When growing up in Massachusetts, my family had a summer rooming-house in a fishing village.  Next door was the town toy and gift shop run by a lady named Mrs. Gassett. I got a job as a kid of putting out the windmills, toy sailboats, and beach goods on the store front porch.

Besides having the most popular store for kids, the other thing, Mrs. Gassett did was paint landscapes, but not of New England, but her winter home in Mount Dora, Florida.  Her paintings looked like a New England village on a hill, but there were palm trees on the waterfront.  Other paintings showed what looked like a seaside New England Victorian inn but with more palm trees.

It was a real shock when my family moved to Florida and I discovered that the town Mrs. Gassett loved so much was fifty miles from the Atlantic.  When I finally visited Mount Dora, I had another shock – a 35-foot New England style red and white lighthouse graced Grantham Point at Gilbert Park on Lake Dora.

The Mount Dora Lighthouse is a real lighthouse on a freshwater lake.

In case you think the lighthouse is just a decoration: you are wrong.  The lighthouse has a 750-watt photocell that uses a blue pulsator that helps guide boaters to the town docks. Boat tours around some of Lake County’s 1200 named lakes begin lakeside at the historic LAKESIDE INN, which started in the 1880s. The town with hilly roads has a New England charm that has attracted people like Mrs. Gassett.

One thing I hope to return is the Royal Palm Railway that took visitors on a 75-minute tour to and from the neighboring town of Tavares.  That might not be operating, but the railroad depot is a historic site.

The town and the lake are named for Ms. Dora Ann Drawdy, a Georgian who homesteaded in the 1840s and convinced other Southerners to come to farm and grow citrus. The arrival of the railroad brought the first Northerners, who found the lakes and the 184-foot plateau where Mount Dora is situated a great winter location. 


Why do people pour into Mount Dora not just in the winter, but on weekends all year? The hilly town of 15,000 is loaded with shops, particularly antiques and art galleries, fun restaurants, historic buildings, and interesting lake and town events. 

The people are proud of Mount Dora and like to point things out to you.  Some people were so friendly in 1981 that they agreed to temporarily paint their buildings and homes an ugly pink for a stupid movie “Honky Tonk Freeway.”

Mount Dora is the favorite spot for antique dealers in the winter months.

A star attraction is the 117-acre Renninger’s Vintage Antique Center and Farmers Market outside town on US 441. While it operates all-year on weekends, in the winter months, hundreds of dealers from the North bring antiques here and there are big, promoted shows, where you can buy anything from classic cars to antique guitars.  Downtown has many antique shops such as the 60-vendor Village Antiques Mall at 405 North Highland Street.

In case you think the Mt. Dora shops only sell used, vintage stuff, you should visit the Modernism Museum Shoppe at 144 East 4th Avenue.  The three block-by-three block hilly downtown has dozens of gift shops, two pet boutiques, five large art galleries, and an abundance of historic buildings, museums, and unique public buildings.


Downtown Mount Dora packs twenty-five restaurants into the district, but be warned: the town has been called “The Festive City.”   I have only visited on weekends and every-time there was a car show or an art show going on and the streets were packed.

People will drive for miles to reach The Goblin Market

There are two food spots I always want to visit. The Goblin Market might look like a huge multi-storied old house until you discover every room up to the attic has been converted to book-lined dining areas and lounges. This is an expensive restaurant, but people drive from Orlando twenty-five miles away to dine here.  Try the whiskey onion soup. (352-735-0059) 330 Dora Drawdy Way

Looking at all those antiques makes me want to have a cup of afternoon tea.

All those antiques make me want to have tea and scones at the Windsor Rose Tea Room and Restaurant (352-735-2551) at 142 West 4th Avenue.  If you want something a little more male-like, you will enjoy the highly rated Magical Meat Boutique (352-729-6911) at 322 North Alexander, a British gastro-pub and bar open from 8 am to midnight.


While there are your standard motel chains out by the highway, the heart of Mount Dora is quite unique.  Besides the Lakeside Inn (352-3834101) at 100 North Alexander Street, started in 1882 and now a large complex with restaurant, Mount Dora has an incredible eleven bed-and-breakfast spots.  It is a B&B paradise for people who love comfy accommodations and friendly hosts. Tripadvisor gives you a good pictural look at the major ones.

The Victorian Lakeside Inn is a proud local landmark.


It is not surprising that one of the main activities in Lake County is taking a boat tour and if you want to speed along in a two-seater, contact CatBoat Adventure Tours (352-322-1442), located at the downtown Boating Center. Their two-hour tours zip thru the Mount Doral Canal into the Harris Chain of Lakes, where you will see mansions and gator swamps.  This firm also does Segway tours around the town.

Cruising into the Mount Doral Canal to other lakes.

For people who prefer letting someone else cruise the lakes, there is Premier Boat Tours (352-434-8040) waterside at Lakeside Inn. Their boats are covered pontoon boats that can handle weather issues.

A boat tour can be relaxing after a day of shopping downtown.

Inside or outside, Mount Dora is a great place to visit or stay.

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With Walt Disney World operating at a limited capacity and some restaurants and resort not open, it might seem premature to write an article on this topic, but I suspect that as Disney slowly opens options in 2021, more people will look into Disney because this was going to be the “great 50th anniversary year of the park.

Here is my evaluation. Right now, WDW is best suited for locals, annual passholders, and frequent visitors who already know what they want to do and see. That would describe my family.  Considering the high costs, WDW in 2021 is a poor choice for families with small kids since there are few character meets or meals, strict rules on masks and lines, and even disciplined ways to eat and drink.

Magic Kingdom Fireworks at Bay Lake Tower & Contemporary Resort

Disney without kids and less people might NOT be such a bad vacation trip or place for romantic celebrations.  Disney is still not an inexpensive holiday spot.  Still, here are my choices for romantic WDW for this year’s options and years to come:

WHERE TO STAY:  To no one’s shock, the opening of WDW resorts favored villas and upscale resorts, and not value hotels. Since this article is for 2021 travelers, we are including reopening dates.

WILDERNESS LODGE (June 6) and open now COPPER CREEK VILLAS & CABINS, BOULDER RIDGE VILLAS.  Just a neat boat ride from Magic Kingdom, the Wilderness Lodge has lakeside cabins and lakeview villas. I give high marks for the romantic lakeside Geyser Point Bar & Grill and have breakfast/lunch fun at Whispering Canyon.  You feel you at in the Pacific Northwest with all the forests and natural Bay Lake.

Cabins and villas at Wilderness Lodge are lakeside

JAMBA HOUSE & ANIMAL KINGDOM VILLAGES at Kidani Village – the Lodge is closed and with it Boma and Jiko, but if you have an automobile, this is the place to get away to Africa. The animals await at the windows of Sanaa restaurant and the Uzuma Springa Pool Bar is a plus as is two good lounges.

At a window at Sanaa at Animal Kingdom Lodge, you get exotic food critics.

CONTEMPORARY RESORT and ultra-expensive BAY LAKE TOWER VILLAS is for urbanites with its monorail to Magic Kingdom and Epcot, plus classic top-floor CARIBBEAN GRILL and quality THE WAVE and its Lounge.

Bay Lake Tower gets a two lake ultra-view.

YACHT CLUB, BEACH CLUB (May 30) and BEACH CLUB VILLAS lost points for unopened Yachtsman Steakhouse & Cape May Café, but win points with its boat-ride to Epcot and boat-ride or gondola to Disney Studios.  Location to the best parks and best pool are strong points.

GRAND FLORIDIAN and VILLAS are just very expensive and sneak onto this list for having good lounges, facilities, the monorail, and NARCOOSSEE’S, a romantic restaurant.

Narcoocssees is the Grand Floridian’s waterfront seafood star.

It is hard to spend less money in Disney’s moderate and value resorts and still carve out a romantic atmosphere. CARIBBEAN RESORT has the gondola to Disney Studios and Epcot, but the table restaurant was closed.  So I look into these non-Disney but inside WDW choices:

DOLPHIN and SWAN RESORTS are Marriott resorts so you can use your hotel points, and with less conventions, they need lots of visitors. They have some low rates. These hotels are in the middle of WDW with boats to Epcot and Disney Studios, and facilities like a quality spa, several pools, lots of bars, and 17 restaurants, including such good romantic spots as Kimonos, Todd English’s Blue Zoo, and El Mulino.

Todd English Blue Zoo bar is really in the blue (Dolphin Resort).

WARDOLF ASTORIA BONNET CREEK with its attached HILTON is perfect if you come by automobile and want a golf course outside your door, two of Orlando’s Top Five restaurants, a lazy river, and the use of two resorts (like the Dolphin/Swan) to explore.  Bonnet Creek is actually “inside Disney property”, but not owned by Disney.

* * * *

ROMANTIC PARK DINING: Although not all restaurants have yet reopened, Epcot had always been “the adult’s park”

EPCOT easily wins here as it is the “adult-park.”  Try to get a window-side table at Hacienda de San Engel or a hideaway corner at Le Cellier or Tutto Italia.

MAGIC KINGDOM has always been a fast-food wasteland. Overpriced Be Our Guest is nice for dinner and if you are somewhat daring, look into the menu at Jungle Navigation Skipper Canteen.

HOLLYWOOD STUDIOS is best with a corner table at the Hollywood Brown Derby, but you will have great fun at the food spots at Star Wars Galaxy Edge.

Find a quiet corner table & pretend you are a movie star at the Brown Derby.

ANIMAL KINGDOM has only Tiffins for romantic dining, but you should enjoy an other world trip to Pandora’s Satuli Canteen.

Eating on the another planet at the Satu’li Canteen in Pandora, Animal Kingdom.

DISNEY SPRINGS is not a park, but WDW’s food and nightlife plus shopping spectacular is here and since these are not Disney restaurants, most are open. Beautiful Marimoto Asia, Jalio, and STK Steakhouse are logical choices, but look at the DRINK and ENTERTAINMENT choices.

The Boathouse dock is a great place to eat and watch the automobiles (?) drive by.

* * * *

Morimoto Asia at Disney Springs is not your typical local Chinese restaurant.

ROMANTIC DRINKS & ENTERTAINMENT:  Since most the clubs at Disney’s Boardwalk complex are not open, Disney Springs is the place to go particularly if you eat there. Raglan Road was nightly music and dancers and all those massive bars imported from Eire.  The Edison is the only spot resembling a nightclub with no less than seven food and drink areas.   The bar out of the dock at the vast Boardwalk restaurant has a good menu of food and drink.    Enzio’s Hideaway is a speakeasy in an underground location – certainly atmospheric.

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The Forgotten Weekend Florida Vacation Spot

When people schedule their Gulf Coast Florida vacations, very few consider Punta Gorda as a town to stop.  The nearest beach is over thirty-minutes away.  There are no famous historical landmarks.  But they may be making a mistake.

PUNTA GORDA, county seat for Charlotte County, sits at the mouth of the Peace River and at the start of massive Charlotte Harbor.  Conveniently located just off I-75 and US41, the town is usually identified for its fishing and boating, not its restaurants and hotels, wilderness tours and entertainment.

In 2004 Hurricane Charley rammed downtown with 145-mph winds, destroying the old hotels and causing a redevelopment of the area.  The beautiful waterfront Victorian houses survived the storm, some of them turning into neat restaurants.

The Charlotte Convention Center, where my parents put on shows, is now surrounded by three new highly rated hotels: Four Points Harborside (941-637-6770);Wyvern Punta Gorda (941-639-7700); and Spring Hill Suites Harborside (941-347-4224).  Seafood restaurants and tiki bars stand by the marinas, and until the Co-Vin hit, downtown has so many cute bars and taverns, the Chamber held a walk-run bar hop every night.

The new Punta Gorda resorts have waterfront facilities.

Along the waterfront is large Gilchrist Park, named after the early pioneer Albert Gilchrist who rose to become Governor of Florida.  Further west, you can not miss FISHERMAN’S VILLAGE, extending out into Charlotte Harbor with restaurants, shops, rental suites, and a huge marina.  Just before the Village entrance at 900 Marion is the 17,000 square foot MILITARY HERITAGE MUSEUM.

Fisherman’s Villages has shops, restaurants, suites, and tour boats.

At the Village is located KING FISHER FLEET (941-639-0959), which operates fishing charters, boat tours to the islands of Charlotte Harbor, and sunset cruises. If you would like to tour up the Peace River, WILDERNESS BOAT TOURS (317-997-4639) on Nesbit Street by the waterfront Laishley Crab House.  Once you leave town, the river’s natural attractions appear.

If you drive west from the Village you will enter the upscale Punta Gorda Isles development which contains PONCE DE LEON HISTORIC PARK, a tribute to the Florida explorer’s 1521 visit to the area.  No one really knows the exact spot in Southwest Florida where de Leon met his fate by a poisoned Calusa arrow.

With the river and Charlotte Harbor, boating rules in this town.

Punta Gorda is so nicely compact that every block seems to have an interesting building. Walk along Retta Esplanade and Gilchrist Park toward Fisherman’s Village and you will pass a row of beautiful Victorian houses built in the 1890’s by the town leaders, many converted in recent times into quality restaurants, which make good use of large verandas, courtyards, and water views.

The compactness of Punta Gorda helps its night activities.

Turn inland and the commercial district is filled with 1920s structures. The 1923 COUNTY COURTHOUSE, the 1927 WOMENS CLUB, and more.  Punta Gorda is one of those towns that has covered most of its downtown empty walls with impressive murals that tell the story of the town.  These murals are a photographic op for most visitors and provide a unification to the area. 

Beautiful murals boost the facade of older shops.

Small restaurants, bars, and shops have filled up most of the older buildings. Across from the historic 1926 SMITH ARCADE is the transplanted 1886 shed-like ISAAC TRABUE COTTAGE, home of the farmer-fisherman who started the town. He=is desire to have the town named after him failed, but at least his house was moved into a more prominent spot.

There is more to see and do in Punta Gorda. Besides several historic parks outside downtown, south on US41 is the MUSCLE CAR CITY MUSEUM, a collection of over 200 of the most famous and collectible vehicles in US auto history.

For those who prefer the nature, most of Eastern Charlotte County is the 67 million acres of the BABCOCK RANCH PRESERVE (800-500-5583). This is not just a functioning ranch with cattle, it is a great sport to hike and hunt (in season) and fish and take a long tour into the wilderness.  This vast landscape is home to boars, black bear, bobcats, panthers, and herds of deer.

Babcock is not an amusement park tour.

And if you prefer animals of an African or Asian kind, off FL31 and the Babcock area is the OCTAGON WILDLIFE SANCTUARY (239-543-1130), one of the Florida’s most respected refuges for unwanted big cats and other creatures.

The front door sign tells you about some of the residents.

That looks like a place worthy of a visit. Punta Gorda will be just one of many places in my Driving Tours of the Florida West Coast paperback to be released later this year.

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Christmas – A Florida Story

This is the time of year that blogs talk about Christmas and perhaps the joys of having families get together and experiencing snowflakes and cocoa filled with marshmallows.  

This year, 2020, a lot of people will be separated from their families and snow is not something expected here in Tampa, Florida. My Northern family will not be coming to Florida this winter.  It might be cold this Christmas as it was in 1837 when a huge contingent of 2,000 soldiers 1,000 horses and 70 wagons, headed southward from the St. Johns River in the Second Seminole War.

The men, mostly from South Carolina, knew they would not be home for Christmas and as a group they hated their leader General Abraham Eustis, a Virginian who seemed to have nothing positive to say about this force made of small town farming boys.   It had been two years since the massacre of Major Dade and his 111 reinforcement troops going from Fort Brooke (Tampa) to Fort King (Ocala) and the men still feared Seminole ambushes despite their huge contingent.

The scattering of settlers in what is now Orange County (Orlando) demanded better protection. The needs fit the plans of the U.S. Army to build a supply depot in the area to help push the Seminoles southward into the swamps of the Everglades.

On Christmas Day 1837, a site near a deserted Indian village located near a freshwater creek was selected and the troops commenced building a small, two-blockhouse fort of palmetto logs. Instead of naming the fort for a military hero which was the common practice, the place was called Fort Christmas.

Since the fort was designed for two companies, most of the troops lived in small tents. Captain N. S. Jarvis, a surgeon in the U.S. Army, recorded the men were miserable, but at least had a place to go inside.  He rode his horse into the deserted Indian village and was immediately covered with fleas.

Fort Christmas did not last long for the Seminoles had continued further southward and the depot at Jupiter Depot was closer to the action. In March 1838 Fort Christmas was abandoned and left to rot away in the Florida sun.

Yet today, the site has been reborn and honors both the soldiers and the early settlers of the region.  Fort Christmas was rebuilt complete with a museum honoring area history.   Seven Cracker buildings have been moved to establish one of Florida’s most authentic pioneer village.

A few miles south of Fort Christmas on US90 (East Colonial Drive out of Orlando) is the Christmas Post Office, usually quite reserved except for this time of the year when people mail out cards and packages with the Christmas, Florida, postmark.

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The Craziest Things About Key West

There are more than hundreds of crazy things about Key West so these are my favorite crazy things about Key West, that little island at the end of the Florida Keys that is as close to Havana as Miami.

Key West may seem like a different planet even to Floridians, but that is what makes it a wonderful tourist destination if you come to the Sunshine State.

Here are some of my favorite Key West things:

THE CONCH REPUBLIC is more than a flag in Key West.  It reflects the personality of the locals probably developed by the island’s populace being isolated from mainland Florida and their independence from outside influences.

When Florida seceded from the Union in 1861, Key West seceded from Florida and remained in Union hands.  Well, except for one lady who kept flying a Confederate flag from her waterfront house.  Locals removed the flag, but she made three others.  Eventually, they let her keep it up


We cats own this Hemingway place and don’t forget it!

ERNEST HEMINGWAY’S CATS are the most popular attraction at the famous author’s Key West retreat.  The author may have been blown away, but his six-toed cat’s ancestors are still around and people spend as much time looking for felines as looking at the rooms and the island’s first swimming pool.

ERNEST HEMINGWAYS BY THE DOZEN.  Key West loves festivals and parades as long as there is a lot of drinking and fun.  Actually, that happens every night anyway.  The city’s Ernest Hemingway look-alike festival is a photo treat.

Running of the bulls? No running of the Hemingways!

THE KEY WEST CEMETERY is proof that the city is full of creative and often batty people. A casual walk in the cemetery will show the diversity of the city’s history.  Remember the issue of salt-water intrusion.

Even in death you will read my words and learn.
An “UNDERstatement”

SLOPPY JOES  is a Hemingway institution and visited by more people than Key West’s museums, but take a visit to the place next door and you will find information that Hemingway hung out here.  Sloppy Joes had a big brawl a few years ago – the cause was that someone farted.

LIKE VENICE, KEY WEST IS DROWNING. As the world’s waters slowly rise, Key West suffers from serious flooding during winter storms and hurricanes.  Eventually, I think, Key West may be known as “The Netherlands of America.”

Shoukd Key West rent some gondolas from Italy?

CHICKENS OUTNUMBER SEA GULLS.  I live in Tampa and our Latin Quarter Ybor City has a lot of chickens and roosters running about, but as an island, I am amazed at how the Key West chickens tell the seagulls to stay on the beach.

Now let’s play Where Is Waldo again. Note that birds avoid streets.

THE SOUTHERNMOST POINT is one of the most photographed spots in Florida, but it is amusing in many ways.  Florida extends southward from Key West to the island with Fort Jefferson, another fifty miles.  One could even debate whether Key West, an island, is part of the Continental USA.

Did you know that a 64-year old grandmother swam from Cuba to Key West?

GEORGE IGNACIO MIRA, with baseball star Boog Powell, was probably Key West’s greatest athlete and star quarterback at the University of Miami.  When I was sports editor of the Miami Hurricane I “interviewed” him, but I could hardly understand him for his “Key West Conch” accent was something a New Englander could not quickly grasp.

Miami’s offensive line came mainly from Pennsylvania and I wondered how they ever got a play right. One guy said, “It was like having Desi Arnez as our QB.” Mira or his teammates must have adjusted for Mira played 8 seasons in the NFL, 1 in CFL, and 1 in WFL where he was MVP of that league’s championship game. Mira later opened the George Mira Pizza Huddle in Key West.

Tune in for my ebooks and PODs that will be coming out in a few months.

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Coral Gables – City Beautiful – Past and Present

Most visitors to Miami, do not look at Coral Gables as a destination unless they have friends or family living there.   Coral Gables is viewed as a very upscale residential community without beaches and South Beach lifestyle.

Coral Gables doesn’t promote itself as a tourist location, but there is plenty to see and do just within the city, even though it is a short drive to the great beaches of Crandon Park and Key Biscayne.  Just to the north is Calle Ocho with its great Cuban restaurants and colorful shops.

As a historian and historic preservationist, Coral Gables has a special place.  George Merrick planned a complete town in the booming 1920’s with incredible architecture, neighborhoods of homes reflecting the diverse culture of the nation, and Miracle Mile, one of Florida’s favorite shopping spots. The Gables is the most complete of the Florida Land Boom communities.

Restaurant at the BILTMORE RESORT in Coral Gables

I have a bias about the Gables since I lived there, both on the University of Miami campus, and also in an apartment just north of downtown near the library.  I was there in a heavily Cuban neighborhood when Bay of Pigs was going on and South Florida was arming itself for an invasion and building bomb shelters in a town where digging basements is almost salt-water intrusion impossible.

Here are some Coral Gables sights that have significance to me.  Gables has dozens of safe and exciting hotels and resorts in all price ranges.  Here are two of them which I know well.  THE COLONNADE HOTEL in the middle of Miracle Mile was my bank when I lived nearby. Today, it is the front part of a huge hotel attached in back complete with a rooftop pool and fancy restaurants. 

Front entrance to Colonnade Hotel; I knew it as a bank.

But the original building in the 1930’s was Colonnade Movie Studios where my mother (film name Nona Kaye) made several films for Columbia Pictures.  Originally a dancer, my mother and her brother dancing partner performed during the winter season at the Miami Beach.

The Colonnade was a movie studio owned by a certain Hollywood firm company.
My mother outside Colonnade; most of her films were done in England & South Africa.

The most historic resort in the Gables is the BILTMORE resort, built in the Florida Land Boom, complete with golf course and gardens.  The Leonards (Dad and his parents) stayed here when they came to Miami and my grandmother even pointed out every room where they stayed.

I never swam here even after I covered UM swim contests.

As sports editor of the Miami Hurricane newspaper, I spent many hours covering swim events which were then held in the Biltmore’s vast pool.   Two of the UM photographs actually donned scuba gear and photographed the diving events under the three-meter board.  

Coral Gables isn’t entirely beach-free if you count the place where I went to study: MATHESON HAMMOCK PARK off Old Cutler Road was a CCC project that became a quiet 630-acre oasis. Safe for kids to wade into the water, MHP has lush walking trails.

The Hammock was a great place to study and even today it is relaxing.

Despite recent hurricane damage, the park is restored as is the famous RED FISH BY CHEF ADRIANNE restaurant on the beach.  The food place didn’t exist when I was at “the U”; NOTE: the Gables has more 4+ star restaurants per square mile than anywhere else in Dade County.

The waterfront Red Fish is one of dozen of top-rated Coral Gables restaurants.

George Merrick’s biggest project in the city was the creation of the largest private university in the Deep South – the UNIVERSITY OF MIAMI.  The original building was north of the Main Campus and it had cardboard walls for the Florida Land Bust hit before completion.   You’ll have to go to the Main Campus is see whet is viewed as historic.

This was the original North Campus; now you have only the Main Campus.

So much is new except for the Administration Building (1947) where I met with Wilson Hicks, the advisor to student publications.  The baseball field is still there by Fraternity Row, but back then the basketball team had to play games on Miami Beach, where half the fans were rooting for the opponents.

Merrick also built what was once the largest public swimming pool in the world, VENETIAN POOL, from an old limestone quarry.  I had a friend who was a lifeguard there and I was shocked the pool required a huge staff due to its size and unique underwater features.

Venetian Pool is so large, areas are usually off-limits to swimmers.

Coral Gables is an architect’s dream – by driving around this planned community, you’ll see what you can do with detailed zoning regarding telephone poles and garbage cans.  Entering through DOUGLAS GATEWAY or some of the other entranceways has the feel of going into a movie set.  Gables was what the Florida Land Boom tried to create: a new Riviera.

Entering the Gables on one of the main drags is like entering a giant movie set.

But the Gables is not a town of just Spanish Mediterranean homes and California bungalows. Merrick built little villages that reflected the architecture of Dutch South Africa, Chinese, French Country, Italian, French Normandy, Greek, and French Country.  His Moorish and English villages were incomplete.

Chinese mansions in Florida? At Coral Gables, it is so.

So if you are planning a trip to Miami or want a different South Florida weekend excursion, I suggest you take a close look at Coral Gables.

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The 10 Craziest Things To Do On A Florida Vacation

Most of the 100 million people who visit Florida come for the beaches, the amusement parks, the sunsets, and most of all the warmth of days when the weather is ugly elsewhere.

People scooter along in Key West’s Billy Ocean Underwater Adventures

But more and more people want adventure vacations and some even want to engage in extreme sports and wild experiences.  One of the books I will be publishing soon will cover an almanac of all these activities.  In my research and travels, I have discovered so many things that would have tempted me when I was younger and some I would avoid even in my youth.

Here are 10 of the most crazy things you could ever do on a Florida vacation:

(Not in any specific order to danger)

CAVE DIVING – This sport is more dangerous than rock climbing without a rope and Florida’s delicate limestone walls makes partner diving with ropes essential. Only certified divers can even take courses at places like THE DEVILS DEN in Williston, the VORTEX BLUE SPRINGS in Ponce de Leon, and the AMIGOS DIVE CENTER in Fort White.

Most Florida underwater caves are restricted to the top divers.

Although there are caves at many Florida spring locations, most are blocked off if they are dangerous.  A special dive team entered the complex at Wakulla Springs and went 41,000 feet into the underwater cave system.  That is higher than Mount Everest!

BE DOPEY AT THE WALT DISNEY WORLD MARATHON – From December to March, Florida becomes the marathon center of the nation, with many races serving as qualifiers for the top Boston Marathon runners.  Florida may be flat, but racing up and down several bridges in the heat id not fun.

At the gigantic WALT DISNEY MARATHON you should take up the Dopey Challenge of running a 5K, 10K, Half-Marathon, and Marathon in the four day event.

TANDEM SKYDIVE OVER 14,000 FEET – Florida is one of the best places in the world to skydive and thousands do tandem diving, but experienced people want to go higher and higher. (And fall longer and longer)  SKYDIVE SPACECENTER in Titusville has a record 18,000-foot tandem dive.

At Skydive Sebastian you get a good Atlantic Ocean view.

Some of the most experienced and skillful skydive and parachute centers are SKYDIVE CITY in Zephryhills, SKYDIVE SEBASTIAN, and JUMP FLORIDA SKYDIVING in Lake Wales and Plant City.

ZIPLINE ALL OF FLORIDA’S TOP SIGHTSThis is more fun than dangerous and in the flattest state in the USA you might not think this will be exciting.  In Orlando’s Gatorland you can zipline over a pond of hungry alligators.  That is cool, but I would suggest you travel to Ocala’s CANYONS ZIP LINE AND CANOPY on CR25Awith real cliffs and step ravines or FLORIDA ZIPLINE ADVENTURES in Milton off FL87.

In Ocala Canyons Zipline is really about canyons and cliffs.

Closer to my Tampa home is ZIPLINE TAMPA BAY inOldsmar’s Bayou Wilderness, where for more than two hours you climb 70-foot poles, fly 3000 feet over bridges and water, and do a death survival jump.

Challenge Florida’s MOST DARING OFF-TRACK BIKE TRAILS.   Don’t be tricked about Florida for we have turned old phosphate quarries into scary trails and that doesn’t include those dangerous tree roots that stick out and low-hanging branches.

Florida doesn’t look so flat at Santos Trailhead.

Near me is ALAFIA RIVER STATE PARK in Lithia with three-rated courses built into pits and jumps and sharp curves.  Their Gatorback trail actually has a wild alligator.  MARKHAM PARK down in Sunrise off FL84 shows that Southeast Florida can be bike scary. SANTOS TRAILHEAD off US441 in Ocala has 25-foot Vortex dirt jumps.

HANG GLIDE AT WALLABY RANCH not far from Disney World in Davenport. These are the people who invented tandem hang gliding in 1991 and their school only does this sport. Out West you have to go up a mountain to glide, but in Florida you let an airplane put you way above the clouds.

FLY A WORLD WAR II COMBAT AIRPLANE at Florida Warbirds, located at Kissimmee Gateway Airport just off US192 in Central Florida.  If you are an experienced pilot or just want to go for the flight of your life, this is a neat adventure.

In Florida you can pretend you are in World War II.

POWER A 100 mph SUPERBOAT FROM MIAMI TO KEY WEST thanks to those wild people at INCREDIBLE ADVENTURES (800-644-7382) in Sarasota.  They have in Miami access to a super-catamaran and a cigarette speeder with 1000hp Bulldog Twin Engines.

You should visit the Incredibles just to see what “out-of-this-world” adventures and extreme sports they have developed.  You can play with sharks in the Bahamas or go into space.

STAY AT THE JULES UNDERWATER HOTEL in Key Largo.  This old stand-by is still open for divers to stay or have lunch underwater or take scuba lessons.

Pizza delivery is more limited when your hotel room is underwater.

TAKE UP THE SPORT OF FREEDIVING.  Scuba divers know that training is important and at Lake Park’s FLORIDA FREEDIVERS and at IMMERSION FREEDIVING in Fort Lauderdale you can be trained first in their tanks and then in the ocean to go down from 66 to 100 feet underwater without an air tank.  Let me know if you see Aquaman.

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Greatest and Dumbest Myths About the State of Florida

When I hear Florida residents at restaurants and attractions talking about Florida, I often cringe, for while I was conceived here, I spent my childhood up North; but as a historian and writer I realize that there are so many myths and false narratives about Florida.

And you don’t have to be the Chamber of Commerce to promote dumb Florida information – the entire population lives by many of these myths.

MYTH – Florida (we) are the “Sunshine State.”

REALITY – It is a nice logo, but there are four or five other states with more days of sunshine than Florida.  The good news is that all those states face sunny days with snow on the ground and freezing winds.  Florida is really “the Warm State” and that is why we’ll always get winter visitors.

MYTH – Florida is “tropical.”

REALITY – You might feel you are in the tropics if you are standing in line at Walt Disney World in July, but as a geography minor, I can vouch that the climate of Florida is officially “subtropical.”   That does not mean to stop using sunscreen lotion.

MYTH – Florida is the “endless summer.”

REALITY – I never thought a surfing movie or license plates could influence so many silly P.R. comments.  Key West is the only place in Florida that has NOT experienced freezing temperatures.  It has snowed even in Miami!  When I lived in Tallahassee I left the city one morning at 26 degrees and arrived in Fort Myers hours later at 77 degrees.

OK – I hope you are a surfer.

MYTH – Florida’s state tree is the “Sabel Palm.”

REALITY – Sadly the statement is correct, but the logic is lost.  Palm trees have no bark, shallow roots, and can not grow new tops (they die).  Palm trees are grasses.

The Sabel Palm is “the state grass.”  It was selected for it can live anywhere in Florida so it was s safer choice than the regal Royal Palm, a better looking “grass.”

MYTH – Florida is the “southernmost state.”

REALITY – Even the people in Key West have labeled their famous buoy correctly (see photograph), but I guess people don’t read or just prefer to brag about their travels.  Any global map will show that Hawaii is the southernmost state.

Floridians communicate lots of incorrect superlatives like Saint Augustine is the “oldest continuous city in the USA.”    That is a good try – but it is the oldest continuous European city, because New Mexico has older Indian pueblo cities.

MYTH – Ponce de Leon discovered Florida in 1513.

REALITY – This, of course, is right down my ally.  There are two maps showing Florida as part of a “North” America that predate Ponce de Leon’s visits.  One, in 1507 by Waldseemuller (see photo) is an incredibly good global view based upon Spanish and Portuguese trips.

Ponce de Leon’s journals even show he had no interest in locating any Fountain of Youth and only on the way back, he sent two sailors in a lifeboat to stop at Bimini, a possible fountain location.

MYTH – Chief Osceola was the great Seminole leader.

REALITY – It is difficult to fault people although the statement is filled in incorrection. Osceola “led” the Seminole forces in the Second Seminole War, but his mother was Choctaw and his father was a British fur trapper from Mobile.

He wed a Seminole and his knowledge of English gave him the knowledge that the entire Treaty of Fort Gibson was not revealed to the tribal leaders.  It should be noted that the Seminole casinos correctly describe the life of their greatest leader.

(DUMBEST) MYTH – Love bugs was a Florida Department of Agricultural experiment gone wrong.

REALITY – People driving south on I-75 near Gainesville might believe this when a wall of love-bugs smash into your windows.  Automobile dealers even use special anti-bug paints in Florida. 

The love bugs are not man-made. And they are found in other states.  They live deep into tall grasses so people only see them during their short-lived mating season.  Love bugs will NEVER be the state bug of Florida.

(NEXT DUMBEST) – Tourists coming to Florida for the first time should fear X.

REALITY – There are many versions of this, although the dumbest is a rumor that Florida has “toilet spiders” – a species that lurk just under the toilet seat.  I caused a professor of biology far over laughing on that one.

I have never done this even in a zoo.

Other choices include real but rarely seen Florida creatures: coral snakes, black widow spiders, rattlesnakes, and tarantulas. In fifty years, I have only seen them in zoos and nature exhibits.  I have seen alligators, sharks, and barracudas, but I assume you will not swim at midnight nor jump madly off the end of a Florida dock.

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Don’t Kiss The Manatees At Crystal River Kings Bay

Florida manatees which are the West Indian manatees are easy to love.  They are like slow-moving islands, 12 to 15 feet in length and up to 1500 pounds. 

As a vegetarian and docile creature, people in Florida want to be near manatees.  The best place in Florida to explore the life of manatees, both on and under the water, is at Crystal River in Citrus County.

But, please do not swim up to a manatee and kiss it. You might scare them, but even more dangerous is the possibility you will get between a mother manatee and its calf. Manatees can ram a shark with the power of a torpedo.

There are lots of places in Florida, particularly in the bays with springs on Florida’s West Coast to meet manatees.  In winter, the manatees head into the bays and springs and rivers where the water temperature is higher.

The huge number of springs surrounding Kings Bay around the Crystal River makes the area the ultimate all-year residence of a large number of the 2,500 known manatees in the Sunshine State.  Crystal River is located on US19, 3 hours from Tampa-St. Petersburg, Orlando, and Jacksonville.  It is a great weekend vacation spot.

Crystal River is not just a place with scuba and snorkel diving, it has fishing and boating, and the largest Indian mound site at the Crystal River Archaeological State Park.

Indians have lived at this site for hundreds of years.

HOW TO GET THERE: Crystal River is just 66 miles from Tampa on toll-road FL 589 to US19, but longer for Saint Petersburg people who must drive north on US19 with heavier urban traffic. Orlando people taking the Florida Turnpike to I-75 and west on US44 will arrive in under 100 minutes (86 miles).

US19 is lined with modern chain restaurants and motels, which are acceptable stays but are not scenic choices. There are some things to do that are not outdoor adventure such as visiting HERITAGE VILLAGE just north of US19 on FL405 (Citrus Avenue), with its wonderful local art FRANKLIN ANDERSON GALLERY, General Store, BBQ restaurant, and other stores in old buildings. South of US19 on Citrus Avenue is the COASTAL HERITAGE MUSEUM in a stone building which was City Hall in the 1920’s.

While Kings Bay is huge, people follow the manatees.

The big land excursion in Crystal River is visiting the 61-acre riverside CRYSTAL RIVER ARCHAELOGICAL STATE PARK, north of town off US19.  Occupied by Indians for 1600 years the huge plaza is surrounded by burial mounds and earthworks.  The most popular attraction is the large 55-step Temple Mound, which gives a fine view of the Crystal River.  There are some picnic grounds and an educational museum, but no food facilities.

There are so many snorkel, scuba, and kayak tours offered on Kings Bay in TripAdvisor and other online sites, I suggest you study the websites with their exciting photographs and make reservations for excursions and adventures. The THREE SPRINGS BOARDWALK to Crystal Lake with its springs is beautiful, but kayak access is only from tours or HUNTER SPRINGS PARK.

If you arrive in town without reservations, you will probably have to pick one of the US19 chain motels like the Hampton Inn, but it would be better to stay on the Bay in a full-service location.  The most upscale is the historic PLANTATION ON CRYSTAL RIVER (352-795-5411), a 232-acre eco-friendly resort with a golf course, full marina and restaurant and Plantation Adventures with Kings Bay Scenic cruises and several swim with manatee tours. Less expensive is the PORT HOTEL and MARINA (342-795-3111), seven acres of recreation services, boat and kayak tours, and the popular waterfront MARGARITA BREEZE restaurant.

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The Best Dog Friendly Towns and Beaches in Florida

I read the other day that Tampa was selected by a national dog group as Florida’s most dog-friendly city.  I will not dispute that honor, but I must state that pets have it pretty good in many Florida places.  There is no forcing the poor pet into the snow like I did in growing up in Massachusetts.

Florida has dozens of  restaurants with year-round patios where dogs (and I guess cats) are allowed.  With tourism as our primary industry, Florida has to offer hotels and resorts that accept pets in order to meet a large market demand. 

Here are some of my comments and choices:  

My TAMPA BAY is a family-oriented tourist area with all the elements mentioned in the last paragraph. Down the street from me is Hyde Park Village, a shopping area where all the restaurants have open pet-friendly outdoor patios. All over the place are dish bowls with fresh water. One of the distinctive features of Florida is that so many dog parks have water access.  My local spot is the David Island Dog Park, actually named for our first family vet. It has two fenced in areas: one with lots or grass and one with a bay beach.

                Pinellas County has perhaps the most glamorous salt water beach dog park in Fort DeSoto County Park , voted one year as the best beach in the United States.  St. Petersburg Beach’s most glamorous resort, the historic Don Cesar Resort allows pets and even once promoted doggie massages.  Honeymoon Island State Park in Dunedin allows dogs on a leash on the huge beach, something not allowed in most beach state parks.

FLORIDA STATE PARKS:  Florida has 700,000 acres of nature in its state parks and while the parks have leash laws due to the wildlife, many have large enclosed dog parks and accept pets in the campgrounds.  I know some people with pets that travel from park to park every winter.

AMUSEMENT PARKS:  At Walt Disney World, only the Fort Wilderness Campgrounds have facilities for pets on leash, but at Universal Studios, four of the big resorts are Loews hotels which allow for dogs in certain rooms and have dog parks.

                We were dog-sitting a relative’s golden retriever, who had a serious operation, and we stayed at the Portofino Bay Resort.  When  I took Mugsy for a walk, I put a shirt on him to cover the large bare shaved square on his side.  We were suddenly surrounded by excited kids who thought the dog was the retriever in the movie Air Bud!  I did not have the heart to tell the kids, but Mugsy loved the attention.   Services dogs, of course , are allowed in all of Florida’s amusement parks.

GREAT DOG PARKS and TOWNS:  Dozens of dog parks in Florida have won honors, but here are some you might consider if you and your pet is traveling in the area.  While every area of Florida has hotels and motels that take pets to truly enjoy a pet vacation you need areas to stroll with your pets on a leash and fortunately some of Florida’s best restaurant areas have many outdoor patios and welcome pet mats.  A more serious problem is to combine these facilities with a nearby dog-friendly beach.

KEY WEST is the kind of funky town with a lot of dog-friendly bed and breakfast spots like Chelsea House and Courtney’s Place and along DuVal Street lots of animals on leash heading for restaurants and bars.  You can bar hop with pets – I saw more animals than people at the patio of Louie’s Backyard.  Higgs Beach Dog Park is beautifully shaded, but it needs to change its name for there is NO beach.

ORLANDO AREA: While there are lots of restaurants with pet-friendly outdoor facilities, they are too spread out.  My pick is to walk your pet in downtown Winter Park and afterward visit Florida’s best dog park: the People’s Park.

MIAMI BEACH:  You can walk your pet along the Art Deco district and find some pet-friendly outsoor stops, but if you want your pet on the beach you have to  up to North Shore Park and the Bark Beach, which unfortunately charges $25 to non-resident tourists.  Loews Miami Beach Resort is the best pet-friendly spot on the beach.  Dogs can swim along the openings on the Rickenbacker Causeway like Tampa Bay’s Courtney Campbell Causeway, but a lot of people want to be near food and bathrooms.

PALM BEACH COUNTY:. One of the state’s best beach parks is the Jupiter Beach at A1A and Mareinski.  It is free and wonderful set up for dog lovers.  It is a drive to motels and hotels and restaurants.

COCOA BEACH:   Despite having dog surfing contests Brevard County does not want a ton of dogs on leashes around the famous pier, but I noticed as you got away from the crowded sections, a lot of dogs owned by resort residents took leashed dogs down to the Atlantic.

FLAGLER BEACH is my choice for the best small town beach community with a large section of public beach open to pets, some patio restaurants, and enough motels and small hotels accepting pets.

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