Category Archives: Detours & Diversions

Lincolnville mural

Road Trip: Lights, Lincolnville and hidden history

This article originally appeared in the Nov. 24 issue of Creative Loafing Tampa.

If all St. Augustine had going for it was “oldest city in the United States” I would never go there again. I grow weary of the Spanish Quarter. I mean, how many times can you walk through the oldest schoolhouse? Honestly, there’s more to St. Augustine than this, and I made it my mission (see what I did there?) to find it.

Lincolnville
The bittersweet heartbreak of gentrification.

Problem is, real history — the fun stuff — doesn’t fit in boxes like the names and dates. Also, sometimes you get to watch history getting made, and it makes you cringe.

St. Augustine's Huguenot Cemetery
I see dead people.

OK, well, first things first: St. Augustine, if you can forgive it for being so damn insistent that it’s the oldest city in America (really, you can’t blame it, because those Jamestown schmucks totally co-opted that) has some awesome stuff. We stayed as guests of the Casa de Suenos, a funeral home turned B&B that sadly seems to have no ghosts but, happily, lies outside of the Spanish Quarter yet within walking distance of pretty much everything we wanted to see. After a late-night arrival, a hot Jacuzzi bath and a glass of in-room sherry (16th-century conquistadors had no such niceties), I collapse, exhausted, but wake determined to see something of St. Augustine that isn’t a tourist trap. Fountain of Youth? Um, no, that’s totally made up — Ponce de Leon never even believed in it.

For all its touristy history, though, St. Augustine really can’t help but ooze charm. It’s eminently walkable, and while we tend to spend our time looking at dead people (the Huguenot and yellow fever graveyards make me inordinately happy), there’s no denying later — as we sit on the upper deck of Meehan’s and work our way through a seafood tower and some superbly smooth Irish whiskey —that the old city has something special. We watch the horse-drawn carriages pull tourists in love up and down the waterfront, and we watch the sun sink into the bay over the Bridge of Lions.

The real reason I’m here, though, is the Night of Lights.

Every Christmas season, St. Augustinians light pretty much every solid surface of the city with three million twinkly lights, earning the celebration a spot on National Geographic‘s list of the world’s ten best holiday light displays. And certainly the lights impress, but to me, the reason the lights came about at all touches me more.

When St. Augustine belonged to Spain, the Brits had a lot of angst about the Spanish being so close to the colonies. The Spanish, for their part, weren’t in love with the Brits being right next door, either. Florida was then — as it is now — damn desirable, so being a Spanish sailor in Florida was not a whole lot of fun, what with tensions high and every boat maybe staging an attack on La Florida. On top of that, sailors returning home had no easy way to tell if the city remained under Spanish control or if it had fallen into enemy hands.

The people of St. Augustine had an easy workaround for this: If the city remained safe, homes facing the water burned a single candle in the window. If the ships didn’t see all the windows lit up, they knew the city was under siege or had already fallen under enemy control.

Hence, the Night of Lights.

Lincolnville
One perspective on LIncolnville

This story remains at the forefront of my head the next day. A stop at a nondescript sandwich shop (Hot Shots) for an exquisite sandwich leads us further away from the city, this time in a car. We head into Lincolnville, an historically African-American part of town that clearly hasn’t blossomed under the same level of care and love as the Spanish Quarter.

Lincolnville
The same two houses from a slightly different perspective. All is not what it seems.

[read the rest at cltampa.com]

Backroads of Paradise Cathy Salustri

Backroads of Paradise in the New York Times

Backroads of Paradise by Cathy Salustri
The great Florida road trip, in book form.

Welp, they don’t seem to care much for Donald Trump, but the New York Times likes me.

A weeks ago, I’d shut down email for the day, except — fun fact — I’m almost always trying to clear out my email. Over at Creative Loafing, our food editor and one of my favorite people, Meaghan, always has about three or four emails in her inbox. She’s that good at clearing them out. Right now, I have roughly seventy-seven million emails waiting for me, so I feel compelled to check them from time to time, even when I’m theoretically done for the day.

So, the de facto in-laws are down for the holidays, and as we’re all watching football I start looking for easy emails to handle. I see one from a John Dorman, who says he’s with the Times and would like to do a Q&A with me. Now, we have a daily paper here we also refer to as “the Times“, so I thought, oh, OK, that’s weird, because they rejected me for the Festival of Reading and haven’t shown any interest in Backroads whatsoever, but cool.

Then I get to the signature line and it’s not the local Times. No, it’s the New York Times. Or, as I said about two seconds after I realized which paper had contacted me, The New York Fucking Times, but only in my head, because, well, I try not to say fuck so much around Barry’s parents, because I’m a goddamn lady and all.

So, um, hey, read this super-cool interview with this awesome Florida chick who’s in the New York FUCKING Times. Or buy the print version of the paper Sunday. Or do both.

 

The Great Couchsurfing Book Tour

Couchsurfing
That’s me, sans fur. Credit: flickr/David K

Although Backroads of Paradise doesn’t hit bookstore shelves for another two months, I’ve started getting requests from bookstores and libraries around the state for me to come speak. The great marketing team at UPF (University Press of Florida) has also convinced the Miami Book Fair and the Southern Independent Booksellers Association (apparently the cool kids call that SIBA) that I should speak at their shows.

Miami and SIBA are big deals, and I’m thrilled. Also, I have a small — quite small — travel budget from the press, so I get to go to Miami and then Savannah essentially for free. The libraries and bookstores? Not so much, and so I get creative. Look, I’m not complaining at all about people wanting me to come to their corner of Florida and talk about why I love Florida (honestly, that part’s a dream come true); I’m concerned about budget because, well, since the press hasn’t finished printing Backroads of Paradise yet, I haven’t seen a royalty check.

Because I love to travel and talk about Florida and I don’t want to tell anyone no (I mean, this is how I sell books, right?) I’ll couch surf. Last night I heard someone describe this as a “couch surfing book tour” and they’d done it themselves. And now, it seems, I will do it myself.

Which means a lot of my old friends spread out across the state may get a phone call in the coming months. Forewarned is forearmed, y’all.

Also, if you have a bookstore/work at a library/ sit on a board of a historical society, please get in touch with me to have me come speak.

I promise I won’t ask to sleep on your couch.

Probably.

Hey, buy my book now. It’s the gift that keeps giving, because you’ll get it October, so it’s like TWO Amazon purchases!

Backroads of Paradise: Almost as real as the Velveteen Rabbit!

Backroads of Paradise
Backroads of Paradise has landed! Well, almost — you can preorder it!

At long last, the book has landed. It has a title, Backroads of Paradise, and an ISBN number and everything. Just like the velveteen rabbit, It’s real.

Well, mostly — it really real on October 4, but you can pre-order it now from Amazon and they’ll ship it to you in October. Alternately, you can order it through the University Press of Florida, where you can also read an excerpt  (in case you need further persuading, or in case you don’t feel you can wait any longer, a feeling a I know quite well) from my tour across the coastal edge of Florida’s panhandle (yay, oysters!).

I don’t want to go on too much (I’ve already done that here), and I don’t want to brag or anything, but according to Amazon, Backroads of Paradise, is already #2171 on  the bestseller lists for South Atlantic United States travel books, so, you know, almost as popular as 50 Shades of Gray and infinitely better written. Also, it weighs 1.7 pounds. That’s a lot of Florida right there, y’all…

Backroads of Paradise catalog
It’s surreal to read what other people say about my writing. I mean, it happens all the time at my job, but this feels different somehow.

And yes, I’ll compulsively track those sales numbers on Amazon, because it’s not stalking if it’s not a person, right?

Oh, and because people have asked: Yes, UPF will release this as an ebook, and that option should show up soon on Amazon; and no, it doesn’t matter to me where you buy the book, Amazon or UPF, so long as you buy Backroads of Paradise. As in, right now. For everyone you know.

Detours & Diversions– Fish Kisses From Mimi: Islamorada’s Theater of the Sea

Mimi TongueMimi has fish breath, but that’s OK. At 25, she’s had her share of mackerel or smelt or whatever it is sea lions like to snack on. When she leans in to kiss me, I smell a quarter-century of fish. Of course, that’s the least of my worries; the greater issue is that I have a lumbering sea mammal leaning on my hips as she tries to kiss me.

“Sea lions are very efficient in their muscle use,” Mimi’s trainer, Jerry, tells me. I wonder if that’s a euphemism for lazy, but I only wonder for a second, because the next thing I know I’ve got a face full of whiskers and hot sea lion breath.

I am not a “swim with the dolphins” kind of gal, but this experience is something extraordinary. Mimi utterly and completely charmed me, and even though I knew she was responding to trainer commands, I was besotted.

Also, it’s nice to know that laziness isn’t limited to humans. She didn’t miss a chance to lean on me. The experience of a sea lion swimming over to you and resting her weight on your hip while putting a flipper on your back is… surreal.

Theater of the Sea in Islamorada, Florida
Theater of the Sea, in Islamorada, opened in 1946.

WHAT: If you’ve ever driven through the Florida Keys, you’ve seen Islamorada’s Theater of the Sea. This marine mammal park first caught my attention on a college field trip, but it’s taken me two decades to actually step inside the park. They have sea lion, dolphin and parrot shows, guided nature walks, a small beach and a bottomless boat ride where the dolphins pop up in the center of the boat.

Theater of the Sea also offers marine mammal and sting ray encounters. While several aquatic theme parks offer dolphin swims, they also offer sea lion and sting ray swims.

WHY: This is the quintessential Florida marine mammal park. It combines old-school tourism (think parrot shows) with humane handling of the sea mammals (the dolphins and sea lions get their full meals whether or not they choose to perform in a show that day.) For the money, this is the best old-school theme park in Florida. Plus, it’s not every day you get to kiss a sea lion.

WHO: Theater of the Sea opened in 1946. The park used a lagoon from a quarry used in building Flagler’s railroad. The railroad is long gone, but the dolphins, turtles, and gators remain.

WHEN: The park opens every day of the year at 9:30 a.m.; at 4:30, the last bottomless boat ride and nature tour begins. Expect to spend three hours on tours and shows; add another hour or more for encounters and swims.

WHERE: Mile Marker 84.5, Islamorada, the Florida Keys.

Mimi at Theater of the Sea
Mimi gives the best kisses. She’s the one on the left.

BEST part: The 30 minutes I spent in the water with Mimi is something I will never forget. It’s pricey but totally worth it; I smiled for days afterwards.

WORST part: Like every other marine mammal park that offers these programs, Theater of the Sea attributes human qualities to trained behavior. Does Mimi think she kissed me? No, she simply did what Jerry trained her to do.

I would prefer to just be in the water with her acting as she would without trainer intervention, but I imagine that if that happened, I’d find that she had no interest in coming anywhere near me. I understand why these parks do what they do;  it doesn’t stop me from cringing when I hear “Give kisses!” It also doesn’t stop me from highly recommending the sea lion swim.

MAGIC Question: The sea lion swim costs about $150; dolphin swims cost $175. Park admission, included in these prices, otherwise costs $27 (plus tax.) The park also has less-expensive sea life encounters, such as sting ray swims and dolphin encounters. Check their web site at TheaterOfTheSea.com for pricing and information. Alternately, you can call (305) 664-2431.

This originally appeared in a March, 2011 edition of the Gabber Newspaper.

Detours & Diversions – The Other Side of Tampa Bay: Paradise in the Sand

“Anna Maria Key, lying to the south of Tampa Bay and separated from the mainland by Sarasota Pass, one of the many sand and shell islands bordering the west coast. It rises but a few feet above sea level and is covered with mangrove swamps, palm savannahs, salt flats, cacti thickets, and buttonwood trees. Anna Maria, a resort at the northern extremity of Anna Maria Key, consists of many cottages in a jungle setting.” –The WPA Guide to the Southernmost State, 1939

WHAT: Much has changed on Anna Maria Island since 1937. The palm savannahs surrendered to beach cottages, and while the island itself rises but a few feet above the warm, turquoise Gulf, bungalows at Anna Maria’s edge prop themselves like mangroves, resting just out of reach of salt and waves.

The spirit of the island remains untouched. Sand and shells abound, and the entire low-lying tropical jungle has bursts of blazing pink bougainvillea  cascading over fences and dazzling orange birds of paradise standing guard along walkways. While the other side of Tampa Bay boasts the most densely populated county in the state, the pink Don CeSar in the distance fades against the tropical landscape of colors and the ever-permeating salt air.

 

WHY: You can draw the silhouette of much of Florida’s coast with condominium-and hotel-colored crayons. Not so here; everything on this seven-mile strip of paradise –even her stilt homes –is short. The island draws tourists without needing tall hotels and convention centers; visitors can make their way around the island’s shell-lined streets and paths using foot or pedal power. The island has no chain restaurants, and while you can get milk at a local market, you’ll need to head to the next town over for a supermarket.

 

WHO: It’s a small town of locals and visitors, fishermen and sunbathers. Anna Maria is one of six incorporated cities in Manatee county, a county with a third of the people of its neighbor to the north, Pinellas.

 

WHERE: If you look across Tampa Bay from Pass-a-Grille or Fort DeSoto, you can see Anna Maria in the distance. By boat it’s a short hop around Egmont to Anna Maria; by car, it’s just under an hour to cover the same distance. Anna Maria is at the northernmost tip of Manatee’s nothernmost barrier island.

 

BEST part: Anna Maria Island evokes memories of the Florida in your heart, the sandy paradise that draws people here year after year. It’s old Florida with air conditioning, bleached shell paths that crunch under your feet, and coral sunsets dotted with crimson blossoms. It’s fishing piers and walks on the beach; it’s beer at sunset and fish for dinner. Every part is the best part.
WORST part: With beaches everywhere, it’s a shame the city doesn’t allow dogs on at least one of them. There are a few places along the bay where you can get away with letting your pooch run off leash, but they’re not designated as dog beaches and you run the risk of being told to take your furry friend off the sand. Locals say there’s talk of a dog beach.

 

MAGIC Question: Free. Lodging and food run the gamut. Expect to pay a premium for waterside accommodations, although you can get a room for under $100 a night. Weekly stays cost less per night.
This initially appeared in the Gabber Newspaper in January, 2012.

Detours & Diversions – Fort Lauderdale’s Mai Kai Polynesian Restaurant and Tiki Bar

Forget tickets to Tahiti. Don’t worry about getting transportation around Easter Island. If you’re craving a taste of Polynesia, look no further than Fort Lauderdale’s Mai Kai restaurant. While other “dinner and show” experiences in Florida promise Arabian evenings or a medieval jousting match, Florida’s original dinner and show venue does it best. 

Once you step through the doors of the Mai Kai, you’re adrift in the South Pacific. Don’t try and fight it; just simply enjoy the ride.

WHO: The Mai Kai, a Polynesian restaurant in Fort Lauderdale, exudes Polynesia. The Mai Kai opened in 1956 and there’s no other like it, in Fort Lauderdale or anywhere else. Some places in French Polynesia may come close, of course, but without the Florida nuances that make the Mai Kai so special.

WHAT: It’s an old-style Polynesian restaurant-slash-Tiki-bar-slash-Polynesian revue. You can stop by the Molokai Bar for drinks or go in for the whole dinner-and-show experience. The whole place operates under a big thatched Tiki hut– large enough to house a fantastic bar, a couple of levels of dining, a gift shop, and gardens. The inside of the Molokai resembles the belowdecks of a galleon. The Islander Revue features Polynesian dances from various cultures; for almost an hour the dancers perform while a narrator explains the meaning of each dance.

WHEN: The Islanders perform twice nightly. The Molokai stays open until 2 a.m. but from 5 p.m. until 7 p.m. has happy hour.

WHERE: 3599 N. Federal Highway, Fort Lauderdale. Call for reservations: 954-563-3272.

WHY: It’s schmaltzy, it’s pricey, and it’s wonderful. The Mai Kai has held on to the type of entertainment that tourists fl ocked to before the mouse came to town. It’s classic Florida combined with strong drinks, Cantonese cuisine, and Easter Island style. The Mai Kai is reminsicient of a 1960s Technicolor fi lm with dishes with names like “Lobster Bora Bora” and so-old-it’s-hip-again Tiki and Tahitian decor. The show and the food make the entire experience one out of time and place- for two hours the Mai Kai staff takes you to Polynesia and the 1960s.

BEST Part: The bar, even if you don’t drink. As we said, it’s designed to look as though you’re below deck on a galleon, complete with water coursing over the windows. Maori and other Tikistatues abound, the Mai Tais come with fresh mint and chunks of pineapple, and you get free sushi during Wednesday’s happy hour.

Fun Fact: The Derby Daiquiri dates back to 1961, when a Mai Kai bartender created it to enter into a contest to name the official drink of the Florida Derby. In the days predating Floridizing mainstream cocktails, the bartender made a daiquiri with Florida orange juice. The Derby Daiquiri won first place and the honor of “The Official Drink of the Florida Derby.” Read more about the Florida Derby at my food-centric site, Aphrodite’s Hearth.

SARONG – clad  maidens (the actual bartender remains out of sight) bring your drinks. Of course these girls are gorgeous, but Mai Kai management can apparently afford to be fussy: Jessica (our sarong-clad maiden) talked to us about her favorite Florida authors (Randy Wayne White and Tim Dorsey) and the local economy. She also let told us that only recently did the Mai Kai aquiesce to hire blondes; in the name of authenticity they used to hire dark-haired women only. The ship-style decor, intelligent women wearing almost nothing, and the well-mixed Mai Tais are a devastating trilogy. A staff seamstress makes each sarong and matching bikini top for each maiden.

MAGIC Question: The show portion of the “dinner and show” costs $9.95; everything after that costs much more. For two people, dinner (before tip) can eat and drink  for around $150. You’ll probably also want to factor in a night’s stay down south, because after the amount of food and the potency of Polynesian drinks, you will not feel like making the trek back home.

Parts of this appeared  in the Gabber Newspaper, April 19, 2007.

Detours & Diversions – The Citrus Place: A Slice of Orange Heaven

Florida is the third largest beef-producing state east of the Mississippi. We grow most of the houseplants sold in the country. The Sunshine Stateleads the world, certainly, in theme parks. Oranges, however, are Florida’s liquid gold. 80% of America’s orange juice comes from Florida, and Florida is the world’s top grapefruit producer.
How, exactly, though, are oranges (or grapefruit or orange juice) a detour or a diversion? Well, up until relatively recently in Pinellas history, citrus fans could tour Orange Blossom Groves on US 19 and watch as conveyor belts sorted oranges as they came into the plant from the expansive grove behind it. They could then proceed to a separate tasting room to taste fresh-squeezed Florida orange juice. Sadly, those days are gone. However, just south of the Sunshine Skyway The Citrus Place still trades in liquid gold.
WHAT: Ben Tillett opened The Citrus Place in the 1970s as a “You Pick” grapefruit business. When citrus canker struck his groves a few years later he could only allow workers to go into the groves. The Citrus Place became a packing house and ultimately progressed to a packing and shipping business. Today, the Tillett family still owns the grove and the shop in front that sells citrus, juice, jams, jellies, and fruit sections.
WHY: Even citrus growers admit that the Florida citrus industry is coughing a death rattle, despite what the Florida Department of Citrus’ marketing says. Tropicana and Minute Maid get much of their juice from Brazil.
Tasting fresh Florida juice, much less unpasteurized and locally grown and squeezed juice, will be something people tell their grandchildren about, not something they take their grandchildren to do. If you’ve never tried fresh- truly fresh- juice, you might not know what you’re missing. Go find out.
WHOBen and his wife Vera work the grove and shop with their son, Sid, and two other employees.
WHEN: The Citrus Place is open from 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday.
WHERE: Find The Citrus Place at 7200 US 19 in Terra Ceia. They’re a 20-minute (roughly) drive from the south end of 275. Take 275 south  over the Sunshine Skyway to the first exit, US 19, and bear right. It’s your very first left or your next U-turn. If you can’t make it across the Sunshine Skyway and need your orange juice fix, you can get their juice at the Bayway Country Store (on the Bayway heading towards Tierra Verde, 867-7507.)
BEST part: The juice. While it probably doesn’t taste like liquid gold, it’s how liquid gold should taste. It’s worth the short drive for a free sample and the opportunity to buy some to bring home.
WORST part: Oddly, the oranges don’t come from the grove behind the shop anymore, but the Tillett family still gets their citrus from Florida: Odessa and Parrish. Similarly, the days of picking your own citrus or watching the huge sorting machine do its work are also gone, but the juice is still there, very fresh and still tasting like Florida’s “liquid gold.”
The Citrus Place is a storefront and doesn’t charge admission, although they do offer free samples of juice and fresh fruit sections. Call them at (941) 722-6745 with questions or requests. Cash only.
He’s just so HAPPY you’re here.

 

Detours & Diversions: Key West Before Duval

Key West WPA“Key West was to be made the American winter resort of the tropics.”
– From the 1941 Works Progress Administration’s Key West
  
WHAT: To the uninitiated, Key West is just around the corner from anywhere in Florida. In reality, driving from Pensacola to Key West will take only seven fewer minutes than driving from Pensacola to Chicago. Of course, Key West is the warmer of the two places, and perhaps decidedly more quirky. The island, a seven-and-a-half square mile collection of roughly 25,000 residents, has a reputation for odd. More than one new Gulfport resident likens the town to Key West.
Conch RepublicKey West, if you believe the stories, is filled with people who moved south to drop out. It’s a collection of extremes. In 1982 the federal government mounted a roadblock on US 1 to stop illegal aliens from entering the country. Since the roadblock was north of Key West, this meant Conchs (Key West residents) had to prove their citizenship to leave the island. In protest, they seceded from the United States, then immediately surrendered and demanded reparations.
Key West, this story seems to prove, is nothing like the rest of the United States. It’s even the cheeky cousin of mainland Florida, no slouch itself when it comes to wacky headlines. Arts of all sorts abound; Hemingway had a home here; Winslow Homer painted here. Countless artists across an abundance of mediums live and work in Key West. However, Key Weird (as some call it) attracts the arts community not by chance or the appeal of a remote bohemian community; Key West attracts artists because during the Great Depression, the federal government plugged money into the arts in Key West. Arts, and the tourists their work attracted, would save the key from economic death.
WHY: In the 1830s, Key West was the wealthiest city in the United States, with professional wreckers (also called pirates) earning a good living. By 1934, situations changed and Key West was bankrupt. This wasn’t a “paper” bankruptcy: the city had no money to pay its employees. When the city asked the federal government for help during the Great Depression, 80% of its residents already received federal aid. Its pleas were specific: Please send money so we can tell the world how great we are. The plan was to make the city a tourist destination on par with Bermuda and Nassau.
FERA workerThe Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) imported artists to create works of art that would promote Key West as a tourist destination. Murals, advertising, guidebook illustrations and postcards resulted from this glut of artists. Citizens volunteered over two million man-hours to clean streets, develop beaches, create sanitation systems, and renovate and redecorate houses. Across the nation, city planners lauded this bold community planning experiment. Talent the government could not import, it taught. Residents on the government dole took classes in how to make art, which consisted of everything from drawings to ashtrays.
WHO: Key West is the Monroe County seat. Monroe includes parts of Everglades National Park, Big Cypress Preserve, the Dry Tortugas and the entire chain of limestone islands curving around the tip of mainland Florida.
WHEREMM0, at the end of US 1.
Some people just love to be right.
Some people just love to be right.

BEST part: The cemetery with the sense of humor. Stroll through the headstones (bring plenty of water) and find epitaphs like “Just resting my eyes,” and “I told you I was sick.”

WORST part: In the case of what FERA and 1930s Key West officials hoped to accomplish, Duval Street remains the prime example of getting what you wish for: tourists.
FUN fact: During prohibition, some homes used the negative space in the gingerbread trim to advertise guns or booze for sale. Look for homes with guns or liquor bottles hidden in second-story trim.
MAGIC Question: Key West isn’t cheap. Even the cheapest hotels cost a couple of hundred dollars a night. Parking costs about $14 a day. Just off-island, try the Sugarloaf KOA or the Sugarloaf Lodge.

Drink Local: Palm Ridge Reserve Whiskey

I first tasted Palm Ridge Reserve whiskey on the Vinoy Verandah in St. Petersburg. Only the reputation of the Vinoy persuaded me that Florida whiskey might be worth sipping straight; I’ve tasted Florida wines that could have powered farm equipment and feared the same stinging effect from our state’s whiskey.

The Vinoy, I assumed, would never embarrass itself with a low-end whiskey designed for college sophomores looking for a cheap buzz, so I opted to give the butterscotch-colored liquor a sip.
I was right, and my love affair with Palm Ridge Reserve whiskey began. This is not a shooting whiskey or a mixed drink whiskey; it is a choice whiskey for the connoisseur who drinks for taste, not effect. If you’re drinking to get drunk, stick with the mass-produced cheap stuff, because this is not a shooting whiskey.

WHAT: Thought Florida was all oranges and beaches? Think again. In the middle of horse country, the Palm Ridge Reserve churns out small batches of whiskey. The blended whiskey contains local corn and the taste rivals the priciest sipping whiskeys.

WHY: Why not? Florida craft beer has taken the market by storm, so why not locally-produced craft whiskey? Recent changes to the law allow small-batch distilleries to offer tastings. A much-coveted tasting at Palm Ridge Reserve marries the aid-back Florida lifestyle with high society gentleman’s whiskey.

WHO: Dick and Marti bought a cozy sprawl of land by Ocala as their daughter grew more and more interested in horses. Just about the time they closed on the farm, Dick laughs, she got interested in boys instead. The land looks plenty big to me, but Dick and Marti explain it really isn’t large enough for a proper farm. When Marti read a trade article about farmers using some of their land to make whiskey they thought, “Well, why not?”
WHEN: Whiskey doesn’t take a vacation, and neither do Dick and Marti. Distilling whiskey into something non-lethal, keeping it from exploding, and crafting something that tastes like fiery velvet takes all their time, so until their distillery hits the big time, they’re on deck every day. Once a month, they do give tours, which end with a modest tasting.

WHERE: Just outside Ocala, less than two hours from Pinellas.

BEST part: Well, clearly the whiskey’s pretty tasty, but the best thing is seeing small industry producing a product that outshines the mass-produced alcohols.

WORST part: Local whiskey produced in small batches (so small Dick and Marti call them “micro batches”) doesn’t come cheap. You can buy the whiskey at Total Wine or at the tasting, but the price remains the same: $60 a bottle.
FUN fact: You may think truly fine whiskey needs aging, but at the tasting Dick and Marti astound you with young whiskey that tastes every bit as smooth as the old stuff. Just for fun, they’ll let you taste the brand-new stuff, too. That whiskey? That whiskey could probably power farm equipment.

MAGIC Question: Free, but tours and tastings are limited, so please call to reserve your spot. E-mail them at whiskey@palmridgereserve.com; the next tour comes up March 1, and the tours do fill quickly. Learn more about Palm Ridge at PalmRidgeReserve.com.