That Florida Flavor

By staff June 1, 2002

If you're among those travelers choosing to stay closer to home lately, you're in the right state. From the Panhandle to Key West, Florida is filled with adventures and attractions. And with crowds at their year-round low, now is the time for residents to enjoy what makes this state so famous. Our editors sampled three classic Florida experiences, all within an easy drive.

Venture into the Everglades.

I'd never been to the Everglades, so I was eager to take an airboat excursion arranged by the Marco Island Marriott Resort & Golf Club. It would be, I thought, like venturing into the Heart of Darkness-dark, brooding swamp territory, where dangerous creatures might surface from beneath the coffee-colored water and exotic birds would screech warnings to turn back before it was too late.

We departed from the resort for Everglades City, the entryway to the vast Everglades National Park, and headed for the docks of Captain Doug House. Our captain set off slowly, pointing out the dark back of a manatee coming up for air and filling us in on the history of the 'Glades.

Yes, there were narrow mangrove island waterways overhung by twisted tree branches, and, yes, I did succumb to a feeling of otherworldliness, even though I knew that the traffic of Alligator Alley was only a short distance away.

But a lengthy drought had reduced the water level to under two inches in many places, making it too dry for 'gators. We did make friends with a raccoon and spotted turkey vultures circling overhead, waiting for their next meal.

We weren't disappointed with our airboat ride, though. And we certainly weren't disappointed with the Marriott, which stretches along three-and-a-half miles of beautiful white beach and offers lots of activities for adults and children alike.

We're not golfers, so we didn't take advantage of the Joe Lee course; nor did we head out into the Gulf to fish. We did, however, make sure we took a dip in all three of the Marriott's pools. (The kids took particular delight in "Dive-In Movies," family entertainment shown on a screen at night beside one of the pools.) I also made time for a massage.

The Marco Island Marriott offers various escape packages, including trips into the 'Glades. For more information call (800) 438-4373 or (941) 394-2511.-Kay Kipling

Swim with dolphins. Unless you visit a theme park, you can enjoy Florida's dolphins only from afar; but we've found a place where you can get up close to these elusive creatures.

It's in Duck Key, one of the "Middle Keys" that most tourists speed through on their way to Key West. Here, the main attraction is the Hawk's Cay Resort and its "Dolphin Connection," part of a 12-year-old marine research program.

After a brief introduction on how to approach the dolphins in the resort's enclosed saltwater lagoon, children as young as five can help feed them, and adults can climb into the water with them-under the supervision of marine biologists.

In high season, the resort hosts as many as 20 people per session, but on the day I participated, there was just me and a man from New Jersey who exclaimed that he'd waited 44 years to "do something like this." Twenty minutes later, we were kissing live dolphins.

They charmed us with their playful chatter and distinctive squeals, and at their trainers' commands, they leapt high above our heads in a series of acrobatic maneuvers.

Then our trainer asked us to wrap our arms around them. When I slid my arm beneath mine, I could feel its throbbing heartbeat in the palm of my hand. It was a grand moment.

The resort is the only place to stay on Duck Key. Fresh from a $50 million renovation, it has a convention center, private lagoon, several spacious pools, a full-service marina, kayak and fishing charters and massage services.

All of the villas have water views and fully equipped kitchens. If you still crave the debauchery of Key West, you're just 60 miles north. And you're only five hours away from home. For info, call Hawk's Cay Resort at (888) 443-6393 or visit Haire

Discover an ancient city. St. Augustine is the oldest city in America, which makes it an appealing change from all the new towns and communities all over the state. Here's a quick list of what we enjoyed most.

Castillo de San Marcos is a genuinely creepy Spanish fort that was completed in 1695. British troops were so enraged by their inability to take the fort in 1702 that they burned the entire town down around it. The dank halls are said to be haunted by the spirits of prisoners who died in its windowless cellblocks. Try to visit in the morning or early evening to get the full effect.

We also loved the Lightner Museum, which has been called the "Smithsonian of the South." Originally built by Henry Flagler in 1889 as the Alcazar Hotel, this mammoth building once contained health spas, steam baths and the world's largest indoor swimming pool. After the Depression, Otto Lightner purchased the hotel to house his many-and often bizarre-collections. Among them are massive, intricate blown-glass sculptures from several World's Fairs, including a glass piston machine with movable parts. There's even a room filled with 18th and 19th-century musical contraptions that whiz, ring, rattle and sing. You'll also see exquisite antique glass, ceramics and sculpture.

Darkness imbues this mysterious city with a preternatural chill, so it's no surprise that ghost tours roam the city by night. But you're much better off grabbing a map and prowling alone. After all, how scary is any ghost when there are 20 people chasing it?

In St. Augustine, you must stay at one of the many bed-and-breakfast inns that line the historic district. We chose Casa de Sueños, a beautiful, turn-of-the-century Mediterranean inn. Its five rooms are elegantly furnished, and three have whirlpool baths beneath crystal chandeliers. Breakfast is served in a lovely dining room where arched floor-to-ceiling windows filter in air and sunlight. Casa de Sueños, 20 Cordova St., St. Augustine, FL (904) 824-0887 or (800) 824-0804. St. Augustine Chamber of Commerce (904) 829-5681.-Pat Haire

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