Monthly Archives: June 2013

Mexico Beach, a Quieter Alternative to Pensacola

From Destination Weddings to Family Vacations, Mexico Beach is a Quieter Alternative to Pensacola, But That Doesn’t Mean it’s Boring There

Pensacola is a popular and fun place to visit, don’t get me wrong. But this blog is about the lesser known spaces in our state, the kind of place where a visitor can catch his or her breath and slow down a little. That doesn’t have to equate to “boring”, however.

Mexico Beach is family-oriented but is also a popular locale for destination weddings. Less prone to rip tides, the beach also boasts a good-sized turtle-nesting habitat. Located on Northwest Florida’s gulf shore between Port St. Joe and Panama City, it, too, boasts the white sugar sands of Florida’s fame. The City of Mexico Beach maintains four beach parks, each accessed by wooden walkovers that spare vegetation from being trampled.

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Pets are not allowed on Mexico Beach within the three miles city limit, so if you want to bring Fido to the seashore, nearby St. Joe Beach would be a better choice. Yoga classes are held on the beach during season and fishing tournaments, music festivals, and triathlon events are held throughout the year.

We passed a sign that said “trailers for sale or rent” as we wound our way along the coastline, and found a room at the El Governor Hotel. That evening, we enjoyed another oyster dinner and then a walk on the beach:

Our room was quite comfortable and very reasonably priced. Other lodging choices included an inn, numerous rental agencies and privately owned properties, and a couple of campgrounds and RV parks; one offers cabins, as well.

The dolphin fed on an abundant supply of fish:

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The birds are almost as hard to photograph as the dolphin (you’d think they’d learn to stay still!):

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Where the river reaches the beach:

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I love the 3-D Bird-of-Paradise detail on this building because it reminds me of Miami Beach:

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My husband tried to talk me into moving to the area. He wants to rent a store in downtown historic Apalachicola and he will build things and I will sell them and that’s how we’ll pay for my medical bills. On weekends, I’ll look for shells to make necklaces to keep him in beer money:

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Ah, dreams! Hope there’ll be enough shells:

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Sunset on the beach:

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I turned off the noisy a/c and opened the doors and let the waves lull me to sleep. It took me back to my childhood, when I wanted the windows open on summer nights, the rhythm of the waves keeping me company, rocking me to sleep. “I am here,” they tell me, “Constant. Fluid. Relax. Hear the pattern. Find the rhythm. I am comfort.”

Early morning, Mexico Beach (put yer shades on):

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We’ll come back to this area, because there is more to see: horseback riding on the beach at Cape San Blas, buying Tupelo honey in Wewahitchka, as well as touring antebellum homes and spelunking in Marianna. Our list is long and our state is big. Next time, we head to a new area, but we’ll come back to this area. Everyone always does, once they’ve visited.

Hunting Fossilized Shark’s Teeth at Caspersen Beach in Venice, Florida

For the Best hunting Ground for Fossilized Sharks Teeth, go to Caspersen Beach in Venice, FL

Caspersen Beach is people-friendly. The new walking trails, paved and unpaved, restroom/shower facilities and walkway have helped make the area even more welcoming to swimmers, sunbathers, fishing enthusiasts, and shell hunters alike.

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The handicap area is well shaded and the rocky shoreline gives way easily to the beach. Families with small children may find low tide to be less challenging for a swim. There is an ADA compliant playground in the pavilion area.

Caspersen Beach

Caspersen Beach #1

Some dedicated “shellers” invest in a “Florida snow shovel”, a basket with a long metal arm for sifting through the sand. I’m not sure why the shark tooth hunting is so much better at Caspersen Beach in Venice, Florida, but it is. They are easy to find along the beach and scuba divers who go digging into the Gulf bottom are often rewarded with super-sized teeth as big as a man’s hand for their efforts.

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It takes a while for the eyes to adjust to the telltale gleam of a fossilized tooth of the ancient carcharodon megalodon, a fifty foot long shark that weighed more than a tyrannosaurus rex.

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The teeth are black because they have fossilized with age. The younger, white teeth, are often too hard to find. They are jumbled up in a swirl of seashells that wash ashore with every wave, at the shell ledge, where the tide coughs up its bounty: a confetti of glimmering silvers and whites, broken bits of shell, sometimes a tinge of pink or aqua, depending on the mollusk. A sliver of black streak on a clamshell looks no different from a shark’s tooth at first, but you learn to look for the shiny black that identifies the composite and then, of course, for the shape.

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The area is not without controversy. In 2010, nude sunbathers and those seeking a bit less exposure clashed over their rights and even the police departments could not agree on who had jurisdiction to sort the mess out. The controversy continues. The naturists hope to curry favor by making extra efforts such as organizing regular beach cleanups, but the law and the majority side with those who oppose a “clothing-optional” beach.

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Nature still has her way at Caspersen Beach. There are no gulfside motels and hotels lined up along the shore and the condominium crowd is found further inland. Left to her natural state, Caspersen has repaid visitors tenfold with a seemingly endless supply of shark’s teeth and shells, some from as far away as Australia, Mate. Even better, although the beach is popular, parking is plentiful and the beach is big enough to allow each visitor a sense of privacy. The rocks that protect the soft white sand are full of ever-changing tidal pools that bear exploring again and again as each new wave delivers fresh treasure. The water calls the swimmers and surfers closer, and the sun gently warms the soul. Who couldn’t fall in love with Caspersen’s allure?

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Lake Placid: a History in Pictures

Surprises Await in Lake Placid

We headed up central Florida’s Rte 27 and stopped for lunch at the All American restaurant in Lake Placid. I wasn’t overly impressed. Even though the sign offered breakfast and lunch, apparently they only serve breakfast on Sundays. I was told I could have a BLT, except they didn’t have tomatoes. My omelet was fine, but the potatoes were dry and tasteless and screamed for butter, salt, and pepper, in that order.

Lake Placid was not a complete bust, though. Known as the “The Caladium Capital of the World”, we thoroughly enjoyed the pictorial history of the area, as told in murals throughout the downtown area:Lake Placid #1

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The holdup of the Tropical State Bank in Lake Placid caused quite a stir back in the day. The boy depicted, Grady Parrish, was instrumental in foiling the attempted 1931 bank robbery. He received $10 for his effort. The mural has four dollar signs hidden within the painting.

Other murals depicted the prehistoric days of the area, settlement, and significant events in Lake Placid historyLake Placid #12

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The Florida panther is endangered now. My ancestors claimed their cry sounded like a woman screaming in the woods.

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One of the murals depicted the turpentine business that boomed back in the early days of settlement, but the camps date back to Colonial times.

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Before and during the Civil War, the camps were worked by slaves. After emancipation, former slaves viewed Blacks who joined the camps as traitors who signed away their newly obtained freedom. In the early 1900s, prisoners were released to work in the camps. The turpentine camps were deep in the pinewoods, isolated and known to be rough places. Camp bosses also ran the commissary; the only place workers could buy needed items. Unfortunately, most camp bosses charged outrageously high prices, which kept the workers in servitude, since most were not pain in money, but in scrip, which could only be redeemed at the company store. Those who tried to run away from their debts were hunted down. The work was dangerous, hot, and hard. Children born in the camps oftentimes knew no other kind of life.

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The woods around Lake Placid are quieter now. The bottom dropped out of the industry in the 1940s, and by the 1950s, the market for turpentine had collapsed. Sawmills took their place, as the dead trees were turned into boards that helped to build area homes. Heart pine stood up well to the Florida elements and insects did not find a welcome home for boring in.

The town of Lake Placid is surrounded by twenty-seven freshwater lakes and is a popular tourist destination. Lake Placid itself is far more accessible that Lake Okeechobee. Originally called Lake Stearns, the name of the lake was changed by in the late 1920s by a suggestion by Dr. Melvil Dewey, the inventor of the Dewey Decimal System.

Lake Placid
We finished our trip with a shopping spree for antiques in Arcadia before heading home, glad for a getaway that expanded our knowledge on Florida history.

Other Towns in Central Florida Offer Out-of-the-Ordinary Entertainment

Central Florida, From Fisheating Creek to the Brighton Seminole Reservation

We drove around Lake Okeechobee, enjoying the expansive views of the leading edge of the Florida Everglades. The sky is big in Florida, and the swamp stretches for mile after desolate mile, broken only by a cluster of live oaks or staked out individually by independent palm trees, whose round heads and lack of branches look very much like landscaped lollypops from a distance. The weather was clearing, but clouds still hung over the land like a dark umbrella bent on betrayal and we drove in and out of rain.

The larger towns in this part of central Florida have the usual chain motels, but most lodging offerings consist of RVs or trailers, some quite weary looking. Campers who don’t mind roughing it will have no trouble finding suitable lodging, but those looking for a little more comfort will have to dig a little deeper. We did find a few cabins. The most inviting were cozy log cabins with peaked roofs in a small enclave. One of the owners rents two of his units, #9 and #17, for around $500 per week. If you’re interested, call Abe at 561-234-0277. A future visit will most assuredly include a week at the Lake Okeechobee Resort in Pahokee. It is the only place with accommodations directly on the lake.

We made a stop at Fisheating Creek where I told my husband the story of my great-great grandmother who was taken (along with her kids) to Fort Myers by Union soldiers trying to flush out my great-great-grandfather who was aiding Confederate soldiers by bringing them cattle. She became disgusted with camp conditions and threatened to whip the soldier who tried to stop her from leaving. She went to her brother’s place on Fisheating Creek and stayed there until the War of Northern Aggression was over. I think I would have liked my great-great-grandmother. :)

The Seminole Indian Reservation in Brighton was a disappointment. No museum, no shopping, just gambling. The room was dark, filled with slot machines that flashed neon colors, and full of cigarette smoke. Once off the reservation, we stopped at a roadside stand and bought swamp cabbage. I look forward to breaking the trunk open and cooking up a pot of swamp cabbage, which tastes a lot like asparagus.

Brighton Seminole Reservation

Most of the central Florida towns around the perimeter of Lake Okeechobee offer airboat rides. Since the weather was bad the weekend of our visit, we decided against it, but if you’ve never been, I strongly encourage you to try it out. Most tours last about an hour, the cost is in the $30 to $40 range (per person) and includes picture stops. Airboat rides are exciting and fun, but not scary.

Lake Okeechobee: a Hidden Treasure

You Can’t See Lake Okeechobee From the Road

Lake Okeechobee would have probably been a lot more fun had we not visited during the last slap of Tropical Storm Andrea’s outermost feeder bands. Our stay at the Hampton Inn Okeechobee was reasonably priced, but I found the hard bed uncomfortable. The air conditioning unit kicked on and off, rather than the usual racket all night long and the bathroom had a great shower.

We enjoyed our fried catfish lunch at the Lodge at the River, which offers “Sharpies” (the entire fish, heads, bones, and all) or just the catfish filets. We chose the latter and enjoyed it very much.

Lake Okeechobee is the second largest freshwater lake (730 square miles) that is entirely within the United States. Mostly what you see from the road is the Hoover Dike, a twenty-foot high berm, or levee, on one side and sugar cane on the other side of the road (sometimes corn…how can they grow corn in FL when I can’t?). This is the legacy of the Army Corps of Engineers, who, back when ideas like land stewardship and environmental responsibility were unheard of, “improved” the land for farmers and ranchers by draining the wetlands and straightening the surrounding rivers from their usual meandering course into straight line canals, forever affecting the natural ebb and flow of the Everglades.

We finally figured out the “Scenic Trail” signs indicated lake access to the other side of the levee. The top of the 140 mile long levee that protects the surrounding communities allows bikers and hikers a great view of the lake. Driving up the berm and making blind turns (and I DO mean your car is tilted skyward and you cannot see over your hood) reminded me, once again, of why I am not a mountain girl.

However, once you get over the levee, you aren’t quite there, yet, since the only way to access the lake is by canal…in other words, you take a waterway to get to the water! If you look at these pictures, you can see how the two are separated:

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The water hyacinth, an invasive species, chokes the shallow lake of nutrients and oxygen and is an on-going problem for the area. The alligators, however, love them because they provide cover for the hunting reptiles.

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Boating, fishing, and hunting in season are popular here.

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Alligators, bears, and otters are a common sight, as are osprey and eagles’ nests, high atop light poles and trees. Some sights were amusing. At one point, a baby alligator escaped the lake and a big, burly man stopped his car in the middle of the road, got out and grabbed the reptile by the middle, right behind its head, and carried it to a ditch, while it wiggled and fought him the whole way. He was laughing his head off, looking as if he was having the time of his life. The man, not the gator. The gator was furious. His wife walked back to the car, shaking her head. We were going in the other direction and didn’t get stopped in time to take a picture. Apparently, this is not a terribly unusual occurrence down by the levee, as they seemed to take it in stride.

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Bok Tower Gardens in Lake Wales: Making the World a Little More Beautiful

The Bok Tower Gardens Mission: Make the World a Little More Beautiful

We visited Bok Tower gardens and wildlife preserve on Saint Patrick’s Day. Edward Bok, a Dutch immigrant who’d made his fortune in the US during the 1920s, so loved the United States, and Florida in particular, that he wanted to give something back. His motto was his grandmother’s: “Make your part of the world more beautiful because you have lived in it.”

He chose to do that by purchasing Iron Mountain, at 298 feet the highest point in Florida, and making it into a botanical park. At the top of his mountain, he built his office: a 205 foot Gothic and art deco carillon tower. The 60 bell carillon is considered one of the world’s finest.

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Then he hired landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead, Jr., famous for his work in Washington D.C. and Boston, to do his yard work. Olmsted tends toward designs that incorporate an outside perimeter circle with wandering paths in between. His genius is in creating hidden treasures: secret paths that lead to “plant grottoes”, hidden spots cleared in the middle of hedges and foliage.

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There is a seasonal home on the property, built by the President of Bethlehem Steel, last name of Buck, and is an impressive Mediterranean Revival. We did not take the $6 tour of the home, but probably will on another day. We walked for three hours. After we finished the nature trail, we went through all the Bok Tower gardens, among them, The White Garden, The Round Garden, The Live Oak Grove, The Reflection Pool, The Overlook, The St Francis and Mocking Bird Walk, and my favorite, Window by the Pond, and others. After spending time at the top, we went back down to shop and have lunch. Then we climbed the mountain a second time.

An Afternoon in the Bok Tower Gardens

The bell concert could be heard throughout the park, but I’m glad we were there at the tower for the big 3 P.M. concert because the bells’ deep tones seemed to resonate better. Not that we didn’t enjoy walking the Pine Ridge Preserve Nature Trail and listening to Menuet and Trio by Mozart, but up close listening to “Jerusalem” and “Marizapolis” (Spanish folk song) and “Send in the Clowns” seemed to resonate better. On this visit, we heard Processional, Sicilienne, and Milonga, and paid respect to the Irish, as well, since it was St. Patrick’s Day, with “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling” and “Paddy Whack” and “Londonderry Air (“Oh, Danny Boy”)”.

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Funnily enough, quiet is requested, and even more strange, the bells do not sound sharp and intrusive; instead they fill the air with dancing notes as you sit back on one of the many benches and comfortable chairs and look out on the panorama of rural Florida. It is not Disney World, but it also isn’t a busy botanical garden that you rush mother-in-a-wheelchair through. It was, literally, a time to stop and smell the Camellias. And they were in full bloom during our visit, as were the Darkshadow Magnolias and the Azeleas.

It was a tranquil day, one to remind me that making my corner of the world just a little nicer lifts not only my own spirits, but others’, as well.

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St. Marks, Yesterday and Today

St. Marks, Yesterday and Today

Twenty-five miles south of Tallahassee, St. Marks is a small fishing community located in Florida’s Big Bend where the St. Marks River and the Wakulla River converge. The Gulf port on the Apalachee Bay was first developed by Spanish explorers in the 17th century who built a fort that played an important role during the Civil War.

The fort’s foundation is located within the San Marcos de Apalache Historic State Park. Bicyclists and horseback riders enjoy the Tallahassee-St. Marks Historic Railroad Trail State Park, a sixteen mile long trail that finishes on the St. Marks waterfront. Some believe the fort’s tower once held torches to guide boats safely, which would make it the site of the first lighthouse in the country.

The current lighthouse, St. Marks Light, was built in 1828. It is interesting to note that construction costs for the lighthouse exceeded the allocated $6,000 budget by more than $5,000. Even worse, the first one was rejected because it had hollow walls (you’d think someone would have caught that), so the lighthouse was rebuilt and it was put into use by 1830. Hmmm…a project that costs twice as much as predicted, poorly planned, and poorly executed? Yep. It was a government job! Time and erosion took its inevitable toll and a new lighthouse was built further inland in 1842.

St. Mark’s NWR and Wakulla Springs State Park draw visitors from all states and is popular with birders. The area’s ecosystem ranges from saltwater estuaries and bracken marshes to swamps and forest.

Boating and fishing are big here, of course, so arranging a fishing charter or contacting an outfitter is easy.  Lodging accommodations range from trailer parks to inns (there are various motels and hotels in nearby towns, as well). The Shell Island Fish Camp, located directly on the Wakulla River, offers accommodations that range from motel, cabins (2 bedrooms, kitchen and bath), tents, campers, and a limited number of RV campsites with water, electric, and dump station. A full service marina provides boat rentals and boat repairs.

The Sweet Magnolia Inn Bed and Breakfast offers a slightly different ambience. Its history as a general store, boarding house, brothel, church, city hall, possible bootleg warehouse, hotel, and hurricane shelter offer up many a story on a warm summer night. In its current dress, the B&B stays true to its roots, right down to a fishpond built in the shape of Florida, including the keys.

A vintage shot of my mother, in her first year of college, 1948. She’s the one closest to the shrimping boat:

Mom #9

And St. Marks today:

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We enjoyed our visit and would go again for a more in depth exploration of the area.

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