Thursday, March 19, 2015

Detours & Diversions – The Other Side of Tampa Bay: Paradise in the Sand

“Anna Maria Key, lying to the south of Tampa Bay and separated from the mainland by Sarasota Pass, one of the many sand and shell islands bordering the west coast. It rises but a few feet above sea level and is covered with mangrove swamps, palm savannahs, salt flats, cacti thickets, and buttonwood trees. Anna Maria, a resort at the northern extremity of Anna Maria Key, consists of many cottages in a jungle setting.”
–The WPA Guide to the Southernmost State, 1939


WHAT: Much has changed on Anna Maria Island since 1937. The palm savannahs surrendered to beach cottages, and while the island itself rises but a few feet above the warm, turquoise Gulf, bungalows at Anna Maria’s edge prop themselves like mangroves, resting just out of reach of salt and waves. 

The spirit of the island remains untouched. Sand and shells abound, and the entire low-lying tropical jungle has bursts of blazing pink bougainvillea  cascading over fences and dazzling orange birds of paradise standing guard along walkways. While the other side of Tampa Bay boasts the most densely populated county in the state, the pink Don CeSar in the distance fades against the tropical landscape of colors and the ever-permeating salt air. 

WHY: You can draw the silhouette of much of Florida’s coast with condominium-and hotel-colored crayons. Not so here; everything on this seven-mile strip of paradise –even her stilt homes –is short. The island draws tourists without needing tall hotels and convention centers; visitors can make their way around the island’s shell-lined streets and paths using foot or pedal power. The island has no chain restaurants, and while you can get milk at a local market, you’ll need to head to the next town over for a supermarket. 

WHO: It’s a small town of locals and visitors, fishermen and sunbathers. Anna Maria is one of six incorporated cities in Manatee county, a county with a third of the people of its neighbor to the north, Pinellas.

WHERE: If you look across Tampa Bay from Pass-a-Grille or Fort DeSoto, you can see Anna Maria in the distance. By boat it’s a short hop around Egmont to Anna Maria; by car, it’s just under an hour to cover the same distance. Anna Maria is at the northernmost tip of Manatee’s nothernmost barrier island.

BEST part: Anna Maria Island evokes memories of the Florida in your heart, the sandy paradise that draws people here year after year. It’s old Florida with air conditioning, bleached shell paths that crunch under your feet, and coral sunsets dotted with crimson blossoms. It’s fishing piers and walks on the beach; it’s beer at sunset and fish for dinner. Every part is the best part.

WORST part: With beaches everywhere, it’s a shame the city doesn’t allow dogs on at least one of them. There are a few places along the bay where you can get away with letting your pooch run off leash, but they’re not designated as dog beaches and you run the risk of being told to take your furry friend off the sand. Locals say there’s talk of a dog beach.

MAGIC Question: Free. Lodging and food run the gamut. Expect to pay a premium for waterside accommodations, although you can get a room for under $100 a night. Weekly stays cost less per night.


Thursday, March 12, 2015

Detours & Diversions – Fort Lauderdale's Mai Kai Polynesian Restaurant and Tiki Bar

Forget tickets to Tahiti. Don't worry about getting transportation around Easter Island. If you're craving a taste of Polynesia, look no further than Fort Lauderdale's Mai Kai restaurant. While other "dinner and show" experiences in Florida promise Arabian evenings or a medieval jousting match, Florida's original dinner and show venue does it best. 

Once you step through the doors of the Mai Kai, you're adrift in the South Pacific. Don't try and fight it; just simply enjoy the ride.

WHO: The Mai Kai, a Polynesian restaurant in Fort Lauderdale, exudes Polynesia. The Mai Kai opened in 1956 and there's no other like it, in Fort Lauderdale or anywhere else. Some places in French Polynesia may come close, of course, but without the Florida nuances that make the Mai Kai so special.

WHAT: It’s an old-style Polynesian restaurant-slash-Tiki-bar-slash-Polynesian revue. You can stop by the Molokai Bar for drinks or go in for the whole dinner-and-show experience. The whole place operates under a big thatched Tiki hut– large enough to house a fantastic bar, a couple of levels of dining, a gift shop, and gardens. The inside of the Molokai resembles the belowdecks of a galleon. The Islander Revue features Polynesian dances from various cultures; for almost an hour the dancers perform while a narrator explains the meaning of each dance.

WHEN: The Islanders perform twice nightly. The Molokai stays open until 2 a.m. but from 5 p.m. until 7 p.m. has happy hour. 

WHERE: 3599 N. Federal Highway, Fort Lauderdale. Call for reservations: 954-563-3272.

WHY: It’s schmaltzy, it’s pricey, and it’s wonderful. The Mai Kai has held on to the type of entertainment that tourists fl ocked to before the mouse came to town. It’s classic Florida combined with strong drinks, Cantonese cuisine, and Easter Island style. The Mai Kai is reminsicient of a 1960s Technicolor fi lm with dishes with names like “Lobster Bora Bora” and so-old-it’s-hip-again Tiki and Tahitian decor. The show and the food make the entire experience one out of time and place- for two hours the Mai Kai staff takes you to Polynesia and the 1960s.

BEST Part: The bar, even if you don’t drink. As we said, it’s designed to look as though you’re below deck on a galleon, complete with water coursing over the windows. Maori and other Tikistatues abound, the Mai Tais come with fresh mint and chunks of pineapple, and you get free sushi during Wednesday’s happy hour.

Fun Fact: The Derby Daiquiri dates back to 1961, when a Mai Kai bartender created it to enter into a contest to name the official drink of the Florida Derby. In the days predating Floridizing mainstream cocktails, the bartender made a daiquiri with Florida orange juice. The Derby Daiquiri won first place and the honor of “The Official Drink of the Florida Derby.” Read more about the Florida Derby at my food-centric site, Aphrodite's Hearth.


SARONG – clad  maidens (the actual bartender remains out of sight) bring your drinks. Of course these girls are gorgeous, but Mai Kai management can apparently afford to be fussy: Jessica (our sarong-clad maiden) talked to us about her favorite Florida authors (Randy Wayne White and Tim Dorsey) and the local economy. She also let told us that only recently did the Mai Kai aquiesce to hire blondes; in the name of authenticity they used to hire dark-haired women only. The ship-style decor, intelligent women wearing almost nothing, and the well-mixed Mai Tais are a devastating trilogy. A staff seamstress makes each sarong and matching bikini top for each maiden.

MAGIC Question: The show portion of the “dinner and show” costs $9.95; everything after that costs much more. For two people, dinner (before tip) can eat and drink  for around $150. You’ll probably also want to factor in a night’s stay down south, because after the amount of food and the potency of Polynesian drinks, you will not feel like making the trek back home.


Parts of this appeared  in the Gabber Newspaper, April 19, 2007.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

US 98 – Oysters, Mullet & Margaritas

So one of the things I do – and one of the things I love to do, even though when I did my first one I kind of dreaded it – is talk to people about my travels across Florida and how the Guide to the Southernmost State is perhaps the best guidebook to Florida ever. Do NOT make the mistake of asking me a Florida-related question if you want a quick answer, and under no circumstances should you ask me a Florida question and then allow me to corner you on the street if you have somewhere you need to be. Ever. I love to talk about how I retraced the depression-era driving tours of the state. 


Sour Orange Margaritas for everyone!
Teacher of the year, ladies and gentlemen.
Last night was no exception, except these weren't hapless strangers I cornered on the street but an enthusiastic group of residents who live at Westminster Palms at the edge of Old Northeast. My topic? Eating your way across the panhandle, using the 1939 WPA Guide to the Southernmost State as, well, a guide. I called my talk Oysters, Mullet & Margaritas.

The great folks at Westminster partner with OLLI at Eckerd College to bring speakers to the Palms. One of the Palms staff prepared pulled pork sliders and key lime pie. I brought Ted Peters fish spread. At the end, even though technically they weren't from the panhandle, I made the "class" sour orange margaritas. Best. Teacher. Ever.

If you want my recipe for sour orange margaritas, there's a whole post on my food blog, Aphrodite's Hearth. I'd give it to you here, but it would consume the whole post space with interesting-to-foodies-but-maybe-not-to-you facts about sour oranges, sour mix, sugar and– well, you get the idea.

I will say this about sour oranges: One does not simply saunter into a grocery store and purchase them. I had some juice in my fridge from a December OLLI trip to Hawthorne, where Chef Omar at Southern Charm made the OLLI class sour orange pie and gave me a few of his stash.

That juice made for a good start but Ben Tillett, the owner of The Citrus Place in Terra Ceia, totally saved the day. Fresh sour oranges are not standard in any store I've seen, even orange juice stands – they're beyond specialty. Mr. Tillett went into his groves yesterday morning and picked all the sour oranges he had on hand. If you've never been to the Citrus Place, it's the first left after the first exit as you head south over the Sunshine Skyway Bridge. They have juice they squeeze on-premises, orange ice cream, Terra Ceia clams, and oranges and grapefruit from nearby Parrish and Odessa. I wrote about them in January 2010; read that Detours & Diversions piece here.

The whole talk made me realize how little many Floridians know about Florida's food mores. We have a rich history with aquaculture but also agriculture and ranching, and none of that is new: Dating back before the Guide made its way into Florida homes, Floridians worked the land and waters. I can't imagine living somewhere without readily-accessible seafood or local beef, but many of the people who attend my talks (not all) tell me they had no idea Florida had as much food production as it does.

What's so cool about food in Florida is that the things we produce locally now are the same things we produced locally 500 years ago: Oysters, mullet, redfish, fruit... it's all the same. We brought in citrus from Spain when we decided St. Augustine should be a thing, so even that's hung around Florida since the European beginning. But the mullet and mussels and such? As long as people called Florida home, that's what they ate, because that's what Florida made. Which is kind of cool, when you think about things in terms of the Columbian exchange of foods between the new world and the old. Much of what we can readily get in Florida was here before the Europeans.

Well, OK, except for the sour orange margaritas. Those are totally new. I'm pretty sure the Calusa didn't have triple sec.


Detours & Diversions – The Citrus Place: A Slice of Orange Heaven


He's just so damn happy to see you.
 Florida is the third largest beef-producing state east of the Mississippi. We grow most of the houseplants sold in the country. The Sunshine Stateleads the world, certainly, in theme parks. 

But oranges are Florida’s liquid gold. 80% of America’s orange juice comes from Florida, and Florida is the world’s top grapefruit producer.

How, exactly, though, are oranges (or grapefruit or orange juice) a detour or a diversion? Well, up until relatively recently in Pinellas history, citrus fans could tour Orange Blossom Groves on US 19 and watch as conveyor belts sorted oranges as they came into the plant from the expansive grove behind it. They could then proceed to a separate tasting room to taste fresh-squeezed Florida orange juice. Sadly, those days are gone. However, just south of the Sunshine Skyway The Citrus Place still trades in liquid gold.
  
WHAT: Ben Tillett opened The Citrus Place in the 1970s as a “You Pick” grapefruit business. When citrus canker struck his groves a few years later he could only allow workers to go into the groves. The Citrus Place became a packing house and ultimately progressed to a packing and shipping business. Today, the Tillett family still owns the grove and the shop in front that sells citrus, juice, jams, jellies, and fruit sections. 

WHY: Even citrus growers admit that the Florida citrus industry is coughing a death rattle, despite what the Florida Department of Citrus’ marketing says. Tropicana and Minute Maid get much of their juice from Brazil. 

Tasting fresh Florida juice, much less unpasteurized and locally grown and squeezed juice, will be something people tell their grandchildren about, not something they take their grandchildren to do. If you’ve never tried fresh- truly fresh- juice, you might not know what you’re missing. Go find out.

WHOBen and his wife Vera work the grove and shop with their son, Sid, and two other employees.

WHEN: The Citrus Place is open from 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday.

WHERE: Find The Citrus Place at 7200 US 19 in Terra Ceia. They’re a 20-minute (roughly) drive from the south end of 275. Take 275 south  over the Sunshine Skyway to the first exit, US 19, and bear right. It’s your very first left or your next U-turn. If you can’t make it across the Sunshine Skyway and need your orange juice fix, you can get their juice at the Bayway Country Store (on the Bayway heading towards Tierra Verde, 867-7507.)  

BEST part: The juice. While it probably doesn’t taste like liquid gold, it’s how liquid gold should taste. It’s worth the short drive for a free sample and the opportunity to buy some to bring home.

WORST part: Oddly, the oranges don’t come from the grove behind the shop anymore, but the Tillett family still gets their citrus from Florida: Odessa and Parrish. Similarly, the days of picking your own citrus or watching the huge sorting machine do its work are also gone, but the juice is still there, very fresh and still tasting like Florida’s “liquid gold.”

The Citrus Place is a storefront and doesn’t charge admission, although they do offer free samples of juice and fresh fruit sections. Call them at (941) 722-6745 with questions or requests. Cash only.


Contact Cathy Salustri
This feature originally appeared in the Gabber Newspaper in January, 2010; please call The Citrus Place to confirm hours and days of operation.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Detours & Diversions – Key West Before Duval

Key West: Before Duval | cathy salustri,detours,diversions,detours and diversions,key west,spa
“Key West was to be made the American winter resort of the tropics.”
– From the 1941 Works Progress Administration’s Key West
  
WHAT: To the uninitiated, Key West is just around the corner from anywhere in Florida. In reality, driving from Pensacola to Key West will take only seven fewer minutes than driving from Pensacola to Chicago. Of course, Key West is the warmer of the two places, and perhaps decidedly more quirky. The island, a seven-and-a-half square mile collection of roughly 25,000 residents, has a reputation for odd. More than one new Gulfport resident likens the town to Key West. 
Key West, if you believe the stories, is filled with people who moved south to drop out. It’s a collection of extremes. In 1982 the federal government mounted a roadblock on US 1 to stop illegal aliens from entering the country. Since the roadblock was north of Key West, this meant Conchs (Key West residents) had to prove their citizenship to leave the island. In protest, they seceded from the United States, then immediately surrendered and demanded reparations. 
Key West, this story seems to prove, is nothing like the rest of the United States. It’s even the cheeky cousin of mainland Florida, no slouch itself when it comes to wacky headlines. Arts of all sorts abound; Hemingway had a home here; Winslow Homer painted here. Countless artists across an abundance of mediums live and work in Key West. However, Key Weird (as some call it) attracts the arts community not by chance or the appeal of a remote bohemian community; Key West attracts artists because during the Great Depression, the federal government plugged money into the arts in Key West. Arts, and the tourists their work attracted, would save the key from economic death.

WHY: In the 1830s, Key West was the wealthiest city in the United States, with professional wreckers (also called pirates) earning a good living. By 1934, situations changed and Key West was bankrupt. This wasn’t a “paper” bankruptcy: the city had no money to pay its employees. When the city asked the federal government for help during the Great Depression, 80% of its residents already received federal aid. Its pleas were specific: Please send money so we can tell the world how great we are. The plan was to make the city a tourist destination on par with Bermuda and Nassau.  
The Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) imported artists to create works of art that would promote Key West as a tourist destination. Murals, advertising, guidebook illustrations and postcards resulted from this glut of artists. Citizens volunteered over two million man-hours to clean streets, develop beaches, create sanitation systems, and renovate and redecorate houses. Across the nation, city planners lauded this bold community planning experiment. Talent the government could not import, it taught. Residents on the government dole took classes in how to make art, which consisted of everything from drawings to ashtrays.

WHO: Key West is the Monroe County seat. Monroe includes parts of Everglades National Park, Big Cypress Preserve, the Dry Tortugas and the entire chain of limestone islands curving around the tip of mainland Florida.

WHEREMM0, at the end of US 1.

BEST part: The cemetery with the sense of humor. Stroll through the headstones (bring plenty of water) and find epitaphs like “Just resting my eyes,” and “I told you I was sick.”

WORST part: In the case of what FERA and 1930s Key West officials hoped to accomplish, Duval Street remains the prime example of getting what you wish for: tourists. 

FUN fact: During prohibition, some homes used the negative space in the gingerbread trim to advertise guns or booze for sale. Look for homes with guns or liquor bottles hidden in second-story trim.

MAGIC Question: Key West isn’t cheap. Even the cheapest hotels cost a couple of hundred dollars a night. Parking costs about $14 a day. Just off-island, try the Sugarloaf KOA or the Sugarloaf Lodge.

Originally published July 3, 2014, in the Gabber Newspaper.

Sunday, March 02, 2014

I Want Dead People

On February 21, I participated in Boyd Hill's Writers at the Preserve, alongside USFSP writing guru Dr. Thomas Hallock, Tribune reporter Wendy Joan Biddlecombe, and Jeff Klinkenberg. We talked about finding nature in the city.

Me, being me, of course, well, I talked about finding a body in Clam Bayou. Or, rather, how very much I want to find a body in Clam Bayou. To be fair, I'll take a body anywhere, as long as I don't know the body and it's in some sort of wild setting. Clam Bayou just seems like the best bet, locally. Don't judge me. At least, don't judge me before you read this:

Clam Bayou, a tidal estuary dividing Gulfport’s eclectic “anything goes” lifestyle and St. Petersburg’s ordered, less-affluent suburbs, lacks the forests of the swamp, but the muck and the mangroves mire me in untamed Florida all the same. When the voices in my head start to crowd out rational thought, I throw my kayak atop my car and head to our own local wetlands. On most days, I will pass at least one other kayaker, but the bayou is filled with mangrove tunnels and twists and turns and all too easily I can escape the living and pretend, just for an hour, that I am alone.

It was on one such paddle where I spied the crown of a bright yellow motorbike helmet,  trapped in a cage of stained red mangrove roots. My breath caught and my heart pounded, and I felt just a touch of breakfast roll in my stomach. I could not see the face mask, and the murky bottom fogged the water and anything else, such as, oh, an arm, that may have found its way to the swamp with the helmet. I paddled closer, then stopped, and stared at the helmet, trying to convince myself that, after all, it’s just a discarded helmet. Gingerly, I prodded it with my paddle, trying to knock it loose so it could bob harmlessly away, and prove to my fears unfounded. The helmet remained comfortably ensconced in its mangrove jail. I poked harder, and steeled myself for whatever horrors the crabs had done to the poor soul lucky enough to meet his end near the bayou.

Along Florida’s rivers and creeks, some paddlers see gators in every felled log and snakes on every twig, but me? I see dead people. In all honesty, I would love to find a body in Clam Bayou.

If Florida novelist Carl Hiaasen (or myriad others, really) is to be believed, every patch of swamp in the Sunshine State harbors at least one decaying body awaiting discovery. That makes sense; if I were to kill someone – or, more probably, if someone were to kill me – the Everglades is the place to head with the still-warm body. Florida’s palustrine wilderness is perfect for body stashing: weigh it down enough, find a patch of land not often visited, and the muck, wildlife, and humidity will cover your tracks in short order. That’s part of Florida’s dark magic: it is at the very core of the “man against nature” battle we see in some of literature’s most well-read works. Except it is not the literature we recall from our high school English classes, the kind of “literature” that, in your head, you always hear with a posh British accent. This is the prose of Florida’s outback and, in the case of pockets of wilderness like Clam Bayou, Florida’s “near back.” The swamp is a pulsing, breathing, squiggling entity of life and, just as often, death, and while some come to Florida with hopes of finding paradise, I always keep an eye out for dead people.

Let me explain. I am no murderer, and I probably wouldn’t handle finding a dead body very well at all. But I do believe much of the mythology pulp fiction about Florida: we have lots of people in the Sunshine State, many from somewhere else, and some of those people didn’t come here for the white sand beaches and excellent sport fishing. Running away to paradise, apparently, isn’t just for people who are escaping a boring career; some are escaping far more sinister things. I believe, just as much as I believe in the moon’s effect on the tides or the first law of thermodynamics, that if you poke at the state’s dark, wild edges long enough, you will, one day, find a clump of hair attached to a corpse, quite possibly floating amongst the nearest mangroves)

Stick with me. I do not pretend my desires aren’t macabre. What proper lady wishes to find a dead body, much less one almost literally in her backyard? I am a kind of Pantheist. I find divinity when surrounded by the wildness. And for someone to regard this estuary, Clam Bayou – though it contains neither clams, nor is it by definition, a bayou – worthy of swallowing a person would mean that it had, perhaps, earned a place of respect, a place of gothic mystery, alongside the rest of wild Florida.  A body in Clam Bayou is an acknowledgment that Florida’s dark heart beats closer than we admit.

We crave wilderness and expect it as we chase the braids of water slipping into the Everglades, or gazing into in the unplumbed blue of a spring. But there is true wilderness – the wilderness we can all touch – much closer to home. These feral pockets of Florida, the Salt Creeks and the Clam Bayous, are not the untamed expanse of the Ten Thousand Islands or our national forests. They are under-valued, overtaxed, and fettered with signs of humanity’s inhumanity to nature. Florida’s forgotten, or perhaps, simply too familiar, wilderness abuts town homes, billboards, and pavement. We discount and devalue it with sneers, talking of a “bay beach” or an “impaired waterway.” We do not count them as gems, but as failures.To quote Rodney Dangerfield, they get no respect.

This particular politically-charged mosaic of flotsam, jetsam, herons, and crabs has seen better days. It has also seen worse ones. You will not find the elusive ghost orchid here, but step deep enough and you will find a perfectly preserved record of snack food wrappers from 1998 through the present day.

Forget the Cheetos wrappers and plastic bottles in the settling pond, and Clam Bayou is a twist of mangroves, muck, and magic. The pull of my paddle as it makes tiny eddies in the water, the slurp of the muck as it swallows my feet at the put in, the scrape of the oysters scrape along my kayak’s lime-tinted hull: all these things spin the spell of the swamp. Man exists with wilderness, and wilderness exists in spite of man. 

This wilderness has, to put it delicately, issues. Part Gulfport, part St. Petersburg, part State, and many parts private property, equal the makings of an environmental and political disaster. The world put a lot of pressure on Clam Bayou to filter contaminants like car oil, fertilizer, and pesticides out of the water before it meandered out to Boca Ciega Bay.

Those things remain unseen, and had it been only for those additions to the herons, mullet, and crabs, Clam Bayou might still appear untouched. But add to that shopping carts, potato chip bags, and an almost-archival collection of fast-food cola cups, and the neighbors start to get vocal at city council meetings. At these reality-TV shows in the making that pass for local government, these people do not call Clam Bayou wilderness. It is damaged, impaired, ruined. No one calls it “savage” or “primitive” or “untamed.”

It may not have the sawgrass prairie of the Everglades or Manatee Springs’ emerald-tinged cobalt depths, but the crabs and the muck and the fish in Clam Bayou will reclaim a body just as quickly. It is in the heart of Florida, in her swamps and muck ponds, no matter how close they lie to a fairway or shopping mall, where the real energy of life returns to the world.

That’s what I feel, what I know about Clam Bayou. That’s what I hope for, what I wanted to see, that day, when the bright yellow crown of the motorcycle helmet peeked from the muddy depths. And I admit, I was afraid. Finally, with a great, giant sucking noise, it broke free from the trees and the bog. I admit, I was relieved when it revealed no head with no body or body parts attached. After all, I’m not a monster. Still, I sighed and pull it onto my kayak to throw out when I returned to shore.



Friday, February 28, 2014

Drink Local: Palm Ridge Reserve Whiskey

I first tasted Palm Ridge Reserve whiskey on the Vinoy Verandah in St. Petersburg. Only the reputation of the Vinoy persuaded me that Florida whiskey might be worth sipping straight; I’ve tasted Florida wines that could have powered farm equipment and feared the same stinging effect from our state’s whiskey. 
  
The Vinoy, I assumed, would never embarrass itself with a low-end whiskey designed for college sophomores looking for a cheap buzz, so I opted to give the butterscotch-colored liquor a sip. 

I was right, and my love affair with Palm Ridge Reserve whiskey began. This is not a shooting whiskey or a mixed drink whiskey; it is a choice whiskey for the connoisseur who drinks for taste, not effect. If you’re drinking to get drunk, stick with the mass-produced cheap stuff, because this is not a shooting whiskey.
  
WHAT: Thought Florida was all oranges and beaches? Think again. In the middle of horse country, the Palm Ridge Reserve churns out small batches of whiskey. The blended whiskey contains local corn and the taste rivals the priciest sipping whiskeys.

WHY: Why not? Florida craft beer has taken the market by storm, so why not locally-produced craft whiskey? Recent changes to the law allow small-batch distilleries to offer tastings. A much-coveted tasting at Palm Ridge Reserve marries the aid-back Florida lifestyle with high society gentleman’s whiskey.

WHO: Dick and Marti bought a cozy sprawl of land by Ocala as their daughter grew more and more interested in horses. Just about the time they closed on the farm, Dick laughs, she got interested in boys instead. The land looks plenty big to me, but Dick and Marti explain it really isn’t large enough for a proper farm. When Marti read a trade article about farmers using some of their land to make whiskey they thought, “Well, why not?”

WHEN: Whiskey doesn’t take a vacation, and neither do Dick and Marti. Distilling whiskey into something non-lethal, keeping it from exploding, and crafting something that tastes like fiery velvet takes all their time, so until their distillery hits the big time, they’re on deck every day. Once a month, they do give tours, which end with a modest tasting. 

WHERE: Just outside Ocala, less than two hours from Pinellas.

BEST part: Well, clearly the whiskey’s pretty tasty, but the best thing is seeing small industry producing a product that outshines the mass-produced alcohols. 

WORST part: Local whiskey produced in small batches (so small Dick and Marti call them “micro batches”) doesn’t come cheap. You can buy the whiskey at Total Wine or at the tasting, but the price remains the same: $60 a bottle.  

FUN fact: You may think truly fine whiskey needs aging, but at the tasting Dick and Marti astound you with young whiskey that tastes every bit as smooth as the old stuff. Just for fun, they’ll let you taste the brand-new stuff, too. That whiskey? That whiskey could probably power farm equipment.

MAGIC Question: Free, but tours and tastings are limited, so please call to reserve your spot. E-mail them at whiskey@palmridgereserve.com; the next tour comes up March 1, and the tours do fill quickly. Learn more about Palm Ridge at PalmRidgeReserve.com


Contact Cathy Salustri at CathySalustri@TheGabber.com.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Finding Florida at Heritage Village

Today I spoke to a packed house at Heritage Village for the Speaking of History series. I talked mostly about US 98 and how much fun it is to eat your way through Florida's panhandle. If you missed the talk, trust me on this: it's the most fun you can have with your clothes on (although clothing is by no means necessary). I mean, if you like seafood. If you don't care for seafood, well, you're kind of up a creek there, but then, you do have some of the best beaches in the world to occupy you while everyone else starts shoveling in the oysters like the world's about to end.

I won't rehash the entire tour, but I have to say I was thrilled the St. Petersburg Tribune sent out a reporter to cover my talk. You can read the article here. Note to my Gulfport peeps: I really did tell the audience "Gulfport is it for me" so, yeah, you're stuck with me.

After I spoke, someone asked me if I had a web site and I directed them here. However, since I went under contract with the University Press of Florida for a book about my travels, I haven't posted here – largely because the bulk of what I have to say, I'm saying in print, and they asked that I not, in essence, compete with myself. Since I blog for free and, ostensibly, I will one day make money from writing the book, it seemed like a fair enough request.

However, if you're here because I directed you here at my talk, don't go away. You can do two things: one, follow me on Twitter @CathySalustri, because every time I post to my other blog (the non-exclusive-to-Florida blog), it automatically pushes a Tweet. Don't ask me how; I call it Inter-magic; two, you can keep this site bookmarked, because while I cannot keep including material that may appear in the as-of-yet-untitled book, I will be including new material, not the least of which is my slow-but-steady Detours & Diversions travel column that appears in print and online in everyone's favorite weekly paper, the Gabber Newspaper.

As soon as Pinellas County gets today's presentation online, I'll publish a link to it. And I'll get my latest travels, to one of the state's only (legal) whiskey distilleries, online this week. So, you know, come back. I'm nowhere near as witty as the Bloggess, and certainly not as popular, but I like to think that "whiskey distillery" and "clothing is by no means necessary" will at least pique the interest of the search engines. But, again, I don't know. It's all Inter-Magic.

Thursday, July 05, 2012

Tour Six: A Million People and One Long Beach

This is the seventh (and final) leg of this tour. To read the sixth leg, click here.

No SpongeBob here.
In stark contrast to the spacious green country hills surrounding Monticello, the most crowded place in the state waits at the end of the tour. Pinellas County, the most densely populated but second smallest of Florida’s 67 counties (Union County has 40 square miles less than Pinellas County’s 280), greets you at with sponge docks and Greek food. After divers picked over the Key West sponge fields, they headed north to Tarpon Springs. Eventually, synthetic sponges replaced the mass need for natural sponges, but today locals still refer to Tarpon's downtown as "the sponge docks." The city boasts Greek food, sponge and Greek-oriented gift shops (think lots of olive oil-based products), and an annual Epiphany celebration. The Greek community celebrates the Epiphany, or Cross Day, with a blessing of the fleet. As part of the Epiphany, a Christian holiday celebrating the baptism of their Christ in the Jordan River, a processional (complete with doves) to the water ends with a priest from the local Greek Orthodox church throwing a cross in the water. Young men dive for the cross; the one who retrieves it receives a blessing from the priest and, legend holds, divine beneficence for the coming year.
In homage to its beginnings as the Seaboard Rail Line, these
 artsy city signs mark passage from city to city on the Pinellas Trail.

US 19 runs the eastern length of the county, but Alternate 19 and the Pinellas Trail parallel and twist over each other on the western edge. The Pinellas Trail, a former railway line converted to paved trail, runs the length of the county with spurs into local communities. The trail has rest stops, water fountains, and a host of bike shops and restaurants along its 33-mile trek through the county.⁠ Like the trail, US 19 travels the length of the county, and it is here that the road is at its most crowded. Between Wall Springs Park – a historic spring once marketed as a health spa – and St. Petersburg, the route devolves into a glut of supermarkets, gas stations, and car dealerships. In St. Petersburg, a detour off the road over to Fourth Street takes you to Sunken Gardens⁠, where you can descend into the pit of a sinkhole covered in flowers and greenery. At one time, the flowered sinkhole boasted a plastic Jesus – I'm not sure why, and no one at Sunken Gardens can tell me why when I ask, but, hey, it's Florida, so I roll with it – but it's long gone.
Calypso, in her bike basket.
She's used to bike rides along the Trail and at Fort DeSoto.
At the county’s south end, Fort DeSoto takes over. The fort and park are on five islands interconnected by a chain of bridges and lagoons; the 1100-plus acres of the park are prime beachfront real estate, fronting Tampa Bay and the Gulf of Mexico. The park offers a 13-mile bike trail, fishing piers, camping, beaches, paddling, a boat ramp, hiking paths, and a beachfront fog park.⁠ The merits of the park alone could merit a book in and of itself. This park, expanses of sand and pines and pockets of nature, offers an oasis from the quick marts, Dollar General stores, and homogenized shopping experiences dotting the tour.





Shell Key, aptly named
Off the tip of Pinellas County, two islands offer shelling, snorkeling and less crowded beach going. Shell Key, a nature preserve easily kayaked over tidal flats, has no facilities but plenty of birds. Oystercatcher, skimmers, and other beach birds nest here. Shell collectors often find sand dollars here as large as dessert plates, and the waters between the southern Pinellas mainland and the Key are rife with dolphin and manatee.⁠

Wade out a few feet into the Gulf, skim your hands just under the sand, and odds are you'll find sand dollars. Get there early in the morning at low tide, and you'll find a haul of shells. The island – too long to circumnavigate on foot – alternates between grassy beachfront, white sand, and scratchy sea oats. In the center at its widest part (not at all that wide) you will find the odd tree or two.

Baby starfish
If you intend to kayak to Shell Key, beware Pass-a-Grille channel: between the shallow waters off Shell Key and Pass-a-Grille, the channel is swift and deep and well-traveled by boats far larger than kayaks or paddleboards. A more serene (and admittedly longer) paddle is from the southern end of Tierra Verde. Do not attempt this paddle at a low tide; you will find yourself walking over mud flats. Stop by the oyster-ringed spoil islands on the way out to Shell Key, though, and odds are you will stumble upon a starfish nursery or two.

Further offshore and not suggested for kayakers is Egmont Key, an island in the main shipping channel for Tampa Bay. Most of the island is open to the public, although harbor pilots have housing on a private piece of the island. Egmont Key attracts snorkelers who want to look for sea life in the sea grass or explore the sunken ruins of the crumbling Fort. Charter boats offer trips to both these islands.


In Pinellas County Gulf Boulevard offers a beachy alternative to US 19. It starts at the west end of the county, in Clearwater, and runs south along the Gulf to Pass-a-Grille. The bulk of this stretch is a two-lane road. Traffic exits a roundabout onto Gulf Boulevard south, passing first through the sandy carnival of Clearwater Beach. The beach has a marina offering every conceivable boat trip, from a yellow oversized speedboat that tempts Atlantic bottlenose dolphin to surf their gargantuan wake, to sailboats that let the wind pull them through Clearwater Harbor and into the Gulf. Pier 60, the pier at the western terminus of state road 60, has a nightly sunset celebration complete with buskers and artists.

Over the Sand Key Bridge, condominium canyons line either side of the road, the only exception the county’s Sand Key Park. Sand Key Park is a beachfront park across Clearwater Pass from the hotels on Clearwater Beach. Beach sunflowers, sea oats, and low lying beach scrub dot the park, a stark contrast to the next town south, Belleair Beach. This quiet community has mostly traditional Florida ranch homes and a handful of two-story hotels on the beach. Belleair Shores is yet another type of city, with walled-off beach mansions, gated beach accesses, and a reputation as the spoiled rich child of the county. Indian Rocks Beach, Redington Shores, North Redington Beach and Redington Beach are the next four towns along Gulf Boulevard. They are chiefly residential, with many vacation homes available by the week or month, but fewer nightly motels. The beaches here are accessible largely by walkover access with limited parking, but they are not as populated as Clearwater beach to the north and every beach to the south.

Madeira Beach is a wider city, owing largely to the dredged residential fingers on the east side. At the south point, a collection of tourist-centric shops offer everything from tacky t-shirts to exotic spices at John’s Pass Village.  John’s Pass is the waterway dividing Madeira Beach from Treasure Island, another larger beach community with a mix of condominiums, hotels, and homes. The city’s main shopping thoroughfare, 107th Avenue, runs east over the Treasure Island Causeway, becomes Central Avenue, and runs through St. Petersburg’s downtown, ending at Tampa Bay.

The county’s final beach town, St. Pete Beach, is in no way associated with St. Petersburg; calling it “St. Petersburg’s Beach” tends to produce an unfavorable response from the town’s 9,000 residents, many of whom are seasonal. The city consumes the entirety of Long Key, not to be confused with Long Key in the Florida Keys (See Tour 1). St. Pete Beach bookends Clearwater Beach (which truly belongs to the City of Clearwater, a sandy extension of the mainland city) in size, amenities, and beach. It boasts a a plethora of hotels, motels, and resorts. Visitors can spend anywhere from $100 a night at a retro-styled hotel to $600 per night at the 1920s-era Don CeSar.

Pass-a-Grille, a separate city in 1939, is now part of St. Pete Beach. You will not find a single large resort here; most buildings have only two or three stories. Pass-a-Grille still retains a sense of individuality from St. Pete Beach, with special zoning rules and guidelines, houses with more foliage than grass, and the distinction of the southernmost point on the southernmost beach in the southernmost city in Pinellas County. From here you have nowhere to go – as the last motel on the point advertises, visitors have arrived at Island’s End.


For more on Pinellas County, please see Tour 20.

Tour Six, Part Six: The Stilt Houses

This is the sixth leg of this tour. To read the fifth leg, click here.


I only knew about the stilt houses because I wanted to impress a man. This particular man flew small planes, and although the very idea of taking to the skies in even a 747, much less a tiny single engine plane, made my stomach seize up like a engine with no oil, I agreed to take to the skies. To my delight, the thrill of flying stayed with me long after the man fell away. 

From the air
Among the best things I saw from the right, then the left, seat of a small plane, the day I discovered the stilt homes, prodding the pilot to swoop lower so I could get a better look, will stay with me until I die. I knew, of course, of Stiltsville in Biscayne Bay, but I didn't realize that stilt homes stood so close to my own beach home just south of Green Key.

You can’t see the stilt homes off the coast of Green Key from the road. If you’re not a boater, a general aviation pilot, or a local with a kayak or paddleboard, odds are you’ll never know they exist. 

Just past Green Key’s shimmering sands, a cluster of stilt houses rises from Pasco County’s clear waters. These fish camps, perched high above the Gulf of Mexico on wooden legs, stand in silent tribute to Florida’s yesteryear. The water surrounding these camps is calm and shallow. Stand-up paddleboards dot the placid waters surrounding Green Key. Skinny strips of white, blue and pink boards let paddlers dance across key lime water, away from buff-colored shores and out toward a slice of Florida history.
The view from Durney Key
As you slip into the Gulf, the world beneath your feet comes alive. Cownose rays – tiny, timid stingrays, no bigger than a dinner plate – flutter over sea grass. Mullet twist and toss themselves into the air. As your paddle pushes you through saltwater, redfish zig, then zag, just beneath the surface of this oversized aquarium.
Celebrities from Johnny Cash to Billy Graham have sought respite in these weathered bits of old Florida. The shallow, sapphire-studded waters reflect the sun-bleached wood on these houses, private residences used as fish camps in the Gulf. The stilt houses remain as long as the weather permits: State law says those destroyed in a storm cannot be rebuilt. The fish camps stand in mere feet of water, so paddleboards are one of the few ways to get close.

The stilt houses
Tucked amidst the watery stilt city, Durney Key attracts paddleboarders, kitesurfers, kayakers and boaters. Driftwood and bits of sea glass adorn its shore and fiddler crabs scurry over packed brown sand. A cluster of trees in the key’s center offers shelter. Day-trippers and campers alike search for shells and watch the sun set over the fish camps. 

On the paddle back toward Green Key, fish scurry from your path as the ni
ghtly seabreeze pushes you home. From the sand, you can see the stilt houses in the distance, waiting for your return.⁠

The most logical launch for the four-mile round trip paddle is on Green Key at Robert K. Rees Memorial Park. Parts of this entry appeared initially as work for Visit Florida.

Tour Six, Part Five: When Dinosaurs Roamed US 19


This is the fifth leg of this tour. To read the fourth leg, click here.

South on US 19 a giant dinosaur waits. I first found it as a kid, when my dad had a construction job at nearby Timber Pines. He worked for Scarborough Construction, the company that installed most of the water and sewer lines in central west Florida. The parent company, Weyerhauser, sent me through college on a scholarship, and I try not to focus too much on the fact that the company that had an active part in resurfacing much of Florida's landscape paid for the bulk of the studies that led me to fall in love with the parts of the state they were actively destroying.

Nevertheless, I was going into sixth grade and Scarborough paid for the guys on the construction crew to stay the week in Weeki Wachee, so my mom and I spent a few days hanging out on the the-then deserted stretch of US 19. We visited the brand-new Kmart, went to the pool, and visited the mermaids.  She also took me into a taxidermists' – I guess you'd call it a shop, right? – and I stood, transfixed by all the animals rooted forever in death. 

My favorite thing (after the mermaids, of course) was the great brown and green, plaster dinosaur. The hulking giant used to signal a Sinclair gas station but those, too, died out. Today an auto service station, Harold's, changes water pumps and rotates tires beneath the belly of the beast. It's not a traditional tourist attraction, but that doesn't mean people don't stop and take pictures. I have a painting of Dino in my study, and if the brute ever topples, to storm or sprawl, US 19's metamorphosis from sleepy two-lane road to clotted arterial highway will be sadly complete.

Tuesday, July 03, 2012

Tour Six, Part Four – Mermaids Are Real

This is the fourth leg of this tour. To read the third leg, click here.

Down the road another underwater show takes place seven days a week, several times a day. Weeki Wachee Springs State Park has real mermaids. 

The mermaids, of course, are quite real. No, not in that they really have tails instead of legs, and they don’t get their oxygen with gills. Nevertheless, they do perform underwater shows, breathing through air hoses and performing in tails. 


Mermaid shows started with Newt Perry. Perry trained World War II Navy SEALS – then called Frogmen – in underwater maneuvers; in 1946, he trained women to drink grape soda underwater. They learned to eat bananas, have picnics, and swim in unison – all while battling a five-mile-an-hour current wrought by a spring that pushed 177 million gallons a day from the earth. Perry took a spring just off a two-lane dirt road and created a theme park that, long before Disney thought to do so, allowed people to pay money for the privilege of believing in a fantasy. 

Photo courtesy of Weeki Wachee Springs State Park
At Weeki Wachee, that fantasy is mermaids. The mermaids perform beneath the big top of Weeki Wachee spring, with audiences watching them from an underwater theatre. Today the shows continue, as do reunion mermaid shows that feature retired mermaids, some of whom swam with Elvis. The reunion shows – called Tails of Yesteryear shows – feature mermaids now well into their 70s. Underwater, these “grandma mermaids” as former mermaid Barbara Wynns calls herself and colleagues, have grace equal to – if not more – than their younger counterparts. 

Young mermaids, of course, perform the bulk of the shows. Grandma mermaids help out with mermaid camps for those who want to swim in a mermaid’s tail for a day. The park also has kid camps for aspiring mermaids and mermen, but the reunion shows offer Floridaphiles a peek at the past.

It started in 1997, when park management called former mermaids out of retirement to celebrate the Springs' 50th anniversary. Lines wound along park paths and out into the parking lot to see 26 former mermaids – some in their 70s – twirl and pirouette under the sea.

One show turned into three that day, and the former mermaids' Tails of Yesteryear show found its place alongside the current mermaid shows. Once monthly, former mermaids don their tails and slip into the 72-degree water.
A young Vicki Smith.
Photo courtesy of Weeki Wachee Springs State Park

They look little like their younger counterparts. These mermaids bear the scars of 40 years of life on land. They birthed babies, had careers, and adjusted to life with legs. None have model-thin figures; a few are outright fat. It doesn't matter; once they slip into the spring, they are agile, graceful creatures again, eliciting applause and tears from the crowd. The spring washes away weight and wrinkles, and they play out a script from 40 years ago – dancing on the water, suspended in time.

"It's like water in your veins. We're still a part of the river, a part of the spring," Mermaid Vicki Smith, 71, says. A tiny, compact woman who lives on the river, she still giggles with glee when she talks about meeting Elvis as a mermaid.

The audience claps at the regular mermaid shows. At Tails of Yesteryear, people weep. Something – perhaps the joy on the Grandma Mermaids' faces – speaks to the crowd.

Not everyone loves Weeki Wachee.

My friend Thom Hallock relishes Florida springs but calls this park “the dullest park I’ve ever visited,” and he’s a guy who finds early accounts of French explorers coming to Florida riveting. I love the mermaids, but I see his point: you have to truly love Florida roadside attractions to get this place. Picture yourself in the 60s, driving a Chevy big enough to hold a softball team, down US 19. Suddenly, bathing-clad ladies – mermaids! – beckon you into the park. You’re from Michigan. You have no clue what to expect, but as you take your seat in the underwater theatre and the blue curtain rises, lithe and nubile women twirl and pirouette before you. Weeki Wachee was unparalleled; these women had no competition. The wild bird show, the parrot show (because no Florida roadside attraction was complete without a cockatoo on roller skates), and the chance to meet a real live mermaid enchanted generations of visitors.

Roller coasters, castles, and water parks have all faded the glory of roadside attractions like Weeki Wachee, and folks used to Pixar animation and Disney special effects may look down their nose at those of us who marvel at ladies drinking soda pop underwater. Weeki Wachee, taken over by the state in 2008, pays homage not only to generations of mermaids, but the dying breed of Florida’s roadside attraction. The park may be paler than the bright world of modern tourist attractions, but its patina is all its own.

The springs feed the Weeki Wachee River, and that has no modern day competitor. The river runs  clear with a swift current – at five miles an hour, it takes just a little over two hours to reach the Gulf of Mexico. The park service operates a kayak and canoe livery, and they will pick you up at Roger’s Park six miles down the road.

More often than not, I head upriver and then lazily drift back. The sojourn past the houses by Rogers Park takes little effort and gives me plenty to look at: on one side of the river redolent with palms and marsh life, on the other, cartoonish sea life murals adorn sea walls, residents pay homage to Jimmy Buffett with Middle American Tiki-bar decor, and every variation of rope and tire swings dangle from spidery oak trees standing guard over the Weeki Wachee.

Further upriver the homes thin out and the water gets clearer. The odd rope tied to a branch lets people climb trees, dangle over the river, and plunge, feet first, into the crystal clear water. I’ve paddled the river on weekends when the lines for these ropes are long; today is a Tuesday and the lines don’t exist. 

Calypso's first kayak trip: the Weeki Wachee
As the river gets closer to Weeki Wachee, the homes disappear into copse after copse of trees. The river twines a thin cordon of blue around a march forest. At a stand of trees with a wood platform, I tie my kayak painter to a slender tree trunk and stretch my legs while I eat a sandwich. The water is clear and I see no gators, so I let Calypso stretch her legs, too. When we set off again, we’re headed for home, carried by the current. Calypso curls up on a towel drying on the kayak’s bow. We float by a school of mullet, struggling their way upstream. Like a shot Calypso heaves herself in the water, but we’re moving too fast for her to catch the mullet. She paddles instead to where I sit and puts a paw on the side of the boat. I pull her in the cockpit, use the towel to squeeze river water from her black fur, and have a moment of thanks for clear water and no gators.

Tour Six, Part Three: Manatee Hunting

This is the third leg of this tour. To read the second leg, click here.

In Crystal River, scallops and manatee beckon. Tours offer scallop trips for the uninitiated, but during scallop season (July through September, although the actual dates vary) anyone who wishes may snorkel for scallops. Scallops live in the green grass, have 32 glittering blue eyes, and slam their shells shut (escalop means “shell” in French) to swoosh out of harm’s way.

Bay scallops, once bountiful in the Gulf coastal waters, have declined in numbers. Speculation puts the blame on water quality, as scallops (like clams and oysters) filter their food from the water. Shellfish populations cannot thrive in contaminated water.

So instead of scallops, I’m hunting manatee. Well, not hunting, exactly, but looking for them awful hard. In Citrus County, boat captains can take passengers out to swim with the marine mammals under the guise of education. Our boat captain does give us manatee facts and talks about preserving the species, but we’re not fooling anyone: we all boarded this boat with plans to pet a giant grey water beast.

It’s a gorgeous summer day, and I’m delighted to be out on the water, but I didn’t think this through. You see, all the photos advertising the tour showed manatee frolicking with humans in the opaline spring head. These gentle, awkward creatures do lumber towards the spring when the water temperature outside the spring dips below 70º, but that is not the case on a hot summer day. 

Now is a good time to mention that three types of rivers flow through Florida: alluvial, blackwater, and spring-fed. Alluvial rivers, often carved out by years of floods, carry loads of sediment along with them. Their levels and flow are usually tied to rainfall. Blackwater rivers rise out of swamps and generally have a dark tea color from the decaying plant matter in the water. Clear springs gush out into spring-fed rivers. One such river, the Crystal River, starts at a spring head, but do not assume that means the length of the river shares that transparency: the river grows deeper in color the further we motor from the springs. We do this, the boat captain explains, because the tiny-headed sea cows only hang out in springs in the winter.

This is how you hunt manatee.
I refrain from smacking my palm against my forehead. Of course these creatures won’t linger in the spring today. Of course they will hang out in the I-can’t-see-my-hand-or-that-alligator-in-front-of-my-face portion of the river. I enjoy paddling Florida’s rivers, but few exist in which I wish to get out and try to touch living creatures. Petting a manatee makes for a fine experience – in clear water. What if the one I pet hangs out by a gator grotto? Anyone who has seen even a picture of these unusually built water waddling animals knows those disturbingly tiny flippers will not help protect me.

The boat captain assures me I need not worry about gators and snakes. This strategy would have worked better had I considered the possibility of snakes before he brought them up. I do not know if I believe him, but I accept my swim noodle (we may not use our arms to swim lest we hit a manatee or, I imagine, anger a gator), slip my mask and snorkel over face, and slide into the water. The manatee wait a few yards away, the guide tells us, but the murk makes it hard to see anything. Something wraps around my leg. I scream. 

River grass. Not a snake. I feel like an idiot, but take solace in knowing that when I put my head back under the water, it’s too stained with tannic acid for the others to see me blush. 

This is my "What the hell am I petting?" face.
I see a great hulking shape before me. A manatee. My heart accelerates. This is actually kind of exciting. I reach my hand out to pet it tentatively, and the beast doesn’t seem to care. They’re bumpier than I would have thought, and about as motivated as one would expect. She just floats in front of us – manatees are excellent floaters, what with all their fat – and even lets us pet her calf. I can only tell she’s there by feel; I cannot see her other than to make out a massive darker blob against the ochre water. I have no visual clues what I’m touching. My only reassurance is that gators have very little body fat, ergo, this must be a manatee.


You don't realize it, but this is what the abyss looks like.
It's scarier in the movies...
After we’ve more than worn out our welcome, our boat captain takes us for a swim in Three Sisters, a nearby cluster of springs, vents, and boils. Our captain ties his small launch to a river tree. Here, clear water reveals tiny springs, their exit from the earth announced with a rushing gurgle I can almost hear with my eyes. I step off the boat into water far colder than 72º, the inexact standard for Florida rivers and springs. We walk towards the larger spring, through a group of wood posts set in water, designed to keep watercraft out of the spring head. The dizzying force of the water pushes against us as we move toward the springs, but as the narrow channel opens into a springhead, it gets easier. I can see the edge of the abyss; I peer over it, the clear blue sky reflected in chalky white limestone. Deeper down the color turns from an easy blue-green to a persistent and ancient blue. Cypress and oak ring the spring but do not cover it, letting the sun and sky dance rainbows across and through the spring water. We find no manatee here, but that’s just fine by me. The springs, uncluttered with kayaks and canoes and too many people, offer a rarer and more full experience.

Hudson Hole has nothing on Three Sisters.
If you don’t feel brave enough to take your chances in a Florida river, you can watch these giant freaky water cows through glass that lets you view them at their beady eye level –  Homosassa Springs State Park, just down the road, also boasts an elevated boardwalk that lets you stroll past cougar, Florida panther, deer, and the ever-present alligator, but the underwater observatory offers a less intrusive way to see manatee. It’s worth it see their fat schmoo-like bodies in all their blubbery glory, if only just to marvel that Florida folk wisdom holds that sailors used to mistake these creatures for mermaids.