Keys to the backwaters: a coastal Florida road trip
To say that Florida has a mixed reputation is like saying my president occasionally utters unusual sentences. We have packs of tourists wandering the mega-theme parks of greater Orlando like flocks of flightless birds; locust swarms of spring breakers funnelling beers in Panama City before leaving motel rooms looking as if The Who had stayed; and supermodels weighted down with bling filming commercials on Miami Beach.
Meanwhile, the behaviour of our natives continues to generate the state’s chief export: weird headlines. “DUI on a horse: Florida woman arrested after riding on busy road”; “Woman, 68, and younger lover, 49, arrested after being caught having sex in Florida retirement community’s town square”; “Do you take reptiles? Customer throws alligator through drive-thru”; “Woman crashes car on the Overseas Highway while shaving privates.”
But while many of our best-known destinations are hyper-stressed cartoons of themselves and others have atrophied on the dust heap of history, there is a third group. Despite decades of rapacious change, a number of remote towns and hamlets survive as living testimonies to the quaint Florida of yesteryear.
As a start, head for Cedar Key, on the Gulf of Mexico, on what’s called the Nature Coast. Your journey begins on a remote highway in the middle of nowhere (actually the town of Otter Creek, population 121). After leaving that metropolis behind, turn south-west on to a lonely road through 20 miles of marshland and nothingness. Eventually, tiny bridges appear, then ramshackle buildings on stilts out in the water.
In the 1860s, Cedar Key was on the verge of being a boom town. The railroad from Fernandina Beach, on the Atlantic coast, had its western terminus here, and port traffic flourished. Then another railroad was built further south, drawing the shipping business down to Tampa, and leaving Cedar Key to dry up. Or so everyone thought.
Instead, it simply froze in time, continuing at its own unhurried rhythm. It still looks like Key West did in 1900. It is so intimate, so small town – not a traffic light in sight, a tiny grocery where locals post notices about lost animals, and a convenience store where the clerk locks up and runs back and forth to the liquor store – that it can be completely explored on foot. So slip on those flip-flops and head to Dock Street, where sun-bleached wooden buildings stand over the gulf.
There’s a disused lighthouse and an old seafood packing house, plus restaurants and other venerable buildings on Second Street, with rusting roofs and gingerbread balconies. The Island Hotel and Restaurant, established 1859, has its own ghost and is a great historic place to stay (doubles from $90 B&B). As for dining, you can’t throw a rock in this town without it ricocheting off three restaurants serving some of the finest seafood, particularly shellfish, you’ve ever had. Climb the ad hoc boardwalk at either end of the wharf on Dock Street, and take your pick.
After sunset, an ominous fog often rolls in. More often than not, it’s actually a fine mist of sea spray drifting over the islands from waves crashing the western shore and shooting high over the protective boulders, drenching you if you don’t watch out. The fog/mist that glows under the few street lights lend the vibe that Wild West gunslingers are about to square off in the street. The bottom line: leave your car parked for your entire stay, and just walk around an island that is one big seaport museum, and forget what century you’re in.
Now return to Otter Creek, then drive south for four hours or so, through Tampa and Sarasota, to Matlacha and, beyond Pine Island, Cabbage Key.
Approaching from Fort Myers, the first thing you see is a drawbridge. To the left is Bridgewater Inn (doubles from $155), on stilts, with waves lapping under the rooms. Across the bridge, it is the colours that first splash visitors in the face: vibrant green, pink, purple, yellow, lime and orange, painted over everything. Matlacha (pronounced MAT-la-shay) is an old fishing outpost turned funky arts community.
Technicolor paint covers rows of low-slung cottages that house art studios and craft boutiques. The whole place is less than a mile long. In front of one place are sculptures of herons, turtles and an alligator with a golf club; another has a mural of mermaids. The next a pirate and a gold manatee. The post office sports a painting of a dolphin carrying a mail bag. Inside the shops are stained-glass tree frogs, driftwood lobsters and giant spotted geckos hammered out of metal sheets. But it’s hot, you’re hungry and it’s time to drop anchor.
Some buildings house tiny guesthouses, such as Knoll’s Court and the Angler’s Inn (doubles from $110, on Facebook), and delightfully un-fancy restaurants, including the Olde Fish House Marina and Bert’s Bar & Grill. It’s almost like a zoning ordinance that if you’re serving fresh seafood, you must have dining tables with intoxicating views of the water.
From there, push on west to Pine Island. This area is militantly protected environmentally, which means thick stands of mangroves harbouring a teeming ecosystem of marine life and wading birds (there are kayaks and fishing guides for hire). A few miles north-west, through wilderness and palm farms, is Pineland, and historic Tarpon Lodge (doubles from $175 B&B). But right now you’re looking for a boat to take you across Pine Island Sound, where dolphins often follow your vessel and repeatedly leaping out of the water to check you out, to Cabbage Key, a 100-acre mangrove island home to the Cabbage Key Inn (doubles from $99 room only).
There’s nothing pretentious about the open-air restaurant and intimate bar, with stuffed game fish on the parts of the walls that aren’t plastered with dollar bills signed by customers, including music legend and Florida resident Jimmy Buffett. There are no cars, and no roads, but there is a nature trail circling the island through dense tropical vegetation, and a vintage wooden water tower with an observation deck for a panoramic view of the surrounding islands.
Next, head four hours east across the peninsula across the state to Cocoa Beach, another one-time boom town, in this case from the space race of the 1960s and early 70s, when new suburbs bulged with engineers and astronauts raced Corvettes along the shore. It began tapering off with the Space Shuttle programme, and is almost back to the sleepy community it was when there was just the 1848 lighthouse warning seafarers away from Cape Canaveral. But its updated visitors’ complex is one of the most fascinating tourist attractions in the state. On display are items from worn spacesuits to unappetising tubes of 60-year-old zero-gravity food, plus space capsules from the Mercury and Gemini programmes, which now look more like barrels that went over Niagara Falls.
The best feature, however, is the bus tours of the launch pads and other landmarks. Main tours leave every few minutes for the Apollo and Space Shuttle sites, but there are several less-jammed add-ons. My favourite is the Early Space excursion to Canaveral air force station, where the first satellites and astronauts were launched by crews in concrete bunkers, that you get to go inside.
Unlike with most Florida beaches, the pristine shores back in town are dependably uncrowded. And the historic epicentre of local social life is Cocoa Beach Pier. Back when Cocoa Beach was giving birth to the east coast surfing scene, the pier housed the early incarnation of the famous Ron Jon Surf Shop (now in a giant, garish birthday cake of a building nearby). Today, the huge, weathered boardwalk hosts a string of restaurants, bars and beach boutiques, including a tiny tiki bar at the far end, with frosty drinks and gusts of ocean breeze. But its finest feature is the view over reflective water towards the cape. Look online for the schedule of satellite launches, sit out here on a silent night and watch in childlike wonderment as a tail of flame flickers upward into orbit.
Or, if none of that is to your taste, we always have the Mad Teacup ride at Disney.
• Tim Dorsey’s latest novel is The Pope of Palm Beach (HarperCollins, £19.30)
Way to go
Virgin Atlantic flies to Tampa from £463 return; Norwegian flies to Fort Lauderdale from £287 return and Orlando from £328; Wow flies to Miami from £300 return. All from Gatwick.
American Sky has a 10-night self-drive holiday in Florida, with one or two nights in Miami, Cocoa Beach, St Augustine, St Pete Beach, Naples and Key West. From £1,299pp including flights, accommodation and car hire.
When to go
May has average temperatures of 25C and fewer tourists. June to August is hot (highs of 33C), humid and wet, and September is peak hurricane season. October and November are warm and dry (early 20s), but average temperatures don’t drop below 16C even in January.
Back to nature
Explore the Everglades, the US’s largest tropical wilderness, on a self-guided kayaking and camping trip along the 99-mile Wilderness Waterway (permit required). From April-October, thousands of giant sea turtles nest on the beach at the Canaveral national seashore. The Ocala national forest has 219 miles of trails and over 600 lakes, rivers and springs.