PRIME MAGAZINE Travel — 28 July 2017
Five late-summer Florida road trips

By Bonnie Gross

City & Shore PRIME 

Wakullah Springs

A historic state-park lodge near Tallahassee

Just 15 minutes south of Tallahassee, Wakulla Springs State Park feels like a well-preserved heirloom.

Made famous by Tarzan films – not to mention the place the original Creature from the Black Lagoon called home – this immense spring has a big swimming beach, a tall tower from which daredevils dive into the deep clear water, a boat tour, trails and many places to explore nearby.

What makes Wakulla Springs unique, though, is its historic lodge, which is reminiscent of lodges you find in national parks. It dates to 1935 when a famous Floridian, businessman Ed Ball, had it built as a private lodge. (The park is officially named Ed Ball Wakulla Springs State Park.)

The elegant but rustic hotel was built in the Mediterranean Revival style and its most special feature is a spectacular painted beamed ceiling, recently restored, in its huge lobby. There’s a beautiful dining room and an old-fashioned marble soda fountain counter in the snack shop – said to be the longest marble counter in the country – all overlooking the spring.

The dining room is lovely, with reasonably priced food and friendly service. A hearty breakfast is included in the room price.

If you don’t book a room at the lodge, you can experience the place by having a meal in the dining room.

The spring itself – rated “first magnitude’’ for the volume of water discharged – is rimmed with cypress trees, vegetation and wading birds fishing nearby. Years ago, several mastodon bones were found in the spring. (You can see some preserved in the lobby.)

The water temperature is a chilly 70 degrees year round and there’s a diving platform from which the courageous jump into the cold water. Even if you’re not going to jump in, do climb up to the top of the diving tower for a view down into the spring.

The park also offers ranger-led boat tours and – at $8 for adults – they’re a bargain.

Wakullah Springs

A historic state-park lodge near Tallahassee

Just 15 minutes south of Tallahassee, Wakulla Springs State Park feels like a well-preserved heirloom.

Made famous by Tarzan films – not to mention the place the original Creature from the Black Lagoon called home – this immense spring has a big swimming beach, a tall tower from which daredevils dive into the deep clear water, a boat tour, trails and many places to explore nearby.

What makes Wakulla Springs unique, though, is its historic lodge, which is reminiscent of lodges you find in national parks. It dates to 1935 when a famous Floridian, businessman Ed Ball, had it built as a private lodge. (The park is officially named Ed Ball Wakulla Springs State Park.)

The elegant but rustic hotel was built in the Mediterranean Revival style and its most special feature is a spectacular painted beamed ceiling, recently restored, in its huge lobby. There’s a beautiful dining room and an old-fashioned marble soda fountain counter in the snack shop – said to be the longest marble counter in the country – all overlooking the spring.

The dining room is lovely, with reasonably priced food and friendly service. A hearty breakfast is included in the room price.

If you don’t book a room at the lodge, you can experience the place by having a meal in the dining room.

The spring itself – rated “first magnitude’’ for the volume of water discharged – is rimmed with cypress trees, vegetation and wading birds fishing nearby. Years ago, several mastodon bones were found in the spring. (You can see some preserved in the lobby.)

The water temperature is a chilly 70 degrees year round and there’s a diving platform from which the courageous jump into the cold water. Even if you’re not going to jump in, do climb up to the top of the diving tower for a view down into the spring.

The park also offers ranger-led boat tours and – at $8 for adults – they’re a bargain.

Wakullah Springs State Park,
floridastateparks.org/park/Wakulla-Springs.

Wakulla Springs Lodge, wakullaspringslodge.com.

 


Fernandina Beach

Few areas of Florida offer so much
to do as Amelia Island 

Amelia Island and its historic town of Fernandina Beach would be a superb destination if only for the walkable downtown and Victorian architecture.

But Fernandina Beach and Amelia Island have other attractions – a great Civil War-era fort, wide beaches so hard-packed you can bike for miles on them, a historic plantation that’s part of a little-known national park, scenic kayaking, hiking and biking trails and even a perfect spot to watch the sunset over water.

Amelia Island and Fernandina Beach make a great base, too; you could spend days exploring natural settings near Jacksonville.

Fernandina Beach is a small town (population 11,487) with a big history: It has flown the flags of eight different nations, including, in quick succession, France, Spain, Great Britain and then Spain again, all by 1816.

There’s plenty of history preserved, from the Palace Saloon (oldest continually operating bar in Florida); to the 1857 Florida House Inn (Florida’s oldest hotel) to the lighthouse (built 1839, the state’s oldest active lighthouse.)

The Amelia Island region also boasts eight state parks, with camping, hiking, fishing and great beaches and a national park.

Fort Clinch State Park preserves a stunning landscape of sprawling oak trees and a broad beautiful beach. The fort is fun to visit and watch the historical re-enactors on site. Another highlight: The Kingsley Plantation, part of a little known national park called the Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve.

Fernandina Beach has many great dining choices. A favorite is the Salty Pelican Bar & Grill, 12 N. Front St., Fernandina Beach, because it offers good seafood and the best sunset view over the water in town.

Fort Clinch, floridastateparks.org/park/Fort-Clinch.

Timucuan Preserve National Park,
 nps.gov/timu/index.htm.

Salty Pelican Bar & Grill, thesaltypelicanamelia.com.

 


Pass-a-Grille

Unsurpassed beach and charming
town on St. Pete Beach

The soft white sand and blue-green Gulf waters make this one of the most perfect beaches in an area where all the beaches are great. But what sets Pass-a-Grille apart from the other award-winning beaches between St. Pete and Clearwater is the charming Old Florida feel of the historic town.

Pass-a-Grille has more cute bungalows than mansions or hotels, and there are no condo towers. The core of the town is on the National Register of Historic Places and is a block wide, with the beach on one side and the Intracoastal channel on the other.

Surrounded by water on three sides and located at the very end of the barrier island, Pass-a-Grille feels like an island out of another era.

As you cross the bridge to Pass-a-Grille from the mainland, you first come to the Don CeSar Hotel, the pink birthday cake of a hotel built in 1928. “The Don” provides a picturesque backdrop to many beach photos.

North of the Don, St. Pete Beach has a typical condos-and-commerce character. South of the Don, you’re in Pass-a-Grille and it’s quieter, simpler and more natural.

In the middle of the beach area, Pass-a-Grille has a cluster of restaurants – some quite good – and a block-long downtown with some galleries, shops and a few hotels.

A favorite: The popular waterfront Sea Critters Café, 2007 Pass-a-Grille Way, which offers moderately priced fresh fish and tables overlooking the water.

The Don CeSar Hotel, doncesar.com.

Sea Critters Café, seacritterscafe.com.


 

Jupiter

South Florida, with a faraway feel

You could visit Jupiter on a day trip from Broward or South Palm Beach counties, but there’s so much to do here, you might need several days to do it justice.

Jupiter has spectacular beaches, great snorkeling from shore, a picturesque Lighthouse, one of the best kayaking rivers in Florida and several outstanding places to bicycle both on paved trails and through the woods.

Big chunks of the beautiful area have been preserved in public parks – Jonathan Dickinson State Park (with a great boat trip on the Loxahatchee River), Blowing Rocks Preserve (with a spectacular rocky beach with good snorkeling) and Hobe Sound National Wildlife Refuge (with a pristine hidden beach.)

Also, while not undeveloped, Jupiter Island, a 25-mile-long barrier island between Jupiter and Stuart, has just a two-lane road and a population of 1,000, many living in mansions along the ocean. It’s beautiful and a great place to bicycle or drive through.

At the northern end of Jupiter Island, Hobe Sound National Wildlife Refuge occupies the beautiful undeveloped tip of the island. You won’t see any signs pointing to it and you reach it via a dead-end two-lane road, so the spectacular beach here feels like a personal secret. There are five miles of undeveloped shoreline, so you can walk for miles with no condos, no signs and virtually no people.

Another scenic spot is the historic 1860 Jupiter lighthouse, 500 Captain Armour’s Way, Jupiter. It is one of the few Florida lighthouses you can climb; the view from the top is worth the effort.

My favorite restaurant in the area is Guanabanas, 960 N. Highway A1A in Jupiter. The tropical gardens with waterfalls, chickee huts and riverfront views is like a Disney version of an outdoor Florida restaurant.

Jonathan Dickinson State Park,
floridastateparks.org/park/Jonathan-Dickinson.

Blowing Rocks Preserve,
floridarambler.com/florida-best-beaches/blowing-rocks-preserve-beach-jupiter-fl.

Jupiter Lighthouse, jupiterlighthouse.org.

Guanabanas, guanabanas.com.


 

 

Key Largo

It’s all about being near – and in – the water

From the Overseas Highway, Key Largo is a jumble of signs and cluttered commercial development.

The secret to Key Largo is to turn your back to the highway and experience it from the water; or, better yet, in the water.

When choosing a place to stay, make sure there is a beach or an attractive way to enjoy the water, either ocean side or on Florida Bay, because almost anywhere you get in the water here, it’s clear and full of sea life for snorkelers to explore.

Of course, the best snorkeling is on coral reefs, reachable only by boat. That’s easy to do in Key Largo, where the famous underwater park, John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, offers snorkeling trips every day. (There are plenty of other snorkeling outfitters, too.)

When visiting Pennekamp, also try snorkeling off its Cannon Beach, where remnants of an early Spanish shipwreck have been placed about 100 feet off the beach. Fish congregate under and round the sea-life encrusted cannons and anchor. Snorkelers have seen a variety of creatures, including large barracuda and tarpon.

An essential stop when in the Keys is a tiki bar for drinks or dinner, and Key Largo has a great one. Located two blocks off the Overseas Highway at MM 100, Skippers Dockside has a chickee building on an elevated deck with a postcard-like view of a broad canal.

While you sip your rum drink or craft beer or enjoy the fish tacos, you watch fishing charters and diving boats come and go. If you’re really lucky, you might see the African Queen – the actual boat from the 1951 movie starring Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn – steam by and toot its iconic horn. It’s moored a few boats down the canal from Skippers and you can stroll by and see it after you eat.

Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, however, are the reasons Key Large IS Key Largo. The island post office had been known as Rock Harbor. After the 1948 noir classic, area businesses started a petition drive to change the post office name to Key Largo, even though the only aspect of Key Largo to appear in the movie are a few establishing shots. Bogey and Bacall never filmed here.

If you’re a fan, you’ll want to take a cruise on the real African Queen. (It’s not cheap; $49 per person for a 90-minute cruise.)

 

African Queen, africanqueenflkeys.com.

John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, floridastateparks.org/park/Pennekamp.

Skippers Dockside, skippersdockside.com.

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