I’m not sure if any of you happen to be 30 Rock fans, like me. But the most recent episode, ‘The Return of Avery Jessup’. is my segue into today’s post.
In this episode, Jenna has a crisis when filming a commercial for the company who will be sponsoring her wedding. She’s playing a girl from Dixie and breaking out her Florida accent for the ad, but suddenly can’t kick her strong native Florida accent. She spends the rest of the episode trying to figure out just who she is—classy New York actress or a down-home girl from Florida.
Though this episode made me laugh, it also made me think about Florida’s reputation. It’s a generally republican state, a tourist destination, the home of Disney World, and the site of Miami, one of the biggest party locales and most diverse cities around. But the Florida I grew up visiting and getting to know has a different reputation.
The first part of Florida I grew up knowing was around Sanibel and Hilton Head Island. I visited Sanibel Island late every fall from the time I was two until I was twelve. I believe these two islands were the first step in my falling in love with Florida, for as much as what they were as what they weren’t.
These islands are home to what I consider some of the best beaches in the country, some of the friendliest people, and some of the best culture too. From their reputation as the shelling capital of the country, to the islands’ vintage lighthouse, and stories of pirates who landed on them, I grew up knowing a Florida that, while certainly touched by tourism, was somewhere anyone could kick back, relax, and enjoy the beach, all while feeling at home.
The second area of Florida I knew was the panhandle, near the Florida-Alabama border. As a child I traveled to Perdido Key and Gulf Shores. This area, too, is touched by tourism, but holds on to a sense of its true self in the beaches, the views, and the food. Old piers in the bayous where you can fish, shack-style restaurants where you can eat hushpuppies and fresh fish while you listen to bluegrass, and the back roads draped in Spanish moss—these experiences defined the trips for me.
The most recent section of Florida I was lucky enough to get to know lies along the Forgotten Coast, on the panhandle. When I was about fifteen my family and I began to travel to St. George Island and Apalachicola. St. George island has the hotels and condos tourists established, but each is built in true Florida style: pastel paint, white borders and fences, stilts, and weathered wood. And if you time your visit right, you just might get the beach to yourself. Those tourists who built up the island are often not there.
Apalachicola is old-school Florida through and through. Its tiny downtown is full of kitschy stores, antique shops overflowing with maritime memorabilia, and restaurants whose specialties are oysters. The tiny town sits on the banks of a channel full of shrimp boats, and is surrounded by old white hotels.
That’s the Florida I’ll be heading back to soon, and believe me—I can’t wait.