Sunday, October 07, 2007

Florida Panhandle ’07

Last week I took a press trip to the Florida Panhandle. Though I’ve been a member of the press for some years, this was my first honest-to-God press trip, which consists of a sponsor taking journalists around somewhere, feeding them, and showing them something. Later, the same journalists write about that something, which is typically related to the press trip sponsor – an example would be a tourist board showing its destination off. It's a common m.o. in the travel writing business, I understand.

I suppose a journalist could take a press trip and then not bother to write about anything he saw on it. I suspect nothing bad would happen to him, except he wouldn’t be invited on any more press trips.

The sites we saw were real estate developments – perfectly appropriate for me. But I won’t go into details about the trip sponsor or its developments here. That’s for elsewhere. Enough to say that I appreciate the effort and expense they took in showing us around. They treated us right, and they’re developing some interesting properties.

On October 1, a regional jet took me from O’Hare directly to the small airport near Ft. Walton Beach, which is near the better-known Destin, Florida. Then one of the organizers of the trip and I drove in a rental car partly down Florida 30A to a town near the famed Seaside, Florida, where we stayed two nights with the other journalists at one of the sponsor’s developments. People buy properties there mostly as second homes, but actually the property I stayed in was large enough for a family to live in full time.

On October 3, we headed east in a small convoy along the coast on US 98, eventually arriving at the wonderfully named Apalachicola, Florida, for the last overnight. The next day we saw one more property up the coast, and then I caught a flight back to Chicago, via Atlanta, in Tallahassee.

In terms of weather, it wasn’t much of a transition from northern Illinois to northwestern Florida, since it’s been a warm early October up here – and still is, in the upper 80s today. Otherwise, it was quite a switch. A switch to light traffic along two-lane highways through miles of slash pines, dunes so white they were albino, and places with cheese grits on the menu. Most days, I don’t feel like a white seersucker suit and a Panama hat or a straw boater would be anything but strange on me, but it would have been just the thing on the humid balcony of the century-old Coombs Hotel in Apalachicola, overlooking enormous trees and their Spanish moss. Most nights, I can’t see that many stars or smell the sea, but I had that pleasure the first night, so much so that I didn’t mind being lost on foot in the little town for a few minutes.

On the whole, my traveling companions were intelligent company, and the people who showed us the various properties were knowledgeable about local matters, so I heard about things I probably wouldn’t have on my own, even if I didn’t experience them firsthand. Such as the intense interest in sport fishing for redfish along that part of Florida coast, or the creation of an enormous artificial reef south of Pensacola by the sinking of the decommissioned carrier Oriskany last year, or the nether world of countless dead cypress stumps in the remote Dead Lakes region of the panhandle. Or my own favorite, the Worm Gruntin' Festival of Sopchoppy, Florida.

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