Looking for the good stuff in Florida? Ask someone who lives there. We did, from a muralist to a socialite to a political pundit. Here’s what people around the state love about where they live.
Time travel in St. Augustine
“Middling to considling,’’ Gerald Eubanks might reply to your hi-how-are-ya. It means, “I’m doing fine.’’ Eubanks, an actor and activist, says, “When I cross the Bridge of Lions and look down on our country’s first city, I’m amazed by its European feel.’’ He shows visitors Fort Mose on US-1, where a century before the Emancipation Proclamation, slaves came on the Underground Railroad to gain freedom in Spanish Florida (www.fortmose.org
). Then he shows them around “home,’’ an area they settled and named Africa - today’s Lincolnville neighborhood between King and Bridge streets, on the National Register of Historic Places.
“It’s back in time but you can walk out of it, that’s the hook,’’ says Brian Thompson, who lives in Lincolnville, too. Flagler College, where he teaches, is the star of every carriage tour, housed in what was formerly tycoon Henry Flagler’s palatial Gilded Age hotel. “Wander and talk to people. St. Augustine loves to chat back,’’ Thompson says. He names Casa Maya “my favorite downtown hole-in-the-wall restaurant.’’ On the beach: “Café Eleven. It’s a great music scene with a young crowd’’ (www.cafeeleven.com). At dusk: “The rooftop at San Sebastian Winery, listening to jazz and watching the sun set’’ (www.sansebastianwinery.com).
Dive into the Keys
“What should you do here? Come learn to be a diver,’’ says diver par excellence Wyland, who shares what he sees underwater in his art. As you approach Key Largo on the Overseas Highway, a scene of manatees and bottlenose dolphins grabs your eye, one of over 100 “whaling walls’’ he’s painted around the world. “I’ve had the Keys disease since high school,’’ says the artist, who spends most of his Keys time underwater in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary (floridakeys.noaa.gov
). “I’ve been diving the world’s oceans for 25 years and this is some of the best.’’ Wyland recommends Islamorada’s Ziggie & Mad Dog’s, “The best rib eye you ever had’’ (www.ziggieandmaddogs.com
). Key lime pie? “Snapper’s. Tell them I sent you’’ (www.snapperskeylargo.com
Life’s a theme in Orlando
“I live in the coolest neighborhood,’’ says Shaina Singer, 17, whose home backs up to SeaWorld in southeast Orlando. Singer grew up with Shamu the Orca and has visited Disney
World “at last count over 100 times.’’ What attracted her at different ages? “When I was tiny, it was the characters: Oh my gosh, it’s Tinker Bell. Later I insisted on seeing Beauty and the Beast at Hollywood Studios every time we went. My brother was, like, Do we have to?’’
Then it was the rides. Singer likes Expedition Everest in the Animal Kingdom park: “You ride to the top and encounter the Yeti [Abominable Snowman]’’ (www.disney.go.com). She sends hard-core thrill seekers to Universal’s Islands of Adventure theme park (www.universalorlando.com), and reserves her highest accolades for SeaWorld’s Manta (www.seaworld.com). “It’s awesome. You hang facedown from your stomach and it feels like you’re flying.’’ She saves by bringing her own food to the parks and buying her Disney souvenirs at area Super Wal-Marts. Can the long lines be avoided? “Once I was there during a hurricane. The tourists cleared out and there was no wait at all.’’ Otherwise, no.
Lounge around Miami
When he’s not in the party pages or on reality TV, Fabian Basabe may be greeting patrons at his Coral Gables restaurant, Da Vittorio. The “It Kid,’’ now a husband and new father, has turned the old boarded up La Bussola into a classic Italian bistro with chef Vittorio Lozzi at his side (www.davittoriorestaurant.com
Basabe tells out-of-town guests, “Stay at the Standard. It’s an oasis, a shack on Biscayne Bay with beautiful people and good food’’ (www.standardhotels.com/miami). But don’t get too comfy: “You have to do the Miami thing. Visit Old Havana, Café Versailles, Calle Ocho, the Latin supper club experience.’’ And the South Beach thing: “Lounges have become very cool. Bardot is brand new with ’70s furniture and 10-piece live bands. It’s the coolest place in Miami now’’ (bardotmiami.com). Hanging out and people watching: “Mark Soyka’s News Café on Ocean Drive - it’s open 24 hours - and his other place, Soyka, in the Design District’’ (newscafe.com, www.soykacafe.com). A personal favorite? “I love dive bars. At Club Deuce on 14th Street you’re going to find anyone from Keith Richards to a homeless guy. It’s serious liquor - order a Cosmo and you’ll get thrown out.’’
Retreat to Anna Maria Island
“If you came to visit me, I’d take you straight to the beach,’’ says Rhea Chiles, Florida’s former first lady. For her and her late husband, Lawton - known as “Walkin’ Lawton’’ for his gubernatorial campaign walk from Pensacola to Key West - Anna Maria was a haven from political life. “This place transcends thought and words,’’ Chiles says of the island, 3 miles long by a quarter-mile wide (www.annamariaislandchamber.org
). “It’s still one wide, noncommercialized beach. Go to the Sandbar Restaurant, order the wasabi-encrusted salmon, and wiggle your feet in the sand.’’ Chiles’s Studio at Gulf and Pine serves as artistic and intellectual salon (www.studioatgulfandpine.com
). “We have one small thread of a bridge leading to mainland Sarasota,’’ she says, but visitors seldom take it. “They come for the beach experience. It’s a feeling there’s no place you’d rather be.’’
Loop around Daytona Beach
“People expect a particular level of tourist tackiness from Daytona,’’ says Mark Lane, a Daytona Beach News-Journal columnist who weighs in on everything from politics to tough-love gardening. Lane surprises visitors with a bike ride around the Ormond Scenic Loop and Trail. “It’s 30 miles of back roads through live oaks and lovely marshlands (www.ormondscenicloopandtrail.com
). I take a slightly longer variant to Flagler Beach and stop at The Golden Lion Cafe. It has a roof deck where you can watch the surfers and have a beer’’ (www.goldenlioncafe.com
Thirty miles away, De Leon Springs State Park “has nothing to do with Ponce de Leon’’ and the Old Spanish Sugar Mill “isn’t from Spanish times and was likely never a sugar mill.’’ But the electric-powered mill stones grind flour for pancake batter. “Each table has a griddle so you can pour and cook your own. It’s delightful’’ (www.planetdeland.com/sugarmill).
At nearby Blue Spring State Park, the water is a constant 72 degrees. “The manatees come around Christmas and stay until spring. You might see 20 or 40 of these inert, cowlike creatures in water that’s extremely clear,’’ Lane says (www.floridastateparks.org/bluespring/default.cfm). Just don’t expect lots of action: “The last time I was there, I overheard a child ask his parents, ‘Are they alive?’ ’’
Forever young in St. Pete Beach
It’s not your grandparents’ St. Pete on a crawl with Pete Gallagher. “We have an acoustic music scene that surpasses Austin,’’ says the folk show host on community radio station WMNF 88.5 FM. “Downtown is really cool. Park your car and walk to blocks of eclectic restaurants and bars.’’ A favorite hangout: “The Flamingo Bar on 9th Avenue North, where Jack Kerouac had his last drink. The best sushi in town is right next door at Hook’s.’’ (www.hookssushi.com
). Beachside: “Treasure Island, especially the southern tip, where the bars cozy up to the water, and the Sloppy Pelican on St. Pete Beach (www.sloppypelican.com
). It has a spectacular view of the gulf and great Florida performers.’’ For kids: “Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary is the country’s largest wild bird hospital, and it’s free.’’ (www.seabirdsanctuary.com
). Grouper sandwich? “Billy’s Stone Crab, Seafood & Steak in Tierra Verde. Lumpy homemade mashed potatoes and fish caught fresh every day’’ (www.billysstonecrab.com
Invent yourself in northwest Florida
Seaside was the first and most famous of the planned communities that sprouted in South Walton County in the 1980s (www.sowal.com
). If you only know it as the film set of the “The Truman Show,’’ you’ll be happily surprised. “From nothing but palmettos and sand, we’ve raised a generation of artists and appreciators,’’ says Eileen West, whose gallery of outsider art anchors Seaside’s Ruskin Place (www.eileenwestgallery.net
What should you do here? “Grab a rental on the beach. The sand looks like snow, the water’s emerald and deep blue, and we have these dune lakes that are geologically exquisite.’’ Grayton Beach is “the local mecca for bonfires and families.’’ The Red Bar there: “An institution. By day it’s a beach bar. At night, big bands play butt-rockin’ music in the back room’’ (www.theredbar.com). Some of that music is performed by West’s husband, Franko “Washboard’’ Jackson. Recently the couple helped kick off the first 30A Songwriter’s Festival with more than 75 regional bands playing up and down the strip.
The area is relatively new to the outside world and its beach towns are still inventing themselves.
“It’s a work in progress,’’ says West. “Start with tabula rasa and build what you want.’’
Patricia Borns can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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