Backroads Journal

South with the Snowbirds

Yesterday I spotted several bunches of Crocus with their bright, sunny yellow and lavender blooms popping up in the neighbor’s yard.  I guess spring is just around the corner!  We’ve been without snow for quite a while, but it’s been cold and grey most of the time.  I think you will agree with me that the weather this winter has been unusually intense, cold and grey, and we’re all ready for some warm spring days. 

This winter we thought we would head out to Florida to escape the cold, but nobody really mentions that winter in Florida is still winter!  Escaping from 30 degrees to 50 degrees is not the escape I had in mind when we planned our drive to sunny Manasota Key, Florida.  Timing our escape between winter storms, we headed for the Gulf Coast through the Dallas area, missing out on a visit with Nancy’s brother’s family in Hot Springs Village, Arkansas.  The hills of Arkansas are not where I want to drive icy roads! 

The massive devastation caused by Katrina is still very evident all along the coast from New Orleans to Gulf Shores, Alabama.  Vacant lots and battered trees sit right next to brand new hotels and casinos.  It’s obvious where the priorities are for rebuilding.  A highlight of Gulfport, Mississippi was the hotel video that was shot by storm chasers who rode out the hurricane in our beachfront hotel.  The real-time video showed the storm surge rise from the parking lot outside the hotel to within one foot of the first floor ceiling in a matter of 30 minutes.  Cars were seen being washed into the lobby.  You begin to get a feeling of the power of nature when you look outside and realize that the hotel is sitting 15 to 20 feet above the level of the beach to begin with.  Evacuation routes are prominently posted for good reason!

Skirting Pensacola, we followed US 98 along the coast through Fort Walton Beach to Destin, Florida.  Having read about Destin in several travel magazines, we wanted to check out this destination beach town.  The white sand beaches and beautiful golf courses would certainly beckon except for the 20 mph damp wind and 50 degree weather.  It seems even the Snowbirds, who travel to Florida to escape the cold, were holed up inside.  Even the perfect little town of Seaside, one of several planned communities along scenic Highway 30A, just east of Destin, was like a ghost town with only construction workers milling around. 

When we travel, I try to scan the maps for interesting looking towns to visit.  Apalachicola and Cedar Key, Florida were both that kind of town.  Being isolated out away from major travel routes, I thought they might have a character all their own.  I was right about that.  Apalachicola is a major shrimp fishing and oyster farming and harvesting center which has a water-based lifeblood.  Refrigerated dock buildings and oyster boats line the waterfront and fresh oyster bars line the streets.  I totally enjoyed an appetizer of $9 per dozen oysters before my dinner, which also included fried oysters, that night.  The independent oystermen of Apalachicola provide 90% of Florida’s oyster harvest and 10% of the country’s.  The steady cold rain that day was keeping the oystermen at home, so, without many photo opportunities, we headed on to our next destination at Cedar Key.

Cedar Key has embraced the concept of old Florida.  They enjoy being compared to Key West in the 60’s.  Cedar Key is a loose, easy going, eclectic town of small galleries, restaurants, gift shops, a local history museum and charter boat operations set on a group of small islands surrounded by nature preserves.  You won’t find any high rise hotels there, but you will find some unique, quality accommodations.  Harbor Master Suites, a weathered looking, funky group of buildings sitting on piles above the bay, turned out to be our favorite night of the trip.  The Corrigan’s Reef Suite was large, comfortable and had great views of both the sunrise and sunset over the bay.

As a Jimmy Buffett fan, I was drawn to Cedar Key by the mention of it in the song, “Incommunicado”.  We didn’t find Travis McGee, but we did check out the legendary Island Hotel where Jimmy has been known to visit and serenade residents in the Neptune Bar and from the balcony above the street.  We had no surprise visit from Jimmy, but we did enjoy a memorable dinner in their quaint restaurant surrounded by local celebrities, guests and the ghosts of the Island Hotel legend.  The historic hotel was built as a General Store in 1859, but as early as 1884 had a restaurant with lodging upstairs.  Through the years legends of the resident ghosts have given the Hotel a colorful story and unique publicity.  I was skeptical of the stories, but upon being asked, our waitress told us of her “sighting”.  We were glad we had booked our suite out over the bay.

Our journey continued south along the coast past the high rise hotels of Clearwater and St. Petersburg beaches, Sarasota and past Venice to Manasota Key, where we met my sister and her husband for several days of laid-back beach walking, shelling, reading and watching sunsets.   The long trip home was punctuated by a stop in Natchez, Mississippi and a drive past the great old antebellum homes.  We had visited Natchez for the Spring Pilgrimage about 15 years ago.  If you haven’t been a part of the Pilgrimage, you are missing a wonderful glimpse back into history when cotton was king.  Natchez boasts more antebellum structures than any city its size in the United States.

We love to travel, see new places and experience other parts of the country, but we loved arriving back home just as much.  We just wish spring had arrived while we were gone!

You may walk, drive or fly, but never lose sight of the reason for the journey, or miss a chance to toast a sunset along the way.

Links to the Harbor Master Suites, the Island Hotel and the Natchez Spring Pilgrimage are included below.