Lake Harris Hideaway, Tavares

Nope. I didn’t sail off the edge of the Earth. I’ve just been swamped finishing up my latest book, Seafood Lover’s Florida for Globe Pequot Press (due out in October). I also put up a new blog, SeafoodLoversFlorida.com where I’ll be showcasing excerpts from the book and announcing signings and appearances, after it releases. In my seafood-seeking travels this year I have found some fascinating small-town Florida fodder so I’ll be covering some of it here.

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Along the way I’ve also come across some interesting off-the-beaten-path spots that happened not to be strictly seafood-related. That was the case when good friend and author of Umatilla, Images of America (Arcadia Publishing 2010) Becky Dreisbach took me to the Lake Harris Hideaway, not far from Tavares. Scenic Lake Harris fills the space in between Tavares and Leesburg. We had been at the Mount Dora Seafood Festival nearby when it began to turn stormy, and Becky knew the perfect place to go get out of the rain. Lake Harris Hideaway does have a roof, but it’s still an open-air bar, grill, and live entertainment (country, classic rock) venue; and it’s a popular biker joint. It sits on a picturesque little cypress-shaded cove with boat docks and a view out across the lake. Ice cold beer, giant juicy burgers, and home-made chili are the mainstay menu items, but they also have some seafood: peel-and-eat shrimp, crab cakes, and clams, and they do a Friday fish fry.

Yes, that’s an alligator (just a little guy, a 5-footer) swimming up to the Hideaway to see what’s up.

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Bruce Hunt

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Ocklawaha: Site of the 1935 Ma Barker Gang—FBI Shootout

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The quiet community of Ocklawaha wraps around the north shore of Lake Weir, about twenty miles southeast of Ocala. In the summertime Lake Weir is a popular water-skiing and fishing spot. Lake cabins and docks line the shore, alongside Gator Joe’s Beach Bar and Grill—in an old 1926 stilt building. It’s a good joint for Florida cracker cuisine—frog’s legs, fish sandwiches, and gator tail. Water-skiing, fishing, and eating some good grub is about as exciting as things get around here. But eighty years ago, less than a quarter-mile down the beach from Gator Joe’s, the reign of one of history’s most infamous gangs ended in a bloody gun battle with the FBI. READ ALL ABOUT IT HERE

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Lonesome Highway 98, The Oyster Trail

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The proverbial cat is out of the bag–I have a new book contract for a Florida seafood book from Globe Pequot Press (due out in October 2016). So I’m crisscrossing the state, sampling great seafood, and recently visited the Panhandle–oyster country. READ MORE ABOUT IT HERE.

Bruce Hunt

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The March Issue of Car and Diner is Out

CDTwit3The new Car and Diner is out, and it’s all about Florida. Plus the site has undergone a major reformatting. There are some new permanent pages: Road Trip Movie List, Ugly Car of the Year Award, and Food—with a feature on the Cuban Sandwich (since March is Tampa’s official “Cuban Sandwich Month”). And, all the feature articles will now be in blog format, for frequent updating and archiving of previous articles. For the first feature in this new format we drive all the way down to Key West, just for a donut!KWGlazedTwitter

Bruce Hunt

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Crystal River, Swimming with Manatees

Music: “Sheik Of Araby” by Smokey Hormel For best video quality click “HD

Meditating on the Manatee: Somehow, sailors of yore mistook these blunt-nosed teddy-bears-of-the-seas for mermaids. Actually they are more closely related to elephants. Twelve months on a small ship without women could convince you otherwise though, I guess. Although they seem to be in perpetual slow-motion, manatees do keep pretty busy. They are voracious herbivores. Adults can easily consume a hundred and fifty pounds of mostly-floating vegetation each day. These docile, 1000-pound beauties really have only one enemy, and it is us. Last year boat strikes killed sixty-eight manatees (out of a total of 371 reported deaths: Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission Report), plus another dozen died from getting caught in flood gates or canal locks, or entanglement in debris, like discarded fishing line and rope. Manatees are protected by three laws: the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972, the Endangered Species Act of 1973, and the Florida Manatee Sanctuary Act of 1978.

Happily, their population has been growing in recent years. Come winter, manatees leave the cooling coastal waters for the relative warmth of rivers and springs. Three Sisters Spring on Crystal River, on the central-Gulf coast of Florida, has long been one of their favorite hangouts. This year record numbers have been coming in to Three Sisters, so much so that on some days wildlife officials have closed the spring to snorkelers. That was the case one Monday last month when my niece, Dr. Cameron McNabb, and I were there, but we did get to see them out in the river.

There are some common-sense rules for swimming with manatees: no SCUBA gear, don’t crowd them, don’t chase them, and don’t move aggressively around them; if you pet them—do so sparingly and with just one hand. Most manatees seem at ease with just a few people swimming with them, and some are even gregarious—swimming right up to you. But it becomes a problem when lots of people crowd into their refuges—sometimes diverting them from the warmer springs. Educating the public about manatees has been tremendously successful in the effort to protect them, but the double-edged sword is that it has also generated more interest in seeing them in person—in recent years, a lot more interest. Because of this, Save The Manatees has petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to make several of the springs in Crystal River/Kings Bay (including Three Sisters Spring) permanent “no people” manatee sanctuaries, and to implement a “no-touch” policy for manatees outside the springs.

I’ve swum with manatees twice in Crystal River, and feel privileged to have been able to do so. The primal human-animal bond that you feel is extraordinary. And I know I have a better appreciation for them, having done it. But I may have communed with the manatees at Crystal River for the last time. With mixed feelings I have to confess: That is likely a good thing.

Bruce Hunt

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New “Car and Diner” is out!

Road trips through the Ocala National Forest, and across Florida’s Panhandle, plus Florida cracker cuisine and more: www.caranddiner.com

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Merry Christmas!

A little holiday cheer, from Visiting Small Town Florida. (This is Tampa, my (not-so-small) hometown. Click on the “HD” for best quality.):

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Bok Tower Gardens, Lake Wales

You can see Bok Tower, just north of Lake Wales, from over five miles away, partly because it is two hundred and five feet tall, but also because it sits on top of Iron Mountain—a ridge that marks one of the highest elevations in peninsular (lower two-thirds) Florida. Various claims range from 298 to 324 feet above sea level. Regardless of the exact measurement, this is Florida’s K2, if not quite its Everest. (The highest elevation in Florida is 345 feet, at Britton Hill in Lakewood Park in the north-central Panhandle.) Certainly the long-range panoramic views from here are dramatic. The lush gardens and the Gothic marble and coquina stone tower were the creation of magazine editor, author, and philanthropist Edward Bok, who immigrated to the United States from Holland with his family in 1869, at age six. (click “HD” below for best video quality)

Bok grew up in New York, and found work there in the publishing business. In 1889, he became editor of Ladies Home Journal. His autobiography, The Americanization of Edward Bok, (one of ten books that he authored) won a Pulitzer Prize in 1920. After retiring from Ladies Home Journal, he devoted his time to various worthy causes, including establishing the American Peace Award.

Probably his grandest achievement, though, was the creation of Bok Tower and its surrounding gardens. He purchased his initial fourteen acres atop Iron Mountain—then just a sand-and-scrub-oak ridge, in 1922, and hired famous landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead, Jr. to design a park and bird sanctuary there. The tower was actually an afterthought. Olmstead’s garden design was spectacular but Bok felt that it still needed a centerpiece. He decided on a carillon tower, and commissioned architect Milton B. Medary to design one, with the 400-year-old carillon tower in Mechlin, Belgium as his inspiration. Bok described the Gardens as his gift to the American people, in gratitude for the opportunity that they had afforded him, “…a spot which would reach out in its beauty through the architecture of the tower, through the music of the carillon, to the people, and fill their souls with the quiet, the repose, the influence of the beautiful, as they could see it and enjoy it in these gardens and through this tower.” Edward Bok died in 1930, just one year after the tower’s dedication.

Bruce Hunt

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New Nov/Dec Issue of “Car and Diner Magazine” now online!

caranddinerlheaderVSTFblogThe Nov/Dec issue of Car and Diner features exploring scenic North Carolina back roads, and eating some bodacious BBQ. Plus: a brief historical treatise on the “The Origins of Barbecue”, a ride in guest contributor Jim Burkett’s cherry 1996 BMW Z3, a review of our new road-testing gadget, maps, lots of photographs, and be sure to check out the embedded videos (that’s right, we now have “moving pictures”)! WWW.CARANDDINER.COMHwy64NC

 

 

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The Rod & Reel Pier, Anna Maria Island

The 1947 Rod & Reel Pier, on Anna Maria Island, has a bait-and-tackle shop downstairs and a short-order diner upstairs with a panoramic view of Egmont Key and the Gulf of Mexico to the northwest, and the Skyway Bridge to the northeast. The Rod & Reel closed for five months to be rebuilt, following an electrical fire in September 2013. (Click “HD” for best quality video.)

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