Why you should care
Sometimes the past is best appreciated in dead skin, driftwood and old newspapers.
When you think of Florida, what’s likely to come to mind are shiny beachfront high-rises, poured concrete and strip mall–meets–strip bar sprawl. And for that you’d be forgiven. But what many people don’t know is that Florida’s backroads hide some historical gems, where the state’s past is preserved on the walls — and sometimes even in the food.
From a hotel made from driftwood to a frog-leg eatery nestled in taxidermy to a rustic old gun club frequented by U.S. presidents and famous musicians, these old-school haunts — which you can visit all in one day if you’re feeling adventurous — make a trip off the highway worth the diversion.
On the east coast in the tiny town of Vero Beach, multimillion-dollar mansions line the oceanfront, but it’s a hotel scrapped together with driftwood that’s most worthy of an ogle. On the National Register of Historic Places, the 100-room Driftwood Resort is a conglomeration of buildings largely pieced together from driftwood collected on the beach and pecky cypress planks milled just inland. Two of the resort’s structures, including the breezeway building, date to 1935. And several guest rooms host paintings from the original inn, which was opened in 1942 by colorful Florida character and local legend Waldo Sexton as an annex to his private home. “There were no blueprints for the two original buildings,” explains Lee Olsen, general manager of the resort’s restaurant, Waldo’s. “[Sexton] simply stood and pointed and said, Put that board here, and that one there.”
The restaurant, which offers favorites like conch fritters ($13.95 for an order of six) and wings, overlooks the Atlantic Ocean. You can also admire Sexton’s collection of old cast-iron bells placed throughout the property. Back when Sexton was running the original inn in the breezeway building, bells were rung when guests departed, inviting them back for another stay, Olsen explains: “If you departed and no bells were rung, you knew you weren’t invited back.”
From the Driftwood Resort, it’s a roughly 20-mile drive inland to the tiny town of Fellsmere, known for its annual Fellsmere Frog Leg Festival. Here at the Marsh Landing Restaurant, a restored building that dates to 1926, taxidermic snake skins and bobcat pelts share wall space with old frontier photos and newspaper articles, celebrating Florida’s boom-and-bust years (the 1920s and ’30s). It also houses an eatery like no other. Locally caught frog legs (the $12.95 lunch platter comes with two or three legs, hush puppies and two sides), “gigged” at night using airboats as transportation and a multipronged spear to hunt in the marshes surrounding the town, are the stars of the menu. If that’s not your thing, you can try other native Florida cuisine that the restaurant’s mother-daughter owners, Fran and Susan Adams, are determined to preserve, such as catfish, gator tail and swamp cabbage (aka hearts of palm).
Former U.S. presidents, Mick Jagger and Ernest Hemingway are among the famed faces said to have shown themselves here over the years.
Next up, it’s a roughly 3 1/2-hour drive south through the center of the state to the edge of the Everglades in Everglades City, where the Everglades Rod & Gun Club (free admission) oozes more old Florida appeal in its gleaming-wood interiors. The erstwhile trading post opened in the late 1800s, when it first began hosting visitors who came to Florida during the winter to hunt and fish. Former U.S. presidents, Mick Jagger and Ernest Hemingway are among the famed faces said to have shown themselves here over the years. Today, there’s a restaurant (don’t miss the stone crab claws when they’re in season, from mid-October to mid-May) and cottages on-site that still host fishing-obsessed folks looking to head out into the Ten Thousand Islands.
Kevin Mims, a resident of Inverness (about four hours north) who considers himself a “lover of old Florida,” enjoys regular visits here for the opportunity to connect with the state’s past. If you take the time to read through the dozens of old newspaper articles covering the walls in one section, he says, “you can come away with a pretty good history of Everglades City.” And while the food at the restaurant — which is cash-only and open for lunch only during the summer (dinner is offered too, come winter) — was just OK, says Mims, that’s not what you come here for. The bar, constructed of pecky cypress, “is incredible,” he says. Throughout, everything from alligator skins and figurines to paintings and old tools line the walls. “It’s just a really cool place to imagine what it must have been like to have been here all those years ago.”