“Are you planning to write about your time in Florida?” a reader asked me after I had announced on my Facebook page that I was enroute. My instant response was one of apathy. I’d been to Florida so many times in my life that it held little novelty or any of the cultural idiosyncrasies that normally inspire me to write.
After all, I was just there to visit some dear friends, and recover from my two months of bouncing around the Caribbean on a variety of sailboats. This was almost a “holiday” (in a manner of speaking) from being The Professional Hobo – whatever that means.
But my trip up to northwest Florida (referred to as “the panhandle”) – and the 30A neighbourhood in particular – was a surprising cultural and scenic anomaly for me, and quite in contrast to the Florida that I’ve come to know.
30A is a 19-mile stretch of connecting communities along the Gulf Coast of Florida. Since the majority of the state is made of up of the (gigantic) peninsula that juts off the southeastern corner of the USA, many people don’t think of this northwestern arm when they picture Florida.
Also known as the Emerald Coast, this part of Florida earns its name due to the unique emerald hue of the ocean, which constantly rolls onto impossibly white-sand beaches. The sand – which is some of the softest I’ve ever dug my toes into – squeaks underfoot, and is almost 100% quartz.
Because of the unique sand, it forms gorgeous dunes that line the coast, and this part of Florida is home to very rare coastal dune lakes (the only in the US and one of only a few places in the world where these unique salt/fresh water eco-systems exist).
White-sand emerald-water beaches and dune lakes aren’t this area’s only attraction. Miles upon miles of beautiful trails and state forest lie just inland of the beaches, with fragrant pine trees hovering above a sandy floor of tropical palms, ferns, and wild rosemary.
In fact my friend and I got irrevocably lost one day on a leisurely stroll through a state park, foolishly thinking we were on a small looping trail when we were inadvertently on a 15-mile loop we’d have had no hope of completing before dark. (Luckily we were “rescued” by a very kind forest ranger who drove us back to our car!)
Not all of Florida is hot and sunny year-round the way many people envision it. Although it is considerably more temperate in climate than the snow-riddled north, donning a bathing suit and swimming in the chilly waters is virtually impossible during winter months.
In fact, although 30A is home to some snowbirds (Canadians and people from the northern US who spend their winters here), the beaches and establishments were relatively empty during my visit; peak season along the Gulf Coast is during the summer, not the winter.
The scenery and weather wasn’t my only Floridian surprise. As soon as I hit 30A, the architecture (and people) visibly changed. You drive through perfect little communities and developments, all manicured to perfection and (almost too) aesthetically pleasing. Each community has a theme of sorts; one is built to resemble a European town, another emulating Morocco, and another yet with a Caribbean flair.
Despite these contrasting architectural features, 30A maintains a cultural continuity and adopts little more than the aesthetics of the nations they’re fashioned after. In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to see anybody other than a (financially well-endowed) white person in 30A; something for me that was homogeneously arresting.
Although you may detect a note of distain in these last few paragraphs, I must admit that the area is beautiful and has a unique flavour and culture all its own. One that, in its own right, gave me a sense of culture shock and surprised me by shaking my pre-conceived notions about the entirety of Florida and the southern US states.
And in the name of traveling and immersing myself in different places, I do love surprises. Even on my “holiday” from being The Professional Hobo, I gained a new perspective of yet another little corner of the world.