Archive for August, 2012

All About Tampa, the Republican National Convention Host City

In a twist of irony, many visitors to August's Republican National Convention will travel between their hotels and the downtown Tampa event on a busy road named to honor President John F. Kennedy, a Democrat.

Kennedy Boulevard, a gateway to downtown from the west, was so named in 1964 partially because of a special connection between Tampa and the 35th president. Kennedy had waved to massive crowds lining that road from an open-topped Lincoln Continental on Nov. 18, 1963. The next time he rode in that car, four days later in a motorcade through downtown Dallas, he was shot to death.

A statue of JFK now stands at the present site of the University of Tampa, looking out over his eponymous thoroughfare.

The Tampa-JFK connection is just part of Florida's rich presidential history. It includes Andrew Jackson's role as Florida's first territorial governor in Pensacola, Harry S. Truman's "Little White House" in Key West — the winter quarters hosted a total of six presidents — and the famous compound kept by the Kennedy family at Palm Beach. After Kennedy became president, a secret bunker was installed in an island off the coast in case of a nuclear attack.

Rest for Rough Riders

There's more in Tampa, too. A stone's throw away from Kennedy's statue is a grand structure topped with curiously ornate minarets that was once called the Tampa Bay Hotel. Built by railroad magnate Henry Plant, it was there that then-Col. Teddy Roosevelt and members of the First United States Volunteer Cavalry — better known as the Rough Riders — bivouacked in 1898, before shipping out for Cuba and the Spanish-American War. Today, the building houses a museum and is a centerpiece of the stately downtown University of Tampa campus.

In more modern history, as the Tampa Bay area grew up and Florida became a critical swing state, visits by sitting presidents have become relatively common, and Tampa has become a required campaign-trail stop for any candidate who hopes to win over the many swing voters here. {pullquote}

For visitors to the Aug. 27-30 convention, there is plenty more to take in.

Tampa's former Latin quarter, Ybor (EE-bor) City, adjacent to downtown, was for the first half of the last century the cigar manufacturing capital of the world, with more than 200 factories once lining the narrow streets. That heritage is celebrated here and still alive in the cigar shops mixed in among the bars and restaurants in what is now a bustling entertainment district. In the so-called "Cigar City," aficionados can put fire to a fine stogie rolled minutes before right in the window of one those Ybor City shops.

A can't-miss sandwich

Don't fancy a cigar? Then how about a Cuban sandwich? That's the other product virtually synonymous with Tampa and is similarly interwoven into its history.

A staple of the early immigrant communities in Ybor City, the sandwich of ham, roasted pork, Swiss cheese, pickles and mustard on pressed Cuban bread remains a Tampa favorite, with many restaurants and sandwich shops claiming to have the best or most authentic version. (Like pizza, Cuban sandwiches are hardly ever bad, regardless of who makes them.)

The area is expected to benefit directly from the convention, to the tune of around $175 million, according to the host committee, and down the road attract potential visitors from among the millions of people watching it on TV around the world. The event will attract three times more media members than the Super Bowl, which Tampa has hosted four times.

"It's coverage that you can't buy," said Travis Claytor, spokesman for the area's tourism bureau. "Every time they do a cut-away shot of the skyline of downtown Tampa or the Tampa Bay Times Forum, or show beauty shots of the beaches and the attractions, that's promoting the destination like we've never been able to promote it before. This is an opportunity that has never come along before, and it's priceless, to be honest with you."

The bay at large

Tampa will be the focus for convention visitors, of course, with its big-city skyline, world-class aquarium, Busch Gardens theme park, Hard Rock Hotel & Casino, and the riverfront arena where all the convention floor action will take place. But the area is what it is — cool and cosmopolitan enough to attract Super Bowls, NCAA Final Four tournaments and now, a political convention — because of St. Petersburg, Clearwater and the rest of what is collectively known as Tampa Bay.

Visitors will do themselves a disservice if they don't cross the bay and check out St. Petersburg's stunning waterfront downtown area, as well as the youthful vibe of Clearwater Beach. Some of the best white-sand beaches anywhere are close by, too. Two of them — Fort De Soto Park and Caladesi Island — have topped the list from Stephen P. Leatherman, a Florida International University professor dubbed "Dr. Beach" for his annual rankings of the nation's best coastlines.

A Greek enclave

Just north of Clearwater is Tarpon Springs, a small town established by Greek immigrant sponge divers in the early 20th century whose descendants have worked hard to maintain the distinct Mediterranean flavor. The sponge docks now cater to tourists with a string of wonderful Greek restaurants, bakeries and gift shops.

"It was presented (to the RNC) as a complete area and all we have to offer," said convention host committee spokeswoman Aileen Rodriguez. "The community really came together to put the bid together and get it in. Now we're excited about showcasing the whole area to the guests who are coming into Tampa Bay."

Delegates and other visitors will be utilizing hotels on both sides of the bay, with a network of as many as 400 buses shuttling them to and from the Tampa Bay Times Forum for the four nights of the convention.

This story was republished with permission of the Associated Press.

Continue reading All About Tampa, the Republican National Convention Host City »

Head to Crystal River Preserve State Park for Organic Americana on Sept. 22

I know what you are probably thinking. "Kevin, what is this Organic Americana you speak of?" Well, it's a music event that's being held at the Eco-Walk Trailhead of Crystal River Preserve State Park that features three different Americana music acts. Yes, you want to come to this. Go ahead and enter Saturday, Sept. 22 as a busy day on your calendar. The gates open at 1:00 p.m., with music starting at 2 p.m.

You can pick up tickets in advance online at, or get them in person at the Inverness Farmers' Market on Saturday, Sept. 1. The cost for tickets in advance is $11, and just $12 on the day of the show. A portion of the proceeds go to support the Friends of Crystal River State Parks.

Get the full event scoop over at See you at the show!

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Photo: Oak trees, Highland Hammocks State Park

Some of the live oak trees at Highland Hammock State Park are believed to be more than 1,000 years old.

Continue reading Photo: Oak trees, Highland Hammocks State Park »

Photo: Eggs, Henscratch Farms, Lake Placid

At Henscratch Farm, both Rhode Island Reds and Plymouth Barred Rocks hens lay large brown farm-fresh eggs for the country store. The Aracaunas hens lay large green eggs.

Continue reading Photo: Eggs, Henscratch Farms, Lake Placid »

Photo: Paynes Creek Historic State Park, near Zolfo Springs

A suspension bridge crosses Paynes Creek, which is a tributary of the Peace River, a favorite for paddlers and campers, who often start their trips from nearby Zolfo Springs.

Continue reading Photo: Paynes Creek Historic State Park, near Zolfo Springs »

Exploring Cracker Trail Country: Where Old Florida Endures

Cows, orange groves, country roads and old-fashioned downtowns. That’s the Florida you find when you get off the highway and head into the rural area above Lake Okeechobee.

It’s not the Florida of beaches and high rises. It’s slower, quieter and older, and that’s why some seek it out. You can discover gracious hotels built 100 years ago, where rooms go for $70 a night, or explore one of Florida’s oldest state parks with trees so grand that area residents wanted it to be a national park.

To discover this part of Florida, you take the Cracker Trail, a road Florida’s pioneers used during the early 1800s to move cattle to ports along the Gulf Coast and the Atlantic Coast. Today, the Cracker Trail spans parts of State Road 66, State Road 64 and U.S. Highway 98. It runs 120 miles east-west from Fort Pierce to Bradenton. Here’s a map.

For 25 years, adventurous Floridians have brought history to life during the last week of February, crossing the state on horseback in the annual re-creation of the Cracker Trail Ride. Their ride takes days, but you can organize your own Cracker Trail tour via a day trip by car. Here are seven stops on or near the Cracker Trail that help you discover a forgotten Florida.

Stop 1: Highland Hammocks State Park near Sebring

Highland Hammocks became a park in 1931, four years before there was a Florida state park system, because area residents campaigned for the land to be preserved. Improvements were made during the Depression by the Civilian Conservation Corps, and the CCC story is now told in a charming small museum in the park.

Sarah Taylor, a Realtor from Port St. Lucie, finds a respite from city life by camping and hiking at Highland Hammocks State Park, which eventually became one of the four original Florida state parks.

“I love the place,” Taylor says. “You are just enveloped in nature. With the old oaks and huge towering cypress trees, it is just gorgeous.“

Highland Hammocks is terrific  for bicycling and hiking. “There is a great paved loop that winds under the huge oak hammock trees and will keep you shaded,” Taylor says.

Many short walking trails wait to be explored, but the most memorable is the Cypress Swamp Trail, which starts as a boardwalk and eventually narrows to a “catwalk” series of planks over the swamp.

“I remember going here as a kid and being scared out of my wits on this trail,” Taylor says.  “But as an adult, it seems shorter and less intimidating.”

One of the park’s more popular activities is a free, ranger-led one-hour tram tour into remote areas, where visitors will see alligators, turtles and wading birds. Tours are scheduled at 1 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and at 1 p.m. and 2:30 p.m.  Saturday and Sunday. (Availability may vary according to staffing and seasonal demand.)

Highland Hammocks State Park
5931 Hammock Road, Sebring
Four miles north of the Cracker Trail

Stop 2: Henscratch Farms Vineyard and Winery

Henscratch Farms is a funky little Southern-style vineyard and winery. The wines are sweet "country-style," from native muscadine and scuppernong grapes, and may not appeal to sophisticated palates. But it's worth having a taste and enjoying the farm's ambiance.

Families love the friendly hens and roosters — Rhode Island Reds and Barred Plymouth Rocks varieties — that wander the farm, where you also can say hello to a pig and, depending on the season, pick strawberries from hydroponic towers. Strawberries are available December to April; blueberry season is April and May. Every August, Henscratch holds a “grape stomp.”

Henscratch Farms
980 Henscratch Road, Lake Placid
About three miles south of the Cracker Trail

Stop 3:  Historic hotels in Avon Park and Sebring

Two of the small towns off the Cracker Trail have historic hotels. Both are on the National Register of Historic Places and each is reasonably priced with a unique story.

The Hotel Jacaranda in downtown Avon Park has been hosting guests and serving meals every day since it opened in 1926. It has welcomed Babe Ruth and Clark Gable as guests, housed hundreds of military pilots during World War II and was home base to dozens of St. Louis Cardinals during baseball spring training. Today, you’re likely to find members of the Ret Hat Society meeting for lunch and visitors lining up for the Sunday Grand Buffet.

One reason the Hotel Jacaranda still is going strong is that, in 1988, it was purchased by South Florida State College, which operates it and uses one wing as a dorm.

The expansive lobby is a step back in time, with paintings by the Florida Highwaymen on the walls, an old piano played daily during winter season and an antique writing desk.

The rooms — rates start at $70 a night in season — are reached by an old-fashioned elevator operated by an attendant and are decorated with quilts and feature picturesque old-time plumbing fixtures.
The Jac is a bargain for lunch, too, with a dozen choices at $6.29. (We recommend the  homemade potato chips as a side!)

Ten miles away, the Kenilworth Lodge was built in 1916 by George Sebring, who founded the town that bears his name  and that he hoped would become a utopian community. The Kenilworth was a seasonal hotel, open in winter. George Sebring was friends with the president of the Seaboard Atlantic Railway, and every train stopped in Sebring. The Mediterranean Revival-style hotel has a grand staircase and a 4,000-square-foot lobby.

Today, it offers comfortable, moderately priced rooms and has found a special niche among bicyclists, who use it as a base for several bicycle-touring events each year. Wally Vickers comes every Labor Day to join hundreds of bicyclists who stay at the Kenilworth to participate in the annual Tour of Sebring.

“I look for areas to ride that have low traffic volume and that is what first attracted me to Sebring,” Vickers said. “What keeps me coming back is the Highland Pedalers Bicycle club and the Kenilworth Lodge.”

The Kenilworth is located on Lake Jackson, and a drive or bike ride around the little lake takes you past historic buildings and scenic views.

Hotel Jacaranda
19 E. Main Street,  Avon Park
15 miles north of the Cracker Trail on U.S. 27.

The Kenilworth Lodge
1610 Lakeview Drive, Sebring
For GPS navigation systems, enter 836 SE Lakeview Dr, Sebring, FL 33870
Five miles north of the Cracker Trail on U.S. 27

Stop 4: Lake Placid’s murals

The town of Lake Placid has a novel way of sharing its history – on its walls. With a population of about 2,200 and 44 wall murals decorating its downtown, Lake Placid may win the prize for most murals per capita.

The Winn-Dixie at Route C-621 & US Highway 27 in Lake Placid, for example, is bursting with pictures of cattle and cowboys. The painting of the Florida Cracker Trail ride is 175 feet wide and 30 feet high. The Lockhart Service Center on Interlake Boulevard has a 60-foot wide mural of caladium fields because Lake Placid grows 95 percent of the world’s caladiums, a colorful landscaping plant.

The best way to see the murals is to start at the Lake Placid Chamber/Mural Gallery, located at 18 N. Oak St. and open Monday through Friday, from 9 a.m. – 4 p.m., except holidays. A 10-minute video answers most visitor questions. You can buy a mural tour book for $3. It provides a little history and a hint about a “hidden” feature each artist incorporated into their murals. Here’s a three-minute video about the mural project.

Lake Placid is 10 miles south of the Cracker Trail on U.S. 27.

Stop 5: A ghost town on the Kissimmee River

There’s not a lot left here except memories. Fort Basinger sat on the east side of the Kissimmee River, and all that’s left is a historic marker and the Lockett estate on the west side of the river.

Fort Basinger was settled after the Civil War, a cowboy community with hotels, stores and a post office into the early 1900s. Its heyday was when steamships traveled the Kissimmee River and stopped there.
The evocative 120-year-old Lockett estate on the west side of the river was home to the pioneer Pearce family, built by an 1870s cattleman and steamboat captain, John Mizell Pearce. Three generations lived in this grand old house, with the last being a colorful woman named Edna Pearce Lockett, a lifelong rancher and one of the first women elected to the Florida Legislature.

Stop 6: Zolfo Springs and the Cracker Trail Museum

The Cracker Trail Museum is a collection of old buildings from around Hardee County — a cabin, an old blacksmith's shop, a 1914 wood-burning locomotive, two buggies. In this part of Florida, families go back several generations and the museum is a way for residents to preserve the stories of their grandparents. Fortunately, there’s a lot to see without entering the museum, which is not open on weekends. The museum is part of Pioneer Park on the Peace River, which offers camping, boat ramps and picnic areas.

The Cracker Trail Museum
2822 Museum Drive, Zolfo Springs

Stop 7:  Paynes Creek Historic State Park

A few miles north of the Cracker Trail is a quiet park so far off the beaten path that you won't have to share it with many others.

Paynes Creek Historic State Park marks the site of a fort from the Seminole War era. The park preserves lovely little Paynes Creek, which flows into the Peace River. It's fun to walk across the bouncy suspension bridge and gaze into the clear creek and cypress forest.

The historic part of the park is a monument placed in 1895 to commemorate the deaths of two settlers at the hands of Seminole Indians. The story is told in a well-done museum that adds a modern perspective.

Payne’s Creek Historic State Park

888 Lake Branch Road, Bowling Green
10 miles north of the Cracker Trail on SR 17

The Cracker Trail itself is a two-lane road across the state — a low-key scenic route past fields of grazing cattle, moss-draped live oaks, orange groves and old wooden buildings with rusting tin roofs. The speed limit is 60 miles per hour and there are few people or houses along the route.

It’s a trip through a Florida many thought was long gone — but is still well worth seeing and experiencing..

Additional resources for planning a visit to Cracker Trail country:

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Nothing to Do in Wauchula, You Say? Relax

Wauchula – In the middle of vast acres of orange groves and  fields of grazing cattle, there’s a Main Street in the middle of Hardee County. It has a store that sells artsy gifts, a tiny Italian restaurant, a coffee place, an ice cream shop. Just a block away is a quaint B&B called Quilter’s Inn.

And there you have it: Downtown Wauchula.

Visitors from Tampa, St. Petersburg and Sarasota — each city is about an hour away — wouldn’t go here for the shopping, dancing, wining and dining. This much is obvious as you roll into town.

But for those looking for a slow-paced, quiet and unusual kind of Florida, Wauchula is your place.
There is plenty to do, to be sure. There are long drives through the countryside, mooing at cows and scaring off crows and vultures. There’s the Peace River, where you can canoe or hunt for fossils. There are antique stores in neighboring Arcadia. There’s even a semi-famous castle – more on that later.

Still, in a state where people understandably are used to theme parks and beaches, there’s always the guest that’s going to ask Quilter’s Inn owner and hostess Pattie Detwiler: OK, what do we do next?

“You city people,” said Detwiler. “You don’t know how to relax.”

One Man’s Junk is Another Man’s Castle

What do you get when you cross a junk collection, an artist, an architect and 70-acre Central Florida swamp?

Behold, the spectacle of Solomon’s Castle.

A 20-minute drive from the heart of Wauchula, the castle is the most memorable landmark you’ll find in Hardee County, with its three-story, 12,000-square foot castle made of old aluminum newspaper printing plates, a replica of the Alamo and a huge 16th century galleon. All is the handiwork of one man.

For $10, you can hang out on 77-year-old Howard Solomon’s property for as long as you like. You can take a tour of the castle, once featured on HGTV’s Most Extreme Homes in America.

He and his wife, Peggy, raised his children there (one of whom is married with children and still lives in a “chocolate house” he built on the property) and the couple still resides in the castle.

A guide will tour you through the home, which displays hundreds of odd but very well done sculptures made out of old car parts, tin cans, toys and other scraps once discarded in a junkyard. Each piece has a story and a punchline.

But the real fun is in wandering around the grounds, where you’re likely to run into Solomon himself, a small, wiry man who is friendly and surprisingly down-to-earth. An orange, tail-less tabby named Bobby will walk up to inspect you and his grown children run the gift shop, which sells Solomon’s wooden sculptures and other gifts for reasonable prices. The “Boat in the Moat” restaurant is your typical lunchtime fare, though the walnut pie is a recipe you’ll beg to take with you.

Paddling the Peace

For a more serene adventure, the Peace River is a short trek from the middle of town and offers half-day or day-long canoe runs. Canoe Outpost shuttle drivers will take you upstream and drop you and your canoe off in the river, where you can lightly glide downstream and gaze at heron, eagles and the occasional lounging alligator.

You also may spot small groups of people near boat ramps, wading knee deep with trowels, snorkel masks and sifting screens. Peace River is a popular spot for fossil hunting, a lesser-known Florida hobby that anyone can do.

Springtime is best, since that’s when the river is clearest, but people hunt year round for tiny bits of ancient artifacts. The most abundant fossils are shark teeth, but many have found mammoth teeth and mastodon teeth, as well as small bones.

There are  the usual river activities – fishing, camping, picnics. During peak tourism seasons and holidays, the Peace River can get busy, so it’s best to call ahead and reserve a kayak or canoe if you’re planning to make a day out of it.

Learning To Relax

Back at Quilter’s Inn, it feels at times as though Detwiler is running a one-woman travel agency for all of Wauchula and the surrounding area. She admits, many Wauchula residents would just as soon keep their little town a secret, preferring the simple life to a hub of commerce and activities.

Still, it’s nice to be free of the pressures of hitting all the hot spots, and it’s the perfect getaway if you only have a day or two to spare. At Quilter’s Inn, visitors can sit on the wraparound porch, sipping wine and reading about the wedding of two local farmers’ kids in the newspaper.

Not all tourists are able to sit still long enough to enjoy the simple oddities of this rural Florida town. But for those that do, it is worth it.

Continue reading Nothing to Do in Wauchula, You Say? Relax »

The Hatching Festival at Gatorama is Aug. 18-27

Everyone, I'm putting out a cool event alert! Check it out – it's time for the Hatching Festival at Gatorama, so make sure to get this somewhere on your schedule during the next two weeks. The event runs from Aug.18-27.

What happens at an alligator hatching festival, you say? Well, over the course of the event, thousands of little gators will emerge from their eggs, which is pretty amazing to watch. The hatching program is included with your regular admission to Gatorama, and for an extra ten bucks you can participate in the Hatch and Hold program. That means a little baby gator will emerge from its shell right in the palm of your hand. Neat!

Gatorama is located on Highway 27 in Palmdale, which is about 40 miles south of Sebring. For more information on the Hatching Festival, visit Have fun!

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Video: Rainy Day at Rock Springs Run

Since it's summertime in Florida, you can pretty much bet that there will be a rainstorm in the afternoon hours. I'm kind of a fan of being out in the woods during light rains, and a few weeks ago I found myself enjoying one of the coolest (literally) places near Orlando. On most days, Rock Springs Run at Apopka's Kelly Park is loaded with swimmers and tubers, but I had the place all to myself for a little while. 

Check out the video for a little slice of summertime serenity, and here's a tip if you are headed to Kelly Park: arrive early. This park will fill to capacity during the dog days of summer, and no one likes to get the 'ol palm of denial by the person working the gate. Yes, I've had that happen a time or two.

Point your Internet browser at the Orange County Parks and Recreation page for more information, including the address, phone number and a list of awesome things to do at Kelly Park. Have fun!

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Lake County’s Wings and Wildflowers Festival is Sept. 28-30

Birders and nature lovers, get ready – it's almost time for the Lake County Wings and Wildflowers Festival! The festival happens on Sept. 28-30, and offers attendees the chance to get up close and personal with some of the area's outstanding flora and fauna.

The event features plenty of different guided field trips, workshops and other adventures. It's not all land-based activities, either – the Wings and Wildflowers festival has lots of boat and kayak trips on the schedule, too. There are photography workshops, a family nature hike, guided Florida scrub-jay outings, and lots of Florida native plant and wildflower seminars.

The keynote speaker for the Wings and Wildflowers Festival is James Currie, host of Nikon's TV show, Birding Adventures and National Geographic's Aerial Assassins. James is originally from South Africa, and lives in West Palm Beach.

For more information on the festival, check out See you there!

Continue reading Lake County’s Wings and Wildflowers Festival is Sept. 28-30 »