Past noon you can get drunk from the sun. Rising from your chair you can get that dizzying sensation of your head not being quite attached to your body. Balloon like, tethered … In the heat you come to know new parts of your body, the crux of your arm, the base of your skull, the indent of your knee, in these forgotten parts, your hollow angles become sticky.

In a large cracked cement pool embellished with tiles, the water barely cools your skin, instead, you watch as translucent oil swirls around you, the remnants of your sun screen.

The air seems to buzz, as if everything; every plant, flower, blade of grass, leaf, is striving forward with growth. The ground and mulch and dropped seeds and flowers warm the ground until it’s earthy, spicy scent has been baked through the air. The air sticks to you here, becomes a part of you, collects on you, solid, making you feel a part of the place.

There is something truly different about the sky here. I would have sworn that the sky was bigger, and closer, and deeper. Only the occasional bird soaring against the blue backdrop gave any sort of marker of distance between you and it. It can become the nastiest colors, as though the heat intensifies the storm. Thunder that has woken me from a deep sleep. Clouds that seemed to melt into the oceanic horizon.

So, this is the Florida of my vacations, verdant and abundant, manicured and immaculate, a sort of heavenly tropics with sweetly perfumed air and flower strewn paths, but truly, still just a swamp. A developed, affluent community, on a swamp. A land that is wild and alive.

Southwest Florida is a contradiction to me. It can be, on the one hand, white sand beaches and aquamarine blue skies. It can be manicured lawns and topiaries, perpetually in bloom magenta, purple, and tangerine flowers, heavy royal palm fronds, leaning hazardously against the trunks of their trees, only to be swept aside before you notice them again. It can be a place of enormous wealth, streets so full of luxury vehicles that you feel a sort of dress code required to drive alongside them. It can be a place of enormous poverty, along the highway, towns dotted with old, mom and pop motels; with signs advertising a week and monthly rate, 711s, and Gun, Pawn, and Liquor Shops.

I have been driving from Ottawa, Canada to Marco Island, Florida, the very south western tip, for about fifteen years now. After getting off the 10 W in Northern Florida, we slow down as we merge onto 301 S and pass by the towns with such foretelling names as Starke, Baldwin, Waldo, and Citra. 301 is a state road, and as such, as we drive on it, we peak into the communities that seemingly materialize out of the marsh. Some are relics of another time. Pastel painted, single story motel units, boasting of their original 1960 amenities and comforts, crumbling orange stands with big Disney like lettering. Others are ugly. Neon glowing and competing signage at varying heights for every fast food company that could lay claim to the land. At one juncture, we enter a town, where roads seemingly only lead to either the county or state prison with a convenient placed, last stop, 711. It can be a land of old, white retirees and young, Latino workers. Living and working concentrically, housing, church, shopping, and grocery bubbles, until their spheres intersect, almost inconspicuously, poolside; lawn care vs. beach chair, grocery store; cash register vs. travelers’ checks, you get the idea.

So, it surprises me to learn that this lush place just a little inland, I find a cuisine more hearty than equatorial. When I see fried chicken, grits, collards, spoon bread, macaroni and cheese, mashed potatoes with gravy, spiced, cooked apples on menus, I find myself a little disconnected from this hot, tropical landscape. This landscape of the sun and the sand and the sea. Along the coast, we eat grouper, snapper, mahi mahi, shark, and shrimp, bright and briny, rich and meaty, flavourful in a way that you don't appreciate until you return home, and bite into shrimp that tastes, well, tastes-less.

On the island, there are a number of restaurants, some that are starting to embrace local ingredients and new techniques, some that rely simply on the bounty of delicious, fresh seafood; with a singular cooking style, broiled or fried, and others still, that seem to be stuck in the eighties. Menus that read like a time capsule, listing chateaubriand, oysters Rockefeller, or a wedge of lettuce, served with dressing.

But I’m a northern girl. December is the month of retracted sunlight and limited daytime. Living like vampires during days with a single cloud covering the entire sky, and sunbathing in every, last ounce of sun, we people of the North. The light becomes whiter this time of year. Snow refracting light, Christmas decorations, and the negative space; the lack of color that makes everything in its wake so brilliantly white.

I’m asked if I miss the snow and typical northern scenes that characterize Christmas when I spend it in Florida. Other than my obvious enjoyment of the warmth and sun, I never find that I feel too far from familiarity and home. For all the color on the island, there is a mimicry of that December whiteness, especially on the beach, in the sand, the grey waves, and the foaming surf. Just enough for me to remember it’s Christmas.

Florida is one of the most known and unknown of the American states. When I inform people I will be spending my holidays there, I inevitably get a question about going to the amusement parks or visiting some aging relative. While it might give the impression of artificiality and the mundane, I've found that it’s far from that. We always think that the exotic as being far away, some distant land that takes an ocean crossing to arrive at. But this world is still full of wild spaces, some, not so far from our front doors.