Monthly Archives: April 2013

The End of Florida’s Tourist Season

Some Thoughts on the End of Florida’s Tourist Season

It is the end of high season in Florida, the time of year when people, weary of winter, migrate south, seeking the sun. January, February, and March are the peak months, but once Easter is over, the wave of visitors begins to ebb until the tide is fully out, usually by the end of May. Right now, the roads are clogged, bumper-to-bumper on the keys and in the hospital zone, but otherwise, the traffic runs steady.

It is beautiful in Florida right now. Everywhere I look is profusion of color: waters of turquoise compete with skies of Robin’s egg blue where majestic “God clouds” rise to the heavens until you think you’ve never seen a sky so big. The white sugar sand is warm under my toes.

Flowers bloom in profusion and I am taken back in time when, at the Assisted Living Facility, my mother and I picked orange hibiscus blooms and put them in her hair, which pleased her.

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Later she put it in a cup with no water, telling me it is unnecessary because the bloom dies quickly whether or not you give it water.

Spring Flowers #3

It was the little things she knew, the things I was always too busy to hear, not having the time to learn which caterpillar has the right markings to be a monarch one day, those were the things I listened for then.

“Tell me the story of what Uncle Alfred did to get himself thrown in jail.”

“I don’t remember.”

“That’s okay, Mom.”

Here at home, so many years later, the soft breezes brush gently across my skin, carrying just enough chill to threaten me with a shiver, but not so much that I actually do. The air is sweet, perfumed with blooming orchids and magnolias and just the occasional whiff of salt air rising up off the gulf and floating inland.

Spring Flowers #2

The soft rustles of the breeze as it played among the dead fronds hanging downward from the palms…“palm trees in grass skirts”, my mother called them…made me wonder. Did ole Ponce lift his face to the sky and breathe as deeply as I do? Did the breeze caress his face, calling him to come closer, dreaming of eternal life?

I open the windows and let the soft breeze sweep the rooms clean, carrying away the stale smells of a house too long closed up, and turn my face to the sun and drink it in, taking my fill, hoping it is enough to have some left for later, when the heat bears down and the sun sears my skin.

There are many beautiful places to live, all across the country, but my roots are deep in Massachusetts and in Florida. When people ask me where I grew up, I answer: “I grew up in the best of both worlds.”

Slowing the Pace in Monticello, Florida

Slow Down and Relax in Monticello, Florida

Monticello (population around 2500) is a pretty little town and all traffic managed with one rotary and two blinking traffic lights. Have I mentioned how much I like north Florida? And small towns? The historic buildings were impressive and people would wave to you as they drove past, even the firemen in their fire truck! Most of the time, though, we’d drive for a long time before encountering traffic.

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We stayed at a quiet little bed & breakfast, but there are other options, as well, since Monticello is a mere 28 miles southeast of Tallahassee. Here one has a choice of several B&Bs, hotels, motels, a KOA campground, and all-inclusive resorts, such as the Honey Lake Resort Plantation & Spa in nearby Greenville. I’ve no idea why people want to run a Bed & Breakfast establishment. It ties you down for most weekends and most owners pack it in after a few years. There are easier ways to earn a living, not to mention those quirky old houses come with hefty maintenance costs. Can you imagine what liability insurance runs on these places?

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Have I mentioned that Monticello is also considered (at least by ABC TV) to be the most haunted small town in the U.S.? Make of it what you will. I look forward to a return trip to explore the area in depth, including the not-so-well-known, such as The Elizabeth School, an African American historical site, which is not open to the public, unfortunately, but there is another historical school in the area.

We spent our first day browsing through the storefronts: antiques, hardware, gift shops, luncheonettes, and oddly enough, considering the remote location, an opera house, considered to be haunted. Had a GREAT time shopping in antique stores until one saleswoman blew my fun. I’d set some things on her counter as I shopped and she was wrapping them up. I told her to wait because I might decide to put some things back and went back to browsing. Well, wouldn’t you know, she just HAD to sing out that I was up to $77.

“Just great,” I said, “Now why in the WORLD would you go and say that in front of my husband? Now I’m gonna have to stop.” She was laughing and apologized and when she told me she’d been married for 36 years, I told her she KNEW better! Whatever became of the sisterhood of secrets?

Thunder rolled that night, but I awoke to a sunny morning:

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We headed out later that morning to check out a piece of property that we’d heard about. We drove down miles and miles of red clay roads:

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Then we drove down more roads, equally as deserted:

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After a few wrong turns, we found our road and took our chances with ruts and wet clay:

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And found a quiet spot next to the water:

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Too soon, it was time to head the T-bird for home, with hopes of a return visit one day.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Riding the Sunshine Skyway Bridge

Riding the Sunshine Skyway Bridge Stirs Memories of the Past

May 10th is an odd anniversary for Floridians. In 1980, the old Sunshine Skyway Bridge collapsed, after being struck by a freighter during a storm, and its pilings caved. Several vehicles, including a pick-up truck (driver was one of the few survivors…the truck hit the barge first, then bounced into the water) and a Greyhound bus carrying 26 people dropped 150 feet into the water. Richard Hornbuckle stopped his car just 14 inches from the edge of the broken span. In an interview, he reported that visibility was severely limited that day and the next thing he knew, the bus he was following simply disappeared. Now, after avoiding the gaping maw by inches, I would think the guy would have scrambled as fast as he could off that bridge, wouldn’t you? Not this guy. He went back for his golf clubs. Interesting choice of priorities! In all, 40 people lost their lives that day.

The old bridge, which had suffered damage from ships before, and on-going corrosion from seawater, was no longer operable or fixable, so the FDOT decided to build a new bridge. Since stopping on the Bob Graham Sunshine Skyway Bridge for non-emergency reasons is strictly prohibited, all photographs were taken from the car:

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Some say there are supernatural powers afoot, due to various reasons. Numerous suicides have taken place from the top of the bridge. Both bridges are believed to be cursed by ancient Native Americans when their middens (shell mounds) were disturbed during construction, but there has been no verification of that claim.

Skyway #4

And then there is the story of the vanishing hitchhiker, young, female, blonde and beautiful, trying to catch a ride near the middle span. Toll takers have heard the story many times from different people: when the car stopped, she’d get in, but as they approached the summit of the bridge, the hitchhiker would begin to cry. When the driver turned to look at her, she was gone.

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The structure soars and the yellow paint on the cables looks golden when the Florida sun blazes just so on the “sails” that some claim aliens use to communicate with their home planet.

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The old bridge, with its missing middle span, has been shortened and is used as a fishing pier and is also reputed to be haunted with apparitions of the bus flying past them, it’s passengers’ faces frozen in fear, except for a lone man in the back who looks out the window and smiling, waves to them.

My mother feared driving over any bridge and, as a young girl, I’d have to talk her over it. When the first bridge fell into the water, my brother called me up and said, “Mom was right!”

Skyway #9

Inland Florida: The Crowley Property

How do you achieve a change of perspective? For me, it requires a ride out to the country…

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…and a walk down the old trail, a cattle trail which once led from the County Seat down to the Tamiami Trail. From there, the Crackers (named for the cowboys’ cracking whips) drove their cattle to Fort Myers for markets north or further south to Miami for shipment to Cuba:

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But, before we start… does anybody need to use the bathroom? (Don’t mention my name or you’ll get a seat with a hole in it):

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Should we go this way?

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Or would you rather take this way?

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Okay, we’ll take the stairs…

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… which leads to a path to nowhere…

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Which way should we go?

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I chose the right fork. The thing about swamps is that most of the time, the water isn’t that deep….

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…and beauty is a hard won concept:

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But fighting through the muck…

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…and the mire…

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…leads to wide open vistas:

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Since the weather was beastly hot with suffocating humidity, we were completely and utterly alone in the swamp, where dead silence is broken by the deafening noise from billions of grasshoppers, the buzz of bee-like creatures that seemed to dive-bomb from out of nowhere, and an eerie mockingbird that laughed at us from above, telling us, “Hahahaha, you’ll never get out alive.” Oh, and the rustling leaves from a scurrying animal trying to avoid meeting us…was that a snake or a frightened squirrel? The butterflies were abundant, delicately fluttering around us. Gnats buzzed around my neck and little biting critters tried to hitchhike on my shirt and I imagined how alone the first settlers must have felt out there.

I started out fresh and clean on our walk and emerged looking like something the cat dragged in! My hair was plastered to my head; I was sweating buckets, and watching my step carefully. But I went into the swamp as a bundle of nerves and came out calm. Why? The alone-ness of the area, I suppose, nothing more than a vast marsh at the end of a long hike. Perhaps it was the calming effect ancient oaks emit, or simply thinking about something other than money and world peace and whether we’re going to hell in a hand basket.

We stopped and bought ribs and brisket from the roadside BBQ man and had a fine lunch. My day was brown and green and dark and mysterious and, at the end, punctuated by rising white and gray clouds over endless marsh, a reminder that places of refuge can still be found, a place where the world cannot intrude.

May you find your refuge regardless of where you live in the world, but if you reside in Florida, I highly recommend a visit to the Crowley property in Myakka City.

A Visit to Cocoa Beach on the Florida Space Coast, Part Two

A Visit to Cocoa Beach on the Florida Space Coast, Part Two

Since the previous night’s entertainment had not kept me up too late, I arose early and enjoyed my cup of tea while sitting on the balcony watching the morning surfing dudes trying to catch very small waves and a grandmother supervising three youngsters, one digging a hole to China, the other two kicking the sand back in. An hour later, we went and had our free continental breakfast, otherwise known as the feeding frenzy.

Free food seems to turn people into territorial animals. One family unit commandeered one of the two available toasters, so the rest of the crowd had to wait politely while Dad cooked up each child’s bagel (or toast), then did the same for his brother’s family. One of his kids later complained about the slim pickings (3 kinds of cereal, hard boiled eggs, the usual pastries…not the fanciest, not the sparsest I’ve seen) and Dad responded (in a loud voice) that if another Democrat got the Presidency, she’d better get used to it. Lovely. Threaten your kid over breakfast.

We did not go to the usual Cocoa Beach sites, such as the Kennedy Space Center, opting instead for beach time and just one or two stops, but there are plenty of attractions on the Florida Space Coast to appeal to all tastes, from the Ron Jon Surf School to the Cocoa Beach Spa to children’s attractions, such as The Dinosaur Store Adventure Zone.

There are numerous nearby parks, including the don’t-miss Thousand Islands Conservation Area in the Indian River Lagoon. Ninety percent of the conservation space is accessible only by boat, and kayaking and canoeing are popular here. I believe the Earth Day Festival is this weekend, April 20th, from 10 AM to 3 PM, in nearby Titusville. Whether your interest lies in learning more about the Indian Mound Station Sanctuary, Buck Lake Conservation Area or the Grant Flatwoods Sanctuary, the Florida Space Coast is steeped in Florida nature and historical preservation. And, really, who wouldn’t want to check out the Enchanted Forest Sanctuary?

Even though we did not visit Cape Canaveral, I thought I’d share some images of previous space shuttle launches. Usually all I get to see are the contrails:

Shuttle's Contrail

The February 2010 launch:

Space Shuttle February  8 2010 #2

Space Shuttle February  8 2010 #4

Space Shuttle February  8 2010

We zig zagged our way home using the smaller back roads. 441 is an interesting road, lots of back country, few lights, no cars. Some orange groves, but mostly dairy land…one VERY fancy ranch (on a different state road…can’t remember which one) with giant golden statues of stallions, some reared up on back legs, front legs pawing the air, on either side of the double wrought iron gates. It was a sod ranch, so it was hard to tie horses and sod together until I settled on fertilizer.

Too soon, we were home again, dreaming of our next Florida escape!

 

Florida’s Space Coast Destination: Cocoa Beach

How to Find Peace and Solitude in Florida’s Space Coast Destination Cocoa Beach

Welcome, new readers! This blog explores varied and beautiful areas of Florida. While my emphasis is on quieter, out of the way spots, we sometimes find our solitude in crowded areas. A recent trip proved that theory true. After a stressful week, we looked forward to loading up the T-bird and heading out for a few days. Destination? The Space Coast on the east coast of Florida.

The trip up was the usual wild ride on I-4. Traffic wasn’t too awful, but there are always one or two drivers that leave you shaking your head and wondering how they’ve been able to survive this world so long. There was Mr. Lawful Citizen, messing up traffic for miles because he’s going the speed limit and is going to make the rest of us drive slow, too. He was in the middle lane, nose stuck up in the air and just so pleased with himself. Everybody had to maneuver around him. At the opposite extreme, we also shared the road with Mr. I’ve-Got-a-Big-Truck-and-Know-How-to-Use-It, who tailgated while weaving in and out of traffic, getting nowhere fast.

I also spotted a lot of people who were texting while driving, but that bad habit may soon be a thing of the past, as Florida joins 44 other states and outlaws the practice. Unfortunately, texting while driving in Florida is a secondary offense so the person must be stopped for another reason first before the driver can be charged with texting and driving.

Cocoa Beach Light Show

After stopping in Orlando to visit our son, we headed for the east coast and managed to snag a lovely suite directly on the ocean in Cocoa Beach. Unfortunately, our late departure from Orlando meant a late check-in, so our nightlife consisted of a quick trip to the poolside bar for a couple of drinks to be carried back to our room. We sat on the balcony and listened to the waves and enjoyed the feeling of chilled skin.

The entertainment came to us. Turns out our end unit overlooked the beach AND the public beach access, which turned out to be the hangout for the hip hop crowd, who opened the van doors and turned up the volume on the boom box. I thought it would be a disaster, but the music, while a bit too “new-age” for my taste, wasn’t obnoxious…some had sort of a concert sound to it…maybe it was techno…who knows?

The kids themselves weren’t loud and when they began their light show with lasers, I thought they were quite creative. They’d play the laser light over the sea grape leaves, making them look as if they sparkled, and then shine the lights over the waves or shoot them in long lines down the beach access lane. Fun to watch from six stories up and I was sad to see them move down the beach, but also glad I wasn’t going to be kept up until the wee hours of the morning.

Part Two of our visit to Brevard County will be posted tomorrow.

The Gulf of Mexico: Florida’s Shark Tank

The Gulf of Mexico: Florida’s Shark Tank

Do the sharks in the Gulf worry you? They shouldn’t and they usually don’t concern people until the news media swarm in to sensationalize the occasional attack. I’ve even heard of well-meaning people from Indiana who came down and started catching sharks, reasoning that if they culled the herd, there would be fewer attacks. That sounds reasonable to someone from a landlocked state, I suppose. It would probably work, too, if we didn’t have more sharks than Midwesterners.

Beach Scene #2

Shark bites aren’t a common occurrence, despite the media jumping on every sensational story. Millions swim every day without incident. In our area, there have been exactly 4 bites since 1986. Of course, that’s little comfort if you happen to be one of the four.

Humans are not a shark’s food of choice and most people bitten by a shark find that the shark quickly releases them when they realize they’re not a fish.

Beach Scene #5

Bull sharks, however, are aggressive toward humans but fortunately for those of us who live along the Gulf, they tend to prefer the waters of the Atlantic.

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There are ways to minimize even the slight chance of being attacked. No, I’m not going to tell you to stay out of the water, although I DO like that billboard sign that says “No sharks in a Blue Aqua swimming pool!”

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The first thing to remember is to avoid swimming at sunset and sunrise. This is when fish eat and the sharks follow the fishies. Don’t swim near fishermen, either. Sharks are attracted to the smell of bait. Take off shiny jewelry and you might want to rethink that shimmery swimsuit, as well as bright colors, all of which remind Mr. Shark of fish scales. Swim in guarded areas. A lifeguard on top of a life station can see for quite a distance and sharks aren’t that hard to spot in gulf waters. If a flag goes up, get out of the water. Sharks can smell one drop of blood a literal mile away. Monthly cycles and open wounds should be carefully considered. Thrashing about in water can mimic a wounded fish, so stop jumping around and acting like a tourist.

Personally, I’m more worried about stingrays than I am about a shark bite, which is less likely to happen than being struck by lightning. So I do the “stingray shuffle” as I wade through water: shuffling my feet instead of taking steps. The disturbance from my feet in the sand is felt by stingrays burrowed in under the sand. Stingrays are quite shy and will swim off if possible, but they have a nasty barb on the end of that tail and they’re not afraid to use it if startled.

Out of all the wildlife danger, though, be they sharks or stingrays, gators or snakes, the most dangerous animal of all is the shark that cruises the Beach Bar on a Saturday night. Run away real fast if you see one.

 

 

 

 

Other Spots of Interest in the Salt Springs Florida Vicinity

Salt Springs, Florida Tourist Attractions Off the Beaten Path

Ocala National Forest is a Florida tourist attraction as well as an oasis of solitude and offers a wide variety of activities. Salt Springs sits in its upper half, nestled between Lake Kerr and Lake George. Nighttime activities are mostly limited to hot dog roasts and star gazing unless you care to venture into a nearby bar. You will, however, find restaurants, gas stations, post office, laundry facilities and shopping in the town of Salt Springs, lest you think this might be too much wilderness for your tastes.

A quick trip to the visitor center will familiarize you with the area and offers a chance to learn about on-going efforts to protect this natural habitat from deterioration. If you’re interested in exploring the origins of Paleoindians and the days of mastodons and saber tooth tigers, this is the place for you. Nearby Welaka Maritime Museum is well-known for its hand-crafted wooden boats, but time did not allow, so it is added to our “Must See on the Return Trip” list for this magical area of Florida.

The Salt Spring Recreation Area between the St. Johns and Ocklawaha Rivers and nearby Lake George teems with activities. The campground offers full RV hookups as well as a tent area. Salt Spring vacation rentals abound, as do homes and land for sale, for those who find this area fills their soul with peace and harmony.

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Salt Springs Activities

Approximately 82 feet wide and 25 feet deep, the spring bubbles from the west bank of the Withlacoochee River. Rising deep from underneath the earth, the natural mineral spring water is laden with potassium, magnesium and sodium, giving its name to the area: salt.

Swimming and snorkeling in the crystal clear 74º (F) waters offers up glimpses into a primeval past and certified cave divers explore to their heart’s content. There is no boating or fishing allowed in the swimming pool which is lined with sidewalks and concrete walls that allow for easy access.

Others are attracted to the boating and fishing. Salt Spring, Lake George and surrounding area boat rentals are easy to find and range from paddle boards, canoes, and kayaks to power and pontoon boats. Anglers also enjoy fishing the four mile long Salt Spring Run (downstream of the swimming area and marina, of course).

For those who prefer to discover the area on foot, 1400 miles of scenic trail await you. Besides hiking, you’ll find amenities such as basketball and horseshoes.

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Life is decidedly slower in the forest and time slips away before you get your fill of nighttime bear-watching and wild flower arrangements.

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In the Solitude of the Ocala National Forest

Peace and Quiet at the Edge of Ocala National Forest

Our friends own a cabin that backs up to the Ocala National Forest and invited us up for a visit. Since it was the last weekend before deer hunting season began, we figured it would be safer walking in the woods if we went then rather than later! We’d been visiting Brooksville and the only way to Salt Springs that made any sense was to take State Road 50 over to 19, then take 19 straight into Salt Springs.

The cabin is a simple one and its owner is a good carpenter so it is solid and well kept. We see with carpenter’s eyes, as well, and there are things I would change, such as install a larger window on the bedroom wall that looks out over the forest, but there are fun touches here and there: a large screened outdoor kitchen that overlooks a large circular fire pit, an outdoor shower, etc.

Mostly, though, we were seeking solitude, and it was gloriously quiet as no cell phone signals could get through. The forest’s 383,000 acres encompasses parts of four counties and is the southernmost and oldest national forest east of the Mississippi. The forest is bear habitat and they sniff around at night, hoping humans forget to secure the hatches (we didn’t).

The Woods Near Salt Springs Florida

The picture below was taken in the morning, just as the fog was lifting into the trees. The silence was complete. We ran into a couple of musket hunters later in the day (musket hunting is allowed the weekend before regular deer season, a nod to the days of the early settlers), but the morning was a solitary experience as I watched the forest wake up.

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When I first saw this part of the pine forest, my first thought was, “Telephone poles!” The forest protects the world’s largest contiguous sand pine scrub forest east of the Mississippi River.

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This area, as was much of Florida at the time, was a bustling turpentine industry around the turn of the century. After a burn, you can walk around and find broken terra cotta pots on the forest floor. These pots were used to collect the pinesap and hung high in the trees. When the industry folded, the pots were abandoned, unnoticed until the heat from a forest fire causes them to burst and the shards fall to the ground.

The path before us is such an unknown entity, isn’t it? You can see the tunnel up ahead, but where does it lead?

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Find mysteries that amaze your eyes such as Deer Moss, so named because it grows out of the forest floor in soft, small double clumps, looking just like new antlers on a deer.

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Remember the first rule to walking in the Florida woods and swamps: watch out for snakes when you are walking.

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This is a Pygmy Rattler, one of Florida’s most dangerous snakes. Its bite is quite venemous and requires a hurried ride to the hospital. Because it’s rattle is so small, the noise gives no warning. It seems to me that most trouble comes that way.

 

 

St. Augustine, FL: European in Flavor, Yet Uniquely American

St. Augustine, Florida: Sights and Sites

Rich in history as the oldest, continuously occupied settlement in the U.S., the historic district of St. Augustine is charming. Unlike Key West’s tropical island atmosphere, St. Augustine is decidedly more European in flavor. The city has wisely preserved the colonial buildings, which lean heavily on the Spanish/Moorish influence. In ways, it reminded me of a seacoast New England, with houses hard up on the cobblestone roads.

We started our explorations at The Fountain of Youth, reportedly the only freshwater spring in the area. Because Florida is very close to sea level and built on limestone, our fresh water supply comes from the aquifers that run through the soft limestone, unlike the deep artesian wells up north. The untreated water smells and tastes like rotten eggs. I’m told the hard water, full of minerals, is good for the heart. I like mine just fine after it’s been through a water softening system, thank you very much. Still, I bought 10 bottles of water in the gift shop to bring home to all my girlfriends. When I got home, I saw that, written in itty-bitty print on the side of the label, were the words: “Not For Consumption.” HUH?!?

The grounds were pleasant and the artifacts discovered over the years were fun to look at. We then went to Old Florida Museum, which is small, hands-on, and better for kids. The Old Fort, or Castillo De San Marcos, is made of coquina, a local compressed shellrock. The short history: The Spanish took the land from the Timacuan Indians, claimed all of North America as “Florida”, then left for home. The French came over and tried to take over as squatters, but the Spanish returned and drove them out. They built a fort; pirates or the English knocked it down, so the Spanish built a new fort out of coquina shell. The soft coquina walls absorbed the cannon shot from invaders, rather cracking them. At night, when the shelling stopped, the settlers would leave the fort, dig the cannon balls out of the walls and lob them back at the ships the next morning.

The lighthouse museum was our next stop, with heavy emphasis on World War Two and the story of the four Nazi spies that landed on the beach there. I loved the architecture of the lighthouse keeper’s home. Its brick basement is unusual for Florida and being so close to the shore, I was surprised it wasn’t flooded. The basement held two of the largest cisterns for rainwater that I’ve ever seen. Guess they didn’t like Ponce DeLeon’s water, either!

The afternoon was spent at the San Sebastian Winery. We bought a case. I also picked up a very cool cork remover that compresses so that you can recork the bottle. After the winery, we went shopping in the historic district, where I found a great clay urn that was perfect for the garden.

We finished the day with a lovely dinner overlooking the bayfront, then back to the hotel room for champagne and chocolate. A longer visit is in order for next time. There were a lot of sights we skipped, many museums we sighed over as we passed them by, and jazz and coffee bars left unexplored.