After our recent freezing weather, many tourists would question using "paradise" and "Florida" in the same breath. Hundreds of disappointed visitors around the state packed up and went back North. After all, why pay big bucks to freeze in the Sunshine State if you can go home to Ohio and freeze for free?
As a native, I see Florida as paradise despite the occasional freezing weather, egg-frying heat on summer days, hurricanes, tornadoes, lightning storms, swarms of blood-sucking mosquitoes and waves of love bugs that ruin your car's paint.
I have lived in several other states, but I always find my way back to Florida. Few other states possess our spectacular ecology, our social and cultural diversity, our unique entertainment venues and our varied and vital agricultural industries.
Florida is the world's top travel destination, but many visitors stick to the coasts and never see what we natives refer to as "real Florida" or "Old Florida." While our 663 miles of beaches are major attractions, the majority of these beaches are not part of real Florida. Most are near an interstate and major cities and are so commercialized that they have become mere amusement parks.
To see real Florida, you have to leave the interstate and take the blue highways and back roads. You have to ride the trains. You have to explore some of our 11,000 miles of rivers, streams and waterways by small boat or canoe or kayak. We also have hundreds of miles of hiking trails, and I can tell you from experience that the trails in Ocala National Forest are exceptional.
Last week, I visited Fort Pierce and Vero Beach. As always when I make this trip from St. Petersburg, I take State Road 70, which spans five counties across the peninsula. Once you clear the ugly sprawl of the Lakewood Ranch and Panther Ridge developments, the road becomes two lanes, and you begin to see a part of real Florida, passing through Myakka City and Pine Level. Here, many people work on the land.
You see a lot of open space and wood-frame structures dating to 1950, the last year that cows could legally roam freely throughout the state. You have entered a major part of Florida cattle and dairy country. Most people, including many natives, do not know Florida is one of the nation's major cow-calf producers and ranks 12th in the nation in the number of beef cows.
Between Arcadia and Okeechobee, vistas of green open space stretch beneath blue skies as far as you can see, creating the kind of living beauty captured on postcards. Here, I passed three different ranches and saw dozens of real cowboys driving and herding cattle, just like in the movies.
In addition to the food they provide, Florida ranchers along SR 70, like other ranchers statewide, are dedicated stewards of tens of thousands of acres of pastureland and grazed woodland. This land provides much of the state's "green space" for hundreds of animal and plant species, and it is used as an aquifer recharge area.
All along SR 70 from Arcadia to Fort Pierce, there are thousands of acres of citrus groves, all part of the industry that produces 75 percent of U.S. oranges and accounts for about 40 percent of the world's orange juice supply. Our groves, like our grazing lands, provide havens for countless species of wildlife.
In several sprawling groves, I saw crews of pickers climbing ladders to harvest our precious crop. On the road, semitrailer trucks roared east and west hauling the fruit to packing houses and juice facilities.
Real Florida is a place of natural beauty, where we have not backfilled our swamps, bulldozed our trees, butchered our mangroves, scraped away our shorelines and paved over our grasslands, all for the sake of development.
To see this Florida, you need to head to the interior on the back roads, where land is respected, not so often abused for profit.