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United States: Florida Unspoiled in Daytona Beach and St. Augustine

We’d only just arrived at the beautiful beach near St. Augustine when we met up with the wild side of Florida. No, not the death-defying thrill rides at the theme parks. Nor the antics of spring breakers zooming up and down the AIA. What we encountered was wild and refreshing because it was a reminder of how this part of Florida used to be—when families drove down to the sunny state in wood-panelled station wagons, when lighthouse keepers hauled heavy buckets of oil up 14 stories worth of steps to light their tall lamps, and even before that when the Spanish inhabitants built the oldest fort in the New World on the ocean’s edge out of seashell rock.

For there posted on the gate leading to the beach was a sign, “Warning: Poisonous snakes in the Dunes.” OK kids. Keep your shoes on and keep to the walkways despite the scampering picture-book bunnies hopping through the brush.

“What kind of snakes?” I asked a fellow Canadian visitor. “Oh Florida rattlers,” he answered in the upbeat way you’d tell someone it was time for juice and cookies. And were there many of them? “Oh, we found one up near our building today,” he chuckled. “But we dispensed with him pretty quick.” Glad to hear it. Any other dune wildlife that the kids should know about? Well apparently yes—turtles and rabbits and birds and a fat orange cat who oversaw this wild outdoor menagerie. Within minutes, we had been transported back in time to a place where Bongoland, a family theme park in the 50’s, was built around a small baboon and dinosaur statues, where live alligators were the main attraction at a tourist stop, and where, in the prehistoric age, giant furry ground sloths roamed the area.

If you’ve got kids who need special effects thrills, then head to Orlando or Miami and theme park stimulation. But if you want to introduce your kids to a gentler historic era, when Florida offered attractions built around its natural world, then you can’t do much better than the sweeping northern shore from St. Augustine to Daytona Beach. Both small cities are easy to navigate. Both provide lots for families to do and see in case of sudden cloudbursts. But more importantly, both offer true glimpses of the original Florida when the natural world of animals and birds served as major attractions along with the ocean shells, seaweed clumps and perfect-for-sandcastles sand.
St. Augustine is America’s oldest permanently settled European city so it’s no surprise that it’s home to one of Florida’s oldest attractions: the St. Augustine Alligator Farm Zoological Park. Originally set up more than 100 years ago as an alligator pen and “Museum of Marine Curiosities,” the park has expanded to include the world’s only collection of 22 crocodile species as well as hundreds of alligators. You’ll see dozens of baby hatchlings with their parents, unusual albino alligators, the stuffed, famous Gomek crocodile (a former superstar at the park) and the live Baby Huey. Weighing over 900 pounds, he’s an impressive specimen.

Don’t miss the animal shows when kids can get up close to talking macaw parrots or pat a Florida king snake. Although there are many gentle animals on display such as the Australian furry kookaburra bird and miniature ponies, this is one place where you want to “watch your kids.”

Though Daytona Beach has pulsating activity along the strip and thrills at Daytona USA, the Ultimate Motorsports Attraction, you can find true nature further south at Ponce Inlet. There, the new Marine Science Center is gearing up for its March 23 opening. Part marine learning centre, part sea turtle rehabilitation hospital and part maritime museum, the Center will offer kids a chance to touch the jawbone and skull of a sperm whale washed up on the beach, watch the leatherback or loggerhead turtles in their tanks, or even swap shells or beach pebbles at the “Bait Shack.” The admission price is right: $2 for adults, $1 for kids.

For a great view of both areas, you can climb the historic lighthouses. To walk up the 219 steps at the St. Augustine Lighthouse and Museum, you have to be at least four feet tall and seven years old. Younger kids will have fun playing in the interactive museum where knot boards and displays are set up. Make sure they try lifting the oil bucket in the lighthouse base. You can’t believe the keeper carried it up. The Ponce Inlet Lighthouse in Daytona has 189 steps to the top, though don’t be surprised if kids hug the walls as they are twisting up the spiral staircase. The view is worth it.

For information on St. Augustine and their holiday time million twinkling lights, call. For information on Daytona Beach and their Canadian Sand Dollars discount coupons, call 1-800-854-1234 or visit www.daytonabeach.com. Both areas offer excellent beachfront efficiency units where families can cook some meals.





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