Undiscovered Florida

New Urbanism Meets Old-Fashioned Hospitality

Think Florida vacation and the mind turns inevitably to Disney World, which takes up 47 square miles of prime Orlando real estate and is as big as San Francisco. But there’s another side of Florida, one that places you amid some of the nicest white sand beaches anywhere, and within shouting distance of the state’s unique and sporadically protected wildlife.

Houses facing the ocean at Rosemary Beach use non-reflective glass so they don"t confuse moon-navigating sea turtles.© Jim Motavalli

On a recent family vacation, we spent two nights at the Refuge at Ocklawaha, which, despite being only an hour-and-a-half drive north from Orlando, seemed like an oasis in the middle of nowhere. Once operated by Stanley Selengut, whose Maho Bay eco-resort in the Virgin Islands is world-famous, the Refuge offered small eco-correct cabins shaded by giant old-growth pine and magnolia trees, horseback riding, canoeing on an alligator-filled and lily pad-dotted river, and bountiful bird-watching. We saw a bald eagle take flight with a bass in its beak. A boardwalk led out to a vibrant freshwater marsh, recently reclaimed from drainage.

The Refuge offered the most abundant wildlife I’ve ever seen in the U.S., from blue herons to armadillos, and all for only $75 a night for the whole family. Ah, but there’s a catch. We were among the last guests, as poor attendance is shutting the Refuge down.

Runaway Development

The old Florida of alligator farms, roadside fruit stands and quaint, neon-lit motels is fast disappearing. Some Floridians are fighting back against the kind of high-rise hotel development that is choking both coasts. In the resort town of Cocoa Beach, on the so-called "Space Coast" near Cape Canaveral, we visited with Eric Fricker, the Sam Shepherd look-a-like who was elected vice mayor on the Green Party ticket. Fricker helped push through a no-growth referendum in 2002 that limits commercial buildings in Cocoa Beach to four stories. Now Fricker consults with other communities to show them how they, too, can control growth.

On Florida’s Gulf Coast, a go-slow message is also taking hold. We visited a new development called Wild Heron, near Destin, which combines high-end residences (and Audubon-sanctioned golf) with environmental sensitivity to its location along Lake Powell.

Rosemary Beach and nearby Seaside are what’s known as "New Urbanist" towns, both designed by pioneers Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk. "Florida is on the cutting-edge of this movement," says Ray Chiaramonte of the Hillsborough County Planning Commission. Instead of isolated trophy homes, the nostalgic wood and stucco houses (built in a pan-Caribbean style with wide porches, sleeping balconies and colorful New Orleans-type shutters) are only 20 feet apart, making it easy to get to know your neighbors. Seaside was built in the 1980s and has a lived-in feel; Rosemary Beach is under construction and incorporates many new ideas.

Activities in Rosemary Beach center on a town square, with its own Town Hall and post office. Boardwalks lead down to the ocean, to pocket parks or to one of five communal swimming pools. The pavement is "permeable," meaning that rainwater flows through it, rather than running over oil-stained parking lots and polluting the Gulf of Mexico. Beachfront homes are set back from the dunes to guard against fierce tropical storms and the sea-level rise that accompanies global warming. All landscaping must be done with native plants, a process watched over with fierce determination by Town Development Coordinator Stephen Poulakos, who also designed the in-house butterfly garden.

Cottage and carriage house rentals are available for weekend stays at Rosemary Beach, with prices ranging from $155 a night for simple accommodations to $1,500 for all-out luxury. Everything in the community is walkable, and cars are banished to back courts.

There’s a lot to do in this part of the Florida Panhandle, once known as the "redneck Riviera." We took a marvelous river cruise with Captain Kent Mundy along the Choctawhatchee, around protected islands. We didn’t see any alligators (or people, either), but we did hear a splash. A four-hour trip "for the whole gang" costs $250.

Other attractions include expansive miniature golf courses, the Audubon-maintained Spoil Island (nesting ground for brown pelicans), and the Museum of Man in the Sea, which traces human interaction with the oceans back to 1500. We were in Florida eight days and never set foot on a Disney property!

JIM MOTAVALLI, editor of E, enjoys mouse-free vacations.