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Sunday, December 26, 2010


It should have come as no surprise when Herb Hiller left us for an island. Back in the 70's, when he wasn’t biking around Coconut Grove, he was off exploring some Caribbean wonderland.

I recall first seeing him thirty-five years ago, a tall thin man zipping here and there on a 10-speed. I soon found out he was usually ahead of the rest of us (we were in cars), and, ahead of his time. The New York native kept busy back then promoting island tourism. He was executive director of the Caribbean Travel Association and later founded the Caribbean Tourism Organization.

Thirty years ago Herb started the Grand Avenue Farmer’s Market. Wanting to bring an “island feel” to his hometown he and several friends (Roland Wood, Dinizulu Tinnie, and Billy Rolle) founded the Grove’s Goombay Festival in 1977.

He has written a number of books on travel. Mr. Hiller also produced a beautiful family with his wife, artist Mary Lee Adler. Their two daughters are accomplished artists as well. Nancy designs furniture and Magda is a popular musician.

I had not seen Mr. Hiller in years when friends began telling me about his mysterious North Florida island. He had discovered it inside a huge lake, an hour southwest of Jacksonville.

Drayton Island is the kind of feature you see on a map but don’t think about too much. It is far from things us city folk consider important, untouched by I-75, I-95, and the Sunshine State Turnpike. There is no Publix nearby.

A while back I asked Sandy Pukel, “Do you ever see Herb?” and he answered, “Of course, I was on his island last week!” Calls were made, an invitation extended, and Francesca and I –with our pup Pi- were soon heading for our own island adventure.

Drayton Island is a mile long and a half-mile wide. It’s where the Saint Johns Ri
ver swells into a wide expanse ("Lake George") as it drifts north. It used to be accessible by a small car ferry until the feds shut it down (a threat to our homeland security. Go figure). Now, you can only reach it by private boat.

Herb greeted us at a nearby marina with his usual warm smile. Minutes later we were motoring in his skiff. Captain Hiller zoomed past cattails and the occasional gator towards his mid-lake estate. When I complimented his boating skills he mentioned he had spent the mid-50’s serving in the Coast Guard.

Mary Lee and Herb’s house, built in the 1850s, is older than the Civil War. Yes, there is a fine new addition but we could not stop marveling at the older part, its wide screened porch and the watery expanse beyond. Their twelve acres have just a few neighbors within hollerin’ distance. Our dog Pi was in heaven and so were we.
Islands can do that.

In the kitchen we traded stories while Herb showed us how to grind flour. Mixing it with starter he made a magnificent loaf of sourdough bread. After a long trek through the woods we pitched in to make a simple dinner.

Mary Lee’s modern sculptures were here and there but she was not. She was an hour south, in Deland. The Hillers have a smaller second home there to be near their daughter, Magda, and a charming granddaughter. “My wife thinks we should sell this place and move but I’m not ready” he told us then. Our host added, “The island insects can be pretty awful in the summer so Deland can be a good place to be”.


Slowing down, being in one place and intensely enjoying what it has to offer is what drives Mr. Hiller these days. He wants us to take to the trails, by bike, skateboard or foot. We have few in South Florida. A good example is our own Grove bike path that stretches from Fairchild Gardens to Key Biscayne.

For the past few years Herb has been a consultant for the East Coast Greenway Alliance.
Their goal is to help create a 3000 mile pathway from Maine to Key West. This year he was named “Florida Trail Advocate of the Year”. Getting us out of the house and out of our cars is not easy work", he told me, “It often feels like pushing boulders uphill”.

When I called him earlier this week he was in Deland. “I came for a visit months ago. On the morning of the third day it hit me, it’s time to move off the island. It is time to be closer to friends and family.”

The Adler-Hiller Island Homestead will be on the market soon. You too can live on an island, apart from the world but not that far from a jetport. Our conversation closed with Herb inviting all of us to take to the trails. He says there are over 100 of them in Florida easily found at
Ever the advocate he added, “I tell people to go outside, take a walk. You’ll feel better".

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