Facts to Inspire

March 14, 2012

I’m feeling somewhat uninspired so far this week, so I’m looking for something to capture my attention and maybe motivate me to plan my next Florida exploration. Fortunately there are many ideas out there.  And many of them start from such lists as this one, compiled by the Fizber real estate agency.


  1. Greater Miami is the only metropolitan area in the United States whose borders encompass two national parks. You can hike through pristine Everglades National Park or ride on glass-bottom boats across Biscayne National Park.
  2. Saint Augustine is the oldest European settlement in North America.
  3. The name Punta Gorda, which means, “fat point” when translated from Spanish. The moniker was given to the city because a broad part of the land in Punta Gorda juts into Charlotte Harbor. The harbor itself is somewhat unique, as it is the point where the Peace River meets the ocean.
  4. Orlando attracts more visitors than any other amusement park destination in the United States.
  5. New England Congregationalists who sought to bring their style of liberal arts education to the state founded Rollins College, the oldest college in Florida, in Winter Park in 1885.
  6. Cape Canaveral is America’s launch pad for space flights.
  7. Florida is not the southernmost state in the United States. Hawaii is farther south.
  8. A museum in Sanibel owns 2 million shells and claims to be the world’s only museum devoted solely to mollusks.
  9. The Benwood, on French Reef in the Florida Keys, is known as one of the most dived shipwrecks in the world.
  10. Safety Harbor is the home of the historic Espiritu Santo Springs. Given this name in 1539 by the Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto. He was searching for the legendary Fountain of Youth. The natural springs have attracted attention worldwide for their curative powers.
  11. Niceville is home to the famous Boggy Bayou Mullet Festival celebrated the third weekend in October.
  12. The United States city with the highest rate of lightning strikes per capita is Clearwater.
  13. Gatorade was named for the University of Florida Gators where the drink was first developed.
  14. Young aviator Tony Jannus made history on January 1, 1914 when he flew the world’s first scheduled passenger service airline flight from St. Petersburg’s downtown yacht basin to Tampa.
  15. Dr. John Gorrie of Apalachicola invented mechanical refrigeration in 1851.
  16. Miami Beach pharmacist Benjamin Green invented the first suntan cream in 1944. He accomplished this development by cooking cocoa butter in a granite coffee pot on his wife’s stove.
  17. Neil Smith and his brother of Montverde developed the first Snapper riding lawn mower.
  18. Key West has the highest average temperature in the United States.
  19. The Saint John’s River is one of the few rivers that flows north instead of south.
  20. The largest lake in Florida is Lake Okeechobee.
  21. May 20, 1970 Florida lawmakers passed and sent to the Governor a bill adopting the moonstone as the official state gem. Ironically, the moonstone is not found naturally in Florida…nor was it found on the moon.
  22. In 1987 the Florida legislature designated the American alligator (Alligator mississippiensis) the official state reptile. Long an unofficial symbol of the state, the alligator originally symbolized Florida’s extensive untamed wilderness and swamps.
  23. Miami installed the first bank automated teller machine especially for rollerbladers.
  24. Ybor City was once known as the Cigar Capital of the World with nearly 12,000 tabaqueros (cigar-makers) employed in 200 factories. Ybor City produced an estimated 700 million cigars a year at the industry’s peak.
  25. Plant City, the Winter Strawberry Capital of the World, holds the Guinness record for the world’s largest strawberry shortcake. The 827 square-foot, 6,000 pound cake was made on Feb. 19, 1999 in McCall Park.
  26. The Sunshine Skyway Bridge is a cable-stayed concrete bridge. Opened in 1987 the bridge coasts through the clouds at 190 feet above water. Its bright yellow support cables spread from the two center pillars. The structure gives drivers unobstructed view of the water during the 4.1 mile trip over Tampa Bay.
  27. Nearly 80 percent of the states intake of sweet Atlantic white shrimp is harvested in Amelia Island waters. Two million pounds of shrimp are delivered to Fernandina docks annually.
  28. A swamp such as the Fakahatchee Strand in the Everglades functions in three major ways. First, its vegetation serves as a filter to clean the water as it makes its slow journey southward. Secondly, it’s a major habitat for wildlife and plant life. Finally, it actually prevents flooding by slowing down the flow of water after heavy rains.
  29. DeFuniak Springs is home to one of the two naturally round lakes in the world.
  30. The Morikami Museum and Japanese Gardens at Delray Beach is the only museum in the United States dedicated exclusively to the living culture of Japan.
  31. Fort Lauderdale is known as the Venice of America because the city has 185 miles of local waterways.
  32. Fort Meade is the oldest settlement in Polk County. It dates back to 1849 when a settlement grew up around the United States Cavalry fort during the Seminole Indian Wars.
  33. The Fred Bear Museum in Gainesville is a tribute to the accomplishments of Fred Bear a promoter of proper wildlife management and the founder of Bear Archery Company.
  34. The Hawthorne Trail a part of Florida’s Rails to Trails program and attracts many outdoor enthusiasts to walk, cycle, or ride horseback through its 17-mile length.
  35. Just north of Haines City is the Baseball City Stadium the spring training home of the Kansas City Royals. Haines City is known as The Heart of Florida.
  36. The city of Hypoluxo’s name comes from the Seminole expression water all ’round — no get out.
  37. Islamorada is billed as the Sports fishing Capital of the World.
  38. Key Largo is known as the Dive Capital of the World.
  39. Marathon is home to Crane Point Hammock, a 63.5 acre land tract that is one of the most important historical and archaeological sites in the Keys. The area contains evidence of pre-Colombian and prehistoric Bahamian artifacts, and once was the site of an entire Indian village.
  40. Fort Zachary Taylor in Key West was built between 1845 and 1866. Controlled by the Union during the Civil War, the fort was the home base for a successful blockade of Confederate ships that some historians say shortened the conflict by a full year. The fort also was active during the Spanish-American War, World War I, and World War II.
  41. The first graded road built in Florida was Old Kings Road in 1763. It was named for King George of England.
  42. During the 1991 Gulf War the busiest military port in the country was Jacksonville. From this location the military moved more supplies and people than any other port in the country.
  43. When first completed in 1989 the Dame Point Bridge became the longest cable-stayed span in the United States, the longest concrete span of its type in the Western Hemisphere, and the third longest cable-stayed bridge in the world.
  44. The longest river sailboat race in the world is the Annual Mug Race. The event runs 42 miles from Palatka to Jacksonville along the St. Johns River.
  45. The Olustee Battlefield State Historic Site commemorates the largest battle fought in Florida during the American Civil War.
  46. Venice is known as the Shark Tooth Capital of the World. Collecting prehistoric sharks teeth has been a favorite pastime of visitors and residents of the Venice area for years
  47. The Florida Museum of Hispanic and Latin American Art in Coral Gables, is the first and only museum in the United States dedicated to the preservation, diffusion, and promotion of Hispanic and Latin American Art.
  48. The Pinellas Trail, a 47 mile hiking/biking trail connecting St. Petersburg with Central and north Pinellas County, is the longest urban linear trail in the eastern United States.
  49. Titusville, known as Space City, USA, is located on the west shore of the Indian River directly across from the John F. Kennedy Space Center.
  50. Florida is the only state that has 2 rivers both with the same name. There is a Withlacoochee in north central Florida (Madison County) and a Withlacoochee in central Florida. They have nothing in common except the name.

Sailor’s Valentine

September 21, 2011

Florida is a haven for shell collecting enthusiasts, but what do they do with all those shells they collect? Display them somehow? One of the most beautiful and unique ways of displaying shells, that I’ve ever seen, is by way of an art form developed in the early 19th century. Sailor’s Valentines.  I came across several of these at the Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum while in Sanibel Island.  

A  few quick notes on this exquisite, detailed art form:

  • They are not what their name implies. Sailors did not make them, and they were not given as gifts on Valentines Day.
  • They were popular in the early 19th century during the height of the whale-oil industry. Sailors would purchase them for their loved ones while in their last port of call before returning home.
  • The shell art form was developed by the women of Barbados and other Caribbean islands.
  • The frames for the shell art are octagonal boxes.
  • Several of the valentines contained romantic phrases such as “Forget me not.”
  • According to several researchers,the primary source for these keepsakes was a shop in Bridgetown, Barbados called the New Curiosity Shop, owned by two English brothers.  (Unfortunately the shop closed around 1880.)

This antique art form is now experiencing renewed interest. Kits and books on the subject can be found all around the state.  The museum on Sanibel Island even provides a display making it look easy.

They are quite costly if you try to buy one from the early days, many going for as much as $16,000. Another option is to make one for yourself.  At Sailors Valentine you can purchase a full Starter’s Kit, complete with frame, sanddollars and shells. That will only set you back about $134.oo.  Otherwise, you can start collecting shells now and design your own shell mosaic.

I can see myself hanging one of these on my wall. But do I have the patience to first collect the large amount and variety of shells, then set out the pattern and carefully set each shell?  Stay tuned.

Turtle ICU and Marine Science Center

July 13, 2011

Say you’re out on a friend’s boat in the ocean.  You see something on the surface, and it’s moving. As you edge closer, you see that it’s a turtle, possibly a Green Turtle, or maybe even a Hawksbill. You’re all smiles until your friend points out that something’s wrong. Then you see it. The turtle’s right front flipper is mangled, or its shell has a serious gash.  Who ya gonna call?

It turns out we have just the place not far away in Ponce Inlet — the Turtle ICU at the Marine Science Center. We finally ventured into this small facility and were thrilled to find we could view the ICU. On this particular day there were 11 turtles in the ICU for rehabilitation, 7 of which were juvenile Green Turtles, and 2 that were subadult Loggerheads.  Most were under care for propeller wounds.

Injured Juvenile Green Sea Turtle in the ICU Rehabilitation Tanks


More Rehabilitation Tanks in the Turtle ICU

We ventured inside, paid the $5 entrance fee, and roamed around the small center. First we checked out the classroom, where they hold summer camp teaching kids about sea creatures great and small. ( I wish we had had such camps when I was a kid!)

Matt watching a video in the Marine Science Center classroom

The educational displays are fun also. The Freshwater Habitat Exhibit contains Yellowbelly Slider turtles, Peninsula Cooter turtles and Chicken Turtles.  The Red Devil Cichlid, Suckermouth Catfish, Blue Gill and Florida Gar swim around the tank as well. But it’s the turtles that seek out all the attention from observers.


Attention-seeking freshwater turtles --photo by Matt O'Neill

Another display that naturally caught our attention was the shark display.  Here we learned that the Black Tip Shark is the most common shark found around the Ponce Inlet area, and the source of all those ankle bites.

Shark Exhibit at the Marine Science Center in Ponce Inlet --photo by Matt O'Neill

The Center may be small, but it is definitely educational. And the Turtle ICU is worth seeing several times, whether you’re a resident, or a visitor.  This is true Florida at its best.

Crabs, Camels and Crafts

June 1, 2011

Over Memorial Day Weekend we decided to drive over to Palatka for the annual Blue Crab Festival.  Here we found arts and crafts, camel rides for $5.00, helicopter rides for $10.00, and live music.  

Surprisingly we only saw one booth advertising blue crabs for sale – whole and in the shell. I had been looking forward to trying out a blue crab  dish of some type, but wasn’t quite  ready to crack one open myself.  

Instead we sought out one of the other food vendors, many of which were selling crab cakes (no doubt made out of some other type of crab).  For $10 we got a  gigantic crab cake covered with remoulade sauce, french fries and vegetables (zucchini, onion and carrots). Excellent choice! 

Wandering around in the heat of the late afternoon, we stopped to watch the two camels that had been geared up for riders.  One of the camels, which we soon learned was named JoJo after his trainer scolded him for being a troublemaker, was obviously not thrilled to be there.  Regardless, whenever it was his turn to carry a tiny child around in a circle, he did it with calmness and grace.

All afternoon we kept hearing the helicopter circle above us. Finally we decided to head over to the landing area and see what was going on. We watched again and again as three people were strapped in, the helicopter lifted off, circled once, then landed.  As those three passengers unbuckled and exited the craft, three more were standing right there, ready to take their place. 

Soon it was time to head back over to the stage to await the first of two tribute bands. 

The first was a Jimi Hendrix tribute, which turned out to be the better of the two.  The second one, a Led Zeppelin tribute, was by a band (Led Hed) with good musicians but incredibly weak vocals. The last band of the night,  Motor City Josh, took the stage around 10:30 pm but we quickly grew bored and left.

The music may have been a disappointment, but the day was not a total loss. Palatka obviously puts a lot into this festival every year, and it shows.

Florida Springs IV: Manatee Watching at Blue Spring

May 25, 2011

One of the most popular springs in Florida is Blue Spring State Park, located in Orange City. Although a popular swimming, picnicing and camping area throughout most of the year, it’s the manatees that are the main attraction November through March.

We’ve visited Blue Spring a few times now, including a day when the manatees were still enjoying the warm, 72 degree water. I handed my camera over to my 7-year-old niece Rilee and this is what she captured.

It’s fun to explore Blue Spring State Park any time of the year but the manatees add something special. Rarely can you see so many manatees in one location at the same time. This is definitely a unique Florida treat!

Florida Springs III: Gemini

May 18, 2011

Sometimes we come across a hidden treasure. Gemini Springs is one of them.

Gemini Springs: A Hidden Treasure

Gemini Springs, a lesser known Florida Spring, is a 210 acre park tucked in between the towns of Enterprise and DeBary, just northeast of Orlando.

Gemini Springs

This area is less crowded; less popular it seems. Swimming isn’t allowed so that might make it less inviting to many people. It does have its faithful followers however. These appear to be mostly fishing enthusiasts who occupy the pier every weekend, and the families and groups who throw celebrations in the large, air-conditioned shelter, which also has lights, a fireplace, and a great view.

The park’s understated beauty, peacefulness, and unhurried followers  make it an idea place to enjoy any day of the week. And it’s a great place to observe the Florida wildlife, including alligators, turtles, and birds.

Here are a few we saw on our most recent outing to Gemini Springs:

This is one of those places you tend to forget about for a while, but eventually remember and return to with a smile.

Florida Springs II: Wekiva

May 11, 2011

Wekiva Springs: A Family Affair

Over Easter we finally visited Wekiva Springs, located in Apopka. The parking lots were full, the picnic tables were covered with food,, the Spring  was filled with laughing children, and canoes and kayaks crowded the waterway.  No doubt this is a very popular spot! 

Wekiva Springs

It was obvious from the moment we entered the parking area that this is a fantastic family getaway location.  All ages, wrapped in towels, weaved their way in and out between the cars. And the roar of the voices hit us the minute we opened the car doors.

We leisurely walked around the park, observing both nature and  people alike. I had to wonder about the sustainability of the springs and the nature that surrounds it though. The crowding, which I hear is common all summer, no doubt takes a tremendous toll on the area. 

A short ways away from the Springs is a small, quiet lake, perfect for fishing (and alligator spying). As we began our walk towards it, we spotted a young deer roaming in the grassy area near the sidewalk. It stared straight at us, but didn’t run. After about five minutes of standing still, we continued our walk, passing within three feet or so of the doe. Odd she didn’t run off. Apparently she is used to humans, and somehow does not have the inherent instinct to run. Although I was glad to see her close up, I was conflicted about her lack of a flight instinct.  Did she lose her mother? Do the park employees know about her?  Will visitors treat her kindly?

There are a few hiking trails near the lake that look  promising, but we decided to save them for another day. Although I don’t see us visiting Wekiva Springs too often, at least we know what’s there now.