By Kenzie Cook
Alligators crossing the streets in every direction. Horrible drivers filling the interstate. Hordes of old people crowding the beaches. These are all stereotypes – and possible truths – my friends and coworkers have offered up about Florida; however, the only way to experience the true grandeur of Florida is to take the long drive down to it. Florida is a large area of land; it takes eight-and-a-half hours to drive from the northernmost city to the southernmost city. Most travelers from other states would probably opt for a flight from their state to Florida, but the drive is a much more scenic option. Traveling from the middle of North Carolina to the middle of Florida, you would see the beauty of four different states in one trip. While this would add to your travel time, if you stop in the right states for gas, it would be a much cheaper option.
This spring break, my friend Anna Ranson and I made the 8-hour drive from Winston-Salem, North Carolina, to St. Augustine, Florida, as well as side trips to Jacksonville, Merritt Island and Blue Spring State Park. Though the stereotype about horrible drivers proved to be true, we could not find proof of the other stereotypes while we were there; but we did manage to see the natural beauty and history of Florida on our four-day excursion.
Before making the trip to a different state such as Florida, travelers should make lodging and daily activity plans or they might find themselves with nowhere to sleep and nothing to do. Many hotels in Florida fill up months in advance, and certain activities are only available during certain months or times of the day.
Weeks before spring break hit, Anna and I visited all of the travel websites we could find for lodging recommendations near our main destination, St. Augustine. Anna managed to find an affordable hotel with decent ratings that was located right on St. Johns River in Palatka, less than an hour’s drive from St. Augustine. Unfortunately, we soon found the phrase, “You can’t believe that everything you see on the internet is true,” to be entirely accurate. Our experience at this particular hotel ended quickly when we heard the neighbors screaming, arguing and possibly beating each other up. Thankfully, a much nicer hotel in the same chain – this time located in Elkton – allowed us to switch our reservation to their location at a discounted rate. The receptionist, Marianne Horner, was incredibly helpful and even gave us insight into more activities to do in St. Augustine. If travelers are in need of a simple and clean hotel near St. Augustine that will not hurt their budget, I recommend the Quality Inn in Elkton.
On our initial trip down to Florida, our first stop for food was in Jacksonville at a restaurant called The Southern Grill. Accurately named, The Southern Grill serves food you would expect to eat at any southern barbecue in large portions. I ordered the Buffalo wings and received far too many for one person to eat, but they were delectable. They were worth the $11 I paid for them. Anna ordered the bacon cheeseburger and received a burger the size of the dinner plate they served it on. In her opinion, it definitely measured up to the $12 she paid for it. Neither of us managed to finish either of our meals, but we left the restaurant full of great food.
Later that night in Palatka, our experience at the hotel had rattled us and we were in search of something familiar, so we stopped at Zaxby’s. We ordered a chicken Caesar salad to share and a birthday cake milkshake for each of us. While I thought the salad was amazing, Anna could not stop raving about the milkshake. The entire meal cost around $15 and was worth the price. In addition, the young woman working at the register was very kind to us and delivered the food to our table promptly.
Our first full day in Florida was full of driving and museum and historical site visits; so we forgot to eat lunch but made up for it by stopping at Denny’s in Port Orange. We both ordered a “Build Your Own Grand Slam” meal with various breakfast items – Anna’s with coffee and mine with apple juice. Florida was the fourth state I had been to a Denny’s in and this experience was far greater than any prior visit was. Each meal cost around $10 and filled us up enough to make it back to our new hotel in Elkton to settle in for the night.
The next day after another full day of exploring, we did not eat until dinnertime. As our final meal in Florida before we headed home the next morning, we decided to eat in one of the small restaurants located in the historical section of St. Augustine. The restaurant we went to was a tiny Italian place called Nonna’s Trattoria, located on one of the smaller streets of the city only accessible by walking. Though the outside of the building looked very simple and blended in with the rest of Historic St. Augustine’s streets, the inside was elegant and inviting. Anna ordered chicken Alfredo and paid around $14 and said the taste and amount was well worth the cost. I ordered lasagna and paid $16 and agreed wholeheartedly.
Overall, our entire experience with food in Florida was well worth the price and travel. Florida also has many other options for restaurants that are exclusively in Florida; but as a picky eater, I could not bring myself to eat at most of them. If any travelers are making the trip down to Florida, I urge them to try anything new that their taste buds can handle.
The first large city we reached in Florida was Jacksonville. We visited the Museum of Science and History, or the MOSH. Our roommate at UNC, Danielle Bruce, is originally from Florida, and recommended the museum to us because it’s often overlooked. The entry fee for students is $10, and that day it included a free show in the planetarium. The planetarium show itself was worth the $10 I paid. We got a glimpse of what the night sky would look like without pollution and learned about the different star and constellation names. The rest of the museum had exhibits ranging from the history of the film industry in the United States to different sea creatures and their noises. We spent time in the interactive area, testing our brain skills and knowledge of different types of energy. Overall, it was an interesting experience and was worth more than what we paid. I highly recommend it to any Florida visitors.
We spent our second day in museums as well. The first place we visited was the Castillo de San Marcos in St. Augustine, which was the main reason for our long trip. Christopher Cook, a Florida native, recommended a visit. Again, the entry fee was $10 a person; but if a tourist does not wish to pay, the fort is exciting from the outside as well. We visited on a rainy day, so not many people were around, but normally the fort is full of tourists. The Castillo de San Marcos is a fort that the Spanish built during conquests in the New World while Florida was part of the Spanish Empire. Its sole purpose was to defend the Spanish from attacks from the English and other Europeans trying to take Florida. The fort still has cannons on top, and visitors may view them up close. Visitors can also go inside the rooms of the fort, including sleeping quarters, the chapel and a room dedicated to art.
Next on our trip was a visit to the Kennedy Space Center on Merritt Island. It was roughly an hour drive from St. Augustine. Parking was $10, and the entry fee was $50, but the money spent was well worth it. The Kennedy Space Center is an active NASA field center, but it also has many exhibits for tourists to learn about space travel up close without actually going into space. Visitors have the chance to meet real astronauts, see the Apollo 8 rocket and Space Shuttle Atlantis and even participate in simulations of space flight. All of this and more is included in the entry fee. Though this was the most money I had spent in any of the places we had visited in Florida so far, I was impressed, and I would love to go back. Anna said this was her favorite part of the entire trip, even though it was the most expensive.
The next day, we were mostly in Blue Spring State Park, a wildlife reserve near Orlando. The park brings visitors in with their large amounts of wildlife, namely the manatees. They offer boat rides that take you around the park to see various species of birds, reptiles and the manatees. We each paid $24 to try it. Unfortunately, it was too cold for the manatees to be out, but we did manage to see several birds, turtles and alligators. Although I did enjoy the boat ride regardless, I would suggest that visitors come on warmer days so they could get the chance to see the manatees.
For the rest of the day, we returned to Historic St. Augustine and walked around exploring the city. The buildings still matched the original Spanish architecture, and the majority of the city required that we travel by foot. We walked across the Bridge of Lions and took selfies with the large stone lions guarding it and then walked around to see all of the little shops and restaurants. The only money we had left to spend was for dinner, so it was a cheap excursion.
If a visitor wants to travel to Florida, they should be prepared to spend a decent amount of money. From my experience and the experiences of others I have talked to, the money spent will be worth it. Most people visit Florida for the beaches or amusement parks, but several Florida natives and residents recommend the museums and wildlife reserves for a taste of Floridian history and culture.
Edited by Samantha Miner