A Taste of Cuba in Historic Ybor City

A Taste of Cuba in Historic Ybor City

“History is a fragile thing,” says Max Herman, our guide with Ybor City Historic Walking Tours – a family-owned business started by his dad Lonnie Herman.

Take Ybor City as an example – a place that came to be because a rich young Spaniard chose to immigrate to Cuba and years later a hurricane prevented a plane from leaving Key West.

Centro Ybor in  historic Ybor City

About that hurricane – Don Vicente Martinez Ybor (1818-1896) was all set to board a plane to Galveston, Texas. His plan – build a cigar factory there. His cigar factory in Cuba had been successful until he sided with those who wanted a free Cuba. The Spanish told him to leave and not come back.

Next Key West seemed perfect for cigar making but workers kept missing home and skipping back to Cuba just 90 miles away.

A friend showed up at the Key West airport. He too couldn’t leave – the weather prevented that – but advised Martinez Ybor to put Texas on hold until he visited Tampa, Florida where the friend had just been. Tampa had a railroad, a port and fresh water, all ingredients for a successful cigar factory.

So a chance meeting, a delayed flight and history changes. Fragile indeed.

Historic Ybor City became the Cigar Capital of the World

In 1880 Martinez Ybor bought 40 acres of Tampa swampland, filled it in and invited competitors to build their factories alongside his. He solved the labor absentee problem by building casitas, little shotgun houses.

A casita cost $700 to build. He charged workers $700 to buy one – by taking $1.25 per week out of their pay check. Families moved in. They stayed. Italians, Cubans, Germans, Irish, immigrants from many countries arrived, worked and lived side by side.

The highest paid person in a cigar factory was the Lector – every worker contributed money from their paycheck so the Lector would read out loud – newspapers in the morning, in English, Spanish and Italian, then novels a chapter or two in the afternoon. If you wanted to know what happened next, show up for work the next day.

Martinez Ybor’s cigar factory, now owned by the Church of Scientology, has a courtyard where cigar workers once ate lunch. School for children let out at noon then they’d come to the courtyard, play while their parents worked inside the factory and listen to the Lector through the open windows.

We sat in the courtyard and marveled at how different times were then.

Martinez Ybor’s “bad” business decisions like inviting competitors to build with great loan terms, selling houses at cost – paid off big time.

Historic Ybor City casita

He didn’t live to see it but in 1927 Ybor City was named the Cigar Capital of the World.

Then the 1929 crash happened. After that cigarettes, newly available in packages, took the puff out of cigars. In a frenzy of urban renewal in the 1960s and 1970s many casitas and neighborhoods in Ybor City were bulldozed.

Still the social clubs like the Italian Club, the Cuban Club survived while some cigar factory buildings were recycled to become corporate offices and breweries.

The New Orleans architectural flavor on 7th Avenue lives on and is complemented by the contemporary Centro Ybor shopping center packed with lively dining, theaters and shopping.

Another survivor from the city’s early days – chickens. Seriously. We saw and heard roosters, hens and babies. They are protected. You can’t even pick up their eggs.

Ybor City is designated as a National Historic Landmark District

Ten blocks of Ybor City are designated as a National Historic Landmark District. Our walking tour, 90 minutes at an easy pace, does a big circle of this district. Cost: $20 for Adults $10 for Children 6-12 FREE for Children 5 & under. Payment is in cash. Reservations are required – To make a reservation call 813-505-6779. You receive a text or e-mail confirmation.

Cuban Club in Historic Ybor City

Max’ narrative is fun and informative and he knows every shady spot to stand – perfect on a hot summer day.

We stopped at the only three remaining casitas – on a block that also houses the Ybor City Museum State Park, open Wednesday through Sunday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is $4 for an adult. Tours of the one casita owned by the park take place on the hour from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday.

The museum itself used to house the Ferlita Bakery, famous for its Cuban bread. Max shows us a nail next to the front door of the museum’s casita. Every casita had a similar nail by the front door. Early in the morning runners from the bakery would run up the steps, slap a big loaf of Cuban bread on the nail, and run to the next house to do the same slap.

Slapping bread on nails may be gone but Cuban bread remains hugely popular.

After the tour I visited La Segunda Central Bakery and held open the door for a person carrying a three-foot long loaf of Cuban bread out the door under their arm. And while I waited for my Cuban sandwich to go, more loaves of Cuban bread walked out the door under arms.

Historic Ybor City foodie alert

No Ybor City foodie alert is complete without mentioning the original Columbia restaurant that opened its doors in 1910. The same family, five generations, runs the entire operation of five restaurants around the state.

Come to the Columbia in Ybor City for the food, stay for the Flamingo dancing. Call 813-248-4961 for flamenco show reservations.

Jose Marti park in Historic Ybor City

The most surprising “factoid” of our 90-minute tour was learning that a piece of land, a former family home, belongs to Cuba. The family willed it to Cuba. It is Cuba soil and has been since 1956. This site was the home where Cuban national hero Jose Marti stayed. Due to decay the home was removed but a mini-park exists here.

A piece of Cuba in Historic Ybor City

So, think about this – you can visit Cuba without leaving the United States. The little park has a Marti statue and trees with plaques from each Cuban province. Max told us the soil used for each tree comes from that particular Cuban province.

And back to that young Spaniard who immigrated to Cuba. Who was that? It was Vicente Martinez Ybor who came from a rich Spanish family. At the age of 14 he traveled alone to Cuba. Sounds really daring, until we learned from Max that Spain had mandatory military service. Rich families sent their male children to faraway places.

Martinez Ybor did well in Cuba, learned cigar making, started his own factory and the rest, as they say, is history.

Max is right. History is fragile. A turn here, a weather event there and history changes.

Visit Ybor City. Take the Historic Ybor City Walking Tour. Step back in time while enjoying the present.

UPCOMING EVENT

What are you doing Tuesday, July 11?

Mark your calendar. At 11 a.m. come meet with award-winning author Lucy Tobias at Bookstore1’s new location at 12 South Palm Avenue, Sarasota. If you haven’t been here yet, it is well worth a visit, beautiful building and great selection of books, magazines, cards, and writing materials. Lucy will be signing her award-winning books and doing a book reading – oh, and hugs are free. You can RSVP here

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Sunken Gardens Grows Lush and Exotic

Sunken Gardens Grows Lush and Exotic

Two words perfectly describe Sunken Gardens in St. Petersburg  – lush and exotic.

What, you say, is it still there? Oh yes, Sunken Gardens, an old Florida family roadside attraction, is still alive and thriving right in the middle of a traffic jammed city.

Who knew a sinkhole could be so beautiful?

Ever so long ago, George Turner Sr. did. He was a hybrid kind of guy, a plumber who was also an avid gardener. Think about that. Perhaps only this unique combination of talents let him have visions where everyone else saw a piece of property with a shallow lake that had filled an ancient sinkhole.

Sunken Gardens has waterscapes and exotic plants

In 1903 he bought that four-acre property and drained the sinkhole exposing super rich soil. Just what every gardener wants – super rich soil. Turner knew this soil was perfect for growing exotic plants and fruits from all over the world. So the entire sinkhole became his dream canvas.

And the plumber side of Turner got to go wild. Turner build waterscapes everywhere – ponds, waterfalls, meandering water connections. They are still here today, recycling the water. I would have loved to know this man in person – such a dreamer and doer.

Sunken Gardens

By 1935 the doors opened to Turner’s Sunken Gardens. People paid .25 cents to see all the exotic plants, papayas, citrus, Royal palms and bougainvilleas.

In 1967 the World’s Largest Gift Shop opened. That building, now restored, is the entrance to Sunken Gardens. In 1998 Sunken Gardens was designated a local historic landmark. Purchased by the City of St. Petersburg in 1999, city staff does a super job of keeping Sunken Gardens lush and tropical, promoting Sunken Gardens as a wedding venue and hosting events here.

If a place is truly tropical then exotic birds can’t be far away. Parrots in cages drawn bird enthusiasts but the showstopper has to be their flock of Chilean flamingos. Exotic indeed.

New to Sunken Gardens – a flock of Chilean flamingos

The Flamingos Forever Committee raised the money to bring these beauties here. Not your bright pink flamingo, these birds are delicate shades of orange. Get our your cameras. Run the video.

When I arrived the flamingos were waiting to be fed, all on full alert with heads held high. Coming back a half hour later most had their heads tucked under their wings, mealtime over.

Sunken Gardens flamingos

A few observations:

Hardly need a hat here. The walkways are crowded on both sides with tall vegetation casting shadows across the pavement.

Consider bringing a small hand towel. It does get humid down in the sinkhole (the low point is 15 feet below street level). Sunken Gardens is, after all, tropical to the 10th degree.

Flowers in bloom – all ready for their close ups. No makeup needed.

Get the brochure. Carry it with you. It includes a map of the walkways with numbered stations and their names. Can’t get lost, it is a meandering circle walk.

Sunken Gardens flower

I wasn’t going to sit on the Growing Stone (perhaps a relative of the Blarney Stone?), a fossilized limestone found in the center of the sinkhole. Not until I read that legend has it that if you sit on the Growing Stone you will be granted tranquility, inner harmony and the talent to make things grow.

Make things grow? That did it. My buns found that stone and stayed sitting there for a good fine minutes.

Can’t hurt, might help.

The sign also noted that the Growing Stone is always on the Sunken Gardens first day tour for new employees. It is a tradition.

Sunken Gardens is tropical to the 10th degree

On an upper level I found an extensive butterfly garden. A sign said this would be the site of a future Children’s Garden. Sitting on an alcove bench I watched butterflies visiting red and white Pentas, milkweed, pipe vine and plumbago. A pleasant place designed for some Zen moments.

Behind a low wall past the Butterfly Garden lies a small desert area with three boxes, homes for tortoises. The day I visited no tortoises made an appearance. But there is a low step on the other side of the wall for children to look over, so I’m assuming there are times when the turtles appear.

What you need to know

Sunken Gardens, 1825 4th Street North, St. Petersburg, FL 33704. Phone: 727-551-3102.

Web site: http://www.sunkengardens.org

Admission: $10 adults, $8 seniors (age 62 and up), $4 children (ages 2-11)

Hours: Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Sunday noon to 4:30 p.m.

Parking: Free.

 

Upcoming Events

Lucy with books

Lucy Tobias

Signing at Bookstore1 Sarasota, 12 South Palm Avenue, Sarasota, FL phone 941-365-7900

Tuesday, July 11th, 2017, at 11:00 am

Bookstore1Sarasota

Click here to RSVP

 

SUMMERTIME/LOCALTIME. Come to the bookstore to meet the author of three books: 50 Great Walks in Florida, Florida Gone Wild(er) and Mar Margaret Manatee: the adventures of a young Florida manatee (in English and Spanish).

Lucy Beebe Tobias is an award-winning author, photojournalist and illustrator creating lively and engaging books on environment, exploration and ecology. Her writing is family focused, senior welcoming and always eco-friendly. Tobias is a former newspaper reporter and photographer for the New York Times Regional Group. She served as Authentic Florida Expert for Visit Florida with blogs, stories and videos. She lives in Sarasota and if you see a tall woman walking a Welsh Corgi it is probably Lucy.

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Flutter with the Butterflies in Fort Myers

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Flutter with the Butterflies in Fort Myers

Flutter with the Butterflies in Fort Myers

Coming to this conservatory is a game changer. No doubt about it. What happens here with butterflies is both intense and beautiful.

The Florida Native Butterfly Society Conservatory in Fort Myers opened in 2009. Unlike most facilities, it is allowed to breed butterflies. Therefore visitors can witness the entire process of metamorphosis.

butterflies

In the foyer are glass enclosures with different butterfly chrysalis. You are offered a guide sheet with photos and names of Florida butterflies you will find inside. I decline thinking I know butterflies from all the work on my gardening book and my back garden efforts.

That attitude lasts about two seconds until I step through the screen doors and promptly see two butterflies I could not name. Coming back to the foyer I beg forgiveness and ask for a cheat sheet.

Inside the glass warehouse-sized conservatory there are two rules: do not touch the butterflies and stay on the path. Winding past pools and waterfalls, it is quickly apparent that there are layers of habitat here – way past the usual red Penta for food and milkweed for the monarchs to lay their eggs.

Butterflies have a full life cycle here

This is an educational facility – specifically to introduce visitors to what makes up a healthy habitat for butterflies – it would include many hiding places, nectar sources and protected areas to rest.

These are fragile creatures. They need our help – a perfect reason to start or enhance a butterfly garden.

The day’s big event (it happens every day they are open) is a butterfly release at 10:30 a.m. On the day of my visit the conservatory is full of school children.

Butterflies

Out comes a staff member with a large mesh container. Newly- hatched butterflies were set free for their maiden flight. Amazing, No hesitation, Butterflies flutter away like they already had a destination in mind. The kids cheer.

The conservatory is part of a complex called Butterfly Estates on Fowler Avenue. Also on site are three small wooden buildings – a Gift Shop, a lunch restaurant called the Gathering Place and Z Crepes, a breakfast place.

Closed Mondays. Conservatory and gift shop hours are Tuesday through Sunday 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Butterflies and more at Butterfly Estates

Butterfly Estates is on Fowler Avenue but you do not enter there. Go past the Estates to the stoplight at Thompson Street. Turn left, then left again to enter the Estates parking lot.

Address: 1815 Fowler Street, Fort Myers, phone 239-690-2359.

Tickets for the conservatory are for sale inside the Gift Shop. Admission is $7 for ages 13 and up, $4 ages 3 to 12 and under the age of 3 admitted free. The Gift Shop has restrooms.

Note: Florida residents get $1 off with valid Florida ID. Age 50 and older get $1 off. University students pay $5 with valid ID and military receive free admission with valid ID.

Note also that the conservatory fee is tax deductible.

Butterfly friendly plants are for sale outside the conservatory. Come with friends and take selfies of everyone sitting in the big butterfly chair.

Hooked? I am.

Butterflies – lots of them at Butterfly World

In addition, here is another butterfly place I like: Butterfly World in Coconut Creek, open seven days a week. It is a breeding facility for butterflies, hundreds of them. When we stepped inside there was a show stopper with a crowd of admirers – an Atlas moth, huge with fake eyes on its wings making it look quite menacing, hopefully, to predators.

atlas moth

Of course they have a large demonstration butterfly garden area and plants for sale. It won’t be long before you find yourself checking out the native plant nurseries in your area and digging holes in the ground for your new acquisitions.

In conclusion, it is time to go out into the back garden. I’ll be looking to expand hiding places and protected areas to rest for butterflies. Are we having fun yet? Yes, we are.

GOOD TO KNOW

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has a free list of butterflies in Florida. You order it online, they send it to you in the mail. Directions are a little complicated, but doable.  Go to their Web site

On the first page that comes up click on online ordering, when the next page comes up type in “butterflies” in the name section and it will come up.

UPCOMING

Join me along with other children’s book authors, at the Children’s Book Fair and Family Fun day on Saturday, April 29 from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the Bradenton Farmer’s Market on Old Main Street, Bradenton

ORIGAMI CONTINUES

Origami in the Garden continues at Naples Botanical Garden through April 23. In addition to monumental sculptures scattered around the garden, the guide map has a cool feature – the guide map can be made into your own Origami Flying Crane and there are directions on how to do just that. Be sure to get two maps, one to cut up and one to use for following the crane directions. See the garden Web site for admission prices and time. And yes, just so you know, they have a butterfly house.

 

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Myakka River State Park has a Airboat Tour – all aboard!

Myakka River State Park has a Airboat Tour – all aboard!

Don’t let a little mystery keep you from going to Myakka River State Park and  taking a Myakka Wildlife Airboat Tour aboard one of the world’s largest covered airboats.

The mystery? Prior to the 1850’s English maps called the river the Asternal River. Then a Seminole Indian told a surveyor the river’s name was “Myakka”. The name was changed. But no one can figure out how to translate the word “Myakka”. Who knows what it means?

This mystery hardly matters to the steady stream of people eager to take a tram or airboat tour, or both. The first task: search for a parking place near the Tram & Airboat Ticket Booth inside Myakka River State Park near Sarasota.

Airboat Tours at Myakka River State Park fill up fast

Winter airboat tour schedule (Dec. 16-May 3) has boats departing at 10 a.m. 11:30 a.m., 1 p.m. and 2:30 p.m. Arrive 30 minutes ahead of time to, hopefully, be assured of a seat. Ticket sales stop five minutes before departure. Cost is $14 plus tax for an adult $7 plus tax for children ages 6-12. Children under the age of five admitted free in adult’s lap.

In the summer months, airboat rides leave at 10 a.m., 11:30 a.m. and 1 p.m. Hurricane season is June 1 through Nov. 30 so it is always a good idea to call ahead and see if the weather makes this trip a “go” or “no go”.  Call 941-365-0100 

photo by myakka wildlife tours

Be advised the ticket booth is three miles inside the park entrance. After paying the park fee it might seem going three miles on Park Drive will go by quickly. Not so, especially on weekends. A slow speed limit and several congested areas – the Canopy Walkway area and a bridge with sightseers and fishermen on both sides – means reduced driving.

Toss in bicycles on the road and walkers along the sides – you get the message – start out early to arrive on time for a tour.

The two airboats are named “Myakka Maiden” and “Gator Gal.” Ours on a recent Saturday morning was “Gator Gal.”

Myakka Wildlife Airboat Ride surprisingly quiet

I have to confess to being surprised they didn’t hand out earmuffs or earplugs. My only previous airboat ride was in the Everglades aboard a much smaller, uncovered boat with a huge motor on the back that roared at top volume. As we skimmed over the water flocks of birds rose up out of the grass in protest. Alligators slithered down the banks and disappeared into the mud. Truly we were alien invaders.

Not so on this airboat. It is positively quiet. You can hear the guide/captain speaking. No earmuffs needed. The airboat journey goes across the Upper Myakka Lake to see a whole lot of alligators along the shore and then comes back again. Takes about an hour.

The scenery is postcard perfect and the narration outstanding (suggestion: do bring money to give the guide a tip at the end, he earns it).

See Alligators on Airboat Tour inside Myakka River State Park

Our guide smoothly says this is a shallow lake, sixteen inches to three feet deep at most. Why we could get out and walk back to shore. Some look over the side at the brown water with relief. If the boat tips over we’re fine, right?

But then he questions if you’d want to get into the water with anywhere from 500 to 1000 alligators who live here. Everyone sits up a little straighter. The boat starts looking pretty good and solid.

Myakka wildlife airboat tour

I learned more about alligators in one hour than I’ve ever known. Yes, we saw a lot of them both swimming and sunning along the shore. That plus who knew there was a wild hog problem – and a trapper paid to remove pigs, just to keep the population down?

Turns out centuries ago Spanish explorers arrived in ships that had hogs in the hold. They let them go and then did roundups twice a year. Needless to say, some pigs just kept on moving on and now wild hogs are part of the Florida landscape.

Combine being on the water with blue skies, puffy white clouds, balmy breeze, and a sweeping wild Florida shoreline – all that plus great story telling adds up to an awesome airboat tour.

And if you want to know more about walks in the park, here is a review of the park’s famous Canopy Walk by Randy Eady https://www.afar.com/places/myakka-river-state-park-sarasota

 

More Airboat Tours

Two I’ve taken that were outstanding:

Near DeLand: The Fountain of Youth Eco/History boat tour, leaves from inside De Leon Springs State Park, four times a day and goes through Lake Woodruff National Wildlife Refuge.

Near Ocala: The glass-bottomed boat tour on the Silver River leaves inside Silver Springs State Park. Use the main entrance on Silver Springs Boulevard.

New Facebook Page

I invite you to “LIKE” my new Facebook page – Labyrinth of the week

Walk with me as I travel around Florida walking labyrinths for an upcoming book – and let’s share labyrinth stories!

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Jack Kerouac Slept & Wrote in College Park, Florida

Jack Kerouac Slept & Wrote in College Park, Florida

Jack Kerouac slept here.

Believe it! For a short while, during a piece of 1957-58 Jack Kerouac and his mother lived in a two-room apartment at the back of a bungalow in College Park, a laidback neighborhood in northwest Orlando.

His novel On the Road was recently published and gaining fame. While in College Park he typed up the original manuscript to the sequel Dharma Bums.

Who knew? The world might have continued on blithely unaware. But freelance writer and reporter with the Orlando area NBC Bob Kealing heard the “Jack Kerouac lived here” rumors and he went looking. Through John Sampas, Jack Kerouac’s brother in law, Kealing found the 1926 bungalow at 1418 ½ Clouser Avenue, College Park. It was badly in need of repair.

After an essay by Kealing in the Orlando Sentinel in 1997 local people banded together to buy the Jack Kerouac bungalow, fix it up and make this historical place a haven for writers. They didn’t raise enough money but after a story about the project in USA Today, Jeffery Cole, Chairman and President of Cole National, and a Kerouac fan, stepped up to supply the remaining funds. Kealing became co-founder of the project.

credit: Orlando Weekly. Jack Kerouac houseJack Kerouac lived here, aspiring writers can too

Today the Kerouac Project supports writers through awarding four residencies a year. They are taking applications now for 2017-2018. To my surprise, you don’t have to write like Kerouac to apply. Genres accepted include poetry, play, screenplay, fiction/short story and nonfiction.

So the house is not open to visitors, since writers are doing their residencies, but you can drive by and if you are a serious writer, apply to live here for a short time while you write.

One twist on their Web site – if you shop on Amazon through the Kerouac Web site then a portion of your purchase goes back to support the Kerouac Project.

But I hear you say you want to walk through a writer’s home, feel the vibes, and see the table where they wrote daily.

Have I got a place for you – Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Historic State Park in Cross Creek southwest of Gainesville.

Rawlings House

At a round table on the front porch she sipped morning coffee, looked out over the orange grove that provided income and, when properly prepped with caffine, set to work writing on a small typewriter. Here she penned The Yearling her Pulitzer prize-winning novel and many other stories.

A ranger in period costume gives house tours on Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday from October through July. Tour times are 10 a.m., 11 a.m., 1 p.m., 2 p.m. 3p.m. and 4 p.m.

Be sure to pick up free brochures in the parking area (a $3 fee to park). Take the self-guided walk around the house and grounds.

Just inside her garden gate is a sign with a quote from Rawlings (1896-1953) about how coming to this place was in fact coming home.

Rawlings sign

Next to the park are a picnic area and a boat ramp providing access to Orange Lake.

If you’ve never eaten alligator meat, now is your chance – it is on the menu at the Yearling restaurant just down the road from the park.

But if alligator doesn’t do it for you the menu also lists quail and cooter along with frog legs and venison. Of course a grouper sandwich is available too. That is required Florida fare even inland.

Hours are noon to 8 p.m. on Thursday, noon to 9 p.m. on Friday and Saturday then noon to 8 p.m. Sundays. Note these hours if you want to plan a combo visit to both the Rawlings Park and Yearling restaurant.

Writers do like their special places to write – that niche where creative juices flow – containing a certain table, chair, view or perhaps just privacy, all with the right ambiance.

Visit the home Hemingway lived in for ten years

The Ernest Hemingway Home & Museum in Key West provides an abundance of ambiance. Hemingway lived here for ten years. He wrote in an upstairs loft of a small cottage next to the big house. His typewriter (larger than Marjorie’s) is still on the table.

Sometimes tours rush you through his workspace and that is sad. This is a special place to sit and absorb the vibes. Instead his work area is gated off and only a walk through allowed.

A 30-minute tour of the house and grounds is included in admission price. Hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. 365 days a year. Heads up – you should know they only take cash. Admission is $14 for adults, $6 for children ages 6-12.

Don’t like cats? Then take a pass. Any visit to Hemingway’s house is dominated by the fact that descendants of his six-toed cats (his first was a gift from a ship’s captain) still live here. Lots of cats – 40-50 cats with their own Web page and they are everywhere. I do like cats and find that after visiting most of my photos are well, of cats. I am not alone.

Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960) was the premier female voice for the Harlem Renaissance era – a storyteller, author, anthropologist, and more. She grew up in Eatonville. The town has a Hurston festival the last week in January.

Hurston lived and spent her final days in Fort Pierce. The city has a Zora Neale Hurston Dust Tracks Heritage Trail, a do it yourself tour, with markers and kiosks, of her life and times here.

So there you have it – Jack Kerouac, Ernest Hemingway, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, Zora Neale Hurston -a short list of famous writers and where they lived in Florida. Be sure to take a journal with you when you visit and write down your thoughts. It could be the start of a great American novel.

 

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