Being an avid reader and not a fan of winter, I’ve been diving through novels by Susanna Daniel, a relatively new author with new books on the market who writes stories depicting Miami life in an old classic Florida, before condominium developments overrode the shores and pastel cottages stuffed the neighborhoods. Her books are impossible not to get enveloped in when listening to stories of Stiltsville, a vacation “town” on the ocean off of Miami where stilt houses sit in a small community and Florideans quite literally live the dream by always scuba diving, snorkeling, grilling and fishing.
My memories of Florida don’t fit this description. After my great-grandmother passed when I was a kid, my mother inherited a house in Fort Pierce, Florida, a small eastern shore town riddled with toothless neighbors on gray streets. My memories of there consist of 12-hour car rides stuffed next to my sister and her dirty clothes and wading through a murky bay on the days that the rain couldn’t break the dreary heat. These days, I don’t get on a plane to head to the beach and I opt to drive an hour or two to my favorite Jersey Shore beaches instead.
However, I’m not some kid stuck in my mother’s truck anymore, and instead, I am equipped with a paycheck. So, I took advantage of Jersey’s full-fledged winter and bought a plane ticket to see my paternal grandmother who resides in Clearwater, Florida, anxious to find the Old Florida that I had read about so many times before.
My grandmother first took me to St. Petersburg, which has an old-Hollywood glitz feel probably derived from the presence of The Vinoy, a National Historic Place and working hotel built in 1925. Filled with pastel colors, brilliant chandeliers and the memories of celebrities, the place overlooks the marina and the nearby ocean. St. Petersburg is also home to The Pier, a popular tourist attraction that during my visit, was the site of many locals hanging out on the boards with their eyes closed, listening to gulls and pelicans alongside the sailboats.
Clearwater, however, has less of the Old Florida air circulating but instead is glamorous in its own way – it is littered with skyscraping hotels, so many that it’s difficult to see the water from any part of the city. However, Clearwater’s Old Florida does exist in its tiny side neighborhoods which still house bright colors, elaborate seaside decor and sandy front yards near the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, which is home of Winter, the tailless dolphin from the movie Dolphin Tale. The Aquarium isn’t so much an aquarium as it is a rehabilitation center, where animals are frequently returned to the wild and the other inhabitants nurse lifetime injuries, among then Nicholas, a dolphin who was burned by the sun when he had been beached.
Fort Myers was our next stop, the site of the Edison & Ford winter estate, a beautiful yard and grounds where the families entertained many prestigious guests and Edison housed his laboratory. Not far from Fort Myers is Sanibel, an island off the coast of Florida which boasts the best beaches next to its sister island, Captiva.
Although Florida cannot be the laid-back non-destination that it once enjoyed before travel became commonplace, remnants of Old Florida do exist within state lines, even inside of big cities like St. Petersburg, Clearwater, Fort Myers and Sanibel.
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