After three months of meandering along the extensive coastlines of Florida, we were eager to finally point Betsy west. In early December we began our winter sojourn along the Atlantic Ocean, exiting on the shoreline of the Gulf of Mexico in March. This was our second winter in the Sunshine State, and we visited about half of its coastal regions, exploring many natural settings and strolling an array of fabulous beaches – all while being entertained by wildlife unique to the area. An added bonus was the great time we spent visiting with friends old and new.
From the pure solitude and remoteness of Ochlockonee River SP, we drifted back toward civilization. Our last two weeks in Florida had been a mix of touristy activities, hiking, canoeing and family visits, complemented by a variety of weather ranging from sunny skies to thunderstorms with pouring rain. That’s Florida for you!
Along the Florida panhandle is a 24-mile stretch of sugary white sand and emerald waters facing the Gulf of Mexico. The sand was created of pure Appalachian quartz, giving the water its trademark emerald green color as it reflects sunlight, hence the moniker Emerald Coast. Had we stopped at this stretch of beach last year, it would have easily made our list of favorites. But alas, we drove right by it on our way toward Perdido Key. We’re glad we took the opportunity to check out this beautiful area between Pensacola and Destin this time through.
It was at the Harbor Village in Destin that Steve saw a water activity that really got his attention. I knew that look in his eyes when he realized they were renting water jetpacks here – he HAD to try it. So he signed up for the mid-level “flight” experience, and off we went on their boat to the training area.
There’s only so much you can learn in 30 minutes, but after a couple of “crash and burns” into the water as he figured out how to balance and turn correctly, he was up and flying along. The photo below shows him “walking on water”, which he got pretty good at. He also did the “submarine” several times, which is where you dive under water and then the jetpack pops you back up in the air when you surface. Although the jetpack will levitate folks up to 30 feet in the air, he was limited to only about 5 feet during his first lesson. You can probably tell he enjoyed it!
On one of the cooler days when we couldn’t hang out at the beach, we drove along the far-western Florida coast from Destin to Pensacola. On this drive I enjoyed all of the colorful water towers…
…and these strange little rental homes along the beach:
Our final Florida home base, and the only other state park for which we were able to get a reservation, was Blackwater River State Park (Steve’s review is here). Like Ochlockonee River SP, we camped under a canopy of longleaf pines in a very spacious site. But unlike Ochlockonee, our solitude here was unfortunately interrupted by heavy helicopter traffic during the day on several weekdays. We later learned that the helicopters were from a nearby military base and were doing training exercises in the area. Bummer!
The dark tannic water that gives the river its name is a sharp contrast to its sandy bottom, white beaches and large sandbars. This was very evident as we leisurely paddled and floated along one day in a rented canoe. The snow white sand bars here are very similar in appearance to the white beaches of the Emerald Coast. We learned that Blackwater River is the only sand-bottomed river left in the United States, and it averages only 2.5 feet in depth. Too shallow for boats, but perfect for canoes and kayaks!
We were happy that our longest hike in Florida finally happened here. Our GPS showed that we covered 12 miles, and there were some elevation changes that gave us more of a challenge. We encountered three snakes on this trail, but not much other wildlife.
Winter wrap up –
Well, four months of exploring and wintering in Florida zoomed by quickly. We discovered that the state has much more to offer than we had imagined. So many things we discovered – the beaches, fresh-squeezed juice, thousands of birds and other critters, the Everglades and the Keys – did not fail to impress us. But what was more impressive was experiencing the “Real Florida”, which we were previously oblivious to. Our exposure to wildlife and enjoyment of the havens of beauty at the preserves, refuges, pristine rivers and springs were amazing and unforgettable. And most importantly to me, the birding experience was superb!
This map shows our coverage of Florida during our 4-month stay here. We ran up just over 1,500 miles during our 12 stops, and feel like we covered most of the state fairly well.
Meeting new friends and reconnecting with old ones put the icing on the cake, and completed the whole experience for us.
What we won’t miss are the humidity and the “no-see-um” bugs that bit us and made my life miserable for several days – apparently I’m allergic to them.
Well, that wraps up our winter in Florida. We hope you enjoyed riding along, and that our stories gave you a few ideas in case you come this way someday.
…and hello Alabama!
Next up: A detour back to one of our favorite places so far – Dauphin Island, AL