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.

From Sarasota a seventeen-hour voyage on the Gulf of Mexico brought us to what had been promised to be “a tiny fishing village and artist’s colony” unknown to the bigger cruise ships. And with good reason. I’ll protect its name, but let’s just say we were all expecting the Gulf version of Carmel or Bar Harbor. Instead we found a lightly populated community with few streets and boarded-up stores. The stop was necessary, a crew member said, since that was about as far as the New Shoreham II could travel without a refueling break.

Next morning the ship pushed inland on the Intracoastal Waterway, moving into what Capt. Bob Gifford promised would be the most remote country we’d see on this trip. As we cruised into Wimico Lake, it grew darkly cloudy and rain threatened for the first time all week. The channel turned the color of mud, and a pair of bald eagles soared overhead. “There’s only one road in here for some miles,” the captain said. Even so, this moodily appealing swampland isn’t really being left alone; much of the land belongs to a huge paper company that works it to produce “trash wood” products, such as veneer.

My journey ended the following day in Panama City, an agreeable surprise, since in its rare mentions in guidebooks, it’s usually coupled dismissively with the “redneck Riviera” ten miles distant, Panama City Beach. The ship’s crew knew only that there was a good place to do laundry in town. The area was settled by Englishmen of pre-Revolutionary times who planted fields of indigo and brought rosemary from the home country that still thrives on the beach’s dunes. The classic Florida promoters didn’t appear until the early 1900s, when a local landowner and soon-to-be mayor, R. L. MacKenzie, persuaded J. B. Steele of Atlanta to use the fledgling town on St. Andrew Bay as the terminus of his new railroad. Mr. Steele supposedly glanced at the map and said, “I want this to be Atlanta’s outlet to the Panama Canal.” The name stuck, but these days it is mostly military installations and a paper mill that keeps the town going.

MacKenzie’s home and office, a Dutch-colonial frame building, “typical of northern Michigan,” as a nearby marker describes it, sits on a beautiful little square in the center of town. With a central fountain, huge old live oaks hung with Spanish moss, an airy gazebo, and the music of crickets in the dusk, this spot exudes a real sense of the past. Later a chat with Glen Connally, of the local improvement association, reveals that although MacKenzie Park had occupied this land even before the town was incorporated, it had fallen into decay and only recently was renovated by community volunteers.

This example seems to have gone some distance toward re-animating the rest of downtown. The local arts center is housed in the ornate former city hall and jail, and the Art Deco movie theater has made a comeback as a concert hall. An up-to-date library, gleaming with computers and busy with patrons, stays open several nights until eight—better than New York City manages to do these days.

Among the New Shoreham II ’s passengers was a Tampa woman whose grandparents had homesteaded in the Panhandle, not far from our route, around 1900. “You’ve seen it all, the rich and the poor,” her husband said to me one afternoon as we stood out on deck, caught up in the mood of a particularly narrow, dark stretch of river, where the trees from opposite banks stretched toward each other. “And,” another passenger added, “the desolate.” But we all knew she meant it in the best possible way.

—Carla Davidson TO PLAN A TRIP