It’s been another great week out here on the road. This week I’ve made my way to a handful of Florida’s 700 natural freshwater springs, enjoying some swimming, kayaking, snorkeling and boat tours as I went. I also dipped into some real “Old Florida” towns, most notably at Cedar Key and Micanopy. This week I also visited the State Capitol in Tallahassee and enjoyed the Florida History Museum there as well. I ended off the week by dropping down to the “Forgotten Coast” and cruising along the Gulf of Mexico through hurricane ravaged towns. I’ve seen some really stunning places this week and learned a lot as I went. As I write this, I’m coming to the end of my time in Florida, and I must admit I will be sad to see it pass into my rear view mirror
My week started with a visit to Three Sister’s Spring National Wildlife Refuge in Crystal River for one more look at the manatees. Once again, as has been my experience throughout Florida, this proved to be a little too expensive to provide value for money. You have to park at City Hall and pay the $15 entrance fee and then hop on a shuttle for the five minute ride to the refuge. Once there, there is a nice boardwalk around the spring itself, which is beautiful, and some great spots to view the largest population of manatee in Florida. When I was there, it was a fairly warm morning, so there were only about 20 manatee around. They were amazing to see and photograph, and there were tons of volunteers around to help answer questions, but if it had only been $7-8 it would have been better. I hope the money went to preserving the habitat and keeping the manatee healthy.
From there, I made my way out to Rainbow Springs State Park near Dunnellon. Rainbow Springs itself is big and beautiful and was a wonderful and refreshing place for a swim in the afternoon sun. There were canoes and kayaks out on the water as well, but I chose to just swim and wander while I was there. The area surrounding the spring was once an amusement park, so the grounds are interesting to walk around. There are several man-made waterfalls on the property, which were wonderful to see after a month in pancake-flat southern Florida. There were also beautiful flowers and some of the enclosures from the zoo that used to be there. There weren’t a ton of people there which was nice, and I really enjoyed this park, and especially its $2 entrance fee.
Feeling refreshed, I headed off towards tiny Cedar Key, somewhere I’ve been wanting to get to for a lot of years now, but have never made the trip. Cedar Key is a really neat little island out in the Gulf of Mexico which has managed to avoid a lot of the strip-mallification which has penetrated so much of Florida. A lot of what I found on Cedar Key is the mythical “Old Florida” I hear so much about but haven’t seen much of. There are some modern condos there, but I hope they don’t build it out too much and destroy the island’s character. In many ways it felt like a seaside New England town, only warmer, and one resident told me that New Englanders make up many of the town’s winter residents. I enjoyed a wander down the main street and around the waterfront area, and stopped for a beer with a view of the Gulf at the Black Dog Bar. Back downtown, I stopped in at the historic Island Hotel, whose ten inch thick tabby walls have survived many a hurricane since being built in 1859. I also enjoyed a stroll through the town’s community garden. Cedar Key is a quaint and beautiful place, and real estate there was very reasonably priced. Its lack of conveniences make it charming, though may contribute to the cheap housing. I really liked it.
I took off before the sunset because I wanted to stop and take a photo in Rosewood on my way back. I want to write about what happened at Rosewood this coming week, but for now suffice it to say it was a really tragic event in Florida’s history. That done, I made my way on to Gainesville for a much needed workout and shower after a pleasantly busy day.
Friday I headed out to the adorable little town of Micanopy. Micanopy was of interest to me because it was the site of the fictional town of Grady in the wonderful film Doc Hollywood. I love that movie, and interestingly the book it was based on was written by my good friend Stan’s brother. The town was sleepy and cute and full of antique stores and cafes. I enjoyed wandering up and down the main street and taking photos of the locations from the movie.
Full of nostalgia and feeling good, I moved on to Devil’s Den Prehistoric Site near Williston. I didn’t expect much from this place other than a few good photo-ops, but I absolutely fell in love with it while I was there. Devil’s Den is an underground freshwater spring with a Karst window to the above-ground world allowing light into the cave. The water is crystal clear and when the sun comes in through the window you get amazing shafts of light in the water. Dive platforms have been constructed making this a wonderful snorkel and dive destination. Deep into Devil’s Den, human and animal remains have been found dating back almost 10,000 years. In this case, I felt the $15 admission fee was worth it and I spent several hours in the water taking photos and just enjoying being there. In my opinion, this is a magical place. I hated to leave, and I will definitely be back.
I wanted to make it out to Ichetucknee Springs State Park in the afternoon, but spent entirely too long at Devil’s Den and wasn’t going to fit it in before dark. I did have some work to catch up on though, so I headed up to Lake City for the night. I headed out to Ichetucknee Springs nice and early on Saturday morning though. It was overcast and the temperature had dropped overnight, so it wasn’t the most beautiful of days weather-wise. I still had a great morning in the park. I grabbed a kayak for the low price of $20, which included a shuttle back up-river to my van. It was a pleasant day of kayaking under the Spanish moss, and there wasn’t a whole lot of paddling involved to get down the river. The water was clear and I loved some of the beautiful birds along the banks and in the trees. The highlight of the trip for me, though, were the two manatee which came out to play under my kayak. They just kept swimming back and forth underneath me, and coming up to have a look at me. I’ve really become attached to these gentle creatures in my time in Florida, and I’m really going to miss them.
When I was done with my kayak trip, I took a short nap and then headed on to Tallahassee. I got in in time to hit the gym before heading out for the show at the Bradfordville Blues Club. The BBC, as it is called locally, is a Tallahassee institution, and the only Florida stop on the National Blues Trail. It would be fair to call it a juke-joint, although I know people that would take offense at that. Regardless, the band playing was Doug Deming and the Jewel Tones, and they were amazing. They played in a great jump blues style and had a ton of energy. I was happy to be allowed to record them for my second Florida podcast (yes, I know I haven’t gotten the first one done yet, I’m working on it). While I was there, I also headed outside for a break by the campfire and some of Ms. Earnestine’s famous catfish. It really was some of the best I’ve ever had and really hit the spot. I wish I could’ve stayed longer, but I was tired so called it a night around midnight.
Sunday I slept in a bit and then headed downtown to the Museum of Florida History. This was a pretty good museum, along the lines of many of the other state history museums I’ve written about as I’ve been traveling. I was particularly interested in learning about Florida’s colonial history and how it had changed hands over the years leading up to it becoming a part of the United States. The museum did a particularly good job at presenting this story, and most of my questions were answered. I also got a kick out of the citrus boxing demonstration showing how the fruit was cleaned, dried, waxed, sorted and boxed to make it look its very best. There was also some interesting information about Florida as a tourist destination and the so-called “tin-can tourists”, working class people who camped out in fields and ate store-bought meals out of cans. This wasn’t a huge museum, but it was a good one. Best of all, it was free.
I spent the rest of Sunday trying to get some work done and relaxing a bit. I had an excellent burger at Harry’s Seafood Restaurant near the museum. I know, I know - who gets beef at a seafood restaurant, but I was really in the mood for a burger, and this place had $3 Guinness during happy hour. The burger really was good though, and I had a great bowl of red beans and rice to go along with it. That started to get me really excited about heading to New Orleans next week. Then I just chilled out for the evening and started to make some plans for the week ahead.
Monday morning I headed to the State Capitol Building downtown. It truly is one of the ugliest buildings I’ve ever seen, and an ugly capitol building for sure. Truly terrible. Thankfully Florida residents didn’t let them tear down the old capitol building as planned, and that building has been beautifully restored to its 1902 appearance and houses a nice museum on Florida government. I was impressed at the displays there which gave honest interpretations about Florida legislative history, including racist and anti-Indian policies and cases. It was refreshing to see a state own up to some of its terrible past instead of making excuses for it. Kudos, Florida, for that.
After my visit to the capitols, I wanted to get some work going on my next podcast, so I spent much of the afternoon in the library. In the evening, I went downtown to a nice bar with an outdoor seating area called Andrew’s, where I caught up with an old friend of mine, Chad. Chad and I went to Penn State together and served on the Interfraternity Council together. We hung out a lot during our senior year, but haven’t really seen each other since. While he was in the midst of a really busy week, I was grateful that he made some time to come hang out. It was great catching up with him and what’s been going on over the last twenty years.
Monday I headed off early to Wakulla Springs State Park, a beautiful park about a half-hour from Tallahassee. This park was the filming location for such Hollywood classics as Tarzan and The Creature from the Black Lagoon. I was there to go on the park’s boat ride down the river. As much as you’ve heard me complain about how expensive things are in Florida, this boat ride may be the best bargain in the state at only $8. Our captain, Hugo, was an incredibly knowledgeable park ranger who did an excellent job at pointing out the flora and fauna of the park as we cruised down and back up the river. There were hundreds of birds out and we saw at least 50 alligators as well. Right as we were headed back in, two manatee came up and made an appearance, really topping off the ride. My highlight, though, was seeing these three baby gators on their mama’s back. After our tour, I headed into their beautiful historic park lodge to take some photos and enjoy a Ginger Yip, their signature soft drink. It was really delicious, and the lodge was pretty cool too.
From there, I headed south to the coast, making a stop at a wonderful gas and convenience store called Rocky’s which had that rarest of rare finds: a free dump station. My tanks were getting full, so this was a much needed stop. With my gas and water tanks full and my sewage tank empty, we both felt much better headed towards the beach.
I drove along the coast for a while, eventually making my way out to St. George island to take some photos of the lighthouse there. The clouds were rolling in, so I stopped into a great local spot called Paddy’s Raw Bar for a cold beer and a dozen local oysters. The oysters were so fresh and clean and I really enjoyed them. Once the rain had passed, I made my way back to the lighthouse and then headed on to Apalachicola. I got in after dark and I was feeling pretty tired and it was raining, so I called it an early night and watched some TV in my van.
Waking up this morning to some sunshine and clear skies, I headed out for a nice long walk around town. Apalachicola is a cute town which has gone from a cotton town, to a sponge town, to an oyster town. There are some beautiful old homes there, and I really enjoyed my walk.
From there, I headed further west along the “Forgotten Coast” through Port St. Joe and Mexico Beach. This is the area which took the biggest hit last October from Hurricane Michael as it ripped through the panhandle. While the story has left the news cycle, the whole region is still in ruins and driving around reminded me a lot of driving through the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Homes and businesses are ravaged and the whole area was really sad to see. But, recovery is underway and construction crews are working hard to rebuild.
After driving around for a while, I stopped into the library here in Panama City to finish up a few posts and catch up on a bit of other work. When I publish this post, I will head on maybe to Destin for the night. This will be my last week here in Florida, as I make my way through the panhandle and on to my last stop in Pensacola. From here, I am slipping through southern Alabama and Mississippi on my way to New Orleans for Mardi Gras. My folks are going to meet me there for a few days and I’m looking forward to catching up with a bunch of friends while I’m in town. It’s been almost 10 years since I left New Orleans, and it is always great to be back. I’ll be in and out of the Big Easy for the rest of the month leading up to Mardi Gras, and then will be in Louisiana for the rest of March. I have explored some parts of the state pretty thoroughly in the past, but am looking forward to seeing all of the places I missed before. It should be a fun month. This time next week, I’ll be writing to you from New Orleans though with a belly full of crawfish and a smile on my face. I hope you have something to look forward to this week as well. Until next week then, try and get out and enjoy yourselves.