Archive for May, 2012

Weird Florida: A Bizarre Journey to Florida’s Zaniest Places

If you follow my Facebook page, you may have seen that I had a completely chance encounter with writer, author, and historian Charlie Carlson and his Weird Florida: Roads Less Traveled television crew. We both happened to be in Lake Placid (The town of murals, caladiums and the Lake Placid Tower) on the same day in the same place. The fact it was late on Sunday on a holiday weekend and in a parking lot taking pictures of the same thing when no one else was there made the experience even more weird.

When folks love Florida, they really love it. I’ve got a passion for its people, its history and its places, which is why I love my gig as your Off the Beaten Path Insider. And obviously Charlie (a 10th generation Floridian) digs our state. And so does his videographer Felipe Marrou, Jr., and producer, Mia Laurenzo. So much so they’ve created this multiple-award winning program.

And if you’re reading this, I suspect you’re probably pretty fond of Florida as well. If that’s the case, you can follow Charlie and his team (including Miss Scarlet, his canine companion) who are covering the kind of destinations and history you dig. They’re always finding some cool angle that piques peoples’ interest and, even better, they’re doing it on a PBS station (WLRN), and you can’t say enough good things about PBS.

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Girlfriend Getaway: Miami and South Beach on a Budget

Miami – Sunday afternoon, sitting under large umbrellas on Lincoln Road, my girlfriends and I thought we'd grab a quick bite before saying our goodbyes.

A barefoot man walked by pushing a bicycle. He had a tanned hide and wore only a metallic bronze Speedo. Not long after came an elderly couple singing show tunes from Cats. Then a parade of leggy women in miniskirts.

We ordered more refreshments and settled in for a few hours of the main attraction here – people watching. Which we could still afford after a girlfriends getaway weekend that included a mix of wonderful splurges ($20 cocktails) and smart bargains (a hotel just off the beaten path).

From the Art Deco buildings and boutique-lined streets to the beaches and nightlife, Miami is fascinating – and not just to young women looking to blow off some steam.

I remember my first visit. My parents took my little sister and me to South Beach for a family vacation. It was a four-hour drive from our small town north of Tampa, but Miami felt like another country. As we rode up busy Collins Avenue, my sister and I hung our heads out the car windows, excited by beautiful young men and women in bathing suits, and music blaring from sidewalk cafes. The smell of slow-cooked pork and plantains made us hungry.

At the News Café, a woman at the next table wore a diamond necklace and giant sunglasses. She seemed so cool, like Julia Roberts. I wanted to be her.

Fifteen years have tempered my fantasy. My three girlfriends and I are still climbing that financial ladder, and it's slippery. We each had about $400 to spend for the weekend, or as much as some might pay for one night in a Miami hotel.

But it helps to have local connections. My friend Lauren is a Miami native and suggested we stay in the "up-and-coming" neighborhood of Brickell to save some cash. By sleeping just 10 minutes from Collins Avenue and Ocean Drive, we spent half as much money and had just as much fun.

Brickell, in downtown Miami, turned out to be the greatest surprise of our trip. Streets in the financial district used to shut down after business hours. Now young people have moved into condos and the neighborhood is bustling.

We set out from the Hampton Inn & Suites to explore. The aroma of fresh seafood and roasted garlic invited us into cafes and bars where young professionals drank, dined and danced. We chose Fado Irish Pub in a charming outdoor mall called Mary Brickell Village. We made note of several other places: Rosa Mexicano, Burger & Beer Joint, Blue Martini and several houses that had been converted into restaurants.

The next day, instead of the beach, we stayed in the area. A friend from college persuaded us to walk over to his 300-foot-pool at Icon Brickell. He called it  "the best pool in Miami," with views of Biscayne Bay, plus comfy lounge chairs and beds.

The Icon Brickell shares a property with the Viceroy Miami hotel. For $45, the hotel's spa offers a day pass, allowing guests access to the pool, gym, steam room and sauna from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. Towels, robes and sandals are included.

We had a great day in Brickell, but a trip to Miami is incomplete without a night on South Beach.

We put on our heels and cocktail dresses and had dinner at a small, candlelit restaurant called BONDST Lounge in the basement of Townhouse Hotel. We spent two hours feasting on ginger salads, tuna tacos, spicy crispy shrimp, Toro tuna with sliced mango and a variety of sashimi. We each spent about $80, including cocktails.

Some of Miami's best nightlife is found inside hotels. On previous trips, I visited The Rose Bar at the Delano Hotel, where large Venetian chandeliers hang from the ceilings, and the oceanfront bar at the Asian-inspired Setai, where we drank flutes of champagne with NASCAR drivers.

On this trip, we headed to the Perry South Beach Hotel's rooftop bar, with its swaying palm trees, private cabanas, couches, pool and a view of Miami's skyline. The drinks were just as expensive, at $20 a cocktail, but some gentlemen insisted on picking up the tab.

We were grateful, but we weren't interested in meeting men. When my girlfriends and I get together, nothing matters but us. It's a chance to dance, to laugh and to spend a weekend away from our busy lives selling real estate and teaching children.

At 3 a.m., as we shared a $20 taxi ride, we felt blessed to have maintained such a strong friendship. We can't wait for the next great adventure.

If You Go

The Hampton Inn & Suites in Brickell

Viceroy Miami

BONDST Lounge, In the Townhouse Hotel

The Perry South Beach Hotel (formerly Gansevoort Miami Beach)

Continue reading Girlfriend Getaway: Miami and South Beach on a Budget »

Photo: Tampa History with E.J. Salcines

E.J.Salcines points out Tampa’s early historical significance.

Continue reading Photo: Tampa History with E.J. Salcines »

Photo: Tampa Cafe Mural

This mural depicts a historic ‘cafe’ scene common to Tampa’s coffee houses.

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Spain's Second Arrival in Tampa Bay

Tampa Bay fails to get enough credit for its role in  the history of America in the 1500s, and the role it played again three centuries later, says  E.J. Salcines.

Salcines, a prominent West Tampa native, a first-generation American and a descendant and promoter of Spain – knighted by King Juan Carlos – calls the 1500s the forgotten century in American history. And Tampa Bay's historical significance seems underplayed as well.

"All of the original European civilization enters what is now the continental United States through Tampa Bay," he says, lecturing from the driver's seat of his Cadillac.

Salcines points out that the 1528 Narvaez expedition proved costly; out of 400 Spanish troops setting out from present-day St. Petersburg, only Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca and three others walked into Mexico eight years later.

But on this day, however, Salcines wants to concentrate on the sites – and sights – of the second Spanish invasion of the Tampa Bay area.

That happened in 1886, when Spanish cigar manufacturers led by Vicente Martinez Ybor moved their factories to Tampa from Key West. Thousands of Spanish, Cuban and Italian cigar makers followed, giving Tampa a flavor that endures.

Salcines, 73, a former Tampa state attorney and a retired appellate judge, often addresses students, civic clubs and audiences at the Tampa Bay History Center about the city's immigrant roots. He tells of "Cigar City," which emerged  in Tampa from the mid-1880s through the 1920s, when factories in Ybor City and West Tampa turned out more than 300 million hand-rolled cigars a year.

As we pass hulking three-story brick rectangles, some now used as office buildings, that feature huge windows on the north and south, Salcines notes that every cigar factory was built from east to west.

"Why? Because originally there was no lighting. You depended on natural lighting," he says.

In these cigar factories, hundreds of workers – men, women, black, brown and white – rolled cigars. As they worked, they listened to the lector, who read from an elevated stand.

"The morning readings, which was an hour and a half… that was newspapers," Salcines says. "The afternoon was novels."

Around the cigar factories, a host of businesses sprung up. There were groceries, bakeries, coffee shops and restaurants, among them Ybor City's famous Columbia, the oldest restaurant in Florida. Casimiro Hernandez Sr., a  Cuban immigrant, opened the restaurant in 1905. His family still runs the sprawling, block-long restaurant.

"When the Columbia gets started, what they have is a café," Salcines  says, pressed inside the doorway of the original room, talking over the lunchtime chatter. "That tells you what they serve – café."

And it drew people there. Salcines points out that the streetcar would stop at the corner of the Columbia. "The conductor would jump out, come over here quickly, drink his coffee and jump back on the streetcar to continue. This was a required stop."

Workers sipped dark roast, the kind still made by Naviera Coffee Mills, a 90-year-old family business. We follow the aroma of roasting beans across Seventh Avenue and step into the coffee shop, where windows to the back show workers roasting and packaging beans. The founder, a Spanish immigrant, started out delivering coffee to factory workers.

"In the cigar factories, coffee was brought in twice a day, in the morning and the afternoon," says Salcines.

"The cafetero, the coffee man, would come in with two containers'" he adds. "One of boiling milk, one of strong Cuban coffee. He already knew his customers, what they liked: He liked his café con leche oscuro, dark, so he poured more coffee than milk. You like your café con leche claro, lighter, so more milk, less coffee. She drank only espresso, café solo."

Each immigrant group built clubhouses. Several of these stately edifices stand today. Dues-paying members could visit the doctor there, or get a haircut.

"They could play cards, they could play billiards, they could play chess," says Salcines, sitting in the boardroom of Centro Asturiano, the Spanish club. "They could play pool. They could meet. They could have a drink. They could have a dance."

Outside the Cuban Club looms a bust of Cuban revolutionary hero José Martí. He appealed to Tampa's Cuban community for support in the revolution against the island's Spanish occupiers.

"Over a period of three-and-a-half years, he made 20 speeches in Tampa," frequently talking from the steps of Ybor's factory, Salcines recounts. "Martinez Ybor's wife, Mercedes, was a revolutionary. She wanted independence for Cuba."

Martí died in battle in Cuba in 1895. He would have had few patriots to address in Tampa if Spaniard Gavino Gutierrez had not stopped by a few years earlier.

Gutierrez' bust resides just outside Centro Asturiano. The tip of the stone nose has broken off, but the New York businessman who sparked Cigar City retains a dignified air.

The exporter of jams and jellies traveled to what was then called Tampa Town in hopes of setting up a guava jelly plant, Salcines explains. He would ship the product on Henry B. Plant's railroad, which had just reached Tampa in 1884. The guavas weren't plentiful enough, so Gutierrez decided to sail to Key West to visit his friend, Vicente Martinez Ybor.

Gutierrez was ushered into Ybor's office just as Ybor and fellow manufacturer Ignacio Haya were talking about moving their factories to the Gulf Coast, weighing the pros and cons of Galveston, New Orleans and Mobile.

Gutierrez spoke up.

"'Why are you all thinking about going so far, when you all have a tremendous port just north of here called Tampa Town?'" Salcines relates. "He converts himself unknowingly to being the representative of the Tampa Chamber of Commerce."

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Photo: Bellevue – Tallahassee

Visit Bellevue, the plantation home of Princess Catherine Murat, wife of Napoleon’s nephew.

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Cassadaga: A Video Visit

I headed to Cassadaga, the Florida spiritualist camp near DeLand and Daytona and Lake Helen, and chatted with innkeeper Diana Morn who talks about visitors the community and what they hope to discover. Excuse the film quality (it was shot on an iPhone, although I've tried to enhance it with scenes from the village).

The story begins in 1875 when trance medium George Colby arrives, led here (he claims) by an Indian spirit named Seneca. By 1895, Colby had 35 acres and the charter to commence The Southern Cassadaga Spiritualist Camp Meeting Association.

You can arrive anytime (Saturdays are pretty busy), but Sunday morning offers the chance to attend the worship service followed by a reception at the Fellowship Hall. It's an interesting place – a kind of "only in Florida" destination that keeps things interesting.

FYI: The small community has a large reputation. Several bands (including Floridian Tom Petty) have incorporated Cassadaga into their songs.

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