February 18, 2013

How I Love Florida

I always have loved Florida. Not THAT Florida, but the inner , exotic one I’ve discovered over many years. Now, we are back home in North Carolina, where this morning it is an astonishing 14 degrees. Ugly!! But I’ve escape dfor twelve days of blissful sun, turquoise water, palms, and fascinating places–all without a drop of rain.  Actually, we made two trips, one to Miami just for two days, and then a long drive south to Fernandina Beach, Tallahassee, Lakeland, Tampa, then a six-day stay on Sanibel Island. Our last night was spent on Jekyll Island, Georgia, right near where I spent many summer vacations as a child on St. Simon’s and Sea Island. One thing I’m loving about living on the East Coast is the possibility of interesting short trips. And we seem to have rediscovered road trips–great music via the iPhone connection, a wonderful little picnic, or the use of Yelp to discover an interesting spot to eat not far off the freeway. My only regret is that the car does not have built-in desk and bookshelf. Ed likes to drive so I’m in the other seat, usually with a project to work on. I do have a very large clipboard and I arrange various folders and books in the middle of the back seat so I can reach them. Ever listened to 92 Beatles songs in a row? I’m also the navigator and often want to throw the iPad map, with its insect-view of the terrain, out the window. Where is that folded, torn, REAL map of Florida!

I adore Miami. We just popped down for a quick trip because we had to use or lose two airline tickets. We stayed at deco, reasonable Park Central, where I’ve stayed before. Long walk on the beach–and this is a fantastic people-watching beach–and a stroll around South Beach, which is by turns elegant and funky in the extreme. The first night we had  just-okay Cuban food in the neighborhood, then the next night we searched out Sardinia, a short taxi ride away. Ah! Many Italians visit Miami and most of them seemed to have discovered this restaurant. Great wine list, really good vibe, and we got to speak Italian!  A find! Another find: TAJ. Just possibly the most beautiful, luxurious romantic clothes I’ve ever seen. The style is Italian-silk-meets-Morocco-meets-Greece and the beaded, jeweled handwork is simply exquisite. 760 Ocean Dr. #4.  The Wolfsonian Museum was the best find of all. www.wolfsonian.org There is an exhibit of the postcards of the Wiener Werkstätte era that stunned us with its artistic depth and playfulness. One forgets that side of the Germanic cultures. We’d seen a huge exhibit of Wiener Werkstätte in Vienna last summer and had our eyes opened to the scope of those artists, and to the concept: gesamtkunstwerk, which the world-wide springing up of the arts and crafts movements emphasized. I love this everything-can-be-art concept and had not been aware, prior to Vienna, that it was what spread around the world from these artists all at once.  When I get some time (?), I want to read a ton about this. Fascinating what a huge part postcards played in that WW artistic circle. Klimt sent 3-4 a day. Email, I guess. I loved the book selection in the Wolfsonian, and their café with the French 19th century iron mezzanine. Came out with, among others, André Gide’s autobiography, which is just stunning. Very Nabokovian, Proustian… Even a short trip can send you off in new directions, set you dreaming, and leave you hungry for more.

After a week back home, we packed the car like Hannibal-over-the-Alps and headed South.

Seven hours of driving is one hour beyond my tolerance point, but we arrived at The Elizabeth Pointe Inn, smack on the beach in Fernandina. It’s a wonderful shingle hotel, like something out of a novel set on Nantucket. Bookcase near the fireplace, wonderful breakfast, friendly staff–this is a great choice. It’s rated one of the tip-top American inns in every poll known. Although it was lovely, the exalted ratings surprised me because the rooms and baths–or at least the one we had, were somewhat dated. (There’s a small new wing that I did not see.) Porches with rockers had nice blankets clipped to the back and it was warm enough to sit in the sun, and to take a long walk on the splendid beach. We had dinner at Le Clos. Our third time there and it is a must in Fernandina–French bistro in a cracker cottage. Fresh and local menu and friendly, friendly. I must have been to Fernandina two hundred times when I was growing up. It’s changed, of course, but the town is so nostalgic and the Victorian residential area seems like Key West without the self-consciousness.

 Many of the large, graceful old homes are now appealing B & Bs. The town is on the harbor side, not the ocean. I bought orange espadrilles, and at a cool coffee shop we picked up  sandwiches to take on the road to Tallahassee.

Tallahassee must be one of the world’s most hospitable spots. I was guest speaker for The Goodwood Museum, an ante-bellum plantation house lovingly restored and open to the public. It’s surrounded by massive, moss-draped oaks. After a tour, the doors opened and the house was filled with guests and prosecco, and then we proceeded to an attractive modern barn-like hall for a fantastic dinner prepared from, yes–The Tuscan Sun Cookbook. It’s always interesting to taste others’ versions of the recipes. I spoke briefly, met lots of great people, and signed books. Through the evening, Rose Rodriguez took care that all went smoothly. We repaired to the up-to-the-minute Duval Hotel where the roof terrace was hopping. The main talk was the next morning and to my surprise, I found several people from Fitzgerald, Georgia, my home town! Also a Randolph-Macon Woman’s College classmate, who had not changed one iota. After I spoke, Louise Divine (@LouiseDevine on Twitter) and I had a farm-to-table discussion with the audience. She’s a farmer and I could have chatted all day. At lunch with the museum board, I sat next to Diane Roberts. She’s like Molly Ivins reincarnated but is a knowledgable Floridian with a raucous sense of humor. Her wonderful book, Dream State, kept us entertained on the road. I read to Ed as he drove through the orange groves and beautiful landscapes of central Florida. If you have any interest in or love for Florida, this is truly a must read. Rose sent us off with The Legacy of a Red Hills Hunting Plantation, a book from Tall Timbers Research Station & Land Conservancy, where she works, and with two roses from the Goodwood collection. I chose Clytemnestra, partly for the name, and Fédéric Mistral. Both are large growers and very fragrant. They became backseat drivers for the rest of the trip, only spilling over once.                                   An article by Audrey Post appeared in Tallahasseemagazine.com

Next brief stop to visit my sister and nephews in beautiful Lakeland, city of not just one, but many lakes. It’s a great walking town! Circling the lakes you see tropical birds everywhere. Progressive, small Florida Southern College was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. It’s worth a detour to see this amazing group of buildings on Lake Hollingsworth. If you are familiar with his architecture, the campus will surprise you with it’s Mediterranean, moorish touches, covered walkways, secret niches. A jewel. And the tradition continues: noted architect Robert A.M. Stern recently designed dorms on the campus. Nearby, for University of South Florida Poly, Santiago Calatrava is working on a project. Lakeland is special in several ways. Also, a noted southern architect (whose name I will add) designed the Lakeland Terrace Hotel on Lake Mirror in 1924–definitely the place to stay and dine.

Our great friend, architect Alberto Alfonso from Tampa, took us to see the stupendous resort he designed near Lakeland. www.streamsongresort.com   We got to don hard hats and tour the construction site. The two golf courses and the clubhouse (with twelve rooms) already are open, and the resort is scheduled to open this fall. Sited on an abandoned phosphate mine, it’s a grand example of land reclamation. Armadillos, deer, and all kinds of exotic birds regard you as an intruder on their space. All the pits are now waterways and the mounds, now planted with grasses, seem like ancient dunes.

The quality of the work is simply extraordinary; see how beautifully this rain-chain is made.

An alligator that appeared to be smiling rested by the water and paid us no mind. What a peaceful place, and sure to draw golfers from around the world. Alberto’s work here embodies the concept gesamtkunstwerk I mentioned above–he designed the interiors as well as the buildings, down to the knobs and bed pillows. His artwork is on the walls. Later, when it opens, I’ll write more about the concepts he used in design. The use of stone, marble, and wood textures seems just unique to me in resort architecture. I can’t wait to check in. We always have a great time in Tampa with the Alfonso clan. A lot of the fun takes place around his work table. We drink espresso, plan grand schemes, and catch up on projects we’re all involved in. Much centers around Ed and Alberto’s poem/painting projects, but we also look at art books, share sources, and dream of Italy! That Alberto brings his passion for all the arts to his work is part of what makes him a great architect.

If in the Tampa area, try to see the space he designed for Dale Chihuly in St. Pete, and the New Covenant Church in Tampa, a structure that exemplifies simplicity is liberating. One place we gathered for lunch was The Oxford Exchange. The bookstore is an aesthetic experience, the café inventive and appealing. In the gift shop, there’s not a trite item. Someone with soul and incredible taste designed this space.

Legend is that Ponce de Leon breathed his last on Sanibel Island, having given up on that fountain of youth thing. Or maybe he decided this was as far as he needed to go on his quest. A barrier island washed by the Gulf, Sanibel feels tropical and freeing. Hop on a bike and pedal out to the lighthouse, take long, long beach walks and pick up shells, millions of shells, and cook crab, pompano, snapper, flounder, shrimp. That’s what we did for six glorious days. We rented a condo with this view outside our windows.

 

We met close friends, Rena and Steve, there for a reunion. Steve just finished a manuscript on the pleasures of reading Wallace Stevens. Rena (my college roommate) is a fine, fine watercolor painter. (See www.renawilliams@blogspot.com) Ed is midway in a poetry/painting project. And I’m completing a memoir. So there was much to discuss while we cooked or lounged about. We rented an apartment via VRBO and spent some time talking about how it could be decorated but wasn’t. The location made up for the bad kitchen (almost). We drove over to Captiva, which looked even more enchanting than Sanibel. The late sun draws everyone on the island out to the beach. Most are holding a glass of wine. Their faces are burnished with the rosy gold light of the sun slipping under the horizon. Pelicans roost in the palms, birds on stalky legs pick their ways along the shoreline. A crow perched in a tree above my beach chair kept saying, I swear, “Howard. Howard.” The days passed too quickly. Rena patiently taught me some principles of watercolor.  She is such a committed and superbly talented artist. I have many of her watercolors at my house and could happily fill the walls with them. This one below is not perfectly typical of her work but is one I love, with its mysterious “writing.”

She showed me how to mix and make colors and we looked at work by some of her favorite painters. My first efforts made me so happy. As someone locked into writing, it’s thrilling to visit other media, such as architecture and painting. Please don’t laugh at my primo effort!

We departed by ten, and after seven hours, we reached Jekyll Island–just in time to marvel at the sunset light on the gigantic trees.

This is a big return for me. I spent many vacations on The Golden Isles. For the early part of the century, Jekyll was home to many powerful northern families, who had a hunting and vacation club there, built enormous “cottages,” and sailed down on their yachts. Please Google the information on the history, if you’re interested. But Jekyll was abandoned when I was little, and with my sisters, we used to motor through the marshes and tie up at the decaying, columned wharf.  I would play in the enormous houses with banging shutters. I’ve written about this in my memoir (which comes out next spring). For now, enough to say that it was more than magical. And very stirring to come back after all these years and stay in the Jekyll Island Club Hotel, now an historic hotel and to see nearby the Crane house that enchanted me the most. (It’s now an annex to the hotel and next time I’ll stay there.) The murky, froggy swimming pool surrounded by urns is now a garden. I wonder how many people know that! And the surprise was seeing the architecture–an Italianate grand house with cypresses on either side. I’ll bet they didn’t know they were planting a male and a female (left).

The former pool is off to the right. At age ten, this, for sure, is the first Italianate house I’d ever seen. What hit me, on seeing it now, is the doorway with the balcony above, and the symmetrical windows in the main body of the house. Although Bramasole is not nearly so imposing, there must have been a mysterious imprint.

 

Bramasole used to be flanked by two palms, not cypresses, but one died along the way. Looking at this photo makes me realize what a world away from my childhood  is my Italian life.  And also, how connections keep happening. “The more you see, the more there is to love,” I once wrote. What luck, to travel and revel in the world!