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Azalea house in full bloom in Palatka

By Robert Tolf

Special correspondent

April 21, 2002

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Crab lovers unite! Grab your mallets, picks and prepare to paddle your way to the 14th Annual Blue Crab Festival in Palatka on Memorial Day weekend, May 25-27. Palatka is in Putnam County, about halfway between St. Augustine and Gainesville. The sleepy little town is proud to call itself the Bass Capital of the World.

Why not? With some 1,500 lakes, rivers and streams, it has a lot of bass. But on Memorial Day weekend, the crabs take over.

There also will be a nonstop parade of performers, a juried art show and arts and crafts, plus rides for the kids and various athletic events.

It is the climax of the town's seasonal happenings, which include the Third Annual Auto Show at the end of April. The first weekend of March featured the annual Azalea Festival centered around an 85-acre explosion of bright blooms in Ravine State Gardens, which has a three-mile scenic drive, numerous footpaths and a shaded picnic area.

The Seminoles established a trading post here in the early 1800s. It was burned down during the Seminole War and was replaced by Fort Shannon, at various times the headquarters for young officers Winfield Scott, Zachary Taylor and William Tecumseh Sherman.

During the Civil War, about 5,000 of Sherman's troops occupied the town. They commandeered as barracks such buildings as the carefully preserved St. Mark's Episcopal Church and the Greek Revival Bronson-Mulholland House, built in 1854 by a congressman who introduced the bill to make Florida a state. Owned by the city and listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the house sports a mini-museum showcasing the area's history, when Palatka was a prime river port, a vital shipment point and a popular tourist destination.

Close by is an equally historic structure, an 1878 three-story Queen Anne Victorian lovingly transformed into The Azalea House, a bed-and-breakfast with just enough filigree work to distinguish the double-decker porches, complete with deck swing. In the tree-shaded yard is a lattice-enclosed, lushly landscaped little swimming pool.

The dining room, where breakfast is served, features a fireplace, as does the parlor furnished with period pieces and a stunning display of needlework sewn by innkeeper Jill de Leeuw. In fact, her handiwork with needles can be found all over The Azalea House, and in the small gift shop. She is constantly adding to the collection she brought down from New York City when she and husband, Doug, made the move three years ago.

Jill de Leeuw also brought her skills from a previous career as pastry chef and she provides the kind of treats that make the full breakfasts something special.

Among the rooms, a favorite is the namesake Azalea Room, largest of the six with queen-size bed, sitting area with TV and private bath with shower. The Rose Room features a queen-sized cherry pediment bed and the Magnolia Room sports an iron sleigh bed that overlooks a bay window; both also have private baths with showers.

The Garden Room in mission style overlooks the yard and has a handsome queen-sized oak bed; Aunt Esther's Room has a tree-top view and a cozy little alcove for reading; Aunt Martha's Room is a bit more spacious -- in fact, large enough to accommodate a third guest if need be.