My first stop on this road trip was Tampa, where I visited with my two best friends, Megan and Itzamme, and their respective boyfriends Sebastian and Javier. It was sort of a simultaneous first stop and going away send-off since I had technically already left home in Miami, but I was still with friends (who are like family). When I arrived to Megan and Sebastian’s apartment, they had a whole basket of yellow (themed to be reflective of the Sunshine State) goodies—candy, chocolate, chips, etc.—yummy mini Bundt cakes, champagne, balloons and other party decorations, a card and even a website. I’m so lucky and grateful to have such loving and amazing best friends. I love them and miss them so much. Thank goodness for modern technology.
In Tampa, we went to Ava and had a nice Italian dinner with delicious pasta and wine, and then had after dinner drinks at The Hall on Franklin. We also went to brunch at Jackson’s Bistro and Bar along the waterfront, followed by binge watching old New Girl episodes back at Megan and Sebastian’s place and ordering sushi take out for dinner. The perfect way to end a nice farewell weekend.
My first stop after Tampa was an hour or so north, in Spring Hill, Florida, the home of Weeki Wachee Springs. A former coworker of mine, Barbara, told me about Weeki Wachee last year and I had been wanting to visit it ever since. Weeki Wachee is typical Old Florida, a small amusement park that features underwater mermaid shows, reptile shows, water rides, a beach and a river boat cruise. Key words: mermaid show. The park was created in 1947 by Newtown Perry, a retired Navy diver and former ‘frog man,’ now known as a U.S. Navy Seal, and the mermaid shows have been going on since 1948. The mermaids used to be called Aquabelles and they used to stand on the side of the road in bathing suits to attract visitors to the park.
The shows originally started off as ballet stunts and then evolved into choreographed shows like “Alice in Waterworld” and “The Little Mermaid” and performing tricks like eating and drinking underwater. Young women audition and train for a full year to be one of the mermaids that perform shows in sparkly outfits in one of the clearest and deepest natural springs in world, with breathing skills that allow them to move any which way in the 74.2 F, for a theater audience sitting 16 feet below the surface of the water.
It was all so kitschy and unique, I loved it. The main draw for me was definitely the mermaid show, but the park also has a nice 30-40 minute wildlife river cruise along the Weeki Wachee River, with a tour guide providing interesting facts and pointing out animals, which include two resident American bald eagles that they’ve named George and Martha. I also saw one of the park’s wildlife shows, a reptile talk and demonstration by one of the park’s wildlife handlers. She showed the audience a King snake, a yellow-bellied turtle, a gopher tortoise (which is a keystone species in Florida), and an American alligator.
After a couple hours at Weeki Wachee, I left and headed to my next stop: Gainesville, Florida. I went to the University of Florida in Gainesville and I hadn’t been back since I graduated in May 2010. So I spent some time reminiscing here, visiting my freshman dorm—Jennings (East), where my name is still carved into the cement sidewalk—and my two apartment buildings, and spent a couple hours strolling through the campus and feeling the nostalgia pour over me. I felt so adult when I was a college student there in 2007-2010, but everyone now looked so young and I felt old. It was strange. Even so, even though I still had many more life lessons to learn once I left college, my time there away from home at age 18-21 was pretty transformative. A lot more transformative than I think I realized at the time. I learned to take care of things myself, and different forms of responsibility. I gained a confidence in that.
While in Gainesville I also visited the UF bat houses, near Lake Alice, at dusk. I had never been before and always wanted to see this. During spring and early summer, if the conditions are right, you can see the bats swarming out of their houses on stilts into a beautiful swirls of helices in the sky for about 15-20 minutes after sunset. It was amazing and awesome.
A lot has changed in Gainesville since I left college. I was there at the height of the recession and that was obvious. Countless empty lots, sprawling with patches of overgrown grass seeping through asphalt. Buildings stood half-built, with no funds available to keep their construction going. The former reminders of struggle have been replaced with shiny new big box stores and commercial centers with sterile sidewalks and neatly trimmed hedges. And Gainesville’s first Whole Foods is opening this month.
But some staples remain—like the 24-hr Krispy Kreme near the corner of University Drive and 13th St, judiciously pumping out that yummy addictive donut-y smell to college students who can inhale a dozen donuts in less than that many minutes after a night at the bars.
St. Augustine, Florida
Founded in 1565 by conquistador Pedro Menendez de Aviles, St. Augustine is the oldest and longest continuously lived in European settlement in the continental United States.
Since I don’t do any long drives at night, I had only a few hours of sightseeing in St. Augustine before hitting the road and making it to Charleston by sundown. I knew I wanted to see and learn about the history of St. Augustine so I focused my time on these two sights:
The 15-acre Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park was created in 1904 by Luella Day McConnell aka “Diamond Lil” and is claimed to be the site where Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon first landed in Florida in 1513. The site was already occupied by the Timucuan Indians in the village of Seloy.
The park has an artesian well that may or may not be the location of the mythical Fountain of Youth—regardless, it’s still fun to drink the odd-tasting water and believe you are now eternal—and a nice long boardwalk along the Intracoastal Waterway. There are also theater and planetarium shows, a blacksmith exhibit, a replica Timucuan village, a Timucuan burial exhibit, a boathouse, canon firing and other quirks, like dozens of peacocks roaming around the grounds of the park, making their strange and distinguishable loud calls.
The Castillo de San Marcos is the oldest masonry fort in the continental U.S., with construction beginning in 1672. It was declared a National Monument in 1924 and was deactivated in 1933, after over two centuries of continuous military possession. It was then handed over to the National Park Service for management.
Charleston is so disarmingly charming, with its sun-sprinkled, cobblestone streets and pastel-colored mansions. The best way to explore the downtown Charleston area is by foot or bike.
This former railroad and coal town nestled in the Roanoke Valley is the hub of Southwestern Virginia and is so cute. After years of economic slump and brain drain, the city is seeing some revitalization in a nascent arts and local craft beer scene.