By Thomas Swick
Summer is a great time to drive around our state. With the snowbirds gone and your neighbors up in North Carolina, the roads are as sane as they can ever be. It’s easy finding rooms and tables and short waits, if any, in line. Because of the temperatures, the soupiness, the Wagnerian thunderstorms, you see the state at its defining moment. And no matter where you go, you’re never far from water.
Key Largo to Key West
Driving the Overseas Highway through the Keys you’re not only near water, you’re occasionally over it (as the road’s name suggests) – a phenomenon that makes this Florida’s most scenic drive, our sea-level equivalent of the Pacific Coast Highway. Instead of mountains there are two major bodies of water, so that on stretches, like the Seven Mile Bridge, you get to feel like Harry Nilsson “skipping over the ocean, like a stone.” Rarely does an automobile figure into a sky-and-water world.
The first time you drive through the Keys you’re unprepared for this near-turning of your vehicle into a vessel. The blue openness, the reflected – and unobstructed – light, the salt air in your face (even in July, it’s hard to keep your windows closed) signal another reality, which of course is the perfect message for anyone bound for Key West.
On subsequent drives you’re still moved by it all (if not with your initial sense of discovery), and – because you know what awaits – you take your time and savor it more. You stop in Islamorada for mahi fish tacos at The Beach Café at Morada Bay, sitting, if you wish, with your feet in the sand. How many American drives offer beach lunches? You can save Pierre’s, or the Green Turtle Inn, for the drive home.
If you’re feeling sleepy – perhaps you sipped a mango mojito at lunch – you might want to get a room at Hawks Cay Resort, where you can swim with dolphins at the hotel’s research facility, or, a little farther south, at Little Palm Island Resort & Spa, which occupies its own private island. (Though, even in summer, it’s best to book ahead at both places.)
No matter how many stops you make, the highway will take you eventually into Key West, which none of the other Keys – Plantation, Big Pine, Sugarloaf, not even Conch or Little Conch – has prepared you for. Suddenly seascapes are replaced by two-story houses; shrubs give way to white picket fences. Your car crawls gratefully down tree-lined streets. Chairs occupy porches and people chat on sidewalks. Your long, water-rich drive has deposited you in a town made for walking.
Naples to Venice (The Pseudo-Italian Route)
The quiet west coast is even more somnolent in summer, especially if you get off I-75. You can lollygag your way north, visiting the winter homes of Thomas Edison and Henry Ford in Fort Myers, and then enjoy a meal at Skip One Seafood Restaurant, a wonderful roadside eatery that claims to have the largest fleet of shrimp boats in the state.
North of Fort Myers, take a little detour west and visit Matlacha (pronounced “MAT-la-shay”), an unexpected strip of brightly painted galleries and cafes. The art is as colorful as the town. You can drive onto Pine Island and take a boat over to Cabbage Key, where lunch at the Cabbage Key Inn is served in a room dripping (literally) with one dollar bills.
Back on the road, head north to Punta Gorda, with its attractive downtown, and then loop back down to Gasparilla Island to spend the night in one of Florida’s great old hotels. The Gasparilla Inn lords over Boca Grande (and you thought we were the Hispanic part of the state) with high yellow walls and tall white columns.
The golf cart is a popular means of transportation. The lighthouse makes up in photographs what it lacks in height, chronicling the town’s fame as a tarpon fishing center. You’d love to catch-and-release, but the open road calls.
Hugging the coast, you come into Englewood and then onto Manasota Key and the aptly named Canopy Road with its shade trees, dense foliage and only partially hidden houses which, you suspect, are probably not all occupied year round.
Venice, up ahead, is a pleasant town rich in retirees, some of whom get up early and search for shark teeth on the beach. If you don’t find any you can buy some in a store downtown. The main street (East Venice Avenue) dead ends in the west in the Gulf of Mexico and in the east at the Myakka River, on whose banks sits another great seafood restaurant, Snook Haven. Claim a picnic table under live oak trees dripping Spanish moss and gaze across at the jungly banks on the other side. Eating your catfish sandwich with warm, homemade potato chips, you can feel is if you’ve discovered the fountain of happiness.
Vero Beach to St. Augustine
Dodgertown is back, as the Los Angeles ball club’s old spring training facilities are now being used for soccer matches, college softball games, and even Canadian Football League minicamps. If you miss any of these, it’s still worth spending a night or two at the beachfront Driftwood Resort, built seemingly out of the material for which it’s named by the father of Vero Beach tourism, Waldo Sexton. (It is now on the National Register of Historic Places.)
Heading north on A1A, you can stay on the barrier islands – admiring the ocean, stopping to fish off a jetty at Sebastian Inlet State Park, watching the surfers (riding the biggest waves in Florida). Follow the scenic road all the way up to Cape Canaveral, where you’re just minutes away from the excellent exhibits at the Kennedy Space Center.
Leaving more knowledgeable than when you arrived, you take Route 1 north through New Smyrna Beach, home to the Atlantic Center for the Arts (an artists’ community and arts education facility). At Port Orange you can make your way back to the more soothing A1A, which will carry you into Daytona Beach where, should you wish (and you should), you can leave the asphalt and drive on the sand.
Another ocean-bordered stretch takes you into Flagler Beach, a sign that you’re getting close to St. Augustine, which is more the city of modern Florida’s founder than it is that of Ponce de Leon. Visit the Casa Monica Hotel, built in 1888 and purchased soon after by Henry Flagler, who already had two hotels in town (which today house Flagler College and City Hall). You might even want to have dinner in the elegant restaurant – you must be famished.
Apalachicola to Pensacola (The Cola Route)
The Gibson Inn is as good a place to start as any, a fine old hostelry built in 1907 with a widow’s walk and wrap-around porches. After a stroll around the lovely town, hop in your car and point it west. You’ll pass through Port St. Joe and then Panama City, where March’s spring breakers have been replaced by vacationing families. You can stop and challenge them to a game of miniature golf.
Seaside once appeared like a mirage on this coast – a stylish New England village painted in pastels and set down in the middle of what was then called the “Redneck Riviera.” But its success inspired imitations, which you’ll pass before you reach the real thing. (It also served as the setting for a movie: The Truman Show.)
Age, if anything, has improved the planned beachside town – an early example of New Urbanism – giving it a more lived-in look (even though many of the residents use it as their second home). There are shops, restaurants (offering everything from new Southern cuisine to tacos to Southeast Asian inspired street food), concerts, theater, and one of the prettiest beaches you’ve ever seen.
This is beach country. Your drive now is often past dunes, sea grass and paper white sand. The beaches in the Panhandle have contours, quiet drama and an unexpected brilliance; the beach in Destin is often included on lists of the top ten beaches in the country. That’s right – it’s time to get out of the car and go for a swim.
Refreshed, head west. Gulf Breeze is famous for UFO sightings, or people who claim they once saw UFOs, which is not all that surprising, given the presence nearby of the Naval Air Station. Even if you don’t see any suspicious objects in the sky, you can admire the architecture around Seville Square in downtown Pensacola, or perhaps even catch a concert. Here, at the end of the road – at one end of the state – is something very few Florida cities possess (despite the tremendous Spanish influence): a central plaza. Take a seat and soak in the Euro-Latino ambience.
By Mark Gauert
We never go to Tallahassee for fun.
When we go to Tallahassee – once before the fall semester, once after the spring – we go to take our son to or from Florida State University. We go to shop for the dorm room at Walmart. For groceries at Trader Joe’s. For shoes at Governor’s Square Mall.
When we go to Tallahassee, at the hard end of a six- or seven-hour road trip from South Florida, we go to lift boxes from our car and carry them up flights of dorm stairs. When we leave Tallahassee, we carry them down flights of dorm stairs and back into our car for the hard road trip home. We do this after driving 467 miles up; we do this before driving 467 miles back.
At the end of these days in Tallahassee, because we are too tired for independent thought of our own, we follow our son to his favorite restaurant in town, Mr. Roboto. It is fast, the red curry is delicious and the beer is cold. It is not fine dining, but it’s close to campus and an easy walk from the bus station – which makes for interesting people watching on the outdoor patio. (And sometimes, interesting people from the bus station watch us on the outdoor patio, too).
These are our days, when we go to Tallahassee. They are all business. They are all a blur.
We never go to Tallahassee for fun.
But that changed recently. Changed when our sophomore-becoming-a-junior son moved from a dorm on campus to a furnished apartment off campus. For the first time, we did not have to carry boxes up stairs or down. Everything was already there for him.
For a change, we had time in Tallahassee. We did not have to go shopping at Walmart, or Trader Joe’s or the Governor’s Square Mall. We did not have to eat at the restaurant nearest to campus simply because we were too tired to look anywhere else.
And we found, over a long weekend, that Tallahassee is more than a blur. Tallahassee is an interesting place. An entertaining place. A place worth a drive, even if we were not on a mission to take our son back to school.
We stayed at The Governors Inn, a comfortable hotel (that, fun fact, used to be a stable) a short walk from the Capitol. It’s also near the Tallahassee Downtown Marketplace, where most Saturdays you can start the day with a beignet and shop under Spanish moss-draped oaks for jars of Monticello honey, local produce and warm loaves of Thomasville bread.
We were hungrier than that, so we slipped into the Paisley Café for Liège Belgium waffles – a dish the owner, Kiersten Lee, insists is made with just four ingredients: King Arthur flour, pearl sugar, organic brown eggs and Kerrygold butter. They are as delicious, with a dollop of praline maple syrup, as they are beautiful. “My favorite color,” Lee smiles, “is golden brown.”
We followed the road north out of town to the red-brick main street of nearby Thomasville, Ga., for some antiquing on Broad Street and some Green Hill, Lil’ Moo and Georgia Gouda cheeses (served with raspberry and jalapeño jam) at the Sweet Grass Dairy Cheese Shop. We stopped for hickory and oak-smoked sausage at Bradley’s Country Store, which “stands just as it did in 1927’’ under shady oaks 12 miles out of Tallahassee on the Centerville Road. The four rocking chairs on the front porch were occupied by rockers slowly munching the $5.50 sausage dog, chips and soda special. “Y’all have a good day,’’ Mr. Bradley, the 89-year-old, third-generation Bradley, called on our way back to town. We’d followed the road north, and found the South.
Back in Tallahassee that afternoon, we wandered the well-preserved Goodwood Museum & Gardens, an 1830s-vintage mansion popular today for weddings, with verandas, Spanish-moss-draped oak canopy and enough vintage furniture, porcelain and glassware for a season of Antiques Roadshow. Early copies of Godey’s Lady’s Book 1870, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer line the bookshelf.
But we had adventures of our own.
We took a midnight run out to the Bradfordville Blues Club – on a country road we’re pretty sure must look like a creek bed in daylight. We listened to Victor Wainwright – the “Piana from Savannah” – howl “Baby, come back home” in the night, as the tiny dance floor filled up tight. We heard The Avett Brothers sing 26 of the SRO crowd’s favorite songs, including a four-song encore, at the new Capital City Amphitheater. We sipped Madison Mules (ginger beer, cucumber, Tito’s Handmade Vodka, lime and agave for sweetness) at Madison Social, a new campus hot spot, within sight of the FSU football stadium. It was a kick.
We found fine dining at Nefetari’s Fine Cuisine & Spirits (Jerk Fettuccine Alfredo, Buddha’s Delight and, unexpectedly, belly dancing); The Front Porch (Crab-Crusted Red Grouper over Spicy Red Beans and Rice, Ribeye over Mashed Red Bliss Potatoes and served, expectedly, on a real front porch) and Cypress Restaurant (Sugar Cane Mopped Rib Eye, Cypress Vegan and, apparently, everybody’s favorite place in Tallahassee for a prom or anniversary date). We watched the shucking at Shell Oyster Bar, too – a former Texaco gas station you might not go to unless you knew it’s where locals go. We understood, after filling up on oysters fresh from Apalachicola Bay, cheese grits and hushpuppies.
And just before heading home, we put a cherry on top of it all at Lofty Pursuits, famous for “Public Displays of Confection” since 1993. We sat at the old-fashioned soda fountain, spooning sundaes – watching soda jerks in green aprons, hats and bow ties make root beer floats, egg creams and hard candy – and, though sugar buzzed, had the presence of mind for an independent thought.
We may have to go to Tallahassee to shop for the apartment at Walmart. For groceries at Trader Joe’s. For shoes at the Governor’s Square Mall.
But the next time we go, we’re also going for fun.
Visit Tallahassee, 106 E. Jefferson St., Tallahassee, Fl., 32301,
850-606-2305; 800-628-2866, visittallahassee.com.
STOPS ALONG THE ROAD
415 N. Monroe St., Tallahassee, 850-224-6000, hotelduval.com.
The Governors Inn
209 S. Adams St., Tallahassee, 850-681-6855, thegovinn.org.
Bradfordville Blues Club
7152 Moses Lane, Tallahassee, 850-906-0766, bradfordvilleblues.com.
The Brass Tap
1321 Thomasville Road, Tallahassee, 850-320-6300, (multiple locations, brasstapbeerbar.com).
Level 8 Rooftop Lounge
On the eighth floor of the Hotel Duval, 415 N. Monroe St., Tallahassee, 850-224-6000, hotelduval.com/level-8-lounge.
320 E. Tennessee St., Tallahassee, 850-513-1100, cypressrestaurant.com.
The Front Porch
1215 Thomasville Road, Tallahassee, 850-222-0934, frontporchtallahassee.com.
Nefetari’s Fine Cuisine & Spirits
812 S. Macomb St., Tallahassee, 850-210-0548, new.nefetaris.com.
3596 Kinhega Drive, Tallahassee, 850-894-9919, zbardhis.com.
401 E. Tennessee St., Tallahassee 850-320-6345, TheBackwoodsBistro.com.
705 S. Woodward Ave., #101, Tallahassee, 850-894-6276, madisonsocial.com.
Mr. Roboto Tokyo Grill
1350 W. Tennessee St. Tallahassee, 850-915-0555, other location, see mrrobototokyogrill.com
Shell Oyster Bar
114 Oakland Ave., Tallahassee, 850-224-9919.
The Egg Cafe & Eatery
3740 Austin Davis Ave., Tallahassee, 850-765-0703.
1123 Thomasville Road, Tallahassee, 850-385-7268, thepaisleycafe.com.
1415 Timberlane Road #410, Tallahassee, 850-521-0091, LoftyPursuits.com.
Bradley’s Country Store
10655 Centerville Road, Tallahassee, 850-893-4742, bradleyscountrystore.com.
Capital City Amphitheater at Cascades Park
1001 S. Gadsden St., Tallahassee; box office, 850-671-4700; show information, capitalcityamphitheater.com.
Goodwood Museum & Gardens
1600 Miccosukee Road, Tallahassee, 850-877-4202, GoodwoodMuseum.org.
Sweet Grass Dairy Cheese Shop
123 S. Broad St., Thomasville, Ga., 229-228-6704, sweetgrassdairy.com.
Tallahassee Downtown Marketplace
115 E. Park Ave. (bordered by North Monroe Street, Park Avenue West, Park Avenue East and Adams Street), 850-224-3252, tallahasseedowntown.com. Open 9 a.m.-2 p.m. every Saturday in March through the second weekend in December.
STOPS ALONG THE ROAD
Key Largo to Key West
The Gardens Hotel
526 Angela St., Key West,
Hawks Cay Resort
61 Hawks Cay Blvd., Duck Key,
Little Palm Island Resort & Spa
28500 Overseas Highway, Little Torch Key, 305-872-2524,
The Beach Café at Morada Bay
81600 Overseas Highway,
The Green Turtle Inn
81219 Overseas Highway, Islamorada, 305-664-2006, greenturtlekeys.com.
Pierre’s Lounge & Restaurant
at Morada Bay
81600 Overseas Highway, Islamorada, 305-664-3225
Naples to Venice
Cabbage Key Inn
On Cabbage Key, across from Marker 60 on the Intracoastal Waterway,
The Gasparilla Inn
500 Palm Ave., Boca Grande, 941-964-4500, the-gasparilla-inn.com.
Edison & Ford Winter Estates
2350 McGregor Blvd., Fort Myers, 239-334-7419, edisonfordwinterestates.org.
Skip One Seafood Restaurant
17650 San Carlos Blvd., Fort Myers Beach, 239-454-0220, skiponeseafoodrestaurant.com.
Vero Beach to St. Augustine
Casa Monica Hotel
95 Cordova St., St. Augustine,
3150 Ocean Drive,
for the Arts
1414 Art Center Ave., New Smyrna Beach, 386-427-6975, atlanticcenterforthearts.org.
Kennedy Space Center
SR 405, Kennedy
Sebastian Inlet State Park
9700 S. Highway A1A, Melbourne Beach, 321-984-4852, floridastateparks.org/park/Sebastian-Inlet
Apalachicola to Pensacola (The Cola Route)
The Gibson Inn
51 Ave. C, Apalachicola,
Bud & Alley’s
2236 E. County Road
30-A, Seaside, 850-231-5900, budandalleys.com