Saturday, April 19, 2014

My Seven Wonders of Old Florida

The March Madness style competition to pick the Seven Wonders on the Old Florida and Visit Florida Off the Beaten Path Facebook pages concluded last week after about a month of head-to-head battles. The match-ups were seed based on nominations received on the two pages, although some of our Facebook folks didn't understand how the seeding worked. There were a few complaints when disparate items like a natural resource and a restaurant were pitted against each other. In retrospect I probably wouldn't do it this way again, but when we started it seemed like a good idea to follow the model set forth by the NCAA basketball tournament.

In the end we kept the bracket match-ups going until we reached the Elite Eight, and then we voted on each of those the one with the least amount of votes was left off the final Seven Wonders.

The Final voting was:
1) Everglades - 733
2) St. Augustine - 706
3) Weeki Wachee - 583
4) St. Johns River - 535
5) Silver Springs - 470
6) Ichetucknee - 453
7) Seven-Mile Bridge - 384

Eighth-place was Key West with 285.

I was surprised that the Everglades received the most votes as it came in as a 16-seed, meaning it received only a couple nominations. It's interesting that a natural resource that has been under siege from corporate agriculture and residential development for decades is considered so beloved. Let's hope it can be restored.

St. Augustine and Weeki Wachee were number 2 and number 1 seeds respectively, so there is no surprise there. Silver Springs was also a number 1 seed, but the Ichetucknee's appearance in the final Wonders was unexpected. I think it shows that Floridians treasure their springs (and that the springs community has an active Facebook presence!) 

The St. Johns River and the Seven-Mile Bridge in the Keys were also unexpected finalists, but perhaps it is evidence that Floridians love their natural resources. While the bridge is man made, it's certainly the beautiful environment in which it sits that makes it so memorable. 

If I were to chose my Seven Wonders, I think I would have to separate out some of the the natural resources and focus on places that are (or were) one-of-a-kind attractions for visitors to Florida. My list, in no particular order, would be:

1. The Senator Cypress Tree in Seminole County
3,500 years old. That's all you need to know. 1,500 years old at the time of the birth of Jesus. It was so large that it was difficult to even properly photograph. Tragically burned down, this behemoth was cloned and a newer, smaller version was planted at Big Tree Park. There is still, however, Lady Liberty which is only about 2,000 years old or so. One has to wonder how many other "Senators" were lost when most of the old growth cypress was cut down in the 19th and 20th century.

It's not the flashiest attraction in the state, but it's one of the most beautiful. Set on the highest spot in peninsular Florida, the Gothic-Deco structure is ornate and striking. I had the rare privilege of going to the top of the tower, and hearing the carillon bells from inside the bell tower. I'll never forget it. And the gardens are gorgeous.

3. Silver Springs
In terms of volume of water, Silver Springs used to be the largest array of springs in the world. In the 19th century steamboats would travel from Jacksonville bringing tourists and celebrities like Ulysses S. Grant and Harriet Beecher Stowe to the spring basin to gaze into the crystal clear waters. One of the best marketed attractions in the mid-twentieth century, Silver Springs was recently converted to a State Park. While no longer sporting the kitschy trappings of a roadside attraction, the springs remain a Florida icon. And you can still ride a glass bottom boat.

4. The Tampa Bay Hotel (now the University of Tampa and the Plant Museum)
Like the former Hotel Ponce de Leon in St. Augustine, the Tampa Bay Hotel was built by one of Florida's railroad barons and it now home to a college. To me this architectural masterpiece near the Hillsborough River is like a time machine that takes you back to the Victorian era when the tastes of the day favored anything from the exotic Mediterranean or Middle East. It shines like a beacon of antiquity against downtown Tampa's skyline. It's perhaps my favorite building in the state.

5. The Coral Castle near Homestead
A testament to one man's determination, the Coral Castle is Edward Leedskalnin's monument to lost love. More quirky than majestic, this quirky roadside oddity is lushly landscaped and intimately proportioned. Folks still wonder how one man built it all by himself and that's part of charm of this South Florida Wonder.

Library of Congress
6. Castillo de San Marcos
Florida has some wonderful forts, like Ft. Clinch on Fernandina Beach and Ft. Pickins near Pensacola, but to me none is as iconic as the former Ft. Marion. Rich in history, it's the anchor of St. Augustine, a city I can't seem to get too much of. It's also the site of the first photo I took of myself and the young lady who would later become my bride. So it has sentimental value too.

7. Seven Mile Bridge (The Overseas Highway)
Flagler's Folly. Love 'em or hate 'em, few individuals did ad much to open up the state to Northern tourists as the two Henrys, Plant and Flagler. The influence of these two men is still felt in our state today, and although much of Flagler's overseas railroad to Key West was destroyed in a hurricane, the first bridge that carried cars across the Keys was built on his foundation (literally.)

That's my seven for now. I reserve the right to change mind (and often do.)

Sunday, March 23, 2014

7 Wonders of Old Florida, Seminole bracket

The first round of the competition co-created by the Old Florida and Visit Florida Off the Beaten Path Insider Facebook pages is finally completed. The March Madness/NCAA tournament-inspired bracket was based entirely on submissions from both pages. Here are the results from the first round of the Seminole bracket and the match-ups in the 2nd round. If you are on Facebook, please play along and help us pick the Seven Wonders of Old Florida!

Tallahassee-area swimming hole Wakulla Springs, came in as a 5 seed but was knocked of  by the 12th seeded home Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings in Cross Creek.

No upset here as Florida's oldest restaurant, The Columbia took down Longwood's Sanlando Springs. The Columbia has multiple locations including the original in Ybor City, St. Augustine, Sarasota, and Celebration. Sanlando Springs is located within a gated development known as The Springs. 

THE BIGGEST UPSET YET! 1 seeded Six Gun Territory, a perennial favorite on the Old Florida Facebook page lost to the 16th seeded Everglades. This shows me how much Floridians care about their natural resources.

Another huge upset was 13th seeded Coral Castle's victory over Henry Plant's Tampa Bay Hotel.

While the Branch Ranch Restaurant of Plant City received more nominations and a higher seeding than Vizcaya, it was really no surprise that the spectacular South Florida estate won over the defunct restaurant.

A natural resource won again, this time over a boom-era estate in Howey-in-the-Hills. The 10th seeded St. Johns River knocked off the Howey Mansion.

Natural resource wins again! The Florida Caverns was victorious over St. Pete's Vinoy Hotel.

This one was so close that we had to re-count several times. Rainbow Springs of Dunellon, narrowly squeezed by Spook Hill of Lake Wales.

Voting resumes on Facebook starting Monday
This is an interesting portion of the bracket featuring four natural wonders, three manmade structures and a beloved restaurant chain. It will be fun to see how it all plays out!

Saturday, March 22, 2014

7 Wonders of Old Florida, Flamingo bracket

The first round of the competition co-created by the Old Florida and Visit Florida Off the Beaten Path Insider Facebook pages is finally completed. The March Madness/NCAA tournament-inspired bracket was based entirely on submissions from both pages. Here are the results from the first round of the Flamingo bracket and the match-ups in the 2nd round. The results of the last side of the bracket will be posted shortly...

16th seeded Micanopy almost upset the #1 seed Bok Tower, but the Lake Wales wonder proved to be a favorite to our Facebook viewers.

Upset City! Tarpon Springs coming in at a 6 seed was knocked off by Florida's country roads.

The nation's Southernmost city knocked off Orlando perennial favorite Gary's Duck Inn.

Venerable Marineland, a 4 seed, hung on to win the challenge against downtown Orlando's Lake Eola.

12 seeded Sanibel Island in SW Florida upset the 1920s-era Don CeSar Hotel on the Suncoast in one of the bracket's biggest surprises.

Another surprise was 10th seeded Juniper Springs victory over 7th seeded Daytona Beach!

St. Augustine's Castillo de San Marcos proved more popular than South Florida's Fisheating Creek.

Perhaps the #1 seed in the entire competition, Weeki Wachee won its first round match-up against a strong challenge from Henry Flagler's Hotel Ponce de Leon, now Flagler College.
The competition resumes Monday on Facebook.

So the winners in this side of the bracket include two springs, two islands, two amazing structures (Bok Tower and Castillo de San Marcos), country roads and one of the nation's first aquarium attractions. Should make for an interesting 2nd round!

7 Wonders of Old Florida, Sunshine bracket

The first round of the competition co-created by the Old Florida and Visit Florida Off the Beaten Path Insider Facebook pages is finally completed. The March Madness/NCAA tournament-inspired bracket was based entirely on submissions from both pages. Here are the results from the first round of the Sunshine bracket and the match-ups in the 2nd round. The results of the other two brackets will be posted soon...

9th seeded Stiltsville in Biscayne Bay pulled a mild upset in earning more votes than the 8th seeded Gatorland of Orlando. 

Orlando favorite, 4th seeded Ronnie's Restaurant, was knocked off by the wooden vernacular houses known as Florida Cracker cabins, a 13 seed.

No surprise here, the grandfather of Florida tourism, 1 seeded Cypress Gardens defeated South Florida's Deering Estate.

Henry Plant's Belleview Biltmore of Bellaire, coming in at a 3 seed survived a strong challenge from Tom Gaskin's Cypress Knee Museum, formerly of Palmdale.

A favorite for tubing in North Florida, the Ichetucknee River received more votes that the Panhandle's Ft. George Island.

Henry Flagler's Hotel Ormond, a 5 seed knocked off the popular Daytona Speedway showing that the Victorian inn lives on in many people's memories. 

7th seeded Sarasota Jungle Gardens knocked off another of Henry Flagler's properties in this match up, in this case Palm Beach's famed Breakers Hotel.

In this hotly contested match-up, the higher seeded St. Augustine withstood a strong challenge from the beloved Suwannee River.

Voting in the next round will start on Monday on Facebook.

Winners in this bracket include two vintage attractions, one still going strong the other now part of Legoland Florida, two hotels built by Florida railroad barons, one hanging on by a thread, the other long gone, a beloved Florida city, a beautiful river, and two groups of houses unique to the sunshine state. It will be fascinating to see which of these wonders survives the next round...

Friday, March 21, 2014

7 Wonders of Old Florida, Palm Tree bracket

The first round of the competition co-created by the Old Florida and Visit Florida Off the Beaten Path Insider Facebook pages is finally completed. The March Madness/NCAA tournament-inspired bracket was based entirely on submissions from both pages. Here are the results from the first round of the Palm Tree Bracket and the match-ups in the 2nd round. The results of the other three brackets will be posted shortly...

The 4th seeded Yearling Restaurant of Cross Creek Florida won against Henry Flagler's 13th seeded Whitehall, once the oil magnate's home, now the site of the Henry Flagler Museum in Palm Beach.

The 5th seeded Citrus Tower in Clermont received more votes than the 12th seeded Stetson Mansion in DeLand. 

6th seeded Chalet Suzanne of Lake Wales was upset by 11th seeded Warm Mineral Springs of North Port. Chalet Suzanne is open as an inn and restaurant, while Warm Mineral Springs is still closed due to the differences between the county and city that co-own the property.

1 seed Silver Springs won despite a strong challenge from the quaint panhandle town of Apalachicola, a 16-seed.

Old Florida favorite, the Kapok Tree Inn Restaurant, a 2 seed, survived a strong challenge from  the Stephen Foster Memorial in White Springs, which is know known as the Stephen Foster Folk Cultural Center.

The Seven Mile Bridge of the Overseas Highway in the Keys, a 3 seed was picked over John Ringling's C´å ´d Zan mansion in Sarasota, a long shot as a 14 seed.  

7 seed Ted Peters Smoked Fish, a St. Pete institution was knocked off by the 10th seeded Senator, the enormous Cypress Tree formerly in Big Tree Park near Sanford, that was tragically burned down.

St. Petersburg Million Dollar Pier, an 8 seed, received more votes than Biscayne Bay's Crandon Park and Zoo.

Here are the match-ups for the Round of 32 for the Palm Tree Bracket.

Winners in this part of the bracket include two springs, a pier, a tourist attraction, two restaurants, and an enormous tree.

I was taken off-guard by the passionate response of the participants of this "just for fun" contest. Folks don't like tough match-ups and seem saddened if their favorites suffer defeat. I think it shows the love people feel for Florida and its places of the past.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Seven Wonders of Old Florida March Madness Tournament Bracket

INTRODUCING THE "SEVEN WONDERS OF OLD FLORIDA" TOURNAMENT BRACKET! Contestants and seedings were based on submissions from the Old Florida and VISIT FLORIDA Off the Beaten Path Insider Facebook pages. Competition starts today and individual contests will be held at 7 am and 7 pm on the two Facebook pages until we have selected the top seven wonders of the Sunshine State!

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

March Madness, Old Florida style

Just for the fun of it, the Old Florida and Off the Beaten Path Florida Facebook pages are conducting a March Madness bracket competition to crown the “Seven Wonders of Old Florida!” Winners can be any pre-1971 place, product, experience, or attraction and the rules are simple: Submit your choices via this page and/or Old Florida by 6 pm WEDNESDAY, MARCH 5 (today) and, starting this Thursday (tomorrow), we’ll present two face-to-face match-ups daily until the field of 64 is narrowed down to 8 when your votes will determine the “Seven Wonders of Old Florida!” Think hard, be concise, and tell us now: What do YOU love best about Old Florida? The bracket with the completed seedings will be posted later this evening.