Celebrating All Things Florida. I wanted to put together a magazine that served as the voice of Florida – past and present. My vision for this site is to put a spotlight on some of the unique things about the Sunshine State that many people may not know or may have forgotten. We will visit places off the beaten path, take a look at the history of some of the smaller towns, learn a little..
With Mother’s Day less than a week away, we know finding the right gift can be difficult. In a previous post, we shared 27 ideas of places to take mom on this special day, from parks to attractions to restaurants. Unfortunately, not all moms live in Florida and cannot be treated to a Florida-style Mother’s Day. For those special ladies, why not send a piece of Florida to her? We’ve looked around and found some great gift ideas for the Florida-loving mom on your list.
Give your mom the scent of Florida citrus. If she has been fortunate enough to be in Florida when citrus trees are laden with white aromatic orange blossoms, then she will love this candle. With a 60 – 80 hour burn time, the Homesick Candle will conjure up endless memories every time she burns it.
Made in the USA.
Florida Bamboo Serving and Cutting Board
Is your mom a chef? If so, then she will love this Florida-shaped cutting board. The permanent, laser-engraved artwork highlights some of mom’s favorite locations in the state, from the Panhandle to the Keys. Made from flat grain bamboo, it is also easy on knives. One side serves as a serving platter, with the other acting as the cutting surface. Whether mom uses it as a cutting board or wall art, it’s sure to add a touch of whimsy to the kitchen.
Primitives Florida Sign
If you’re looking for a gift that will serve as a pleasant reminder of the Sunshine State, why not a sign for Mom to place on a shelf or hang on the wall? The black distressed frame highlights a silhouette of Florida, surrounded by a list of the most populated cities in the state. For an added special touch, use the adhesive mini red heart that comes with the sign to place on your mom’s favorite Florida city or town.
Why not give the gift of jewelry for Mother’s Day? Whether it offers a slight hint of the Sunshine State or “spells” it out, jewelry is always a good gift for that special mom.
Florida Silver Cuff Bracelet
Subtle but classy! Mom will love wearing this cuff bracelet to remind her of the Sunshine State. The bracelets are hand-stamped and feature the outline of the state replacing the O in Home. It’s sure to be a conversation starter wherever mom wears it. Fits most wrists.
Nautical Stretch Bracelet Set
You could call this three-gifts-in-one. This gold-plated set features three nautical-themed bracelets – a shell, an anchor and a starfish. Great for that summer outing, mom can wear them one at a time or all together. Bracelets are stretchy for an easy fit.
Spread a little Florida love on this Mother’s Day. No matter what you choose, it’s like giving your mom the gift of sunshine.
On Sunday, May 12th, moms around the country will be treated to flowers, candy, and other gifts. While those are splendid choices and are greatly appreciated, we have put together a list of some of our favorite places to celebrate a memorable Mother’s Day. Whether it’s a park, a botanical garden, an “old Florida” attraction, a bite to eat or a refreshing beverage, any one of these Florida-style treats will surely put a smile on your mom’s face.
Dudley Farm Historic State Park, Newberry – Dudley Farm is a living history farm from the late 1800s that comes alive with activity on certain days of the year. There are no special events scheduled for Mother’s Day, but you can still take your mom on a self-guided tour.
Ft. Christmas Historical Park, Christmas– This historical park in east Orange County features a full-size replica of Fort Christmas as well as a living history settlement. Fort Christmas provides a look back at the role the community played during the Second Seminole War.
Homeland Heritage Park, Polk County– Located just outside of Bartow, this is the only historical park in Polk County. The five-acre park is home to original buildings from the late 1800s and early 1900s, all donated and moved to this location. Walk around the grounds, take a look at the Homeland School, the Homeland Methodist Church, or the old pole barn. This is perfect for a leisurely afternoon with mom.
Blue Spring State Park, Orange City – Although one of the best times to visit Blue Spring State Park is during manatee season, this park is the largest spring on the St. John’s River and encompasses more than 2,600 acres. Walk along the river, take a boat tour, or visit the Thursby House. This is a great place for those nature-loving moms.
De Leon Springs State Park, Volusia County – Does your mom like canoeing? Hiking? Swimming in the springs? How about pancakes? That’s right. You can find all of the above at DeLeon Springs State Park. The Sugar Mill Restaurant at the park is a favorite among guests and will probably be a big hit on Mother’s Day. Each table has a griddle and you pour and flip your own pancakes from pitchers of pancake batter delivered the table. If you plan on eating at the restaurant, expect a wait. Not to worry, there are plenty of other things to do until your table is ready.
Silver Springs State Park, Ocala– Although it is considered to be Florida’s first attraction, Silver Springs has evolved with time. However, one thing that has stayed the same is the glass-bottom boat ride. This 30-minute excursion will be a relaxing way for mom to spend some time. After the boat ride, a boardwalk and other trails provide opportunities to walk through the park.
Fort Desoto Park, Pinellas County – Whether you visit the fort or the beach, this is a popular spot for moms (and the whole family)! Get a close up look at the mortars, learn about the historical significance during the Civil War, or take along a blanket and umbrella and lounge at the beach.
Wakulla Springs State Park – Wakulla Springs State Park incorporates 6,000 acres includes a lodge, one of the largest springs in the world, a nature trail, and a river tour that offers an up-close look at the wildlife along the Wakulla River. A restaurant in the lodge offers a great setting for a Mother’s Day lunch.
Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Historic State Park
Dudley Farm Historic State Park
The beach at Fort Desoto Park
Dunlawton Sugar Mill Gardens, Port Orange – Dunlawton is a 12-acre mix of gardens and Florida history. Take mom through the gardens to see the old sugar mill or sculptures from Bongoland, a tourist attraction from the 1940s and 50s that featured animals, an Indian village, and a series of dinosaurs created out of chicken wire and concrete.
Harry P. Leu Gardens, Orlando – Although this is a great place to visit any time, Leu Gardens is offering free admission for moms on Mother’s Day. Take a leisurely stroll along the winding walkways through 50 acres of camellias, magnolias, ferns, and other botanical beauties.
Dunlawton Sugar Mill Gardens
The Citrus Tower, Clermont – Built in 1956 on one of the highest hills along the ridge, the Florida Citrus Tower has recently had some upgrades and added a new coffee shop to the lobby. Ride the elevator to the top and treat mom to the greatest view in the area.
Presidents Hall of Fame, Clermont – In the shadows of the Citrus Tower, this oldie but goodie gives a comprehensive look at all of the U.S. presidents, from George Washington to Donald Trump. In addition to the wax figures, there’s an impressive replica of the White House, as well as other artifacts and presidential memorabilia. Test mom’s presidential knowledge!
Solomon’s Castle, Ona – Because all moms should visit a castle on Mother’s Day! Solomon’s Castle is a shining three-story structure in the middle of a swamp. The late Howard Solomon was the creative genius behind this castle who used aluminum printing plates from the local newspaper for the exterior of the castle and filled the inside with his artwork, all made from recycled materials.
Boyett’s Grove and Citrus Attraction, Brooksville – Boyett’s Grove and Citrus Attraction not only offers delicious citrus fruit, but also a nostalgic look at Florida oddities, along with a walk on the wild side. This Mother’s Day adventure is sure to fill mom’s day with an experience she won’t soon forget!
Audubon Center for Birds of Prey, Maitland – The Audubon Center for Birds of Prey has been treating, rehabilitating, and releasing raptors since 1979. However, the Center also provides an educational, yet closeup view and stories of birds that are now permanent residents.
The Citrus Tower
Restaurants, Wineries and Distilleries
Cherry Pocket, Lake Wales – Situated on the banks of Lake Pierce, Cherry Pocket is laid back and unpretentious. The restaurant bills itself as a “steak, seafood shak and oyster bar.” From the appetizers to the entrees, the food is made from fresh ingredients and is cooked to order. The desserts are all homemade.
Farmer’s Market Restaurant, Webster – Treat your mom to a home-style meal without her having to cook! Order from the menu or eat at the buffet, your mom is sure to enjoy the culinary options. The Farmer’s Market Restaurant is only open from 7:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. on Sundays, but it is worth the drive to Webster.
Kappy’s Subs, Maitland – Living in Central Florida, this is one of our favorite casual places to eat. Place your order at the walk-up window, then sit in your car in the limited covered parking outside or have a seat at one of the picnic tables for that true outdoor Florida feel. If your mom would rather sit inside out of the heat, there is a counter inside with limited seating.
Angel’s Dining Car, Palatka – Billed as the state’s oldest diner, Angel’s Dining Car is actually an old train dining car converted into a restaurant. Like other restaurants, Angel’s has its specialties. Their onion rings are a must-have. Treat mom to a Black Bottom – scrambled eggs, bacon and ground beef on a bun or a Pusalow – a chocolate frosty drink that tastes a lot like a Yoo-hoo.
Andy’s Drive-In, Winter Haven – Andy’s has been serving up meals for nearly 70 years and is a favorite gathering place for locals. From the iconic sign in the parking lot to the retro interior, Andy’s serves up a comfortable, home-like atmosphere. On the menu: burgers, seafood, steaks and ice cream. Of course, don’t forget to top off your meal with one of their delicious award-winning milkshakes.
Goodrich Seafood and Oyster House, Oak Hill – Treat mom to some great seafood and relaxing views at Goodrich Seafood and Oyster House on the Mosquito Lagoon. Whether it’s a smoked fish dip, cup of chowder or golden fried oysters on a toasted hoagie..
One thing we have learned about Florida in our years of exploring, it’s not just about the quiet little towns or the once-famous attractions, it’s also about the amazing wildlife that calls Florida home. While folks living in less-populated areas have a greater chance of seeing a few deer in their backyard or a bobcat roaming in the pasture, those of us living in the city also have opportunities to view these creatures in the wild – at nature preserves, parks, or wildlife drives.
The Orlando Wetlands Park is a man-made wetland wastewater treatment system located in Christmas. The 1,650 acres the park sits on were purchased in 1987 by the City of Orlando with a primary purpose of providing advanced treatment of the nearly 14 million gallons of reclaimed water it receives daily, for safe discharge into the St. Johns River. The water is monitored daily and monthly through a variety of measures – automatic and manual collections – so that adjustments can be made to provide optimal water treatment. Read more about the history behind the park here.
Although the park has been open to the public in a limited capacity since the 1990s, it was opened year-round in 2015 and provides opportunities for nature lovers and photographers.
Getting Around the Park
With 18 miles of berm roads, there is plenty to see. Visitors can opt to hike, walk, bike or take the guided tram tour.
Tram tours offer visitors a 45- to 60-minute ride, accompanied by volunteers from the Friends of the Wetlands. While one volunteer drives the tram, the other acts as tour guide and points out different areas of interest. On our trip, the tram stopped below a red-shouldered hawk perched atop a dead tree. Other birds we saw along the way included herons, glossy ibises, ospreys, and a roseate spoonbill. We were also able to catch a glimpse of a bald eagle’s nest, but it took a little bit of effort since it was off in the distance beyond a tree line.
No visit to a park with water is complete without seeing alligators. They could be seen from both sides of the tram, some along the shoreline, others gliding through the water. In 2015, the latest year data is available, there were an estimated 1,700 gators in the park. Whether you step off the tram or are walking along the berms, it’s always a good idea to mind the signs!
Walking and Biking
Walking or biking the berm roads offers the same views as the tram tour. While you don’t get to hear the history of the park, or learn about the birds or alligators, you do get to see more of the park, or linger a little longer for those once-in-a-lifetime photos. However, you could also be missing out on the old alligator nest. Our advice – do both! Take the tram tour, then walk back to some of the areas highlighted on the tour or take a different road and see what new adventure awaits.
What You May See
The park is home to more than 30 species of wildlife listed on the state’s threatened and endangered wildlife list. The wildlife may include otters, foxes, deer, turtles, snakes and alligators. There are also about 200 species of birds within the park. Stop by the Education Center for handy guides on birds, wildlife and plant life. If you forget to stop and pick them up, the guides are also available online.
Location and Hours
Orlando Wetlands Park is located at 25155 Wheeler Road in Christmas, just a short drive from Fort Christmas Historical Park in east Orange County. Get there by taking County Road 420 off State Road 50 in Christmas.
The park is open from sunrise to sunset, seven days a week, 365 days a year. There is parking onsite and it is free to get in, although donations are accepted. The park also holds the Wetlands Festival in February of each year. Make plans to attend.
Florida and theme parks. If you’ve lived in the state for more than 50 years, you no doubt remember Florida without Walt Disney World. You probably also remember Silver Springs Nature Theme Park – considered to be Florida’s first tourist attraction.
History of Silver Springs
Although Silver Springs didn’t officially open to the public until 1878, it was a popular spot for visitors years earlier when they arrived by steamboat. Silver Springs became known for its glass bottom boat rides – thanks to the ingenuity of Hullam Jones and Phillip Monell who affixed a piece of glass to the bottom of a row boat in the late 1870s. They were only 14-years old at the time.
Silver Springs hit its heyday in the 1960s, when as many as 5,000 people were there daily during the week, and 6,000 – 7,000 on Saturdays and Sundays. Back then, there were amusement park rides, exotic wildlife, a reptile institute, and a bear exhibit which was billed as the largest of its kind in the world.
As was the case for other early attractions, attendance dropped for a variety of reasons, and in 2013 the State of Florida took over operations and combined it with the nearby Silver River State Park, transforming it into Silver Springs State Park.
Movies and Television Shows
The theme park served the backdrop for television shows and movies from the 1930s through the 1960s, hosting movies like “Tarzan the Ape Man” starring Johnny Weissmuller, along with five more Tarzan movies and the James Bond movie “Moonraker.” Also filmed at Silver Springs were the “Creature from the Black Lagoon,” as well as the television series “Sea Hunt” starring Lloyd Bridges. The Sea Hunt dock, named after the show, offers a photo opportunity for today’s visitors.
Glass-Bottom Boat Tours
The highlight of our visit was the half-hour ride on one of the famous glass-bottom boats. About 25 of us sat along the edge of the boat with an amazing view of the crystal-clear water, long-nosed gar, and aquatic plant life below, not to mention a glimpse of a gator swimming nearby and turtles sitting atop tree stumps along the water’s edge.
As the boat floated along, our captain provided an historic, and at times, humorous overview of the Silver Springs area. Whether it was to provide a narrative of the Native Americans who lived around the Springs in the 1500s, the story of the bridal chamber, or the dugout canoe sitting on the bottom of the spring bed, the tour was interesting and informative.
An old glass-bottom boat rests at the bottom of the springs, along with three statues used in the making of the James Bond movie “Moonraker.”
No matter what was pointed out as part of the tour boat ride, the captain circled the boat around for everyone to get a good view.
Statues from Moonraker
Other Things to Do
As a state park, Silver Springs offers plenty of opportunities for those who enjoy spending time in nature. Canoes and kayaks can be seen gliding along the springs. Take your own or rent them at the outpost.
If that isn’t on your favorites list, take a leisurely stroll along some of the walkways or boardwalks that weave through the park. Keep an eye on the ground and up in the trees. You never know what you might see – beautiful flowers, snakes, woodpeckers, and if you are fortunate, monkeys (although we didn’t get to see any of the monkeys on our visit).
One of the perks about visiting “old Florida” places on the weekends, is finding restaurants that are off the beaten path or offer fare that truly represents the Sunshine State. On a recent trip to the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge in Brevard County, we found one such restaurant: Goodrich Seafood and Oyster House in Oak Hill. Located on River Road on Mosquito Lagoon, Goodrich’s offers good food and a relaxing view.
Goodrich Seafood and Oyster House
Goodrich Seafood and Oyster House has its own storied past that you need to read to understand how the restaurant started and how it has evolved into what it is today. Although this isn’t a restaurant that goes back a hundred years, the Goodrich family has been in Oak Hill for nine generations. Started in 1910 by two brothers, Jeff and Clarence Goodrich, Goodrich Seafood did not include a restaurant. Instead, it consisted of a wholesale retail seafood house and blue crab processing facility about 300 feet south of the current restaurant. The pilings can still be seen today. The original seafood house was destroyed by fire in the late 30s, and the crab house fell from its pilings into the water.
To find out how they rebuilt the business, check out their website here.
The restaurant offers up a spectacular view of the Mosquito Lagoon. You can watch as boats glide by, birds skim above the water and, if you are lucky, you might catch a glimpse of a dolphin or two. Nautical décor can be found throughout the restaurant, including the shark hanging on the wall outside, and a wooden model of a ship resting on a piling on the deck. Whether you are inside the dining room or outside on the deck, Goodrich Seafood and Oyster House provides a casual atmosphere for good Florida eats.
On the Menu
Let’s face it. Everything on the menu looks extremely appetizing. There are daily specials to choose from or you can try one of their seafood plates. How about fried alligator or frog legs? If that doesn’t interest you, there are always oysters, shrimp, scallops or the local catch.
First, the appetizers. The smoked fish dip offered up just the right quantity to hold us over until the meal arrived. It was served with crackers, tomatoes and banana peppers and was fresh and flavorful.
A trip to the chowder bar didn’t disappoint either. The Florida chowder was made with tomatoes and potatoes and was a spoonful of heaven in every bite.
On to the main course. As is the usual routine, we each tried something different. I ordered the shrimp and grits, which were the epitome of perfection. Grilled shrimp over cheese grits, topped with savory bacon. What a great combination.
Lee chose the oyster po’ boy with golden fried oysters on a toasted hoagie roll, topped with lettuce, tomatoes, red onions, and a tangy sauce. Hush puppies and two sides rounded out the meal.
Location and Hours
Goodrich Seafood and Oyster House is located at:
253 River Road
Oak Hill, Florida
The restaurant is open Tuesday through Saturday from 7:00 a.m. until 9:00 p.m. On Sunday, the hours are 7:00 a.m. until 5:00 p.m. Goodrich Seafood and Oyster House is closed on Monday.
If you are there when the weather is just right, try for a coveted table outside. If there isn’t one, a table on the enclosed porch works just as well. Make sure you walk along the deck and take in the views of the lagoon and the birds.
When you think of a highest point in the United States, what comes to mind? Mt. McKinley in Alaska? Mt. Mitchell in North Carolina? What about Britton Hill? If you’ve never heard of Britton Hill, make sure you put it on your list of places to visit in Florida. Why? It just so happens to be the highest point in the Sunshine State.
Britton Hill is located at Lakewood Park just inside the state line that divides Walton County in Florida from Alabama. It got its name from a former lumber mill baron, William Henry Britton who developed the area in the early 1900s. The highest point is actually more of a plateau, about 900 feet by 400 feet. At a staggering 345 feet, this peak offers a beautiful view of the surrounding countryside and also carries the honor of being the lowest high point in the U.S.
A monument marking this dubious distinction sits steps from the parking lot. To get a glimpse of the monument or take a selfie next to it, you won’t even have to break a sweat. However, if you do find yourself short-winded, there is a bench by the monument so you can rest a little.
A few Florida comparisons
Just how high is 345 feet? If you are familiar with Florida “landmarks,” here are a few comparisons to consider:
The Majesty Building (aka the I-4 Eye Sore) is 307 feet tall.
The Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) at Kennedy Space Center is 525 feet.
Chinsegut Hill in Hernando County, just north of Brooksville, is 269 feet.
A few U.S. comparisons
Mt. McKinley in Denali, Alaska is the highest point in the United States at 20,237 feet. Other “low” high points include:
Delaware – Ebright Azimuth at 448 feet
Louisiana – Driskell Mountain at 535 feet
Mississippi – Woodall Mountain at 806 feet
Rhode Island – Jerimoth Hill at 812 feet
While Britton Hill may not seem like a hiker’s dream, it is actually an internationally-known must-do peak. A group of mountain climbers known as the Highpointers Club, attempt to climb the highest point in each of the lower 48 states. So far, about 500 of them have achieved that feat – which includes “climbing” Britton Hill.
Other things to do
If the climb to the top doesn’t wear you out, there are hiking trails at the park which offer an easy walk through the small hardwood forest and are all less than a mile in length. Lakewood Park also offers a picnic area and a restroom.
How to get there
Britton Hill is located in the Florida panhandle. If you’re out driving, take Interstate 10 to Exit 85 – US 331/SR 83 toward DeFuniak Springs. Follow 331 to County Road 285. Turn north onto CR 285 and go about three miles. Britton Hill will be on the left.
Make sure to take your camera and document your climb!
Growing up in a rural community in the 70s, I saw first-hand the important role citrus and farming played in the lives of many of those living there. But it wasn’t just about the fruit, it was about family. Groves and farms were passed down from one generation to the next, instilling a sense of pride and family values. Although there are half as many acres of citrus now as there were then, there are still some who are carrying on their family legacy.
One such family is the Albritton family of Sarasota.
The Albritton Fruit Company was founded in 1880 in Polk County by Civil War veteran Tom Albritton and is now considered the oldest continually operating family business in Florida. After a devastating freeze, the family moved to Sarasota, where Karl Benjamin Albritton, Tom’s grandson, carried on the family business. Karl did not graduate from high school but was accepted into the University of Florida because of his knowledge about the citrus industry. After attending classes from 1921 – 1923, Albritton returned to the family farm. He is credited with developing the first citrus hedging machine, along other tools and procedures. Karl was inducted into the Florida Agriculture Hall of Fame and the Florida Citrus Hall of Fame in the early to mid-1990s for his impact on the state’s citrus industry.
Sarah and John Albritton, Courtesy of Tanna Carter Photography
Karl’s great-grandson John and his wife Sarah are the sixth generation to work the family business. On a recent Saturday, we visited the family groves where the last of the Honeybell* oranges were being picked. We watched as the fruit was picked from the trees in a grove was planted about 30 years ago by John’s grandfather. It’s done old-school, much like I used to see in the groves behind my childhood home. Workers climbed ladders and hand-picked only the ripened fruit, dropped it into a bag, and later into a nearby tub. This spot-picking meant only the fruit ripe enough was picked, while the rest remained on the trees until they were ready.
While we walked the grove, the couple’s two boys, Larit (3 ½) and Layton (6 ½), helped pick a few oranges. They are right at home in the grove, using the proper technique to twist the oranges off the branches without tearing into the skin. If they went a little too fast, a simple reminder from their mother to “slow your roll” was all it took to get them back on track.
If the boys follow in their father’s footsteps, they will be the seventh generation to carry on the family business. Something John and Sarah would like to see happen.
“It’s what I’m going to do,” John says, “see if I can raise these boys and pass it on to them.”
Sarah agrees. “We’re still trying to instill the family values and the family farming in our children. It’s been very important to John and me to make sure our boys are aware of our family history and that the tradition carries on.”
While family traditions continue, the farming business is seeing a change. Citrus greening is taking its toll on some growers. For the Albrittons, that has prompted them to look at other crops.
“My husband was very adamant he wanted to make sure there was something left for his kids. Blueberries are our baby.”
There is now a 25-acre blueberry field where orange trees once grew. Planted in 2015, there are 60,000 plants of three different varieties. The blueberries are already turning a profit, with last year’s harvest pulling in 100,000 pounds of blueberries. Following commercial harvest, John and Sarah open up their fields for u-pick season, typically from March until early June. It’s a family affair. The boys join their parents in the field every weekend with Larit instructing pickers which ones are the best and how to pick them. Larit admits his favorite blueberry variety is the Jewel, because it tastes like strawberries!
When I think of seasons in Florida, I think of only two: summer and winter – or beach season and manatee season. While beach season may extend through more than just the summer, manatee season runs from November to March. If you’re adventurous enough to brave the colder temperatures, you can experience some amazing sights of these gentle giants.
Big Bend Power Station
In the shadows of the TECO Power Plant in Apollo Beach, manatees can be seen swimming lazily in the discharge canal, a state-designated manatee sanctuary. When the water in the bay drops to below 68 degrees Fahrenheit, manatees find their way into these warmer waters. On a recent visit on a cold January day, hundreds of manatees could be seen from the observation deck. Since the water was very low, their backs could be seen above the surface and looked like stepping stones across the canal. Occasionally, they would roll or flip their tails or come up for air, but don’t expect a lot of activity from the manatees. They rest anywhere from two to 12 hours a day. During that time, they will rise to the surface every seven to 20 minutes to breathe. When they are awake, those breaths are taken every three to five minutes.
It is estimated that there are more than 6,000 manatees currently in Florida waters, up dramatically from the hundreds recorded when they were considered endangered in 1973. These mammals weigh about 1,200 pounds and average about 10 feet long as adults. As plant-eaters, they consume about 15 percent of their body weight in aquatic vegetation every day.
Signs along the boardwalk provide illustrations of fish and birds you might also see. While we were there, we were treated to views of tarpon swimming just below the surface of the water, a shark jumping, and an osprey carrying seaweed to its nest nearby.
Rays Touch Tank
In addition to the manatees, visitors also get a close up view of cownose rays and southern Atlantic stingrays. Reach in and touch them or just watch as they glide past, thanks to a partnership with the Florida Aquarium. A fun fact about these rays is they are actually the mascots for the Tampa Bay Rays baseball team and are here during the team’s off-season.
Other Things to Do
While at the Viewing Center, make sure to stop in the education building for additional information about the manatee and its habitat or stop in at the butterfly gardens. There is also a self-guided nature trail where you can see native plants and coastal water birds. If you plan to walk the trails, make sure to wear comfortable walking shoes.
Hours of Operation
The Manatee Viewing Center is open every day from 10:00 a.m. until 5:00 p.m. from November 1 through April 15. It is closed Easter, Thanksgiving and Christmas, and closes early on Christmas Eve. There is no admission fee.
How to Get There
If you are on Interstate 75, take exit 246 west on Big Bend Road and travel about two and a half miles. When the road makes a sharp curve to the left, the Viewing Center will immediately be on your right. There is a parking lot next to the center, but if it is full you will be directed to an overflow lot about a mile away. From there you can walk along a trail or catch a shuttle bus back to the center.
Move over oranges, there’s a new crop in town! Chalk it up to the popularity of craft beer and the number of craft breweries popping up around the state, interest is now brewing over a viable new crop in Florida – hops.
What are Hops?
Hops are one of the four main staples of beer, along with water, yeast, and barley. For craft beer drinkers, you might know that hops are responsible for the bitterness, flavor and aroma of the beer.
Wop’s Hops in Sanford is just one of the Florida breweries using hops from Central Florida Hops in its brewing process.
If you happen to pass a hops field, you may just do a double-take. At first glance, the plants create the illusion of a lush green wall. Growing 16 to 20 feet long, these green vines reach upward, guided by wires strung along poles. The flowers on the plants are the hops that are used in the brewing process.
But do you know how those hops get into that brew? After they are picked off the vines, they can be used in three ways. First, as wet hops by local brewers. If used this way, they have to be brewed within a day or two of being picked. Another use is as a dried whole-cone hop. These hops are harvested and dried out. The final involves crushing the flowers and pressing them into pellets where they can be stored for a long time. This method is the most user-friendly and widely used because of commercial availability. Each method causes subtle differences in the brewing process and the end result. The opportunity to use fresh hops is creating excitement among the craft brewers who are always looking to brew something just a little bit different.
Hops in Florida
Up until the last few years in the United States, hops fields were mostly found in the Pacific Northwest. Now, they are sprouting up here in our state. Estimates are there are as many as 10 to 15 hops farms in Florida, with the largest currently covering two and a half acres.
Central Florida Hops
Recently, we visited Central Florida Hops in Zellwood. Co-owner Matt Roberts showed us the field located next to Central Florida Ferns where he and his partners Kyle Barrett and Logan Vandermaas are all employed. He said an interest in local craft beer and a desire to do something different led to the new venture.
“The more we researched hops,” he said, “the more we thought this might be doable. It was a challenge for us. A challenge to be able to provide places we enjoy going to with hops. That kind of sealed the deal for us. And the local breweries love the idea of using a local ingredient.”
Our visit happened in January which coincided with the second harvest of the year for Central Florida Hops. Plenty of flowers remained on the vines, although the field had thinned out some due to local breweries and home brewers visiting the field the past week and picking hops for their use. Because it’s never occurred before, a second harvest of hops within a calendar year might just be the innovation that makes hops growing commercially viable in Florida.
Matt agrees and expects that once the market expands, more growers will join in.
“The craft beer scene is what we have to lean on right now and it’s as popular as it’s ever been. You really don’t realize how many hops these brewers use. We can’t touch what they need and probably will never be able to.”
The popularity of craft breweries has led to brew tours.
Hops Research in Florida
Because hops growing is relatively new in Florida, it is still a learning process. Data is limited, expectations are unknown. A lot of what is done is simply trial and error. However, there is some help on the horizon. The Apopka branch of the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (IFAS) was awarded a two-year, $194,000 grant to see which hops varieties will grow in the state. Researchers have already determined Florida days are too short and a hops variety that doesn’t need as much sunlight may be the answer. (In the Pacific Northwest, plants get 15 to 16 hours of daylight during the spring.)
At Central Florida Hops, light interruption from strategically placed light poles worked around that challenge. The lights were turned on at midnight and ran for about an hour and a half. Matt says the idea was to trick the plants into thinking it was a shorter night rather than a longer day. It was an experiment, and some of the plants, like Cascade, reacted very well.
The Florida Difference
Whether it is Cascade or Triple Pearl or Tahoma, hops take on the characteristic of the soil, also known as terroir. These same environmental conditions affect the taste of wine. What is grown in Florida will taste, smell, and act much differently than that grown in other states. Central Florida Hops planted its field on what was once an orange grove. Brewers who’ve used the Cascade from here say there is a more citrus note to the hops.
The Spring Harvest and Beyond
With the initial success in growing their first crop (and second), coupled with the enthusiastic reception by Florida brewers, Central Florida Hops is currently preparing for the spring harvest. The hops plants are the same from crop to crop, but after harvest they are cut off at the base, forcing all new growth. Once the vines grow long enough, they are restrung on the wire supports – which should happen in March for the June harvest. In addition, there are thoughts of expanding from the current quarter of an acre to half an acre. Central Florida Hops looks forward to the increasing excitement of local Florida brewers and coaching them on the use of fresh hops. So be on the look out for Florida hops in the field and in Florida craft brews.
Matt admits year two will be interesting, but says with hops the sky is the limits.
No matter where you live in the state, chances are there are a few places nearby where you can disappear for a few hours and experience natural Florida. Even in cities like Orlando, parks and gardens provide respite from the hectic pace. You’ll find one of those locations just a short drive from downtown – Harry P. Leu Gardens.
I’ve driven by the entrance off Virginia Drive and Corrine many times in my 25-plus years in Orlando. It wasn’t until I stopped for the first time years ago that I discovered this serene sanctuary in the city.
Who Was Harry P. Leu?
Harry P. Leu was born in Orlando in 1884 and went on to build one of the largest supply businesses in Florida. He purchased the property on Lake Rowena in 1936 and filled it with plants he gathered in his travels around the world, with the camelia being one of his specialties.
The centerpiece of the Gardens is Harry and Mary Jane Leu’s house. The house was restored to its grandeur and provided a look at turn-of-the-century Florida living. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places December 29, 1994. At the time of this post, the Leu House Museum is closed due to damage from Hurricane Irma in 2017.
In 1961, Leu deeded the property to the City of Orlando and the gardens were opened to the public.
Gardens and Exhibits
The Garden House serves as the welcome center to the gardens and is home to the gift shop, exhibit halls and classrooms, and a botanical library. Once you walk out the doors, you are surrounded by the beauty of individual gardens. Take a leisurely stroll around the pond in the Tropical Stream Garden or get ideas for your own yard in the Idea Garden. Winding walkways provide an easy trek through 50 acres of camellias, magnolias, ferns, and other botanical beauties. Stop and smell the roses. Or take a walk among the towering camphor trees.
Another feature of the Gardens is the Floral Clock which sits behind the rose garden. The 50-foot clock was imported from Scotland in 1966 and was donated by the Kiwanis Club of Orlando.
In addition to the gardens, fun exhibits provide guests with interactive experiences. During our visit, The Ribbit Exhibit II (November 1, 2018 – January 31, 2019) sent us on a hunt for 26 whimsical frogs. Sculpted out of copper, these frogs could be found meditating in a pond, watering plants, trimming hedges, riding bikes and jamming out on a washboard with the Ribbitsville Band.