Archive for October, 2012

Tallahassee Museum’s Triple Play: Nature, History and Adventure!

When I went to Tallahassee, I didn’t expect to find Florida wilderness so close to the city, but it’s here in a nearly natural state at the wonderfully intriguing Tallahassee Museum, a place where “North Florida's history, nature and wildlife intersect.”

This is an extraordinary museum – 52 acres of natural Florida where there’s something that looks like a zoo, but not quite… It’s more like an open trail that takes you through the woods and along the shores of Lake Bradford so you can see white-tailed deer, bald eagles, red wolves, hawks, owls, otters, panthers, bobcats, black bears, and other animals and reptiles.

The 1880s Big Bend Pioneer Farm is here, too, and so is an 1897 one-room schoolhouse, the Bethlehem Missionary Baptist Church, a Seaboard Air Line Caboose, and the Bellevue Plantation home.

You can drop in on workshops on a variety of topics, including woodstove cooking and photography. Hang around and see the journey wool takes from the fleece of a sheep to the socks on your feet. In May, they opened the ‘Tree to Tree Adventures’ so now you can swing from ropes, cross log bridges and skim through the sky.

History is more than dates. It is people and what they do. At the Tallahassee Museum you get to see how early settlers lived and worked and played – all while being surrounded by some of Florida’s most delightful scenery and beautiful wildlife.

For more information on admission and hours, call 850/575–8684.
 

Continue reading Tallahassee Museum’s Triple Play: Nature, History and Adventure! »

Destination: The Everglades

It’s hard to capture the Everglades National Park in a single blog, so my advice would be to follow my pal, Outdoors and Nature Insider Kevin Mims… and then go and see it.

Or a portion of it. Because it’s huge – and was once huger. In fact, it was so large that not so very long ago people didn’t even know what it was. But what it was – and still is – is a massive network of forests and prairies and wetlands – a ‘river of grass’ — that flows from near Kissimmee all the way down to the Florida Bay.

Thanks to environmentalists such as land developer Ernest F. Coe who, in the 1920s, pitched the idea of the Everglades as a national park (which it became in 1934), and Marjory Stoneman Douglas (who wrote the landmark book River of Grass in 1947), and President Harry Truman (who dedicated the Everglades as a national park, also in 1947), it’s better off than it might have been had the land been reclaimed for development.

So come here and walk the boardwalk and hike the trails and join a ranger as they deliver talks on foot and on tram tours. Take a look around from the tower at Shark Valley. Think of the wildlife that makes this place home — the panthers and egrets and alligators and bluebirds. Rent a bike or a boat and as you travel through the sawgrass try to comprehend the intricate nature that creates the Everglades. Do that and you’ll understand our responsibility to make sure it remains alive and well in Florida. Naturally.

(By the way, the Everglades has been declared an International Biosphere Reserve, a World Heritage Site, and a Wetland of International Importance – one of only three locations on earth to appear on all three lists.)

Continue reading Destination: The Everglades »

Nature, History, and Adventure: A Triple Play at the Tallahassee Museum

When I went to Tallahassee, I didn’t expect to find Florida wilderness so close to the city, but it’s here in a nearly natural state at the wonderfully intriguing Tallahassee Museum, a place where “North Florida's history, nature, and wildlife intersect.”

Don’t expect an ordinary museum. Instead, this is an extraordinary museum — 52 acres of natural Florida where there’s something that looks like a zoo, but not quite… It’s more like an open trail that takes you through the woods and along the shores of Lake Bradford so you can see white-tailed deer, bald eagles, red wolves, hawks, owls, otters, panthers, bobcats, black bears and other animals and reptiles.

There’s the 1880s Big Bend Pioneer Farm here, too, and an 1897 one-room schoolhouse, the Bethlehem Missionary Baptist Church, a Seaboard Air Line Caboose, and the Bellevue Plantation home. You can drop in on workshops on a variety of topics from woodstove cooking to photography to the journey wool takes from the fleece of a sheep to the socks on your feet. In May, they opened the ‘Tree to Tree Adventure’ so you can swing from ropes, cross log bridges, and skim through the sky.

History is more than dates. It is people and what they do. At the Tallahassee Museum you get to see how early settlers lived and worked and played – all while being surrounded by some of Florida’s most delightful scenery and beautiful wildlife.

For more information on admission and hours, call 850/575–8684.
 

Continue reading Nature, History, and Adventure: A Triple Play at the Tallahassee Museum »

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.

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Photo: Cape San Blas Lighthouse, Port St. Joe

Standing 101 feet above the white sands of Cape San Blas, this lighthouse has been aiding navigation since 1919.

Continue reading Photo: Cape San Blas Lighthouse, Port St. Joe »

Photo: Cape San Blas Lighthouse, Port St. Joe

The Cape San Blas Lighthouse was dismantled and moved once in 1916 and may be moved again.

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Photo: Downtown Port St. Joe

The sidewalks of downtown Port St. Joe offer food, fine shopping and a pleasant place to gather to talk.

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Photo: St. Joseph Cemetery, Port St. Joe

Port St. Joe was once St. Joseph, Florida’s largest city with 12,000 residents around the time the yellow fever epidemic struck.

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Photo: Playing in downtown Port St. Joe

Future football stars practice on the sidewalk of Reid Avenue as the shops of Port St. Joe are reflected behind them.

Continue reading Photo: Playing in downtown Port St. Joe »

Photo: Ribault Monument on St. Johns Bluff, Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve, Jacksonville

The Ribault Monument commemorates the 1562 landing of Jean Ribault at the St. Johns River. Located atop St. Johns Bluff, it provides a clear view of the St. Johns River and beyond.

Continue reading Photo: Ribault Monument on St. Johns Bluff, Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve, Jacksonville »