By Mike Braswell
Staring directly into the glaring sun, I could only make out the silhouettes of the large birds perched on the power lines that ran parallel to old A1A. Immediately, my brain signaled that something looked out of place, but it took a second to compute. Ah, now I had it; many of these birds were suspended upside down from the power lines, something I didn't see in Georgia. As I moved a little closer, what I saw became clear. These were wild, vivid green parrots! Yes, parrots in Florida! Their ancestors had escaped captivity many generations prior and thrived in the tropical climates of Florida.
A few miles south of Saint Augustine is a place called Mantanzas Inlet. A place with an intriguing history and abundant natural beauty. I have been to California beaches, Caribbean beaches, and every beach up and down the Eastern coastline. Still, I have never seen anything that compares to the beach along the Mantanzas Inlet in Florida.
A fully preserved strip of old Florida A1A remains in this area, parallel to the ocean. The old beach houses look as they did in the early sixties when folks traveled deep into Florida via this historic highway. Walking down that strip of pavement takes you back to those olden days when Florida's coast was an exotic destination for a child from Swainsboro, Georgia. A time before resorts and theme parks changed Florida forever.
Interstates didn't exist, and travel was as exciting as reaching your destination. When travel was a pleasure, life generally was much less hectic. This area brings that all back if you allow it to.
The beach at Mantanzas is not your typical beach of sand and water. However, there is enough to satisfy those who expect nothing more. The far end of the beach looks like every other beach on the East Coast. However, the end closest to Saint Augustine is covered with rock formations partly submerged in shallow pools of water. Many sea creatures get left behind in the clear, shallow pools when the tide goes out. Sea Turtles, Sea Horses, tiny fishes, and even octopi get trapped temporarily by the receding tide. Seeing these animals in their natural habitat is much more rewarding than visiting an aquarium.
The area is also a sanctuary for gopher tortoises. Yes, the same species that make their home in our Ohoopee Dunes area. A mile-long wooden walkway stretches over the habitat of the tortoises. This habitat is identical to our own Ohoopee Dunes, with similar flora and fauna. The same plants and animals in Georgia's inland Ohoopee Dunes area also thrive here alongside the ocean in Mantanzas Inlet. Evidence (at least to me) that our Hoopee Dunes were once great beaches alongside a sea that has long since retreated. The ageless gopher tortoise opted to stay even after the saltwater crept away, perhaps the first to notice our area's beauty.
Like our Ohoopee Dunes, these sandy beaches along Florida's A1A below Augustine are home to cacti and other plants that thrive in sand. Raccoons and Eastern Fence Lizards scurry about along the sandy dunes in search of a meal. Bald Eagles ride the tidal winds above, their colossal nests visible in distant trees along the water's edge.
Overhead small flocks of pink Spoonbills can be seen in flight. It is easy to imagine that these same birds once thrived along the Ohoopee Dunes so many years ago before the ocean retreated. All of this natural beauty is less than four hours from us. It feels like a different planet in some ways. Yet, those who have spent time in our own Ohoopee Dunes will soon feel at home in this hauntingly familiar habitat.
Of course, there is also St. Augustine's rich and exciting history to explore. So much great seafood as well. We can never omit a trip to Osteen's when we visit. We know to bring cash because that's all they take. Of course, they have finally installed an ATM behind the restaurant for those unaware of the currency requirement.
No trip to the area would be complete without a visit to the Alligator Farm, which is much more than the name implies. The alligator attractions are fantastic, but the vast array of exotic birds that freely make their homes there is phenomenal. Great and beautiful waterfowl of every species native to Florida live within the vast complex. Bring your camera in with you. You will get up close and personal with nesting birds precariously perched over thousands of gators. There is even a zip line over the swampy gator habitat for the foolish or Bravehearts among us.
The short distance from here may entice you to make St. Augustine a weekend trip, but I suggest an entire week. Many Air BnBs are available that house as many as ten or more. Splitting the costs between the adults and cooking many of your own meals makes this area a genuine value. We have to go at least once a year, which is always rewarding.