Become familiar with Florida farming, kayaks, and dolphins while visiting the Palm Coast.
By Neala Schwartzberg McCarten
In winter, Florida beckons with its sun and warmth. Many snowbirds head to the usual spots, such as amusement parks in the state’s interior, or resorts along the southern edges. But along the northeast coast, visitors can find a more authentic Florida. This winter, visit the cracker cows, undeveloped waterways, and structured dolphin encounters in the Palm Coast — a region the local tourism folks refer to as the “quiet side of Florida.”
Florida Agricultural Museum
With all the new development, Florida can sometimes feel like a state without a past. But it does have an agricultural and ranching history that dates back 400 years.
Like other Indians in North America, the indigenous population of Florida grew staples such as corn, beans, and squash. But when the Spanish came in the 1500s, they brought horses and cattle, which eventually adapted to the hot, humid weather and the difficult-to-digest grasses. The animals became a part of the Indians’ lifestyle and livelihood. That ranching history and agriculture are celebrated at the Florida Agricultural Museum.
The museum covers 460 acres — plenty of room for wandering and discovering. You’ll notice a bridge frequently used by people on horseback (and available to hikers as well) that spans Interstate 95 between the Florida Agricultural Museum and Princess Place Preserve; the preserve is a historical park that all tourists will want to consider visiting as well.
The agricultural museum offers an excellent guided tour that lasts 1.5 to 2 hours. Guests ride a wagon pulled by an old-fashioned tractor and disembark at an 1890s pioneer homestead. From there, you visit the Black Cowboys Museum, as well as a dry goods store that provides a glimpse at everyday life from long ago. A Depression-era citrus business and a 5,000-square-foot dairy barn also are on the grounds.
The museum has a gift shop that sells beverages but not food. However, if you bring your lunch, you can enjoy a picnic on the grounds.
One of the more fascinating aspects of Florida’s agricultural history is that of the cracker cows and horses. Florida cracker cattle descend from the Spanish cattle brought to Florida in the 1500s. Over the centuries, their bloodline was almost lost through interbreeding, and by the late 1960s, almost no cracker cattle remained. Today the Florida Cracker Cattle Association and the Florida Cracker Horse Association are working to save these pieces of truly living history.
As for the origin of the name “cracker,” several theories exist. The most popular is that Florida cowboys (and thus their horses and cattle) earned the nickname because of the cracking sound made by their whips. The sound drove the cattle out of the heavy Florida brush and into the open, where they could be rounded up.
Admission to the agricultural museum is $9 for adults and $7 for children ages 6-12. It is open Wednesday through Sunday from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.
Florida Agricultural Museum, 7900 Old Kings Road N., Palm Coast, FL 32137; (386) 446-7630; www.myagmuseum.com.
Although many of us recall it as a tourist delight in the 1950s and 1960s, Marineland started in 1938 as Marine Studios, which duplicated marine environments so scenes could be filmed for movies. It eventually evolved into a showcase for tourists, enticing families to enjoy the park’s wildly popular dolphin shows.
Over the years, Marineland fell on hard times. Hurricanes hit, old structures required repairs, and competitors opened. In 2006, new owners attempted to create a hands-on educational facility, but that goal wasn’t truly realized until 2011, when it was acquired by the Georgia Aquarium and was transformed into Marineland Dolphin Adventure.
The staged shows are gone, but in their place are various ways for visitors to interact with ocean life. Short dolphin encounters include the Touch and Feed, which gives visitors a few minutes with bottlenose dolphins. The Trainer for a Day program allows guests to spend several hours working alongside trainers. There also are opportunities to hold a canvas as the dolphins make artwork for you (Dolphin Designs), or to swim with the dolphins via the ever-popular Immersion program.
A staff photographer takes pictures, which are available for purchase, to help guests remember their time with the dolphins.
As homage to its past as a movie studio, Marineland offers the Behind the Seas tour. It focuses on the park’s history as an underwater studio and its transformation into a dolphin research institute. It also includes exhibits featuring live marine creatures of the southeastern United States.
It is possible to pay an admission fee and skip the interactive programs and tours, but visitors with general admission observe only whatever is happening in the normal course of the day. There may be people in the water having a dolphin encounter, the dolphins may be swimming in the pools, or you may find not much of anything to see. So, your best bet is to consider your options and the associated pricing, and then plan which experience you want to have before you arrive. Reservations are advised for all dolphin adventure programs.
Marineland Dolphin Adventure, 9600 Oceanshore Blvd., St. Augustine, FL 32080; (877) 933-3402, (904) 471-1111; www.marineland.net.
Another way to be immersed into old Florida, and possibly see dolphins as well, is to take a Ripple Effect Ecotours kayak trip. Kayak tours depart from the Town of Marineland Marina.
Participants experience the pristine waterways of Florida’s Guana Tolomato Matanzas National Estuarine Research Reserve. The Matanzas Inlet is one of the only natural inlets on the east coast of Florida, and these tours are heaven-central for kayakers with a love of unspoiled waters. Paddling along this small section of the 1,200-mile Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway (which stretches from Norfolk, Virginia, down to the tip of Florida), guides talk about ecology, the history of the land and the water, and its denizens, pointing out birds, amphibians, and grasses, as well as the history and lore of the area. Kayakers put in at coves for additional talks.
Guides also mention the possibility of seeing dolphins. These beloved mammals have made their home in the relatively safe inland waters of the Matanzas River Estuary. On the tour I took, we did see dolphins. There really is something magical about watching them breach the water so sleekly and effortlessly. Paddlers may not be fortunate enough to see dolphins in the waterway, but the tour does guarantee that visitors will see dolphins somewhere.
Ripple Effect has partnered with Marineland to provide free admission to the grounds as part of the trip. This is general admission, so if you haven’t seen a dolphin on the kayak trip, it’s worth the walk across the road to watch them in their pools. Packages that include dolphin encounters at Marineland plus the kayak tours also are available.
A kayak trip isn’t the only eco-friendly way to experience the waterway. Ripple Effect also offers a tour aboard a boat that runs on recycled vegetable oil from local restaurants. They do caution that the exhaust sometimes makes boaters hungry for french fries.
Ripple Effect Ecotours, 101 Tolstoy Lane, St. Augustine, FL 32080; (904) 347-1565; www.rippleeffectecotours.com. For a kayak tour package that also includes the Discover Dolphins program at Marineland, plus a CD of dolphin interaction photos and a Behind the Seas tour, call Marineland at (904) 471-1111.
Palm Coast and the Flagler Beaches
Flagler County Chamber of Commerce
20 Airport Road, Suite C
Palm Coast, FL 32164
The following campgrounds are right in the area; a campground directory or FMCA’s RV Marketplace will reveal more listings. The RV Marketplace is online at FMCA.com and published in the January and June issues of FMC.
Beverly Beach Camptown RV Resort
2815 N. Oceanshore Blvd.
Flagler Beach, FL 32136
Flagler by the Sea Campgrounds
2982 N. Oceanshore Blvd.
Flagler Beach, FL 32136