The Gulf Coast has been hammered twice with devastating hurricanes. There is still much detritus to be seen. Other than a few formally dying downtowns, which were improved with FEMA funds, many of the damaged mansions on the coast have been flattened to make way for more resorts, condos, and casinos. So much for the “Scenic Drive” that was promised. Therefore, we blew through Alabama on the Gulf Coast, only stopping outside Mobile for a fresh shrimp Po-Boy sandwich at a Vietnamese restaurant. Our food bible, “Southern Belly”, recommended it for the freshest seafood. As promised, the pick-up truck outside was filled with coolers from the owner’s own shrimp boat. Crunchy and sweet, fried in a dusting of cornmeal, it was enough for another meal, and improved with bean sprouts, Asian basil, mint and cilantro, usually only added to Pho, but we liked a thatch of it inside the sandwich.
We also blew through Mississippi on the Gulf Coast, stopping only at the wonderful Ohr-O’Keefe Museum in Biloxi, designed by Frank Gehry. With cranes and heavy equipment cleaning up on the beach, lurking behind, stands a flow of 5 angular brick and metallic buildings nestled among the large oaks.
The Museum owned by the City is devoted to the richly glazed ceramics of George Ohr, a goofy and well-liked local artist.
We hurried on to Florida, but delayed arrival at our featured destination to do a little spelunking in Marianna. Well, not really….no muddy crawling on our bellies, with headlamps and helmets, and no belaying into underground caverns, just a tour of a really extensive, well protected limestone cave system, thanks to the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Depression. Ribbons, drapes, straws, pools, towers, and thanks to recent rains, all were glittering and dripping with groundwater. We really dug it! (pun intended)
So do the bats. Although there are 18 species of bats in Florida, only 4 of them will use bat houses: Evening Bat, Freetailed Bat, Big Brown Bat, and Southeastern Bat. However, only 10 maternity caves survive in Florida, due to habitat destruction, so the survival of some bats is in question. The only Gray Bat hibernation cave in Florida is in this park. With its low temperatures, a colony of 200 of the endangered bats overwinter here. Throughout the United States, fewer than a dozen such caves exist.
We had planned to move on to our featured destination, St. George Island campground, sticking out into the Gulf at the end of a long strand. We were looking forward to a quiet place where Lety could run free on the beach, with no swamps, gators, or cars to harm her. Unfortunately, the inclement weather changed our plan as it is very exposed out there, and a storm is coming in. We decided to retreat inland to Tallahassee, the Capital of Florida for some movies, Tango class, and that one last French Bistro dinner to replace the one we missed in New Orleans: Lobster Bisque, Crab cakes a l’aubergine, trout amandine, and some fine after-dinner confection. Of course, that meant we had to bike at least half of the 38 mile “Capital to St. Marks” rail/trail conversion in Tallahassee, the first of many in Florida we hope to ride.
We then hurried on toward our final Florida Panhandle destination just south of Tallahassee, Florida….the Edmund Ball Wakulla Springs Park, the deepest freshwater spring in the world, 350 feet, passing up to 250,000 gallons of water into the river hourly, the top 7 miles blocked to boats. We saw LOTS of manatees because 6 years ago they started to winter over here, breeding to a population of 56 last year. They have no fear of humans and only move away from propellers. The guides on the boat tours are knowledgeable about their protected wilderness here. They identified stuff we don’t see in CA like ahingas, mudhens, 9 foot alligators, kingfishers, pileated woodpeckers…and where scenes from 2 Tarzan movies and “Creature From The Black Lagoon” was filmed, and one National Geographic swimsuit shoot, underwater, in the 40’s.
The lodge here was built with 22 guest rooms and beautiful marble by the far thinking Edmund Ball in 1937, who put long-lasting protections for the property in place, including geothermal heating and cooling run off the constant 69 degree spring water. Maintained by the state now, it has the longest continuous slab of marble bar in the world, 22 feet…and the most beautiful bathrooms in any state park anywhere (although I am a fan of those in the art deco NPS Maritime Museum at Ghirardelli Square in SF). Now, finally, on to St. George Island in the Gulf of Mexico.