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A quaint Florida getaway


How do you get somebody passing through town to stop when there's no red light?

It doesn't help that the town looks like it sold the light for the money.

Gone is the easy cash of the real estate boom that for a time dazzled residents in this tiny town. They'd gotten to like the money even after they'd long complained about the government buying up timberlands and regulating fishing almost out of business.

Sure, some got lucky. Guys who fished all their lives were selling their homesteads for big bucks. Stilt-legged condos that looked like blocky storks filled lots along the shore.

But many who found themselves newly cash-rich in this Panhandle town of 1,250 couldn't afford replacement homes and had to move elsewhere. The new condo owners, even though only seasonal residents, parked their yachts permanently at the marina, pricing commercial fishing boats out of their slips.

Now it's mostly just locals at the Pirates Tiki Hut or the Funky Oyster Shack. The preacher greets the school teacher and Tamara from the Waterfront Partnership schmoozes the former mayor.

They say that the next time the economy booms, things won't get out of hand.

A different look

Most people who have heard of Carrabelle know its claim to the "world's smallest police station," a phone booth on the highway through town. Distinctive, too, is the town name. According to historian Allen Morris, the name comes from a certain Miss Carrie Hall, who once reigned as town belle.

Carrabelle is on the prettiest section of coastal U.S. 98, a Florida Scenic Highway. East and west, long sections run alongside open water. It's so unlike Florida elsewhere that only old photos and postcards hint at familiarity.

Slow down through Carrabelle and drive a few side blocks along Marine Street past the last packing house, remaining commercial slips, a couple of bars and fancy street lamps above a new sidewalk, courtesy of the Waterfront Partnership.

You're alongside the mouth of the Carrabelle River flowing into St. George Sound and the Gulf of Mexico. The river passes through town differently from rivers elsewhere. It doesn't cut through so much as sidle between town and Timber Island across the highway bridge. Most everything's on the water or views it. You think of the river flowing east, the road heading west, and town metaphorically caught between conflicting slow and fast forces. Yes, it's that, but equally just history patched onto geography, more basic than tricked up.

Carrabelle's streets climb the slope back from the shore. Houses have sleeping porches, sloped roofs and flowering shrubs out front. The scene makes you imagine contentment and people sleeping well at night, maybe without locks.

For two centuries, Carrabelle was all about extracting natural resources, first timber then fish. Retirees find more to do 30 minutes west in Apalachicola. Tourism rules nearby on St. George Island.

There's nothing in Carrabelle to compete with that, the old-timers will tell you. Just woods and water — just thousands of acres of state and national forest and the wildlife refuge with its wilderness trails.

Wildflowers carpet prairies alongside bogs and sulfur springs. Spring and fall, a hundred species of migrating birds take up residence. Sea kayakers cross the 3 miles of semiprotected waters to Dog Island with its dunes up to 50 feet that islanders call "the mountains."

Outsiders who newly show up by the ones and twos to rent storefronts don't deal big like the land developers. It's hard to get excited about around-the-world sailors renting kayaks and canoes in a former tattoo parlor.

Laurel Newman runs the narrow-aisled bookstore next to Carrabelle Junction, the coffee shop. "Name a topic. It's here somewhere" — a third edition of Twain, Tama Janowitz, lots of Elmore Leonard. Laurel is up from Port Antonio, Jamaica, and Fort Lauderdale, where she heard about Carrabelle. Her husband is a boat mechanic; she details boats.

"We came up. Fell in love. That's it."

Ron Gempel at Carrabelle Junction opened with money he made from selling his coffee shop in the Potrero Hill section of San Francisco. He sells 50-cent coffee ground fresh from beans, and stacks New Yorker magazines in the bathroom.

Others come from nearer by.

A couple of home remodelers from Atlanta, Skip and Kathy Frink, bought the antique shop they fixed up as the hotel it once was. The Old Carrabelle Hotel is five rooms on two floors framed by oleanders and persimmon-colored shutters, comfortable more than fancy, from the 1880s.

Skip and Kathy's Oyster Cabin next door is now the Funky Oyster. The couple leasing the place from them came from Destin "to escape the crowds and the high rises." On one recent night, the mayor of Plains, Ga., and his family were having dinner.

Kathy's father came down from Birmingham, Ala., and opened 2 Al's Beach Cafe with her brother on Carrabelle Beach, the district west of the river bridge. Kathy and Skip give hotel guests chits for breakfast. You can walk to the beach. Pipes, fallen subdivision signs, ruts puddled in sand roads scoured by dump trucks remain from the boom. The sand is more coarse and less white than the sugar sand farther west. But there are no walls of motels between you and the road, no crowds. You can bike over from town.

A couple miles west, past a rash of roadside for-sale signs is Crooked River Lighthouse. Kids climb a replica galleon, and in time the lighthouse might be opened again for climbing.

Fretting over the future

The most radical act in town may belong to Vance Millender and his two boys. They're six generations on the water.

Vance represents Carrabelle's contradiction.

He'll tell you that "people with money are going to want to buy on the river and the bay. Over-development? When you lose your commercial seafood industry, you're in trouble. That hasn't happened yet."

But until lately, Vance himself sold marine supplies, ice and oil. He bought everybody's catch and trucked it around Florida. Then during the boom he sold a lot of land, "which supports my seafood habit." Now he and the boys are ready to quit wholesale for retail on the highway east of town.

"We need to buy and fill those condos we built. These people are going to want fresh, local seafood," he says. "And we need to dress up the town, make it look like a sea town, nautical-type frontages on buildings."

Robin Hilton at the paddle shop says the place already looks like a sea town. "We just need to keep commercial seafood. It has a lot of intangible effects on our community."

You ought to visit Carrabelle before the next boom. Who knows what it will look like after that.

Freelance writer Herb Hiller lives in Georgetown, a Florida town "a lot smaller than Carrabelle."

If you go | Carrabelle

Carrabelle Area Chamber of Commerce, (850) 697-2585; Ask whether the Camp Gordon Johnston Museum about World War II has reopened in Carrabelle Beach.
The Forgotten Coast Black Bear Festival is 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Oct. 18 at the Kendrick Sports Complex on U.S. 98. Get more information at the chamber Web site listed above.

Sleep, eat and drink

Old Carrabelle Hotel, 201 Tallahassee St.; (850) 697-9010 or Fully renovated with five rooms with bath; high $70s to low $100s double depending on season, includes breakfast vouchers.

Carrabelle Junction, heart of town at 88 Tallahassee St., (850) 697-9550. Breakfast and homemade lunch of soups, salads, sandwiches, nothing over $7.

Funky Oyster Shack, 203 Tallahassee St., (850) 697-2324 or Laid-back Cajun full of rafter-hung stuff, gumbo-thick with atmosphere. Gumbo, fresh seafoods, boudin sausage. Lunch and dinner, mostly under $10.

Pirates Tiki Hut, end of the road on bridged Timber Island; (850) 697-4331. Unimaginative barnlike space at a gorgeous point-of-land setting. Fresh fish, seafood. Nice people. Dinners, with sides, all under $20.

Note: Former town favorite Julia Mae's has closed.

A quaint Florida getaway 09/12/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, September 16, 2008 4:14pm]
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