As international stories go, it was Franklin County’s biggest – a Valentine’s Day surprise for millions of pairs of eyes who each caught a fresh glimpse of the county courtesy of three babes in bikinis featured in what has become the world’s most popular celebrations of the feminine physique.



On The Late Show with David Letterman, Sports Illustrated Swimsuit, an issue read last year by an estimated 70 million adults, unveiled its cover girl, 19-year-old Kate Upton, on a giant billboard in Times Square.



That cover photo, of the exquisite 5’10” blonde Florida girl from Melbourne, was taken in Australia. But it might have been from among those of Upton taken during an Oct. 9-17 photography assignment in Franklin County, selected by the magazine to pay homage to the beauty of the Gulf Coast.



“One of the things we wanted to do is to show the world that the Gulf is alive, well and beautiful. Don’t be afraid to go to the Gulf,” said Diane Smith, the senior editor who oversaw the project.



With eye-popping numbers likely to eclipse last year’s 2.6 billion media impressions, including Facebook videos and an interactive website, the luster on the county as a tourist destination got a lot shinier.



“It’s certainly going to put Apalachicola on the map,” said Smith. “It’s the largest selling magazine in the world; one out of four Americans reads it. It’s become sort of an American tradition.”



Beginning nearly a year earlier, when editors first contacted the Apalachicola Bay Chamber of Commerce, the project led to a weeklong photo shoot headquartered at the Coombs House Inn



The magazine chose models with Gulf coast ties, including a brunette from Louisiana, Ariel Meredith, who was featured in teaser photos and videos; a sandy blonde from Texas, Julie Henderson; and Upton.



The only site written in sand, so to speak, was the eastern end of Dr. Julian G. Bruce St. George Island State Park, which figured into a sunrise shoot for each of the models. Other spots included the Tin Shed, deck of Boss Oyster, and aboard the Donna J, the backyard of Gene Smith’s house, the Steamboat House, Gardens Inc, the former Wefing’s Marine Supplies, and Scipio Creek marina, and the tree swing and robins egg blue antique Chevy pickup at Franklin County Sherriff Skip and Julie Shiver’s house.