Sunshine states


What’s a car writer doing in a pedestrian-oriented town? To tell the truth, I was studying a way we can wind up owning our vehicles instead of having them own us.

Rosemary Beach and nearby Seasid, Fla., are what are known as "New Urbanist" communities, both designed by pioneers Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk. Instead of being isolated trophy homes, the vaguely nostalgic wood and stucco houses (with wide porches, sleeping balconies and colorful New Orleans-type shutters) are only 20 feet apart, making it easy to get to know your neighbors.

Boardwalks at Rosemary Beach lead down to the ocean, to pocket parks (including a butterfly garden) or communal swimming pools. The pavement is "permeable," meaning that rainwater flows through it, rather than running through oil-stained parking lots and polluting the Gulf of Mexico. Beachfront homes are set back from the dunes to guard against fierce tropical storms and the sea-level rise that accompanies global warming. Glass is non-reflective so it doesn’t confuse moon-navigating sea turtles.

There are plenty of golf carts in Rosemary Beach, which is still under construction, and I even saw a few open-air electric "neighborhood" vehicles, including a DaimlerChrysler-built GEM. But if it weren’t for all the construction trucks, the place would be dominated by bicyclists and walkers.

In Cocoa Beach earlier on the trip, I saw single-story family homes whose two-car garages formed the entire fa�ade. Talk about car dependence! But in Rosemary and Seaside, cars are banished to back courts, which they share with utility hookups.

Rosemary and Seaside encourage pedestrians, but they aren’t transit-oriented like Portland, Ore.’s similar Orenco Station. Florida has little public transportation, but there is hope that the state eventually will be the beneficiary of a high-speed rail corridor. An existing plan to connect Florida’s major cities with fast rail was killed by Gov. Jeb Bush in 1999, but voters reaffirmed their desire for it in a referendum.

Since we had to drive around Florida for our vacation, my family and I were lucky enough to secure a Volkswagen Eurovan from A&M; Specialists. While it doesn’t have quite the funky elegance or the hippie cachet of the Type 2 Microbus introduced in the 1950s, it’s one great people-mover for a family of four with copious luggage. The center compartment of our bright-blue test van offered detachable jump seats, which when removed gave my girls huge amounts of leg room and storage space for their shell collections.

This is the last year for the boxy $27,000 Eurovan (in MV and GLS trims), which is due to be replaced with a very snazzy "retro" Microbus in 2005. The Eurovan made a popular camper conversion, and both pickup and campers variants are being tested for the Microbus. Some Eurovan owners complained about a lack of power, leading to newer models like our test car packing a fairly potent variation of the six-cylinder VR6. I found it both very easy to drive for a generously proportioned vehicle and relatively economical at 20 miles per gallon on the highway.

We started in Cocoa Beach, where I had an EarthSave speaking engagement, then spent a blissful couple of nights ($75 each!) at the Refuge at Ocklawaha (352-288-2233), a 52-acre eco-habitat for bald eagles, alligators, wild turkeys and many, many armadillos, bordering a paradise-protected and reclaimed marshland. Unfortunately, its YMCA owners can’t make a go of it and may turn it into a drug rehab center. And it’s only an hour and a half from Disney World!