Ideas For Staying In Florida

Apalachicola Is the center of a relatively hard-to-reach coastal region in the eastern Panhandle which is, ironically, prime for vacationing because little has been done for tourists. What has been, on tawdry St. shores on its western and northern sides which ebb into blue waters. Families vacation in a string of little towns whose short and curving streets slow such traffic as eddies toward land’s end. Children can safely ride bikes here. Action peaks at the Sandbar, where the person who comes closest to guessing when the sun will set is rewarded with a bottle of champagne. Otherwise, vacationers divert themselves with excursions to the wildlife sanctuary on Egmont Key or to Sarasota to visit the museums and theater for which that city is famous. A good place to stay is Harrington House, back at the beach. This stylishly casual retreat shows itself attentive to details (for example, its seven rooms all have floral porcelain doorknobs) and to the big picture as well (the living room has a twenty-foot-high peaked ceiling and a massive fireplace for warming up on chill nights).

It’s a beauty.
Three or four keys farther south is narrow, seven-mile-long Manasota Key, its winding, canopied road coming out here and there spectacularly along open gulf. This is a quiet, residential area. The people who come to visit tend to want to go offshore-fishing by day and to stroll the beach barefoot by night. The key’s Manasota Beach Club has fifteen cottages, some of which have been on the beach since the early 1900s. There are bocci and tennis courts, over which coastal forest arches. There are walking trails and bayside docks. Year after year Manasota Key is blessedly left unnamed on state highway maps.

Also consider staying inland, in the central highlands. To the north of Lake Wales the economy is shifting from citrus groves to motor homes: freezes have recently destroyed crops, and the rising value of land around Disney World is helping to replace the trees with retirees. But south along Alternate 27-the Scenic Highway, as it’s called-you can find another world. On Crooked Lake, near the tidy college town of Babson Park, Robert and Martha Wetzel operate Hillcrest Lodge, as they have for forty-four winters. Wetzel kids return every winter to help, bringing along the grandchildren and great-grandchildren; they’re joined by college students from across the lake. Generations of guests return too, many for weeks at a time, to slip into slow motion. By day people swim in the lake (one of the few in central Florida that are still clean enough for swimming), fish for bass, and sail. Highlands Hammock State Park-among Florida’s crown jewels-is half an hour south. Closer, to the north, are Cypress Gardens, the Bok Singing Tower, and the site of the well-known Black Hills Passion Play, which is performed every winter. Evenings, guests socialize in the living room by the fire, and often come to feel like part of the family. If you stay long enough and the quiet gets to you, Disney World is only an hour north.

Even those who hanker after a city vacation or even business travelers with specific needs can catch something of the spirit of an older Florida by staying at a congenial inn. In the Miami area I recommend three. Hotel Place St. Michel is low-rise, vine-covered, Mediterranean-1920s-style-now surrounded by the glass-and-steel towers of Coral Gables. Downtown, Sallye Jude, a prominent preservationist, has restored four boardinghouses of pre-First World War vintage and renamed them the Miami River Inn. Across the street inter-island freighters whistle signals to bridgetenders along the little five-mlie working river. In swank Bay Harbor Islands Sandy Lankler has fashioned the Bay Harbor Inn out of buildings as old as the town-they date from 1945. Lankler, who grew up in Cortland, New York, remembers the old hotel there as the center of town life.

Even around Disney World there are alternatives to cookie-cutter hotels and motels. The Courtyard at Lake Lucerne, in the Lake Cherokee Historic District, includes Orlando’s oldest building (the Norment-Parry Inn, 1866), one of three that make up the inn and that are now linked by a courtyard. In neighboring Winter Park the restoration, some years ago, of the 1920s Hamilton Hotel as the Park Plaza induced a revival of the neglected south end of Park Avenue, now one of Florida’s prestigious shopping streets. The two-story hotel has a wholly European feeling, from the unpretentious latch at the door of the wine-dark lobby to the rooms, which make you feel birthday-party happy. Nearby is the five-room Fortnightly Inn, in a grand house built by a doctor and officer of The Fortnightly Club, Winter Park’s first literary organization.

Should you have business in Jacksonville or be passing through, alternatives beckon there, too. Two bed-and-breakfasts are now open in historic Riverside. The Willows is fondly Mediterranean, and its rooms are furnished with antiques that date as far back as the Middle Ages. The guest quarters of the House on Cherry Street are embellished with collections of duck decoys, clocks, and handloomed Pennsylvania coverlets. In reviving Springfield, which is a demonstration neighborhood of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, The Archibald flaunts uninhibited paisley wallpapers next to parson-proper oak wainscoting.

South of Jacksonville, in Orange Park, where the St. Johns River flows three miles wide, Frederica Massee has restored the estate of Caleb johnson (the founder of Palmolive Soap), reworking its palatial aspect into something friendlier with pools, a historic house that was barged downriver to be redeemed as a clubby bar, and a restaurant in a fan-windowed loggia. The result is named The Club Continental. All seven of its second-story suites overlook riverfront gardens, barely downstream from Mandarin-alas, today the domain of subdividers. Mrs. Stowe would feel at home at Massee’s establishment and these days might write for distant readers less innocently, more urgently.