Florida Under the Radar
With its accessible and varied pleasures, Florida is a favorite of many. Drawn to the colonial charm of St. Augustine, Miami's pulsing nightlife, the glitz of Palm Beach, or the quiet expanse of the Everglades, almost all visitors find something to love here. From the powdery white beaches of the Panhandle to the vibrant coral reefs of the Florida Keys, the ocean is always calling—for sailing, fishing, diving, swimming, and other water sports.
Molasses Reef is a vibrant underwater habitat off Key Largo. Located in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, Molasses Reef is a popular coral reef destination for scuba divers. The area is filled with artifacts and remnants of ships that ran aground here, making it a visually interesting dive experience filled with lots to see. The area also hosts an old shipwreck, which is now mostly just a pile of ballast stones, although the anchor and a large winch remain identifiable.
The reef itself is made up of elkhorn, star, brain and fire corals, as well as sea fans and sponges, creating a vibrant underwater landscape. In the cracks and crevasses of the corals crabs, lobsters and eels all make their homes. Colorful angelfish, spadefish and coral-eating parrotfish are all common sights on the reef. Sea turtles sometimes appear in the area, and an attentive diver or snorkeler might see a stingray hiding in the sandy bottoms around the reef. Placid nurse sharks sometimes seek shelter beneath the reef's overhangs and in its small caves.
Cruger-dePeyster Sugar Mill Ruins offer an insight into Florida's economic and controversial past. New Smyrna Beach is the second-oldest city in the state of Florida. As early as 2000 BCE, Timucuan Native American populations thrived in the area until widely being wiped out by war and diseases brought by European settlers. Dr. Andrew Turnbull, Scottish physician and entrepreneur, settled here in 1768 and named the area Smyrna in honor of his wife who was born in Smyrna, Asia Minor (now Izmir, Turkey). New Smyrna became the largest British colony attempt in the New World.
Henry Cruger and William dePeyster bought 600 acres of land here in 1830 and established a sugar plantation. The plantation originally consisted of a sugar mill and a saw mill, both built from coquina quarried in the area. Coquina, or "tiny shell," was first used by the Spanish. It contains mollusk shell fragments and quartz sand, bound together by calcium carbonate. Machinery for the mills, much advanced for the time and area, consisted of steam-driven rollers financed by investors from New York. The steam engines allowed greater volumes and faster production. Unfortunately for the owners and investors, the mills and surrounding buildings were burned down by the Seminole Indians during the Second Seminole War in 1835, just as the plantation was beginning to pay for itself and profits were starting to come in. Aided by the plantations own slaves, the natives burned crops, homes and buildings in the area. The main targets were the lucrative sugar plantations that were a major source of revenue for the locals.
Now maintained by the Florida Park Service as a State Historic Site, visitors are free to roam among the ruins, walk along nature trails, and enjoy picnic lunches under the shade of pine and oak trees.
The Vizcaya Museum and Gardens , perched right on Biscayne Bay, is one of Miami's greatest treasures. Originally 180 acres in size, the estate was developed by James Deering, the early 20th century industrialist (of tractor fame). A well-known conservationist, it was designed to conserve the mangrove swamps and dense inland native tropical forests.
The architecture, the grounds, and the artwork it contains are all worth the trip to visit this beautiful place. Built in 1916, the mansion features 34 rooms arranged around a central courtyard. The estate was the former winter residence of Deering until his death in 1925. This 28-acre estate and Italian Renaissance-style villa is filled with European furniture and decorative arts from the 15th to 19th century. It took more than 1,100 workers and craftsmen to complete the Vizcaya project, many of whom were brought over from Europe to ensure authenticity in design. The beautifully maintained mansion is surrounded by acres of serene European-style gardens chockablock with fountains and statuary, some of which date back to antiquity. The piece de resistance, however, is the ornamental breakwater that sits right in the bay. Carved out of Florida limestone in the shape of an oversize Venetian barge, it is studded with all kinds of decorative sculpture — and makes for one of the most sublime sunset photo ops in Miami.
The name "Vizcaya" is a Basque word meaning "an elevated place." A visit will take you back to a time when Miami was choked with trees instead of traffic. A walk around the outside is guaranteed to have you dreaming of Europe, so just imagine the culture-overload when you check out all the art, furniture and structures inside.
Fall off the grid with a 20-minute ferry ride to pristine Caladesi , north of Clearwater, where good things come in threes: three miles of beaches with enough mollusk shells and sand dollars to lure collectors; a three-mile nature trail through tropical mangrove forests; and three miles of paddling trails.
Caladesi Island State Park is located on the island by the same name in the Gulf of Mexico. If you'd like to travel in style rather than take the ferry, rent your own private boat from the dock at Honeymoon Island to reach this magical place. Or, if you find yourself on the other end at Clearwater Beach, simply walk all the way out to Caladesi Island, as it technically connected to the mainland at this point at a narrow juncture.
Once you're inside the state park, you'll feel as though you've stepped into a different world. Formed in a hurricane in 1921, sand and earth formed this beautiful beach. There are also ample opportunities to go birding or view other diverse kinds of wildlife, or go fishing, snorkeling, kayaking or swimming. Watch the nature show as gopher tortoises burrow in sand dunes and shorebirds wade in the surf. Enjoy some time at this true Florida gem, showing that beauty can be created from storms.