From the peaceful sunrise along the Atlantic shores to the setting sun along the Gulf Coast, Florida is the land of sunshine and sandy beaches. As Jack and I were standing on the shores of a salty California lake, it reminded me of the beautiful Florida beaches (minus the mountains in the background). We traveled throughout the Sunshine State, from shore to shore, and top to bottom, researching my last two books: A Culinary History of Florida and Florida Sweets. The peacefulness we found near the Florida waters was always refreshing and reinvigorating.
It was so special to find old photos of my parents, Floyd and Mary, and Jack’s mother, Elaine, at Panama City Beach in their 20’s. Daddy with my pregnant mother awaiting the arrival of my younger brother Pat and Jack’s mother, testing the waters while on her honeymoon at Panama City Beach.
It seems it was destined that Jack and I should meet, marry, and end up back at those same beaches adding to our own memories.
Panama City Beach is the beach I grew up going to with friends, working on our tans and drinking Tab soda. So many memories of white sands and blue green waters, the place I thought was ‘just a beach’, nothing special at the time, until I grew up, moved away and realized we do have “The World’s Most Beautiful Beaches.” The “kiddie pool” at St. Andrews State Park is where we learned to swim, after riding there in an unair-conditioned school bus, in the middle of the summer, from the other side of the county to the park. Riding home with salty hair and sandy bottoms on the same, yet even hotter, bus back to Parker Elementary School, after dropping others students off at their neighborhood schools along the way. The walk home, or rather run, was a pleasure, filled with excitement about a day swimming in the Gulf of Mexico. The next year our lessons were moved to a community swimming pool at the beach, even further away than the State Park. We were excited at first, but it wasn’t as much fun as learning to swim in the Gulf of Mexico.
Northern Florida is possibly as different from an outsider’s perceptions of Florida as can be. Caverns and waterfalls are found in what are now designated state parks. Along the west coast, rolling hills, bluffs and pine forests complement the snow-white Appalachian quartz sand and gem- colored sparkling waters of the Gulf of Mexico. On the east coast, the Gulf Stream waves lap ashore the cream-colored sandy beaches of the Atlantic Ocean. Mild summers ultimately give way to cold, sometimes icy, winters, as this temperate region experiences a “cold snap” on occasion. A Culinary History ofFlorida.
The Emerald Coast is aptly named, when certain times of the day, the jewel-toned waters look magical, as the deep vivid blue-green turns into a softer watercolor scene. Whether it’s sandcastle or sunsets, Destin is a destination to remember. The Henderson Resort shares a property line and a shoreline with the Henderson State Park and provides a little solitude as you walk along the beach in the early morning hours.
From the small hotels along the beaches to the mega seaside communities, covering what seems likes acres of pristine landscapes, the beaches along the Emerald Coast are among the most beautiful in the world. Heading east from Destin, along Hwy 30A, the turquoise waters and sugar white sands of the Gulf continue their artful showing and the resorts follow suit with place names such as Watercolor Inn and down the road is The Pearl at Rosemary Beach. This once isolated beach is packed year round with tourists and locals.
One way to enjoy the beauty of our, once more isolated beaches, is by visiting the states parks located along the Gulf Coast.
These excerpts from Florida Sweets explain how the state park system got started:
The creation of the Florida State Park systems began in the late 1800s when the Florida legislature created a commission to plan the placement of monuments to honor those serving in battles across the state. The first was at Olustee, in Baker County. Later came Highlands Hammock, one of many parks created or improved by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), a federal Depression-era program to provide employment for the nation’s young men between the ages of seventeen and twenty-five. Run by the army in a military-like manner, the CCC developed eight parks from 1933 to 1942. With rustic-style construction and craftsmanship, you can still see some of these buildings at Highlands Hammock in Sebring. They constructed the concession building, visitors’ center, roads and bridges. Today it is home to the State of Florida CCC Museum, with memorabilia, photographs and videos. Located in the 1939 CCC building, the museum displays the Thanksgiving dinner menu for the men, listing for dessert fresh apple pie à la mode and chocolate cake along with mixed nuts and candy. The spring menu dessert suggestions include chocolate cottage pudding, Cape Cod cookies, coconut pumpkin pie and cinnamon tarts.
The beaches and state parks of Florida are not only the perfect picnic spots but have also provided locations for shooting films and television shows, so much so that Florida was once referred to as “Hollywood East.” In 1954, Wakulla Springs was home to the filming of The Creature from the Black Lagoon in 3D. Some other films include Tarzan’s Secret Treasure in 1941, Night Moves in 1975 and Airport 77 in 1977. Weeki Wachee hosted the filming of Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid in 1948. Across the state at Silver Springs, some of the movies filmed on location include The Seven Swans, a silent movie, in 1917; Distant Drums, with Gary Cooper, in 1951; Jupiter’s Darling, starring Esther Williams, in 1955; and six Tarzan movies.
Today, we have more than 150 state parks that include one hundred miles of beaches.
A drive across the panhandle takes you to another favorite beach spot. The first time we stayed at Amelia Island Plantation, in a small cottage, it had a swimming pool in the master bedroom. You could roll off the foot of the bed into the pool. Luckily, a sliding door allowed us to close it off, or I would not sleep for fear of waking up to a splash.
When the Ritz Carlton at Amelia Island opened in 1991 we found our new favorite spot to stay, on this barrier island just north of Jacksonville. The Ritz recently remodeled a lot of our favorite things out of the hotel. Then again, the beauty of the tree-canopied streets, the beaches and sunrise remain unchanged.
From historic downtown Fernandina to Fort Clinch State Park, Florida’s northernmost barrier island offers history, sun and fun. The Amelia Island Museum of history covers 4000 years of Florida history and is housed in what was once the only jail in Nassau County. It’s just a few blocks from downtown shopping, restaurants and the birthplace of the modern shrimping industry.
The Marina Seafood Restaurant was a pleasant surprise – built in the 1880’s it served as a feed store, the first US Custom House in the US, oldest Newspaper in the state, and a bank before becoming a restaurant. The day we stopped by the special was just what I was hoping for: Southern Fried Chicken served with mashed potatoes, gravy, and red field peas. Jack had the chicken soup and grilled cheese sandwich.
Just down the road, the bar tender at the Palace Saloon looked as if he stepped out of the past. This oldest bar in Florida deserves a visit.
Fernandina Beach, on Amelia Island, boasts a history of flying more flags than any other city in the nation and is home to Florida’s oldest tavern, The Palace Saloon, which opened in 1878. Fernandina Beach, on the Atlantic, was once connected by Florida’s first cross-state rail to secluded Cedar Key, on the Gulf of Mexico. Both are still thriving spots for tourists and locals to enjoy a variety of old and new dining experiences. A Culinary History of Florida
Bill Day has been working at the Ritz-Carlton on Amelia Island since it opened over twenty-five years ago. He remembers fondly taking his young daughter Kalie to Fantastic Fudge in nearby Fernandina Beach. This family-owned business offers marble slab fudge, hand-dipped chocolates and ice cream and waffle cones. Florida Sweets.