Hello and Happy New Year! It is great to be moving into 2019 with a full year on the road stretching out ahead of me. 2018 was an amazing year full of new places and new people and 2019 is poised to be even better. I’m starting this year in the great state of Florida, The Orange State, and a good start it has been.
I rang in the new year with my old friend Peter and his family in Largo, Florida, between Tampa and Clearwater. Peter’s uncle had a party for the occasion full of food, friends and music. There was a campfire by the canal and fireworks throughout the night. It was a great way to say goodbye to 2018 and hello to 2019.
On New Years Day, I had the wonderful opportunity to cheer on my Penn State Nittany Lions against the Kentucky Wildcats in the Citrus Bowl right there in Orlando. It was my first bowl game, and I really enjoyed it. The weather was beautiful, the stadium was pleasant enough, and it was great to be watching football in the Florida sun. It was probably the warmest game I’ve ever seen - even September in Pennsylvania isn’t necessarily shorts and a T-shirt weather. It wasn’t a great game for a Penn State fan, but it was still fun to be there.
The next morning, it was time to get my Florida travels underway so I headed out to beautiful Alexander Springs Recreation Area in Ocala National Forest. When I arrived, I grabbed a campsite near the springs and then went on a wonderful two hour hike along the Florida Trail. The hike took me through a wonderful section of the forest, and while there weren’t any mind boggling views, it was really a pleasant and quiet place to hike and get some exercise and fresh air. I finished my hike around sunset and had a quiet night around camp, reading my book and enjoying being back on my own on the backroads of America.
I was up early on the 3rd to go for a quick hike around the boardwalk trail and then grabbed a kayak to enjoy a morning paddle up the river. I’ve really enjoyed kayaking these last few weeks, and have wondered why I’ve done so little of it on this trip. My official new policy is more kayaking. It was so nice to be out on the river early in the morning, especially in the area around the springs themselves where the water was crystal clear. I paddled an hour down the river and an hour back up and pretty much had the place to myself. That’s if you exclude all of the birds and alligators and fish and turtles which were out there keeping me company. It was excellent. I followed my kayak run up with a quick dip in the beautiful namesake springs which were cool and refreshing but not overly cold and then got back on the road.
From there I headed off through the forest to historic St. Augustine. I have been to St. Augustine before a few times, but haven’t really had the chance to explore very much. St. Augustine traces its founding all the way back to 1565, making it the oldest continuously inhabited colonial city in the country, predating even the Lost Colony of Roanoke by 20 years. It’s a little crowded, but it really is a cool city. I got there late in the day and enjoyed a walk around the fort and through the historic downtown area, taking photos before and after the sun set. Many places still had their Christmas lights up, and they were very tastefully done.
I spent the morning of the 4th at the beautiful lighthouse in St. Augustine Beach, and then took a nice long walk along the beach itself. It was great to get out and get some exercise, some vitamin D and some salt air. This is always a good combination and left me feeling pretty good about things. The weather closed in a bit in the afternoon, and I spent some time in the library trying to catch up on a bit of work.
I headed back downtown on the morning of the 5th to get some more photos. It was a lovely, warm day and I really enjoyed being out and about. Some of the old buildings are really spectacular, and I’m enjoying the Spanish Revival architecture in this part of Florida. I took a lot of photos while walking around and enjoyed a bowl of Minorcan Conch Chowder at the St. Augustine Seafood Co. for lunch. It a really tasty, slightly spicy, tomato based soup loaded up with conch and potatoes and I loved it. For all my favorite photos from St. Augustine, check out my post HERE.
My belly full of deliciousness, I headed off down the oceanfront highway A1A through Palm Coast, Flaggler Beach and Daytona, all the way to the village of Ponce Inlet. There I visited the magnificent Ponce Inlet Lighthouse, took a nice long walk on the beach and had a drink at the Hidden Treasures Rum Bar. As the sun was setting, I enjoyed taking some breathtaking sunset shots of the lighthouse.
From there, I headed back up to Starbucks in town to get some work done and then dropped down to DJ’s Deck under the bridge for a wonderful blackened fish wrap. One of the things I love about getting fresh fish in Florida is that they usually have multiple kinds, and its never the same old boring selection you get in most of the country. I can’t even remember the kind of fish I had for dinner, but I had never heard of it before and it was really delicious. Seeing as it was Saturday night, I decided a few beers might be in order after dinner, and since it was too cold for an outdoor bar that night, I ventured into the Shores Festhaus. This was a great little bar which was way cooler than the strip mall it was located in, and most importantly it was smoke-free. Florida is sadly one of the states which hasn’t figured out that your right to smoke shouldn’t supersede my right to not breath your smoke. It’s Florida for God’s sake - step outside and enjoy the weather. I had a great night in the Festhaus chatting to the locals and getting in on the gossip.
Sunday morning I headed down the beach to the Daytona Beach Drive In Christian Church. Located on the site of an old drive-in movie theater, this congregation has decided on a novel approach to Sunday worship services. You simply drive in, pick up a bulletin and communion at the gate, park anywhere on the ample lawn, tune your radio to 88.5 and enjoy the service from the comfort of your own car. They have built a small house with a balcony for the priest to preach from, and bathrooms are located in the one-time concession stand. I really enjoyed my visit to this church. The people were friendly, the service was quick and to the point, and they even had coffee, donuts and fellowship to follow. This was definitely an ‘only in Florida’ experience and you should definitely go if you ever find yourself in the area.
After church, I stopped briefly at Jackie Robinson Ballpark, the baseball stadium in downtown Daytona Beach. This was the site where Robinson played his first exhibition game for the Brooklyn Dodgers’ minor league affiliate team the Montreal Royals during spring training for the 1946 season, on his way to breaking Major League Baseball’s color barrier. I told this story in my latest podcast (listen HERE), and wanted to pay the stadium a visit. While the field is currently being rebuilt, it was nice just to be there and imagine what things were like back then.
After this stop, it was time for me to hit the road and I headed up to visit my friends Jake and Tina in Palm Coast. I used to work with Tina when I was a part of Jean-Michel Cousteau’s Ambassadors of the Environment program on St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands, and I worked with her husband Jake at Coki Dive Center. They’re really good people and I always enjoy catching up with them and hanging out. They have a one year old son named Reef who is just too cute. We spent the day running errands and then just relaxing around their place. It’s always nice to have a day to get a little down time and we had a good time chatting into the night.
Monday morning, Jake and Reef and I headed out to Blue Springs State Park near Orange City. We had a great time at the park viewing the main attraction: the West Indian manatees which make their winter home there. We probably saw a few dozen manatees slowly swimming around the beautiful clear water of the spring-fed lagoon. We walked up to the source of the spring, which is also a scuba diving site when the manatees aren’t around. It was a beautiful day and I really enjoyed hanging out with the guys and taking pictures of the wonderful manatees that were there. For all my photos from that day, check out my post HERE. That night, I headed into Sanford to catch up on a few things and start to make some plans for the rest of my trip down the coast.
Tuesday I got some work done in the morning, and then dropped down into Kissimmee to catch up with an old friend of mine for a few hours. Laura and I used to hang out quite a bit when we lived on St. Thomas and she was one of the best people I knew there. She is currently living and working in Alaska, but was taking a break from the long dark winter to get a little sunshine. We hung out by the pool and caught up for a while before I hopped into the inevitable Orlando area traffic and made my way out to Melbourne on the coast. I got in after dark, so just hit the gym for a while and called it a day.
Today I headed down the A1A, making a few stops to check out the beach along the way. I pulled into Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge, historically the first National Wildlife Refuge in the country established by Theodore Roosevelt in 1903. I enjoyed a nice 2.5 mile hike around the Bird’s Impoundment Trail which ran among the mangroves of the Indian River Lagoon. There were lots of great birds around, and I had the place pretty much to myself. It was a beautiful day for a wander.
After my hike, I headed out to Crab E Bill’s Seafood Market in Sebastian for lunch. I was stoked to be able to get some whole conch fried up, a real Florida (and Caribbean) treat. The problem with conch fritters is that the filler can often take away from the flavor of the conch itself, and the conch often isn’t properly tenderized so it can be super chewy. This conch was sweet and tender and really delicious. I enjoyed it thoroughly with a nice view out over the inlet.
After lunch I ventured back over to Vero Beach and took a nice long walk on the beach to work off the fried conch. This beach has some serious slope to it, but it’s also really pretty. The water is clearing up and beginning to get bluer and warmer as I make my way south. I may give a swim a shot tomorrow. It was nice to walk up and down the beach and watch the clouds turn colors while the sun set behind me.
And now I’m here in Vero Beach, finishing up this week’s post to share with you what I’ve been up to this year. It’s been a great start to the year, and it’s nice to be in the Florida sunshine. This coming week, I am headed south with plans to visit West Palm Beach, Jupiter, Lake Okeechobee, and a few other spots along the way. By this time next week I should be poised to head out into the Keys, if I’m not already there. I’m looking forward to learning some history this week, both from Florida and the native people who were here before the Spanish arrived. I’m also hard at work trying to finish my second Georgia podcast before I dive into Florida history head first. I hope you all are getting through the winter okay if you’re here with me in the northern hemisphere. If you’re somewhere cold, I hope you can share in the Florida sunshine with me as I go. Have a great week out there, wherever you are, and, as always, thanks for reading.