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Plunge into the Real Florida
(2015 - Winter Issue)

Writer: Ilona Kauremszky

Nothing captures your attention more than a gulp of salty brine while paddleboarding along Florida’s Intracoastal Waterway downstream from millionaire row. So what happened?

I tumbled off my stand-up paddleboard despite the skilful chant from my ace instructor at Blueline Surf and Paddle Company, “Paddle hard left.” Out of no-where, a careening wave from an oncoming boat tossed this newbie paddleboarder overboard into the cool waters like a slinky. However, I would come to learn this refreshing dip would serve me well on my outdoor adventure quest across Palm Beach County.

Renowned for its celebrity cast of glitterati whose luxurious mansions lace the bling-rich island of Palm Beach, Palm Beach County has been a vacation magnet for A-listers, such as the Kennedys and more recently Tiger Woods, ever since the oil and railroad baron Henry Flagler established the tony Breakers Hotel.

These days this popular seasonal holiday hub off southern Florida’s Atlantic coast has been busy reeling in eco lovers too. Just two hours south of Orlando and one hour north of Miami, time spent in the Palm Beaches is the best way to experience Florida’s natural riches as I discovered on a recent trip that had me scanning the county in the most fascinating, non-motorized ways.

Pedal Pushing Sacred Ground

Road trippers and air travellers can stretch their loins with an easy cycling tour of Riverbend Park. Near the Jupiter Country Club by the legendary Loxahatchee River, pronounced “locks-ah” (turtle) and “hatchee” (river) by the Seminole Indians, almost 16 kilometres of marked compacted shell rock trails snake through this verdant oasis, which blends history and nature into one experience. Reminiscent of Old Florida, meandering paths weave by saltwater mangroves past thick tufts of cypress tree swamps. The temperature dips a few Celsius by the Reese Boulevard Trail, a spectacular canopied floodplain route along a long causeway. 

Plan a couple of hours of sightseeing and visit a recreated Seminole Indian Village, which bears witness to the ancient Seminole Indian territory. Observe the park’s last peacock, a final testament to the area’s orange grove days, but be mindful of the alligator signage. A fantastically rich park for birdwatching, more than 200 bird species can be sighted here. Within minutes, I discovered a bald eagle perched high and noticed egrets and ospreys.

Only minutes away from the traffic and one mile west from the busy I-95/Florida Turnpike Interchange, the park remains a jewel in Palm Beach County’s crown. My favourite moment was spotting the rare cardinal airplant, a native flora in Florida.

A Paddler’s Paradise

The sound of the paddle dipping into the cognac waters was the only manmade sound at the Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge. The rest belonged to Mother Nature. Located in western Boynton Beach, this wilderness gem is the only surviving portion of the northern Everglades so expect an isolated paradise rife with critters. 

Alligator spotting is guaranteed thanks to “George,” the four-metre-long predator who lazily dozes off beneath the wooden pier, his favourite hangout.

The entire refuge, laden in thick rivers of grass, is a massive tapestry, which weaves together unspoiled sawgrass with native fish and wildlife. During mating season, you can spot ’gators, mostly babies, sunning among the sawgrass off any nautical channel. Remember to take your binoculars for some stunning close-up views. Visitors can experience the natural splendour via a marked nine-kilometre paddling trail. Inquire about paddling conditions and popular routes at the canoe rental by the refuge canoe launch. 

Turtle Gazing

Checkers, an endangered green sea turtle, made a splash at the Loggerhead Marinelife Center in Juno Beach on the day of our visit. Situated on one of the most densely nested loggerhead turtle nesting sites in the United States, this ocean conservation centre is dedicated to saving sea turtles. Visitors are welcome to participate in daily programs and view rehabilitating sea turtles. One curious loggerhead turtle named Codder surprised me as it surfaced loudly exhaling into my camera lens.

Over at Singer Island in North Palm Beach on legendary Jack Nicklaus Drive, the nearly three-kilometre  swath known as the John D. MacArthur Beach State Park has been pegged as “the real Florida” for its beautiful natural beach and rich wilderness reserve.

Luck was with me the day I toured Palm Beach County’s only state park. Considered a prime spot for sea turtle nests, some mama turtles arrived earlier at dusk to lay their eggs. As I traipsed on the soft sand toward a mound cordoned off by park staff, I realized this was one of the protected loggerhead sea turtle nests. Faintly imprinted into the sand, its tracks were the only testament to this magical moment. The revelation was priceless.

It’s true what they say about Palm Beach County. You only need to get off the beaten track to experience the “real” Florida. Here, I discovered an unexpected wilderness as I plunged into a natural paradise hidden in a world of fantasy.

Travel Planner

Discover more about the Palm Beaches and create your personalized itinerary at  PalmBeachFL.com. For accommodation, consider the  Jupiter Beach Resort & Spa (jupiterbeachresort.com).

For more information on various eco excursions in the county, check out:

Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge: fws.gov/refuge/arm_loxahatchee

Blueline Surf and Paddle Company: bluelinesurf.com

John D. MacArthur Beach State Park: floridastateparks.org/park/MacArthur-Beach

Loggerhead Marinelife Center: marinelife.org 

Riverbend Park: pbcgov.com/parks/locations/riverbend.htm

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