Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Keeping It Real for Florida Residents and Tourists

A man escapes an alligator 
by climbing a palm tree 
in St. Augustine
Source: Univ. of Florida 
Digital Archives as seen at 
Old Florida’s Facebook page

When you live year round in a vacation mecca, your idea of what makes a place good to visit and what makes a place good to live in can come back to bite you. Welcome to Florida, where tourism meets everyday life on a daily basis. We don’t wrestle alligators, but we do grapple with the sometimes competing needs of residents and visitors.

My city of St. Augustine has been in the news a lot lately, popping up on all sorts of “Best Places to Visit” lists. With retirement on my mind, it made me think about what qualities we look for when we chose a place to live vs. a place to visit. I want to travel in retirement, but I also want to settle into a few places and get to know them.

Let’s see what the experts have to say. The April issue of Smithsonian Magazine ranks St. Augustine #3 on its list of “The 20 Best Small Towns to Visit in 2013.” It based its choice on culture - “the most intriguing small towns to enjoy arts and smarts…that have exceptional concentrations of museums, art galleries, orchestras, theaters, historic sites and other cultural blessings...the top towns also boast heartwarming settings where the air is a little fresher, the grass greener, the pace gentler…”

I can’t argue with that, and I’d add that those are some of the same qualities that make St. Augustine, or anywhere, good to live in as well as visit.
Larger than life vintage 
Florida postcards outside 
the Orange County Regional 
History Center, Orlando, Florida

Let’s check in with Fodor, the travel mavens. Last week, the company announced its “10 Best Small Towns in American” and St. Augustine is at #4. “…these hamlets are attracting visitors with an often unexpected—and surprisingly sophisticated—array of independent and locally-minded cultural, outdoor, and culinary offerings, all minus the urban price tags,” said the website. It included “criteria like population (all are under 50,000 people), and draws like great local eats, interesting museums and cultural points, and noteworthy natural attractions or outdoor adventures.”

So, again with the culture, small size, natural beauty and history, with the addition of good food. Again, count me in. Sounds perfect for visiting or living.

Back in 2009, US News and World Report focused on long-term habitation in its “Best Places to Live” list. The magazine looked at “areas with strong economies, low living costs, and plenty of fun things to do.” St. Augustine was #9 out of 10 based on “a highly educated workforce, world-class golfing nearby, and that refreshing Atlantic breeze.” Of course visitors also love fun things to do and Atlantic breezes, but this list adds some features that most tourists don’t spend a lot of time thinking about: local education, economy and living costs.
Original “tin-can” travel camper turned into a display 
at the Orange County Regional History Center, Orlando, Florida

All these variables line up pretty well with what I’ve learned from all the places I’ve lived over the years. I grew up in the suburbs of New York City, then spent five years in a university town. My husband and I stayed five years in a cabin on a dirt road in a town of a thousand, eight years on the fringes of a bustling, non-touristy city of 25,000 and 20 years in the midst of a city of 13,000 that draws five million visitors a year.

I want the place I live to have the same things tourists want, and then some. Because when you live somewhere, you care more about the place than a visitor does, but you also expect more of it. 
Vintage Florida tourism collage at the Orange County Regional History Center, Orlando, Florida

Last week we visited Orlando, a city that represents more than any in Florida the effects of tourism, for better or worse, on the state. We avoided the Big Mouse and the other theme parks far from the city center, and stayed at an original art deco apartment building within walking distance of downtown. We had a nice meal of delicious Thai food, watched an acoustic guitar player in a pub and walked around the lake at twilight as a hundred ibises settled in the trees for the night. 

The next day we visited the charming and well-done Orange County Regional History Center housed in the former county courthouse, built in 1927. It had about a half dozen visitors, in contrast to the tens of thousands at the theme parks and outlet malls a few miles away. We enjoyed the display dedicated to the tin-can tourists who started the tide of travelers almost a century ago. Aptly called “Destination Florida: Tourism Before Disney,” it reminded us that whether at home or on the road, we prefer real places with real histories and people who care about them. 

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