by Jamie Rich | June 1, 2017
Editor’s Note: Take Me to The River
People often ask me for travel recommendations. It’s true, I’m always on the hunt for fabulous hotels and restaurants to highlight for our readers, but I’m more interested in discovering those authentic Florida experiences that aren’t manufactured and created for the masses.
As a family, we try to embrace a spirit of adventure in our travels. Stripping back the veneer of the state’s shiny tourism industry and focusing on those imperfect spaces and places gives us some of our best days.
This spring my husband and I took our family on a two-day trip to Palatka, an old Florida town, via the St. Johns River. We loaded up our 25-foot Boston Whaler Guardian with our two daughters, one canvas tote and a couple of blankets. That morning, the wind whipped our faces and the sun warmed our backs as we zipped out of the city, past EverBank Field and under the Main Street Bridge.
The St. Johns is Florida’s longest river and one of only a few in the country that flows northward. The headwaters begin near Vero Beach, about 300 miles south of Jacksonville, cutting a winding corridor through the upper half of the state. For two hours we buzzed along the brackish water, lined with pine forests and stately homes. No cellphones or iPads. Just watching the world go by.
We bypassed Black Creek’s storied rope swings because the water was still too cold for cannon balls. Hungry, we pit stopped in the tiny town of Green Cove Springs, where we stumbled upon three huge abandoned docks that were part of the Lee Naval Air Station used for a mothball fleet of warships after World War II. We tied up our vessel around the corner from the former military outpost, scaled the railings of the closed city dock (damaged by Hurricane Matthew) and grabbed homemade sandwiches and chocolate chip cookies at Sweet Sensations. We ambled through the historic downtown and shopped for antiques.
Once in Palatka, we took in the sleepy town’s impressive murals of wildlife and historic figures. The kids climbed on an enormous live oak, and we ordered milkshakes at Angel’s, a vintage dining car known as Florida’s oldest diner. We laughed. We ate good food. We explored a part of Florida with a long history, a struggling economy and a boat load of personality.
As the sun began to set, we headed back to our Whaler for more wind in our hair and peaceful hang-time. We spent the night at a river-front lodge popular with fishermen. It had a small rectangular pool out back, and we sprung for the suite—$100!
The next day we headed home in a light rain. The kids and I bundled up in blankets and raincoats, and my husband navigated northward. It was far from glamorous. But I felt more refreshed after that mini vacation than I had in a long time.
In this travel issue, we focus on bringing you stories that take place off the beaten path, with the hope of sparking your desire to discover a piece of real Florida by land, water or sky.