By Travel columnist
updated 4/8/2005 2:35:20 PM ET 2005-04-08T18:35:20

A steaming plate arrives at our table with bite-sized servings of alligator, catfish and frog legs. It comes with a side of cocktail sauce for dipping, in case we’re feeling adventurous. We aren’t.

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“Wait, wait,” we hear from the kitchen, just as we’re about to sample from the so-called “critter platter.” “You have to try this.” Ben Bishop, the general manager of Marsh Landing restaurant, emerges with yet another delicacy: a dense, spicy broth. He slides our dish aside to make room for the bowl.

Mmmm. What is it? “Turtle soup,” he proudly says.

Tired of five-star restaurants and beach resorts with pricey spas? The hinterlands of Indian River County, located about a two-hour drive southeast of Orlando, offer an alternative to the pampered vacation and a real taste of Old Florida.

Eating exotic reptiles is just part of the adventure. Head out further into the backcountry during citrus season and you’ll find acre upon acre of groves where you can sample strange and delicious oranges and grapefruits. Or visit one of the state’s original amusement parks, a botanical garden that time almost forgot.

But don’t let us keep you guessing about the frogs. The way they’re prepared at Marsh Landing — and we’re not making this up — makes them taste exactly like chicken. They’re pretty yummy if you’re into something that tastes like a deep-fried Cornish game hen. The turtle soup is a bit gamier, something that takes a while to get used to. Gator, on the other hand, has the consistency of unmarinated veal, while the catfish has a buttery texture.

Not to worry, no endangered animals were hunted in order to prepare the “critter platter.” Everything on the menu is farm-raised, including the turtle. Bishop says the odd dishes are only half of the restaurant’s appeal — the other half is the building itself, which dates back to the turn of the last century, an era known as Fellsmere’s “golden age.” It was a time when the Sunshine state was undeveloped and wild, when northerners were just beginning to discover its appeal as a vacation destination. The food makes a good fit, but Bishop wants to branch out into other exotic natives. “I want to add rattlesnake to the menu,” he says.

Between mouthfuls of alligator and turtle, we suspect he’s not kidding.

Out further into the country, there are orange groves. Miles upon miles of them, bending under the weight of their ripening fruit and lining country roads few visitors travel along unless they take the wrong exit on Florida’s Turnpike and somehow end up here, in the middle of nowhere. But this “nowhere” is somewhere if you’re a citrus aficionado. Indian River County’s oranges and grapefruits are among the sweetest, juiciest citrus in the world. Scientists we spoke with say it’s a combination of climate, soil, and proximity to the ocean that sets the produce apart.

Although there’s no shortage of pick-your-own-fruit groves along the remote access roads crisscrossing this part of the state, we found the highest concentration of citrus in Vero Beach, where much of the produce is processed. At Hale Indian River Groves, just off Highway One, the highest-grade Navel oranges, Ruby Red grapefruits and Honeybell Tangelos — a cross between a tangerine and grapefruit — are cleaned, waxed, packed into gift boxes and shipped all over the world. Visitors have a healthy appetite for citrus plus a keen sense of adventure, says general manager Bob Daberkow. In much the same way that Bishop wants to cook snake in his kitchen, Daberkow is looking to new and different varieties of oranges with odd names like the Sweet Unique Ortanique and Red Navel orange, a close relative of the imported Middle Eastern blood orange, to add a little diversity to his popular gift baskets.

Exotic citrus, like exotic lizard, doesn’t make an exotic impression on our taste buds. We sample several varieties of unusual fruit, but find that they sound a lot odder than they taste. The grapefruits are tangy, as you would expect a grapefruit to be. The oranges are sweeter (especially the Tangelos, which taste as if they’ve been infused with sugar). But we have to give the people who named these varieties a lot of credit for trying to make their fruit stand out. Who wouldn’t want to eat something called an Ortanique?

Perhaps one of the most unusual attractions in Indian River County is a place known for exotic plants of a different kind. McKee Botanical Gardens, a short drive down the highway from Hale’s roadside retail store, is the remnant of one of Florida’s first amusement parks. Back in 1929, the former McKee Jungle Gardens, named for Cleveland industrialist Arthur McKee, spanned 80 acres and claimed to have the largest collection of water lilies and orchids in the country. But competition from other theme parks led to the Jungle Gardens’ demise in 1976, and all but 18 acres was sold to developers. In 1995, concerned citizens rallied to save the remaining land and bring back the botanical gardens, which at the time were completely overgrown and slated for development.

When we visit the new gardens, we find McKee in a state of recovery: replanted bamboo, ferns and palms are just beginning to reclaim the gardens. The old photos in the visitor’s center show the facility in its heyday, with lush vegetation stretching on for what seems like forever, where condominiums now have staked their claim on the land. But not everything was ripped up by bulldozers. The Hall of Giants, a quirky building made of driftwood, pine, stained glass, limestone, wrought iron, and pieces of beach salvage, could be rescued. The long structure, which reminds us of a Hollywood set designer’s idea of a South Pacific dining hall, is now rented for banquets.

In many respects, Indian River County hasn’t really changed all that much in eight decades. Once you step through the gates of McKee Gardens, it’s as if you’ve traveled back into a past when the visitors arrived here by train. In Fellsmere, you can still see frogs hopping across the unpaved streets on rainy days. And out in the boondocks, along the miles of unexplored roads sandwiched between the outlet malls and amusement parks, citrus trees still outnumber the tourists.

Seems as if Old Florida is still there — if you know where to look for it.


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