Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Highways and Byways in Hidden Florida

It seems unbelievable, but there are still parts of the Florida that have not been overrun by mega-storied condos, McMansions or motels. If you'd like to see it, take a ride on Route 19 through the Ocala National Forest, as we did on our way to St Augustine Beach. I had stumbled on the beach years ago and decided to head there, hoping against hope that it had not been spoiled. I remembered it as a place frozen in time with huge swathes of dunes in between small motels and beach bungalows. It was the kind of place that had a laundromat on the seaward side of the beach strip.

Well, the laundromat was gone. I think my hotel was built partially on the site. And there were new hotels, but I'm happy to report that it has retained much of its character, perhaps because there isn't a building taller than 3 stories, perhaps because there is room to breathe there, despite the jumble of older cottages on the beach streets. The beach is magnificent, the sunrises breathtaking. The water, however, is chilly for this Gulf bather, and rip currents are common. But I loved it then, and I loved it now. There is no pretension, just a relaxing beachside resort, the kind we enjoyed as children.

Major development has taken place on the town side. Still development is to be expected and is not necessarily a bad thing. Now if you ride down the A1A along the coast and you will see much that development has missed. As you pass lonely outposts of condo developments or the occasional town, you run into surprising, unspoiled stretches.
Not too far south of St. Augustine Beach is Fort Matanzas, site of a Federal park. It's an easy on and easy off, none of this driving into the dark unknown. Here whiting jump, and the water is all shades of azure against a landscape of sand and native scrub, and you can hear yourself breathe in the solitude. For an interesting stretch veer onto the old A1A where the road straddles the beach. Further down, you'll run into Marineland, a park that has remade itself, amidst various research outposts. In between, there are strata of development. Witness the 20's, 30's, 50's and other assorted decades up to the present. Of the greatest interest, however, are the innumerable parks that lead off the highway, each an adventure awaiting the motorist. The photo above came from just one of those off shoots. Incredible. I am left wondering about all those roads not taken. What did we miss?
What I didn't miss was Daytona Beach with its gargantuan hostelries that dwarf the mere human being. Yet, even here there were vestiges of fifties kitsch. Just not my cup of tea, which reminds me...I've shared some secret places, but don't let anyone else in on them, lest they fall victim to what has happened to much of the rest of the state.

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