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The Florida Series: Chapter 1

Most new visitors to Florida think about Disney World, high-rise condos on Miami Beach, and giant retirement communities with hundreds (or thousands) of inexpensive units that all look the same. Endless golf courses and marinas, everything new, slick and fancy. That view is fairly accurate; but there is a lot more to Florida than that, including many vestiges of "old Florida."

Yes, there are plenty of places where one can lay back and avoid the maddening traffic of the I-95 horror show from Miami to Palm Beach, and steadily creeping northward.

The horse country around Ocala is one, with vast vistas of beautiful pastures and magnificent thoroughbreds munching on them. One can't help but notice that the owners spend more money on maintaining their fences than most people spend on their houses. Further south, central Florida contains several rural areas, like the towns in the Okeechobee area and its waterways. When driving through these areas, one needs to stop, walk around, and try to chat it up with the locals- many of whom were born there and not transplants from "up north." It seems that the further I get into rural areas, the greater my chances of meeting offbeat local characters with great stories to tell.

Palace Saloon in the Famous Prescott Building in Fernandina Beach on Amelia Island

I had the advantage of bringing my boat back and forth from Nantucket to Key Largo every year. Along with the more remote parts of the Intracoastal Waterway, we would frequently stop for the night in places that I wouldn't usually see on any road trip, and there were scores of them. The Old Fernandina district of Fernandina Beach was a perennial favorite, having a commercial dock with cheap diesel prices, a superb fish market, great restaurants, and the venerable Palace Saloon, the oldest bar in Florida. On one trip through, I tied up at the fuel dock after hours, but they offered 24-hour fuel service, just by picking up a direct line phone at the dock. He asked me how much fuel I thought I needed, and he was happy to come down and fill us with about 1,000 gallons. He said he always asked, because a guy once dragged him out of bed at 3 AM, and when he got to the pumps, it turned out the guy needed 15 gallons for his sailboat.

My best buddy, Stu, had accompanied me on this trip, and it was his first time in Fernandina. Now, Stu was a legendary eater. After a few drinks at the Palace, he asked me if there was a good Italian restaurant in town. Of course, there was, but I wanted seafood, so I told him there weren't any. We had a great meal at one of the town's great fish places. Afterward, he wanted to walk around the Historic District, where we came upon the excellent Italian restaurant. "You bastard! You KNEW this place was here! We're going in!" He then proceeded to eat another whole meal, right down to the cannolis. We went back to the Palace for a nightcap, then headed south early the next morning.

The further south one goes on the Waterway, the more "slow zones" one encounters. Some travelers find this boring; in fact, many pay a crew to take their boats south, because they hate the 1,500+ mile trip from the northeast so much. For me, enjoying the trip was more important than getting to the destination. Like they say, "Slow down and smell the coffee." Or rum. Cruising slowly allows you to safely enjoy the scenery and the homes along the Waterway, which range from modest to spectacular. The birds and marine life one sees, especially near the coastal inlets, are always entertaining, sometimes awesome. Dolphins often ply the inland waters near inlets for fish. In open waters, where there are no speed restrictions, the dolphins love to surf in the tall wakes of the larger boats. They are capable of outrunning most of the boats, and sometimes ride the wake right next to you. They will turn their heads towards you, and look right at you, with those intelligent eyes of theirs. One evolutionary theory holds that the ancestors of dolphins eventually adapted to life on land, but finally decided they preferred the sea, and returned to it. All things considered; they seem to have made a good choice.

St Augustine Florida USA city hall and Alcazar Courtyard

Not too far south from Fernandina lies the old Spanish city of St. Augustine, the oldest city not only in Florida, but the United States as well. It was founded in 1565 by Spanish explorers, and was under Spain's control until 1819. Yes, it's a city, but one packed with historical sites, and things to explore. In 1888, the millionaire developer and railroad magnate, Henry Flagler, built his magnificent Ponce de Leon Hotel, now a part of Flagler College. It was built in the Spanish Renaissance style. Flagler eventually ran his railroad all the way to Key West- a future story for this blog. Dazzling architecture abounds, making St. Augustine a tourist mecca, a southern counterpart of the City of Boston. The Spaniards usually built impressive, cannon-laden forts to guard the entrances to the sea from invaders, and Castillo de San Marcos is a prime example, similar to the fort El Morro, which guards the entrance to San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Standing upon the ramparts of these strategically placed forts, one wonders how the captain of any enemy vessel could have the courage (stupidity?) to try and get by the withering cannon fire raining down on them from the rows of defending cannons. It has been carefully preserved, now a National Monument. The city of St. Augustine can rightfully be described as the oldest of old Florida.

Arriving at any of these destinations by boat somehow creates an entirely different perspective than arriving by plane and/or car. Even after a long day's run on the waterway, one tends to arrive a bit tired, but relaxed, and eager to explore all this new place has to offer. Best not to be on a tight schedule, so you can choose to stay an extra day or two, should the area beckon you to explore it further. I used to joke that I knew every great bar and restaurant along the Waterway, and it wasn't far from the truth. I could go on, and I will!

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