Florida Driving Tour

Filed under: Entertainment,Florida News,Just For Fun,Leisure,Vacation Tips |

Living in Orlando is a wonderful way to exist but sometimes we all need a break from the ‘norm’ and we need to get away to new places and see something different. “A change is as good as a rest is a favored old proverb ” and with my eldest daughter back home from college in Kentucky we decided to get away for the weekend.

We didn’t want to simply put the car on auto pilot and head down an interstate so we set out to explore some of Florida and headed down Highway 17 down through Winter Haven, Bartow, Meade, Arcadia and numerous other small towns before reaching Punta Gorda.

The journey down 17 was interesting and showed the real Florida. On the way we saw how life used to be and still is for many people, we saw lots of eagles nests in the electricity pylons and we encountered the ‘Florida Love Bug’ in large batches that made a real mess of our car! For those not familiar with this phenomena, Florida has two ‘lovebug’ seasons; late spring and then again in late summer. Basically, the bug (also known as the honeymoon fly, kissing bug or double headedbug) comes in male and female forms and shortly after reaching maturity it spends its entire adult life coupled in copulation with its mate, hence the romantic nicknames.  After mating, the male dies and is dragged about by the female until she lays her eggs. The females can lay upto 350 eggds in debris and about 20 days later they hatch into larvae which lasts for approximately nine months. The female lifecycle is approximately three to four days.

The bugs are pretty harmless overall but become something of a nuisance to most of us. They don’t bite or sting but they do have a slightly acidic body chemistry which makes them very difficult to remove from a vehicle.

Despite this mess, it’s well worthwhile visiting some of the charming old towns like Wauchula and Haines City and it’s nice to see places that you would never see if you’re on the interstate. Each place has a unique history and Wauchula is an example of that as it has been called the ‘cucumber capital of the world’ while Haines City grew mainly because of the South Florida Railroad.

At the end of 17 is Punta Gorda, a place where the Peace River meets Charlotte Harbor, and this made a perfect place to stop for lunch. We found a lovely little restaurant overlooking the water at the Fishermen’s Villages and enjoyed a wonderful lunch… hard to imagine that this was the place that felt the brunt of Hurricane Charley, a category four hurricane, back in August 2004.

Punta Gorda was also the place of the southernmost stop on the South Florida Railroad and because of that it attracted many industries to fuel its growth. Today, it seems more of a sleepy town relying on its charm to attract tourists to visit.

From Punta Gorda we jumped on the interstate and headed further south to Marco Island. Marco Island, located on the Gulf of Mexico, is the largest barrier island within Southwest Florida’s Ten Thousand Islands and has a total area of just 17 square miles of which approximately 7 miles of it is water.

It’s a great place to relax and we found a nice hotel…yes, sometimes I do stay in them…purely for research purposes mind, called the Old Marco Inn. The Inn was built in 1883 by Captain Bill Collier on Calusa Indian grounds and today you can luxuriate in the elegant suites that now grace the property.

The Inn originally opened with 20 rooms and is one of the oldest buildings in southwest Florida. Captain Collier started to accommodate travelers with a very special “dollar a day, bring your own meat” offer.

Unfortunately the Calusa Indians are now extinct but in 1896 a Smithsonian Institution Expedition discovered the Marco Cat and numerous ceremonial masks and artifacts just a few yards from where the Inn stands. These artifacts can now be seen in the Smithsonian and are considered to be one of the most significant archaeological finds in North America.

After Captain Collier, the next owners of the Inn were the Ruppert family of beer, basketball and baseball fame. The Inn then became a sporting haven for certain clientele.

Today, if you decide to visit, you can enjoy wandering around Marco Island, have a day on the beach or splashing in the Inn’s pool, or simply chill out and relax. After a hectic day of doing very little then make sure you try out some of the great restaurants on the island… and don’t miss Bistro Soleil located at the Inn. It’s quite simply … fabulous.

Frenchman Denis Meurgue is the award winning chef and his cooking is influenced by his passionate culinary odyssey having worked in the Mediterranean, Mexico, Europe and the tropics. Be warned, the menu is mouth watering and you really will have a hard time deciding what to eat as you’ll want to sample at least three or four dishes!

After a good night’s rest we grabbed a quick breakfast at The Chef’s Express, located near the Inn, and we headed over to Cedar Bay Yacht Club where we hired a boat for a half day exploring Marco’s waterway’s. This really is the best way to see the island and see the natural beauty of this part of Florida. It’s here you can enjoy boating to tropical islands with sugar sand beaches, visit a dockside restaurant letting the tropical breeze sweep you away or relax and take in a magical sunset while watching the abundant wildlife play in a pristine environment. You can also enjoy sailing by some fabulous real estate and seeing some amazing homes.

Another restaurant we tried was Marek’s Collier House restaurant which was another of Captain Bill Collier’s homes and today is run by Peter and Penny Marek. Peter is a Triple Gold Medal Winner World Culinary Olympics and the restaurant has been voted Marco Island’s Best Fine Dining Restaurant 8 years in a row.

From there it was time for a quick nightcap at the Snook Inn for some members of the family while others retired early. The Snook Inn has been a landmark on Marco Island for over 30 years and it got its name from the abundance of snook fish right off the dock. The Snook is a casual waterfront full service restaurant with an emphasis on fun. You can dine indoors or out and you’ll also find some entertainment in the “Chickee Bar”, which is a unique area complete with thatched roof that was constructed by Native Americans. It’s a great place to enjoy a cocktail, a wine or a beer and it really does have one of the finest water views in Southwest Florida.

Our final day of the weekend was spent driving back to Orlando but we didn’t simply get on I75 and head north. If we had, the journey back to Orlando would have taken around 3.5 to 4 hours… so it’s not too far to go to get away. Instead we decided to explore the Gulf coast a little more and we drove back via Naples, and a few of the Barrier Islands such as Anna Marie Island, Siesta Key, Longboat Key, and then through Sarasota and Bradenton before heading back home.

If you’ve never done this sort of road trip before then you’ve really missed out. It’s fun to break your vacation up and even if you are staying in one of our vacation homes, you can easily journey to the Gulf Coast and to areas like Clearwater, St. Petersburg, Bradenton and Sarasota in a couple of hours. It’s not necessary to stay out overnight as it’s really very easy to enjoy a day at the beach and then head back inland for the attraction parks and everything else the Orlando area has to offer.

Talking of beaches, the Clearwater area down to Sarasota really does have some of the finest beaches that Florida has to offer. Harvard University’s geology department found the sand at Siesta Key to be 99% pure quartz. Unlike most Florida beaches that are composed of crushed shells, rocks or lava, this sand is pure white and finer in texture than most refined sugar. Quite simply amazing and the really dazzling thing is that it never feels hot.

If you’re thinking of getting married then Anna Maria Island is the place for you. It’s known as the “wedding capital of Florida” and even hosts an annual Wedding Festival. Again crystal white beaches are abundant and you’ll also enjoy discovering some of the eating holes along the way. Finally, if you happen to wander this way from May to October then watch out for sea turtles as they come ashore to nest. The sea turtles are protected and another popular visitor to Anna Marie Island are manatees who frequent the shores.

Overall a really great way to spend the weekend. The batteries feel recharged and I’m ready to go again…

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