Archive for October, 2012

Stay Tuned for Pictures and Videos from Bahia Honda State Park

How excited am I?

On a scale of one to 10, at least an 11.

That’s because I’m leaving tomorrow for the Florida Keys. We’re staying in Marathon and shooting a video of Bahia Honda State Park (36850 Overseas Hwy., MM 37, Big Pine Key, Fla., 33043, Phone: 305-872-2353) for VISIT FLORIDA. You know, beautiful beaches, magnificent sunsets and excellent snorkeling – that’s the one!

Stay tuned for pictures, videos and updates here, on my Facebook page and on Twitter @VFBeachInsider.

Insider’s Tip: You can visit Bahia Honda and all other Florida State Parks for free on Nov. 11, 2012.

 

Continue reading Stay Tuned for Pictures and Videos from Bahia Honda State Park »

Stay Tuned for Pictures & Videos from Bahia Honda State Park

How excited am I?

On a scale of one to 10, at least an 11.

That’s because I’m leaving tomorrow for the Florida Keys. We’re staying in Marathon and shooting a video of Bahia Honda State Park (36850 Overseas Hwy., MM 37, Big Pine Key, FL 33043, Phone: 305-872-2353) for VISIT FLORIDA. You know, beautiful beaches, magnificent sunsets and excellent snorkeling – that’s the one!

Stay tuned for pictures, videos and updates here, on my Facebook page and on Twitter @VFBeachInsider.

Insider’s Tip: You can visit Bahia Honda and all other Florida State Parks for free on Nov. 11, 2012.

 

Continue reading Stay Tuned for Pictures & Videos from Bahia Honda State Park »

Stay Tuned for Pictures & Videos fromBahia Honda State Park

How excited am I?

On a scale of one to ten, at least an eleven.

That’s because I’m leaving tomorrow for the Florida Keys. We’re staying in Marathon and shooting a video of Bahia Honda State Park (36850 Overseas Hwy., MM 37, Big Pine Key, FL 33043, Phone: 305-872-2353) for VISIT FLORIDA. You know, beautiful beaches, magnificent sunsets and excellent snorkeling – that’s the one!

Stay tuned for pictures, videos and updates here, on my Facebook page and on Twitter @VFBeachInsider.

Insider’s Tip: You can visit Bahia Honda and all other Florida State Parks for free on Nov. 11, 2012.

 

Continue reading Stay Tuned for Pictures & Videos fromBahia Honda State Park »

BubbaFest: Epic Bicycling Adventure in the Florida Keys

The bicycle is the most civilized conveyance known to man. Other forms of transport grow daily more nightmarish. Only the bicycle remains pure in heart.  ~ Iris Murdoch

If you want to really see a road, see it from a bike. You can feel the pavement curve under your tires and smell the air. You see birds, and the way the sun dapples the leaves.

And, if you want a road that’s really worth seeing, you can’t do any better than the Overseas Highway. Imagine sweeping stretches of emerald-hued water, bridges arching between islands and tiny deer trotting into the bushes, and you’ll have it about right.

Also known as U.S. Highway 1, the road connects the Keys with each other and the Florida mainland. The highway was designated an All-American Road in 2009, the highest recognition possible under the National Scenic Byways program.

Now you have a chance to pedal the Overseas Highway in an epic adventure. The BubbaFest Bike Tour rolls into the Florida Keys Nov. 3-10, 2012, offering 200 miles of scenic fun. Led by retired police sergeant and biking enthusiast Bubba Barron, the adventure takes cycling fans from Key Largo to Key West and back.

Cyclists will proceed at their own pace, averaging 45 miles each day over mostly flat terrain. They’ll enjoy accommodations at waterfront campgrounds. Support vehicles are available to transport anyone who wants a break from cycling, and both a bike mechanic and a licensed massage therapist travel with the group.

Biking is just the tip of the handlebar. The schedule features a layover day at Marathon in the Middle Keys and two layover days in Key West. Non-cycling activities include:

  • Swimming with dolphins
  • Visiting eco-attractions
  • Sailing
  • Snorkeling
  • Sunning
  • Exploring galleries and boutiques

The details: BubbaFest begins in Key Largo Saturday, Nov. 3, 2012, with registration at the Hampton Inn at Manatee Bay, 102400 Overseas Highway, followed by a welcome reception and beachside dinner.

The fee is $675 per rider, which includes six nights at beachside campgrounds, seven breakfasts and five dinners, a private open-air trolley tour of Key West, a farewell dinner dance and services of a baggage truck and support vehicle. Motel lodging and “pampering” service are available for an additional fee.

Continue reading BubbaFest: Epic Bicycling Adventure in the Florida Keys »

Snorkeling with the Manatees in Crystal River

The frost is on the pumpkin. 

Well, maybe not frost. It is Florida, after all. Nevertheless, the weather is a little cooler, which means it’s the season for what is one of the most unique adventures on the planet — snorkeling with manatees.

Crystal River is the only location in North America where you can legally swim and interact in the wild with the endangered West Indian Manatee. These mammals migrate to the spring-fed river in the winter to feed because of its constant 72-degree temperature.

This is not an amusement park attraction featuring trained animals swimming in a pool. These are real live, wild manatees, and they are enormous, up to 13 feet long and 3,500 pounds.*

What makes this adventure incredibly cool is that for some reason manatees like people. Shaped like giant blimps, they are gentle, curious, and exceptionally cute.

I have had manatees chew on my wetsuit and poke their muzzles towards me. One even rolled on its back and grabbed my hand with its flippers in a clear attempt to snag a tummy-rub. I’ve been out with Cap’n Mike’s Sunshine River Tours three times so far, and it’s an experience that never gets old.  

Yes, you have to try it.

Insider’s tip: Consider spending the night before your trip in the area. The manatees are most active in the morning, so many of the tours begin at the crack of dawn.

* I have gotten slightly different numbers from every source I’ve checked about the manatees’ maximum weight and length, but suffice to say they are huge creatures by any measure.

Continue reading Snorkeling with the Manatees in Crystal River »

Photo: Kayaking off St. Joseph Peninsula State Park, Cape San Blas

Minutes from downtown Port St. Joe, kayakers ply the clear waters along Cape San Blas.

Continue reading Photo: Kayaking off St. Joseph Peninsula State Park, Cape San Blas »

Wine and Dine at South Walton’s Taste of the Beach

A gourmet meal without a glass of wine just seems tragic to me somehow.
~ Kathy Mattea

Sugar-white sand, turquoise water and a three-day celebration of food and wine — who could resist?

Taste of the Beach pours into South Walton Nov. 2-4, 2012, featuring an impressive roundup of prized vintners and renowned chefs from throughout South Walton and the country. The wine and culinary events include:  

  • Sippin’ with THE SHARK
  • Finz After Dark
  • Al Fresco Reserve Tasting at Ruskin Place
  • Seeing Red Wine Festival
  • Taste of the Beach Charity Auction

You can attend any or all of the events; each is individually priced.

This festival has my lips written all over it!

Continue reading Wine and Dine at South Walton’s Taste of the Beach »

Video of (and on) the Zipline Ecosafari in St. Cloud

You think you’ve been on an eco-tour? I’ll bet not like this!

Dare to try the Zipline Ecosafari at Forever Florida in St. Cloud to snag a glimpse of old-time Florida in a thrilling and utterly unique way.

Check out my flick of the treetop action – including footage taken while riding the zip-line – to see why you should zip over to Forever Florida. 

Horrified of heights? You can also enjoy horseback riding, swamp buggy safaris and a plethora of other fun at Forever Florida.

Continue reading Video of (and on) the Zipline Ecosafari in St. Cloud »

Photo: The beaches of St. Joseph Peninsula State Park, Cape San Blas

The beaches of St. Joseph Peninsula State Park on Cape San Blas near Port St. Joe offer uncrowded white sand vistas.

Continue reading Photo: The beaches of St. Joseph Peninsula State Park, Cape San Blas »

A Day of Shopping, Sunning and History in Port St. Joe, Florida's 'First Capital'

Port St. Joe – A small town with a big heart.

The proud residents of Port St. Joe are fond of that municipal nickname, and it's hard to dispute its accuracy.

Founded on a spot of profound natural beauty along northwest Florida's upper Gulf Coast and also on one of the state's most historic sites, Port St. Joe and its 3,500 residents greet visitors with a wide variety of activities and graceful, welcoming smiles. This place is a chorus of "Good morning" and "Good evening," of homecoming parades and Friday night lights, of "Yes, ma'am" and "Y'all come back real soon."
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"Hands down, it's the people; that's what makes this place special," said Kim McFarland, a longtime resident who teaches at Port St. Joe High School. Her husband, Tim, was born and raised here, and he now serves as a county judge.

"You can have the prettiest beaches in the world, and we do, and so many other things, but without friendly people, it's all a waste," she said. "This is a real small town, with all of the good things that represents. It's very much like going back to Mayberry."

True enough, especially if Mayberry had been located adjacent to one of the world's premier fishing grounds, because this also is a place – let's get right down to it – with some of the most luscious seafood available anywhere at anytime.

And, trust us, you will work up quite an appetite, even during a one-day exploration of Port St. Joe and its environs.

Among the items on our Port St. Joe tourist menu:

An educational, even inspirational, glimpse of some of the state's earliest history. A compact, easily walkable town of gift and antique shops, bistros, vest-pocket parks, wide greenways and an inviting waterfront marina. An expansive state park that offers a deep dive into the state's precious coastal environment, including some of the nation's highest sand dunes and a chance to experience the endangered coastal sand pine habitat. A newly decommissioned but much-loved lighthouse, now just a phantom, a memory of what once was, but with a chance of revival.

Oh, and also lots of noisy over-flights by military jets from nearby bases. Look up and try to find the planes if you must. But if you do, everyone will know that you're not a local.

OK, let's map out our day in Port St. Joe, found along the Gulf Coast about 45 minutes southeast of Panama City and two hours southwest of Tallahassee. We'll call it our inaugural day, because we will return. Guaranteed.

Constitution Convention Museum State Park

This is a perfect place to begin, one that offers historical and explanatory context to the rest of our day in and around Port St. Joe. Here, one finds a museum and a 14-acre park that harken to the late 1830s, when the original and now lost city of St. Joseph occupied the site.

The thumbnail summary: During that era, St. Joseph was Florida's largest city, its 12,000 residents exploiting the adjacent and natural deep-water port to compete with nearby Apalachicola as the region's shipping center. Cotton and other crops and products made their way, mostly by rail, to St. Joseph for export.

The city was so prominent that it was selected in 1838 as the site of Florida's Constitutional Convention, where 56 delegates from around the territory drafted Florida's first constitution. Six years later, Florida was granted statehood.

Alas, St. Joseph suffered a worse fate – unable to successfully compete with Apalachicola, enfeebled by a yellow fever epidemic and then shattered by a hurricane, it all but disappeared by 1845, later to be replaced by settlers of the new town of Port St. Joe.

Here, at the Constitution Convention Museum State Park, visitors will find beautifully landscaped grounds, artifacts from once-thriving Native American settlements, a 19th century steam locomotive, and the opportunity to take a self-guided tour through displays and exhibits that reach back to Florida's birth as a state. Of special interest, particularly to the kids: that locomotive and a Disney-esque exhibit in which full-size, robotic figures play out a scene from the constitutional convention.

If you go: The park is located at 200 Allen Memorial Way, easily found along U.S. 98 as you enter town from the south. The museum is open Thursday through Monday from 9 a.m. to noon and 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. It is closed Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's Day. Admission: $2 per person; free for children 5 and under. Call 850-229-8029 or visit floridastateparks.org/constitutionconvention.

St. Joseph Cemetery

Still happily lost in the past? Take a quick stroll through the St. Joseph Cemetery and its fading grave markers. Can you find the grave of the ship captain who allegedly – and, surely, unintentionally – picked up the yellow fever infection in the Antilles and generously shared it with the doomed residents of St. Joseph? This is relevant insofar as the burial ground also is known as "Yellow Fever Cemetery."

Many of the victims were buried in mass, unmarked graves, and one sign lists dozens of prominent citizens of the time "believed to be buried here." Others were buried individually in bricked graves that are elevated for protection against floods. Most grave markers, eroded by time, are illegible. One that is not: "To The Memory of Jacob A. Blackwood. Who died July 24, 1841. Aged 51 years."

If you go: The old St. Joseph Cemetery can be found just off Garrison Avenue, a few blocks east of 22nd Street, across from the Gulf County Department of Health. It is open daily during daylight hours. Need some shade or a moment to reflect? Take a seat in the cemetery's small gazebo.

Downtown

OK, enough of that. Let's return to modern Port St. Joe. Time for a cool drink, a bit of shopping, a nice lunch to sustain us before we head to a large, nearby, multi-faceted state park.

Let's make our way to Reid Avenue, a half-mile stretch smack in the center of town, just a few blocks from the coast. Here and on nearby streets we find an appealing collection of sidewalk cafes and gift and antique shops.

Like so many similar small town downtowns, this one is fighting for survival – but holding its own against the strip-centerization of America. It deserves your support and it is a good place to linger. No looking at your wristwatch allowed. Just roam and explore.

For a potpourri of gifts and souvenirs, try a shop called Per-snick-e-ty at 229 Reid Ave., though many other shops also will please. Some excellent pizza is on offer at Joe Mama's Wood Fired Pizza. Seafood? Pretty much everywhere in and around Port St. Joe, though the Dockside Cafe at the close-by marina is a local favorite.

Cape San Blas Park

Now, it's time to leave Port St. Joe proper, at least for the day, and head to what the locals call Cape San Blas park, more formally known as the T.H. Stone Memorial St. Joseph Peninsula State Park.

Swimming, sunbathing, snorkeling, fishing, bird watching and explorations of 1,900 acres of wilderness. It's all here, as are miles upon miles of northwest Florida's famed sugar-white sand.

You will not find crowded beaches here; take as much space with as much buffer as you like. You will see some of the highest sand dunes in the continental United States, and you can hike along two nature trails, camp at 119 sites or relax under the trees at shady picnic areas.

As you drive onto the cape, be sure to look for – and take some pictures of – the Cape San Blas Lighthouse. Closed in October 2012, the historic lighthouse is now just a phantom, but local groups are trying to save it. Learn more here: capesanblaslight.org.

Overall, this is one of Florida's premier state parks, only 16 miles and less than a half hour from downtown Port St. Joe, and is not to be missed.

Enjoy the peace, the tranquility. It goes part and parcel with the entire experience in and around Port St. Joe.

"Not many people know about this area – Florida's Forgotten Coast," said Frank Cook, a frequent visitor from the Atlanta area. "People don't know how serene it can be here. Let's keep it this way. Let's keep this to ourselves. Let's not tell anyone."

Ah, sorry, Frank. A little late for that.

If you go: The park is located on Cape San Blas, on the Gulf side of St. Joseph Bay. From Port St. Joe, take State Road 98 south to State Road 30A. Continue south to Cape San Blas Road and head east and then back north along the cape. The address is 8899 Cape San Blas Rd. The park is open every day of the year from 8 a.m. until sundown. Visit floridastateparks.org/stjoseph.

Camping and cabin reservations can be made at ReserveAmerica.com or by calling ReserveAmerica at 800-326-3521. Campers with reservations who will arrive after sunset should call the park at 850-227-1327 to get the gate combination and instructions.

Continue reading A Day of Shopping, Sunning and History in Port St. Joe, Florida's 'First Capital' »