Monday, March 22, 2010

Emerald Coast Social Diary

Sunset on the Gulf of Mexico, Sunday, 6:40 p.m., as viewed from the Emerald Coast.
The Other Side of Florida
by Carol Joynt

This is how I found Florida. Once upon a time in the West Indies I crewed on Spartan, a 75-foot Herreshoff sailboat. I lived in the foc’sle with the anchor chain and lots of books. My bed was a pipe berth, but it was also where I got lost in the joys of nightly reading. It’s what you did at anchor in a tranquil cove after a day of sun, wind, sailing, swimming and rum. While my sun bleached literary journey started with Herman Wouk’s entertaining “Don’t Stop The Carnival” - an old salt handed to me with the words “required reading” – I soon discovered John D. McDonald; his books, his character Travis McGee, and his Florida, became a passion.

Several months and 17 “Travis” novels later, I hitched a ride on a sloop headed from Antiqua to Ft. Lauderdale. I had to get to know this state. First thing upon arriving on shore was to go to Bahia Mar marina to find slip F-18, where Travis lived on a houseboat, “The Busted Flush,” between adventurous rescue missions that took him far from the travel brochures and into the other side of Florida – blindingly sunny and colorful with shady developers, crafty con artists, good women and bad, often with too much mileage, and men who were mean as snakes and generally intent on killing him. Alas, there was no slip F-18, pure fiction, but there was still all of Florida to explore. Which, over the years I have done with an adventurous traveling companion, my son, as he’s grown from little boy to now almost off to college.
First morning in Florida, breakfast: Pork BBQ w/ slaw, pot salad and a pickle.
The dessert options.
Together we’ve explored the Keys, Miami, South Beach, Palm Beach, Vero Beach, Amelia and Fernandina. We’ve done Orlando, Cape Canaveral, and Disney, Naples and Marco Island. We did the Everglades by car and on a boat. We’ve done Sanibel and Useppa and the Okeechobee Canal. It felt like we’d traversed the whole state, but of course we had not. A chunk we’d missed was the northern Gulf Coast, which answers to both the “Emerald Coast” and the “Redneck Riviera.”

Some people can't wait until April 1.
Over the past few days Spencer and I enjoyed the plenty of this region. We arrived in Sanford via the swift, overnight Auto Train, and then drove through Ocala to the Gulf, and skirted the coast to our final destination, the Water Color Inn and Resort on Santa Rosa Beach.

The road-tripping is fun, especially when we get off-road. During one such detour, near High Springs, we discovered Blue Springs Park – the swimming hole of one’s dreams, a wide, deep, crystal clear, natural pool of 72-degree mineral water. The only option was to jump in.

Near Chiefland, we stopped at Manatee Springs State Park to see, well, the manatees. We hoped to swim, but it’s not allowed when the manatees are in the area, and there were a few. The alligator warning was a bit daunting, too. We watched mullet leap in the air to escape a school of Alligator Gar, piles of sunbathing turtles, and gazed at the lazy Suwannee River.

What the Emerald Coast offers, that’s rarely possible anymore on Florida’s East Coast, is the chance to drive dozens of miles beside the water. Spencer put it best:

“This is the Pacific Coast Highway at sea level.” The route numbers vary – 30, 98, 319 – but it’s essentially the same road. Along the way there are plenty of roadside fish shacks that offer fresh local shrimp, oysters and other catch. Also, lots of barbecue. A particular favorite, at least for a photo, was the “drive-thru” fried chicken spot.
Off-road we discover a crystal clear mineral spring not yet open for the season.
No option but to jump in.
Cool but incredible.
At Manatee Springs the water is beautiful but the warning to swimmers is scary.
The water at Manatee Springs is deep, clear and a brilliant aquamarine.
Beautiful cypress.
The Spanish moss is lovely and everywhere.
Where Manatee Springs feeds into the Suwannee River
Visitors to Manatee Springs search for manatees.
Find the manatee in this photo!
There are stretches of road, especially at Apalachicola, where it’s possible to forget the terrain is Florida. It looks like Rhode Island, but with palm trees. The architecture is different from East Coast Florida, which in recent years has veered more and more toward one oversized ocean chateau after another. The northern Gulf coast, at least on first inspection, flows toward clapboard, porches, verandas, discreet rooftop decks, and color schemes that go from white to pastel and back to white. Most of the oceanfront homes are up on stilts but still low in profile, favoring charm over grand.

The exception, so far, is Panama City, which appeared to follow the model of over packed and high-rise. With that exception, the drive from Keaton Beach to Santa Rosa Beach was remarkable for the light traffic. In some stretches we saw another car only once every 2-3 miles.
Keaton Beach Hot Stand, Keaton Beach, Florida
Drive-thru fried chicken, along the way in northern Florida.
The highway skirts the Gulf for miles and miles between Keaton Beach and Panama City.
The Water Color Inn is owned by the St. Joe Company, which boasts “the highest standard for land management and environmentally sensitive development in Florida.” The sprawling Water Color community is next to Grayton Beach State Park, with its famous pristine beaches.

In the other direction is Seaside, the pioneer New Urbanist development, which has been lauded many times over for its design and implementation. Both are rigid and attractive in their architecture and, like Grayton Park, they enjoy one of the planet’s most beautiful expanses of sugar white sand.
A room at the Water Color Inn. Outside the open door is the crashing surf of the Gulf.
Waiting on the bed: bathrobes and cookies.
A room at the Water Color Inn has many hooks, and they come in handy.
In the bathroom at the Water Color Inn, attractive tubes of useful products.
The personal style of these communities skews toward Jimmy Buffett meets Vineyard Vines and Lily Pulitzer, but then so does much of well-off Florida.

I view Water Color as a guest, not a long-term resident, and I appreciate the big things - the low to the ground, near to the sea appeal of its architecture; good rooms, attractive public spaces, a nice library, and lots of outdoor activities that are included in the room price. Also included in the room price: overnight valet parking, wireless Internet, a full breakfast. The menu at their Fish Out of Water restaurant had what I most wanted: fresh local seafood, including Apalachicola oysters, wild shrimp, crab and Red Snapper. The menu was extensive, but I was intent on local fare.
The light fixtures at the Water Color Inn's restaurant have the surfside spirit.
The decor of the restaurant is positively aquatic.
Fresh Florida "Emerald Coast" specialities: crab claws, shrimp, Red Snapper ceviche, and Apalachicola oysters.
Apalachicola oysters at Water Color Inn's Fish Out of Water restaurant.
House made tagliatelle with fresh Florida blue crab at the Water Color Inn.
The library at the Water Color Inn.
Books available to Water Color Inn guests.
Snow? A late night shot of the sugar-white sand on Santa Rosa Beach, FL
By the way, Emerald Coast locals will tell you, their sand is different. Unlike beige and brown sand, it is not the result of pulverized shells. The whiteness comes from being 99 per cent refined pure quartz crystals that found their way from the Appalachian Mountains downriver to the Gulf. The white white sand is what gives the water its special emerald to aquamarine hues.

The only thing left to do is grab a sunny spot on that sand and a good book. After the works of Wouk and McDonald, it’s time for that other literary troubadour of all things real Florida, Carl Hiassen.
Washed down by an overnight rain, one of the Water Color Inn's walkways to the beach.
It will be a windy day.
A dune view of dawn on Santa Rosa Beach.
Bicycles are the preferred mode of transport at Water Color Inn and Seaside.
The main entrance to the Water Color Inn.
The Water Color community at sunrise.
Looking back at the Water Color Inn from the beach. The restaurant to the left, rooms to the right.
The style, as in much of upscale Florida, skews toward Lily and Vineyard Vines.
The morning report at the entrance to The Water Color Inn.
Indoor garden swings at The Water Color Inn.
The complimentary breakfast at The Water Color Inn comes with a view of the sea.
A cloudy morning does not diminish the view from Room 318.
Sunset on the Gulf of Mexico, Sunday, 6:40 p.m., as viewed from the Emerald Coast.
For those who may be landlocked, here's 2 minutes of unedited Gulf Coast surf. Sorry we can't include the salt air.
Ode to the Auto Train

For those old enough to remember, the auto train was given cultural status on the night of February 10, 1979, by Bill Murray on Saturday Night Live. In the sketch, Murray’s “Nick the lounge singer” performed his smarmy routine for an odd lot of overnight guests in the train’s “nightclub” car. I’d already been a passenger on the Auto Train and watched in stitches, wishing the sketch could come true. While the first generation Auto Train did have a lounge with entertainment, it was nothing on the scale of Nick.

Cindy, the manager of the CJ-SJ sleeper car.
I’m a big fan of the Auto Train. Apart from the fact that it gets me and my car to Florida overnight, it’s also a pleasure. Yeah, it’s got a little bit of the cheese factor, but its old school charming cheese. I love that we board in the late afternoon, watch the sun set on gray fields finishing their winter sleep, and wake up to live oaks, Spanish moss, canals, swamps and orange trees, plus bright sunshine and blue skies.

And palm trees! Before there’s time to finish a morning cup of coffee, the train is in the station, our car rolls down the ramp, we climb in and we’re in Florida.

For Amtrak, the auto train is the luxury item of the fleet. In the half dozen or more times we’ve used it, the train departed on time and arrived on time. The sleeping cabins are clean and functional. There are also coach sleeper seats. The dining car is appealing with crisp white linens and attentive service – and, a chef. In the lounge they offer a wine tasting during “happy hour,” and one year it featured some very good Oregon Pinot Noir. There’s no more live entertainment but they do show movies. The snacks aren’t much – mostly salty things – but, hey, its one night. We usually pack a picnic dinner and eat in our cabin.

Passengers often ask how to get their car on the train so it will be the first off on arrival. Veterans have learned there’s no way to game the system. The train’s staff swear it is random. Whatever, with this trip we noticed the first off were a couple dozen SUVs, followed by a few Mercedes, Jaguars and a Bentley, and then the rest of us. Regardless, the wait was not even twenty minutes.

The Auto Train departs daily at 4 pm from Lorton, Va. – about 20 miles south of Washington – and arrives at 8:30 the next morning in Sanford. There is a daily return trip with the same departure and arrival times.

Now, if only Amtrak would provide the same service to Los Angeles!
The Auto Train runs for as long as the eye can see.
The automobiles ride in their own special cars.
SJ gets settled in a cabin made for two (including bunk beds).
The regular evening (complimentary) wine tasting party in the lounge car.
A passenger inspects the evening's red wine selection before dinner.
Menu on a table in the dining car.
A family relaxes in the lounge car as the Auto Train starts rolling toward Florida.
The view of Virginia in late March: brown.
The compact corridor of a sleeping car. As the train speeds south, the terrain blurs outside a car window.
SJ, the high school senior, catches up on lost sleep.
Dinner is served as the train rolls through many old and historic Virginia towns.
The dining car in full swing.
The Buck family - Cindy, Thomas and John - head to Florida for another son's St. Alban's baseball camp.
Sunset over North Carolina.
Sunrise hits one of the sleeping cars.
Passengers disembark in Sanford, FL.
The cars come rolling off: first the SUVS, followed by Mercedes, Jaguars, Bentleys, Lexus, and everyone else.
Early in the morning, waiting for the car to get off the train.
Photographs by Carol Joynt. Carol is the host of The Q&A Cafe in Washington, D.C.

Visit her at: caroljoynt.com. Follow Carol on Twitter.