Tag Archives: Central Florida road trips

Camping at Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings State Park

Two signs. One large one reading Marjorie Kinna, and a smaller one in front of it that reads Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Historic State Park 13 miles, with an arrow pointing to the right of the frame. Both are by the camping at Marjorie Kinna Rawlings State Park
I found these two unused signs at the camping area at Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Historic State Park. No, I did not steal them. Yes, that was a challenge.
Photo by Cathy Salustri

Want to know a secret way to go camping at Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Historic State Park? Well, it’s not actually a secret, but so few people take advantage of it that it may as well be one.

a trail in the woods by the camping at Marjorie Kinna Rawlings State Park
Banyan has no need to obey human signs. 
Photo by Cathy Salustri

I love camping in Florida, but I love it even more when I don’t have to share the campground with too many people. And Florida campgrounds — especially since COVID-19 — have a lot of people. So much so, it’s ridiculously tough to get a campsite, especially if you don’t plan almost a year ahead.

That’s not hyperbole; Floridians know you need to plan 11 months ahead to get a campsite, and, if it’s popular, be logged in to the Florida State Parks online reservation system before 8 a.m. (when new spots come available every morning), and not spend time choosing a site (rookie mistake — do that well before!). And still… sites can still sell out. Don’t refresh; don’t dally — know what you want, get in there, and get your site by 8:01 a.m. or don’t get it at all. It’s like a Gladiator movie.

There are a few other ways to camp at Florida State Parks, though.

Barry and I have often talked about volunteering as camp hosts, in part to get a longer stay at a preferred campground, and in part because it is, technically, free, to camp as a camp host. But — and this, for us, is a big “but” — most places with camp hosts  require those camp hosts to clean bathrooms and showers. Now, I’m not above cleaning a bathroom, especially when it’s mine, but I’ve seen these campground bathrooms. People are pigs. I’ll pay my $32 a night, thank you very much.

But late last year, the folks at Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Historic State Park asked me to give a writer’s talk, and I readily agreed. While I could, technically, have made the drive there and back in one day, it would have made for a long day… and it wouldn’t have been much fun. Also, I hate the stress of traffic and “will I be late or won’t I?” (as  I have a chronic time problem, this comes up a lot), and traffic through Tampa and Ocala is never a good time. If you’ve visited the park, you know it’s not near any hotels. Any. As in, none.

Florida State Parks had no campgrounds available… well, essentially anywhere, much less anywhere close enough to camp near Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings State Park. I asked the ranger who asked me to give a writer’s talk — Geoff — for suggestions for other campgrounds, going against my longstanding aversion to private campgrounds. Alas, the commercial campgrounds didn’t have anything, either (and, honestly, compared to Florida’s state parks, they looked awful).

Geoff had one other idea: Since I wasn’t getting paid for the talk, I was technically a volunteer, and, if they had a vacancy, Barry and I could camp at the park. The park, you see, has no campground (and thus no showers), so most people can’t camp there. But volunteers can, and take advantage of one of the two campsites with full hookups. If you RV camp, this phrase — full hookups — is music to your ears. And your grey water tank.

Volunteering and Camping at Camping Marjorie Rawlings Park

So, while I wasn’t a typical volunteer, I was volunteering. We happily took advantage of one of the two campsites, and friends, I will be back.

Camping at Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings State Park means one of two campsites, shielded from public view. To get to the public areas of the park, you walk a short trail. It’s an ideal commute, really.

What does volunteering entail at Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Historic State Park?

Marjorie Kinnan Rawling's cottage, located near the camping at Marjorie Kinna Rawlings State Park
The barn looked lovely and smelled even lovelier after the volunteers applied linseed oil.
Photo by Cathy Salustri

Gardening. Tending the chickens and ducks. Picking citrus. The weekend we were there, a group gathered to maintain the barn (the smell of linseed oil was heavenly). In short, light work. No bathrooms (the County owns and operates those, slightly outside park boundaries), no showers, and — this was the best part — after the park closes, no people.

a hand holding a small orange and a large orange in the woods
Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Historic State Park: Citrus everywhere. People? Not so much.
Photo by Cathy Salustri

OK, not “no” people — two other people, the other campers volunteering with us. We visited in late February, and they planned to stay through April. This, I should note, is much longer than the traditional Florida camper can occupy a spot in the parks.

There’s also something magical about being at Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ homestead at twilight. One night, as the park shut down to day visitors, I walked the citrus-lined path between our RV and her home, and it was glorious.

During the day, a pileated woodpecker pecked at an aging tree, birds flitted through the now-mostly wild groves, and the vibration of visitors hummed through the property. But at dusk, the sun cast a warm orange glow, the sky turned a pinkish purple, and the sound of the wilderness overtook everything else.

The ducks and chickens were settled in their pens, and as the staff cleared out, I had the freeing feeling of being wholly abandoned to nature.

It was a wonderful feeling, and one I can’t get so many places in Florida. A peace settled over me, and took my time picking my way back through the darkness, where my RV waited.

I should mention the citrus, because that was amazing.

In all my visits to the park, I didn’t realize you could pick the citrus; I thought, like with any state park, you should “take only pictures, leave only footprints.” This is not the case at Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Historic State Park: Anyone can pick the copious amounts of citrus (winter, of course, is the best time for this.) Volunteers also can harvest what’s in the garden.

A hand holding a grapefruit in the woods
Ever had feral Duncan grapefruit? I’d call it wild grapefruit but it started out domestic…
Photo by Cathy Salustri

I found and picked Duncan grapefruits as big as my head. Well, almost as big as my head. And yes, when we got them home and I stuck my spoon into them, they tasted amazing.

The writer’s talk went amazingly well. The audience was wonderful, the questions thoughtful, and the entire afternoon well done. I’m pleased we camped instead of attempting to drive home, because the talk exhausted me (but in a good way.)

Then we could disappear into the wilderness.

Talk aside, I can’t say enough good things about the park. I loved the almost-complete solitude of camping. The hiking trails, although short, reminded me that wild Florida isn’t as far away as we think it is. Walking the trails through the overgrown citrus groves gave me a sense of appreciation for what Marjorie sought and found here.

Within about two hours of arriving, we’d started talking, mostly hypothetically, about buying the 40 acres for sale across from the park.

After spending not only the day but a night there, I can wholly and completely see why Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings decided to chuck it all and move to what was then the edge of Florida’s wilderness.

Want to volunteer? Sign up with Florida State Parks.

Winter Park Memories and Casa Feliz

Winter Park Memories and Casa Feliz at night, with yellow light from inside the arches of the brick building
Winter Park memories and Casa Feliz were both on the docket on a recent road trip.
Photo by Cathy Salustri

At 21, I moved into my first non-dormitory apartment in Winter Park. The two-bedroom, one-bath apartment reminded me a lot of the one in Barefoot in the Park. It oozed charm.

Much like the apartment in Barefoot in the Park, that charm, I learned, took fortitude. The apartment had a gas stove, which terrified me, wood floors which weren’t exactly even, and a flea infestation.

A three-story apartment building in Winter Park
My first apartment ever. The part of the building that looks like an afterthought? That was the master bedroom.
Cathy Salustri

I loved it until I couldn’t anymore. I had a one-hour commute to my part-time job (Walt Disney World) and a one-hour commute to college classes (at UCF). Orlando, as the saying goes, is an hour from Orlando.

Winter Park Memories and Casa Feliz

Now, 30 years later, I can look back at what a mess 21-year-old Cathy was and laugh. Enough time has passed, too, that I can look back on yay life in Winter Park with fondness and nostalgia.

A 1930s-era brick mansion in Winter Park
Casa Feliz in Winter Park.
Cathy-Salustri

So, when my podcast co-host Rick Kilby asked me to come to Winter Park to give a talk at Casa Feliz, I happily said yes and set to work researching WPA architecture in Central Florida. My research about the WPA in Florida deals mostly with the CCC and Federal One, but I really wanted to take a road trip to Winter Park. I anticipated walking with my Winter Park memories and, later, a talk at Casa Feliz.

After a nightmarish drive on I-4 (have I mentioned how much I do not like the Eisenhower Interstate System?), I rolled into Winter Park with a couple of hours to spare before my talk. I parked at Casa Feliz and set to strolling. My first stop? My old apartment building, El Cortez.

Winter Park’s El Cortez Looks About the Same

a sign that reads "History Property – All Grills are Prohibited on Property" in Winter Park — Winter Park Memories and Casa Feliz
I had no idea my first apartment was considered historic.
Cathy-Salustri

From the outside, it didn’t look as though any time had passed, other than the addition of a sign calling the property “historic.” I can only assume the owners consider the building historic because it dates to 1923, not because I once lived here.

The entrance to an apartment building in Winter Park — Winter Park Memories and Casa Feliz
While exploring Winter Park, I wandered over to my first grown-up living rom. Pictured: the view of the living room. The air conditioner may be new, but not much else looks to have changed.
Cathy Salustri

I didn’t get a good look at anything but the outside, but I did enjoy seeing the building again and remembering the good parts of being 21. I hadn’t thought about my neighbors, Ashley and Stuart, in probably 29 years or so. While I know they broke up, but I have no idea what happened to either of them. We were all so young and stupid together, and Winter Park was a great place to be young and stupid: A smaller, seemingly safer version of Orlando, with more charm (there’s that word again), a sushi restaurant within walking distance (I’d be shocked to learn it’s the same owners, but today it’s called Umi Japanese Fusion – “fusion” was not a food word 30 years ago – and if you want real history, here’s where I first ate sushi.)

a plate of stuffed cabbage in Winter Park — Winter Park Memories and Casa Feliz
The stuffed cabbage at Winter Park’s Bosphorous is worth the trip.
Cathy-Salustri

With not enough time to spare to head to the Polasek or walk around the Rollins campus, I headed to Bosphourous, where I feasted on baba ganoush and stuffed cabbage. I sat at a sidewalk table, sipped my wine, and enjoyed the calm buzz of Winter Park’s downtown as it swirled around me.

A Talk at Casa Feliz

At Casa Feliz, a mansion moved from the lake to save it from demolition, I gave my talk. After the talk, I met some lovely people, and packed it all up to head home. As I made my way back home – this time over somewhat less crowded roads, I reflected on the changes in Winter Park’s downtown over the past three decades. It’s a little, for lack of a better word, bougie-r than it felt in 1993, but it still has that charm and, even though someone thought plunking down a Pottery Barn in the historic downtown was an excellent idea, Winter Park remains a special Florida place.

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