Florida summers are like living in a tub with too many people. They’re humid, hot and afflicted with an unbearable amount of tourists lured by cheaper flights, hotels and little-to-no forewarning of what they’ve gotten themselves into. But with a state this large and unusually weird, even during the busier months you can find little pockets of delight and calm.
Hidden away in the Panhandle is an island that is charming and quiet. Unlike most of Florida’s coastal communities, there are no crowds and no chain businesses in Cedar Key. It’s a great place to relax, get drunk, let your car get towed and never leave.
Cedar Key resident Mary Ellen Szper did just that three years ago. Traveling from Northern California in an RV, she broke down on the island and never left. She now spends her days painting signs and statues around town while enjoying island life.
“It’s like a Mexico where everyone speaks English,” she said. “I’m never leaving.”
In the ’80s Cedar Key was a large artists’ colony, but 20 years ago a hurricane drove a lot of the residents away, said local artist Donna Tanck. Recently they’ve started to return and rebuild, and the town enjoys a small tourist season, roughly from October to early spring, drawing visitors attracted to the natural setting, local art and fresh seafood. The brackish water is a highly hospitable environment for clam and oyster farms.
Though there’s truth to the popular notion of Sarasota as an oasis for wealthy retirees and culture vultures, the town is not immune to Florida quirkiness, its attractions including tiny circus scenes, stoner food and other treasures.
The former estate of circus magnate John Ringling encompasses an art museum, a waterfront mansion, acres of banyan trees and, best of all, the world’s largest miniature circus. Admission is relatively inexpensive: Kids and students get in for only $5, and adult tickets are $25.
Don McGarvey has been working on the circus since 2004, populating it with repurposed toys and figures found at garage sales, repainting the human models (for which his wife sews clothes) to give them a sense of individuality. The to-scale circus is constantly changing and updating. World-famous miniature artist Howard Tibbals has been working on it since 1956 (did you know that circus-miniature artists have their own unions?) and was invited to house his masterpiece at the Ringling complex in 2004 in what is now known as the Circus Museum Tibbals Learning Center.
“I met Howard in 1976 at a circus miniature convention.” McGarvey said. “As long as Howard is still alive, the model will continue to grow.”
Looking for the perfect post-night-out food? Something that flips the bird to gluten-free with a healthy dose of cheese? Munchies 420 Café is a Sarasota stop that claims to be one of the Travel Channel’s “tastiest restaurants in America.” Their big fat sandwiches are the most ridiculous and tastiest ever conceived by man, but only to be attempted if you don’t care about consuming a couple days’ worth of calories. Toppings include chicken fingers, onion rings, mozzarella sticks, cheese sauce, French fries, mac and cheese, gravy and much more
Pinterest fans and DIY warriors, eat your heart out. The highly talented artists of Sarasota Architecture Salvage (SAS) have been searching the countryside of America for 13 years to rescue little pieces of history to refurbish into charming original décor and furniture. SAS is split up into two locations — one a showroom for furniture already upcycled and beautifully refurbished, and the other providing the raw materials from old houses, barns, cars and churches for crafters and wood workers to transform into their own statement pieces. The director of sales at SAS, Robert Anderson, said all staff members have extensive backgrounds in fine arts, construction and engineering, giving them both the creative eye and physical expertise to find the right pieces to save, and to know how to bring beauty back to what was previously considered junk.
“The ability to save this historic wood from being destroyed, that’s what we do here,” he said. “It’s a labor of love.”
Ever crave dinner with the mystics? Want your fortune told? Have unfinished business and questions answered from above? In north central Florida there is a small community of psychics and mediums known as Cassadaga. A spiritualist camp founded in 1875, Cassadaga is a small town that prides itself on its mediums. Over 20 are ready to read auras, talk to dead relatives, tell the future, or just give guidance.
Spiritualism reigns supreme, but the mediums perform to a wide range of preferences and religions. Check for the spiritualist camp medium certification, which requires years of training, workshops, classes, and a 75 percent accuracy rate. Go for a ghost tour or just wander the quaint streets between Mediumship Way and Spiritualist Street.
The lobby of the only hotel in town, The Cassadaga, features the only restaurant in town, Sinatra’s. In keeping with the rest of the town, readings or past life regressions can be scheduled in the hotel lobby/gift store. Although the readings are pricey, a night at the self-proclaimed haunted hotel is not: A standard room ranges from $65-$90. The restaurant has a full bar, and specializes in Italian-American cuisine at $8-$21 per dish.
Jasmine-Wildflower Osmond is a senior at the University of Florida studying photojournalism.