65 miles E of Panama City; 80 miles W of Tallahassee

Sometimes called Florida's Last Frontier (a claim that overlooks the Everglades) or the Forgotten Coast, though Franklin County is now billing itself as "A Natural Escape" (http://anaturalescape.com), Apalachicola makes a fascinating day trip from Panama City Beach or Tallahassee, as well as a destination in its own right. The long, gorgeous beaches on St. George Island, 7 miles from town, are among America's best. Justifiably famous for Apalachicola oysters, the bays and estuaries are great for fishing and boating. If you love nature, the area is rich in wildlife preserves.

The lovely little town of Apalachicola (pop. 2,600) was a major seaport each autumn from 1827 to 1861, when plantations in Alabama and Georgia shipped tons of cotton down the Apalachicola River to the Gulf. The town had a racetrack, an opera house, and a civic center that hosted balls, socials, and gambling. The population shrank during the mosquito-infested summer months, however, when yellow fever and malaria epidemics struck. It was during one of these outbreaks that Dr. John Gorrie of Apalachicola tried to develop a method of cooling his patients' rooms. In doing so, he invented the forerunner of the air-conditioner, a device that made Florida tourism possible and life a whole lot more bearable for locals.

Apalachicola has traditionally made its living primarily from the Gulf and the lagoonlike bay protected by a chain of offshore barrier islands.

Today this area produces the bulk of Florida's oyster crop, and shrimping and fishing are major industries, too. The Gulf oil spill never reached this part of the Panhandle, and the eponymous oysters remained safe and delicious.

The town has also been discovered by a number of urban expatriates, who came for a visit and stayed. They've restored old homes, and opened antiques and gift shops (there aren't many towns this size where you can buy Crabtree & Evelyn products). Apalachicola is a hidden gem of a charming Southern small town that manages to balance both its history and its aspirations.