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Florida Unplugged

Florida wasn't always mouse silhouettes and Art Deco hotels. Once it was a languid subtropical backwater, its seascapes framed by wisps of sandy reeds. Real people worked real jobs--shrimpers and oystermen and sponge divers. Sharing the coastline with those seafaring folk were writers and artists: Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams, painter George Inness Jr.

This raw and romantic Florida still exists in small towns on the northwestern coast. The residents of these subtler places of the sea, these fishing villages and artists' retreats, are as hospitable and warm as they are tough and briny.

To explore Florida's largely undiscovered Gulf Coast, rent a car in Tampa and head north. There you'll find quiet pleasures that no theme park could re-create.

Cedar Key
If you've ever wondered what Key West was like when Hemingway wrote The Snows of Kilimanjaro there, come to Cedar Key.

Before the sightseeing trams and the party crowd, Key West was a remote island of shopkeepers and fishermen and artists. Today, Cedar Key's 650 year-round residents are a similar mix, cherishing a similar isolation. It can take you a full day to adapt to its tranquil pace: the island is so laid-back that at first its pulse is barely discernible.

But soon the island wins you over in small ways. Birdcalls far outnumber engine noises. The scents of cedar and sea salt hover in the air. A scrawled sign among the handblown glass of the D Street Gallery reads, "Please browse contentedly-I will assist you if needed as soon as I finish the piece I'm working on." And after the bartender leaves his post at the Island Hotel, which predates the Civil War, guests just help themselves and settle up next morning.

The best things to do here are the simplest things. Sip wine as you read or ponder the sea. If you feel more ambitious, check out the artwork and antiques on Second Street or the relatively new retail-and-restaurant pier, one of the few changes in this community in the past 30 years. You can bone up on Cedar Key's colorful history, including Civil War blockades, at the two museums in town. Or take the historical society's self-guided walking tour of 38 buildings, most constructed well before 1900. If you drive the airport road, you're likely to find snowy egrets amid stilt houses tucked among the cedar trees and palmetto bushes.

One of the best places to sample fresh seafood is the Island Hotel's restaurant, which offers such specialties as sesame-coated grouper baked in wine and butter and softshell blue crabs sautéed in butter and herbs, served at candlelit porch tables in good weather.

After dinner, have a drink or two at the L & M Bar, the local hangout. It's a funky, tumbledown place that looks slightly forbidding--its shabby door and neon beer sign are almost an invitation to brawl. But the natives are friendly and chatty, and Bradley, the bartender, is the Liz Smith of Cedar Key: he'll give you the lowdown on anyone in town, from summer tourists to the resident barfly sitting six stools away.

Tarpon Springs
This town's past is linked firmly with Greece-and so, for that matter, is its present. About one-third of the residents are Greek. Their ancestors arrived around 1900, and began earning a living by diving in bulky suits for the four varieties of sponges found in the Gulf of Mexico. Today, fishermen still auction their sponges to wholesalers on the docks off Dodecanese Boulevard, Greektown's main street. The sun-dried sponges wind up in almost every shop in town, from the tacky T-shirt stores to the more sophisticated boutiques specializing in teakwood tables or handblown blue glassware from Athens.

You'll have to sift through rows of touristy retailers and restaurants to find the genuinely Greek places in town, but they do exist, most of them around the sponge docks. The Sea Horse on the Docks gift shop could be on Paros. So could the 31-store Sponge Exchange, with its blue-on-white façade. For meals, locals recommend the small restaurants along Dodecanese. My favorite was Hellas, with its riverside outdoor dining. I lingered over moussaka and a salad of tomato, onion, and feta cheese while watching the sponge boats sail by, backlighted by an amber sunset sky. It was the next-best thing to the Aegean Islands.

The town also has a bouzouki club, Zorba's, with the kind of lively, carefree show you find all over Greece. The draw there is the crowd of Greeks who come to drink and dance to the band. On Saturday nights the men throw dollar bills at their favorite entertainers, who are likely to be ouzo-inspired patrons.

Tarpon Springs provides more than a sampling of Greece. Eleven paintings by George Inness Jr. are displayed from October to May at the Unitarian Universalist Church; two of them used to hang in the Louvre. The landscape painter produced much of his work here at Inness Manor, now one of the town's bed-and-breakfasts.

There are also more than a dozen antiques shops, and such unusual restaurants as the Oxford House English Tea Room, in a restored New Orleans- style house in the historic district.

The local beaches are among the state's best for impromptu sunset celebrations. Put together a picnic and drive to Fred Howard Park, where Australian pines give way to a spit of sand enjoyed mostly by swimmers and wind surfers. The beach is powdery white, pristine, and virtually tourist-free. As one resident put it, "You can't even buy a Coke there."

Apalachicola
This is a town that still flourishes or withers with the whims of the ocean. Weathered wooden boats roll in each day from the Gulf of Mexico to the Water Street docks, unloading piles of shimmering fish and shrimp at the wholesale companies' warehouses. Fourth-generation oystermen crowd the rowdy Oasis bar in the late afternoon and evening, swapping stories about captains and catches. Red tides are headline news on WOYS-FM, "oyster radio." And Florida's 1995 ban on commercial net fishing is still the hottest topic in town.

When I visited with my wife, Jill, we found the town's informal atmosphere infectious. After three days we were calling local businesspeople by their first names and waving at total strangers. At the turn-of-the-century Gibson Inn, we asked for mint juleps to sip on the broad front porch. Dining room manager Mary Lou Stefanko told us that they didn't usually make them, but 10 minutes later she was garnishing two glasses of sugared bourbon with mint from the hotel's herb garden.

At the Magnolia Grill, chef-owner Eddie Cass frequently leaves the kitchen to chat with customers and explain his half-dozen or more daily specials. The night we were there, he offered delicious "Pontchartrain," a dish of local fish, and "Provençal," a dish of sautéed shrimp and scallops.

Apalachicola is a place for observation and conversation, a Mayberry-like community that thrives on its front-porch rockers. Stroll around the historic district, where restored antebellum houses are mixed among Greek Revival and Queen Anne- style buildings. Wander along the waterfront, where the seafood companies clean the daily catch. Go downtown to shop for English bone china and turn-of-the-century American kitchenware, or arts and crafts made by locals. While you're at it, be sure to allow time for folksy chats with the owners. Or if you feel like something a bit more active, rent a boat and go fishing.

Just a few miles away is St. George Island, where $500,000 houses sitting on stilts are scattered across the dunes. But the island's real payoff is the state park. Untouched sand dunes rise and fall for miles, bounded by a broad white beach that dips gently toward the Gulf. St. George is the one place I've found in Florida where you can surround yourself with sand and sea and sky. It is very nearly the Florida of a century ago, before the condos and concession stands-natural and spectacular.

BOB KNOTTS writes for Sports Illustrated, Inside Sports, and Cosmopolitan. He lives in Fort Lauderdale.

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