A visit to the quaint village of Apalachicola

A Florida getaway: If you go, don’t miss the chocolate shop!

By STACEY MORRIS SPECIAL TO THE JERUSALEM POST
April 10, 2011 03:26
GEORGE STRITIKUS's chocolate

chocolates 311. (photo credit: Stacey Morris)

APALACHICOLA, FLA. - The Panhandle village of Apalachicola may be small in scope, but a closer look reveals a cornucopia brimming with treasures – a chocolatier to rival the likes of Jacques Torres, majestic Antebellum mansions, quaint book stores, and historic light houses overlooking the Gulf of Mexico. But there’s one thing you won’t find here: high rises.

In recent decades, the Florida high-rise has become as ubiquitous as their orange groves, but not in this Franklin County town, which bills itself as “A Natural Escape.”

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Unlike the glitz of Miami or the sensory overwhelm of Orlando, a visit to Apalachicola is more like a serene step back in time with more than 250 places on the National Register of Historic Places.

With its miles of unspoiled beaches and marshlands, it has also become a magnet for artists, and it’s not unusual to see painters at work along the shore, their easels propped in front of them as they recreate the sun rising over the Gulf of Mexico.

Lynn Wilson Spohrer and her husband, Bill Spohrer, own The Coombs Inn bed and breakfast where they host visitors from around the world, and four plein-air landscape workshops every year.

“I’m an artist and I love painting the landscapes here,” said Wilson. “I started the Pastel Society in town. People love coming to paint the shrimp boats, marshes, sand dunes on St. George Island, and the oak trees that line the river.”

When Wilson, who runs the Miami-based interior design firm of Lynn Wilson & Associates, first visited Apalachicola 30 years ago, the inn was abandoned and in a state of neglect. Still, she and her husband saw untapped potential for the inn and the entire town, so they bought the inn and began the renovation process.

“We saw something in Apalachicola. It’s precious and unspoiled, and the history is respected instead of being torn down by raging development,” she said. “We saw the town as an unpolished gem lying beneath the façade of chipping paint. My husband and I poured our life savings into the inn and the renovation several buildings in town. The Coombs house was abandoned when we bought it, partially gutted by a fire, and the windows were boarded.

And that’s how some of the other buildings in town were. Now the downtown is beautiful and vibrant.”

The Coombs Inn draws people from around the world, Europe in particular, according to Wilson.

“We get Florida residents who want a quiet weekend getaway, but people from Europe love Apalachicola because it’s the Florida they imagined.

Many of them are disappointed by the crowds and high-rises of Orlando. We’re really the forgotten coast. Not many people pass this way.”

After the couple renovated The Coombs Inn, they rehabilitated several other buildings downtown, including The Montgomery Building, which houses Apalach Outfitters, Garlick Antiques, the Alice Jean Art Studio, and Wombat Sound Music Store; the Apalachicola Cotton Warehouse (now a museum); the town’s oldest building, “The Sponge Exchange 1836.”

“Once we started, other people in town got involved in renovating and investing,” said Wilson.

“Now Apalachicola has a lot going on: museums, boutiques, and The Orman House, a restored Antebellum home overlooking the Apalachicola River.

“Apalachicola is a town that tends to attract people with a genuine appreciation for history and the beautiful nature of Florida,” she said. “People who become a part of the community want to contribute to perpetuating that and not just turn themselves over to bottom-line greed. I make my money in Miami but invest in Apalachicola.”

The town’s chocolate shop, owned and operated by George Stritikus, draws a steady stream of returning tourists, many of whom aim to get their fill while they’re in town because he doesn’t ship the handcrafted chocolates he makes daily. His original plan was to live a quiet life of retirement when he moved from Birmingham, Ala., where Stritikus ran the city’s most renowned Jewish delicatessen.

Instead, he became a devotee of making memorable homemade chocolates and The Apalachicola Chocolate Co. was born five years ago.

“I have fun every day of my life,” said Stritikus as he handed a customer a white paper bag filled with Caramel Almond Logs. “I love watching people’s faces light up when they try my candy…it’s like watching a silent movie.”

“My father had a barbeque stand in Birmingham.

That’s where I learned about the food business. I was known for my sandwiches at the deli, bought nothing from the outside,” he said. “I made all the salads, chicken, salmon, briskets, and my own breads.”

One of his favorite stories from his years as a deli owner is the day a surgeon gave him his private home number after being bowled over by Stritikus’s matza ball soup.

“He had heard I was in need of some elective surgery and told me to call him anytime,” said Stritikus with a laugh.

When Stritikus decided to delve into the chocolate business, he didn’t approach it lightly. He spent two years of research at the library, followed by nearly a decade of experimentation in his kitchen. And then set about creating recipes from his particular proprietary blend of chocolate: an intoxicating confluence of French Valrona, Belgium, and Venezuelan chocolate in varying degrees of darkness.

“People love my milk chocolate, but my dark chocolate has a depth of flavor, and it finishes with a whisper of sweetness,” said Stritikus. “It’s the Belgian chocolate.”

Some of the creations he dreams up include: Chocolate Peanut Butter Fudge, Caramel Almond Logs, Peanut Butter Velvets (similar to Reese’s Cups), Coconut Island Dreams, Milk Chocolate Raisin Clusters, Walnut Butter Crisps, Chocolate French Pudding, Vanilla Bean Fudge, Pecan Caramel Squares, and Dark Chocolate Pecan Clusters.

“I do a killer lemonade in the summer, with real lemons, cherries, and pineapple. And people love my gelato year-round,” he said of the 33 flavors, that include white chocolate, hazelnut, toasted pecan, mango, peach, blueberry, and banana. “I have an Italian Carpigiani gelato maker and only use fresh fruit.”

But the wonders of Franklin County extend beyond the borders of its quaint, one-traffic-light downtown. There are hiking and biking trails, miles of sand dunes with waving sea oats on nearby St.


George Island, historic lighthouses, and fishing charters, an ever-popular passtime since Apalachicola restaurants are renowned for their just-caught seafood.

George Ward is a native of Apalachicola and lifelong fisherman who runs Black Pearl Charters, a fishing and boating guide service. He sees visitors from around the world returning to the quiet, unspoiled waters of Apalachicola Bay for its bounty of pristine oysters, red fish, and picture-perfect sunsets.

“It’s not unusual to see a bald eagle flying back to its nest while we’re out on the bay fishing,” he said.

“People come here because the bay is pretty; and you don’t have a bunch of people all over the place…they come to get away from it all.”

For more information on Franklin County, Fla., visit www.anaturalescape.com .

Stacey Morris is a freelance writer based in Lake George, N.Y. Her Web site is www.staceymorris.com .


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