For a variety of complicated reasons, husband J and I found ourselves this weekend at the luxurious Ponte Vedra Inn, just south of Jacksonville. Founded in 1928, the inn has the same feel as the Santa Maria Inn in Santa Maria, California – big reception room replete with model sail boats, backgammon tables, and overstuffed furniture designed to look like it’s been in some blue blooded family’s estate forever. Over the fireplace, there’s even a spooky painting of two young boys holding recently caught fish — the colors fade toward the bottom so they seem almost to be floating in some netherworld.
So with a fancy spa, a golf course, three pools and a beach with servers eager to bring iced drinks with umbrellas, where more logical to end up than on a seven mile hike by an estuary, our only travel companions a variety of biting flies, gigantic spiders, and most unwelcome of all, ticks.
I’d actually looked up the Guana Tolomato Matanzas National Estuarine Research Reserve (what a name) before we left and we’d already committed to ourselves we were going to do this hike on Saturday morning. We almost lured a couple of friends who were attending the same weekend event but at 7:15 am they thought better of it.
The first challenge was finding the darn place. One of the reviews I had read cryptically mentioned the directions in the hiking app were not correct – which we too discovered as we made our way past the opulent Ponte Vedra oceanfront homes into the reserve. Although there are three parking lots, none of them is the location of the trailheads. But persevere we did, and eventually figured out where the loop hike started. We saw a total of three other people on the trail – and then only at the very beginning. An amazingly uninhabited place — at least by humans.
The trail starts off through classic Florida palm hammocks, framed by live oaks and swaying Spanish moss. It was beautifully shady and the temperature wasn’t bad. The shades of green ranged from neon to hunter, and the canopy over the trail made it almost as though we were walking under a pergola in a landscaped park.
We’d covered ourselves in heavy duty bug spray but at a certain point my sweaty body apparently became too much for the flies and ticks to resist and I found myself pursued by an onslaught of flying and jumping creatures. After I literally ran several yards, hiking boots and all, to escape I decided covering up was the only answer. So I dutifully zipped the bottom parts of my hiking pants onto the shorts and donned my long sleeved shirt. I may have looked a bit like one of those eccentric old ladies who wear winter clothes regardless of the season, but the heat was infinitely preferable to the attack of the flies.
Shortly into the hike we passed a tree with two gigantic growths – if we were in Africa I would have thought they were some sort of termite mound, but here – perhaps overgrown mud dobber nests? Ideas? Photo is below.
The trail then winds its way by the edge of the river – part of the complicated intracoastal waterway system that hugs the east coast from Florida to Maine. The green of the water grasses is pale and you start to see yellow flowers, a welcome sight as summer is not the best time for flowers in the Florida woods.
Most amazing were the huge yellow and black spiders we kept seeing everywhere. Fortunately their elegantly spun webs tended to be set high between the trees, meaning even J only had a few encounters. But the spiders were about two inches in length, and seemed to be quite well fed.
After almost 7 miles there was still a further loop we could have done, but by then the insect wildlife was starting to pursue J, who had made the mistake of hiking without full body armor in his backpack. So we called it a morning and headed back to civilization.
But as I type this on my phone (my iPad having encountered yet another problem that will require a trip to, horror of horrors, the Genius Bar), and look out on the red tile roof of the resort and the sliver of ocean I can see through our window, I do keep thinking how much more I’d really prefer to be looking at the pale green of the river grasses and the deep comforting trunks of the live oaks.