Okay, so my buddies from grade school and I just turned 60 – not a big deal. I mean, it isn’t like we need to go out and reestablish our dominion over all creatures great and small. We’ve done that to death! But it did seem like a reasonable occasion just to get together and engage in some intellectually stimulating conversation over libations, and also stir up a little low-key competition of the sportsman variety.
To address the occasion, our friends Chris and Betty invited us down to their new place in Tallahassee, Florida for an extended weekend, which would include a lovely birthday/retirement/welcome-to-Tallahassee party for Chris and his friends at a historic Tallahassee manor house, some quality time at some of the nations finest beaches, and in a tribute to days gone by, offshore fishing, and CONSUMPTION OF THE SPOILS!
So, turning three score ain’t half bad!
Thursday, July 18
Our weekend companions for traveling and accommodations were John and Karen, the hosts of many a holiday get-together over the years. I’ve known John since I was 6 years old, both of us having attended grade school at the former St. Phillips Catholic School in Falls Church, Virginia, and both later going on to attend Bishop D.J. O’Connell High School in Arlington, Virginia. After high school, John matriculated to James Madison University (JMU) in Harrisonburg, Virginia, while I went on to Virginia Tech, in Blacksburg, Virginia, where I soon met my wife-to-be, Patty. But my friendship with John remained, consecrated from time to time with the occasional JMU Midnight Madness party.
John, Karen, Patty, and myself took an evening flight to Florida on Thursday, July 18th. We landed in Tallahassee, home to Tech’s Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) rival Florida State University (FSU). It was a little odd being in Seminole territory, but it was fine. We stayed the night at a hotel near the airport, so we could make an early morning exit to get down to the coast.
Friday, July 19
But before leaving town Friday morning, John, Karen, Patty, and myself met Chris and Betty, our hosts for the weekend, for breakfast at their neighborhood Canopy Road Cafe. Breakfast was excellent (They serve great coffee!)!
Chris also attended grade school at St. Phillips with John and myself, but he only attended freshman year of high school with us at O’Connell before moving on to Georgetown Prep in Bethesda, Maryland for the balance of his high school education. It is unbelievable that I’ve known John and Chris for well over 50 years!
After breakfast, John, Karen, Patty, and I stopped by Chris and Betty’s new house. While there, Chris put John and I to work helping him hang a large painting over his fireplace (a task for which we completed swiftly, efficiently, and with no controversy, ;-)).
Eventually, John and Karen, and Patty and myself started the drive down to our condo at the Villas of St. George, on St. George Island, just off Apalachicola, while Chris and Betty continued with preparations for the party they were throwing Saturday night.
Along the way to St. George Island, Patty and I noticed roadside stands selling Tupelo Honey. After a little bit of research online, we stopped and bought some. Little did we realize that in addition to being a song by Van Morrison, Tupelo Honey is also the most expensive honey that you can buy, and the most time-consuming to produce. One taste tells you why.
We also stopped at a couple of Florida’s Forgotten Coast landmarks, including the Crooked River Lighthouse (Patty and I are going to hike Spain’s Camino dos Faros (Lighthouse Way), so we need to know our lighthouse stuff.).
And we also stopped to photograph some of the indigenous waterfowl population (which were very cooperative in posing).
Although we were driving separately, Patty and I eventually caught up with John and Karen at Lynn’s Quality Oysters in Eastpoint. Patty had the spiced shrimp. I went for the Oysters Rockefeller (90% of the oysters that Florida produces are harvested from Apalachicola Bay.). This was a great start to what turned out to be 4 days of immersion in fresh seafood and a world of visual, musical, and culinary artists.
Then we toured some of the “quaint” shops in Apalachicola. At an art gallery on Water Street, The Gallery at High Cotton, we met a couple of local artists, Jenny Odom and Robin Renee Hix, who had their art on display. Jenny, who also owns the gallery, specializes in bold and abstract paintings of animals and cityscapes in oils and mixed media. Robin specializes in hand painting colorful oils over black & white photographs to create eye-popping images like the one below. Many of Robin’s works are images of subject matter from the early part of the twentieth century, before the dawn of color photography. The period subject matter, together with the corresponding low-tech technique, really clicks. Patty bought the print below.
While we were at the gallery, Jenny mentioned that since we had no other plans we should catch some of the local bands that were playing in town that night. One such band, she acknowledged, would be her own Hot Mess, for which she lead-sings (The Urban Dictionary says that a “hot mess” refers to when a person’s appearance is in a state of total disarray, yet they remain undeniably attractive and alluring. Although I’ve never heard the term before, I’m sure that I am the inspiration for it.).
Hot Mess was playing at Apalachicola Ice Company, which Jenny said serves a mean sangria. So that evening John and Karen, Patty and myself made our way down to the the local Ice Company, and we had a great time listening to Hot Mess play songs like Bob Crewe and Bob Gaudio’s “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You“, Kelly Willis and Bruce Robison’s “If I Had a Rose“, and a cover of Gillian Welch and David Rawling’s “Everything is Free” – emotions set to music.
It was hard to pull ourselves away from Hot Mess and the crowd at the Apalachicola Ice Company, but we needed to get food before it got too late. So, we walked back to the center of town to Apalachicola Seafood Grill , where we dined on spiced shrimp, gumbo, and hush puppies. It hit the spot.
By the time we left the restaurant, it was about 9:30 pm, and it was pretty quiet at the center of town.
But as we walked back down towards Water Street where we had parked our cars, we saw that the acclaimed Tallahassee band Revival was still kicking at Bowery Station. We stopped in and listened until near closing time, before returning to St. George Island for the night. We’ll have to get a full dose of this band at another time.
Saturday, July 20
On Saturday morning we awoke to a light drizzle, but it burned off quickly. Patty and I set off to find a coffee shop, and to stop by the Cape St. George Light.
John, the Ironman (note the tattoo), met us on our return to the condo. John had rented a (corroded) beach bike the night before, and he was headed towards St. George Island State Park, at the western tip of the island, and some 12 miles hence. Shortly afterwards, Patty, Karen, and I headed to the tip of the island by car to meet him. When we got there, we went out and spent some time at the beach.
The beach was beautiful, but we also wanted to get to St. Joseph Peninsula State Park, which was just over an hour away to the east, and which has been heralded as one of the finest beaches in the United States. So, we packed John’s bike in the back of our rental car and we headed back to return it on the way to St. Joseph State Park.
Along the way, we passed through Apalachicola again, so we stopped at Apalachicola Chocolate & Coffee Company to grab some sandwiches for the trip. I had a muffaletta (a New Orleans original) that was to die for! We recognized some of the staff at this cafe from our time on Water Street the night before (Apalachicola is a small town.).
We found that the beach at St. Joseph Peninsula State Park lives up to its reputation. But when you’re there, beware of dependence on GPS-linked timekeeping, because the park is in the U.S. Central Time Zone, not the Eastern.
Unfortunately our stay had to be cut short, because we needed to get back to St. George Island so we could shower and dress, and then drive back up to Tallahassee for Chris and Betty’s party.
It was about a 1 hour and 50 minute drive back up to Tallahassee. John, Karen, Patty, and I were some of the first to arrive at Ball House at Southwood.
On Friday, another grade/high school buddy, Michael, and his wife Joanna, and long-time friend Jeff, flew down from Virginia Beach, staying at Chris and Betty’s house overnight. They spent Saturday afternoon touring Tallahassee and FSU. John, Karen, Patty and I caught up with them when they arrived at Chris and Betty’s party.
The party was a hit, being attended by about 60 people. Betty was a very gracious host.
After the party, John, Karen, Patty, and I drove from Tallahassee back to the condo on St. George Island.
Sunday, July 21
Early Sunday morning, Patty, John, and I drove to the marina in Apalachicola to meet the rest of our fishing group. We were the first to arrive, but I soon received a call from our long-time friends, Joe and Debbie (our original apartment neighbors when Patty and I first got married), who had arrived in town on Saturday. They stopped by Apalachicola on their way back to their place in Palm Harbor, Florida from visiting their kids in Wisconsin (Patty and I had just visited them in Palm Harbor in May.). Their car wouldn’t start, likely due to a dead battery. So, Patty and I went to pick them up at Coombs House Inn where they spent the night. It only took a few minutes to get there. We grabbed Joe and Debbie and headed back to the marina.
By the time we got back, Chris’s friends Raul and Greg, from their days at Georgetown Prep, arrived. Chris had chartered two boats from Hooked Charters for a half-day of fishing. The girls, in the mean time, would spend the day doing other fun stuff, like picking up a new battery for Joe and Debbie’s car, and then they spent the rest of the time at the beach on St. George Island, and at The Blue Parrot, the beach side bar.
After the boats shoved off, Patty took Debbie back to Coombs House Inn to work her battery issue. Tracy was working at the front desk, and she had her husband swap batteries with Debbie to see if that was the problem. Next, he called the owner of NAPA Apalach Auto Parts, which was closed at the time, to try to get a replacement battery. The owner ended up coming over to open his store, but unfortunately he didn’t have the correct battery in stock. So, he called the owner of a the NAPA Eastpoint Auto Parts store, and that owner came and opened his store, and they ended up having the right battery. By 11:00 am, the new battery was installed, and Debbie was able to meet Patty, Karen, and Joanna on the beach on St. George Island. What unbelievable service from everyone involved!
On the way out, I was talking to Capt. Dwayne, and he mentioned that he is the great grandson of one of the keepers of what was actually the third St. George Island Light, which was located near the southern cape of St. George Island. He said that his grandmother was actually born at that lighthouse.
The first lighthouse on St. George Island was built in 1833 at the western tip of the island, across the West Pass from St. Vincent Island. When that lighthouse was damaged by storms in 1846, it was decided that the second lighthouse should be built instead at the island’s southern cape, so that ships approaching from the eastern Gulf could see it better. Construction of the second lighthouse was completed in 1848, but it too was flattened by a hurricane in August of 1851. So, the third lighthouse was located closer to the center of the island, and construction of that lighthouse was completed in 1852. This must be the lighthouse where Capt. Dwayne’s great grandfather lived and worked. That lighthouse was severely damaged by Hurricane Andrew in 1992, and it was finally deactivated in 1994. Then, after Hurricane Opal hit in 1995, the unused lighthouse started to lean. Steps were taken by the local community to try to save the lighthouse, and in 2002 it was deemed restored. But by the spring of 2005, erosion had stranded the lighthouse 20 feet out in the water. On October 21st, it finally collapsed into the Gulf. At that point, pieces of the lighthouse were salvaged, and it was rebuilt in its current location at the center of St. George Island, construction completing in 2008. The replica of the original keeper’s house was completed in 2011, and it now contains the lighthouse museum.
The first thing Capt. Dwayne did upon reaching the Gulf was to go net for live bait, pogies in this case (also called menhaden).
After we had caught our limit of Northern Red Snapper, we followed Capt. Doug and the “Minnow” to another location to the east to fish for Mangrove Snapper. Here we were a good 23 miles from the Cut, and these photos show how incredibly calm the Gulf was that day. It was surreal, especially considering that the previous week there were 8 foot seas just offshore.
The “Tigershark” had caught its limit of Northern Red Snapper, and we weren’t having much luck with the Mangrove Snapper, so we started heading in. Along the way, we did stop off at some sunken bridge debris to catch some smaller fish for which limits did not apply.
Back at Apalachicola, we had to get the fish cleaned and the fillets packed in ice. But first, we had to collect documentary evidence of our fishing prowess.
But there was another problem. We really wanted to eat the fish. We had hoped that the local restaurant where we planned to gather after fishing would cook it for us. But unfortunately, they wouldn’t. So, Chris’s quick-thinking friend Greg called the Half Shell Dockside restaurant that was right next door to where the fish was cleaned. Sure enough, they invited our motley crew to come over to feast on the freshest catch of the day, not to mention 6 dozen oysters, hush puppies, coleslaw, onion rings, cheese grits, collard greens, and a beer or two.
The staff at Half Shell Dockside was tremendous. They accommodated our big group and our unique request in a pinch. Our waitress was thoroughly attentive, and the chef hit our snapper dishes out of the park.
Leaving The Blue Parrot, Raul and Greg bid us adieu, because they would be on planes early in the morning. But, Michael and Joanna had arranged to get a condo at Villas of St. George for Sunday and Monday nights, since their flight home wasn’t until late Tuesday evening. Jeff and Chris stayed at their condo Sunday night.
After Patty and I walked back to our condo for the night, there apparently was an incident at the condo pool where someone decided to go swimming after hours dressed only in their underwear. I can’t imagine who that could have been.
Monday, July 22
Monday morning, Joe and Debbie took Joe’s portion of the remaining fish and hit the road for the 6-hour drive back to their place in Palm Harbor, Florida, which they hadn’t seen in a month.
John, Karen, Michael, Joanna, Jeff, Patty, and myself drove to St. Joseph Peninsula State Park to spend more time on the beach. On the way to the beach, we stopped in Apalachicola for breakfast, this time at Cafe Con Leche, on Water Street. Several of us had the arepas, which is a pre-Columbian dish of meats and cheeses held like a sandwich in patties made from a maize flour. It was great! The name of the cafe triggered fond memories from the Camino that Patty and I walked in Spain, so I topped off my arepa with a … Cafe Con Leche.
When we got to St. Joseph Peninsula State Park, the conditions on the beach were just perfect – warm water, sand bottom, and no crowd.
On the way back from the beach, we all stopped in Apalachicola one more time, this time at the Up the Creek raw bar. We just needed a snack to hold us over, so we got a combination of appetizers to pass around, oysters, shrimp, fresh tuna dip, and stuffed grape leaves.
As we left the restaurant, we said goodbye to Michael, Joanna, and Jeff, as they would be staying on St. George Island for one more night. But John, Karen, Patty, and I were heading back to Chris and Betty’s in Tallahassee to have have one more fish fry, and to be close to the airport for our early flight home the next morning.
The drive back to Tallahassee was pleasant. We were listening a local radio station that played mainly local, Gulf Coast music. It made you feel almost like a local.
The dinner that John and Chris cooked was awesome! It set a new standard for me that won’t be beaten.
Tuesday, July 23
A quick hop to the airport and we were on our way home.
This trip was tremendous. Sometimes you take a vacation that redefines your concept of what a vacation is all about. This was one of those, not just because of the destination, but because of the people we got to share it with. So beyond the accolades mentioned above, for this experience I am deeply indebted to Chris for coming up with this hair-brained scheme and following through with it, Betty for throwing such a classy and sophisticated party for us (I especially liked the little tiny pieces of toast with the goat cheese and the brown shxx drizzled over the top.), John for planning, securing, and sharing his lovely accommodations, and for triggering our various side adventures, Michael, Joanna, and Jeff for breaking away from their busy lives to reconnect with ours, Joe and Debbie for joining two of my longest threads of life into one, and Raul and Greg for, … ah, never mind. 😉
Life is all about connections. On this trip we renewed a few, and I hope we made a few more. I’m looking forward to doing it again next year (Lest we forget, 61 is indeed a prime number. And by the way, Tigershark! Hoooyaa!). – Rich
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