Lighting the way

Take a trip on any part of Florida's 1,800 miles of coastline, and you're bound to find a lighthouse. From St. Augustine to Key Biscayne, scores of lighthouses invite visitors to climb spiral staircases to take in breathtaking views of the state's magnificent terrain. Visitors to lighthouses come for several reasons, including the structures architecture and romanticism. "My wife is into the romanticism of lighthouses," said Gene Oakes, president of the Florida Lighthouse Association. "I married someone who is a lighthouse nut.'" His wife's passion inspired Oakes to become the president of the state's association that's dedicated to preserve, protect and restore Florida's lighthouses. And visits to these attractions are more popular than ever. "About 44 percent of tourism is in culturally based activities," said Paul Kayemba, spokesman for Visit Florida, the state's official travel planning agency. "More visitors are adding historical attractions to their vacations, including visits to lighthouses."

Florida's first lighthouse

Just across an alligator farm near Interstate 95 lies the first lighthouse that was built in Florida. The St. Augustine Lighthouse and Museum is a remarkable structure that was built in the 1700s by the Spanish. Recognized by Congress in 1824 as the first of its kind in Florida, those who were taking care of it knew that eventually a new lighthouse would take its place. "At that time, they had the foresight to build a new tower as the original was deteriorating," said Michelle DeAngelis, an employee of the lighthouse's museum. The new structure was erected in 1874. It's well worth the hike up the six flights of stairs to enjoy the grand view of St. Augustine, "America's oldest city." "What makes all of these lighthouses so fascinating is that they are unique," DeAngelis said. "With ours, you can see the Atlantic Ocean and the historic downtown to St. Augustine."

Daytona Beach's beacon of light

State officials urge visitors to experience as many scenic routes as possible. When traveling to the next lighthouse in Daytona Beach, take Route A1A and go about 50 miles to the Ponce de Leon Inlet Lighthouse. This dynamic, well-preserved 175-foot tower is the second tallest lighthouse in the United States. Here, you can view the keeper's house, a mariner's museum and several Fresnel (pronounced fre-nel) lenses. Climb up 203 stairs to take in an expansive view of the Atlantic coast.

A lighthouse that was "Meade in heaven"

After visiting the Ponce de Leon Inlet Lighthouse, hop on I-95 south for about 130 miles. The next lighthouse on the excursion is the Jupiter Inlet Lighthouse. It's red tower was designed by George Gordon Meade. Meade, better known as a Union general, was also "an engineer of many screw-pile lighthouses," according to Visit Florida's Web site. Jupiter Inlet Lighthouse's tower is 108 feet tall and is equipped with Florida's oldest Fresnel lens. Since it is in the tower's former oil storage facility, the museum is quite small, but good. A key' lighthouse draws enthusiasts and novices Key Biscayne is an island paradise off of Miami and is home to the Cape Florida Lighthouse. "It is South Florida's first structure," said Art Levy, Park Service specialist for the Florida Park Service in the Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park. "It predates Miami by 20 years. You can arguably say that this lighthouse is the reason that Miami is here today." The Cape Florida Lighthouse gives visitors an interesting view at its top. Levy said visitors can see where 1992's Hurricane Andrew took out the Australian Pine trees and where newer natives plants were placed."You can really see the difference," Levy said. "It really is an excellent view. Former editor of the Miami Herald John Pennekamp, who was involved with restoration projects here, says that it is the best view in the United States." The Cape Florida Lighthouse was destroyed in 1836 by the Seminole Indians. The present tower, which dates back to 1847, was rebuilt by George Meade in 1855. Meade's quality work was put the test when Hurricane Andrew damaged everything but the lighthouse (in the area.)

Enlighten yourself in the Keys

A gorgeous drive down U.S. 1 through the Florida Keys brings you to The Key West Lighthouse and East Martello Museum. This lighthouse's original purpose was to guide ships through the narrow strait between the Gulf Stream and the Florida Reef. After a hurricane in 1846, the lighthouse was rebuilt because of its importance in navigation. A climb up this structure's steps brings you to a view of the downtown area and the Ernest Hemingway House.

Rewards are in abundance

Traveling down the east coast of Florida rewards visitors with beautiful scenery and a lesson in history. "To me, every lighthouse has its own history," said Michelle DeAngelis of St. Augustine. Lighthouses are a cottage industry, according to the Florida Lighthouse Association's Oakes, who is now serving as the organization's fourth president. "Some get into it for the architecture, history or, in my wife's case, the romanticism. She likes it so much that she collects lighthouse figurines." Travel down Florida's east coast and you too will find out why so many people are part of the "lighthouse faithful."

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