Juli Cragg Hilliard

Hot Times, Cool Places

Florida’s protracted and intense summer commands us to slow down. But that does not mean we have to withdraw completely into the artificial chill of homes, malls and movie theaters.
Pacing ourselves, we can venture to destinations with their own definitions of cool — whether they take us out of the swelter, back in time, deep in nature, or into a child’s world of play.
Style your explorations with a distinctive shady hat, sunblock, and, always, a bottle of water. Savor the five spots below one at a time, then call it a day. What better occasion to explore than in off-season? For now, you may beat the crowd. And that, friends, is always the epitome of cool.

G.T. Bray Aquatic Center splash park

Mind you, we would never malign the beach. We go there any time we can. But when you’re not in the mood for spending the rest of the day cleaning sand from self, kids, car and house, or if red tide is making an uninvited appearance along the shoreline, a public pool maintained by other people can refresh.
This county-run pool has a 50-meter pool, dive pool, water slide and wading pool. It is open year-round for lap swimming.
The 4,000-square-foot children’s splash area operates from March through October. Inside scoop: If you enter with small fry, planning to stay dry while you supervise, be aware that those spray thingies can be aimed at you. Also, during summer vacation, in general the big day camp groups are out by noon.
The concession stand is seasonal, but you can bring your own food and drink. The whole pool, or just the kiddie area, with lifeguards can be rented for parties.
Daily admission is $2.50. Hours vary seasonally. The large park, at 5502 33rd Ave. Drive W., is on the west side of 51st Street West (or the east side of 59th Street West) about 2 miles south of Manatee Avenue. Information: 742-5932.

Rye Wilderness Park

Doves coo and dragonflies swirl at this calm, inviting 145-acre nature preserve east of Interstate 75. Home construction,including the similarly named Rye Wilderness development,booms nearby on once-rural roads. But take a break from congestion with a nature walk on one of some 15 trails or by paddling your canoe or kayak on the Manatee River. On designated trails, you can bring a horse.
Fetch along a buddy and tote your own refreshments, unequivocally nonalcoholic; this low-key park has picnic tables, restrooms and a playground, but no daily staff, gift shop, concessions or snack machines. From the park’s brochure boxes, you can pick up trail maps. The preserve boasts examples of four types of Florida ecosystems.
Take your bird-watching eyes. You can think about what it was like to live here before insect repellent. A pioneer river settlement folded decades ago, but once boasted 72 families. Longtime residents remember when the remnant buildings still stood.
Camping at a set-aside site is permitted for a nightly fee of $10 plus taxon Fridays and Saturdays, when the ranger station is staffed.
Otherwise, the preserve is open 8 a.m. to sunset.
Travel on State Road 64 4 miles east of Interstate 75, then left on Rye Road another 4 miles and just over the river. Information: 776-0900.


Manatee Village Historical Park

With historically significant buildings clustered in a quiet park, a free national historic site in east Bradenton provides a gentle, take-your-time stroll into Florida’s pioneer past.
The 1912 Stephens House exemplifies construction methods used for cooling: pine block elevation, large and shady porches, and a high-ceilinged central hallway. The old Methodist church, completed in 1887, is still consecrated and can be booked for weddings and other religious gatherings.
The eldest of these period-furnished buildings is Manatee County’s first courthouse, completed in 1860. Most structures were relocated to the park, but the Wiggins store was built here in 1903,one of the area’s earliest brick buildings. In addition to selling goods, the entrepreneurial King Wiggins lodged travelers. Now downstairs shows what a general store was like and holds a tiny gift shop; upstairs, photos and other county history exhibits reside.
Other buildings include a school, boatworks and blacksmith shop. Nearby is the old Manatee Burying Grounds.
The park, at 1404 Manatee Ave. E., is open 9 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Monday-Friday and, September-June, 1:30-to 4:30 p.m. Sundays. Information: 749-6165, www.manateeclerk.com/​ClerkServices/​HisVill/​mchvillage.htm. (Palmetto also has a historical park, at 515 10th Ave. W. Information, 723-4991.)

South Florida Museum

Just a short amble from the Manatee River in downtown Bradenton, the museum has been undergoing a $5 million transformation. But its displays, Bishop Planetarium shows and Parker Manatee Aquarium, home of 58-year-old Snooty, offer hours in air-conditioned edification.
The museum began in the mid-1940s as a catchall for sundry artifacts, and is being redesigned to give it a more cohesive picture of Florida’s natural and cultural history.
A life-size cast of a mastodon skeleton welcomes visitors to archaeological displays that include partial remains of an ice-age mammoth found in 2005 at a development project on 75th Street West. Dioramas show how Florida’s first people lived 12,000 years ago. Check out a model of the jaw of an ancient saw-toothed shark that was as gargantuan as 55 feet long.
The Discovery Place provides room for children to explore. There is an education-oriented gift shop but no café, so consider lunch at the waterfront Twin Dolphins or another downtown eatery.
The museum, at 201 10th St. W., is open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. weekdays and Saturday (it’s closed Mondays May-November) and noon-Sundays. It closes the first two weeks of September and on Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day. Daily admission — one ticket for museum, planetarium and aquarium — is $13.75 adults, $11.75 ages 60 and up, $8.75 ages 4-12, and free under 4. Information: 746-4131, www.southfloridamuseum.org.

De Soto National Memorial

Spanish conquistadors and Indians still prowl the woods in northwest Bradenton. Life-size cutouts from a film about the DeSoto Expedition, which began in 1539 in Tampa Bay, lurk along the coastal nature trails.
While experts think Hernando de Soto and 600 soldiers actually landed in the Port Manatee area to the north, the free monument commemorates and interprets the legacy of the expedition’s violent, failed, four-year journey to find gold.
In the visitors’ center, view the short, thought-provoking movie and try on chain mail and armor. Look at Camp Ucita, a replica of a captured Indian village where living-history programs run mid-December to mid-April.
Follow boardwalks and gravel paths through a mix of sun and shade, over mangroves and along the shore where the Manatee River meets the bay. At home later, read an online book about the DeSoto Expedition. www.nps.gov/​deso/​chronicles/​index.htm.
To reach the 25-acre monument, follow 75th Street Northwest north from Manatee Avenue West to the end of the road. The visitors’ center opens daily from 9 a.m.-noon, except Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day. The park is open from sunrise to sunset, but the parking area closes at 5 p.m. Information 792-0458,www.nps.gov/​deso/​.









Selected Works

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