the photos, it seems it was a lovely respite, just the same.

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