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Look It Up before You Go


© St. Petersburg Times

Armchair traveling can be more fun, or exasperating, when you plow through a set of guidebooks to a familiar place -- say, Florida. Here's a look at a half-dozen recent suggestions on viewing our state. Any two, cross-referenced to a more-standard work such as the AAA TourBook, will help you discover places worth visiting.

-- Ulysses Press publishes a series of worthy guides whose titles begin with the word "Hidden," and thus we have the fifth edition of Hidden Florida. It should be a staple of everyone's Sunshine State library.

One of its advantages is that three of its four authors have strong Florida ties. That gives them more knowledge than the typical tour-for-a-month carpetbaggers who flit about the country issuing books on different states every other year. In Hidden Florida, the prose isn't too flowery, the history is correct and there are plenty of recommendations for places off the beaten path.

Hidden Florida, Fifth Edition, published by Ulysses Press. 529 pages, with maps, no photos, but separate indexes for lodging and dining by name of establishment, plus general index with eating/sleeping listed for each city. $16.95.

-- More specialized is a guide in another series by a different publisher, the Florida Family Adventure Guide. Author Chelle Koster Walton, who lives on Sanibel with her husband and son, is one of the co-authors of the Hidden Florida book mentioned above.

Thinking like a parent with one hand on her purse, Walton alerts her readers to "Florida's excellent and extensive state park system" on the second page of the introduction. The next page, which begins the section on Northwest Florida, reports that Panhandle area "boasts the most state parks, recreation areas, historic sites, and national wildlife refuges, affording the adventurous family endless latitude for fun and meaningful vacations."

I have researched books in this series twice for family trips, and I've learned to rely on the "best-of" lists that appear in each chapter: top family adventures, beaches and parks, annual events, family resorts.

I can quibble with some items -- I'd rank Tampa's extensive Museum of Science and Industry above St. Petersburg's vest-pocket Great Explorations museum, and I would include the fascinating hodge-podge of the Lightner Museum in St. Augustine above the staid Spanish Quarter Museum there. But Walton also tells you how to tour a Navy ship (in Mayport) and where the kids can buy "space food" (at the Kennedy Space Center). And there are nine time-saving indexes, by type of attraction, in addition to the general list.

Florida Family Adventure Guide, by Chelle Koster Walton; published by Globe Pequot Press. 229 pages, some black and white photos and maps, 10 indexes. $11.95.

-- For those travelers at the other end of the age range, there is this advice:

"Ideally, you should not visit Disney World with children your first time. Not only will you enjoy it on your own terms, but when you return with children, you'll see it through new eyes."

This is from The Mature Traveler's Guide to Walt Disney World. Author Kerry Smith writes for Disney Magazine and a Florida retirement magazine and declares in the preface that this guide is "pro-Disney," figuring you would not be reading it if you did not plan to go there. But overall he comes down on the consumer's side.

Smith believes his mature readers would want to experience Disney and other Orlando attractions less on a time or money budget than with the objective of feeling satisfied afterward. Accordingly, Smith advises, determine what you want to do and what you expect to have gained from the experience, then plan your trip time.

To help first-timers make those plans, each ride or attraction is given an overall satisfaction rating of A through E (a nostalgic reference to the defunct ride-ticket system), and each is also profiled as to the amount of motion, line and waiting time, and wheelchair access.

Chapters on individual parks include a "don't miss" list, descriptions of every restaurant and guides for folks "who hate roller coasters" or just want to avoid the longest waiting times.

Similar information appears in many theme-park guides, and certainly it applies to anyone, young or old, who does not plan to race through the park. But this publication is fresh.

The Mature Traveler's Guide to Walt Disney World, by Kerry Smith; published by Mercurial Press. 308 pages, including brief descriptions of other Orlando-area attractions. An index, no photos, one insufficient map. $13.95

-- Eliot Kleinberg, a Florida native, says the odds are 2-1 that you can't claim that same distinction. So for the two-thirds of the state's non-native residents -- oh, heck, for all of us -- the Palm Beach Post reporter has published a readable collection of his brief history articles.

In his Historical Traveler's Guide to Florida, readers learn the story behind John Gorrie, the 19th-century physician who patented an invention that he hoped would treat the dreaded yellow fever -- but his precursor to modern ice-making found no supporters.

Readers are likely to slow their pace in the chapter quoting poignant letters between Civil War soldier Winston Stevens and his young, pregnant bride, Octavia. He would be killed in battle, and within days -- the same day her mother would die -- the young widow would give birth to the Stevens' only child. The large number of letters is considered among the most valuable of Civil War collections.

Another chapter recounts how promoter Dick Pope drained swamp to fashion Cypress Gardens in the middle of the Depression and then, decades later, invited Walt Disney for a look-see. Disney stood at the entrance, clicker in hand, to tally the customers, and Pope figured that the huge Walt Disney World could only bring more traffic to his much-simpler attraction.

Tampa Bay chapters -- most of the articles are two or three pages long -- deal with the Don CeSar, Plant Hotel, Ybor City, the antebellem Gamble Mansion, Ringling Museum and (taking a big step back in history) a look at the disputed memorial to explorer Hernando DeSoto. He wasn't born here, either.

Historical Traveler's Guide to Florida, by Eliot Kleinberg; published by Pineapple Press. 235 pages, including index by type of site visited, plus general index, black and white photos, limited maps. Each chapter includes a bibliography for follow-up reading, plus appropriate celebration dates, phones and addresses. $14.95.

-- Not every place worth visiting in Florida has a theme park, beach or even a historical marker. Florida writer Bruce Hunt reports on 39 communities that are just good places to walk through or relax.

Visiting Small-Town Florida divides the state into three regions, with a good map for each that shows the communities mentioned. The end of each chapter gives driving directions and repeats points of interest.

The writing style is strictly first-person, so unless you feel like traveling the state with Hunt, this book can get cloying. His choices, too, may be open to debate. He says he omitted Tarpon Springs and Amelia Island/Fernandina Beach because he believes them to have fallen into suburbia.

Visiting Small-Town Florida, by Bruce Hunt; published by Pelican Press. 210 pages, numerous black and white photos, some maps and detailed driving directions. Index plus an appendix that lists worthy places to eat and stay, addresses for more information. $14.95

-- For understatement, consider this description of St. Petersburg's climate: "The warm summer months, June through September, see afternoon rain showers." This is the general, uncritical, tone of The Florida Gulf Coast/Travel-Smart Trip Planner, by seasonal Clearwater resident Jan Kirby.

A Floridian -- at least part-time -- for 40 years, the former Times reporter looks at 14 communities along the Gulf Coast, from Pensacola to Naples. Hers is a middle-brow approach; each chapter includes a priority list of sights to see, but also parks and recreation, campgrounds as well as hotels and motels. The lodgings and restaurants cross the economic spectrum -- from the AAA-rated four-star Don CeSar Beach Resort to the two-star Falcon Motel on Clearwater Beach, from the neighborhood closeness of El Cap in St. Petersburg to Bern's Steakhouse.

Each city chapter includes a helpful street map with sights, restaurants and hotels noted, with the legend to these notations on the facing page, followed by descriptions. The front cover is a helpful, foldout, full-color map of the state.

The Florida Gulf Coast Travel-Smart Trip Planner, by Jan Kirby; published by John Muir Publications. 218 pages, no photos but numerous, detailed maps, suggested driving routes, index. $14.95.

Originally published August 3, 1997

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