Crossing Florida

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At dinner on the first full day aboard the New Shoreham II , Nancy Heslin, the cheerful and inexhaustible cruise director, asked how many passengers had traveled with the line before. Every person raised a hand but one. I was the lone newcomer. For one couple this was the third trip aboard an American Canadian Caribbean Line ship in a year. The company’s unwieldy name reflects the territory its three small vessels cover, and my fifty-three fellow travelers seemed to have sailed through most of it, requiring the ACCL to devise new itineraries regularly. On this early February evening we were trying a brand-new route that would bring the passengers from West Palm Beach to New Orleans at the height of Mardi Gras.

We were to cross Florida’s Lake Okeechobee from east to west, stop at Fort Myers, follow the inland waterway north to Sarasota, head out into the Gulf of Mexico for a gut-shaking several hours that everyone but the newest passenger would find deeply exhilarating, then chug back inland through the tangles of a remote cypress swamp. I had to jump ship in Panama City, Florida, to return to work, while the others sailed on to interesting ports in Mississippi and Alabama. Having never been to Florida before, I found the shorter itinerary a good way to get a feeling for this paradoxical paradise, whose history stretches back to the earliest settlement on the continent and whose more recent past (and perhaps future) is a saga of building, obliterating, rebuilding, and overpopulating.

To get a handle on Florida, you can’t go wrong by consulting a detective novel. Any number of them have been set in the state, and virtually all the books’ protagonists feel compelled to stop chasing the villain from time to time and ponder the larger issues. Before the trip I had picked up The Heat Islands , by Randy Wayne White. “Florida’s history is a chaotic thing built upon thin layers of human endeavor that are covered or quickly absorbed by more thin layers, then forgotten entirely,” the hero, Doc Ford, muses. John D. MacDonald’s hero, Travis McGee, concurs: “They’re paving the whole state. And the people who give a damn can’t be heard.”

Cruising north from Palm Beach on the gentlest breeze, on a day that finds much of the country in deepest winter, one doesn’t want to worry about this overmuch. It is enough to settle down in a deck chair and consider oneself the envy of waterside diners at the restaurants that crowd the shore. Still, you can’t help noticing the clustering of docks and sleek yachts and the proliferation of little canals, built to provide each condominium dweller with a water view, and, as we pass into the more natural landscape of the South Jupiter Narrows, a collective exhalation into repose escapes the passengers ranged on the stern deck; this is more like it.

Shallow but broad (it covers more than 730 square miles), Okeechobee is the second-largest freshwater lake in the United States and long the home territory of the Seminole tribe. This area, an 1898 adventurer wrote, “is as much unknown to the white man as the heart of Africa.” Since the 1930s a series of Army Corps of Engineers dams and locks have controlled the floodwaters that once regularly surged into the Everglades that edge the southern shore, but not without controversy on the environmental front. Some groups fear that engineering these waters is another step toward draining the Everglades to make the land useful for farming or building. These claims and clashes will likely continue as long as there is a Florida, and what makes this trip so appealing perhaps are the very contrasts that demand attention all along the watery routes we follow.

For the moment, as the ship negotiates the first lock at Port St. Lucie and enters Okeechobee in late afternoon, all one sees is a thin, silvery skin of water, birds skimming the lake for their suppers, and a scrim of cypress and pine sketched along the far shore.

These are the times that stick with you on a cruise. The ports can intrigue or (as in one case on this trip) disappoint, but there’s rarely enough time to find your land feet or do much in the way of exploring. At Fort Myers three hours was just long enough for a pleasant visit to Thomas Edison’s winter estate and, on the same grounds, the house of his friend Henry Ford. An approximately fourteen-acre jungle served as Edison’s outdoor laboratory from 1885 to 1931; it wasn’t the beauty or the spectacle of the plantings that caught his attention, but their practical uses. He experimented with goldenrod as a source of natural rubber; even beeswax was put to use in making cylinder phonograph records and wax paper.

The longer stop in Sarasota included a tour of the John Ringling compound, with its vast art museum, circus collection, and the showman’s Venetianstyle 1926 home. Sarasota’s downtown still has its charms, but there was an almost ghostly sense of things missing. Later I found out what, in a book by a local journalist, Jeff LaHurd, who mourned the Colonial Hotel, built in 1916 and demolished in 1962, not to mention the entire south side of lower Main Street, which was bulldozed in 1965 to make room for parking. Gone too were the beachfront Lido Casino and the 1916 Ritz Theatre.