Thursday, March 11, 2010

"Lovely to Look At" (continued from Tuesday)

This photo is of my very most favorite place to be when I was around 9 or 10.  It was magestic and gorgeous and I "would walk down aisle" and imagine that this is where I would marry my prince charming someday.  It was the Royal Palm Grove at what I thought of as my very own personal and private fantasy land.  Other people called it McKee Jungle Gardens and it was just south of Vero Beach, Florida.  It's the third Florida attraction I want to tell you about. 

Opened in 1922, McKee's was the brain child of a couple of old-time Floridians, one named McKee, cleverly enough.  I don't know anything about him other than his founder's status.  The other was a wealthy but true eccentric named Waldo Sexton.  Sexton had traveled all around the world and brought back an enormous number of treasures that he found.  He was particularly fond of the odd and unusual and the town of Vero Beach, his hometown, had them stashed all over town.  He built the oceanside, Driftwood Inn, made of wood from ships and old buildings and the sea.  It was unique among hotels, I believe.  He also built the Ocean Grill, an oceanside restaurant that perennially looked like it was falling down, but was rated 5 stars for many, many years.  He also built the Patio Restaurant in town.  All of these places (and several others) housed all of his finds from his travels....ceramic Spanish tiles, wrought iron gates and chandeliers, statuary, furniture, artifacts, artwork,  some of it incomplete and well-worn.  His things went a long way toward making Vero Beach a quirky little beachside town back in the 50s and 60s.

McKee Jungle Gardens was another depository of his treasures.  But Waldo Sexton's trinkets were not the only thing that made McKee's special.

There were gardens with trails and tours similar to the Cypress Gardens I told you about the other day, but McKee's was more natural, less manicured, and had some unique features.  It was basically a botanical garden with a botanist overseeing all of the plants.  As part of that there was the Orchid House, where all sorts of beautiful, unusual and rare orchids were grown and propagated and studied.  There was also a natural sulphur spring where the water smelled like rotten eggs, but there were many people who came regularly to collect the water for its supposed healthful qualities. 

There were a few creatures who made their home in McKee's too, most notably, two gorgeous Macaw Parrots (who lived right next to the sulphur spring....they must not have a very good sense of smell!!)  One was mostly blue and red and the other was green and yellow.  If I remember correctly, they were quite old (does over 75 sound right??)  And boy, were they LOUD!  You could hear their squawking all over the gardens.  They supposedly talked but I don't remember anything but the squawking! 

The other full-time residents were a couple of huge alligators.  (Well, they looked huge to me, but I was only 9 or 10, so maybe they weren't.)  I remember the biggest as being bigger around than I was!  They lived within an enclosure with a 4 ft. wall around it, that also contained a pond with lots of water grasses and plants.  It was kind of marshy.  There was a big grassy area where the alligators spent much of their time just lying in the sun or else just hiding in the water with only the tops of their heads and their eyes visible.  They were so still and you weren't sure they were even breathing.  They were kind of spooky to a little girl like me!  Every now and then tho, they would all of a sudden lumber from one position to somewhere else with no real warning.  Now I say "lumber" because alligators have legs that are only about 8 inches long, when they moved at a regular pace, they lumbered!  If they were agitated....YIKES, those babies could MOVE.  They are faster and more graceful than you would believe, and if they are after something to eat....well, just get out of their way!  Seriously!  I was pretty much afraid but fascinated by them.

The Gardens boasted an enormous pond crammed from bank to bank with water lilies.  They were so thick you couldn't see any water unless a fish or something moved through.

As I said the introductory photo was of the Royal Palm Grove.  There were probably 75-100 palms in tall straight rows with a center aisle.  The Royal Palm is the tallest and prettiest of the palm trees.  Their trunks are nearly white, a fully grown one is about as big around as bicycle tire at the bottom and they rise about 18-20 ft. high!  At the top of the trunk, is a bright green section, from which long and graceful fronds emerge; spreading like a canopy over the ground dappled with sunlight.  It was a gorgeous part of the Gardens.  Over the years many, many couples were married there in the most beautiful setting I could ever imagine.

The "piece de resistance" however, was the Hall of Giants.  The Hall was what seemed to me to be an enormous 2-story building filled with more of Waldo Sexton's treasures.  A large part of the lower level was used as the Gardens' Gift Shop.  They sold shell jewelry and novelties, carved coconut faces, post cards, stuffed animals, Orchid plants, books about plants and Florida history, Florida souveniers, and other odds and ends.  A lot of the merchandise was displayed on the biggest and most beautiful table I have ever seen.  It is the world's largest mahogany table!!

The table (shown here in an artist's rendering that doesn't do it justice at all!) which was 35 feet long, was made from one single slab of mahogany cut from the center of what must have been a huge tree.  The table was polished to a high sheen and the grain of the wood was beautiful.  The table had been transported in one piece by ship from somewhere in South American where it was made.

It saddens me that McKee Jungle Gardens no longer exists in the form that I remember.  But its not all bad news!  The following is a quote directly from McKee's website:
In the early 1970's, attendance dwindled due to competition from new large-scale attractions and the garden was forced to close its doors in 1976.

The land was sold and all but 18 acres were developed. The remaining acreage, zoned for additional development, sat vacant for twenty years. In 1994, the Indian River Land Trust launched a fund-raising campaign and successfully purchased the property on December 1, 1995 for $1.7 million.

Close to $9.1 million was raised to purchase, stabilize and restore the Garden. The Garden held its formal Dedication November, 2001
I urge you to visit this website, so you can get a better understanding all it had to offer and still has to offer today!    McKee Botanical Garden

I loved this place, it was truly "Lovely to Look At" and I spent many happy hours there. tomorrow I'll tell you the rest of the story!


  1. We used to have a place in Tucson that I visited often growing up. It was called Desert Treasures. Rows of palm trees, stands that sold fresh dates. A really cool gift shop with all things date and a lot of southwest stuff. It's gone now. Sad. One of those places that we took all our Chicago relatives when they came to visit.

  2. It is sad, isn't it? Now it seems we only like the pre-packaged, tried and true, copy cat attractions. Why bother to go to Sea World in California when they have the same thing in Texas and Florida and who knows where else??


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