Finding Old Florida

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.

Photography Jenna Intersimone
I took advantage of Jersey’s full-fledged winter and bought a plane ticket to Clearwater, Florida, anxious to find the Old Florida that I had read about so many times before.

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.

Photography Jenna Intersimone
The Vinoy is a working hotel built in 1925.
Photography Jenna Intersimone
The Pier is a famed St. Petersburg destination.  

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.

Photography Jenna Intersimone
The Clearwater Marine Aquarium is the home of Winter from Dolphin Tale.
Photography Jenna Intersimone
Nicholas is a lifetime resident of the Clearwater Marine Aquarium following his sunburn. 
Photography Jenna Intersimone
The Clearwater Marine Aquarium functions as a marine hospital.

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.

Photography Jenna Intersimone
Fort Myers is the site of the Edison & Ford winter estate.
Photography Jenna Intersimone
Thomas Edison hosted his lab at his winter estate.

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.

Smitten With Sea Cows

One of the many joys of travel is that unlike your commute, unlike your job, and unlike your family, you truly have free reign over your travel plans. If you want to go away and sit on a beach with a colorful drink in your hand, you can do that. If you want to get your hands dirty and play in the wilderness, you can do that too. However, there are also some ways you that you travel that you didn’t even realize – such as that of ecotourism.

According to the International Ecotourism Society, ecotourism is responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people. Obviously for some do-gooders out there, this is their chosen travel plan – such as visiting Madagascar to view the peculiar biodiversity and bring aid to poverty-stricken communities in the meanwhile or heading to Guatemala to learn about the historic cultural traditions of the Mayan Itza. For the average middle class traveler, though, these plans sound a little far-fetched and out of reach. They’re not. Especially you have no idea you are currently operating as an ecotourist. 


A few weeks ago, in the heart of this nightmarish winter, I found myself in beautiful Cape Canaveral, Florida on a Royal Caribbean Explorer of the Seas cruise set for Florida and then Nassau, Bahamas. Of course, being the devout adventurer that I am, I had the intention to hop on an airboat set for the Everglades to check out some alligators, then head to a wildlife park in this jungle environment to meet some monkeys, and finally eat the tails of the nasty gators at a classic Floridean lunch. It was the perfect tour – until it was sold out. That’s what you get for laying poolside for three days before booking anything.

Instead, we did the next best thing (“best” being used loosely) – the wildlife ferry tour down the Banana River. Sounds cool, right? Of course it became much more exhilarating when my sister refused to even get out of bed for it and our 87-year-old tour guide, Jim, insisted not to worry, no walking was involved. 

I took Jim’s old man jokes and the seemingly drunk ferry captain’s antics with a grain of salt, knowing that I was literally the only person on the tour under the age of 50 (who was my dad). I made myself comfortable on the back of the ferry with a pair of binoculars, prayed the boat would move a little faster, and asked my dad how much he thought the riverside apartments went for. Jim said we would be lucky to see a manatee or two on the hour-and-a-half tour.


However, soon enough, even calm and down-to-earth and exotically dressed Jim got a pretty excited when he saw the telltale swirling water marking the sign of a manatee caused by their circular-ended tails. I still wasn’t ready to pull out my binoculars – he was going to have to do better than that. Soon, though we checked out our first manatee though a couple of minutes later, and then a few more touting about the ferry, and finally, I was eyeballing tens of them throughout the water, doing their manatee thing. I was smitten with those big ol’ sea cows.

I liked their loafing, happy faces hanging out near the Banana River islands. The wildlife tour was becoming a true-life wildlife tour – we checked out giant, stout pelicans, nobly sitting nearby in the trees in little flocks, silently watching because they have no voice boxes. My dad made ridiculous chirping noises (which kind of worked) and dolphins soon huddled around us, jumping out of the water and chasing the boat. Jim explained that since they were in little groups of two or three, they were probably young males out on their own for the first time. We checked out tiny island birds and fish swimming about the dolphins, all the while admiring the riverside cottages (and mansions) and wondering what it would be like to have a backyard filled with all this life. 


As the sun went down and we neared the ferry docking station once again, ever-reliable Jim pointed out the strings falling from the docks, which were filled underwater with oysters that would reproduce and clean the heavily-polluted river. Jim explained that normally, we wouldn’t have even seen the manatees eating leaves off low-falling trees, but the sea grass couldn’t grow as much with all the pollution and they didn’t have much to eat. Even the little minnows hung out near the surface of the water, gasping for breath in a river that offered them little oxygen.

In an hour, you can fall in love with an ecosystem; a set of sometimes funny-looking and sometimes pretty animals that operate within the scope of one another yet over time, became the victims of pollution and consumption. Unfortunately, it takes a lot more than an hour to fix that; to clean up a river that has been dumped in for years and now has a rough time sustaining healthy life. However, with the allowance of once-blind tourists and normal vacationers looking for something to do on a Tuesday afternoon to view these habitats with a worthy (yet very old) guide, perhaps a healing can actually ensue.