The thought of Florida always conjures up images of brash Miami Beaches, theme parks in Orlando and arts in Tampa. We yearned to step off the beaten track and explore the natural coastline and state parks.
Flying direct from Gatwick into Tampa on the West coast we picked up the hire car and headed north round the inside curve of Florida’s Panhandle. We discover the rare beauty of pristine white beaches, crystal clear freshwater springs, deep forests, and the southern charm of small town America.
First stop on our one week wildlife quest was Crystal River and Kings Bay, an unspoilt and underdeveloped winter refuge for the manatee or sea cow. These great lumbering grey brown mammals, their closest living relative being the elephant, slowly float their massive bulk below the warm waters. These freshwater springs are constantly at temperature of 22 deg C providing the warm temperature they need.
The early morning sun saw us kayaking gently along the river to the nearby Three Sisters Springs in quiet pursuit of the shy manatee. It was an unforgettable magical experience discovering all kinds of new fish, turtles and pelicans in the bay.
We found an abundance of information about the unique wildlife here by visiting Ellie Schiller Homosassa Wildlife Park nearby, a beautiful well cared for, entertaining and educational park entered by a short fun relaxing boat ride. Did you know the roly-poly manatee have to feed for more than half the day eating only sea grass and vegetation and sleep the other half? They have no natural predators but us.
Driving further north we cross the Suwannee River and yes we did sing the song. It feels more like the “Old South” here, as evidenced by the small towns that still retain their vital historic downtown areas and genteel culture. You hear lots of “yes, ma’ams” and “no, sirs” up here, where the live oaks, Spanish moss and magnolias thrive.
We stopped at Monticello, a charming town, founded in 1827. The tree lined streets and many antebellum houses providing a unique feel. The town centre is dominated by the Courthouse, a direct replica of Thomas Jefferson’s Home and opposite an historic Opera house built in 1890; all well worth visiting and still in use today.
On through the thick state forest, tucked into the crook of the Panhandle is the charming fishing town of ApaIachicola, maybe a little more Cape Cod than the Deep South. We booked an enchanting restored, turn of the century inn, complete with front porch rocking chairs and nearby terrific seafood restaurants. Who could resist a fish called a scamp? – It just had to be ordered along with their famous oysters.
Nearby is St Georges Island, reached via a four mile bridge, 28 miles of un-crowded powdery white beach and a mecca for wildlife. I was stalked by a solitary heron, freezing mid step to cock his head and stare at me. Whose beach was this – his or mine?
We drove a few hours further down the highway where the Gulf Coast changes into the more developed resorts such as Panama City, Destin –great for nightlife and entertainment.
Like a manatee, we enjoyed the slow life, gently gliding – never really knowing what’s round the corner.
For more information: http://www.visitflorida.com