Archive for October, 2012

In Search of Fort Caroline, Jacksonville's 'Atlantis'

Every few weeks, sometimes as often as a couple of times a month, a visitor to Jacksonville's Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve approaches a park employee with this tantalizing promise:

"I know where the fort is."

Park Ranger Craig Morris knows better. The search for the physical remains of Fort Caroline, established by the French in 1564 and taken over by the Spanish just a couple of years later, has confounded researchers for generations. Aerial surveys and archaeological digs have done little to pinpoint its location.

Guidance from helpful park visitors hasn't helped either.

"If we spent all our time chasing down every person's idea of where Fort Caroline is, we'd get nothing done," Morris says. "It's one of Florida's great archaeological mysteries."

Day Trips on the Spanish Heritage Trail:

Today, the preserve is home to a replica of the fort, based on sketches of the 16th century structure and believed to be a one-third scale model of the original. It is surrounded by hiking trails and other noteworthy historical sites on the 46,000-acre preserve (12713 Fort Caroline Rd., Jacksonville, 904-641-7155,

In addition to the fort replica – which features interpretive exhibits that share the history of the explorers and freedom seekers who settled there – the Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve includes the Theodore Roosevelt Area, with five different Florida ecosystems visible in one hike; the Fort George Island Visitor Center, which describes the natural and cultural history of the preserve's island home; and Kingsley Plantation, which includes the oldest standing plantation house in Florida as well as several original slave cabins.

Yet the highlight remains the fort commonly thought of as Jacksonville's "Atlantis." The search has been stymied partly because the fort's originators didn't want to be found.

"Back in that time period, the cartographers that were making maps weren't necessarily honest about where they were placing their fort," says John Whitehurst, the staff archaeologist and historian at the Timucuan preserve. "The maps were of a new land mass, and everybody was trying to establish some kind of dominance. You didn't want to give your enemies an exact location for where you were landing."

The French first arrived at the mouth of the St. Johns River in 1562, when Jean Ribault led an exploratory expedition to the region. France was initially interested in the Americas to keep up with Spain, the world superpower of the day. But French colonization efforts became more intense with growing persecution of French Protestants, or Huguenots, and their most powerful member – Admiral Gaspard de Coligny – proposed establishing an American colony as a refuge.
"I'm passionate about the story of these freedom-seeking people who came here to Fort Caroline," Morris says. "They were the first people to cross the ocean to the new world with the goal of seeking something you can't touch: freedom of religion and self-government."

Ribault returned to the region in 1565 with reinforcement supplies for the fort. But when the Spanish learned Ribault was returning to northeast Florida, Philip II of Spain dispatched Admiral Pedro Menendez to set up a post at what the Spanish called San Agustin, or modern-day St. Augustine.

Ribault sailed to attack the Spanish, but a hurricane wreaked havoc on his mission, and Menendez marched to Fort Caroline through the storm to take it over.

"The hurricane changed history, quite literally," Morris says.

To round out a visit to Timucuan preserve, try these stops:

Big Talbot Island State Park

In this state park (13802 Pumpkin Hill Rd., Jacksonville, 904-696-5980,, the skeletal remains of live oak and cedar trees rise from the beach, creating a majestic and unusual scene at a spot called Boneyard Beach. The effects of weather and erosion have created this effect, turning trees that once grew near the ocean into curiosities for beachophiles on the lookout for a new view.

Boaters can launch from the island's north side to cruise the salt marsh. Nature lovers can also drop a kayak in the water, available for rent through Kayak Amelia, 888-30-KAYAK (305-2925).

Fernandina Beach

After a day spent exploring natural Florida, head to nearby Fernandina Beach, another northeast Florida locale with a history influenced by the French, British and Spanish colonizers.

The city, named after King Ferdinand VII of Spain, is located on an island the Spanish called Isla de Santa Maria, though the British name is the one that stuck: Amelia Island.

Fernandina Beach, known for its striking late 19th century architecture and bustling historic business district, came into its own during the railroad boom years.

Today, the old waterfront train depot – originally the eastern end of Florida's first cross-state railroad – is home to the Amelia Island Tourist Development Council (102 Centre St., 904-277-0717, A stop at the depot for a walking tour map of Fernandina Beach is a good place to start a downtown visit.

The city's main street, Centre Street, is lined with thriving boutiques, restaurants and bookstores. And don't forget the charming numbered side streets, such as South Third Street, where you'll find eateries such as Kelley's Courtyard Cafe (19 S. Third St., Fernandina Beach, 904-432-8213, Open for lunch and dinner, the cafe offers an inventive menu and expansive outdoor seating area.

Continue reading In Search of Fort Caroline, Jacksonville's 'Atlantis' »

Take the Express to Zombieville in St. Augustine

Looking for a spirited way to celebrate the season? Then take a ride on the Zombie Express.

You can experience an interactive paintball experience of horrific proportions at Zombieville (254 San Marco Ave, St. Augustine) at 7:30 every Friday and Saturday night through October of 2012.

The haunted fun includes a spin on the Zombie Express, taking aim at the undead and hearing shudder-worthy stories in the ancient Zombie hut.

You can snag tickets at Ripley's Believe It or Not Museum or at the door. Prices are $10 at the door, or $15 for the Zombie Express leaving from the original Ripley's at 19 San Marco Ave. You can also purchase Zombieville tickets for only $5 with the purchase of a Ghost Train Adventure ticket. For more information, call 904-377-2607.

Continue reading Take the Express to Zombieville in St. Augustine »

Take an Underwater Walk through a Tropical Reef in Miami

I’ve always wanted to share what SCUBA diving is like with, well, everyone. I want everyone to have the chance to wonder at the fish, in all their vivid glory and shapes and sizes. I want them to see odd plants that are actually animals swaying in their secret rhythms. I want them to be transported by the experience, as I am, to what is literally another world.

But learning to dive takes time. It isn’t cheap, either, even if you just do a "Discovery Dive."  Further, all kinds of restrictions exist.

Miami Seaquarium has solved all that with their new Sea Trek Reef Encounter. If you can walk and breathe, you can enjoy Sea Trek.

First, you’ll don a state-of-the-art dive helmet that allows you to breathe freely. Then you’ll descend 15 feet below the surface with your Sea Trek Guide for an underwater walking journey in their 300,000-gallon Coral Reef Tank. You’ll encounter schools of tropical fish, stingrays and more.  Your experience also includes a full day of shows and exhibits at Miami Seaquarium.

It's that easy.

Want even more news to tickle your flippers?

Right now, you can save 40 percent on the Sea Trek Reef Encounter. The regular rate is $99, but you can snag a special rate of $59 by calling 305-365-2501 to make your reservation today. Be sure to mention savings code DH-1250 to receive this special rate.

The fine print: Florida sales tax will be added to the above rates. The special rate is available only for new reservations until Dec. 15, 2012, and other restrictions apply.

Continue reading Take an Underwater Walk through a Tropical Reef in Miami »

Free Admission to Florida State Parks Nov. 11

The human spirit needs places where nature has not been rearranged by the hand of man.  ~Author Unknown

Some of Florida’s State Parks boast beaches thick with shells, others feature dunes bristling with sea oats. Some even have caverns that wind deeply into the earth, into cool recesses alive with strange, colorful formations.

There are a whopping 161 state parks in Florida, encompassing more than 700,000 acres. They provide recreational opportunities for residents and tourists alike, and almost all of them charge only nominal admission fees.

But it gets even better. On Sunday, Nov. 11, 2012, you can snag free admission to any park.

Here are a couple of my favorites:

  • Grayton Beach State Park in South Walton features a luscious sugar-sand beach, a nature trail that winds through the dunes and a rare coastal dune lake.
  • The Florida Key’s Bahia Honda State Park is known for stunning beaches, magnificent sunsets and excellent snorkeling.
  • Discover Don Pedro Island State Park in Southwest Florida, close to Englewood. Accessible only by private boat or ferry, the barrier island reveals a wealth of shells, natural beaches and wildlife that includes manatees, gopher tortoises and bald eagles.

But my suggestions are just the tip of the sandbar. Check out all of Florida's State Parks to figure out which one is perfect for you.

Insider’s Note: Want to give some love back to the parks? Volunteering opportunities abound; just check out the state parks website. You’ll feel great about helping with these fantastic resources. 

Continue reading Free Admission to Florida State Parks Nov. 11 »

Clearwater Celebrity Dishes on Hairy Baby Dolphins

Thanks to a Facebook post from Winter the Dolphin, star of the movie Dolphin Tale, I just learned a cool new dolphin fact.

Dolphins are actually born with hair. They have whiskers at the time of birth that help them to locate where to nurse on their mothers. These whiskers fall out after a few days due to water pressure.

Want to know something else that’s cool?

You can actually meet Winter the Dolphin at Clearwater Marine Aquarium in Clearwater. This famous lady is a 6-year-old Atlantic Bottlenose dolphin. When she was just three months old she was caught in and horribly injured by a crab trap line. She was rescued near Cape Canaveral and transported to the Aquarium, where she began a long recovery.

Although Winter lost her entire tail, she was fortunate to pull through at all thanks to the care lavished on her by the folks at the Aquarium. Nevertheless, she healed, adapted to a new swim pattern with her spiffy, one-of-a-kind prosthetic tail. Her appetite also became healthy. She learned to eat fish on her own and now noshes on about 12 pounds of them daily.

Today, this celebrity spends her days playing with Panama (her adopted mom), eating those fish and inspiring people around the world with her courage and spirit.

I love happy endings.

Continue reading Clearwater Celebrity Dishes on Hairy Baby Dolphins »

Old Florida Still Lives at Princess Place Preserve

Visitors tour the house where the princess lived. The trails where she rode her horses are now favorites for equestrians, amblers, primitive campers and extreme mountain bikers.

At Princess Place Preserve in Palm Coast, it's easy to focus on the scenic locale at the confluence of Pellicer Creek and the Matanzas River, the activities available and the natural and manmade beauty.

But the Preserve's history was rich, even before its purchase in 1886 as a hunting lodge by 24-year-old Henry Cutting, wealthy descendent of the Dutch who bought Manhattan for beads.

Before then, in 1788, a 1,105-acre plot was given as a Spanish land grant to Minorca-born Francisco Pellicer, part of a group that arrived as indentured servants in 1768 and thrived in the New World. Pellicer and his family lived here for 38 years, growing corn, cane and cotton until they were burned out during the Indian Wars, 1814-1819 and 1835-1842.

The plot became known as Cherokee Grove when H. C. Sloggett established one of Florida's first orange groves here in the early 1800s, according to Ranger George O'Dell.

After Cutting bought Cherokee Grove and several adjacent  parcels to grow his holdings to 1,500 acres, he enlisted artisans already brought to St. Augustine by his friend, railroad magnate Henry Flagler, to construct his Adirondacks-style lodge between 1886 and 1888.

The artisans' use of indigenous materials – cabbage palm and cedar trunks to support the wraparound porch and tabby (a mixture coquina shells and cement) and pink coquina mined from the nearby beach for its exterior – produced an excellent feat of adaptation.

The line of paired palm trees planted to welcome guests in 1888 now blends seamlessly with mammoth, centuries old and vine-draped live oaks.

Florida's first in-ground pool, where the rich and royal frolicked in spring-fed 72-degree water, is a shadow of its former innovative glory, but O'Dell hopes that someday funds will be available to restore it.

Place for a Princess

Cutting brought his bride Angela here – they married in 1888, the year the lodge was finished – and along with a home in St. Augustine, this place became their winter escape. She loved it and relished hosting their New York friends. After Cutting's sudden death four years later and her remarriage to New York stockbroker J. Lorimer Worden in 1901, she continued coming to Cherokee Grove.

After a rancorous divorce from Worden in 1922, Angela met and married an exiled Russian prince, Boris Sherbatow, in 1924, gaining the title of Princess. Cherokee Grove was their home for 25 years, and as Angela became more royal than the prince, it soon became known as Princess Place.

"Boris didn't like it," O'Dell said. "He spent his time in St. Augustine."

No one seems to know what difference he thought such a minor change would make, but Prince Boris, feeling endangered by his claims to the Russian throne, transformed his name to Sherbatov. Meanwhile, he and Angela entertained other royals and the international society set in St. Augustine and at Princess Place.

He died in 1949 of natural causes, but the princess didn't sell her beloved Princess Place until 1954. She died in St Augustine two years later at the age of 87.

Two subsequent Princess Place owners – first Angela and Lewis Wadsworth, a pair of the state's first and most ardent environmentalists, then another pair of environmentalists, Conway and Polly Kittredge – preserved the property, making it the only Spanish land grant in the state with its original acreage still together.

Both owners offered Princess Place to the state for acquisition, but it wasn't until 1993 that Flagler County was able to purchase 435 acres. Princess Place Preserve was formally dedicated in 1994, and a year later, an additional 1,100 acres were added. It now consists of more than 2,200 acres.

Ironically, after so many years of overnight visitors from high society, the only overnighters here now are primitive tents-only campers. Each of the seven family campsites comes with a view of the water.

Equestrian groups take advantage of the equestrian and group campsite by night, and access to miles of trails, including the land bridge over I-95, by day.

Each year Pangea Adventure Racing attracts 130 teams for a month of three-event competition – kayaking, mountain biking and orienteering.

Overnighter or day tripper, take the time to wander the trails and you're likely to encounter the real residents of Princess Place – herds of white-tailed deer, red fox, bobcats, opossums, raccoons, barred owls, armadillos and Florida panthers among them.

"It's pristine land; you never know what you're going to see," said Katrina Austin, Flagler County administrative assistant. "In the spring we have a pair of nesting eagles."

A large piece of old Florida, fit for a princess.

If You Go

What: Princess Place Preserve
Where: 2500 Princess Place Rd., Palm Coast
Phone: 386-313-4020
Hours: 7 a.m. – 6 p.m. Closed Thanksgiving and Christmas days. Tours of the lodge are avaiable at 2 p.m., weather permitting, Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
Cost: Free

Continue reading Old Florida Still Lives at Princess Place Preserve »

Pirate Fest Haunts Boynton Beach

Imagine the adventures pirates experienced: riding ships rolling on wild, black seas; plundering and robbing; even walking the plank.

So it's mind-boggling to imagine what the ghosts of pirates would be like. Perhaps they would be fierce and brimming with vengance, perhaps longing to step aboard ships once again — or perhaps they would just be longing for a little dancing at a fun festival.

You can find out for yourself when the Haunted Pirate Fest shivers into Boynton Beach (129 E. Ocean Avenue, Boynton Beach, Fla., 33435) Oct. 27 and 28, 2012, promising two days of nonstop, pirate-themed family fun.

The Festival features:

  • Live music
  • Food and drink
  • Haunted House ($5 admission; proceeds to benefit the Schoolhouse Children's Museum)

Even better, the Festival won't cost you a lot of loot; admission is free.

Continue reading Pirate Fest Haunts Boynton Beach »

Explore Miami’s Most Haunted Property with Paranormal Investigators

It’s not your typical haunted house, dressed up with creepy music, plastic axes and sheets fluttering from the trees. It’s not even the kind of scream-fest that has actors wielding chain saws and the like, who leap out from behind partitions and dressers, or stalk you as you stroll by them.

The Deering Estate is the real deal, Miami's most haunted property. And you can explore it with the League of Paranormal Investigators — for a few hours or for the whole night.

Your paranormal investigation will aim at detecting spectral presences, using pendulums, dowsing rods, EMF meters, voice recorders and cameras. Ghost Tours offered include the Deering Estate Spookover, "Be Your Own Investigator" Ghost Tour and "Voices of the Past" Series.

Space is limited. Advance ticket purchase is recommended. You can buy tickets online  (for an additional fee) or by calling the Deering Estate at the Cutler Ticket Office: 305-235-1668, ext. 233.

Want a sneak peek? Take a glimpse at this video.

Insider’s tip: These are all walking tours, so absolutely wear comfortable shoes and attire. If weather permits you’ll explore the outdoor trails on the Main Estate Grounds, Mangrove Boardwalk and the Cutler Burial mound. You are welcome to bring a flashlight and mosquito repellent. Light snacks are offered in the Stone House Ballroom.

2012-2013 Ghost Tour Schedule and costs:

  • Oct. 18, 2012: "Voices of the Past" – Psychic Impressions and Personal Experiences Tour, $15
  • Oct. 25, 2012: "Be your own Investigator" Ghost Tour, $25
  • Oct. 26, 2012: Deering Estate Spookover, $65
  • Nov. 15, 2012: "Voices Of The Past" – Evidence and Evidence Debunking Process Tour, $15
  • Dec. 20, 2012: "Voices Of The Past" – Equipment and Science of Paranormal Investigations Tour, $15
  • Jan. 17, 2013: "Be Your Own Investigator" Ghost Tour, $25
  • Feb. 21, 2013: "Voices Of The Past" – Psychic Impressions and Personal Experiences Tour, $15
  • March 21, 2013: "Voices Of The Past" – Evidence and Evidence Debunking Process Tour, $15
  • March 23, 2013: Deering Estate Spookover, $65
  • April 18, 2013: “Be Your Own Investigator" Tour, $25
  • May 17, 2013: Deering Estate Spookover, $65

Continue reading Explore Miami’s Most Haunted Property with Paranormal Investigators »

Take a Frightseeing Tour in St. Augustine

Two cemeteries brimming with graves that date back hundreds of years. A brooding Spanish fortress, tall, grey and serious, bristling with cannons. Narrow streets, cobbled with ancient, worn bricks.

With nearly 450 years of history, you can imagine the tales that America’s oldest city could tell. And you can imagine how haunted it is. St. Augustine boasts sunny weather and wide, golden sand beaches, but after sunset it’s time for the spirits to play.

Explore the darker side of this historic city with Ghosts and Gravestones Frightseeing Adventures this October. Tours depart nightly from the Old Town Trolley Welcome Center at 27 San Marco Ave., starting at 8 p.m. You’ll visit Lighthouse Park, haunted by ghosts, and go on a spirit-hunting excursion to the Old Jail, famous for its paranormal activity.

Insider’s note: This is one scary – and very good – tour. It was voted St. Augustine's best ghost tour for three years in a row.

The Details: Reservations are required. Tickets are $26 for adults and $14 for children ages 6-12. Kids 5 and under are free. Call  904-829-3800 for reservations.

Continue reading Take a Frightseeing Tour in St. Augustine »

Pass-A-Grille Beach is Cooking with the Fish Broil and Mullet Festival

Want to bite into a tasty Pass-a-Grille Beach tradition?

Then leap over to Hurley Park (1500 Pass-A-Grille Way, St. Pete Beach) for the annual Fish Broil and Mullet Festival Oct. 20, 2012, 3-8 p.m. The festival celebrates the custom of serving fresh mullet cooked on mattress springs over hot coals, the same way it has been done since 1930.

Munching on mullet is just the tip of the sandbar. The Festival also features:

  • Bounce Houses
  • Giant Slide
  • Rock-Climbing Wall
  • Gyotaku Fish Painting
  • Children's games and contests
  • Face Painting
  • Photo Booth

Fun mullet facts: Mullet are sometimes called jumping or happy mullet because they leap out of the water and skip along its surface with great exuberance.

Continue reading Pass-A-Grille Beach is Cooking with the Fish Broil and Mullet Festival »