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Learn about the “Real Florida” from Jeff Klinkenberg of St. Petersburg Times

April 06, 2010 By Bill Cooke in Miami: Local NewsMiami: Travel News  | 5 Comments


Your friends from out of town are visiting South Florida this summer. They’ve asked you to plan their itinerary. But you’ve only lived here a few years and your knowledge of the area is limited.

What if you could find one person who, over the past quarter-century, has traveled virtually every Florida highway and back road from the panhandle to Key West dozens of times? And who’s probably met and talked with every colorful Florida character?

You could probably count on that person to make a few recommendations that would steer you off the beaten path.

I know at least one person who fits that description.

Jeff Klinkenberg is a writer at Florida’s largest newspaper, the St. Petersburg Times.

Some consider him one of Florida’s great storytellers.

Klink, as he’s known to his friends, has been at the Times since February 1977. He’s worked as the “outdoors writer” and general assignment reporter.

In 1986 he asked his bosses if he could write about “Florida culture.” They said yes, and Florida’s been a more interesting place since.

In that time he’s written over a thousand stories. Along the way he’s picked up tens of thousands of loyal readers and published two collections of his newspaper stories. Some have called him Florida’s poet laureate.

Recently I asked Klink to describe some his favorite Florida places and people; what he likes to call the “real Florida.”

Here are Klink’s answers.

Can you tell us about some of the more memorable Florida people you’ve written about for the paper?

Marjory Stoneman Douglas, the grande dame of the Everglades; Tim Chapman, the colorful photographer at The Miami Herald; Dessie Prescott Smith, who taught Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings how to hunt and fish; Joyce Ballentine Brand, who designed the “Coppertone Ad”; Chesty Morgan, the famous stripper who now lives in St. Pete. Really, there are too many to count.

Is there anyone who, in your opinion, epitomizes Florida?

I’ve never thought Jimmy Buffet epitomized Real Florida though I like a lot of his songs. I think he epitomizes a make believe Florida. I’ve always loved the work of Carl Hiassen. It’s very hard to write “angry” and “funny” at the same time. He has a genius for it.

What is your favorite Florida city or region?

Time of year determines for me my favorite areas. In winter, I love the Glades, especially the Big Cypress, particularly the Loop Road, where I traveled so often as a teen-ager. Love to see gators and snakes up on the road. And there are still some amazing characters who live in the community of Pinecrest. I always visit a guy by the name of Lucky Cole when I’m down there. In the hottest part of the year, I love being near a spring. During scallop season, Steinhatchee. I love Micanopy, south of Gainesville. It feels to me like the spiritual heart of Florida, with its historic ties to William Bartram and to Rawlings.

Is there anyone you haven’t interviewed or done a story on that is still on your “to do” list?

I’d love to write about the most experienced Maitre d at Joe’s Stone Crab. (Can you set that up for me?). I’m sure he would have amazing stories about customers, famous and infamous, ordinary and extraordinary. Also, I’d love to find out how big a tip I have to give him to get a table. In addition, I’m fascinated by that restaurant’s long history. And I would love to write about Jimmy Buffett. I don’t mean a phoner. I mean hang out with him a day or two.

What are some of your favorite South Florida neighborhoods?

Well, I love to visit the neighborhood where I grew up. It’s an unincorporated area tucked in between Biscayne Park and Miami Shores. Last time I was in Miami, I took my wife. The little house, ever so humble, is still there. I could see through the fence the mango tree my dad planted in 1955 or so. It’s huge. I was tempted to knock on the door but I chickened out. I love to drive through Coral Gables and when I do I like to check out the Venetian Pool. It’s still the same, though now all the bathers have tattoos or body piercings. In Coconut Grove, I usually drive past Marjory Stoneman Douglas’ house and say “Hello, Old Girl.’’ I love getting out on the bay—North or South. I have wonderful fishing memories.

Name a few books that you’d recommend to someone who plans on visiting South Florida for the first time. Include books that are especially good at capturing the flavor of Miami?

I’ll give you South Florida books I’ve always enjoyed: “Everglades: River of Grass,’’ by Marjory Stoneman Douglas. If you live there, you gotta read that one. “92 in the Shade,’’ by Thomas McGuane. Really caputures the Key West culture of the 70s. You should read one of those Travis McGee mysteries by John D. MacDonald. My all-time favorite is “Deep Blue Goodbye”, which came out in 1964.

My favorite two Hiaasen novels are his first, “Tourist Season”, which came out in 1987, and “Stormy Weather,’’ which he wrote after Hurricane Andrew. “Stormy” features a great cameo by Skink.

I love those “Crunch and Des” fishing stories from 1954 by Philip Wylie.

“Orchid Thief” by Susan Orlean: I don’t know anyone who writes with such a distinctive and entertaining “voice.’’ It’s scary.

Finally, I still get a kick out of Edna Buchanan’s “The Corpse Had a Familiar Face,’’ which chronicles her adventures as a Miami Herald cop reporter.

Plan an itinerary for someone who’s spending a weekend in South Florida (and parts north) and who wants to take a self-guided tour by car?

Well, if you’re in Miami, drive out the Tamiami Trail and stop at every little shack out in the Everglades. Passing the Micosukee Reservation, turn left on the Loop Road.

It’s bumpy and potholed and a little scary. Stop in Pinecrest and see if Lucky Cole is there. He lives in what seems to be a giant fortress. He makes a living taking glam shots of middle-aged women, including some who don’t mind removing their clothing and posing in a swamp setting.

What are some of your favorite South Florida restaurants?

Joe’s Stone Crab; Versailles; Joanie’s Blue Crabs out on the Trail. (While I ate a lonely supper out there one night a black bear came to the back door). Alabama Jack’s for the lima bean soup. Also, I love to go to Robert is Here out of Florida City during summer when the mangoes are in season.

Thanks, Klink! If you want to learn more about Klink’s “real Florida”, buy his book “Pilgrim in the Land of Alligators”. You can also read his latest musing at St. Petersburg Times, or on his website,

Related Categories: Miami: Local News, Miami: Travel News,

About the Author: Bill Cooke is a professional photojournalist and life-long Miami resident. He also runs the wildly popular Random Pixels blog, covering local and national issues.

See more articles by Bill Cooke.

See more articles by Bill Cooke

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5 Comments on

"Learn about the “Real Florida” from Jeff Klinkenberg of St. Petersburg Times"

Noel says:

I am a restorer of Historical buildings in the U.S. While visiting South Beach I drove past the City Hall Building at 1700 Convention Avenue on the way to the aiirport and loved the paint colors chosen. We are currently restoring a Weather Bureau from antique post cards and the colors look to be a perfect match. Do you know who I could contact to get the information on the colors?

Posted on 04/28/2010 at 8:15 AM

Stretch Ledford says:

KLIIIIIIININNNNKKKKK!!!!  Dunno if you remember me, but I was a young photographer once… and was YOUNG once!... working for the St. Pete Times.  I’m now old and in multimedia graduate school at the University of Miami.  Great to see you’re still kickin tha sh… um… I mean, up to your old tricks!  Still love the work, man.  Cheers!

Posted on 06/28/2010 at 8:03 PM

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