Travel

On finding room in the state of Florida

... Occasional ice and snow make southern vacations that much sweeter.

Isaac Strickland

A Melrosian from the Sunshine State tells you where to go ...


Florida, in winter? Yes and No. It definitely has pluses, but it has some pretty significant minuses.

If you read the "North Weekly" section in the Boston Sunday Globe recently, there was a pretty good presentation of the yeas and nays on wintering in the sunny south. The editor sent one reporter to Florida to do a story on Massachusetts winter expatriots there, then dispatched another to talk to group of area folks who'd rather fight than switch from New England's glorious winters.

The argument was obvious: those in Florida cheered loudly for their warm, casual life-style, but no louder than those stay-at-home Bay Staters who destain the "mundane life of leisure and non-productivity that seems to prevail in the resthome mentality of January in the South", as one tongue-tied veteran vacationer put it.

There is, however, a happy medium. Rent, go when and where you want, and stay home some times. Simple, less costly -- and refreshing your memory of living in snow and ice only makes those vacations to sunny Florida more appreciated.

That's not to say there isn't much to do in Florida, for the developers realize that, in order to maintain sales quotas, it is necessary to keep the white hairs active and happy. As a result, there is constant shuffleboard, swimming (usually in unison),  slow-motion tennis, boating (if you afford one of the 100,000 dollar cruisers) and bingo. Lots of bingo. And there is endless traffic, usually going a breakneck speed (the natives) or like the tennis game, in slow motion (the white hairs).

There are libraries at each resort, if you can call a collection of tattered paperbacks on a shelf in the sales room a library. The real library system in Florida is state-supported and operated by the individual counties, and is quite good in spite of fiscal limitations. Tell that to Director Dennis Kelley at the Melrose Public Library and see the reaction you get. It's not exactly like Massachusetts, with a network of some three dozen libraries on the north shore alone.

But it is warm. At least below a line that runs across the state from about Tampa to Melbourne or Vero Beach. The orange grove farmers discovered that line in the early 1980's, when two out of three winters absolutely froze them out of business. You can see still, fifteen years later, the remaining groves of skeleton orange trees, all of which are above that Tampa-Melbourne temperate line. Those growers who survived moved south and started planting groves on the northern edge of the Everglades.

Actually no place in Florida, even Key West, is immune from some cold. Just a few years ago the beautifully-flowered boulevard leading to Edison's Mansion in Fort Myers was devastated by the freeze. Everything green, except the pines, turned brown. It looked like the town had caught the plague. (Fort Myers is the next big town north of Naples, which is opposite Miami on the east coast).

We have stayed in Florida on and off for the past eight years, and since I'm kin to some 900 natives, we've been visiting since the 1930s. Accommodations have ranged from a lovely two-bedroom condo on the eighth floor on Perdido Key, just west of Pensacola -- to the rustic luxury of a 1978 mobile home in the funky little old Florida town of Matlacha (pronounced Mat la shay). In between we rented comfortable condos at Bird Bay in Venice, a brand new double-wide at La Casa in Northport, sort of ratty 50 year old accommodations here and there, and dozens of modern motels that have sprung up along the Interstates.



The best winter deal we got was the eighth floor condo at Perdido Key, which was right on the Gulf, only three miles from the Alabama line. Renters were screened, and most of them were retirees from middle America, so that it was peaceful and quiet, and we had just endless miles of bone-white empty beach to roam. Of course Pensacola is a summer resort, and winters are chilly -- below freezing without regularity. The sunny days (not quite as numerous as peninsula Florida) warm up to 65 or 70, so there weren't many swimmers out there.
That condo, owned by a commercial pilot and rented by an in-house agency, came with heat, local telephone, all furnished, modern kitchen -- and magnificent views -- all for $800 a month ($900 now) with a three-month minimum. Further down the key were endless condos, some nice and expensive, some grubby with young and very noisy guests. In any case, it's wise to know what you're getting before you sign the contract. That goes for ANY vacation resort.

But if you're looking for the best beaches in the world, go to Panhandle Florida. The sand has a unique bone white fineness, and the azure blue water of the Gulf is warm and comforting -- in the summer. Those fine beaches extend all the way from Perdido Key eastward to Apalachicola. The action area is between Perdido through Pensacola, east through Fort Walton Beach and Destin.

Two years ago we took off  from Melrose on the spur of the moment -- New Years Day -- and headed south without so much as one reservation. Friends, we had, however, and somehow we pieced together three weeks at Bird Bay in Venice, then found ten more days in a nice double-wide at LaCasa in Northport ($200, furnished), and finally, while strawberry picking near Matlacha, discovered this absolutely marvelous old mobile home, neat as a pin, for only $600 a month. It seems the old Michigan couple who had rented it for years suddenly passed away, and we happened along at the right time. The first night there, the old black and white TV literally blew up, but the landlord (who lived right next door) was there with another one the next morning. There was no cable, but you could sort of recognize three channels from Fort Myers, if you used you imagination.

This was really old Florida. The trailer was right on a little tropical bay, and I could sit in bed and fish right out the back window, had I cared to. We had a pet osprey who surveyed his domain from our telephone pole; I truly believe that that bird would fire a bomb on us purposely if we walked within its range. It was uncanny and one had to be careful.

Matlacha is old Florida. It is off  the beaten track and untouched by strip malls, fast-food spots and tourist traps. It is a fishing village, and several big shrimp boats put in there -- and we were the first to greet them, waving a handful of bills to buy a big sack of fresh shrimp. There are four or five old-timey Florida restaurants, all featuring fresh fish; there's one or two hamburger stands that seem to be rooted into the lush, tropical vegetation. And there is an Indian jewelry shop there that we loved; it's been there for as long as we've been visiting.

In February we gorged ourselves on huge, sweet strawberries, that we picked ourselves. They were such a bargain that we had strawberries on everything, three meals a day. Protein was provided from shrimp and smoked fish from the local market. Veggies were avocadoes, artichokes (from California), local tomatoes and lettuce and onions. One day we had spaghetti with strawberries. Not recommended.

The worst accommodations we've had in Florida were because we were on a really tight budget -- the less we spent, the longer we could stay. But this was in the area of Kissimmee, the town that Disneyworld spawned. Motel row, fast-food row. We'd pay maybe twenty-eight bucks  for a room at the Scotch-Something Inn, and get what we paid for: clean sheets in a dumpy room.

We also like to travel off  the tourist routes, like going east from Pensacola on Route 98, right along the Gulf, through Apalachicola, around the elbow through old Florida towns like Sopchoppy, Panecea, St. Marks and  Perry. This route is it. This is what Florida was like fifty years ago, still unspoiled. And if the red tide ain't in, the oysters in Apalach are the best and biggest you've ever eaten. Oh, my mouth just waters thinkin' of 'em.

There are several oldy motels in Perry where Rt 98 meets old Route 19. The sheets are clean, the rooms okay -- but you've  got to remember these places are part of the history of cracker Florida. Be sure to walk around Perry, it's not very big, and many of the old stores from the first half of this century are still there.

All my Florida kin used to come to Perry to hunt, as far back as I can remember. They'd stay in Uncle Harry's camp on the Inky-Finky River -- Econfinky, that is. It was like a jungle paradise, and everything was built on stilts over the river, including the camp, the walkways, even the outhouse. One day my cousin went to use the throne, and as she sat down, the whole thing caved right through the floor, and she and it ended up swimming with the 'gators. Boy, did she scream somethin' fierce.

As you round the elbow at Perry and start down the peninsula itself, you'll find that there's sort of a war going on between those old motel owners. There's the cracker Florida owners, natives who are still trying to make a 1950 motel pay, and then there's some of the older motels that have been bought up by, ah, strangers, usually foreigners whose peculiar ways and price-cutting methods don't go over too well with the natives. For the family looking for a place to stop, it makes for cheap sleepin'.
Another good town we liked was Crystal River, which boasts some spectacular fresh water springs that in turn provide a haven for manatees. We almost bought a home at the nearby Meadowcrest development a couple of years ago; but in the time it took us to make up our minds, the town suddenly went from sleepy Southern to Fast Food Row. Nevertheless, there are several delightful old restaurants there, if you can search them out. This town is also quite popular for scuba diving, as well as fishing.

Eventually, after you pass through Homosassa and get to Spring Hill, traffic along Route 19 just gets too heavy. The easy riding is over, for you are approaching the northern boundary of the new Florida, where "old" is last year's model and full-blast development is in vogue. You know, there is one hell of a big aquifer flowing under and through that Florida coral, supplied mainly by the Okefenokee Swamp up in Georgia. It's my feeling that all this development is going to just suck the ground dry. One day there's going to be this big whoooshing sound and  all the houses and malls in mid-peninsula Florida will slip into the empty water caverns below.

And that's when the sea begins, once again, to reclaim Florida.


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