Finding Old Florida
A Motorhome Journey Down the Atlantic Coast
“They’re paving the whole state,” observed novelist John D. MacDonald’s fictional alter ego, Travis Magee, back in 1982. And there’s no doubt that development has changed Florida since the days when my family piled into a ’56 Chevy to visit Grandma in Coral Gables. With fond memories of those trips, I’ve been wondering if my husband, Bob, and I can still find “Old Florida” experiences when we head south on Interstate 95 in our motorhome.
We’re off to a great start when we discover that one tradition hasn’t changed since 1949. Free, fresh orange juice is still on tap at the Florida Welcome Center along with maps and brochures. I spot a 73-page guide to Florida State Parks, lured by the catchphrase: “Welcome to … the Real Florida.” Months ago, we reserved campsites in several state parks and I’m raring to go check them all out.
Old, Old Florida
St. Augustine is a fine place to exit I-95 and start our time-travels. Founded by Don Pedro Menendez de Aviles in 1565, it’s the oldest permanent European settlement in the continental United States.
We park our 22-foot Leisure Travel Vans Free Spirit motorhome in town and explore the Castillo de San Marcos National Monument on the old city’s Matanzas Bay waterfront. Built by Spain in 1672 to protect its growing empire in America, this star-shaped castle fortress still has pride of place despite hurricanes, bombardments and sieges.
Up on one of the fort’s four bastions, costumed re-enactors decked out in tri-corner hats and red-trimmed blue coats are poised to fire a cannon at a ghost fleet of British invaders across the bay. As the smoke clears, a spokesman tells the assembled crowd that the fort has changed hands many times over three centuries — but has never been defeated in battle.
Back in the motorhome, we navigate through a historic district teeming with tourists, cross the Bridge of Lions and head for Anastasia State Park on Anastasia Island. In addition to the shady, full-facility campground where our site awaits, this park has water sports rentals and a 4-mile Atlantic beach for biking and beachcombing.
The next morning, we drive north on the island to find St. Augustine Light. Once a Spanish tower, the present 1874 lighthouse sports black-and-white spiral stripes and a jaunty red tower. After admiring it inside and out, we browse through the former Keeper’s house, now a maritime museum.
Windswept Beachside Camping
We turn south via Highway A1A to Gamble Rogers Memorial State Recreation Area at Flagler Beach and check in at the Ranger Station, where we notice a stack of CDs for sale. Folk singer Gamble Rogers was well known from the 1960s through the ’80s as “Florida’s Troubadour.” But while camping at this beach with his wife in 1991, he drowned attempting to rescue a tourist in rough surf. The Florida Legislature renamed the park to honor his heroism the following year.
After backing into our 24-foot campsite, we cross the dunes on a boardwalk and realize why no RVs have awnings out — brisk winds are whipping the Atlantic to a froth. After a walk on the sunny beach, we dodge highway traffic and cross to the Intracoastal Waterway side of the park.
On the Joe Kenner Nature Trail named for a park ranger, we’re protected from the wind for a mile’s hike through maritime hammock and scrub. Under a canopy of pines and hardwoods, we pass holly shrubs, cedar trees, and palmetto palms for a vision of how ancient coastal dunes and saltwater marshes looked before bulldozers came to Florida.
Fishing Boats and Treasure Fleets
We return to I-95 the next morning, drive two hours south, cross the Indian River and return to the barrier islands. Our destination is Sebastian Inlet State Park, where north and south sections are linked by a tall bridge. Prime campsites face the inlet, but ours today is near a mangrove swamp, so we rummage around for our mosquito repellent, essential for any Florida RV vacation.
With two jetties, a boat ramp, and small craft rentals, this park is a magnet for saltwater fishermen. Anglers stop by the bait and tackle shop before heading out to haul in snook, redfish, bluefish or mackerel. When it comes to Old Florida activities, fishing tops the list, and there’s even a fishing museum near the campground.
It’s the park’s second museum that reels us in, though, the fascinating McLarty Treasure Museum devoted to the 1715 Spanish Plate Fleet. After a hurricane sank the entire fleet just offshore, Spain mounted a four-year salvage effort that recovered only half the ships’ treasures. The long-forgotten wrecks were rediscovered in the 1960s, and modern salvors have brought up gold doubloons, pearls and much more. Park volunteer Anne Lins tells us that artifacts still turn up along the museum’s beach. Hurricane Sandy blew a brass cup ashore in 2012 and a Chihuahua named Coco found a silver piece-of-eight coin recently.
Wild Times on the Loxahatchee
Our next stop, Jonathan Dickinson State Park at Hobe Sound, offers two good choices for motorhome travelers. The Pine Grove campground along U.S. 1 has large, gravel sites with full hookups in a parking lot setting, but we’ll take our search for Old Florida to the wooded River Campground 4 miles into the park.
We drive down to the Loxahatchee River and buy the last two tickets for a tour to the Trapper Nelson Interpretive Site, accessible only by boat. On the winding waterway, we’re immersed in a wild, green world for two hours as our captain points out osprey nests, swimming manatees and great blue herons.
Ranger Ron Cyrus greets the group at a backwater dock and leads the way through the isolated camp where a colorful character arrived in the 1930s and lived off the land for four decades. Known as the “Wild Man of the Loxahatchee,” Trapper Nelson established a wildlife zoo as a tourist attraction, amassed large land holdings and became a notorious recluse until his death in 1968. After the state acquired the property to establish a park, rangers found the Wild Man’s long-rumored “hidden treasure,” more than 5,000 old coins of little value tucked into the chimney’s chinking.
Key-Hopping the Overseas Highway
We head inland, pick up Florida’s Turnpike and bypass traffic congestion around Miami. Rejoining U.S. 1 below Homestead, we aim toward the Keys, that necklace of tropical islands dividing the Atlantic Ocean from the Gulf of Mexico.
Key Largo was the setting for a movie of the same name starring Bogart and Bacall in 1948, and the location for the first undersea park in the United States in 1960. John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park now offers a full hook-up campground along with scuba diving, snorkeling, boating and two man-made beaches.
Next morning we board a glass bottom boat, Spirit of Pennekamp, and enjoy the sun while our captain cruises past mangroves filled with white egrets. He picks up the speed on open water to reach a reef almost 7 miles offshore and we go inside to stare through the glass floor panels. Colorful fish swim around the corals below; it’s like snorkeling without getting wet.
Driving south the following day,
we set off down the Overseas Highway, a name that conjures up adventure and escape. Mile Marker signs cue our location as we roll from Key to Key, passing pleasantly tacky, low-rise roadside establishments. Vintage signs for the likes of Sid and Roxie’s Green Turtle and Jo-Jo’s Restaurant compete for attention with thatched tiki bars and Betsy, the Giant Lobster.
Mr. Flagler’s Railroad
Driving the Seven Mile Bridge is a treat: blue skies, fluffy clouds and aqua water as far as the eye can see. We’re on our way to Bahia Honda State Park for two nights. With 80 campsites, sandy beach and marina, this park is just 35 miles north of Key West. We join Park Ranger Elaine Mason for a nature walk our first morning at Loggerhead Beach. As orange butterflies flit by, she points out edible purslane, wild poinsettia, and other native plants, and describes how ecosystems vary from the lower to upper Keys.
Campers bring their folding chairs the next day to a railway car stage, complete with steam and sound effects, where Ranger Elaine and other costumed park employees perform the “History of the Overseas Railway.” They bring to life the tales of Henry Flagler, a multimillionaire who built bridges to extend his railroad 128 miles from Miami to Key West, a
difficult project completed in 1912.
Special effects (water, palm branches, even flying coconuts!) simulate the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935 that destroyed 40 miles of Flagler’s track. At the end of the performance, the Ranger-actors take a bow, answer questions and explain that the state eventually bought the bridges and rail line, which became the basis for today’s U.S. Highway 1.
Park Manager Eric Kiefer tells me later, “The only trouble with Bahia Honda is you can’t get in.” I nod, since I’ve learned it’s difficult to reserve sites in some Florida State Parks for winter stays, even 11 months ahead when the booking window opens. Our solution has been to check often for cancellations, snap up random nights when we find them and fill in the gaps with private campgrounds.
At family-run Big Pine Key Fishing Lodge at Mile Marker 33, we get a rustic site where we’re treated to frequent visits by small, federally protected, endangered Key deer. And at Jolly Roger Travel Park at Mile Marker 59, we enjoy full hookups and wallow in luxuries that state parks lack — a pool, Internet and cable TV. We’ve recrossed the Seven Mile Bridge so often that Bob has begun calling it the “42-mile bridge.”
We reflect on the Florida history and atmosphere we’ve absorbed during this trip. Minutes away from I-95 and other main roads, we’ve found tropical forests, winding rivers and pristine beaches. “Old Florida” is alive and well, enhanced by a warm welcome and rich array of visitor amenities everywhere we’ve been. “New Florida” is mighty nice in our book, too, and there’s a lot left to explore, including springs, lakes and caverns.
Before packing our flip flops and heading north, we stop for one last night at Long Key. A glamorous fishing lodge here housed the rich and famous until a hurricane destroyed it in 1935. Long Key State Park has been here since 1969 and now has 60 campsites by the sand a few feet from the Atlantic’s shallow tidal flats. We put out the awning, unfold our camp chairs and watch the shore birds until the sun sets. We’ll be back.