My Own Private Florida
Published: May 2009
By Ben Neihart
Up in the Panhandle, where the sands are snowy and deserted highways run through mangrove swamps, the author looks for the virgin Florida of his childhood.
After years of damp Pennsylvania cold, my family started over in Florida. My grandmother ran the housekeeping department of the Diplomat Hotel in Hollywood, and my grandfather took care of the swimming pool at South Broward High School. Mom worked as an early-shift nurse, and Dad was a quixotic entrepreneur who rented our extra bedrooms to louche college kids on spring break. I was born in Tampa, and I take as my birthright sunrise trips to empty pools, after-school drives to lazy beaches, and weekend ice cream sodas sipped from a lounge chair, me dripping wet and cloaked in a fresh white hotel robe. In my nostalgic Florida reveries, there are no crowds, no traffic jams, no litter mixed into the sand.
I live in New York City now, but I go back to Florida often to visit my family. Driving the citrus-scented highways in the early morning, I sometimes feel as if nothing has changed. But then I'll hit the snarl of cars, the new developments and supersized signage blinking night and day—and the quiet Florida of my childhood disappears so quickly, so convincingly, that I wonder whether any unspoiled stretch of the state remains.
I rarely drive north of Orlando, but I recently took a gamble that my immaculate Florida endured in the far-northern countryside, where the springheads pump clear water and the green Gulf surf hits snowy sand beaches. At a rental counter in Tampa, I sighed with anticipation when the agent offered the last available convertible to my Brooklyn friend Heather and me. It wasn't until we approached the car in the parking garage that I understood I'd rented a red Camaro—complete with fat, low-slung seats and a muscular American engine.
Catching U.S. Highway 19 north of Tampa, we zoomed up into Florida's Big Bend, where the peninsula arches toward the Panhandle along the Gulf of Mexico. Ironically, the farther north you drive, the deeper into the South you find yourself. We met fewer Yankees and more Georgians, Alabamians, Tennesseans—part of a seasonal migration, like New Yorkers to the Hamptons or Bostonians to Maine. We saw fewer signs for fresh-picked grapefruits and more for boiled garlic peanuts, pickled okra, and fish-camp restaurants.
To navigate the Big Bend with an ideal marriage of decent speed and sublime scenery, we had to stay on the bleak stretch of Highway 19 far longer than we would have liked. About 65 miles north of Tampa, we turned off near Homosassa to visit the Yulee Sugar Mill Ruins. Part of a 5,100-acre plantation in the 1850's, Yulee bears the remnants of one of the oldest sugar mills in Florida. Here we got our first real taste of the dense, meaningful calm we would find repeatedly on this trip. Gnarled trees hung with Spanish moss screened the sun. Scores of slaves had once worked this plantation, and now only a chimney, a steam boiler, some large cooking kettles, and rusty grinding machinery remain, a desolate piece of the state's Confederate past—hidden off the main drag, absorbed into daily life.
North of Yulee, the Big Bend seemed to open up: more sky, less development. At sunset we veered west to Cedar Key, an old fishing village out in the Gulf of Mexico; nightfall brought a starless sky the color of blueberries in a black bowl. There were no streetlamps, and no headlights but our own—the car's beams lit up a window here, a palm branch there, a motorboat bobbing in the harbor. With the windows down, we could smell the briny Gulf air and hear the crackle of sandy road beneath our tires. This was a Florida town I'd never seen before, yet I was overcome by a sense of fond familiarity, as if I were pulling into my own driveway.
Once used for all things from general store to whorehouse, the historic Island Hotel & Restaurant has a wraparound second-floor balcony that welcomed us with a porch swing. In the rooms were sublime beds draped with mosquito netting, polished eclectic furniture, immaculate bathrooms. My eyes opened the next morning to the kind of view you'd find in a Robert Stone novel: blazing white sun, palm trees, and a stained, gritty road. I looked out my window for close to an hour, delighting in the absence of people.
Back on the highway, we drove north to Manatee Springs, which empty 117 million gallons daily into the Suwannee River, long a supply of freshwater to the northern region. Heather and I strolled to the edge of the springs—the depths revealed a medieval forest encased in glass, through which translucent fish darted silently. We sat on a wooden sculpture of a manatee, watching divers check their scuba gear before slipping underwater. It was too chilly to jump in and swim bare-skinned, so we walked the perimeter, looking for the real manatees, which congregate in colder months. No luck. We started off on one of the trails, but thought better of it when a passing hiker warned us to watch out for gators.
Once again, it was hard to pull ourselves out of the silence and back onto the road. But with the day half over, we'd gone only 10 miles from where we'd started. Good thing the speed limit on Florida highways pushes 70 mph these days.
With the roof down, we could barely hear each other, but that seemed to be the point. We decided a road trip is best when you mix things up: long conversations (or none at all), separate hotel rooms, and—just as important—recurring bad jokes, colorful scenery, and mindless radio sing-alongs in a candy-red convertible. The Camaro, with its AM/FM dials mounted on the steering wheel, was well suited for keeping the mindless sing-alongs under the driver's control.
A couple of hours later, we pulled into the parking lot of Wakulla Springs Lodge. As if on cue, a woman approached us holding two double-scoop cones of lemon ice cream, licking one with a sideways swipe.
The original property, circa 1937, was the old-Florida dream of powerhouse timberman and railroad magnate Edward Ball. Immense, marbled, cypress-beamed, and curvy in the Moorish style, the lodge is furnished with massive period resort pieces, plus a beloved 11-foot stuffed alligator, "Old Joe." After a Ginger Yip, the soda shop's version of an ice cream soda, we ambled around the sprawling grounds, which, off-season, had the ghostly air of the Overlook Hotel from The Shining—minus the snow. Down by the springs, I even took a catnap atop the diving platform. At dinner, we heeded our waiter's wise suggestion and had the brine-soaked fried chicken, and by 10 I was asleep in my huge bed.
In the morning we were rested and looking forward to the beach, which each year is rated among the world's finest. We weren't on the road long before we discovered that the Panhandle's oases of pristine beauty endure mostly in sporadic, quarantined isolation, surrounded by miles of, well, "postmodern" Florida. Houses are built high, as if standing on tiptoe to see the Gulf over the tree line.
We headed west on U.S. Highway 98, toward Destin, where Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake had recently gone for a quiet getaway—and been promptly burglarized by four teenagers. Heather and I agreed on two things: the famously "virginal" pop stars were youthful, lithe, sun-speckled, and earnest. They were also trashy, obvious, and grandiose. Kind of like the Panhandle itself.
Along a prime stretch of shorefront Scenic Route 30-A, we found ourselves in a luxurious riot of a town called Rosemary Beach, planned within an inch of its life by disciples of architecture's New Urbanism school. Narrow streets, butterfly parks, and tawny Caribbean-style houses angling for the best view—all of it tightly packed and somehow cartoonishly precarious. For fun, we picked a dream house just outside of town: a double-scale replica of a Jules Verne submarine, beached.
Back on 30-A, traffic was Hamptons-thick, drivers impatient in the gray drizzle that had started to fall. As I drove toward the more laid-back resort towns of Blue Mountain and Grayton Beach, with their fine dining and colorful architecture, I kept glimpsing the deepest hues of emerald out of the corner of my eye. But whenever I turned to look at the Gulf head-on, it was a dark, white-capped blue. Finally I pulled over, took a few steps onto the dunes, and stared at the silvery light flashing on the surf.
Turning to the left, I saw an endless stretch of commerce—gas stations, fast food, real estate offices. Straight ahead, I saw endless water. To the right, I couldn't see the next wave of development, just grasslands and sand. I'd come looking for a time capsule, the Florida of my imperfect memory. What I'd found was a profoundly schizophrenic place—at once naturally pristine and wildly kitsch. But from where I stood, it didn't strike me as a sour compromise; in fact, despite all my misgivings, Florida remained what it had always been in my mind: undeniably inviting, with an appeal I just couldn't refuse.
DAY 1 Take U.S. Hwy. 19 north from Tampa. At Homosassa, go west onto Rte. 490 to the Yulee Sugar Mill Ruins (careful—the signs for Yulee are tiny). Return to 19 and continue north. At Otter Creek, take Rte. 24 west to Cedar Key; spend the night there at the Island Hotel.
DAY 2 To get to Manatee Springs from Cedar Key, take 24 east to 19, and head north; at Chiefland, turn left on Rte. 320 and follow signs to Manatee Springs. Back on 19, go north, turn west on U.S. Hwy. 98, then north on Rte. 363, looking for signs to Wakulla Springs Lodge, where you'll check in for the night.
DAY 3 Return to 98 and go west (you can veer to the coastal brink on shore roundabouts and dead ends, but it will cost you time). Head toward Panama City; about 20 miles west of it, take Scenic Route 30-A to Rosemary Beach, Grayton Beach, and Blue Mountain Beach. Overnight at the Pensione in Rosemary Beach. The drive ends in Pensacola.
WHERE TO STAY
Island Hotel 373 Second St., Cedar Key; 800/432-4640 or 352/543-5111; doubles from $75.
Wakulla Springs Lodge 550 Wakulla Park Dr., Wakulla Springs State Park; 850/224-5950; doubles from $79.
The Pensione 78 Main St., Rosemary Beach; 888/855-1551 or 850/231-1790; doubles from $98. A chic, eight-room hotel.
WHERE TO EAT
Island Hotel Restaurant 373 Second St., Cedar Key; 800/432-4640 or 352/543-5111; dinner for two from $70. We recommend the Masterpiece Seafood Soup.
Wakulla Springs Lodge Dining Room 550 Wakulla Park Dr., Wakulla Springs State Park; 850/ 224-5950; dinner for two from $45. Go for the fried chicken.
Seagrove Village MarketCafé S. County Rd., Seagrove Beach; 850/231-5736; lunch for two from $12. Sample the po'boys and the fresh grouper sandwiches.
Criolla's 170 Scenic Rte. 30-A, Grayton Beach; 850/267-1267; dinner for two from $75.