Fabiola Santiago

Florida’s Emerald Coast: icky June grass, Matt Gaetz fans — and pirates who love Jesus | Opinion

Whew, what a relief!

I’m glad I left all of my South Florida glamor behind when I decided to travel some 645 miles to vacation along the Emerald Coast’s shimmering green beaches. Here, I get to flaunt like a flag my old Bermuda shorts and worn-out sneakers.

I also don’t need to bother styling my hair or watch what I eat.

According to the spirited self-help rants in the “Emerald Coast Guide” I picked up at the Gulfarium, this is key to enjoying myself and blending in with the natives.

Frump is proudly in vogue here, the guide boasts, listing “perfect hair” as a South Florida hang-up you won’t be enduring here.

The laid back attitude, however, ends at fashion and health.

There’s a language code: English only.

According to this tourism guide, which doesn’t mind offending a segment of Florida’s population — or international tourists — this is not the turf for “foreign language translations” like you-know-where.

Not to be confused with an undocumented immigrant in need of forbidden sanctuary in this, Congressman Matt Gaetz’s territory — and the place Gov. Ron DeSantis chose to sign Florida’s anti-sanctuary bill into law last week — at the Okaloosa County line I stopped saying to the kids: “¡Vámonos!”

It’s “let’s go, brats” only from here on out.

Easy enough, but the rules get weirder.

You should not confuse the glitter in the water as permission to showcase perfect bodies, nor behave like brothers and sisters and husbands and wives who “happily get along.” None of this having the entire family “walking along the beach all dressed up in the latest styles,” as the anonymous guidebook author believes happens all the time on South Florida beaches.

Equally so, rich viejos verdes beware: There’s no appetite here for “a guy in expensive fishing gear catching a game fish with a pretty girl, half his age in a bikini cheering him on.” (Forgive the bad grammar, it’s not mine.)

While vacationing in this paradisaical Panhandle, you NEVER (their capital letters): “Weigh yourself. Eat dinner without dessert. Complain.” At a respectable seafood establishment I ate, they served an adult a cup of Goldfish with a salad.

And no need to bring a chair to the beach, the guide advises. Just dig a hole in the sand — and drape a towel over it. I don’t know what they do to accommodate malts and milk shakes-enhanced butts on that sandy “chair.” It’s not included in all the helpfulness of page 50.

Visiting here you confirm that there really are two Floridas.

It’s as if the I-4 expressway through Orlando were a cultural equator with progressive Gainesville being a geographical aberration, those border nooks you sometimes see on the maps of the developing world.

On this north side — where most of the tourists speak with a Southern drawl and hail from Sweet Home Alabama, which recently surpassed Mississippi as the most backward state in the union — all of the above stated no-nos are considered ills endemic to the south end of the peninsula.

They don’t like us — and that explains a lot about Florida politics. For instance, why Trump devotee Gaetz is our Florida man personified in Congress. And why Gov. Ron DeSantis absconded away from his Cuban fans in Miami-Dade to Okaloosa County to sign a bill that bans sanctuary cities that don’t exist in Florida. He was in the company of some 300 enthusiastic supporters and only a handful of protesters, according to the local press.

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This is what people mean when they dub these here parts Floriduh.

The natives, however, are very nice.

They are helpful and polite to a fault, if ill-informed on politics, and confused about the religion they constantly evoke. Jesus would not be happy with their self-righteous attitude toward the less fortunate fleeing persecution and poverty.

And the powers that be should worry more about overpriced hotels that could use better housekeeping — and about the June grass covering the sand like stitches on a quilt — than federal immigration law.

The algae gives the beautiful waters their green tint in sunlight, but in excess, it also turns the beach water a muddy color. Memories of last season’s unrelenting toxic red tide and algae bloom in Florida are still too close for comfort.

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At first, the kids were so happy we had arrived in Fort Walton Beach after the never-ending drive — and the organic lunch at the Black Dog Cafe I forced on them during an “educational” stop in Tallahassee — that they ignored the slimy green stuff and embraced the ocean with glee.

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“June grass” is not really a grass but a type of algae and is present on Panhandle beaches in June and other warm months. Fabiola Santiago Fabiola Santiago

Not even when I said — “Look there, behind you, a baby shark!” — did they come out of the water. I wasn’t joking. There was a baby shark passing by, no doubt enticed by the bait of the two guys fishing nearby. Or, maybe it was the scent of Republican Gaetz trying to romance Democrat Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez with too many non-reciprocated tweets.

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But, on the second day, the kids were less generous.

“It’s nasty!” said Isabela, 6.

“Nope, not swimming there,” sentenced Devereaux, 10, and so we drove a short eight miles to quaint, more upscale, and packed Destin in search of cleaner water and amenities.

“Every beach in the Panhandle has some June grass in the warmer months,” explained a ranger at lovely Henderson Beach State Park, which boasts 30-foot sand dunes. “It’s June. That’s why they call it June grass. It’s harmless. It’s how the ocean replenishes itself. It’s normal.”

But the kids wouldn’t budge. They voted to check out a sightseeing cruise at the Destin harbor.

It was on a pirate ship — and in the blinding reflection of the sun upon those clear emerald waters all around us — that you could say we found Jesus.

It really was magical.

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No filter. The waters are really this green in Destin. This is why they call the Florida Panhandle the Emerald Coast. Fabiola Santiago Fabiola Santiago

The scene was painfully beautiful — and then, things turned a particular kind of hilarious.

From the moment the children board the Buccaneer Pirate Cruise, the staff and captain, dressed as pirates, begin to weave the fantasy of swashbuckling adventures as we sail under the Marler Bridge toward the Crab Island sandbar, where all manner of vessels and people gather in another crowded version of our Elliott Key in South Florida, minus the salsa and booty music.

On board, the pirates egg on sword and water-gun fights and competition to find treasure.

After all the debauchery, as the captain is bidding the newly minted mates goodbye, he admonishes with newfound emotion: “Remember that Jesus loves you!”

La Florida, there are two of them — and they’re irreconcilable.

Award-winning columnist Fabiola Santiago has been writing about all things Miami since 1980, when the Mariel boatlift became her first front-page story. A Cuban refugee child of the Freedom Flights, she’s also the author of essays, short fiction, and the novel “Reclaiming Paris.”
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