Archive for September, 2012

Photo: Gregory House, Torreya State Park, Bristol

Between 1937 and 1940, the Civilian Conservation Corps moved the Gregory House from nearby Calhoun County and rebuilt the home on one of Torreya State Park’s largest bluffs.

Continue reading Photo: Gregory House, Torreya State Park, Bristol »

Torreya State Park: Florida's Mountain Range of Biodiversity

Torreya State Park exposes visitors to a side of the Sunshine State unknown to many: river views from high bluffs and ravines that transport visitors to a world of environmental intrigue and naturalistic charm. 

"You're up and down and walking through a forest that you just can't find anywhere else in Florida, without going north into different states," says park manager Steven Cutshaw. "You can't find it anywhere else in Florida; we are definitely the ‘mountains of Florida.'"

An hour west of Tallahassee, the area's terrain is home to a rare steep-head ravine system, created when seepages of Florida aquifer water emerge from the ground and constantly erode. Over time, this erosion and topographical change has created the 150-foot drops and rises that challenge hikers.

"Our main recreational attraction without a doubt is our hiking trails," Cutshaw said. "We've got 16 miles of hiking trails and it's all because of the ravine system that makes them so attractive."

Adventurists training for treks on the Appalachian Trail frequently train in Torreya, which has four unique ecosystems – streams, wetlands, hardwood slope forests and dry upper-slope forests.

Many also visit the park to research and educate themselves on the park's collections of plant and animal life. This northwest Florida area ranks among the country's best biodiversity hotspots according to Precious Heritage: The Status of Biodiversity in the United States (Stein, Adams 2000).

"It's our first time at the park," said a University of Florida botany student visiting with classmates. "We are really interested in looking at different types of plants and the Torreya (tree) is an endangered species."

The park's namesake evergreen species is found exclusively in the 20-mile stretch of the Apalachicola River.

"This is the only place worldwide where the Torreya tree grows," Cutshaw said, "in this 30-40 miles range encompassed in the park."

According to the University of Florida School of Forest Resources and Conservation, the torreya re-sprouts from its stump once disease has killed its stem, giving slight hope of repopulation. Using seeds obtained from living trees, the Florida Park Service is working with the Atlanta Botanical Garden, growing seedlings that are being planted in the ravine habitat at Torreya State Park.

"With our efforts of propagation and seeding, numbers are increasing, with at least 400 known trees in the park," Cutshaw said. "We hope to continue to have a nice, healthy crop that will be sustained into the future."

Two tree plantings can be found along the brick walkway leading to the historic Gregory House. Others can be seen along the nature trails; 45 young trees have been surrounded by plastic netting for protection.

Spotting a torreya tree is easy. The tree is distinguishable from other evergreens, with a structured branch system that coils around the main trunk, sharp needles protruding on each leaf tip.   

There are numerous area-specific plant species here, including the U.S. Champion big leaf magnolia, southern magnolia, mockernut hickory, sweetgum, live oak, spruce pine, American beech and the rare Florida yew tree, according to the Florida State Park System.

Animal species populating the area include deer, beaver, bobcats, river otters, gray fox, Florida black bears and the unusual Barbour's map turtle. 

For bird watchers, Torreya has more than 100 species. Hardwood ecosystems within the higher elevations and lush river-level ecosystems provide the perfect environments for osprey, white ibis, snowy egret, ruby-throated hummingbird and the nocturnal chuck-will's-widow. 

Many bird lovers frequent the park during the fall to witness the annual nesting patterns of the American bald eagle. According to the FDEP, one specific nest is home to annually returning bald eagles who feed, mate and raise young along the banks of the Apalachicola. Although the eagles are not tracked specifically, it is assumed the birds are the same pair, according to Cutshaw. It is extremely rare for multiple and differentiating pairs to occupy a nest previously belonging to a separate pair. 

"They make home here where they wouldn't elsewhere," says Cutshaw. "We have eagle nests that are in the park that have been active for years upon years. Every year they will hatch fledglings, which you can see flying around the historic Gregory House."

Jason Gregory was an affluent Calhoun County plantation owner. The house was abandoned as the Civil War moved into the North Florida area.

Between 1937 and 1940, the Civilian Conservation Corps dismantled and moved the home from the Calhoun County side of the Apalachicola River, rebuilding the Gregory House on one of the park's largest bluffs.

Several gun emplacements can be seen along the bluffs, where the Confederacy placed cannons to offset Union Navy boats if they were to come up the river in hopes of reaching Columbus, Ga. 

For those looking to enjoy an extended stay of solitude and peaceful retreat, the park offers 30 full-facility campsites, 3 primitive campsites and two group-stay campsites.

Visitors looking for an alternative to the traditional camping route should consider booking the park's 20-foot domed Year-round Universal Recreation Tent (YURT), which offers electricity, a lockable wooden door, wood flooring and three large windows with screens. This unique lodging option rests a comfortable distance from all other campsites, atop one of the park's many scenic bluffs, surrounded by Florida pine and oak trees to create a sense of privacy. 

According to the Florida Park System, the YURT offers accommodations for up to five people and includes air conditioning/heating, skylight and futon with bunk twin bed on top, queen-size bed, table, chairs and a deck.

If You Go

2576 NW Torreya Park Road, Bristol

Admission: $3 per vehicle via honor box, limit 8 people per vehicle; $2 for pedestrians, bicyclists
Camping Fee: $16 per night, plus tax (includes water and electricity)
Yurt: $40 per night, plus tax

Tours of the Gregory House are available weekdays at 10 a.m., and weekends at 10 a.m., 2 p.m. and 4 p.m. at the cost of $3 per adult and $2 per child, 12 and under.

The park is open from 8 a.m. until sundown, 365 days a year.

For more information, call 850-643-2674 or visit

Continue reading Torreya State Park: Florida's Mountain Range of Biodiversity »

Turning a New Leaf: Orlando's Vegetarian and Vegan Offerings

Holly McBard, a longtime vegan, used to pack more food than clothing in her suitcase when she'd vacation in Orlando.

"Even packing my own salad dressing, toothpaste and vegan coffee creamer, I spent half of my vacation wondering where I was going to eat my next meal. It was frustrating," she says.

Last year, on a friend's advice, the 37-year-old bravely left her vegan ingredients at home in New Jersey and filled her suitcase with extra bathing suits and books instead.
"Things have totally changed since I was (in Orlando) a few years ago," she said. "I was amazed by how many vegetarian and vegan options have popped up all over the city and tourist area. I finally felt comfortable going out to eat, and now I know my vegetarian daughter will be able to eat nutritiously when we visit."

Holly and the other vegetarians and vegans who regularly visit Central Florida are in for a treat. Orlando has become much more veg-friendly, and the city now offers dozens of delicious options that cater to even the strictest vegans. No matter where you stay or what you eat, Orlando can satisfy your palate and stock your hotel fridge.

Vegetarianism is fairly new to Orlando, says Larry Rumbough, president of Vegetarians of Central Florida, and there's been an explosion of vegetarian restaurants in recent years. The increase is due in part more locals passing on meat and changing attitudes toward animal rights, the environment and holistic health.

The City Beautiful is home to Central Florida Earth Day and Central Florida Veg Fest, one of the biggest vegan festivals in the country. Both are free, with Veg Fest drawing as many as 15,000 people from around the country and the Earth Day celebration attracting even higher numbers.

If you haven't been to Orlando recently, it's worth driving downtown to sample the local vegetarian fare. You'll find something to eat in every neighborhood.

"Per capita, Central Florida may have one of the highest concentrations of vegetarian restaurants in the country," Rumbough says.

Restaurants and Cafes

Dandelion Communitea Cafe, located in the Mills 50 District, is a popular choice for residents and tourists who desire a vegetarian, organic and locally grown meal. The Giddyup wraps and salads are a big hit, owner Julie Norris says, and are topped with organic cheddar or vegan queso and made with crumbled blue corn chips, chili, diced tomatoes, scallions and spring greens. The cafe also boasts a full calendar featuring live music, open-mic poetry and art openings. Be sure to try the hummus and homemade vegan dressings.

Also worth checking out: Garden Cafe on Colonial Drive, the veg-friendly Sandwich Bar in the Milk District and Infusion Tea in College Park. Ethos Vegan Kitchen is another local favorite that recently moved from Ivanhoe to Winter Park, and Z-Cafe is a hidden gem with an impressive vegetarian menu tucked inside the downtown public library. To find other meat-free dining options, visit the Vegetarians of Central Florida at

Vegan Bakeries

Surrounded by Vietnamese restaurants and dive bars in the Mills 50 district, Raphsodic Cooperative Bakery might seem out of place, but it is a must-visit for vegans. Raphsodic is a colorful and eclectic bakery, or "Urban Pastry Art House," as they call themselves. Stop by for a cup of coffee and a mouthwatering vegan pastry or cookie while enjoying some local art or music. And grab a brownie for the road.

Babycakes in Downtown Disney's Marketplace is also worth a visit. Head to the Drunken Monkey Coffee Bar for fair-trade organic coffee and a variety of veggie and vegan treats. Sample the delectable vegan doughnuts sold by Glazed and Infused at local farmers markets and other locations around the city.

Orlando Markets

Artichoke Red, a vegan market located in the Ivanhoe District, carries a huge variety of vegan foods, supplements, cleaning products, aromatherapy and fair-trade organic coffee. The market also stocks vegan food for dogs and cats. Sustain Natural Market on East Semoran and Chamberlin's Natural Foods also carry veggie and vegan foods and products.

Mobile Eateries

If you're looking for something a little more adventurous, Orlando is home to the Sah Nevaeh Hot Dog Cart and the Pure Mobile Cafe Food Truck. The Yum Yum Cupcake Truck and several other local food trucks also offer veggie or vegan options. You can find most Orlando food trucks on Facebook, or bookmark the Orlando's Food Trucks site,, to keep current on locations.

Continue reading Turning a New Leaf: Orlando's Vegetarian and Vegan Offerings »

Lake County’s Wings and Wildflowers Festival – This Weekend!

I’ve lived in Lake County for 20 years now, but I can’t remember ever attending the Wings and Wildflower Festival — the three-day celebration of birds and botany. That’s either because I was out of town when it happened or, more likely, because this is the first time it’s ever taken place.

Yes, the inaugural Wings and Wildflower Festival will happen this weekend (Sept. 28-30) at Hickory Point Park, a beautiful 68-acre lakefront park in Tavares. But the event spreads out across the county with classes and special field trips – some even accessed via kayak, pontoon boats and seaplanes.

And what a perfect place for this.Lake County has tens of thousands of acres set aside for preserves, natural habitats and parklands that are internationally-known. Places like the Ferndale Preserve, Emeralda Marsh, and the Hilochee Wildlife Management Area. Even out of the gate this will be such an incredible event that featured keynote speakers include James Currie, host of NBC’s Nikon's Birding Adventures, and John Moran, acclaimed journalist, photographer and visual storyteller.

And on Saturday, they’re hosting the Wildflower Wingding Barbecue with wings, pulled pork sandwiches, baked beans, coleslaw, brownies, iced tea and lemonade — plus a bluegrass jam featuring Molly and Her Musicmakers.

If you’d like to stop for awhile and simply witness the beauty of wildflowers and wildlife, this weekend there’s no better place you could be than to be in Lake County.

For more information, call (352) 429-4755.

Continue reading Lake County’s Wings and Wildflowers Festival – This Weekend! »

Register Now for 2013 Bike Florida Spring Tour: Explore Polk County

It may be early, but that gives you time to train. I just wanted to give you a heads up about the 2013 Bike Florida Spring Tour (March 22-29, 2013) – the ‘Orange Blossom Express.’

For the first time in the ride’s nearly 20-year history, wonderful, wide open Polk County is the site for the event. Nearly 1,000 cyclists from across the U.S. and Canada are expected to be here to wear out their pedals, while local merchants, restaurateurs and visiting vendors, such as Sun Cycle (rentals) and Rosie the Towel Lady, will be peddling their wares.

If you love to ride, Polk County is a great place to do it, with its quiet two-lane country roads, citrus groves and challenging hills, and cool communities such as Lakeland, Lake Wales and neighboring Lake County. And there'll even be other places that don’t have ‘lake’ in their name, places like Bartow, Mulberry, Polk City, Dundee, Haines City, Frostproof, Fort Meade and even Spook Hill.

Don't worry if you’re not ready for the Tour de France — this ‘Tour de Polk’ is designed for riders of all levels with various distances for various levels of skill. All in all, this is a jim-dandy way to experience real Florida and get to know the region.

Organizers expect a sell-out so register early. You can get all the details; maps, routes, costs, destinations, registration, etc. at

If you have more questions, check with ride director Becky Afonso (, 352/224-8601) or assistant ride director Ken Foster (, 352/224-8602).

And if anyone wants to ride tandem, give me a call.

Continue reading Register Now for 2013 Bike Florida Spring Tour: Explore Polk County »

Kissimmee: Old Florida in Central Florida

Years ago I had the privilege to speak to Jennings Overstreet, a rancher who once sold some extra land in the sand hills of Central Florida he didn't think it was good grazing land for his cattle.

Turned out the land, at $125 an acre, was perfect for someone who had a different plan for the property. The buyer was Walt Disney.

Mr. Overstreet lived in Kissimmee, the city closest to the Walt Disney World Resort. While the land he sold has changed beyond anything he could have pictured, in many ways Kissimmee hasn’t changed a bit.

Surrounding the hotels and motels and gift shops of Highway 192 are vast tracts of land where cattle still graze. Then there's Old Town, the entertainment complex of shops and restaurants and attractions where vintage cars park every week. And the city takes great pride in presenting the popular Silver Spurs Rodeo, here since the 1940s and still the largest rodeo east of the Mississippi. Take a look at the retro cool downtown on the shores of Lake Tohopekaliga (a great spot for fishing and boating).

If you want to see what Orlando looked like before the arrival of Walt Disney World, spend some time off the beaten path in Kissimmeee. It's all right here.

Continue reading Kissimmee: Old Florida in Central Florida »

Say Hello to my fellow VISIT FLORIDA Insiders (Part Two)

In my first blog about my fellow Insiders I wrote about Kevin Mims (Outdoors and Nature), Jill Martin (Family), and Lauren Tjaden (Beaches & Adventure) and you can click their names to reach their pages.

But there are several other VISIT FLORIDA Insiders and I wanted to remind you that not only are their blogs, videos, articles, Q&A page, facebook and twitter pages filled with fantastic information, so are they. If you’re an explorer, you'll want to know…

Rachelle Lucas, Food & Dining: I first met Rachelle in Mount Dora when she was creating social media content for innkeepers who had no clue how powerful it was. But Rachelle proved it to them and now she’s proving it to the world as (dig this) she circumnavigates the globe to report on luxurious destinations and dining topics while teaching people about effective ways to use social media. The Internet’s not large enough to contain her list of credits, so I'll just say she has a fondness for food, whether it’s a simple comfort meal or an elegant multi-course experience.

Jeanette Scott, Shopping: I know virtually nothing about shopping or, for that matter, fashion (I still wear Garanimals), but Jeanette has an understanding of both. She knows what to buy and where to buy it, and she knows what to wear and why. In addition to being an Insider, based on her passion for fashion, she's laying the foundation of an online empire. Not only that, her fondness for Florida is almost palpable, which automatically makes me like her. You will, too.

Dalia Colon, Smart Travel:
If you like bargains, Dalia is your galia. Several times a week she’s pointing folks in the direction of discounts including money-saving tips that can economize a short road trip or pay off on an extended vacation. She’ll fill you in on price rollbacks, ways you can avoid hidden fees and where you can find great buy-one-get one free deals. It’s worth your time to have Dalia save you money.

Continue reading Say Hello to my fellow VISIT FLORIDA Insiders (Part Two) »

October 5: Fall for the Arts in Eau Gallie Arts District (EGAD!)

There’s strength in numbers and the folks at the Brevard Cultural Alliance know it. They don’t just represent a single museum or a lone cultural center or an independent artist. The BCA exists to promote the visual and cultural arts throughout Brevard County.

On Friday, October 5th, you can get a sense of how important the BCA is to the region when they host their 5th Annual Fall for the Arts event on Highland Avenue in the Eau Gallie Arts District (EGAD!). As tradition has it, the family-friendly street party takes place on the first Friday of October, from 5-8:30.

If you think about Brevard’s history alone, there’s every reason to attend. But you have to add to this event food and drink, live performances by musicians and actors, demonstrations of painting and weaving and barbershop singing, animal exhibits, and participation by more than five dozen cultural and historical groups from throughout Brevard County.

Based on my own involvement in my community, trust me that a LOT of effort goes into planning an evening like this. I’m sure it’d mean a lot to the participants whose pride in their community leads them to a mission to educate and beautify their corner of the world.

Which is part of our Florida.

Please take a moment to visit the Brevard Cultural Alliance for a complete list of participants and more about the scope and diversity of this wonderful organization. And, as you plan your visit, see what else is shaking in Brevard County and Eau Gallie by taking a look at VISIT FLORIDA.

Continue reading October 5: Fall for the Arts in Eau Gallie Arts District (EGAD!) »

Photo: Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary

The Salt Marsh Mallow greets you early in the walk around the sanctuary, if you’re lucky to catch it in bloom. Photo opportunities are available at every turn of the boardwalk trail.

Continue reading Photo: Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary »

Photo: Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary

Tillandsia, or air plants, are members of larger bromeiad family. Hummingbirds are the primary pollinators and provide shelter for treefrog, insects and other arboreal creatures.

Continue reading Photo: Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary »