Florida: where they decorate palm trees and wear shorts for Christmas. Where they drive more sanely on the beach than they do on the road. Where most people are from somewhere other than here. Where they share the road with turtles and alligators and panthers—but not necessarily with bicycles. Yes, Florida is a little wacky!
In Florida we slowed down our pace considerably. We pulled into St. Augustine, on the northeast coast, a couple of days before Christmas. When you drive south through the Carolinas you know you’re in the South with a capital “S”. But as soon as you cross into Florida you know you’re somewhere else. The Spanish heritage is immediately apparent, the drawl disappears, highways widen, speeds increase, and before long you find yourself in Florida mall sprawl.
I’ve mentioned elsewhere that developers seem to have the run of the place, at least along much of both coasts. Fortunately we avoided a lot of that by seeking out the many great parks and preserves, and discovering a few underdeveloped towns.
If I had to choose one favorite camp we’ve stayed in it would be Tomoka State Park, just south of St. Augustine. It has everything we came here for: sunny beaches, living under palm trees, many miles of great biking, paddling on winding rivers. Down the coast a ways you can still drive on Daytona Beach, where muscle cars raced before they built the big NASCAR mecca. And we rode bikes all the way down to the very tip of Biscayne National Park—well, the part on land anyway; 95% of the park is underwater.
Further south, Tait joined us just after New Years, and all of a sudden we had a very full trailer. Fortunately, we’re in Shangri-la, so we lived outside. We explored Everglades National Park together. At Shark Valley, you try to keep your distance from lounging gators of all sizes, from a few inches to 11′ long. One big guy seemed to be the welcoming committee, sunning himself along a popular path. And we motor boated deep into a Red Mangrove Wilderness, where we struck out looking for Manatees.
But further north and east (we were zigging and zagging around down here), a highlight of our time with Tait was canoeing the Loxahatchee River, where Manatees swam around and under us, turtles sunned on logs, and exotic birds were everywhere. Oh, and splashing in the warm surf at Blowing Rocks Preserve, a pristine limestone shoreline restored by the Nature Conservancy.
After kissing Tait back off to Portland, we settled in for a few weeks in Fort Myers Beach on the Gulf coast. It’s just a typical Florida town, and by that I mean, unfortunately, surrounded by miles of malls. But a great spot nonetheless for exploring unlimited wonderful beaches in both directions. We hauled out the folding chairs for sunsets on a different beach almost every evening.
Sanibel Island is next door, where you can escape from malldom, bike everywhere, and pick up gorgeous shells all over the beaches. Even better for shells was Barefoot Beach Preserve, where the Cocohatchee River meets the Gulf, washing up a mess of Fighting Conch, Lightning Whelks, 9-Legged Starfish, Turkey Wings, and other beautiful bivalves.
But the Florida we really loved was the Keys—from Key Largo to Key West, a coral necklace of barrier islands and turquoise water, strung together by the 128-mile Overseas Highway. It’s tropical—unlike Seattle it gets warmer when it rains. (Actually it’s unlike Seattle in every other way too.) You’re surrounded by great beaches, seafood, a relaxed attitude. And Key Lime Pie, although, weirdly, we never got around to eating any and we’ve been wondering why ever since.
Key West isn’t the bohemian town it was a decade or two ago—housing prices have gone up too much—but it’s still sort of quirky and fun. Best of all, it’s the jumping off point to get to the Dry Tortugas, a National Park that looms 70 miles off the tip of the Keys like a mirage. Snorkeling with schools of fish, then flopping down on warm white sand. A huge brick fort from the mid-1800s. Just a fantastic patch of sand in the middle of liquid blue heaven!
The sad news was that we eventually had to leave the Keys, but the great news was heading up to meet Jason, LeAnn, Jack and Davis in Orlando. After missing them so much for eight months, we had an action-packed, fun-frazzled week in kid heaven: Disney World and Universal Studios. Up Space Mountain and down Big Thunder Mountain. And waaaayy down Dr. Doom’s Fear Fall (my fav). Tomorrowland and Krustyland; Frontierland and Harry Potter land. Star Wars and Hogwarts. Mickey and Spiderman and the Simpsons. Then to the real tomorrowland: the Kennedy Space Center. Plus some good times just hanging around the park, grandsons running in and out of the trailer, swimming and eating and catching up.
At this point Florida’s weather started getting cooler, or maybe we just headed far enough north for a little winter to creep in. Up the Gulf Coast, Cedar Key is probably what a lot of Florida towns were like before the invasion of us out-of-towners. Peaceful, a little crusty around the edges. A few fishing boat rentals and restaurants. We had someone drop us off a half mile offshore at Atsena Otie Key, where we explored what’s left of the old Eberhard/Faber pencil mill and town cemetery after one too many hurricanes blew everything down. Found a few shells and snoozed on the beach.
Our last stop in Florida was Panama City Beach, a pretty ordinary panhandle town with extraordinary white sand beaches and mint green water. This description does not do it justice. Got a little biking in between thunderstorms, and bundled up to run around and explore miles of beaches, so we got our last little taste of Florida.
When we were down in Key West, we touched Mile Post 0 and the Southernmost US marker, so we’ve rounded the far corner of the country now. From here on we’re heading generally west and north. I hope it warms up real soon, because there’s snow right now up Kentucky way, and that’s the direction we’re heading!
All photos: © 2015 Sue Cummings and Bruce Howard. All rights reserved.