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Florida’s hidden treasure

One can only imagine Florida’s pristine surroundings and undisturbed beauty when Ponce De Leon landed in 1513 near what is now St. Augustine. The Spanish explorer was seeking the fountain of youth and believed he had set foot on an island. After seeing all the flowers, he named the new territory Florida (in Spanish, it means flowery) and claimed it for the King of Spain. Ponce De Leon never found his fountain on that trip and after sailing through the Keys to Cuba, he returned to Spain.Still thirsting for his fountain of youth, De Leon came back to “Florida” five years later and landed on the Gulf, where he was met by a hostile group of Native Americans. He was shot with an arrow. He died six months later.A lot has happened to Florida since, but there is one constant: that sought-after fountain of youth.Florida has attracted the over-60 crowd for years. Some go seeking the fountain of youth; others content with warm sun, sand and sea and the breathtaking foliage that captured De Leon.Seniors seeking sun prompted Florida’s reputation as a winter haven for retirees. They were dubbed snowbirds – cold climate dwellers in exile from the Midwest, the East Coast and the north.Florida embraced older Americans. The more well-to-do seniors grabbed spots on the coast, and others found their piece of the pie inland.Florida also embraced tourism. As the state gained popularity as a tropical paradise, high-rise hotels, restaurants and retail shops started lining the seashores. Concrete buildings framed the southern beaches of Florida.Today, as snowbirds age and return to their nests to be close to their sons and daughters, baby boomers – a generation hell bent on finding the fountain of youth – are scooping up properties. Florida’s real estate market is thriving, despite hurricanes and inner-city crime. According to the National Association of Realtors, areas like Tampa, Fort Myers and Sarasota are way above the national average for single-family home median sales prices.Today, an affordable home in Florida is as endangered as the Everglades.For the visitor, however, there is a part of Florida reminiscent of the past. It’s called the Nature Coast. Its promoted on its Web site as the place “where cute critters aren’t animated or mechanical, but the real thing, including 19 endangered or threatened species; where thrilling water rides are unpredictable only because of the thrills of nature; where quaint villages and Native American sites are the real thing; where spectacular sunsets over the Gulf of Mexico stand in place of the glare of neon.”Unspoiled Florida – where the panhandle curves downward – stretches all the way to Pasco County, just 35 miles north of Tampa.One can kayak on the Nature Coast to islands covered with thick brush. Or canoe through clear rivers and observe turtles basking on overhanging tree branches or alligators napping on the banks. Relax on a beach where the scenery is naturally rich and void of concrete landscapes.Manatee-lovers can observe the massive ocean creature in its natural habitat, but there is an unwritten rule of silence. Bird watchers will delight in a variety of feathered species.Pine Island is a popular beach where cyclists, motorcyclists, hikers, swimmers, sailors, kayakers, fisherman all converge to bask in the sun or float on the smooth, calm Gulf water.During spring, summer and fall months, visitors may find a music festival or an outdoor art show.There is tranquility on this coast – so different from the hustle and bustle of its neighboring coasts to the south.On the southern edge of the Nature Coast sits the picturesque Greek fishing village, Tarpon Springs, known for its sponge docks that grace the saltwater bayous. The quaint area harbors a delightful blend of antique and novelty shops and family owned Greek restaurants.The beach at Tarpon Springs – Sunset Beach – is touted as one of the best environmentally cared-for beaches worldwide. To get to the beach, one must wind through a beautiful, unspoiled state park, dense with lush Pine, Oak, Palm and Cypress trees. As you meander out of the park, a three-mile long bridge that separates the park from the beach takes you to a rather secluded span of white sand bordered by the blue-green waters of the ocean. Tiny isolated islands can be spotted amid the vast expanse of the ocean.It’s not for the weak – there are no hotels or restaurants visible to the human eye or anywhere near Sunset Beach.The Nature Coast and Tarpon Springs are far from a Key West, a Miami or a Daytona Beach. They are places that draw nature lovers, environmentalists and history buffs. They are truly the flowery state’s hidden treasures.For more information on Florida’s Nature Coast and Tarpons Springs, visit or

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