This, I think, is what draws people here over and over again: the promise of Eden in bits and pieces. We don’t offer a singular type of paradise as one grand entrée; instead, you can find it in bite-size portions, discover it in slivers and slices around the state, each one situated so that the traveler feels they’ve discovered something new and unique, waiting only for them.
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Bite-sized slices of the real Florida from
Backroads of Paradise: A Journey to Rediscover Old Florida
By Cathy Salustri
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Salty Oysters, Sugar Sand, and Royal Reds
The placid thrill of finding a slice of paradise where I didn’t expect it flows through me when the sea forest opens up and I see the beaches just south of US 98 along the panhandle. Glass meets pale, luminous green, which meets penetrating windswept sand dunes with sand fences. I find sand dollars no bigger than my pinkie. The water is clear, like it isn’t there at all, and it feels so good to be surrounded by all these glassy-green prisms sparkling back up at the sky that I laugh when the waves catch me unaware.
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Rainforest Gardens, Blue Springs, and the Loss of Here
The Kingsley Plantation reminds us our history is every bit as tangled as our present. Zephaniah Kingsley, a slave-trader, used his own ships to bring slaves from Africa to Florida. He also freed one of his slaves when she turned eighteen—after she’d given him three children—and then promptly married her. Hard to tell if they truly loved each other, but he did allow his bride, Anna, to own land. When Kingsley married Anna, Spain ruled Florida, and Spain liked the idea of people freeing their slaves. Spaniards bought slaves—as did, it is significant to note, the Senegalese Mrs. Kingsley—but didn’t espouse the “slavery is forever” school of thought. It makes sense, then, that Spanish Florida had a high number of free black people, and that when the United States assumed responsibility for Florida, the Kingsleys had some cause for concern. Mr. Kingsley, who had no shortage of wealth and influence, championed the idea of manumission—the freeing of one’s slaves—even as he and his wife pragmatically used slaves to work their lands. Today, the nineteenth-century plantation lives on as part of the National Park System.
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Gators, Skunk Apes, and Florida’s Final Frontier
(US 41, Naples to Miami)
The Everglades provides a shocking, glorious example of what most of the Sunshine State looked like centuries before we called it that. Think of the Everglades as Robert Frost did the woods: lovely, dark, and deep, although not deep in the traditional sense. The spongy limestone aquifer teeters dangerously close to the surface.
The Everglades, before we called them such, attracted explorers searching for another type of green: money. Orchid hunters braved the swamp, filling railcars with the blossoms; plume hunters slaughtered blushing pink roseate spoonbills, soft white egrets, and sleek, stylish terns, pushing them toward extinction. Only after plume hunters destroyed roughly 95 percent of the state’s wading shorebird population did state and federal government get involved, passing various laws to protect nongame birds at the turn of the twentieth century.
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Christmas, Nude Beaches, and the Space Program
It’s an odd corner of the state, the smack-dab middle, but as we push west, things really get interesting. It will ultimately open onto lovely expanses of vegetation and roadside food stands and those roadside pulled-pork sandwiches I mentioned. Leafy trees, carefree palms, and stately pines replace popular franchises. Between Clermont and Brooksville, towns offer no tourist attractions but plenty to attract fans of a Florida more filled with greenery than theme parks. This lovely stretch of Florida appears unaltered by citrus, cows, or vegetables. Of course, we are too close to Pasco and Hernando Counties to be completely untouched, but the land feels pristine.
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Dollar General, Florida’s First Dumb Criminals, and a Sunken Rainforest
The road bisects Paynes Prairie, a flat expanse of wetland. The prairie itself is a collection of tight sinkholes covered in grasses, flowers, and plants; the flora filters the rainwater that recharges the state’s main drinking water supply: the Floridan Aquifer. The prairie is home to more than two hundred types of birds, including sandhill cranes and bald eagles. Like so many other undeveloped areas in Florida, here you can easily spot a deer. Unlike so many other undeveloped areas, you also must watch for bison, a possibility so real that the park forbids pets on Bolen Bluff, Cone’s Dike, and the La Chua Trail “due to potential conflict with alligators, snakes, and bison.”
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Shells, Sugar, and 1928
(SR 80 and around Lake Okeechobee)
Florida cowboys. If you don’t spend time in Florida’s inland areas, that may sound odd. Florida doesn’t have cowboys; the West has cowboys. Florida, by comparison, has beaches and sand and Disney. Somewhere between those beaches and the mighty mouse, though, Florida has cows. Lots and lots of cows. Since Ponce de León dropped off the first herd in 1521, Florida’s cattle industry has kept the interior of the state alive. Today, Florida ranks twelfth in the country for the number of beef cows, with 4 million acres of pasture and another 1 million acres of woodland used for grazing.
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Mermaids, Manatees, and Watermelon Queens
Florida springs gurgle and prattle along their way, their blues and greens coalescing to the moonless midnight as they traipse through pine flatwoods, swamps, and hardwood hammocks. At the springheads, though, the halcyon water shimmers with teal sunshine, an aqueous rainbow revealing infinite depths. Fanning Springs State Park fronts the route, offering primitive camping for hikers, bikers, and paddlers. Car travelers can opt for a modern cabin (no pets permitted) or, as we did, head to nearby Manatee Springs State Park for RV camping or tent camping. Either spring offers a glimpse into Florida’s depths, and both feed the Suwannee. I do not trust my ability to outswim a gator quite enough to relax in Florida’s blackwater rivers, but I snorkel, swim, and dive the springs with abandon. Manatees and Fanning Springs alike allow and encourage these things, their crystalline waters the perfect invitation.
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Cotton, Community, and Corn
I find a promising roadside vegetable stand. We stop along the four-lane, divided highway—an anomaly around these quiet, two-lane cotton- and pine-lined roads I’ve quickly grown accustomed to in the inland panhandle—and I get out, eager for peas.
A sun-weathered, stooped-over man with yellow teeth, white hair, and red clay under his ragged fingernails greets me. He and his wife work a makeshift tent at the edge of the parking lot, and they sell not only field peas but also ears of sweet corn and butter beans. He peels an ear of corn like a banana and punctures a golden kernel.
“We call it candy corn,” he says.
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Sour Orange Pie, the Green Swamp, and Strawberry Queens
Plant City still has—as it did in the 1930s—strong ties to berries. The berry industry depends on slightly cool winters for red, juicy fruit. In 1939, Plant City provided the United States with 75 percent of its strawberries grown in the middle of winter. Today, the Florida Strawberry Growers Association asserts that strawberries grown in Hillsborough County (home to Plant City) account for “virtually all” the winter strawberries and 15 percent of all strawberries in the United States. Hillsborough County produces 18 million flats of strawberries every year. Pick-your-own farms abound, as do hydroponic, organic, and traditionally grown berries. Many Floridians—especially those spoiled by berries picked the same morning they arrive at the farmer’s market—will only eat strawberries about two months out of the year, because the rest of the year they come from somewhere else, and after a long road trip, no one—not even the once plump and juicy strawberry—is at its best.
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I don’t understand why everyone—including myself—doesn’t live on this string of limestone pearls streaming off the edge of North America. If I am in love with the whole of Florida, I am obsessed and enchanted with the Keys. Things are different here, different even from the rest of Florida, where things are, admittedly, quite different already. Fishing and diving are the chief industries; they fill the void left by the lack of sandy beaches. The Keys have maybe three beaches, and aside from Bahia Honda, they aren’t noteworthy. The real treasure here waits under the water. For divers, that’s more than poetry, because along with artificial and natural reefs, shipwrecks make the area a beacon for scuba divers and snorkelers.
This is the end of the road, but it’s the beginning of the Caribbean.
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Read more of Cathy Salustri’s adventures through unknown and unexpected corners of the state in Backroads of Paradise: A Journey to Rediscover Old Florida.