You can wade the flats of St. Joseph Bay for fishing, or rent a kayak at St. Joseph Peninsula State Park and float them.
It's almost November, and that means it's manatee season here in the Sunshine State. Some of our favorite winter residents have returned from spending time in the open waters around Florida and are heading back into springs, where the water is nice and warm.
This is a wonderful time to visit with the manateees, so I want to share with you a great guide for human-manatee interaction: The manatee manners video available in several languages on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service website, www.fws.gov/crystalriver.
Swimming and kayaking with these endangered animals is an experience unlike any other. Think about it: How many wild creatures can you safely get this close to? Many first-timers come out of the water amazed and say they have a new appreciation for these gentle giants.
If you plan to take a guided tour, you can have a better experience (and impress your guide!) by learning these manatee manners ahead of time.
You can always count on our state parks to bring holiday festivities to residents and visitors alike, and Halloween is no exception. To see activities at all of the state parks, visit www.floridastateparks.org. Here is just a small samping of the activities going on in the next few days:
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."
"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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Every few weeks, sometimes as often as a couple of times a month, a visitor to Jacksonville's Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve approaches a park employee with this tantalizing promise:
"I know where the fort is."
Park Ranger Craig Morris knows better. The search for the physical remains of Fort Caroline, established by the French in 1564 and taken over by the Spanish just a couple of years later, has confounded researchers for generations. Aerial surveys and archaeological digs have done little to pinpoint its location.
Guidance from helpful park visitors hasn't helped either.
"If we spent all our time chasing down every person's idea of where Fort Caroline is, we'd get nothing done," Morris says. "It's one of Florida's great archaeological mysteries."
Day Trips on the Spanish Heritage Trail:
Today, the preserve is home to a replica of the fort, based on sketches of the 16th century structure and believed to be a one-third scale model of the original. It is surrounded by hiking trails and other noteworthy historical sites on the 46,000-acre preserve (12713 Fort Caroline Rd., Jacksonville, 904-641-7155, nps.gov/timu).
In addition to the fort replica – which features interpretive exhibits that share the history of the explorers and freedom seekers who settled there – the Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve includes the Theodore Roosevelt Area, with five different Florida ecosystems visible in one hike; the Fort George Island Visitor Center, which describes the natural and cultural history of the preserve's island home; and Kingsley Plantation, which includes the oldest standing plantation house in Florida as well as several original slave cabins.
Yet the highlight remains the fort commonly thought of as Jacksonville's "Atlantis." The search has been stymied partly because the fort's originators didn't want to be found.
"Back in that time period, the cartographers that were making maps weren't necessarily honest about where they were placing their fort," says John Whitehurst, the staff archaeologist and historian at the Timucuan preserve. "The maps were of a new land mass, and everybody was trying to establish some kind of dominance. You didn't want to give your enemies an exact location for where you were landing."
The French first arrived at the mouth of the St. Johns River in 1562, when Jean Ribault led an exploratory expedition to the region. France was initially interested in the Americas to keep up with Spain, the world superpower of the day. But French colonization efforts became more intense with growing persecution of French Protestants, or Huguenots, and their most powerful member – Admiral Gaspard de Coligny – proposed establishing an American colony as a refuge.
"I'm passionate about the story of these freedom-seeking people who came here to Fort Caroline," Morris says. "They were the first people to cross the ocean to the new world with the goal of seeking something you can't touch: freedom of religion and self-government."
Ribault returned to the region in 1565 with reinforcement supplies for the fort. But when the Spanish learned Ribault was returning to northeast Florida, Philip II of Spain dispatched Admiral Pedro Menendez to set up a post at what the Spanish called San Agustin, or modern-day St. Augustine.
Ribault sailed to attack the Spanish, but a hurricane wreaked havoc on his mission, and Menendez marched to Fort Caroline through the storm to take it over.
"The hurricane changed history, quite literally," Morris says.
To round out a visit to Timucuan preserve, try these stops:
In this state park (13802 Pumpkin Hill Rd., Jacksonville, 904-696-5980, floridastateparks.org/bigtalbotisland), the skeletal remains of live oak and cedar trees rise from the beach, creating a majestic and unusual scene at a spot called Boneyard Beach. The effects of weather and erosion have created this effect, turning trees that once grew near the ocean into curiosities for beachophiles on the lookout for a new view.
Boaters can launch from the island's north side to cruise the salt marsh. Nature lovers can also drop a kayak in the water, available for rent through Kayak Amelia, 888-30-KAYAK (305-2925).
After a day spent exploring natural Florida, head to nearby Fernandina Beach, another northeast Florida locale with a history influenced by the French, British and Spanish colonizers.
The city, named after King Ferdinand VII of Spain, is located on an island the Spanish called Isla de Santa Maria, though the British name is the one that stuck: Amelia Island.
Fernandina Beach, known for its striking late 19th century architecture and bustling historic business district, came into its own during the railroad boom years.
Today, the old waterfront train depot – originally the eastern end of Florida's first cross-state railroad – is home to the Amelia Island Tourist Development Council (102 Centre St., 904-277-0717, ameliaisland.com). A stop at the depot for a walking tour map of Fernandina Beach is a good place to start a downtown visit.
The city's main street, Centre Street, is lined with thriving boutiques, restaurants and bookstores. And don't forget the charming numbered side streets, such as South Third Street, where you'll find eateries such as Kelley's Courtyard Cafe (19 S. Third St., Fernandina Beach, 904-432-8213, kelleyscourtyardcafe.com). Open for lunch and dinner, the cafe offers an inventive menu and expansive outdoor seating area.
I never get tired of watching these birds. No matter where you are in Florida, chances are you've seen Sandhill cranes. Usually, you'll see them in small groups, but if you're lucky you might happen upon a group of several hundred. I had the good fortune to see a group like this a few years ago, and it was one of the most amazing wildlife experiences I've had.
Side note: Here at the Mims homestead, we are in the process of packing, selling and basically parting ways with most of our earthly possesions. We'll pack up a few boxes in a storage unit, and begin our adventure in a slightly older 27-foot Fleetwood Class A RV. Stay tuned for cool stuff from all around the state!
Let's get back to Fort Cooper State Park and the cranes, shall we? This is one of my favorite places near Inverness. I usually grab a to-go lunch and take up a seat by the lake for a little wildlife entertainment while I eat. Fort Cooper State Park doesn't lack in the wildlife department, either – I often see plenty of deer, a few small gators, all manner of wading birds – and cranes, of course.
Check out the video above for an idea of my usual entertainment at Fort Cooper State Park. For more information, visit www.floridastateparks.org/fortcooper.