We sat in the car eating our lunches while watching the exploded van burn across the street. This got more interesting when the pick-up truck that apparently hit the van also exploded.
Then, we doubled-back a little ways down Route 1 to a roadside tourist stop that’s been in business since admission was just 10 cents.
Of course, I’m talking about the legendary Coral Castle, a strange property carved entirely out of coral blocks:
It actually looks a bit underwhelming when you first see it, sort-of of like what you’d expect a garden on Mars to look like. But take into account that each of these enormous coral blocks weighs over 10,000 pounds…
…and that all of them were cut, moved, positioned, and erected by a single man under the cover of darkness, and Coral Castle suddenly becomes immensely intriguing.
Born in Latvia in 1897, Ed Leedskalnin fell in love with a 16-year old girl named Agnes Scuffs, who he nicknamed his “Sweet Sixteen.” They made plans to marry, then Sweet Sixteen left Ed the day before their wedding. It appears that Ed never got over her: he built Coral Castle as a monument to her, perhaps to win her back.
My favorite bit are the planets (above), which give you an idea of the effort involved: the Saturn structure alone weighs an estimated 18 tons (!!). Meanwhile, the entrance gate below, 92 inches tall x 21 inches thick, weighs around 9 tons. For years, people believed it spun simply by being perfectly balanced; then, repair work in 1986 revealed a shaft holding it in place. It still spins though, coming within a quarter inch of the frame.
So how the hell did Ed, five feet tall and weighing no more than 120 pounds, move over 1,000 tons of coral structures, like this 40-foot obelisk weighing nearly 57,000 pounds (note the Latvian star at the top)? No one knows, exactly. Ed never allowed anyone to watch him work, only saying mysteriously, “I understand the laws of weight and leverage and I know the secrets of the people who built the pyramids (being those at the site at Giza in Egypt).”
Even crazier, Ed first began building Coral Castle on land in Florida City. But when developers began encroaching on his property, he spent three years moving the whole damn thing to a larger plot in Homestead – OVER TEN MILES AWAY.
There was no shortage of coral, which can be found just a few inches under the soil pretty much everywhere, and runs as deep as 4,000 feet in some areas. Ed’s quarry is right next to the property:
So at first glance, Coral Castle appears to be simply be a remarkable feat of construction. But read the guide book about what some of this stuff is, and everything suddenly gets really creepy.
See, Ed really liked his Sweet Sixteen, and built the place to emulate the fantasy life he wanted to have with her. For example, these two beds were intended for Ed and Sweet Sixteen, should he win her back…along with two smaller beds and a rocking cradle in the background for the children they would inevitably have.
This section is what Ed called Repentance Corner. Basically, if either Sweet Sixteen or their children misbehaved, he planned to stick their heads through one of these slots, wedge a block of wood on top to keep them in place, and then sit on the stoop to the right talking to them about what they had done wrong. Yeah.
This chair was also intended for when he and Sweet Sixteen fought, designed so they could both sit without looking at each other. According to the guide, “They would rock until they made up or got hungry.”
The more you read about the various objects Ed intended for a fantasy life with his Sweet Sixteen, the more you start feeling like Ed was verging on a John Hinkley, Jr. level of obsession. In fact, when we went into the two-story castle structure where Ed lived (climbing 16 steps, appropriately)…
…his bed is exactly what I expected to find:
Ditto his swinging chair, which felt like a prop from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre:
At the very least, Ed was an artist. Below is his “Florida table,” with a cement indent to represent Lake Okeechobee. The chair at its head was intended for the Governor of Florida.
All the hand carved signs were made by Ed, who used to let visitors inside for ten cents. To enter, you’d ring this bell twice, as per a small sign near the door. If Ed wasn’t busy, he’d show you around for a fee. If he was busy, or you rang an improper number of times, you were out of luck.
Ed Leedskalnin died in 1951. It appears Sweet Sixteen got word of Coral Castle at some point, but she never cared to visit.
Coral Castle actual has some unexpected pop culture connections. First, it was used as a location in the 1958 classic, The Wild Women of Wongo. From IMDB:
On the tropical island of Wongo, a tribe of beautiful women discover that the other side of the island is inhabited by a tribe of handsome men. They also discover that a tribe of evil ape men live on the island, too, and the ape men are planning a raid on the tribe in order to capture mates.
On watching YouTube clips, I have to admit: Coral Castle is the perfect location for this movie.
Second, Billy Idol was apparently deeply moved by Ed’s tragic story – his song “Sweet Sixteen” is all about Coral Castle. I am not making these lyrics up:
Built a moon
For a rocking chair.
I never guessed it would
Rock her far from here
Oh, oh, oh, oh.
Someone’s built a candy castle
Billy actually shot a pretty hilarious music video for Sweet Sixteen at Coral Castle (way campier than The Wild Women of Wongo, if such a thing is possible). That would be Mr. Idol in the bed intended for Ed, with his guitar in Sweet Sixteen’s place:
I think even Billy was unhappy with the video, as he shot a second one where he’s just singing in a shadowy room. That said, the video does open with a picture of Ed in Coral Castle and the words “Love Turned To Stone.”
Coral Castle is easily one of the strangest roadside attractions I’ve ever been to, and I highly recommend it if you ever pass through Homestead. Also, I saw this faded poster in the restroom. Does anyone remember a time when these sorts of things were made unironically?
As we continued driving south toward the Everglades, we made a quick stop at famous roadside fruit stand “Robert Is Here”…
…where you’ll go bananas over their strawberries!
Founded in 1960, Robert Is Here is famous for its fresh fruit shakes. I got their most recommended option, the key lime.
It was OK, but man was it THICK. Thick as in that straw is only for decoration. This was full-on spoon territory, and if you can finish this much super thick vanilla soft serve (or was it ice cream) mixed with key lime juice, you’re a better man than I.
From Robert Is Here, we head just a few miles down the road to the Everglades National Park.
After getting a few recommendations from the visitor’s center, we headed in, liberally dousing ourselves in Deep Woods Off to avoid the mosquitoes (it did nothing).
From a distance, it almost looked like we were standing in a midwestern prairie. Of course, look down, and you realize the ground is quite different…
I was thrilled to learn that our first trail was once an auto road that took early 20th century roadtrippers in to explore the Everglades (at least, I think it was – I swear I read this on one of the signs, but can’t find a single record of it online).
Back in the day, visitors would stay at nearby Royal Palm Lodge, built in 1919:
The front parlor of the Royal Palm Lodge, circa 1929. In 1952, the lodge was sold to its previous caretakers and moved out of the Everglades to Homestead. It was destroyed during Hurricane Andrew in 1992.
I felt bad that we only had time to see so little of the park, but the Anhinga Trail is known for being one of the best for its huge assortment of wildlife.
The water was especially beautiful…
…but of course, we were on the lookout for alligators, which weren’t hard to find.
As I watched it sitting motionlessly on the ground, I started feeling like Muldoon in Jurassic Park. Like, I’m staring at the one gator, while his two buddies are going to suddenly jump on me from either side. Luckily this didn’t happen.
However, I did hear a park ranger talking about how she once witnessed a gator take a woman’s son in its jaws. The mother managed to get the boy free, and the boy was only in the hospital overnight to treat his punctured lung. In the end, she said the mother looked like the one who had been attacked. But this little cutie would never try anything like that, right?
Finally, we set out on the road that would take us to Key Largo.
A very nice reader named Cameron wrote up a fantastic route to take via Card Sound Road, complete with all the sorts of things I love: an old radar station built in the 1960′s, an old Nike missile silo, remnants of an old squatter’s colony…
Unfortunately, it down-poured the whole time, and we could barely see anything. For about four seconds, it stopped just as we made it to this intersection. Go south, and you head toward Key Largo. Go north, and you’ll find the guard booth to the Ocean Reef Club, a gated community with its own freakin’ airport. Cameron assured us we would not get in.
As we were getting close to the hotel, we saw a bunch of historical signs for “African Queen” and decided to investigate.
Turns out, this is the actual boat from African Queen, which someone has been restoring since 2009. There’s no cost to see it – it’s just parked on the dock along with a bunch of other boats next to a Holiday Inn. There are daily rides for those interested.
One thing that surprised me was how small it was. No wonder they spent half the movie fighting.
Finally, we turned off at the Caribbean Club…
…which claims to be where Key Largo was actually filmed!
Unfortunately, this sign is a bit misleading, as 99.99999999% of the movie was shot on a soundstage in California. Allegedly, one or two shots were done at the Caribbean Club, but I fast-forwarded through the entire movie and couldn’t find a single one. That said, director John Huston and screenwriter Richard Brooks holed up here to begin work on the movie. Go inside to see a ton of Bogey memorabilia in a perfectly enjoyable dive.
Next stop: Key West!