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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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!


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.


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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Florida Is Not All Football – There’s A Big Art Scene


The other day Tampa was packed with people from Iowa and Florida Gator fans for the annual Outback Bowl.  Next weekend the Clemson-Alabama NCAA Championships will bring 100,000+ football fans into the city.

But Florida is more than football.

My wife and daughter and I weren’t at the game Monday.  We drove over to the spectacular Salvador Dali Museum on the Saint Petersburg waterfront to see the Frida Kahlo Exhibit.  The museum was crowded so much that parking was moved to the parking garage at the Mahaffey Theater, St. Petersburg’s performing arts facility and concert hall.


Crowds Pack Dali Museum

The Dali Museum, the largest collection of Dali works outside of Europe, is just one of many Florida art museums that many visitors don’t expect in the state more famous for amusement parks, sports, and white sand beaches.


Art lovers know that the Florida State Art Museum, the 1927 John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, is a massive 21 gallery complex on a multi-acre setting including John Ringling’s waterfront mansion, and the Circus Museum with the largest collection of circus art in the world.  Ringling’s coverage of 16th to 20th century European art is famous, but his Ribens paintings are world-renowned.


Most people don’t know that the Ringling Art Library of 90,000 art books, including rare manuscripts, is used by art researchers from around the world.

Do you like the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright?  The world’s largest single site of Frank Lloyd Wright buildings is on the Florida Southern University Campus in Lakeland on a 100 acre lakeside site called by Princeton Review in 2012 the most beautiful college campus in America.  The Pfeiffer Chapel alone is worth the visit.


The Beautiful Florida Southern Campus

Winter Park, near Orlando, is the home of the Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art, housing the most extensive collection of the diverse works of Louis Comfort Tiffany in the entire world.  When Tiffany’s estate Laurelton Hall burnt down, the staff rescued priceless artifacts.  The museum has part of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition by Tiffany.


The Morse Museum Is Unique

All major Florida cities have art museums.  Perhaps my favorite is the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach.  With 7,000 works, it actually has more art work than the giant Ringling holdings.  It is big of contemporary American art, but the top floor European collection has everything from Monet to Gauguin to Chagall to Matisse.


The Norton Museum Is A Work Of Art

On your next vacation trip around Florida be sure to look up the area’s art museum.  It can be as exciting as a football game.

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Key West: Still Crazy After All These Years

Anyone who has spent some time in Florida knows that the island of KEY WEST is the place to go for weird and crazy fun.  There is nothing ordinary about Key West and its wild and diverse population.

People don’t go to Key West to relax and look at the clear green waters.  There are so many weird items about Key West, we decided to give KEY WEST its own category.



 People in Key West like to refer to themselves as “THE CONCH REPUBLIC” and it is not just the isolation of Key West ninety miles from the mainland that is noted.  During the Civil War when Florida seceded from the Union, Key West seceded from Florida.


In a town filled with Cuban fishermen, transplanted Yankee sailors and merchants, a few pirates, and unknown others, the island remained loyal to the Union and Fort Taylor was a major supply center for naval operations in the blockade.  Ever since then Key West has told Tallahassee that they will take no guff from wrongful taxes and rules.



Key West has always attracted an arty crowd.  Writers, poets, singers, and entertainers are always welcomed in Key West.  And since the town’s nightlife never closes down, most freelance people like the fact they are left alone.  Tennessee Williams walked to the shops from his little cottage without attracting a glance.  Jimmy Buffet opened his first Margaritaville.  Robert Frost rented a tiny cabin.

But no one was more beloved than Ernest Hemingway who bought one of the oldest sea captain’s houses and even built the islands first private swimming pool (a costly venture for it had to be cut from coral rock).


Just about half the tourists who come to Key West visit his house, look for the ancestors of his deformed cats, and buy a Sloppy Joes T-shirt, even though most locals know that the original bar Hemingway drank in is two doors down.

To honor Hemingway, the town has a Hemingway Look-alike contest.  Maybe it’s just an excuse not to shave.  The town fills up with so many Hemingways that every table has a bearded one.    Hemingway’s Spain has the running of the bulls – Key West has its own version.


A town that plays and lives as hard as Key West should die as hard.  And no town dies with as much crazy class as Key West.   Most Key Westerners believe this is the way to get the last laugh on their friends and enemies.


The most popular tombstone in Park.

The cemetery is so popular it has a public toilet … which looks like a tomb.


I even found a section for pet animals and that was not typical.  It’s KEY WEST!


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In Florida Christmas Is A Post Office and a Fort

This is the season in Central Florida when people drive Southeast from Orlando to the town of Christmas to mail their Santa letters and special packages.  But Christmas, Florida, is not named just for holiday cheer – on Christmas day in 1837 2,000 soldiers started the construction for a fort to protect the area farmers from Seminole attacks.

Today there is a wonderful replica of that Second Seminole War fort filled with pioneer and Seminole artifacts developed by the Fort Christmas Historical Society and the Orange County Park Department.  There is even a store with facilities and three large picnic pavilions at the well-designed complex.


Fort Christmas is more than just a wooden fort.  The park contains a dozen Florida Cracker farmhouses dating from the 1870’s to the 1930’s.  The rural setting makes the village appear to be realistic and several times each year major events are held to honor Florida’s past.

My favorite sites include a 1906 school complete with a delightful lunchroom and the 1917 Beehead Ranch House which has all the farm equipment needed to operate a frontier business.


If you are driving from Orlando to the Florida East Coast you might want to take a side trip off County Road 420 to see Fort Christmas.

MERRY CHRISTMAS .. I’ll be back with Florida vacation news.

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