Review: Wild Florida
Fernandina Beach, Florida, United States
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FLORIDA HOLIDAY 2018
We were looking for a special trip to help my husband Ray with his recuperation from cancer treatment. 2017 had been a horrible year and Ray began to make good progress by Spring 2018 and said that he’d like a trip to Florida. No, the radiation hadn’t entirely addled his brain and all of a sudden he wanted to pay a visit to Mickey Mouse at the age of 70. Two of our dearest friends live on the border between Georgia and North Florida on Amelia Island, Fernandina Beach. Over the years we have visited several times and the area is a paradise for fishing, boating, kayaking and the 12 miles of pristine white beaches mean that there’s never any overcrowding.
We spent the first few days of our holiday seeking out the real Florida. In the past our visits to Florida did include Disney, for the children, and back then it was quite a thrill to be part of that crazy adventure. But this trip we were seeking something a bit different. We hired a car and headed south for Everglades City.
We drove for miles through forest, swamp and mangrove and eventually arrived at Everglades City on the edge of Chokoloskee Island. City is an ambitious name for this old Florida fishing village but it offers an excellent regional museum and delicious local seafood. We hadn’t booked ahead but did manage to get into the self-catering wooden raised Villa’s overlooking a huge lake, housing no fewer than seven alligators in the immediate vicinity. Camping, fishing, kayaking, bird watching and boating are the ‘things to do’ for fun. The season had probably just come to an end and the whole area was relatively quiet. Rising early the first morning I spotted a giant of a beast ‘head and eyes above the water’ about 30 yards from our balcony. I’d always wanted to take a ride on one of the ‘Air Boats’ I’d seen in the movies (Live and Let Die comes to mind). We took a one hour boat ride out through the 10,000 Islands, meandering through the shallow bracken waters of the mangrove swamp. Ear defenders were a must, the noise when the driver got that thing up to speed was unbelievable and I did wonder about the wildlife. The guide was a mine of information and stopped every now and again to point out interesting features with regard to wildlife inhabitants and vegetation. Alligators, manatees and turtles appear to live happily side by side. Half day kayaking tours are available for those wishing to take a more leisurely and more environmentally friendly tour of these pristine waters.
After a few days communing with nature we set off to our friends home in Fernandina Beach. We hadn’t seen Tom and Charlotte since 2015 so we had a good bit of catching up to do.
The Kingsley Plantation
Less than an hour from Fernandina we paid a visit to the Kingsley Plantation on the Florida/Georgia border. Our friends did say if we were looking for a surviving TARA type plantation house we’d have to travel a bit further into Georgia. The Kingsley Plantation is located on Fort George River and is part of the National Park Service. It represents a tumultuous time in Florida’s past. Entrance is free and the history fascinating. Zephaniah Kingsley relocated to Florida in 1803 and became a successful merchant and planter. His African wife, Anta, was from Senegal. He’d purchased her as a slave in Cuba and in the years that followed he freed her and their children. Although he did have to move his family to Haiti, a free black republic, some years later. His wife became his business partner and a successful slave owner herself.
Okefenokee Swamp Park
Just over the border into Georgia is the Okefenokee Swamp National Park. The day was perfect, a little overcast, thankfully not too hot and the mosquitoes were behaving. We took a boat ride through the swamp park and the guy driving the boat giving us the guided tour was definitely local. It took a while to adjust my hearing to his native twang, informative as it was, interspersed from time to time with a splat into the murky water from his ‘chewin tabaccy.’ Spiders, snakes and of course alligators were all out there and we did see several. Our guide knew them all by name of course. They have an impressive conservation programme which is always interesting to hear about. Not too many years back they would have been out hunting the alligators for their skin. We took a train ride around the swamp, guided by another enthusiastic employee and again I had to concentrate hard so thick was the accent. If I thought I heard strains of the theme tune from Deliverance I wouldn’t have been wrong. Lyle told us, with a lump in his throat, how sad he was to hear of the recent passing of Burt Reynolds, he was a ‘good ol boy’ from those parts and he knew him well. They’d been on several night rides together in the swamp… I think that’s what he said. Anyway, we enjoyed meeting Flo the alligator, who, by all accounts was the ‘sorriest mother of all time’ she kept eating her babies and Lyle had the job of getting some of those eggs out for incubation before she polished off the last dozen or so. We sat in on a wildlife show where we had the pleasure of handling baby turtles, alligators and snakes. All in all a thoroughly enjoyable day.
This had been on my bucket list for some time. I did suggest to Ray that we have a duo canoe but he declined my offer and reminded me of the time we ended up on a tandem bicycle, when I sat behind leaving him to do all the work. We went off for a two hour guided trip on the Loften Creek with Amelia Adventures, just a ten minute drive away. The young man gave us a bit of tuition before dropping our boats into the water. Before stepping into that fairly tight space, the thought of ‘a quart into a pint pot’ fluttered across my mind. Starting off like a drunken sailor and crashing into the bank on more than one occasion the guide came alongside and adjusted my foot rests and put down a small rudder, which made all the difference and soon I soon got into the rhythm and kept up with the rest of the party. Again, we had a very informative ride and he told to keep an eye out for alligators. We were thrilled to see two giant Blue Herons fly for a good two hundred yards ahead of us, just above the water level and rest on a huge overhanging branch, long enough for us to get a few pictures.
We hired a boat and spent the day making our way over to Cumberland Island, the largest wilderness island in the US, where our friend Charlotte had worked for many years as a ranger. It is now a National Park and they do a great deal with regard to conservation and education. The only way onto Cumberland is by boat. Originally owned by the Carnegie family we did get a guided tour around what had been their main residence, used for winter holidays. I’m a sucker for these old houses, whether here or abroad and thoroughly enjoyed the tour. Hubby was more interested in getting back to eat our picnic lunch.
Florida has some of the finest fish restaurants, all offering a wide selection of local fare, from grouper to snapper to succulent shrimp and lobster. I’d forgotten about the hush puppies that come with just about every fish meal – delicious deep fried bread balls, not the soft leather shoes.
Over forty years ago, before the gap year had been invented, Ray and myself were crewing on a yacht; sailing from Bermuda to California and stopped over in Key West, Florida, where we met Tom and Charlotte. They offered us a place to stay if we felt we ever wanted to a spell on dry land. We took them up on that offer a few days later and ended up staying with them for the next three months. That was the cementing of a lifelong relationship that we have cherished. Some friends you lose touch with and even though it may have been a few years since you last met, when you do it’s like it was only yesterday and you fall so easily into step again. That’s how it is with Charlotte and Tom.
The weather in Florida was balmy, the company exceptional and I couldn’t think of a better holiday for Ray during this recovery period. It did us both a power of good. We will definitely be going back soon.
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This review is solely based on the opinion of a Silver Travel Advisor member and not of Silver Travel Advisor Ltd.