Two months in and what’s been our favorite? Hard to say. We’ve loved it all – except the carnivorous mosquitos and no-see-ums. A definite contender would be the week we spent crawling up the Atlantic coast of Florida, from Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood to Port Clinch just shy of the Georgia line.
Four examples of what made these 400 miles such a pleasure:
1. We visited dear friends from Dallas who now live in North Palm Beach. Not only did they show us the best of the local sites, they also introduced us to their circle of friends and we all had a grand time swapping stories, sharing experiences and – of course! – cooking together.
2. We body surfed our way up the coast, enjoying ocean swims from tiny-but-lovely Avalon State Park, the terra-cotta sands of Ormond-By-The-Sea and the shell-speckled beaches of Amelia Island.
3. We got in some serious cycling, including on Daytona Beach (yes, actually ON it – not around it, near it or adjacent to it), St. Augustine and Anastasia Island, and the Port Clinch-Fernandina Beach area.
4. We walked on the moon, courtesy of a visit to the Kennedy Space Center.
All told, the East Coast is a lovely part of Florida. There are lots of small public parks that provide easy day-use access to the beach. Parking can be tricky, but during this week in April we didn’t have much of a problem. Most access points have 10-30 parking spots. There aren’t many for RVs, but with our little tight-turning-radius-Casita, we managed pretty well.
The miles and miles of inviting beach access contrasts to much of the Gulf coast. With the exception of the Gulf Coast National Seashore, just east of Pensacola, there aren’t a lot of pristine beach areas on the west side of the state. More of the beaches on the Gulf side can be very commercial (e.g. the Destin area, Florida Keys, etc.) and much of the coastline marshy (e.g. around Crystal River, Manatee Springs State Park, etc.).
We also fell in love with state route A1A, which meanders lazily up the eastern edge of Florida even closer to the coast than famous Highway 1. It boasts a well-marked bike lane for much of the way, a cycler’s delight.
Below is some additional detail about each of the four points of pleasure.
In North Palm Beach, we reminisced with Pam and Gerry about the pleasures of working together at The Dallas Morning News 14 years ago and – most important – sharing a wall as townhome neighbors before they moved away.
These days, they live next to a draw bridge that opens at the quarter-after- and quarter-before-the-hour, giving them a birds-eye view of every boat en route to or from the ocean via the waterway. It’s a great view to sip wine and nibble cheese by.
It’s wonderful to have the locals show you around town. We enjoyed the Jupiter Inlet Lighthouse and Museum, Frenchman’s Forest Nature Preserve and the impressive Blowing Rocks.
My favorite was Loggerhead Marinelife Center in Juno Beach. What wonderful work is done here. The foundation is focused on ocean and sea turtle conservation and rehabilitation. Sick or injured sea turtles typically stay two days to three years to rehab. The day we were there the center was hosting three different species – hawksbill, green and loggerhead turtles. One weighed 260 pounds. I learned that turtles can stay underwater with one “breath” for 2-3 hours.
The best part, though, was meeting Pam and Gerry’s friends – Ann and Marty, Margie and Dave, Chris and Barry and Eileen and Bill. G’s coq au vin and salmon beurre blanc were both delicious; we concluded the evening with a special champagne celebration. I’m sure we’ll stay in touch.
Another night just the four of us enjoyed a dinner of monkfish, fingerling potatoes, tomatoes nicoise on a bed of spinach drizzled with beurre blanc.
I introduced Pam to a sazerac; she introduced me to Fireball Cinnamon Whiskey.
I hadn’t played with sparklers since I was 10. We had a blast.
In Avalon State Park, we snagged one of only two RV parking spots in the small parking lot. It was a red-flag day for high waves and we started with just a little knee-high wave jumping. But curling rolls of water grew bigger and crashed harder and before we knew it we were both completely drenched.
Why is it just being on a beach makes me smile and jumping over waves makes me giggle?
Turns out Avalon Beach is known for its nesting sea turtles – loggerhead, leatherback, Atlantic green. During WWII, the U.S. Navy used this beach as a top-secret training ground for its underwater demolition team, also knows as “frogmen.” In 1943, according to the sign, beach obstacles were placed in the off-shore water and the frogmen would practice diving to locate the hazards to develop skills they’d use in the D-Day invasion of Normandy.
The water two days later at Ormond-By-The-Sea seemed a bit colder but the waves calmer. G fell asleep on the beach after our swim.
Swimming off Port Clinch was fun, too. The tide was going out as we were getting in; these were baby waves compared to earlier in the week further south. It was sunny and 76 degrees – close to perfection.
Bicycling on Daytona Beach was especially fun, just for the show of it. Later, on the designated bike path along Route A1A, we could smell the star jasmine just about the entire ride up to Flagler Beach, 15 miles north; we had to dodge caravans of caterpillars on the pavement.
We stopped for a beer at High Tides At Snack Jack before heading back, but the view was so great from our patio table – we were mesmerized by a man and a woman in two yellow sea kayaks, a couple of dolphins cavorting beyond them, and a small fishing boat in the pale distance – that we wound up ordering Portuguese sardines served in a can w/extra virgin lemon olive oil ($5) and pound of wild caught spiced steamed shrimp ($20) as well.
This gave me the opportunity to perfect my shrimp-eating technique. Step 1: Suck the spices off the the whole shrimp. Step 2: Pull off the legs and tail. Step 3: Suck the tail to be sure you don’t miss any tasty tidbit of shrimp meat. Step 4: Eat the rest of the shrimp, with or without the thin shell.
The key is to do all this without looking at your fingers. To do so cuts into valuable ocean-gazing time and risks reduced opportunity to watch waves, dolphins and sea kayaks.
We also enjoyed pedaling in and around the historic town of St. Augustine further up the coast a couple of days later. We started at the Visitor’s Center, where we learned that Ponce de Leon claimed Florida for Spain in 1513. Other key facts:
- St. Augustine was founded on Sept. 8, 1565 by Pedro Menendez de Aviles, who was sent to Florida by King Philip II of Spain to protect the Spanish treasure ships hauling gold and silver to Spain from Mexico and Peru.
- Florida was controlled by the Spanish (1513) then the British (1763), then back by the Spanish (1783), and finally was transferred to U.S. governance (1821). Florida was where the U.S. government exiled many Native Americans in the late 19th century.
- Also during this time, Henry M. Flagler, co-founder of Standard Oil and founding father of practically all of Florida, built the Hotel Ponce de Leon, Hotel Alcazar, the Memorial Church, etc.
- Pirates were a major concern. Englishman Francis Drake burned the village of St. Augustine to the ground in 1586; pirate John Davis did the same in 1668
Most interesting is that St. Augustine was founded some 55 years before the pilgrims set foot on Plymouth Rock. The city has a chip on its shoulder about this. Plaque after plaque contains some variation of this pronouncement: “You are standing in the First Settlement on our Nation’s Oldest City.”
In fairness to the Native Americans, the plaques probably should say it’s the oldest European settlement. And this area didn’t become part of the United States until well after the War of Independence; perhaps that’s why Plymouth Rock is more famous than St. Augustine? Still, upon reflection, it’s clear my grade-school history lessons didn’t present the full picture….
To be honest, we ran out of things we were interested in surprisingly quickly. The town is kitschy. There are lots of pirate exhibits, treasure-chest jewelry stores, a medieval torture collection, cigar shops, historic houses, ghost houses, a Ripley’s Believe it or Not, gift shops, ice cream parlors, restaurants, B&Bs – all with separate fees and ticket prices, of course.
So we pedaled back over the Bridge of Lions and out to Anastasia Island.
The state park boasts lovely beaches; we enjoyed our homemade chicken sandwiches at a picnic bench under a shade tree.
And our bike ride days later through Port Clinch State Park was beautiful. Rich foliage, great scenery, harmonious song birds.
We arrived at the Kennedy Space Center early to avoid the crowds, but we needn’t have bothered. The parking lots were barely half full, even when we left in the afternoon.
It’s an impressive and expansive park, larger and more modern than the Johnson Space Center in Houston (which we’ve also enjoyed). It was weird on such a beautiful day mid-week in late April to have such an obviously expensive property so under-utilized.
Could be the pricing. We paid $96 admission for the two of us, plus $15 to park. That includes no food, and you’re not allowed to bring any into the park. Fortunately, you can get your hand stamped and enjoy a picnic lunch in your car (or Casita), which we did, and then return to the park to view more exhibits.
The bus tour of the Apollo-Saturn V launch area, the history exhibits and the iMax theaters were impressive. The space center knows how to tell a good story and get your heart racing.
Among the facts we learned:
- The Apollo missions were all about going to the moon, per President Kennedy’s challenge; today’s Orion missions are about going into deep space, e.g. Mars. So the technology is way different. Apollo missions had to sustain the crew for 12 days; Orion more like 21.
- NASA uses huge quantities of water as sound suppressor, otherwise the rockets would crack and windows miles way would burst. The minimum safe distance to view a lift-off is four miles.
- Not a dime of taxpayer money supports the space center; it’s all privately financed and operated.
- The huge nest in the tree that’s visible from the tour bus’ return route has been on the property for some 40 years and measures fully eight feet in diameter. We saw both the nest and, on top of a pole nearby, the resident bald eagle.
- If you measure the inches between an alligator’s nose and eyes, that’s how long he is in feet. (The bus driver didn’t explain how one gets the tape measure in place to measure from nose to eyes.)
- There are no campgrounds in the Canaveral National Seashore, but there are nude beaches.
It’s taken us more than a month to work our way around Florida, the state with more miles of coastline than any other except Alaska. To say we’ve loved every minute of it isn’t an exaggeration.
But we’re ready for change.
Onward to Georgia!