Historic Hotel and Gem Mining – A Weekend Adventure

jacarandahotel

One of the major reasons for our downsizing was to create more time and free up more money for adventures.  Some adventures are planned, like our cruise, or a trip to Savanah that we will be repeating in November.  Other adventures are loosely planned at the last minute as opportunities arrise.

These last minute adventures were mostly impossible before we downsized.  Now they are more common, and I want to share one of our recent ones with you.

Our daughter is on a cheer squad for a local football team, and each Saturday we trot off to a football game.  Her team changed leagues this year, and the league we are part of now is more spread out.  Several games have been an hour away, and a few have been closer to two.  Recently we had a game scheduled in Avon Park, Florida.  Avon Park is about an hour and a half away from our home in Orlando.

We made a last minute decision to head down the night before.  Normally we’ll book a Hampton Inn, our hotel of choice when traveling.  Avon Park is small town outside of the tourist areas, and there are no major chain hotels in the area.  When that happens I turn to Tripadvisor to find alternatives.

In this case, the number one hotel was an old, historic hotel, The Hotel Jacaranda.  The reviews were mixed.  Mostly positive, but it was clear that this was a quirky choice, and definitely not a Hampton Inn.  We decided to chance it and booked a suite.  They gave us a discounted rate of $60 per night. I was a bit worried when the suite could be had for just $60, but we threw caution to the wind and headed out for a rain soaked drive.

The hotel was built in the 1920s, and has been in continuous operation since it opened.  Ownership has changed several times.  It’s currently owned by the South Florida State College Foundation, and half of the hotel is being used as a dorm for students.  That half is across the building, and it was so quiet that we hardly noticed it was there.

jacarandahotel

Hotel Jacaranda from the upper balcony

Entering the hotel was like stepping back in time.  You enter from the street, no parking lot or covered entranceway.  If not for the computer and printer sitting at the font desk, it could have been straight out of the 1920s (mostly in a good way).  There is a library to the side of the lobby, with some fancy chairs to sit in while reading.

The original elevator was out of commission when we checked in due to the rain dripping in.  We took a peak at the elevator and it was pretty cool.  It had a metal gate that was manually closed, and was lever operated.  There were no buttons to push for the floor, instead a staff member would move the lever to go up, down, and stop.  We were able to take a ride the next morning after the rain slowed, and it was much faster than I expected.

Elevator - notice the lever instead of buttons.

Elevator – notice the lever instead of buttons.

The room was a bit of a disappointment.  It was decorated in a style somewhere between ugly and grandma.  The carpet was an ugly brown, the curtains were an ugly brown, and the furniture looked like it was straight out of a grandma’s spare bedroom.

This is our room, and our silly daughter.

This is our room, and our silly daughter.

On the plus side, everything seemed clean.  The bathroom was awash with white tile.  I’m not sure if they bathrooms were original or if they had been updated at some point, but they were definitely old.  Not old in a bad way, but just old.  There was some rust in the sink, but the tub and potty were in good shape.  The tub felt solid, not hollow like most modern tubs.  My wife commented on the sink that had separate hot and cold faucets.  Not separate knobs, but entirely separate faucets.  She said, “I guess they either used hot -or- cold water in the old days.”

The room we booked was a suite, so it had a small main room and a separate bedroom.  It felt like we were staying in someone’s grandma’s spare bedroom.  The decor just had that feel.

I got a peak at a storage room down the hall and noticed the hardwood floors in that room.  It’s too bad they covered the hard wood floors with carpet in the guest rooms, as that would have given it more charm.

The room felt very sketchy at first, given our normal hotel choices, but after staying there for the night we were much more comfortable with it.

In the morning we got word that the football game was canceled due to the rain, so my wife slept in, while my daughter, her cousin, and I exited the room to sit on the patio.  The patio was great.  It extended the length of the hotel, with two covered areas for sitting.

Beautiful and peaceful balcony.

Beautiful and peaceful balcony.

It felt very relaxing in a way that most modern hotels do not.  It overlooked the historic district, and on a sleepy, drizzly Saturday morning it felt very peaceful and serene.  At one end of the balcony were stairs leading up to a second level.  When the rain stopped, the kids headed up to the second level and danced and played.

The girls playing princess on the balcony.

The girls playing princess on the balcony.

With our Saturday suddenly free, in a small town, I wasn’t sure we’d find much to do.  I headed to Trip Advisor again to see if there was anything to do nearby.  (This isn’t a Trip Advisor commercial, but I’ve found it to be a very useful tool.)

There was no wi-fi in the hotel, so I used the LTE on my iPad while I sat on the patio.  I found a place that did gem mining.  I had to double check the location, because I had never heard of gem mining in Florida.  Turns out they import the gems, mix them with sand, and have a trough setup for sifting for gems.

The place is called “The Lost Mines of Atlantis”.  It was a small roadside attraction, and I probably wouldn’t have even noticed it had I not found it on the Internet first.  We stopped in and were met with a friendly greeting.

The Lost Mines of Atlantis

The Lost Mines of Atlantis

They have a no sharing rule on the gem mining, meaning you each pay for a bucket or pay a $10 fee to watch.  I read the rules on the Internet before we arrived, and considered just paying the $10 to watch, but when I got there my wife and I decided to get in on the action.

The guy that owns the place loves gems.  He’s really into it, and his knowledge and enthusiasm made the experience even better.  The kids picked some buckets containing polished gems, my wife did a crystal bucket, and I did a ruby bucket.  He did upsell us to more expensive buckets, but he was very genuine in wanting us to have a better experience.  It didn’t feel like the typical sleazy upsell, but instead felt like he really wanted us to find better gems.

Gems found from the Crystals bucket

Gems found from the Crystals bucket

With buckets in hand, we started sifting them in the water.  I was surprised at the number of gems we found.  I expected a small bucket with a few gems, but these were big buckets and they were full of gems.  We spent several hours sifting the sand and finding gem after gem.  The owner drifted between the store and the gem mining area, leaving us to enjoy ourselves without someone looking over our shoulder.  He came back often enough to help us identify our finds, and point out the good stuff.  I’m glad he did, because I had no idea what I was finding until he came by to identify my finds.  He really got excited when we found nice specimens. His enthusiasm for gems really made and already good experience even better.

My daughter and niece looking over their finds.

My daughter and niece looking over their finds.

The kids had a blast and my wife and I really enjoyed it also.  We each came away from it with a big bag of gems.  I found a number of rubies, which looked more like rocks to me than rubies, but I guess that’s how they are in the raw form.  The owner told me they were worth a couple hundred dollars on ebay.  I checked when I got home and I think he overestimated a bit on the price they could fetch.  It didn’t really matter to me though, because the experience is worth what we paid for it.

My prized ruby

My prized ruby

All in all, we had a fun weekend that was basically unplanned and unscheduled.  It was mostly put together at the last minute.  We took a rainy weekend and a canceled football game, and turned it into a fun adventure.

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