Archive for July, 2012

Cedar Key: Funky Charm, Nature Lover's Paradise

As brilliant as a Technicolor sunset, a flock of roseate spoonbills take flight just ahead of us, filling the horizon with splashes of fuchsia and tangerine and a soundtrack of low, guttural grunts.

It was a breathtaking sight. These shore birds, known for their four-foot wingspan and oddly shaped bill, were once hunted almost to extinction. Hunters wanted them for their pink plumage and their wings, which were sold as souvenir fans to 19th-century tourists.

Now legally protected, the number of birds are growing, with an estimated 1,100 spoonbill pairs in Florida, according to Audubon Florida. We counted at least seven of the beautiful birds, seven more reasons to fall in love with Cedar Key, a nature lover's paradise that manages to stay off the beaten track without losing a hint of its funky charm.

Cedar Key, population upwards of 900 until the Canadian snowbirds descend, represents a slice of Old Florida. You won't discover it, unless you turn your back on the main road and head west. To get to Cedar Key, follow route 24 west until you think you're lost. It's located about 50 miles southwest of Gainesville in what's fittingly called the Nature Coast. Cross a bridge about 20 miles from the mainland, along a two-lane road dotted with mom-and-pop motels, produce stands and family-owned eateries. On the other side sits a friendly town that is sweet without a hint of preciousness.

Shambling bait shacks keep company with live oak trees. And a slightly raggedy downtown channels Mayberry after a bender.  Along with a handful of vacant storefronts, the wonderful old Marina Hardware provides the place to go for waders, fishing advice, bug spray and copper tubing. A few boutiques, including the Deja Vu Consignment Shop, Dilly Dally Gally (get your Yankee Candles here!) and the Keyhole Artist Co-Op, showcase an impressive array of leather, pottery, art-to-wear and jewelry.

With the downtown quiet on a warm day in May, that was reason enough to duck into the cool dark confines of the historic Island Hotel. Friendly locals gather there and jaw about everything – from what fish are biting to their most recent costume choice for New Orleans' Krewe du Vieux Mardi Gras parade. That's the revelry that takes place 538 miles and light-years to the west of sleepy Cedar Key.

A string of waterfront bars and eateries, including the entertainingly named Pickled Pelican, sit out on a pier facing the vast Gulf. No doubt raucous doings occur when the town's population quadruples. We preferred heading out route 24 a spell to eat at Annie's, a ramshackle former juke joint. The restaurant's fans move the air and an army of strong women sling hash, usually in the form of fried seafood for lunch and tasty breakfast fare in the morning. The Blue Desert Café offers a leisurely option for dinner if you're not in a hurry. It serves such dishes as shrimp Alfredo and vegetarian lasagna made to order with fresh seasonal ingredients by chef/owner Therese Cavagnaro. She even comes out to chat with guests in between orders.

Once a bustling railroad and lumbering town with a thriving commercial fishing trade, Cedar Key still attracts those who fish. They cast from the town pier with dead serious focus. The laid-back key, a favorite haunt of Jimmy Buffet's back in the '80s, now claims clam farming as its main industry (largest clam farm in Florida!). If you're lucky, you can get 100 sweet littlenecks from Sandy's Produce for $15. It's a feast of tender bivalve goodness you won't soon forget. 

Most folks stay in condos or cottages. These rentals provide kitchens so you can cook breakfast and fresh seafood and get comfortable. There are also a few B&Bs, the hotel downtown (historic, but with Wi-Fi) and some motels along the highway.

But do yourself a favor: Stay somewhere with a view. We could see the Gulf from our third-story condo. Our back view provided the most enchanting scene, with its boardwalk jutting out over tidal pools and mangroves, scrubby pines and mudflats revealed by the waning tide. That's when the birds would descend, the spoonbills and herons, snowy egrets, ibis and pelicans. Every morning and every night, we'd walk out to hear the tree frogs and cicadas and look at the stars. 

Cedar Key is all about getting close to nature. You can kayak through tidal creeks and along the coastline dotted with picturesque wooded islands. Or bike through swaths of wilderness found in the Waccasassa Bay Preserve State Park and the Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuge just outside of town.

If it's beach time you crave, there is a small town beach. But it's not much to speak of, certainly not in the same league as what you'll find heading northwest to Destin or Fort Walton Beach. Florida is home 825 miles of beautiful beaches, offering more time to tan than most of us have opportunity. But here, in Cedar Key, tides and tidal marshes rule time. Wildlife wins out over beach volleyball and surfing. 

For some of us, that's just the way we like it.

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Photo: Museum of Florida History, Tallahassee

The ‘Forever Changed’ exhibit at the Museum of Florida History covers time from the landing of Juan Ponce de Leon to Spain’s ceding of Florida to the U.S.

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Florida’s Springs: Cool, Clear Water

Ever since I was a kid I loved going to natural springs and only when I got older did I learn that it’s Florida’s unique geology (a limestone cap that traps saltwater thousands of feet below sea level) that makes them unique to our state.

But the important thing is that we protect Florida’s 320 known freshwater springs. There are springs from central to north Florida and some of the finest are within state parks. We’re in the height of summer now so put these on your planner and dive into their crystal clear 72-degree waters for one of the most refreshing experiences on earth!

• Alexander Springs is on CR 445 within the Ocala National Forest north of Eustis. A mammoth spring pumps out 80 million gallons of crystal clear water every day.

• There are several Blue Springs and Blue Springs Park  is off CR 340 southwest of High Springs. The family-owned park has five springs on the property, two that feed into the main pool which has a silky white sandy bottom that is dazzling in daylight and seductive on your bare feet.

• Then there’s the Blue Spring State Park three miles south of DeLand. From the head spring the creek runs a third of a mile to the St. Johns so you can splash, canoe, tube in areas shaded by a canopy of trees.

• Ichetuckenee Springs State Park has one of the most popular springs in the state. It’s off CR 238 in Fort White about 42 miles northwest of Gainesville. Aside from the water the cool thing is settling into the river on an inntertube or float and drifting down the stream for several miles – an experience that takes a few hours but can melt away a year’s worth of stress.

• Located south of Tallahassee, Wakulla Springs State Park is like going back in time. A classic 1937 hotel is here (order a ginger yip at the soda fountain) and out back the world’s largest freshwater spring is three acres across and churns out 600,000 clear gallons a minute – and the swimming area is excellent. FYI: This and the river it creates made it a perfect location for movies including Tarzan and Creature from the Black Lagoon.

• Finally, Wekiwa Springs State Park is my hometown favorite. Located north of Orlando near Longwood, it’s a special little park where the wide swimming area is created by 42 million gallons of water gushing out from a narrow spring just 15 feet below the surface. For a thrill, snorkel down to the entrance and try to resist the pressure of the water.

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Seminole Museum Brings Traditions to Life

This fall, the museum will showcase “Reflections Across Time: Seminole Portraits,” an exhibit that features artwork from five different museums. Examine more than a century’s worth of portraits of tribal leaders by renowned artists such as George Catlin.

Located on the Big Cypress Reservation, the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki museum is just an hour in any direction from most cities in Broward, Dade, Collier and Hendry counties.

“Seminole Portraits”

Throughout the year, the museum hosts an array of exhibits in its 5,000-square-foot gallery. Each display sheds light on the history of the Seminole Indians.

From Sept. 1 through Nov. 4, the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum will present “Reflections Across Time: Seminoles Portraits.” The temporary exhibit, presented in collaboration with the Smithsonian Institution and the Patricia and Phillip Frost Art Museum at Florida International University, examines Seminole leaders throughout history.

View more than 150 years’ worth of portraits of Seminole leaders by noted artists from the 19th and 20th centuries, including Edward Curtis. You can also see traditional regalia attributed to Osceola and other prominent Seminoles.

The exhibit also includes artwork from the two host museums, as well as items from the National Portrait Gallery, the National Museum of American Art and the National Gallery of Art. {pullquote}

Educational Adventure

In all, the museum is home to more than 20,000 artifacts. Check out permanent exhibits such as lifelike dioramas that detail camp life and ceremonies, or further immerse yourself in Seminole history at the Interactive Legends Theater, which resembles a high-tech chickee hut. The five-screen theater shows We Seminoles, a film that tells the complete story of the tribe, including its dramatic struggle to remain in Florida.

Continue your educational journey outdoors by exploring the area’s natural splendor. Nature trails will take you throughout the beautiful, 66-acre cypress dome.

Stroll the one-mile boardwalk, tour the recreated ceremonial groups and admire various chickees. Enjoy an arts and crafts workshop in the amphitheater, or check out the Living Village, which recreates a Seminole camp.

As a participating member of Blue Star Museums, the museum is offering free admission from now until Labor Day to all active and retired military personnel and up to four members of their families.
In addition, the museum is also waiving admission fees during the entire month of August in celebration of its 15th anniversary.

Whether you visit this summer or in the fall, a trip to the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum will transport you back in time.

This article was brought to you by the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum. To plan your trip, go to www.ahtahthiki.com.

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Dive A Dozen Shipwrecks on Florida Panhandle Shipwreck Trail

OK, here’s something that’s really off the beaten path…

Florida Department of State’s Underwater Archaeology Team worked with coastal communities to develop the ‘Florida Panhandle Shipwreck Trail’ that links together a dozen sunken ships off the coast of Pensacola, Destin, Panama City and Port St. Joe.

Florida waters are among the best in the world for the sport and when you add the intriguing and sometime mysterious presence of ships resting on the seabed, it adds a whole new dimension to diving. Even better, the twelve ships (which were chosen for the trail by local dive operators for their popularity, history, and ecological diversity) were placed here to create artificial reefs at a variety of depths.

There are tugboats (Miss Louise, off Destin), oilfield supply vessels and navy tugboats and WWII minesweepers (Black Bart, USS Accokeek, USS Chippewa, and USS Strength off Panama City), a historic steamer (Vamar, off Port St. Joe), and the amazing USS Oriskany, an aircraft carrier off Pensacola that creates the world’s largest artificial reef and is surrounded the U.S. Navy dive tender YDT-14, oilfield supply vessel Pete Tide II, the freighter San Pablo, and three coal barges.

Participating dive operators can provide you with a passport containing details about each shipwreck as well as a dive log to record each stop. And be sure to visit www.floridapanhandledivetrail.com that has underwater videos of each shipwreck, locations of local dive shops, and an up-to-date marine weather forecast.

Sounds like one of the coolest things Florida’s ever done.

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Photo: Downtown Cedar Key

Jeanne Morgan and her horse, Quick, of Rustic Farms Cedar Key Carriage, takes visitors on a tour on April 15, 2012. Aquaculture (farm raised clams) and tourism are two large industries in Cedar Key.

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Photo: Downtown Cedar Key

The Cedar Key Arts Center Sculpture Garden features a large statue of a sport fisherman, paying homage to one of the most popular pastimes in Cedar Key. Aquaculture (farm raised clams) and tourism are two large industries in Cedar Key. Photo made April 15, 2012.

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Photo: Downtown Cedar Key

Shops and restaurants fill Dock St. in Cedar Key. Photo made April 15, 2012. Cedar Key hosts a variety of festivals throughout the year, including an arts festival in April and a seafood festival in October. Due to its small size and slow pace, golf carts are a popular mode of transportation around the island. Cedar Key is popular for fishing, bird watching and boating. Aquaculture (farm raised clams) and tourism are two large industries in Cedar Key.

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Photo: Downtown Cedar Key

A decaying building, widely known as “Honeymoon Cottage,” stands alone in the shallows in Cedar Key. The structure was built at the end of a long boardwalk in 1959, and was severely damaged by hurricane Elena in 1985. Aquaculture (farm raised clams) and tourism are two large industries in Cedar Key. Photo made April 15, 2012.

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Photo: Downtown Cedar Key

A fisherman tries his luck from the fishing pier along Dock St. in Cedar Key on April 15, 2012. Cedar Key hosts a variety of festivals throughout the year, including an arts festival in April and a seafood festival in October. Cedar Key is popular for fishing, bird watching and boating. Aquaculture (farm raised clams) and tourism are two large industries in Cedar Key.

Continue reading Photo: Downtown Cedar Key »