Tourist beach towns all through the South have their own personality, but also usually have common themes. Most cater to two major demographics. Older residents form the steady lifeblood of such towns in the offseason.
Normally, we can order a meal and know what to expect. Satisfying the older demographics means meals tend to have a little less spice and seafood will be cooked just a little longer. Young tourists spend millions on trinkets, tours, clothes, and alcohol. Normally, you'll enter at least one beach trinket shop through the mouth of a Great White shark, full of at least one tiny wooden pirate with an eye patch and a peg leg. Too many overly kitschy signs in neon colors camouflage each town's heritage, and ubiquitous salt leads to copious rust, popping nails, and dingy windows with enough salty film to survive three hits of a dolphin's tail. Still, the trips are worthwhile for the family time and opportunity to eat some fresh fish and feel the wind in your hair and water between your toes.
You might say we thought we knew Apalachicola. We were wrong.
My friend Boyd told me west of Panama City on the panhandle we'd find a party, but East we'd find rest for our soul. We should have listened. The signs and architecture had more in common with the charming central Texan towns we'd encountered than the continuous sales pitch of Port Aransas. We found macaroons as big as your face, and authentic café con leche. The fried oysters had the marvelously flavor reminiscent of sea and earth, cooked just to a lovely cookie dough texture. None of the usual coastal overcooked calamari wannabes, please.
We found local seafood stores with proprietors kind enough to let a ragged mariner use the trash or have a bag of ice for free. We bought grouper there as fresh as we've ever had, and cooked it several ways without even a hint of disappointment.
Everything was wonderfully accessible, from the grocery and auto parts stores we visited by bike or the local laundry. We visited marinas, weaving through the tiny cottages on the sea by boat at idle speeds, with Maggie sitting on the bow laughing and waving at our new looper friends.
We've been to places on the loop that surprised us in small ways. Apalachicola was the first one that stole a piece of our heart.
We'll be back.