Florida’s Biggest Stadium Does Not Have A Football Field

Spring training is just around the bend in Florida and I’m teaching a class as an adjunct in the building almost next door to the largest spring training stadium in the Florida Grapefruit League, George Steinbrenner Park, spring home of the New York Yankees.

Steinbrenner Field, Tampa, Florida

Florida’s Biggest Spring Field Has Exact Yankee Stadium Field Dimensions

I’m getting out at the time the spring games start in Florida so I just realized I might have to consider a new route home to avoid a traffic delay on busy Dale Mabry Highway.  The oldest spring training facility anywhere is down in Bradenton – beloved MeKechnie Field (1923) now used by the Pittsburgh Pirates.  It’s been renovated twice but not moved from what is now a residential neighborhood.

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Bradenton’s MeKechnie Field (1923) Is The Oldest

Floridians love their sports stadiums but the largest stadium is not a football stadium.  It is the second largest sports facility in the United States – the Daytona International Speedway with a capacity of 167,785 seats.   As you probably now suspect the nation’s nation stadium is the Indianapolis Speedway.

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This Is Florida’s Largest Sports Stadium

College football stadiums beat professional football stadiums in Florida.  Ben Griffin Stadium, seating 88,548 and home to the University of Florida Gators, is the largest football stadium.  Their rival Florida State University plays at Doak Campbell Stadium, capacity 79,560, second in size.

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The Home of the Gators

The largest professional football stadium is Hard Rock Stadium (once known as Sun Life Stadium), capacity of 78,468, home of the Miami Dolphins.  But it is also the playing field of the University of Miami.  The stadium is not in the City of Miami, but in Miami Gardens.

When the Orlando City Soccer team started play in the 1936 Florida Citrus Bowl (capacity 70,158), they were playing in the large professional soccer field in the nation.

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Look Carefully, Folks, Floridians At A Soccer Match?

You could argue that stadiums tell you football rules over baseball in the Sunshine State.  The largest professional baseball stadium is domed Marlins Park, home of the Miami Marlins, with a capacity of just 36,742, and the Tampa Bay Rays play in another indoor field, Tropicana Field with the smallest (31,042 seats) in the MLB.

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Florida Baseball Is An Indoor Sport – The Marlins

Professional Basketball is competitive size wise in Florida.  The Miami Heat’s downtown American Airlines Arena was a capacity of 21,000, just 1,000 more than the Miami Magic’s Orlando Amway Center.

At the college level Florida State University’s Donald L. Tucker Arena with 13,800 seats is the fourth largest in the powerful ACC with has Syracuse in the Carrier Dome, seating 35,446, the nation’s biggest college basketball site.  Then I discovered that tiny Jacksonville University is playing games in the Jacksonville Memorial Auditorium which fits 14,091 seats.

Professional Hockey is doing near capacity business in a state where no lakes freeze over. The largest hockey rink is the BB&T Center in Sunrise, home of the Florida Panthers.  It’s official capacity is 20,737.

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Guess What Sport Are These Skybox Fans Watching?  See below

But not all stadiums in Florida showcase the biggest team sports.  The Gainesville Raceway, now known as Auto Plus Raceway, is a quarter-mile drag strip surrounded by 30,000 seats and VIP Skybox Suites which you associate with a football stadium.

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Gainesville and the Gatornationals Are A Dragstrip Showdown

Tennis is still popular in Florida and the Tennis Center at Crandon Park is not used for other sports.  It has a capacity of 13,800 seats so it resembles a basketball arena.

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The Tennis Center At Crandon Park – Williams Sisters Turf

 

 

 

 

 

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It’s Art Festival Time In Florida

February and March are big months for huge outdoor art festivals in Florida.

Last weekend was one of my favorite events to visit – the 20th annual art festival in downtown Dunedin.  Main Street was filled with artists and craftsmen from all around Florida and all over the United States. This small town has the ideal location for the park with the artists is surrounded by good restaurants, even some that accept pets.

It is an expensive investment to come to Florida and exhibit at the art festival circuit.  There is a processing fee at each fair, strict requirements for quality photographs of samples of your best work and one of your outdoor exhibit tent, usually limited to 10 feet by 10 feet. If you are accepted and there are no guarantees, you must pay entry fees.

While the larger fairs have several thousand dollars in prizes, the real reward is finding customers and that requires knowing the Florida market.  There may be more upscale buyers in Mount Dora and Winter Park or Palm Beach or Sarasota, but your art work might find a major niche with nature lovers and outdoor people anywhere.

Here are some of my favorite art shows coming up in the next few weeks:

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The Naples Show Surrounded By  Royal Palms

The Naples National Art Festival (February 18 & 19) fills Cambier Park with 260 exhibitors in the heart of prosperous Naples.  The art market here is traditional and more upscale than most Florida festivals.

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Fish, Boats, and Sunsets Sell Best in Key West

If you prefer a more funky exhibition of boat and landscape paintings than the Old Island Days Art Festival (February 25 and 26) in the heart of Historic Old Town in Key West is the place to go.  It is a tropical themed show of only art work, no crafts.

On March 3 and 4 in Fort Lauderdale is the 29th Annual Las Olas Art Fair with over 200  artists lining Broward County’s best boulevard for shops and restaurants.

Across the state on March 4 and 5 is the Gasparilla Festival of the Arts now located on the Hillsborough River in downtown Tampa at Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park.  327 exhibitors pack the grounds next to the Tampa Museum of Art.

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Big Money and Big Buildings Highlight Gasparilla Art

The big prize money recruits not just highly successful artists, but many massive and unusual exhibits.

There is little protection from the sun at Gasparilla, but that is not the case with the Under The Oaks Art Festival on March 10 to 12 held in scenic Riverside Drive in Vero Beach.  This show attracts 215 very competitive artists and artisans.

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Vero Beach Artists Get Oak Tree Shade

 

 

If you prefer to catch some sun on the beach, you can do that at the 29th Annual Palm Beach Gardens Medical Center Art Fest held right off South US Highway 1 at Juno Beach.

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Palm Beach Art On Beach (David R. Randall)

Whatever the environment – riverside or beach side, urban or rural – the quality of art work at these winter shows seems to get more impressive every season.

 

 

 

 

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How Can You Tell A Real Floridian From All the Visitors and Newcomers?

This is the time of year when Floridians feel they are outnumbered on the highways and stores by visitors and “snowbirds.”

I know some people don’t like that term.  Texas calls them “winter Texans” and that’s OK with me.  But dozens of winter people belong to clubs using the term, including some 100,000 Canadians that are now enjoying our beaches and attractions.

If you wonder if we Floridians can tell apart the natives from the visitors  now that rental cars don’t use special plates that benefit our criminal crowd – the answer is a big, fat YES.  Just like a Parisian can tell the Americans as they walk past the cafes, Floridians can be distinguished from our visitors.

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Funny But Elderly Floridians Would Never Sit Here

Here are some observations I have made while living in “The Warm Winter Weather State” since 1961:

When we Floridians enter a large parking lot, we know where the few shady spots are located and if there is no decent shade, we park our cars facing  away from the sun. If we have a sun shade, it will be silver and custom fitted.

We only smile when a tourist bitches about the heat in July, particularly if they are spending a mint at Walt Disney World.

Unless it is frigid cold, we wear flip flops to nearly every occasion. 

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When we hear lightning even if it is far away, we are the first to run for cover.  I don’t care if there isn’t a cloud above our heads.

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This Is Not Disney’s New Nighttime Production

Floridians won’t accept an invitation in the summer to go to Walt Disney World unless your visitors have reservations for a window seat at California Grill about the time the Magic Kingdom is closing.

Floridians won’t leave their beach vacation when they hear a hurricane has entered the Eastern Caribbean.  We got a day or two of nice weather and can get home in a few hours.

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You Decided To Vacation In July – Hot Rain Hot Rain

Floridians don’t foolishly jump off a pier without looking.  I can’t list all the living things that like the shade of a pier.

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At Least This Is Saltwater – No Gators

Floridians do not feed seagulls or pelicans especially if we are at a family picnic.

We are the first to head in the opposite direction when we see an alligator on the pathway in front of us.

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Isn’t That Jud’s bike and Mary’s?

We will look bored when people start talking about how things are done elsewhere.  After-all,  you came to Florida – we didn’t go where you came from.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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US27: The Old Alternate Route To Miami

Most people from the Northeast heading to Miami or the Keys simply take I-95 along the Atlantic Ocean.  Those coming from the Midwest usually leave I-75 at the Florida Turnpike and slice across Florida through Orlando.

Before the development of Interstates you had to drive through the crowded coastal towns on US1 on the East Coast or US41 on the Gulf Coast.  Unless you wanted to avoid all the vacation traffic and go down the middle of the state on US27.  That route has built up like the rest of Florida, but even today it gives you another taste of Florida – a more Old Florida, small town feel.

If you head south off I-4 on US 27 (Exit 55), you are just minutes from Walt Disney World and the congestion of booming metropolitan.  You realize new gated communities are springing up, advertising how many minutes they are from the Mouse.   At Haines City (US 17) you pass over the Railroad Line used by Amtrak’s Silver Star and Silver Meteor and maybe soon Florida’s Super Train.

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quarter-cloverleaf interchanges on the southeast and northwest corners of the bridge over Interstate 4  at Exit 55.  At FL 540 you realize LEGOLAND FLORIDA is just four miles to the east.  If you’re an old person like be you remember the lakeside area as the site of Cypress Gardens, perhaps Florida’s first all natural attraction.  If you have small kids, Legoland is for you with a wild hotel, water park, rides, and restaurants.

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The Legoland Hotel Is Not All Legos

Further south US27 becomes a six-lane divided super-highway for you are entering a region of South Central Florida Lakes and a booming snowbird population.  At FL60 you reach LAKE WALES with its beautiful Bok Tower seated on the tallest hill in peninsular Florida.  Its gardens and ponds are worth a visit.  Spook Hill, an optical illusion of rolling up a hill, is still a popular stop as is a look at downtown Lake Wales.

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Bok Tower and Gardens: Peaceful & Beautiful

Going southward, you realize the Central Highlands of rolling hills are vanishing, but the area is dotted with attractive small lakes for fishing and boating.  If you want to retire to Florida and don’t like the more costly coastal cities, this region is attracting a population boom.

As you pass Lake Leila and Lake Anoka and South Florida Community College by Lake Glenada , you are reaching the town of AVON PARK, the oldest town in Highlands County.   A left (east) off Fl 64 will take you into the historic downtown district where the JACARANDA HOTEL will take you back to the 1920’s.  Down the street is the Depot Museum, with some exhibits in a California Zephyr passenger car.

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The Jacaranda Hotel Open Since The 1920s

Ten miles south is LAKE PLACID, known as the “City of Murals.”  The entire downtown area is flooded with full building sized murals showing the history, people, and economy of the community.  A nice attraction here is the Henscratch Farms and Winery, which includes not just wine tasting tours, but strawberry picking and animal activities and a country store.

Lake Placid Is Filled With Murals

US27 now begins to curve around the southwestern shore of Lake Okeechobee, an enormous lake that should be seen to believe.  The next town is Clewiston, center of Florida’s sugar industry.  Nearby is the Big Cypress Seminole Reservation with the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki-Museum, Florida’s best Indian center since it is surrounded by nature and manned by tribal members.   Air-boat rides, nature walks, and educational programs are part of this complex.

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Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum Is Real Seminole

Sebring is the home of the famous Grand Prix but extreme sports fans know Clewiston and Sebring are centers for hang-gliding, parachuting, and learning to fly all types of aircraft.  You are less than an hour from the big populations on the East Coast.

At rustic Moore Haven the road crosses the Mamie Langdale Memorial Bridge over the Caloosahatchee Canal which allows boats to reach Fort Myers and the Gulf of Mexico.  Forty miles away on the east side of Lake Okeechobee is the route for boats going into the Atlantic.  This is Florida’s onlt cross-state canal and most of it is natural waters.

When US27 crosses the interchange with I-75 and Alligator Alley, the terrain reveals the upper reaches of the Everglades-related wilderness and large recreational areas.   The road is curving eastward on the southside of Lake Okeechobee.  A good place for boat trips and a picnic by the Big Lake is at South Bay, a town destroyed by a thirty foot tidal wave when the Hurricane of 1928 rushed across the shallow lake.  Over 2,000 people and there is a mass grave monument in a local park.

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Over 2,000 People Drowned In A Tidal Wave

As US27 heads toward the Gold Coast, the area becomes swampy and power lines reveal that Broward County’s suburban developments are intruding into the wetlands.

Keep going east and US29 becomes North 36th Street in Midtown Miami, just 4 miles from US 1.  It is mind-blowing to see how fast the scenery changes from flat wetlands to urban sprawl.

 

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The Annual Walt Disney World Food Challenge

Every year restaurants are added and some vanish at the resorts, four parks, and Disney Springs complex at Walt Disney World.  As an annual member and nearby Florida resident since WDW opened in 1971, I sometimes feel like a Disney cast member rather than a visitor.

Our viewpoints toward the food, the prices, and the service have often changed.  We think more and more people want value even if most everything is resort priced. Here are our choices for 2017 in major categories.

PIZZA:   Besides overpriced pizza, it is shocking that there are places which preheat frozen pizzas that taste like cardboard.  It is appropriate that the choice is VIA NAPOLI located in the Italian pavilion of Epcot.  The massive stove ovens representing Italian volcanoes fill the Florentine open structure with smells and the giant pizza (get 1/2 and 1/2) and family style house salad will feed four football linemen.  They even try to take walk-ins.

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Volcanic pizza and more at Via Napoli, Italy Epcot

ITALIAN:  Maybe because of good profit margins, Italian restaurants abound at WDW. Never impressed at Magic Kingdom’s Tony’s Town Square which requires sunglasses if you eat in the garden room. Tutto Italia at Epcot is good food, beautiful room, but pricey. Mama Melrose’s clever New Yorker is best for families with its fun desserts. Our choice is IL MULINO NEW YORK TRATTORIA at the Swan for service, huge menu, and quality food.

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The Open Kitchen at Il Mulino at the Swan

CHINESE: Because of the rise of terrific Pan-Asian restaurants, the entire WDW area has a weak selection of high quality Chinese places. For a basic Chinese menu and good prices, we have to pick almost by default the improved NINE DRAGONS at Epcot China. The room is lovely, the service good, and there is an attempt to service families, a major WDW concern.

JAPANESE:  Morimoto Asia at Disney Springs is a glamorous Pan-Asian place worth a visit particularly for its second floor sushi bar.  My wife and I, however, love the menu and service at TOKYO DINING.

SUSHI: KIMONOS at the Swan but beware there is also hard nose Karaoke most nights.

GERMAN:  This is a wasteland.  The beer and entertainment at Epcot’s BIERGARTEN is fun, but the buffet is costly and predictable except for the desserts.  If you’re very clever you might arrive at the last minutes of lunch buffet, pay for lunch, but get the dinner buffet.  (Don’t tell them where you read this.)  Prices vary based upon time of season.

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A Little Bit of Bavaria in Orlando

STEAKHOUSE:  This is perhaps the toughest competition and everyone has high prices for the best steaks.  If I hung out with the guys I would pick Shulas at the Dolphin.  If I like a family atmosphere, and a youthful zing, I would go to Le Cellier at Canada in Epcot. If you are a romantic couple who like a classic room with a poolside view with a veteran serving staff, go to the YACHTSMAN at the Yacht Club Resort.

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The Yachtsman: Where The Steak Is The Show

OUTDOOR DINING:  If you’re in the park, getting a waterside table at Epcot in England’s ROSE and CROWN is great.  Obtaining a table when the fireworks start is much harder.  For sheer enjoyment, I select staying out at the floating Dockside Bar section of THE BOATHOUSE at Disney Springs.  You can order from the main menu and watch the aqua-cars float past.

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MEXICAN: Most prices at Epcot Mexico would scare people used to hometown restaurants.  The San Angel Inn is unique in its volcano lagoon setting but food has become less original.  La Hacienda de San Angel had better food, but failed to take advantage of its waterside location.  You should visit FRONTERA COCINA at Disney Springs even if the menu is from Rick Bayless.

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The New Frontera Cocina at Disney Springs

FOOD WITH A VIEW: Until they put a rooftop restaurant on the Grand Floridian, the CALIFORNIA GRILL at the top of the Contemporary Resort has it all: good food, good service, and the fireworks of the Magic Kingdom.

CHARACTER MEALS:  This is a major event for most small kids and often a major headache.  Please study in detail the prices and characters.  CINDERELLA’S ROYAL TABLE at the Magic Kingdom books up months ahead.  Dinner can cost a mint (how about some $320 a bottle Dom Perignon), but there is a breakfast and lunch version. Also, note this is not a buffet style place and with all the princesses, boys may hate it.

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The Very Upscale Cinderella’s Royal Table

The alternative is the princess buffet at AKERHAUS RESTAURANT at Epcot Norway. It is less costly, but not all the princesses make each show.  If you have small tots that watch Disney Junior shows, look at the Hollywood & Vine shows at Hollywood Studios.

 

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The Best “Old” Resorts and Hotels In Florida

In Europe a hotel is not old until it passes its 200th birthday, but here in Florida old means the building was constructed before World War II.

As a historian, I enjoy the sometimes laid-back atmosphere and sheer personality of Florida’s many older resorts and hotels.  In reality, many have been so updated in facilities, wireless, the latest spa and exercise facilities, and recreational activities, they compete with the most glamorous new resorts.  Even better some of the older places have the best locations in town or on the beach.

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Like A Castle In Spain Casa Monica

When I visit Saint Augustine, I easily select the 1888 Casa Monica over motel row out on A1A on the beach hotels.  Designed by noted Boston architect Frank W. Smith as the Hotel Codova but the hotel was quickly purchased by railroad magnate Henry Flagler as the “moderate resort” of his trio of Victorian masterpieces, the Casa Monica is now the only one still operating as a hotel.  The Ponce de Leon is now Flagler College and the Alcazar is a museum. The Casa Monica once served as the Courthouse of St. Johns Hotel.

Casa Monica has been restored as it was when Rockefellers and Vanderbilt’s filled the guest list.  My favorite feature of the property is it’s location directly on the City Plaza.  Walk northward into the historic district or walk southward into the wonderful Victorian section of bed and breakfasts and the Oldest House.  You are minutes from Saint Augustine’s downtown restaurants and bars.

If you like the combination of beachfront vistas and great golf facilities, I would drive north thirty minutes to the 1928 Ponte Vedra Inn.   Started by the National Lead Company for employee vacations, the complex has expanded along the Atlantiuc Ocean with 250 rooms and suites.  Across the street at the golf course and tennis complex are more recent rooms at the Lodge.

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The top floor Seahorse Grill is beautiful, but the historic INN dining-room is now the breakfast nook.

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At Henry Flagler’s other Victorian community Palm Beach is, of course, the famous Breakers, but I would like to suggest if you are more interested in shopping and doing the Palm Beach restaurant and night life scene to consider two smaller, highly related Florida Boom Time resorts.

It is hard to imagine that a few years ago people were talking foreclosure over The Brazilian Court.  This 80 room downtown Spanish Colonial near all the Worth Avenue shops was recently voted by Travel and Leisure the #12 Resort in the USA.  The rooms are unreal and Café Boulud is named after the restaurant’s famous chef, which attests to the quality of this place.

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Urban But Sophisticated

Down the street at 363 Cocoanut Row, surrounded by glamorous stores is the four star Chesterfield, which started in 1926 as The Lido, then the Vineta.  Totally renovated in 1937 by architect John Volk, this pet friendly place is a Red Carnation Hotel.   The leathery Leopard Lounge and Restaurant is a hang-out for many of the island’s elite.

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The Chesterfield of Palm Beach

Key West has a lot of quaint bed and breakfast spots and a lot of new small hotels, but if you want to step back into old Key West, you should look into the Marquesa Hotel, made from four 1884 conch houses.  The New England style complex with striped awnings does not allow kids under 14. With its suites with private terraces and old fashioned wicker furniture, this hotel is a romantic island setting.

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I can’t write this article without noting the Pink Palace on Saint Petersburg Beach – the Loews Don Cesar.  Built in 1928 by Thomas Rowe and an immediate hit with people like Babe Ruth and F. Scott Fitzgerald, the resort has the best beach of any of the listed resorts.  In World War II it became a military convalescent home and then an empty landmark until rescued in 1972 by William Bowman.

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The Pink Palace Of Pinellas County

The restoration turned the beachside resort into the population of several motion pictures and brought back the celebrities.  South of the resort is laidback Pass-A-Grille Beach with seafood restaurants and boat tours to the islands of Tampa Bay.

And last, a place just ten miles south of my old residence on Englewood Beach:

It’s the winter season and the 1913 Gasparilla Inn and Club on Gasparilla Island is open for business.  What makes this big white resort so special is not the shell-filled beach, but the Pete Dye golf course, the 250 slip marina, and the best tarpon fishing spot in the world.   You can stay in one of the resort rooms or in one of the 74 cottage rooms, a favorite with J. P. Morgan and Henry Ford.

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Next time A Walt Disney World Food Challenge

 

 

 

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January Is The Month To Hike Florida’s Natural Treasures

January is the best time to visit and hike the many natural attractions found in Florida.  The mosquito problem is almost negative and the temperatures may be cool but often refreshing.  Even the animal and bird life seems more active in catch the sunshine.

Some attractions need no introduction.  This is a good month to travel by automobile, air-boat, or kayak into the Everglades.  There is no place this size in the nation – a ninety mile wide shallow river of grass creeping southward to the sea.  Outside of the Amazon, it is actually the widest river in the sea and it is minutes from Miami’s urban sprawl.

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Florida has a lot of interesting swamps to visit.  The Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary outside of Naples has amazing 2.5 mile boardwalk into the swamps and hammocks.  Well marked and very popular, the boardwalk allows people who might never travel into a swamp the opportunity to see gators and birds, and small animals in their natural setting.  The creatures seem to know that humans are not leaving their wooden walkway.

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Wildlife At Every Turn

The Florida Keys are instantly recognizable around the world and while the bridges are wonderful and Key West is situated one hundred miles away, visitors should stop off at some of the smaller, less developed keys.  This is a decent time to snorkel and scuba even if the waters are cooler.

Florida has more springs than any other place on earth – some 33 first magnitude springs.  This time of year is a good time to see the manatees seeking warmer waters at Crystal River or Homosassa Springs, along the Gulf Coast.  Wakulla Springs, south of Tallahassee, is not crowded in January.

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Three major springs are in Crystal River Springs

A sinkhole may not seem like a good hiking location, but the Devils Millhopper Geological State Park, north of Gainesville and just off I-75, is a unique natural limestone treat.  Walk down stairways 120 feet down into another ecological system.  Bring a jacket as the temperature will quickly drop!

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Go Deep Into The Sinkhole To Another World

If you like just to drive and get out, or take a few bikes with your automobile, you will find many scenic trips in Florida.  The Big Bend Scenic Byway, starting south of Tallahassee, winds two hundred miles in and out of the Panhandle’s vast National Forests.  There are numerous parks and scenic stops along the road.

You can drive fifty plus miles on the Indian River Lagoon National Scenic Byway along the lovely Indian River Lagoon, an enormous estuary traveling south into the subtropical zone.   You can see the vegetation and trees change.

If you like caves, I suggest a visit to Florida Caverns State Park, some three miles north of Marianna on FL166 not far from I-10.  It is Florida’s only dry (air-filled) cave open for public tours for people like me who fear caves.

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Florida Caverns State Park

I have to include Lake Okeechobee for fishermen and hikers.  It is the largest freshwater lake located inside one state in the continental United States.  Bugs and humidity will haunt you here in the summer, but the winter is a great time to hike.

 

 

 

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