Vacationing and Taking Trips In The Era of the Virus

Enjoying Florida in the New Normal

The rapid spread of the Coronavirus (COVID-19) has had an enormous impact on the vacation plans and travel activities of Americans and people all over the globe.  With concerns about future outbreaks, the effectiveness of vaccines, and the reality that some virus strains can find ways to mutate, it is unlikely that people will quickly revert to their old habits.

I live in Florida, the only state that gets over 100 million visitors per year and is the home of the world’s greatest family entertainment complex of amusement parks and attractions.  Walt Disney World and Universal may be opening slowly but with so many restrictions and limitations one may wonder if a visit is essential.  And besides, visitors coming and going face the possibility of 14-day isolations.

As a person who writes about travel and history, I question what I recommend in selecting vacation and trip activities.  What skills and options should I include? As a college history professor for fifty years, I tend to look at what might be long term trends and changes in our society and culture.

Let me state then the approach I will take in more and more of what I write and why I will orient my present and future writing.  These may reflect some of the trends which I think may be more part of “the New Normal” in vacations and trips:

DRIVING TOURS and EXPERIENCES:  I have always been impressed how European cities provide maps, guidance, and options for all types of people. My mother-in-law had health issues and little money while raising five kids so on the weekends she would pack a picnic lunch, take a full-day trip in the old automobile, sight-see and only stop if something met her criteria, and dine in a park.

Kayaking and Snorkeling Provide Independent Social Distancing

I think many people will be leery about going to a restaurant or any attraction without observing the present options.  Indoor activities such as museums, galleries, and even sporting events will  be looked at in a different way than in 2019.  Safety will join cost and value when I write about any spot in Florida.

The OUTDOORS and ECO-TOURISM, I believe, will become more popular and more important as an option to visitors and residents.  A kayak or snorkel trip is a pretty safe choice for exercise and learning about your destination.  Soft adventures like boardwalk tours and zip lines allow for social distance control in a safer setting.

Florida has one of the most diverse and best State Park Systems and it has been underused by a large segment of our tourist population.  For every famous park destination, there are two or three park options that will be practically deserted on the weekdays.

INSIDER ADVICE in articles usually emphasizes the best food or the most popular attraction, but it should now include options and ideas that relate to health concerns.  Long before the virus I told people that instead of standing in a luncheon crowd to get into a Walt Disney Magic Kingdom restaurant, take the monorail to one of the hotels or the boat to Wilderness Lodge for the lakeside patio restaurant by the Villas.  Better meal, same price, and less crowded and rushed environment.

This summer I will inform you of several new e-books and PODs about Florida travel options, including the dates when these publications will be part of free downloads or reduced prices.

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New Things For Florida Tourists and Vacationeers To See In 2019

This is the time of the year when individuals around the nation make New Year’s Resolutions and also the time Florida Chamber of Commerces start promoting what new things are coming up in the New Year.

For Florida’s all-important tourist industry that means new attractions, new resorts, and even new cruise ships.  Actually the largest cruise ship, the Symphony of the Seas by Royal Caribbean, sailed into the Port of Miami in November.  The ship is (gads) five times larger than the Titanic.

In the theme park industry which heavily impacts the 100 million annual Florida visitors, here are some of the 2019 highlights to come:

Star Wars Galaxy’s Edge (Disney Hollywood Studios) appears to open minus its ultra-fantastic resort hotel around November of 2019.   The Millennium Falcon ride will probably open sooner at Disneyland, but the Orlando site will include the entire Black Spire village on Batin complete with shops, a restaurant, bars, and performers.

floridatraveler STAR WARS HOTEL entrance way

The first floor of new Star Wars hotel won’t open until 2020

Mickey and Minnie’s Runaway Railway (Disney Hollywood Studios) will open in late summer in the huge Chinese Theater complex.  This is the first interactive ride where riders will enter a wild film short featuring Mickey, Minnie, and Goofy.

Harry Potter Themed Roller Coaster (Universal Islands of Adventure) may be solidly located away from the other Potter attractions, but will feature the flying creatures of Wizarding World and be a “family” coaster.  A summer opening is hoped.

FLORIDATRAVELER -busch-gardens-new-roller-coasters

Tigris Roller Coaster (Busch Gardens) will fly this Spring next to Jungala, the tiger compound, and display a very scary l,800 foot layout with speeds of 60 mph.  Most terrifying will be the fact riders will fall backwards at one point.


Lego Movie World  (Legoland) is a new section with a giant play area relating to the Lego film.  There will also be two new rides: an interactive boat ride, the Quest for Chi, an a new adventure in Emmett’s Bricksburg.

Next to theme parks, most Florida towns advertise new resorts and large hotels:

 Last year Miami had a hotel boom with some twelve new resorts and complete makeovers, but more are on the way. Most interesting to be is the arrival in South Florida of Paligroup from Los Angeles.

FLORIDATRAVELER Palimous Miami Beach

The Palihouse Miami Beach

They are opening this Spring Palihouse Miami Beach, a 70-room boutique hotel on Indian Creek Drive, Miami Beach.  The Intracoastal resort is certainly going to be shabby chic eclectic.


A bedroom at Isla Bella is like staying on a ship

Perhaps more exciting will be the debut of the 24 acre Isla Bella Beach Resort on Knight Key in Marathon, almost next to the famous Seven Mile Bridge.  This is the first big resort in the Keys since the destruction of Hurricane Irma and this 199 room, 4 restaurant, 5 pool place will become an instant landmark in the Middle Keys.

In Orlando, Universal is opening two new resorts.  I thought since the theme park filled up its property, they couldn’t continue its hotel boom, but I was wrong.

FLORIDATRAVELER Universals-Endless-Summer-Resort-Surfside-Inn-

The Endless Resort

Universal’s Endless Resort is being built on the location of the old Wet and Wild park at International Drive and Universal Boulevard.  The first stage will have 750 guest rooms with 390 two-bedroom suites.  Additional sections are in the works.

It will be interesting to see how Universal will operate a transportation system on major highways outside their property.

Have a happy holiday and a Merry Christmas.

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Part Two: On The Land

With so many people moving into Florida from large Northern cities, I am often asked questions about the wildlife of Florida and whether they will encounter dangerous situations in their new surroundings.  I must confess that growing up in suburban Massachusetts meant I never saw sharks, alligators, rattlesnakes, and panthers.

PART ONE was about on dangers found in Florida’s 1,350 miles of saltwater coastline and 30,000 lakes. PART Two talks about creatures found on the land.  If you come from the North and settle away from the coast, you may be shocked that 50% of Florida is still forested and a good ten center of the state is too swampy for large-scale habitation.  That does not mean you will encounter dangerous predators.

The Florida Panther

The state animal is a North American cougar and would have been extinct by now due to in-breeding and declining habitat if the State did not import eight Texas female cougars into South Florida.  There may be as many as three hundred panthers left, but unless you live in rural Southwest Florida or Dade County, you are unlikely to see this one in the wild. 

If there is an abundance of small animals and waterfowl, Florida’s state mammal avoids livestock and pets.  Only five sightings have been north of the Caloosahatchee River in the last two years.  I saw one in the wild near Everglades City and was shocked to see it coming out from underneath an elevated shed. While males are 100-160 pounds and females 64-100 pounds, with a shoulder height 29=inches or less, they can vanish in tall grass.

Florida Black Bear

Florida’s largest mammal once covered the entire state, but thanks to management Florida’s bear habitat has increased in the last two decades. Some 4,000 bears live in some seven subpopulations (Southwest Florida, Northeast Florida, the coastal Panhandle (2), the coastal Nature Coast, Big Bend, and the north Everglades.  

Black bears are shy and reclusive. But should never be fed under any circumstance.  Breeding season is June to August when bears are more likely to be risk-takers.  Stand tall and slowly move away. Florida bears are small, but males are still 125 to 400 pounds.  Like the panther, injured bears end in Florida zoos.

PLEASE NOTE:  Florida has many wild animal sanctuary tourist spots. Most of these bears come from circuses and carnivals and are not Florida black bears.

Wild Hogs

The largest dangerous large animal you might encounter in a rural setting are wild hogs. Even in groups, they are not aggressive unless they feel cornered or you have a dog.  Stay away – they are unwelcomed 150-pound visitors. Farmers and ranchers hate hogs for eating up crops and digging holes all over the fields. 

Fencing is essential in rural areas if you have animals or a small garden. How bad is the problem? You can hunt or live trap wild pigs all year. You must give permission to let people hunt wild hogs on your private property, but you will find lots of volunteers. And guess what?  Wild pigs are not Florida natives – those Spanish conquistadors brought them here and they escaped.

Raccoons and Armadillos – Oh My

I tell newly arrived big city Northerners that the only intruders I have experienced in Florida are raccoons and armadillos.  Raccoons are cute to watch, just but do not give them food (they have too many friends).  Keep your garbage cans tightly closed and your dogs on lease (let the dog bark).  There are aggressive raccoons, and many city coons contain rabies and canine distemper.

For many years I was the neighborhood guy to remove armadillos.  A female armadillo with young will love your outdoor storage sheds if you don’t keep the door closed.  They will bite and scratch pets.  I found they like Skippy Crunchy peanut butter but are brilliant in avoiding my cage traps.  A few armadillos do get rabies but in Florida, some armadillos actually can give adults leprosy.

Gators – Please Read PART ONE


I have never seen a CORAL SNAKE in a natural setting despite many hikes into Florida State Parks, but I will continue to keep my eyes on the trail.  Make noise as you walk, and most snakes will flee.  In truth coral snakes are very shy and harmless unless pressured. There are Floridians who have them as human-friendly pets.

Sadly, the Florida scarlet snake and the red rat snake are often killed because they resemble coral snakes.  Most locals know the important way to identify coral snakes by the line, “Red touching yellow will kill a fellow, but red touching black is safe for Jack.” 

Coral snakes have this scary reputation because their venom is second only to the black mamba in toxicity.  But coral snakes are small and a single bite will not kill an adult, but make you quite sick.  The big point that people don’t know about coral snake bites: it sometimes takes 6 to 12 hours before a victim has any symptoms.

Florida has five other poisonous snakes in the RATTLESNAKE and COPPERHEAD family.   Most snakes flee from the sound of feet on the ground and do not like to stay in an open trail. Snake hunters go into fields and woods, not yards.  A herpetologist told me the snake most likely to bite a hand or a pet is the pygmy rattlesnake due to their size and visits to gardens.

Here are some interesting snake facts: only five people die in the entire nation each year due to poisonous snakes. 57% of all bites are caused by people trying to handle a snake.  28% of all those bitten were drinking in the woods. Only 13% of all bites were on legs and feet despite the reality that snakes are not too tall.

Insects, Of Course

It should be no shock that newcomers will complain about Florida’s enormous insect problem more than anything else.  From mansions to mobile homes to Seminole chickee, you can not escape bugs.  Florida has warm weather all year; lots of rain; and a lot of nature.  Unlike the North, every month is a bug month in Florida.

The scariest bug is the Florida Bark SCORPION.  I have never seen one in the wild in all my years, but perhaps my bug man has killed all their food.  Scorpions love messy yards, log piles, and open patio doors where a whisk of air-conditioning fills a hot, humid summer air.  They are dangerous to small pets and babies.

The biggest threat to your Florida home are TERMITES, particularly the subterranean and Formosan who have to be gassed out.  In Florida, Tarzan’s tree house would not be safe.

The most hated bug is the WOOD COCKROACH, which can fly. Florida palmettos are scary large and thrive in dirty yards, dirty garages and dirty houses. Bugs must beware for people get rich killing insects in Florida.  Cockroaches do not kill your home like termites and can be driven into the woods.

What about MOSQUITOES?  Florida has more mosquitoes than any other state because of its tropical warm climate.  I would not like to take a fishing trip in the Everglades in July.  January, fine.   But guess what?  Only Miami and Fort Lauderdale are in the Top 20 Mosquito Cities.  As a tourist state, we know people come to visit our attractions without mosquitoes. New York and LA have more mosquito problems than Orlando.

The one area where the bug-fighters are often on the short side of the war on bugs is at the beach.  BEACH BUGS, like sand flies or no see ums (biting midges) can be a major irritation in Florida, which has more miles of swimmable beaches than any other state in the nation. 

Repellent can help.  Staying in the water always works.  Avoid sweet smells. It would be nice if the State of Florida could hire some bats (but this would only work at night).

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PART ONE: In the Waters of Florida

With so many people moving into Florida from large Northern cities, I am often asked questions about the wildlife of Florida and whether they will encounter dangerous situations in their new surroundings.  I must admit that growing up in suburban Massachusetts meant I never saw sharks, alligators, rattlesnakes, and bears.

PART ONE will comment on dangers found in Florida’s 1,350 miles of saltwater coastline and 30,000 lakes ( over three million acres). While most Florida residents and visitors are concerned with going into the subtropical waters of Florida beaches, it should be noted that Florida’s lakes house 1.5 million alligators.


JELLYFISH  are common in Florida, even some large Portuguese man-o-war.  The basic rule: the longer the tentacle, the more painful a sting can be. Move away from any jellyfish because they have less control of their movement in waves and moving water.

If stung, do not rinse with fresh water nor rub the area. Isopropyl alcohol or vinegar should be poured onto the stinging cells and gloves should be used to remove tentacles with their stinging nematocysts.

FIRE CORAL is a good reason to snorkel or swim three feet from coral formations. There are too many types of fire coral to list: different colors, both sponge-like and hard like.  Most fire coral have whitish tips with the same stinging tentacles as jellyfish. 

Another undesirable of coral reefs, but also seagrass shallows, are SEA URCHINS, the porcupines of the sea.  They are actually cleaning off the algae from coral.  Their needle-like quills require a good dose of hot water and cortisone cream.

BARRACUDA look like a pack of silver, black-eyed torpedoes with scary pointed teeth.  They want to avoid divers and swimmers, but have a bad habit of hanging out in the shady water of a dock.  Do NOT jump off a Florida dock without looking and do NOT swim with flashy jewelry which looks like a barracuda’s favorite snack.  

Clearly SHARKS are the greatest fear of Florida swimmers.  Much of the impact comes from the fact that the media notes Florida having the most shark attacks in the world, with New Smyrna Beach labeled ‘the Shark Bite Capital.”  

Let’s get past the sensationalism. In 2022 Florida had 16 attacks of the worldwide 57 recorded shark attacks.  No one died although two bull shark attacks in Florida resulted in serious surgery. A key point is the majority of attacks were by nurse sharks, who avoid people.

So what gives? A study of Florida shark attacks since 1882 reveal a huge percentage of attacks occur when surfers cross into feeding sharks. The Atlantic Ocean north of Cape Kennedy has four of the top five counties for shark attacks and the ten counties with the most shark attacks are ALL on the Atlantic Ocean.

There is good reason that New Smyrna Beach (Volusia County) gets soi many attacks: surfing, coastal fishing, murky water along Ponce de Leon Inlet caused by boating and moving water which produce lots of baitfish that attacks sharks, and colder water.   Despite its huge scuba and snorkel population, the Florida Keys (Monroe County) have had just 21 known shark attacks since 1882.

THE ADVICE: Do not swim or snorkel at night.  Never go into the ocean with a bloody cut.  Avoid swimming in murky water near inlets or rivers or heavy fishing activity. Stop surfing and wakeboarding if people see groups of sharks.


ALLIGATORS cause the most fear to Florida newcomers, but alligators are leery of humans and sense danger from us. Established urban areas have rooted out most gator habitats, but new subdivisions built into former marshy rural areas are intruding into the reptiles’ habitat. 

Despite dozens of Florida parks located with lakes and along rivers only 17 people have been killed by alligators since 1948 when Florida kept detailed records.  Moreover, these cases reflect the key truths about gators and humans. Almost one-half of all gator attacks in the USA take place from late April to early July, the mating season when male gators wander around looking for a mate and are more territorial than usual.  Most photographs of big gators crossing golf courses or major highways involved romantically inclined gators.

The infamous death of a small child wading into the lake at Walt Disney World’s Grand Floridian Resort took place at 9 pm on June 14, 2016.  Close to twenty percent of deaths occur when people walk small dogs around a pond at night or early morning. Gators are attracted to small pets. Likewise, swimming or searching for golf balls in a pond in the evening when alligators do most of their bunting is another common situation in gator attacks.

This may not relieve your of fears for the Florida outdoors, but it should give you the proper warnings in the right perspectives.

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The devastation of coastal Southwest Florida has a very personal effect on me. Although I now live in Tampa, when I graduated from high school in Massachusetts, my family moved to Charlotte County. My father was an editor of newspapers in Punta Gorda, Port Charlotte, and Englewood. In Southwest Florida, much of the news is fishing and boating and beaches.

Our previous family homes escaped with just water damage. Our Charlotte Harbor house was on the bay facing Punta Gorda across the Peace River. We lived on Englewood Beach on Friendship Lane.  But thousands of others did not escape the collapse of their properties as fifteen-foot waves hit the islands and coastal areas.

Ironically this week I was going to put out a paperback version of my A DRIVER’S GUIDE TO THE FLORIDA WEST COAST.  Clearly, I will have to make a lot of revisions, but as a tribute to places like Sanibel and Captiva, I will not just erase them: I will show what was and maybe what is standing.  Without a causeway, it will take several years to rebuild.

I know that some are saying rebuilding is impossible. When it comes to vegetation and water, Mother Nature can be an ally in Florida.  Twice phosphate dikes broke in Polk County killing 106 miles of freshwater fish.  We lived on that waterway and the piles of floating dead fish meant closing the windows and turning off the air conditioners. People said the river was dead, but removing the spills, restocking, and supporting nature returned some resemblance to the past. The same thing happened when Florida let the Kissimmee River return to its natural cleansing curves.

BOCA GRANDE was north of Hurricane Ian’s landing and escaped the highest tides and tidal surge. The fact that the Boca Grande Bridge is standing is quite important.

My wife Barbara’s first painting was Boca Grande Lighthouse before it was moved off the beach.

The 1911 Gasparilla Inn is intact, although a telephone cell tower crashed upon the inn’s Bakery Building. The 1890 Boca Grande lighthouse is still at Boca Grande Pass, but I expect it will need reinforcement like after the direct hit of 2004 Hurricane Charlie.

The Gasparilla Inn may require a little cleaning but it is still standing.

Boca Grande’s beachside mansion owners (Nick Saban, Tucker Carlson, Debo Swiney) probably have a large cleanup to do, but I don’t expect many For Sale signs.  I am concerned about the fishing docks on the bayside – Boca Grande is the tarpon fishing capital of the nation.  I recall fondly the fishing crews with a Baptist preacher as their pitcher coming across vast Charlotte Harbor to the Punta Gorda waterfront in speedboats to play in the softball league I administered.  These people will rebuild the docks and fix their boats.

The hurricane came ashore first at CAYO COSTA STATE PARK reshaping the island’s dimensions and making it almost treeless.   The park has no residents or large facilities so reopening will depend upon dock reconstruction.

SANIBEL ISLAND suffered severe damages and the loss of a long bridge and causeway will seriously slow down any efforts.  The people of Sanibel truly love their island, almost half of which was the bayside DING DARLING REFUGE. Sanibel does not have giant condos, but its strict zoning laws meant the island was filled with delightful one and two-story structures, and many frame beach cottages. Sadly, such buildings do not make good survivors against ten-foot tidal waves and 155-mph winds.

The loss of a huge causeway to Sanibel will be a big obstacle in the island’s restoration.

Air views show the iron lighthouse at the south end standing on vacant land almost beachside.  Larger resorts with newer two-story concrete buildings have roofing, but so many of Sanibel’s hotels were family businesses smaller units surrounding a pool, and the main building.

From the air, CAPTIVA ISLAND, connected to Sanibel on the north end, has more structures with roofs.  The historic TWEEN WATERS INN where Charles Lindbergh once arrived by airplane is standing.  Most of the 300-acre SOUTH SEAS PLANTATION at the northern tip of the island looks intact and its bayside marina in a lagoon looks shockingly good.

Captiva’s South Seas Plantation is the largest island resorts.

I observed the popular BUBBLE ROOM and MUCKY DUCK restaurants with their roofing intact, but the MAD HATTER is a pile of rubble.  On Sanibel, the DOC FORD restaurant owned by author Randy W. White is shockingly still standing, while his sister restaurant on Fort Myers Beach is gone.  My father first interviewed White when he was a charter fishing boat captain.

FORT MYERS BEACH was heavily damaged – you will not recognize the Times Square entertainment district, but much of the island’s southern half is filled with large condos. Expect several years of reconstruction at this location.

PINE ISLAND may be an inner island somewhat protected by Sanibel and Captiva, but it faced a huge tidal surge.   Sadly, the bridge is destroyed and the historic fishing village of MATLACHA lost priceless older structures like the Bridgewater Inn and Bert’s Bar and Grill.   Again, people who come down to the sea to fish and not likely to give up their lifestyle.  They will by hook or crook rebuild.

It may take a few years, but Southwest Florida will rise again.

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Florida’s scenery and climate have long been associated as a location for making movies, but many of the films never reflected something positive or negative about Florida culture and life in the Sunshine State.  Despite a lack of state funding, film studios still find Florida’s uniqueness a logical spot to at least shoot outdoor scenes.

As a historian, I have selected films not on their quality, but because of their presentation in displaying a little bit of Florida, rather than a pretty beach, some palm trees, and a famous resort.

Most Floridians do not know that before Hollywood, California, Jacksonville, Florida was “The Winter Home of the Film Industry.”  The city was a few days’ train trip from the Northeast and soon, starting with Kalem Studios in 1908, thirty movie studios opened shop. Joseph Engel (Metro Pictures 1915) shot the first Technicolor feature-length film in Jacksonville, before heading to Hollywood to become MGM.

Movies may have been silent on the screen, but the reckless usage of public streets and parks angered the locals, most of whom disliked bank robberies, action scenes, and women wearing skimpy clothing.  One by one the studios and Oliver Hardy left to go out West, where they were welcomed.

Today, only one of those film studio complexes stand – Norman Studios on Arlington Road is a historic site.  It was also unique for Richard Norman produced films with all-black casts and crews, including THE FLYING ACE, the first film shot inside flying airplanes. His big star was Oklahoma rodeo performer Bill Pickett and THE BULL-DOGGER was his best-selling film.

No Florida movie list would be complete without THE YEARLING (1946), with Gregory Peck and Jane Wyman, based on the top-selling novel by Florida’s most beloved author Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings. The film and the book captured life in rural Central Florida with all the trials and tribulations of its rural inhabitants.

Another Rawlings book was CROSS CREEK

Filmed in Ocala National Forest near Cross Creek where Rawlings’ farm stands as a tourist attraction.  A Florida classic book and film by a Florida author set in the actual locations   Seven Academy Award nominations and an Oscar for its realistic cinematography of rural Florida. 

WHERE THE BOYS ARE (1960) convinced generations of college students to come to Florida (at first Fort Lauderdale) for Spring Break. Way back then, I was a high schooler thinking about majoring in set design (Gads) and I met Dolores Hart in the lobby of the Hotel Avery in Boston, where she was rehearsing for The Pleasure of His Company.  She said go to college and see what you really like – she went to Northwestern.

Despite being one of the five top American actresses, Dolores wed God and became a Benedictine nun, finally being Mother Superior Dolores in three documentary films.

One of Ron Howard’s finest films is COCOON (1985), where a group of senior citizens in Saint Petersburg find a fountain of youth-produced by aliens from Antarea. While the plot is sci-fi, the theme is very Florida – retired people surviving on fixed incomes in a changing America.  The sets are all real places.  The cast is residing in the Suncoast Manor Retirement home.  Don Ameche danced his way to a supporting actor Oscar at the Coliseum Ballroom, located opposite the Shuffleboard Hall of Fame.

Speaking of science fiction, the CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON, filmed at Wakulla Springs south of Tallahassee, paved the way for Florida being the center of films with underwater filming.  Water and Florida have been big from Ester Williams to Sea Hunt to Flipper, whose Ivan Tors worked on Creature sets.  The 1954 film was actually a black and white 3D movie.

Since we are on the subject of Florida’s warm waters, I select for the children’s category DOLPHIN TALE (2011), based upon the real story of Winter, a dolphin who lost her tail in a crab trap, was rescued by the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, and given an artificial tail.  The cast and added story is Hollywood, but the locations and dolphins are real. I find it interesting that the Director Charles Martin Smith, whom you may recall as an actor in American Graffiti and The Untouchables.

Ron Howard doubles up with APOLLO 13 (1995), the story of the 1970 lunar mission crisis in which we told the world “Houston we have a problem.”  Ironically, this mission failure convinced the Russians to give up moon landings.  While many indoor sets were in a California studio, the outdoor scenes could only be filmed in the real places in Brevard County. 

It is time for a sleeper.  Comedies seem to be in shortage in Florida, but I found SUMMER RENTAL (1985) funny even if it is not one of John Candy’s best films.  He is an overworked air-traffic controller who comes to Florida on a family trip to Redington Beach, John’s Pass, and the Beach Theater.  Everything, of course, goes wrong.  I am reminded of the film every time I go to WDW in the summer heat, thunderstorms, and overcrowded mobs of crying babies.  It is a perfect Florida nightmare movie.

Florida has built complete villages since the 1920s (Coral Gables), but in recent years planned communities like The Villages and Celebration have been developed. THE TRUMAN SHOW (1998) where Jim Carey (Truman Burback) is raised in an artificial TV reality town and tries to escape.  Seahaven actually exists in the form of the real planned town of Seaside in the Panhandle.

When I graduated from High School, my family moved to Port Charlotte, one of those giant “retirement type” towns that spread across a former Vanderbilt cattle ranch.  As a newspaper editor and mystery book lover, my father was friends with Florida’s great author John D. MacDonald from Siesta Key. A FLASH OF GREEN may not have been a box office smash, but the Fort Myers setting of land developers and shady county commissioners fighting environmentalists over a waterside development is pure Florida realism.  It is a classic MacDonald story. Gads! Ed Harris is now in three of my film choices!

Here is another sleeper.  Victor Nunez, an independent Florida filmmaker made ULEE’S GOLD (1997), a tale of a reclusive beekeeper and Vietnam vet (Peter Fonda) living in the Panhandle forests of Carrabelle and Wewahitchka.  The film is filled with realistic looks at people and places in one of Florida’s least understood areas.

It is rare that a film showing a state’s dirty linen is ever made but ROSEWOOD (1997) tells the 1923 story of the destruction of a small black town near Cedar Key after a white girl falsely told her father she had been raped by a black man instead of her white boyfriend. While the Vin Rhames character is fiction, the violence of the event, the white shopkeeper’s (Jon Voight) use of a rescue train, and the girls hiding in the well are historic events.  Rosewood was never rebuilt. The film was made in Lake County and Sanford.

BENEATH THE 12-MILE REEF (1953) captured the sponge industry of Tarpon Springs before it ended.  You can even enter the saloon (now a restaurant) where Robert Wagner and Gilbert Roland tangled.   GOLDFINGER (1964) glamoured Miami Beach and made the Fontainebleau the place to honeymoon, provided you don’t paint your woman in gold.

Charlize Theron got an Oscar playing a Daytona Beach prostitute who becomes a serial killer.  MONSTER (2003) was filmed in some of the actual locations.  Like Ted Bundy, who was caught in Florida, the state’s serial killers come from elsewhere to enjoy a place where half the people are newcomers.

The Florida Keys are an obvious film choice.  TRUE LIES (1994) with Arnold Schwarzeneger and Jamie Lee Curtis gave the world a scenic view of Seven Mile Bridge.   My favorite, however, is MATINEE (1993) in which William Castle-type film promoter opened a budget horror movie in the Key West theater – unfortunately, it is during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Since I am not doing content editing or teaching this summer, I will be active in putting out POD updated versions of several Florida books.  You will see some excerpts and photographic material from some of these books which will be available on Amazon.

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Florida Based Books For Both Sunshine State Newbies and Old Crackers

Newcomers are pouring into Florida.  In my neighborhood in South Tampa, houses are being torn down and huge “McMansions” are going up. I am often asked by new neighbors about my favorite restaurants and stores, but recently I was asked what “Florida-related books” should be read to learn about Florida.

While I am a historian and a reader mainly of non-fiction, here are MY FAVORITE FLORIDA-RELATED BOOKS and I think a good sample of Florida literary culture:

The Yearling and Cross Creek by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, a Northern who fell in love with rural Florida life, are classic novels.  A visit to her farm and grove at the Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Historic State Park south of Gainesville at Cross Creek is must trip.

The Rawling’s farm at Cross Creek is a literary treasure location.

Likewise, her friend Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God is another classic. It reflects a black woman growing up in Eatonville, Florida’s oldest continuous black village.  While she is often identified with the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920’s, she wrote her major works mainly in Florida.

While she is buried in Fort Pierce and her last home (1734 Avenue L) is there, I suggest you exit I-4 and drive down Kennedy Blvd. in Eatonville to visit the Hurston Museum (called locally the Hurston) and the historic Well’s Built Hotel, where dozens of famous black entertainers stayed while performing in Orlando.

Kennedy Boulevard in Eatonville

Florida’s Edna Ferber style epic novel, to me, is A Land Remembered by Patrick D. Smith.  It captures the story of Florida as part of the great American experience and makes you feel you are a pioneer.

Perhaps the finest book about the importance of preserving Florida’s natural wonders is The Everglades: River of Grass by its greatest defender, Marjorie Stoneman Douglas.   I find it ironic that a major fight in Coconut Grove, Florida, is trying to preserve Ms. Douglas’s simple cottage at 3744 Stewart Avenue.

The simple cottage of Marjorie Stoneman Douglas in the Coconut Grove area of Miami.

Moving to Florida can be very traumatic on young people.  I was lucky for my family came just after a graduated from high school so I went to college. My younger brother discovered that there was no hockey team in Punta Gorda, Florida.

Two great novels for young people are Because of Winn-Dixie by Kate DiCamillo and Strawberry Girl by Lois Lenski.  It capture the loneliness and helplessness of moving of that subtropical place called Florida.

OK – I am a historian. There are lots of good Florida histories, some big and some thin. Carlton W. Tabeau (A History of Florida) was my prof at the University of Miami.  The person who got me into historic preservation was Tony Pizzo (Tampa Town), the Godfather of the rebirth of Tampa’s Ybor City Latin Quarter.

Author Tony Pizzo still stands tall in his beloved Ybor City (Tampa)

A number of noted writers captured various areas of Florida.  Stetson Kennedy wrote Palmetto Country.    Author Branch Cabell teamed up with historian A. J. Hanna to write The St. Johns: A Parade of Diversities.

Let me give a hat salute to: Cracker: Cracker Culture in Florida History by Dana Ste Claire and Tales of Old Florida by Frank Oppel. 

My father M. S. Bob Leonard was a sports editor in Southwest Florida and knew Randy Wayne White as a Sanibel Island fishing guide and not as one of the America’s foremost crime novelists.  But even better- his Doc Ford’s Rum Bar and Grill restaurants from Sanibel to Saint Petersburg Pier show that a popular writer can launch a successful restaurant chain!

The first Doc Ford restaurant named for a literary icon created by Randy Wayne White.

My father was also a big supporter of the Godfather of the convoluted crime and detective series: John D. MacDonald.  His Condominium showed the darker side of how greed can destroy the Florida dream.

The John D. MacDonald Siest Key Point Crisp house is no condo.

The literary style lives on with Tim Dorsey (Florida Roadkill) and Carl Hiaasen (Tourist Season). 

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One of the first things people learn about Florida is that it was discover in 1513 by Ponce de Leon in his search for the Fountain of Youth.  As a historian, I can tell you these are both myths.

Ponce de Leon’s story is often incorrectly present by textbooks despite the reality that there are more records about his career than Christopher Columbus.  Way back in October of 2013, I elaborated on this material in anticipation of the 500th anniversary of the 1513 Ponce landing in Florida. This is an added visual look at the most off-base generalizations that people have formed about the great Spanish explorer.

Let’s look at where myths have replaced reality in the story of Ponce de Leon:

Ponce de Leon was not an old man when he went to Florida.

Ponce de Leon discovered Florida. As Governor of Puerto Rico, Ponce was aware of most activities in the Spanish New World, including Cuban slavers going to the Bahamas (Bimini) and “big” island to the North.  He knew about the currents north of Cuba.

Most importantly he knew of the existence of maps even if he never saw them. A 1502 map smuggled out of Portugal by an Italian Duke Alberto Cantino included the Caribbean and Cuba and South America while alluding to places further north.

1507 and in the NW corner is Cuba and Florida.

In 1507 the incredible map of German cartographer Martin Waldserrmuller included not just the Caribbean and South America, but clearly shows Florida and the North American coast. It was Waldseemuller and his staff which named the “two” continents America, after explorer Amerigo Vespucci. (The $10 million dollar map is housed at the Library of Congress.)

In 1507 northwest of Cuba is clearly mainland on this map.

In 1511 Spanish Andres Morales made a simple map of Bimini and clearly showed the Florida coastline as a huge unit.

Cuba, Hispaniola, Jamaica, Bahamas island, and a big block of land.

Ponce de Leon was looking for the Fountain of Youth.   Ponce was aware of the legends for his boss (King Ferdinand) requested all colonists to search for it.  My old geography professor Robert Fuson studied the ship logs and notes of Ponce de Leon and discovered that it was not until the 208th day of his first voyage he mentioned the legend.  He sent a handful of sailors to Bimini to check all the rumors. Ponce de Leon was just thirty-eight years old and there is no record he ever had poor health issues. Ponce never indicated he believed in the Fountain story.

Ponce de Leon was a rich nobleman who sought Glory for his family by going to the New World. Although he came from a noble family and had some prominent relatives in the long war against the Moors, he was a penniless teenager when he decided to join the military, a logical choice considering his background.  Unfortunately for him the war with the Moors was on the verge of ending.

Ponce de Leon was a key crew member on Christopher Columbus’ second voyage.  There is no evidence that Columbus found the nineteen-year old landlubber a skillful sailor.  In fact, Columbus might have had great apprehension over Ponce, for he was probably added to the ship roll by the Bishop of Burgos Juan Rodriguez de Fonseca, who intentionally tried to undermine the Columbus mission by filling the ship with unqualified ex-soldiers.

Many in Spain believed that the King’s financed missions westward across the Atlantic was a violation of Spain’s 1479 Treaty of Alcacovas with Portugal.   It should be noted that Ponce returned to Spain prior to Columbus’ visit to Jamaica.

Ponce de Leon gained great wealth in his conquests.  Ponce de Leon did not die broke, but he never got rich from gold or silver or government contracts.  He did become prosperous when serving as Governor of Eastern Hispaniola (in the Dominican Republic).  His 225-acre plantation grew cassava, made into long-lasting bread for long voyages by Royal and private ships.  This success helped Ponce de Leon land future political appointments.

The remains of Ponce de Leon’s Dominican farm are still standing.

Ponce de Leon and Christopher Columbus were good friends (bitter enemies). Neither view is correct. Despite bad management by Columbus and his family in Hispaniola, Columbus did not view Ponce as a person conspiring to oust his family from power. The two met again on Columbus’ fourth voyage.  Columbus would return to Spain due to illness and get into a legal battle over all the powers given his family in the 1492 Capitations of Santa Fe.  In his old age (he died in Valladolid, Spain, in 1506), Columbus ran a rare book shop, raised money for the Crusades to retake Jerusalem, and always believed he had reached islands off Asia.

Ponce de Leon sought to develop Florida for financial reasons. King Ferdinand gave Ponce the funds to conquer Puerto Rico and he did just that, utilizing the Indian fear of trained greyhounds, cannons, and firearms, to control the island.  But when the High Court of Spain ruled that the Columbus family controlled places like Puerto Rico, Ponce was removed as Governor by Diego Columbus.  This was an insult to his pride and service, but Ponce was hardly a street beggar with his position as Chief Justice, military captain and successful landholder in Hispaniola and Puerto Rico. He started the house shown in photo.

Pomce called his Puerto Rican place “the White House.”

Columbus had never reached the mainland of North America, and if “Florida” was part of that continent than Ponce could develop a colony there and return to the prestige of being the first Governor as he was in Puerto Rico.

Ponce de Leon’s voyage to Florida was a popularized eventThe exploration was more like a silent conspiracy.  His secret backer in Spain was Treasurer Miguel de Pasamonte, who influenced Ferdinand to finance the mission.  Pasamonte pledged Ponce to secrecy, for Columbus’ brother Bartholomew had already obtained financing to head a settlement to the island of Bimini.

Ponce de Leon was a vicious Indian hater. Despite the brute force used to defeat the Indians of Puerto Rico, Ponce was an open supporter of King Ferdinand’s policy of ending the Indian slave trade and establishing peace treaties related to land ownership.   He delayed his second trip to start a colony in Florida to go to Spain for Ferdinand had died and the new King backed the Indian slave trade and was not a person Ponce knew.

Calusa Territory was a poor choice for a town.

Ponce de Leon established Florida’s first town.   He not only never got the development of a town started, his ill-planned visit to Calusa territory in 1521 resulted in his death when he was hit in the heel with a poison-tipped arrow. Since he brought within over 200 people and 50 horses, it was clear he planned to start a town or fortification.  Ponce has nothing to do with the story of Saint Augustine – in fact many historians believed he landed in Florida further south perhaps near Daytona Beach or Cape Caneveral.

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The history of Florida Is much longer than its attraction as a major winter destination. Prior to the post-Civil War Era, visitors had to enter Florida by coastal steamboat and outside of some mid-size hotels in Saint Augustine, there were no large resorts.

The coming of the railroads in the Victorian/Gilded Era (1870-1900) allowed Northerners to reach Florida in a few days.  Railroad barons like Henry Flagler on the East Coast and Henry Plant on the Gulf Coast bolstered their transportation empires with monstrous hotel  masterpieces  that would make the Sunshine State the winter vacation spot for the wealthy.

Some of these hotels are available for booking today while others have been reborn as colleges and offices, but you can still appreciate most on an extensive architectural excursion.

Mount Dora has a lighthouse on a lake 50 miles from any ocean. That is unique.

The oldest continuous hotel was not part of the railroad connection. The LAKESIDE INN, built in Mount Dora in 1883, is the pride and joy of the arty Central Florida town, a great weekend getaway with its fine restaurant, huge antique offerings, and boating excursions along the area’s many waterways. The Lakeside is at 100 North Alexander Street, (352) 383-4101.

Rooms and suites at the Lakeside Inn.

The five yellow and white buildings house 90 guest rooms and suites, the Beauclaire Dining Room, Tremain’s Tavern, and Gatehouse Gift Gallery.  The massive 200-foot Victorian porch looks out onto the lake, a huge pool, guided boat tours, carriage rides, and nature trips. Lakeside is a laidback vacation ideal for both shoppers, diners, and adventurers.

Saint Augustine has three Victorian gems once part of Henry Plant’s East Coast railroad empire. The largest, the incredible Hotel Ponce de Leon, a Carrere & Hastings masterpiece, is now part of Flagler College, but tours are available to view the structure.  The nearby Alcazar Hotel became the Lighter Museum, open to the public, its indoor pool a gift shop.

The Casa Monica has a Moroccan castle feel.

But the next-door CASA MONICA HOTEL (1888) is operating as a hotel, a great choice to stay in the Saint Augustine Historic District and to feel the atmosphere of the city’s glamourous Victorian Era when famous writers, artists, and celebrities filled the rooms.

The Wine Bar at the Casa Monica

The Moroccan style resort has access to a beach on Saint Augustine Beach as well as the restaurants, bars, shops, and pool expected of a fine resort.  The Casa Marina is at 95 Cordova Street, (844) 631-0595.

Over in Tampa, Henry Plant’s equivalent of the Flagler Ponce de Leon is the massive riverfront Tampa Bay Hotel, the first Florida hotel with an elevator (and it still works). Now, part of the University of Tampa, the building houses the Plant Museum with original resort furniture and art.

The Belleview Inn: While only a part of the original Victorian building, it still has style.

The oldest wooden hotel in Florida was almost sacrificed to the condo builders, but a section of the 1896 Hotel Belleview remains as the 45 room BELLEVIEW INN (25 Belleview Blvd., (877) 905-4496.  Sitting on a hill overlooking Clearwater Bay and a golf course, the inn still has the original large pool and grounds, but it lacks full=service restaurants and bars.

Just a few blocks from the ocean at New Smyrna Beach is the RIVERVIEW HOTEL (1885), a wooden 18-room boutique inn, which offers some unusual features for a small place – a spa and a marina.  You are within a short walk of restaurants, gift shops, and beachside activities.

The Rivervew is on the river, but just a few blocks from the Atlantic.

New Smyrna Beach has the same sand as nearby Daytona Beach without the crowds and noise.

The docks at the Riverside.

The Riverview is at 103 Flagler Avenue, (386) 261-1588.

If rustic fishing and boating, as well as eating lots of fresh seafood is your type of weekend getaway than the ISLAND HOTEL and RESTAURANT, the landmark of Cedar Key may be your choice. Some say it opened as early as 1859, others note 1870s.  Free breakfast and lots of advice where to rent a boat or canoe and explore the backwaters of the Gulf Nature Coast.

The Island Inn is the heart of Cedar Key.

The laid-back two-story inn is located at 373 Second Street, (352) 543-5111.  HAPPY TRAVELS!

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Nothing tells you more about the history and the people of a state than its names, but Florida, the third most populated American state is a mystery to so many of its residents.  Half of our population came from elsewhere, one in four were born in another country.

Some Florida names seem appropriate: we like being near water so many towns have the word “lake” or “bay” in their title.  We love having a lot of sun and use the word “sun” in many towns, even bridges.

Sometimes, Floridians have struck out with a name.  Florida is no Utopia – two times over. In 1882, a group of farmers started the town of Utopia (Holmes County) and the land was so bad the town was deserted in four months. In 1897 Clifford Clements started a fishing village called Utopia in Okeechobee County. It had a school, two marinas, and a post office when the catfish ran out and Utopia soon ran out.

Friendly is the town, but frost proof it is not.

Like good promoters, a lot of Florida towns have exaggerated names.  Frostproof in Polk County has had days of frost.   Gold was never found in Valrico, nor in Eureka.  Summit, Florida, reached the grand elevation of 180 feet.

The town of Sapp (Baker County) is famous for its blueberries.  There are no maple syrup plants.  There are many Paradise Islands in Florida, and some are nice, but the one in Monroe County is in the Everglades and it is a mosquito-invested gator hole.

Although the early Europeans wiped out the original Florida Indian tribes mostly by the European version of CO-VID, the Indians contributed many names to the Florida glossary.  Then the Seminoles arrived in 1704 to add some names.Our capital is Tallahassee (Creek for “old town”).  Some other good names include Okeechobee (‘big water’), Apalachicola (people on other side of river), Ocala (fertile kingdom), Homosassa (place of wild peppers), and of course, Istokpoga (“dead man”).

No one is certain what it means, but it isn’t “Home of a Rich Rodent.

Unfortunately, scholars can not agree on the meaning of Kissimmee, the home of Mickey Mouse. And Miami still causes debate.  Miami, Ohio, is from the Chippewa tribe and they never vacationed in Southeast Florida.

My favorite word to say was Wimauma (Say it fast five times.), but I then found out that the first postmaster named the village after his three daughters: Wilma, Maud, and Mary.

Many in Miami don’t even know Fort Dallas is still downtown.

The Seminole Wars produced as many towns with the word Fort as Western states: Fort Myers, Fort Lauderdale, Fort Pierce, Fort Walton Beach.   Most Floridians don’t realize Fort Brooke became Tampa and Fort Dade became Miami.

As usual, the Fort Lonesome Grocery is crowded.

My all-time favorite is Fort Lonesome in Hillsborough County.  There never was a fort here.  Just Mrs. Dovie Stanaland and her isolated little grocery.  It was easy to call this deserted intersection Fort Lonesome.  If you go there, they even see tee-shirts.

El Jobean has a museum, cafe, PO, bait shop, & store in one place.

Thinking of some of my other favorite towns: El Jobean in Charlotte County was called Southland until 1924.  While lots of Florida Boom Towns used Spanish and Italian names to add color to their image.  El Jobean was renamed by its main developer JoEL BEAN.

If I have to pick one spot, it is the Two Egg (Jackson County), a sign on US90 where you can see a few distant old farmhouses. The town was once called Allison, but a shrewd parent and black farmer named Will Williams changed its history.

If you text or drive too fast, you might miss Two Egg.

Williams had 16 children and when they started to ask for an allowance, which was beyond his financial means, he gave each child a chicken and told them to sell eggs.  The price of candy back then was “two eggs.” So many locals and visitors saw these transactions that they started to call the place “Two Egg Crossing.”  The sign is there but the grocery is gone.

That makes a good story, but shockingly there is more to Two Egg.  A local girl became a cheerleader first at FSU and then at the University of Florida. Gads! Then she decided to become an actress.

TWO EGG? Two egg?

Despite her refusal to fix a space between her front teeth, Faye Dunaway became the first Floridian to win the Academy Award for Best Actress (Network 1976). She was also nominated two other times (1967 Bonnie & Clyde) and (1974 Chinatown).

She also won three Golden Globe awards.  Not bad.  That would be worth a lot of eggs anywhere.

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When I was a student decades ago at the University of Miami (the U), I rarely went into downtown Miami.  There was a neat jazz club on the Miami River by the main bridge, but young people went to Miami Beach, Key Biscayne, the Gables, and the Grove for fun and action.

By the 1980’s, the Art Deco district was established on the Beach and people who watched Miami Vice on TV could see the skyscrapers going up.  Remember the building with the square hole in the middle?

Later when I visited Miami from my home on the Florida West Coast, I usually visited the Bayside Marketplace with its 140 shops and tour boats of Biscayne Bay’s islands.  Only a historian like me would be a visitor to Fort Dallas (1836) or the Freedom Tower or historic Bayfront Park where the mayor of Chicago took a bullet meant for FDR.

Miami buildings since the 1990s Have Been Colorful Compared To Other Cities

By 2000, the establishment of Miami as an booming international metropolis and gateway to South America and port to the Caribbean was known to most Americans.  There is much more now to downtown than banks and trading firms.

Miami downtown is becoming more than just a business destination.

People are returning to the area for more than jobs. If I still lived in my Coral Gables apartment, I could quickly hop into the 25-mile dual track monorail system that speeds thousands into the downtown business, museum, and educational sites.

Miami Downtown has transportation that few American cities offer.

With the fast Metrorail taking people from Miami International to downtown, few cities in the world can match this setup. There is a Loop Route and Miami is working on a monorail to Miami Beach.

Historic Flagler Street with its older buildings is being rebuilt as a festival street.  It may not be the Freemont Street Experience of Las Vegas, but who knows for a lot of investment is being spent.

Flagler Avenue is being redesigned for festivals and concerts.

Downtown Miami seems to be growing bigger and better. Just north of downtown is the hipster WYNWOOD ARTS DISTRICT with galleries and restaurants in the wildest of building colors.

Wynwood Arts District is what the Grove was in the early 1960s

And north of there is the booming MIAMI DESIGN (and Garment) DISTRICT, 18 square blocks of high fashion boutiques like Prada, Celine, and Balenciaga, mixed in with untypical art studios, public art parks, and upscale restaurants.

The Miami Design District is 18 square blocks of arty fun.

The Miami Film Festival moved from the beach to downtown, quite logical since Miami’s FILM GATE located in the Downtown Media Center is a headquarters for so many Indie Film production groups.

What is really mind-blowing is all the monstrous projects going up in downtown Miami.  With its tropical climate, nearby beaches, and international investment, this development is getting more of a Dubai look than a Northern American city.

The Marriott is just part of the Miami World Center.

Smack in the heart of the Central Business District is the MIAMI WORLD CENTER with 27 acres between the waterfront American Airlines Arena (Miami Heat) and the Miami Central Station (from the Airport.)  

Miami’s view of a rooftop pool is not the average image of rooftop condo pools.

It has three hotels: citizen M, Legacy Tower, and a Marriott Marquis hotel with 1700 rooms and a 600,000 square foot convention area.  The Legacy is a hotel and a giant condo.

If one thinks the 52-story Miami World Tower will impact the already tall skyline, nearby going up is the WALDORF-ASTORIA MIAMI hotel-condominium skyscraper. 

Count the cubes at the 1000+ Miami Waldof Astoria

At 1,049 feet in height and over 100 floors, it will be a photographer’s dream with its highly controversial Cuba shape.   You can get a 516-square foot studio in Cube 4 for $656,000, or perhaps a four-bedroom, 3256 square foot unit in Cube 6 for 4.9 million dollars.  All the four bedrooms are at least above the 60th floor of excellent views.

The Legacy Tower has a high rise view of the Atlantic.

With all these attractions and activities, some visitors to Miami might not even get out to the beach.

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The Dumbest Things People Say About Hurricanes

While September has been the worst big hurricane season, we can get one here in Florida in early July.

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