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Traveling to Florida this summer for vacation? Here are seven South Florida surprises

Posted at 9:04 AM, Jun 25, 2012
and last updated 2012-06-25 14:06:05-04

By Steve Winston

(CNN) — South Florida? Sure, we all know about South Beach. The beach in Fort Lauderdale. The shopping in Palm Beach.

But there are a hundred little surprises here as well. And you may not find them all in the guidebooks.

The ghost of Trapper Nelson

“Trapper” Nelson (born Vincent Nostokovich) lived in the swamps and mangroves of the Loxahatchee, in northern Palm Beach County, from the 1930s until 1968.

At 6-foot-4 and 240 well-sculpted pounds, he was called “The Wild Man of the Loxahatchee.” He lived in a log cabin and ate only what he could kill.

And he became a local legend. He even built a small zoo with the animals he captured, entertaining his occasional visitors by wrestling alligators.

On July 24, 1968, an acquaintance found Trapper Nelson dead inside his cabin, with a shotgun hole in his belly. The circumstances of his death were never established.

Some people, though, swear that Trapper Nelson’s still there. Rose Watson, who knew him as a little girl, claims to have seen his ghost at least six times.

“I saw him clearly,” she says. “A big man, with the outline of the face I remembered from childhood. There’s no doubt in my mind. It was as real as it could possibly be!”

Ranger-guided tours of Trapper Nelson’s homestead are offered year-round at Jonathan Dickinson State Park.

A castle for lost love

In Latvia in the early 1900s, Edward Leedskalnin and Agnes Scuffs were engaged to be married. But Agnes called it off.

Heartbroken, Ed emigrated to Homestead, south of Miami, where he spent the rest of his life creating a monument to the woman he loved.

In 1923, Leedskalnin began carving a structure from the ubiquitous coral here. He didn’t finish it until 1951. And when he was finished, Ed — only 5 feet tall and 100 pounds — had somehow transported and sculpted 1,100 tons of coral into an open-air “castle” for himself, Agnes and an imaginary child.

When asked how he managed to move tons of coral, all Ed would say was that he was a student of the ancient laws of physics. His workshop was filled with pulleys and mechanical lifts, but no one saw how he did it.

He once bought several tons of coral from a quarry. When the foreman asked how he intended to load the coral onto his truck, Ed requested privacy. A few minutes later, when the foreman came back, he was astonished to see Ed sitting in the truck with the coral fully loaded.

Ed never gave up hope that Agnes would join him. But she never came.

He died just weeks after finishing the castle.

The Coral Castle Museum opens daily at 8 a.m. Adult admission is $15; children 7-12 get in for $7; no charge for children 6 and younger.

A huge sports memorabilia collection

In 1943, 4-year-old Joel Platt tossed a lit match into a gas tank at his uncle’s car lot. The car exploded. And so, more or less, did little Joel.

Joel spent the next year in a hospital bed. One night, he saw Babe Ruth in a dream. That was the start of his magnificent obsession.

Today, Platt owns more than a million pieces of sports memorabilia, with an estimated value of $50 million to $100 million. And his Sports Immortals Museum in Boca Raton can only hold a fraction of it.

Michael Heffner, president of Leland’s Auction House, has called it “the largest and most valuable collection of diverse and important sports artifacts ever assembled.”

“I cherish every piece,” Platt says. “But I cherish the stories behind each one just as much.”

Admission is $10 for adults, $7 for children. The museum is at 6830 N. Federal Highway in Boca Raton.

Four-wheeled fantasies

Tucked away in a warehouse district of North Miami is one of the world’s most incredible collections of automobiles, motorcycles and fantasy vehicles.

The Dezer Collection has Michael Keaton’s Batmobile. The bright green Jaguar — complete with missiles — used by Halle Berry in “Die Another Day.” A 37-foot-long pink Mercedes convertible seen on “Lifestyles of the Rich & Famous,” with a heart-shaped hot tub in the rear.

A Russian T-55 tank driven by Pierce Brosnan in “Goldeneye.” And an Aston Martin used in “Return of the Man from U.N.C.L.E.,” complete with ramming bumpers, rotating license plates, machine gun and tire-slashers.

Here, you can see Diana Rigg’s Lotus from “The Avengers.” A pink Jeep from “Burn Notice.” The Gran Torino from the “Starsky & Hutch” movie. Lindsay Lohan’s Love Bug from “Herbie Fully Loaded.” Tom Selleck’s Ferrari from “Magnum, P.I.” The motorcycle from “Lethal Weapon.” And a Bamby Peel, the world’s smallest drivable car.

The collection is the brainchild of Michael Dezer, an Israeli-American with a passion for classic wheels. Its value has been estimated at $80 million, and many experts have called it the largest privately held car collection in the world.

Admission to one of the two buildings is $25 for adults, $10 for children. Admission to both buildings is $40 for adults, $15 for children.

The Old Spanish Monastery: The 12th century in Miami

The Monastery of St. Bernard de Clairvaux was completed in Spain in 1144 and occupied by monks for 700 years. It was eventually sold and turned into a stable.

In 1925, newspaper magnate Randolph Hearst fell in love with the old monastery and purchased it. The building was dismantled, stone by stone. Each stone was then numbered, packed in hay and shipped to the United States. But because of a hoof-and-mouth outbreak in Spain, the Department of Agriculture ordered that the boxes be broken open and all the hay burned. But Hearst’s workmen, unfortunately, failed to put the stones back in the right boxes.

Hearst ran into financial trouble and was forced to sell the boxes. So they sat in a New York warehouse for 26 years until two Miami businessmen bought the boxes and shipped them here. It took 19 months to reassemble the monastery.

Today, it’s a green oasis of tranquility and Medieval architecture.

St. Bernard de Clairvaux is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Regular admission is $8.

The funkiest graveyard in America

The Key West Cemetery is a “city” of 70,000 inhabitants — twice as many as the population above ground — and some of the funniest epitaphs in America.

For example: The one etched by a woman scorned on the grave of her scoundrel — “At least I know where he’s sleeping tonight.” On the grave of B.P. “Pearl” Roberts, apparently the town’s resident hypochondriac, “I told you I was sick!”

Then there’s the eternal resting place of “Sloppy Joe” Russell, who owned the Key West bar of the same name, Ernest Hemingway’s favorite haunt when he lived here in the 1930s. Also buried here is Hemingway’s chief source of material for “To Have and Have Not,” a Prohibition-era bootlegger named Willard Antonio Gomez.

Then there’s Gloria Russell’s grave, which simply says, “I’m just resting my eyes.”

Guided tours are offered twice a week through the Historic Florida Keys Foundation. Call or e-mail for reservations.

Japan in Delray Beach

In 1905, enterprising Japanese immigrant Joseph Sakei dreamed of creating a Japanese agricultural community in Delray Beach.

He advertised in Japan for workers — and for women to come and marry them. As the colony grew, it was named “Yamato,” in honor of a region in Japan. Life was hard, though, with stifling heat, disease, mosquitoes and crop blights. And most of the settlers returned to Japan.

But a man named George Morikami built a good life here for his family. Morikami bequeathed his land to Palm Beach County upon his death, asking that the county create a museum and park about Japanese culture. Today it’s one of South Florida’s true cultural treasures.

There are 200 acres filled with red wooden footbridges crossing ponds stocked with koi, sculpted bonsai plants, rock gardens, winding paths through the woods and small waterfalls. There’s a Japanese villa, with blue-roofed rooms surrounding a central courtyard, filled with tea settings, ancient swords and ceremonial items.

A museum was later added, with an authentic tea house and lakeside restaurant. In all, there are some 5,000 Japanese objects on display.

Morikami Museum & Japanese Gardens is open Tuesday through Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and closed Monday. Admission is $13 for adults, $8 for children 6-17 and free for children 5 and younger.

Steve Winston is a Fort Lauderdale, Florida-based writer.

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