We spent almost two months in Florida so I decided to divide my Florida blogs into three parts: Orlando (stayed one week), Everglades (stayed one week), and everything else. This is the everything else blog! Grab a glass a wine or a craft beer and settle in for a long post:)
Generally, Florida is not beautiful compared to the other areas we have seen around the country. The area was surprisingly swampy, or sandy and flat, and the middle of the state is undeveloped in many places. Many areas reminded me of Orange County, California and not in a good way. The east side of the state, as a whole, had a feeling like Beach Boulevard – mile after mile of older strip malls with generic stores. Unfortunately, many of these were closed for business. The west side of the state was like South Orange County with track homes/condos and also mile after mile of newer strip malls with upscale generic stores. The economy seemed to be faring better on the west side of the state. Florida felt divided with have’s or the 1% on the west side and the have not’s or the 99% on the east side with some exceptions on both sides of the state. The Gulf coast in the panhandle was hit hard, with many homes for sale; some areas had at least 75% of the homes listed! The Grayton Beach area was the exception in the Gulf Area and seemed to do well despite the economy.
As far as beaches go, I find California beaches to be more active and have more amenities like biking, rollerblading, street performers, and restaurants, and Oregon beaches to be more beautiful than anything we saw in Florida. I was hoping to discover a lot of large seashells but we enjoyed finding some small shells on the shores of the Atlantic Ocean (and the Gulf of Mexico), but shells were not as prevalent as I remember when I was a kid going to Ocean City, New Jersey each summer.
All and all, we did enjoy our time here. The weather was great! The people were nice. The state parks were excellent and the best we stayed in any state – clean, numerous, interesting (usually), and inexpensive. Plus, they have laundry facilities in each state park! We did a lot of varied and interesting things in the state of Florida.
First, we immediately learned about the European history in the development of early America and while most of us learn about the Nina, the Pinto, and the Santa Maria in elementary school as the start of the European beginning in North America, it is far from the truth. Spain and then France had already staked land claims and built forts in North America in Florida, Louisiana, and much of the west long before England arrived. England sent a commercial venture to Virginia to seek their own fortune and to stake their claim up north before Spain or France could migrate north. The first English settlers were NOT escaping religious persecution but looking for riches and to expand their territory.
Of course, Native Americans were here first for thousands of years before anyone from Europe arrived. Florida did a good job displaying the historical past of the Native Americans in this part of the country (only Virginia, Mississippi, North Carolina and South Dakota had done a good job of discussing Native Americans in North America, that we have experienced so far). I know as we head back out west that many state also have good information on the Native Americans. As a side note, it is interesting to see how different tribes lived based on local available resources: food, clothes, and shelter varied a lot depending on where they lived in the country.
Our first stop was the Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve. This national park emphasized history, discussing the Timucuan Indians who were native to that specific area and the plantation/slave era during the Spanish domination. The Spaniards treated their slaves more like indentured servants. The slaves were given a specific task (still back-breaking in many cases) and when they were finished, the slaves could spend the rest of the day doing what they wanted. Later on when the United States was formed, the treatment of the slaves became very harsh and we were only one of three countries left in the world using slaves at the start of the Civil War since Europe had moved away from this arcane and brutal system (although, John read somewhere that there are MORE slaves today than at any time in history – I do not know about this so I cannot speak about this subject. I do know that CNN is doing a series about it).
Our second stop was Jacksonville. I took the boys to the Jacksonville Zoo and we all enjoyed it while John took a special ”Beermaster” tour at the Budweiser facility.
We headed down the coast and went to St. Augustine. St. Augustine is a wonderful, beautiful city with a lot of character and I would definitely recommend stopping here if you can. They have great restaurants and shops with a lot of fun festivals sprinkled throughout the year. St. Augustine is the oldest city in the continental U.S. founded by the Spaniards in 1565 (Jamestown was established in 1607 as the first English settlement in North America). We visited Castillo De San Marcos where we got to see another cannon firing but this time the instructions were all in Spanish. We also took a small boat over to visit Fort Mantzas and it was an interesting site. The boys got to climb up a ladder to a two-story roof overlooking the inlet.
We sadly left St. Augustine and headed down the coast to Cape Canaveral National Seashore. Overall, we were not impressed with this national park because it was hard to find parking and to drive around and it was not as pretty as other beaches we had seen. However, armadillos and tortoises walked around all over while we were here so that was neat and we learned about early residents. Plus, as we drove closer to Kennedy Space Center, we also spotted manatees and dolphins.
The next day we headed to Kennedy Space Center and we all had a great time. The tickets were somewhat pricey and my sister and her husband paid for us to have a lunch with an astronaut (an extra cost) and that was a neat experience. However, I would not necessarily recommend the lunch because of the time and cost involved and it caused us to miss several exhibits. It was another emotional connection for me – like I had at Mount Rushmore – that made me proud to be an American. We have accomplished some amazing things as a country, and we have had some accomplished citizens throughout our history.
Our next important stop was at the Savannas State Park Preserve; the surrounding area (Port St. Lucie) was awful, really run-down, but we had a great Christmas here. First, it was relaxing; we went biking and canoeing. We also played with the new toys that had been sent from family members. Second, it was interesting; each night alligators would come up to smell (try to steal) our BBQ. It was our first close-up experience with gators (many more to come) and it was scary at first. The first night John ran in and said, “I think there are alligators in the water”. It was dark, so we got flashlights and sure enough, glowing eyes bounced off the light…scary! They were only about 6 feet from the BBQ! The second night we decided to cook earlier in the day, so we could see them, and we got some great photographs. The third night we cooked indoors:) Every night we would open our windows and be serenaded by alligators, frogs/toads, and owls (I wish we recorded it…it was very relaxing).
We headed quickly down to the Florida Keys to spend the week between December 26 – January 3. Yep, we went to the Keys without reservations (not advisable). We got a spot and stayed even longer than we imagined; it was relaxing! I lived in my bathing suit for an entire week and we watched the sunset every evening. Our campsite backed up to our own spot on the beach. Plus, the boys met friends here and were off to play each day – snorkeling, biking, and playing on the beach. It was probably the most relaxing experience we had on the trip.
We headed next towards the Everglades (separate post since we did so much), so I will write about the west coast of Florida. We did some things that I won’t mention but our favorite beach was on Sanibel Island. We enjoyed many things about Sanibel Island; it was pretty, had nice beaches and a laid back feel, we collected a lot of shells, dogs were allowed on the beach, and it had a lot of nice restaurants and shops. Unfortunately, it did not an RV campground where DOGS were allowed so we had to leave after spending the day. Our favorite state park to-date was also on this side of the state, Myakka River State Park. The park was clean with a great campsite but it also had a lot of things to do and see. We went biking, canopy hiking, birding, and touring on the world’s biggest air boat.
On the west coast, we also went to Museum of Science and Industry (MOSI) in Tampa and it was definitely one of the better science museums on the trip (too bad we missed the chocolate festival by a few days). We would head to Orlando to meet my mother-in-law for one week (separate post to come). After Orlando, we headed back to the west coast and visited the panhandle of Florida.
We went to the capitol, Tallahassee (one of only four skyscraper capitols in the country). While we were in Tallahassee, we went to the history museum. We headed to the Gulf and it was grim…lot of homes for sale and businesses that were shuttered. We did meet two more families traveling indefinitely with kids (our fourth family in Florida). We liked Grayton Beach State Park because it was close to grocery stores and the beach and our kids met more kids to play with. After a few days at Grayton SP, we pushed on to Pensacola and went to Gulf Island National Seashore. In Pensacola, we toured two forts, went to one brewery, then went to the National Naval Aviation Museum (twice) and took two (of three) volunteer-led tours.
All and all, we enjoyed Florida and experienced a variety of things (zoo, museums, beaches, national parks, Disney World, and Kennedy Space Center), met new friends, viewed a lot of wildlife, and enjoyed the state parks (more than anywhere else). However, there were long stretches of land that were ugly and/or depressed. If you only had a short time to visit Florida, I would recommend St. Augustine (history and tourism), Everglades (wildlife), or Sanibel Island (beach, laid-back). I guess if you have kids, you might have to stop in Orlando, but I cannot say I would highly recommend it.