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Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue reveals the Gulf Coast beauty of Apalachicola

When your honey finds you lustily staring at the 2012 Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue, which hits newsstands today, you'll have a brand new excuse. You weren't feasting your eyes on flesh. Not on the women.

No.

You were looking at Florida!

The untainted beaches of St. George Island. The glorious wharf in Apalachicola. An oyster boat at sundown on Apalachicola Bay.

The magazine's annual skin issue, which reaches some 60 million sets of eyeballs, has returned this year to the Sunshine State, which practically invented bathing beauties. And surprise: Its shoot was in the lovely little oyster haven of Apalachicola.

Last year, the magazine contacted Anita Grove, executive director of the Apalachicola Bay Chamber of Commerce. SI was looking at several locations for an Americana-themed shoot.

"I was a little hesitant," Grove said. "I tend to be a little on the conservative side. . . . I blush easily. I was like, 'Well, I don't know.' "

She ran the idea by the city fathers. After much thought, debate and careful consideration, they said:

" 'What? Are you crazy?' " Grove recalled. " 'This is wonderful!' "

In October, the vixens and their crew came to town quietly, like sexy stealth bombers. They holed up in the Coombs House Inn and dined on catered meals. They ordered Red Bull and potato chips, any brand. They sampled Apalachicola's oysters. One supermodel even found a pearl.

And they worked.

"I was very impressed," Grove said. "They worked very hard."

For nine days, some of the most desired women in America posed along the Forgotten Coast. They rolled in the sand and boated through the marsh and leaned against antique Chevrolet pickups, and the town buzzed with rumors about the locations of the shoots. But otherwise they kept it all under wraps.

"Somehow in this gossip-ridden little Southern town, we kept pretty quiet about it," said photographer Richard Bickel. "It was a secret. I told very few people."

One model, stylist in tow, popped into Bickel's gallery on Market Street.

"Unfortunately," Bickel said, "she didn't come into the shop with her swimsuit on."

The annual issue has featured Florida before, of course, but never the Gulf Coast region. Editors picked Apalachicola on purpose.

"We thought we can do some good for our country, really help a region that needs to be showcased," Diane Smith, SI swimsuit issue editor, told USA Today.

Time will tell whether the portraiture translates into a spike in tourist traffic. Will readers see the beach for the boobs?

"If some guy with his beer and corn dog sees Apalachicola in the magazine, I don't think he's going to go get his atlas and look us up," Bickel said. "He's going to flip the page."

So maybe the Maldives don't have anything to worry about, but the town is hoping to benefit from the extra attention such a prestigious shoot could bring, especially after some bad press related to the BP oil spill, which mucked shores farther west. Apalachicola is one of five locations featured in the issue.

"To me, this solidifies us as a world-class destination," Grove said. "It dignifies us as a place that's special. It's beautiful. It's one of a kind. Hopefully, we'll be able to use that when we need it."

Ben Montgomery can be reached at bmontgomery@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8650.

Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue reveals the Gulf Coast beauty of Apalachicola 02/13/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, February 14, 2012 12:09pm]
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