Pioneers, visionaries, geniuses, crackpots – the Sunshine State has seen more than its fair share of eccentrics over the years, drawn from cooler northern climes in pursuit of their dreams.
Florida’s Gulf Coast may be best known for its relentless sunshine and glorious sandy beaches, but it’s also home to some of the state’s more unusual attractions. Here, Ed Aves picks out some of his favourite curiosities in the sunny southwest.
1. Keep up with the Koreshans
The humid, mosquito-infested swamps of Estero may seem an unlikely place to build a New Jerusalem, but for Dr Cyrus Teed, founder of the bizarre Koreshan Unity, this Florida backwater was to become the centre of a new civilization.
A one-time alchemist, the messianic, luxuriantly moustachoied Teed had an “illumination” one night in 1869 (sparked by a massive electric shock) and thereafter devoted his life to redeeming humanity, guided by the principles of communal living, celibacy and his esoteric scientific theories.
Some 25 years later, he purchased three hundred acres of uninhabited wilderness and led a merry band of credulous followers down from Chicago to establish Utopia.
Today, the Koreshans are long gone but you can learn about their beliefs at the Koreshan Historic State Park, which preserves the colony’s scattering of simple two- and three-storey timber buildings.
Central to Koreshan philosophy was Teed’s unique brand of Hollow Earth theory, that the world was effectively inside out with the entire universe contained within it; ranger tours will you into take to the Art Hall, the colony’s cultural hub, where a scale model provides (none-too-convincing) proof.
Life in the nearby Planetary Court was equally revolutionary, for it was in this modest but homely dwelling that the governing council of seven women (each representing a planet) ran the society’s day-to-day business – an adherence to gender equality that suggests that perhaps Teed wasn’t so completely barking after all.
2. Eat fried chicken with the Amish
Head a hundred miles north to Sarasota, and you’ll find God-fearing, clean-living pioneers of a different sort. Here, the sleepy suburb of Pinecraft is the winter playground of choice for thousands of Amish and Mennonite “snowbirds”, who fly south (or, more correctly, come on the bus) to escape the northern winter.
You’ll see them letting their hair down by playing shuffleboard in leafy Pinecraft Park, riding around on steel tricycles (the traditional horse-buggy combo isn’t very practical for suburban Sarasota) and perhaps dipping a toe in the ocean at Siesta Key.
Local stores sell wooden crafts and home-style dresses (here’s your chance to pick up a copy of Colour the Psalms or a set of Dutch Blitz cards) and head to the Fresh Market for homemade cheese, jam and baked goods.
Undoubtedly the most popular destination, with queues to match, is Yoder’s Restaurant, legendary for its juicy fried chicken and mash (as featured on TV show Man vs Food) and home-baked pies, piled so high with cream they verge on the sinful.
3. Find hot dogs on trees (and a historic sneeze)
Perhaps Florida’s most illustrious snowbird, Thomas Edison wintered in Fort Myers for almost half a century at the leafy estate he built on the shores of the Calasoohatchee River; his great friend, Henry Ford, later moved in next door.
Concerned that supplies of rubber might be cut off in the event of war, the green-fingered Edison became obsessed with the idea of finding a cheap alternative that could be grown on American soil, testing over 17,000 plants – many of which, like the bizarre African sausage tree and an immense, acre-wide banyan, now flourish in the grounds.
Elsewhere you can explore Edison’s indefatigable thirst for gadgetry at the museum, where alongside beautiful creations such as the ornate multiphone (forerunner to the jukebox) and records of his contributions to cinema (including the USA’s oldest copyrighted motion picture: the five-second Fred Ott’s Sneeze) comes proof that even geniuses are fallible.
Curios among the great inventor’s less successful patents include an electric pen and a labour-intensive foot-powered phonograph – definitely more perspiration than inspiration.
4. See a seashell sanctuary: do the Sanibel stoop
Southwest Florida’s sugar-sand beaches may be ideal for supine roasting in endless sunshine, but the majority of visitors to laidback Sanibel Island strike a different pose: hunched at the hip, fossicking for treasures along the surf line. And the prize? Shells – billions of them.
In fact the abundance and astonishing range of shells along Sanibel’s Gulf shore frequently gain this mollusc graveyard plaudits as the finest shell-collecting beach in the world.
Even if you’re not an ardent malacologist, it’s well worth trotting to the surprisingly absorbing Baileys-Matthew National Shell Museum where, aside from learning how to distinguish your ponderous ark from your Humphrey wentletrap, you can read about the shockingly brutish and cannibalistic world of these predatory creatures, oggle at the world’s biggest whelk and take part in a live-tank demonstration.
5. Celebrate Christmas everyday at the Bubble Room
Sanibel and its neighbouring islands excel in themed restaurants – from the fine Doc Ford’s, themed after the fictional adventurer created by its novelist founder, to the eponymous inn on idyllic Cabbage Key, whose interior is smothered in thousands of signed dollar bills – but there’s none so camp, kitschy and weird as the Bubble Room.
The three floors of this Captiva institution are crammed in a kind of horror vacui with gloriously trashy Americana, veering from the charming to the downright creepy. One room is forever devoted to Christmas, with leering animatronic elves periodically sparking into life among the shadows; in another a full-sized deep-sea diver, bearing a huge mallet, seems poised to club unwary diners.
Oversized portions add to the sense of wooziness, though thankfully the menu veers more towards the quirky than the freaky; you’ll probably be stuffed after the obligatory starter of gooey, sticky cinnamon bun and cheesy bubble bread but try to save room for the spectacular red velvet cake.
6. Watch the greatest, littlest show on Earth
A young female acrobat, scantily clad in sequins and three inches high, has fallen off her bicycle; down clown alley a tentful of tiny pranksters – a coulrophobe’s nightmare – sit waiting for show time. Out on the miniature midway, as the calliope strikes up, carnival barkers advertise the sideshow performers (Kutty Singlee, Fire Proof Man from India; Baby Irene, 625lb of feminine charms); and across in the not-so-Big Top a packed crowd is dazzled by wild animals and daredevil performers.
Welcome to the world’s largest miniature circus, created over fifty years in a one-man labour of love by Howard C Tibbals, and housed in the museum complex of the magnificent Sarasota estate of circus impresario, John Ringling.
Tibbals handcrafted nearly a million pieces (and even today, aged 80, is still tinkering) to re-create a day in the life of the legendary Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey Circus at the height of its pomp. As you proceed through its various parts the intricate detail of each meticulous mise-en-scène can keep you occupied for hours.
Elsewhere on the estate, most famed for its glorious collection of European art, don’t miss the vast collection of Ringling circus memorabilia, which includes the silver truck from which famous human cannonball Zacchini was catapulted, and Ringling’s opulent 1920s Venetian-Gothic palazzo, Ca’ d’Zan, complete with a $50,000 self-playing Aeolian harp. With a bit of imagination, you’ll find you transported to the Adriatic.
Ed flew to Southwest Florida International Airport with Virgin Atlantic/Delta and stayed at the West Wind Inn on Sanibel. For further information and help with planning your trip see www.fortmyerssanibel.com.