Keys to the backwaters: a coastal Florida highway journey | Travel

Away from the overcooked theme parks, there’s a calmer aspect to the Sunshine State, in tune with the ocean and huge wetlands. Florida writer Tim Dorsey takes us on a tour of distant outposts the place small city life nonetheless prospers

Roadside America … a restaurant in Cedar Key, Florida.
Photograph: Arny Raedts/Alamy

To say that Florida has a combined popularity is like saying my president often utters uncommon sentences. We have packs of vacationers wandering the mega-theme parks of higher Orlando like flocks of flightless birds; locust swarms of spring breakers funnelling beers in Panama City earlier than leaving motel rooms trying as if The Who had stayed; and supermodels encumbered with bling filming commercials on Miami Beach.

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Meanwhile, the behaviour of our natives continues to generate the state’s chief export: bizarre headlines. “DUI on a horse: Florida woman arrested after riding on busy road”; “Woman, 68, and younger lover, 49, arrested after being caught having sex in Florida retirement community’s town square”; “Do you take reptiles? Customer throws alligator through drive-thru”; “Woman crashes car on the Overseas Highway while shaving privates.”

But whereas lots of our best-known locations are hyper-stressed cartoons of themselves and others have atrophied on the mud heap of historical past, there’s a third group. Despite a long time of rapacious change, quite a lot of distant cities and hamlets survive as dwelling testimonies to the quaint Florida of yesteryear.

As a begin, head for Cedar Key, on the Gulf of Mexico, on what’s referred to as the Nature Coast. Your journey begins on a distant freeway in the midst of nowhere (truly the city of Otter Creek, inhabitants 121). After leaving that metropolis behind, flip south-west on to a lonely highway by 20 miles of marshland and nothingness. Eventually, tiny bridges seem, then ramshackle buildings on stilts out within the water.

Causeway communities … much of the western Florida coastal fringe is backed by vast wetlands

Causeway communities … a lot of the western Florida coastal fringe is backed by huge wetlands Photograph: Carlton Ward Jr

In the 1860s, Cedar Key was on the verge of being a increase city. The railroad from Fernandina Beach, on the Atlantic coast, had its western terminus right here, and port site visitors flourished. Then one other railroad was constructed additional south, drawing the delivery business right down to Tampa, and leaving Cedar Key to dry up. Or so everybody thought.

Instead, it merely froze in time, persevering with at its personal unhurried rhythm. It nonetheless appears like Key West did in 1900. It is so intimate, so small city – not a site visitors gentle in sight, a tiny grocery the place locals put up notices about lost animals, and a comfort retailer the place the clerk locks up and runs forwards and backwards to the liquor retailer – that it may be utterly explored on foot. So slip on these flip-flops and head to Dock Street, the place sun-bleached wood buildings stand over the gulf.

There’s a disused lighthouse and an outdated seafood packing home, plus eating places and different venerable buildings on Second Street, with rusting roofs and gingerbread balconies. The Island Hotel and Restaurant, established 1859, has its personal ghost and is a superb historic place to remain (doubles from $90 B&B). As for eating, you’ll be able to’t throw a rock on this city with out it ricocheting off three eating places serving a number of the most interesting seafood, significantly shellfish, you’ve ever had. Climb the advert hoc boardwalk at both finish of the wharf on Dock Street, and take your choose.

View from Bert’s Bar & Grill, Matlacha

View from Bert’s Bar & Grill, Matlacha

After sundown, an ominous fog typically rolls in. More typically than not, it’s truly a tremendous mist of sea spray drifting over the islands from waves crashing the western shore and taking pictures excessive over the protecting boulders, drenching you in case you don’t be careful. The fog/mist that glows below the few road lights lend the vibe that Wild West gunslingers are about to sq. off on the street. The backside line: depart your automotive parked in your total keep, and simply stroll round an island that’s one large seaport museum, and neglect what century you’re in.

Now return to Otter Creek, then drive south for 4 hours or so, by Tampa and Sarasota, to Matlacha and, past Pine Island, Cabbage Key.

Approaching from Fort Myers, the very first thing you see is a drawbridge. To the left is Bridgewater Inn (doubles from $155), on stilts, with waves lapping below the rooms. Across the bridge, it’s the colors that first splash guests within the face: vibrant inexperienced, pink, purple, yellow, lime and orange, painted over every little thing. Matlacha (pronounced MAT-la-shay) is an outdated fishing outpost turned funky arts group.

Tarpon Lodge, Cabbage Key

Tarpon Lodge, Cabbage Key

Technicolor paint covers rows of low-slung cottages that home artwork studios and craft boutiques. The entire place is lower than a mile lengthy. In entrance of 1 place are sculptures of herons, turtles and an alligator with a golf membership; one other has a mural of mermaids. The subsequent a pirate and a gold manatee. The put up workplace sports activities a portray of a dolphin carrying a mail bag. Inside the outlets are stained-glass tree frogs, driftwood lobsters and big noticed geckos hammered out of metallic sheets. But it’s sizzling, you’re hungry and it’s time to drop anchor.

Some buildings home tiny guesthouses, similar to Knoll’s Court and the Angler’s Inn (doubles from $110, on Facebook), and delightfully un-fancy eating places, together with the Olde Fish House Marina and Bert’s Bar & Grill. It’s virtually like a zoning ordinance that in case you’re serving contemporary seafood, you need to have eating tables with intoxicating views of the water.

From there, push on west to Pine Island. This space is militantly protected environmentally, which suggests thick stands of mangroves harbouring a teeming ecosystem of marine life and wading birds (there are kayaks and fishing guides for rent). A number of miles north-west, by wilderness and palm farms, is Pineland, and historic Tarpon Lodge (doubles from $175 B&B). But proper now you’re in search of a ship to take you throughout Pine Island Sound, the place dolphins typically comply with your vessel and repeatedly leaping out of the water to test you out, to Cabbage Key, a 100-acre mangrove island home to the Cabbage Key Inn (doubles from $99 room solely).

Cocoa Beach pier in Cape Canaveral.

Cocoa Beach pier in Cape Canaveral. Photograph: Alamy

There’s nothing pretentious concerning the open-air restaurant and intimate bar, with stuffed game fish on the elements of the partitions that aren’t plastered with greenback payments signed by prospects, together with music legend and Florida resident Jimmy Buffett. There are not any automobiles, and no roads, however there’s a nature path circling the island by dense tropical vegetation, and a classic wood water tower with an commentary deck for a panoramic view of the encircling islands.

Next, head 4 hours east throughout the peninsula throughout the state to Cocoa Beach, one other one-time increase city, on this case from the house race of the 1960s and early 70s, when new suburbs bulged with engineers and astronauts raced Corvettes alongside the shore. It started petering out with the Space Shuttle programme, and is sort of again to the sleepy group it was when there was simply the 1848 lighthouse warning seafarers away from Cape Canaveral. But its up to date guests’ advanced is without doubt one of the most fascinating vacationer points of interest within the state. On show are objects from worn spacesuits to unappetising tubes of 60-year-old zero-gravity meals, plus house capsules from the Mercury and Gemini programmes, which now look extra like barrels that went over Niagara Falls.

Watching a rocket launch from Cape Canaveral on Cocoa Beach, just to the south of the launch site, Florida,

Watching a satellite tv for pc launch from Cape Canaveral on Cocoa Beach, simply to the south of the launch web site. Photograph: Joel Carillet/Getty Images

The finest characteristic, nonetheless, is the bus excursions of the launch pads and different landmarks. Main excursions depart each jiffy for the Apollo and Space Shuttle websites, however there are a number of less-jammed add-ons. My favorite is the Early Space tour to Canaveral air pressure station, the place the primary satellites and astronauts had been launched by crews in concrete bunkers, that you just get to go inside.

Unlike with most Florida seashores, the pristine shores again on the town are dependably uncrowded. And the historic epicentre of native social life is Cocoa Beach Pier. Back when Cocoa Beach was giving beginning to the east coast browsing scene, the pier housed the early incarnation of the well-known Ron Jon Surf Shop (now in an enormous, garish birthday cake of a constructing close by). Today, the massive, weathered boardwalk hosts a string of eating places, bars and seashore boutiques, together with a tiny tiki bar on the far finish, with frosty drinks and gusts of ocean breeze. But its most interesting characteristic is the view over reflective water in direction of the cape. Look on-line for the schedule of satellite tv for pc launches, sit out right here on a silent evening and watch in childlike wonderment as a tail of flame sparkles upward into orbit.

Or, if none of that’s to your style, we all the time have the Mad Teacup trip at Disney.
• Tim Dorsey’s newest novel is The Pope of Palm Beach (HarperCollins, £19.30)

Way to go

Virgin Atlantic flies to Tampa from £463 return; Norwegian flies to Fort Lauderdale from £287 return and Orlando from £328; Wow flies to Miami from £300 return. All from Gatwick.

Top deal
American Sky has a 10-night self-drive holiday in Florida, with one or two nights in Miami, Cocoa Beach, St Augustine, St Pete Beach, Naples and Key West. From £1,299pp together with flights, lodging and automotive rent.

When to go
May has common temperatures of 25C and fewer vacationers. June to August is sizzling (highs of 33C), humid and moist, and September is peak hurricane season. October and November are heat and dry (early 20s), however common temperatures don’t drop beneath 16C even in January.

Back to nature
Explore the Everglades, the US’s largest tropical wilderness, on a self-guided kayaking and tenting journey alongside the 99-mile Wilderness Waterway (allow required). From April-October, 1000’s of big sea turtles nest on the seashore on the Canaveral nationwide seashore. The Ocala nationwide forest has 219 miles of trails and over 600 lakes, rivers and is derived.

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