Thursday, December 14, 2017
Things To Do

Funky Floridiana: Weirdly wonderful attractions along the way

As a state where tourism is big business, it's not surprising that Florida offers a lot of attractions. Some are natural, like the climate, the beaches, the Everglades. Some are man-made — the theme parks, the hotels, the golf courses. • Then there are a few that downright odd. Usually these are someone's quirky creations, and most are worth a look if you happen to be traveling the area. Besides, a visit to any of these spots makes for good retelling. • Here then is a selection of the oddest attractions in Florida. All are free unless otherwise noted.

Jay Clarke, special to the Times

WHIMZEYLAND, Safety Harbor

As you would expect from its name, this is a place full of whimsy. Over the years artists Todd Ramquist and Kiaralinda have turned their home into a colorful, fairy-tale-like site with recycled pieces of mirrors, bottles, tiles, glass and — of all things — painted bowling balls.

"We've been artists our whole lives,'' explained Ramquist, who said that a lot of their inspiration came from trips they took. "We travel a lot.''

Their home and studio, called WhimzeyLand, is a riot of colors and unusual artistic creations. There are two "bottle trees,'' each sprouting almost 100 blue bottles. Strings of beads hang down and colorful wooden triangles outline roof eaves. Also on view is a "WhimZoo'' of sculptured animals. Not all of the artistic works are by Ramquist and Kiaralinda; other artists have contributed.

The most striking exhibits are of the decorated bowling balls. "We have almost 1,000 of them now,'' Ramquist said. In fact, the home is also known as the Bowling Ball House. About 120 artists have contributed.

Ramquist, Kiaralina and a number of volunteers are building a nonprofit art center out of recycled materials in town. Ramquist expects it to open this fall.

No admission to their home is charged. "People just wander around," Ramquist said, but can enter the house only when the duo are home.

1206 Third St., Safety Harbor; kiaralinda.com.

SPOOK HILL, Lake Wales

Space isn't the only place where man can defy gravity. Folks in Lake Wales say anyone can do it at Spook Hill. All you have to do is drive to the base of the hill, put your car into neutral and watch it roll uphill. It's an optical illusion, of course, and what appears to human eyes to be uphill is really downhill. Still, it's a disturbing sensation.

N Wales Drive, Lake Wales (marker on east side of N Wales/Fifth Street, a quarter-mile south of State Road 17/Burns Ave.); spookhill.info/index.htm.

HOLLOW EARTH, Estero

Once upon a time, there were people who believed Earth was a hollow sphere and that mankind was living inside it. The sky? It was the inside earth's dome. Gravity was nonsense; they thought centrifugal force held them to the ground.

That was the theory of Cyrus Teed, who also was convinced he was the Messiah. Teed came to the southwest Florida town of Estero, near Fort Myers, in the 1890s to found a sect based on his beliefs, which he called Koreshan Unity. Koreshanity reached its peak from 1900 to 1910, when the settlement numbered several hundred people and had 40 buildings. But the movement never caught on, especially after Teed didn't rise from the dead as his followers expected after his death in 1908.

The last four survivors of the cult deeded the property to the state of Florida in 1961. It is now Koreshan State Park, and visitors can see the six buildings that survived as well as a few of the cult's strange artifacts, including a model of the "rectilineator,'' an apparatus the Koreshans used to "prove'' Earth was concave.

3800 Corkscrew Road, Estero; floridastateparks.org/koreshan.

BAT TOWER, Sugarloaf Key

Then and now, mosquitoes can be a problem in the Florida Keys, particularly marsh mosquitoes, which are big, black and hungry. So back in 1929, a Keys fishing camp owner named Richter Perky dreamed up a way to get rid of the pesky insects: bats. So he built a 30-foot-high bat house on Sugarloaf Key. To lure the creatures to their new home, he stocked it with special bait, said to be a mixture of bat guano with ground-up female bat sex organs. Bats never cottoned to Perky's tower or to his smelly bat bait. They simply flew off, and today the bat tower survives as a monument to one man's batty vision.

Bat Tower Road (at Mile Marker 17, bayside), Lower Sugarloaf Key; v-e-n-u-e.com/the-bat-tower.

CORAL CASTLE, Homestead

When the 16-year-old girl he fell in love with spurned him, a 5-foot-tall Latvian immigrant named Edward Leedskalnin spent more than 20 years creating a garden of massive coral blocks in the hope that his beloved would return to him. The blocks, each weighing 6 to 30 tons, were placed in unusual configurations, some atop each other, and some were carved in shapes like a crescent moon.

In an age when power tools and cranes were not available, Leedskalnin excavated, carved and stacked all these odd rock structures without help. To this day, no one knows how the Latvian, who weighed only 100 pounds, did it. Today his garden is an oft-visited tourist attraction.

28655 S Dixie Highway, Homestead; coralcastle.com. Adults, $15, seniors, $12, and children ages 7-12, $7.

SKUNK APE HEADQUARTERS, Ochopee

What's a skunk ape? It's a big, smelly, hairy humanoid that lives in the Everglades' Big Cypress Swamp, according to Dave Shealy, who runs the Skunk Ape Research Headquarters in Ochopee as well as a campground. Though most scientists think the skunk ape, like Bigfoot, is just another myth, Shealy says he not only has seen the creatures but has photographed and videotaped them. He displays a plaster cast of a skunk ape footprint at his headquarters, which also sells a DVD of his photos along with Skunk Ape T-shirts and other mementos.

Shealy estimates that seven to nine skunk apes live in the swamp, each of them 6 to 7 feet tall and weighing 350 to 400 pounds. "They do not move at night,'' he said. "They go up in trees.''

Up to 8,000 visitors a year drop into the headquarters to learn more about the skunk ape, Shealy says. The building also serves as his campground office, and he has a small zoo there.

A lot has been written about his claims, and Shealy says a story about the skunk ape is currently on Smithsonian.com and that a segment was on the Weather Channel this month. Shealy's headquarters is on the Tamiami Trail (U.S. 41), 58 miles west of Miami's Krome Avenue.

40904 Tamiami Trail, Ochopee; skunkape.info.

SMALLEST POST OFFICE, Ochopee

Not far from the Skunk Ape Research Headquarters is this tiny post office housed in a 7- by 8-foot onetime shed. Despite its size, "We can do any services other post offices do,'' said Shannon Mitchell, the officer in charge.

Of course, the post office is a tourist attraction as well, and Mitchell says she gets up to 70 visitors a day, including some busloads. The post office is open from 8 to 10 a.m. and noon to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday and 10 to 11 a.m. Saturdays.

38000 Tamiami Trail (U.S. 41), Ochopee; florida-everglades.com/postoffice.htm.

MONUMENT OF STATES, Kissimmee

In the early days of World War II, Dr. Charles Bressler-Pettis wanted a physical symbol of American unity, so he wrote letters to every governor asking them to send rocks from their states. In 1943 he built a 50-foot-high monument in Lakefront Park stacked with brightly colored concrete slabs, each with a state rock imbedded in it. In addition to the state rocks, Pettis added rocks he and his wife had collected.

Rocks kept coming to him even after Pettis died, and today the surrounding walkways display rocks from 21 countries, from some large corporations, and from the postwar states of Alaska and Hawaii.

Lakefront Park, 200 E Monument Ave., Kissimmee; experiencekissimmee.com.

SOLOMON'S CASTLE, Ona

You wouldn't expect to find a structure like this in a swamp — or indeed anywhere at all. But that's where Solomon's Castle stands in DeSoto County, 12 miles from Ona, a town east of Bradenton. Built by sculptor Howard Solomon, it's not really a castle, but a structure made out of odd materials, among them car parts, tin cans and other scrap metal. Shiny metal plates used in newspaper printing cover the exterior of the three-story, 12,000-square-foot structure that Solomon started building as his home in 1972.

"I've built things all my life,'' said Solomon, who retired at age 37 and now has four generations of his family living on his property. "I have 300 of my sculptures in the house.'' They can be seen on the 35-minute tour of the living quarters offered to visitors.

He didn't intend for his home to become a big tourist attraction, but that's what it has become. He now has a restaurant seating 250 people housed in the replica of a Spanish galleon that he built. Part of the restaurant is a lighthouse he also built that seats 55 people. His daughter runs the restaurant, and her home on the property is a bed-and-breakfast. "It looks like chocolate on the outside,'' he noted.

Now Solomon, who owns some old cars, plans to open an antique car museum on his property. His criterion: "They all will have to be older than me.'' That means 1915 to 1935, he said.

High season for the castle is January to Easter. It closes in July and reopens in October. Admission is $10 for adults, $4 for children.

4588 Solomon Road, Ona; solomonscastle.org.

Jay Clarke, the former travel editor of the Miami Herald, is a freelance writer based in Coral Gables.

   
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