If you don’t consider the big theme parks, what would you say defines Florida? Oranges are so 1960s and the sun, while once a major feature of the state, is now simply too hot and dangerous. The beach is the major contender, but I’d like to put in a vote for the high-rise condos that are stacked along Florida’s popular beaches like towers of industry. Sun-smelting plants, as it were.
Absent the Everglades, the shrubby Nature Coast, and a handful of state parks, the entire coastline of Florida–1,197 miles of it–is a vertical city filled with condomium towers. It’s at its worst from Palm Beach to Miami, but even Florida’s “First Coast,” that area running from the Georgia border south to Marineland, looks as if someone let loose with dun-colored Lego.
One exception to this high-rise frenzy is Ponte Vedra Beach on what used to be known as the Guana River State Park and is now acronymically abbreviated as the GTMNERR, for the Guana Tolomato Matanzas National Estuarine Research Reserve. I have now spent 24 hours trying to work out how to pronounce the consonant-rich acronym and have decided it is impossible to do without either sounding inebriated or being mistaken for an Ubykh trying to learn English.
GTMNERR is protected from development and as such offers a wonderful view of what the First Coast was like before the building mania. It comprises 60,000 acres of beach, marsh, and mangroves wedged between Ponte Vedra and South Ponte Vedra, and while it looks substantial on a map, you can drive through it in a few minutes.
There are three parking lots with limited spaces and a boat launch on the marsh side where parking is prohibited unless you launch a boat. We paid a three-dollar fee to park at the north lot, scampered up the steps and across the road, and then climbed a staircase up and over the dunes. Below us stretched a glorious mixed sand/shell beach that on this March day was mostly unpopulated. There was no sense of condo encroachment and it seemed for all the world that we were, along with an old woman asleep in a beach chair, an earnest man with a metal detector, and a guy walking a small dog, the first explorers.
The weather was a warm 83 degrees, so I abandoned my hiking boots in favor of bare feet. (The combination of shorts and hiking boots has always made me feel like Beavis or Butthead, whichever.) I quickly ran into the water, mindful of a posted warning about jellyfish and whales. The area is a breeding ground for the endangered right whale. If there were any in the vicinity we didn’t see them, although an observation platform at the top of the staircase would be an ideal place to watch them blow off some steam.
I quickly found out that ark shells are sharp, so when I came out of the water I put my flip-flops on and we walked for half an hour, or until I got too hot. This is always a “whichever comes first” scenario with me as we get into the warmer months. By the time we got back to the car I had the beginnings of a heat headache that would stay with me for the rest of the day.
After leaving the north lot, we drove through the reserve and ended up in South Ponte Vedra. The number of beachside homes for sale seemed an ominous indicator that something has gone very, very wrong with the world. It appears that the seaside inhabitants are bailing water at a rapid rate and I wonder, given the state of the economy, if South Ponte Vedra and places like it will turn into maritime ghost towns in the very near future. Or perhaps they will be turned into federally funded motels for the five days of vacation the typical American worker gets each year. There’d be a lottery for this or for cabins in the Minnesota woods or for a campsite in New Jersey. Depends on luck and whether you meet your work quota.
Be very aware of other drivers while within the reserve. They treat this stretch of road like a drag race despite the presence of police patrol. Slowing down and signaling to turn into the parking lots only magnifies their competitive tendencies. I was nearly slammed from behind by a guy I barely had in my rearview when I started to slow down. So anxious was he that he zipped his sporty Mercedes off the road to get around me.
If you visit: Traffic on the A1A heading south from J. Turner Butler Blvd. is very slow. At the beach, there is limited parking in each of three official lots. No roadside parking. Single Porta-Potties in each parking lot (NB: I preferred it when these were called “Johnny on the Spot.”)