Fort Jefferson

Fort Jefferson took almost 30 years to build and housed prisoners during the Civil War.

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En español | Best-selling author Brad Meltzer's hands-on research has led to some unexpected discoveries in Florida, his adopted home state. Here are three hidden gems he unearthed in the Sunshine State:

We grew up and into lives full of kids and careers in far-flung places, but a group of us continue to make a week in this place a touchstone in our friendships. A flurry of winter phone calls and emails sets the annual date. While snow flies, anticipation builds until, at last, we pile into cars and onto planes and return each July to South Haven.

Now in our 50s and 60s, we travel from Chicago; Washington, D.C.; and Los Angeles, enticed by the respite from work and traffic-clogged big cities. Here, main street is two blocks long. We bike or walk and take pleasure in the fact that - without texting a meeting time - we bump into one another while pawing through corn at the farmers market or hauling rented kayaks out of the local sports shop.

This yearly reunion, like many that bring people together in vacation spots from Cape Cod to California, takes on a familiar rhythm as we arrive. We throw open cottage windows to the silky lake air, visit the beach to test the water, and prepare a dish for the opening-night communal dinner, over which plans are made: No question we'll attend the annual blueberry festival. But who's in for golf? Beach yoga? A sunset boat ride?  

We restore ourselves and reconnect in days that seem to stretch forever. For me, however, one week isn't enough. I now rent a place year-round, to enjoy all the seasons and the grounding I get here. Still, summer Saturdays are the best. I watch vacationers whose weeks are up depart in the morning; the next wave arrives in the afternoon. I stay and wait for the Summer Fun Club to commence.

We grew up and into lives full of kids and careers in far-flung places, but a group of us continue to make a week in this place a touchstone in our friendships. A flurry of winter phone calls and emails sets the annual date. While snow flies, anticipation builds until, at last, we pile into cars and onto planes and return each July to South Haven.

Now in our 50s and 60s, we travel from Chicago; Washington, D.C.; and Los Angeles, enticed by the respite from work and traffic-clogged big cities. Here, main street is two blocks long. We bike or walk and take pleasure in the fact that - without texting a meeting time - we bump into one another while pawing through corn at the farmers market or hauling rented kayaks out of the local sports shop.

This yearly reunion, like many that bring people together in vacation spots from Cape Cod to California, takes on a familiar rhythm as we arrive. We throw open cottage windows to the silky lake air, visit the beach to test the water, and prepare a dish for the opening-night communal dinner, over which plans are made: No question we'll attend the annual blueberry festival. But who's in for golf? Beach yoga? A sunset boat ride?  

We restore ourselves and reconnect in days that seem to stretch forever. For me, however, one week isn't enough. I now rent a place year-round, to enjoy all the seasons and the grounding I get here. Still, summer Saturdays are the best. I watch vacationers whose weeks are up depart in the morning; the next wave arrives in the afternoon. I stay and wait for the Summer Fun Club to commence.

1. Lincoln assassination conspirators' jail

About 70 miles from Key West is an island with a massive six-sided brick fortress. Fort Jefferson (pictured above) once held four of the eight people convicted of aiding John Wilkes Booth in the plot against Abraham Lincoln, including the famous physician Samuel Mudd. It's now part of a lovely national park called Dry Tortugas, but the men sent there by the U.S. government in 1865 called the prison "a perfect hell." It's remote, I mean really remote. You can get there only by boat (a high-speed catamaran ferry leaves from Key West) or seaplane.

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In the fort, which also once imprisoned deserters during the Civil War, you can see Mudd's dank cell, with little holes he cut into the floor to divert rainwater in the leaky jail.

After I decided to set my new thriller, The President's Shadow, there, I began researching its history. The more digging I did, the more secrets I found, including that the fort was used during the Cuban missile crisis and even for … I don't want to ruin the ending.

A tourist enters the Kennedy Bunker at the Palm Beach Maritime Museum on Peanut Island.

President Kennedy's hidden, 1,500 square foot Palm Beach bunker was constructed in 1961 at the height of the Cold War.

Brianna Soukup/The Palm Beach Post/ZUMA Wire
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2. JFK's hidden Palm Beach bunker

President John F. Kennedy and his wife, Jacqueline, used Palm Beach as their oceanfront winter home in the 1960s. But because this was the height of the Cold War, in 1961 the government built a bomb shelter a five-minute helicopter ride away, across the Intracoastal Waterway.

Located on a man-made islet known as Peanut Island, JFK's bunker was one of the world's greatest secrets, not revealed publicly until 1974. The Palm Beach Maritime Museum offers tours, allowing you to see the retro hideaway, with its decontamination showers, rusty bunk beds and presidential-seal rug.

Keys to the Kingdom Tour

Visitors can book a Keys to the Kingdom Tour ($79 each), to see Walt Disney World’s backstage areas and attractions.

Jonathan Blair/Corbis

3. Disney's underworld

Walt Disney knew that Mickey Mouse would need a way to get across his park fast. So he designed Walt Disney World to include an underground level beneath the crowds so staff could move around quickly. It became a nine-acre spread of color-coded tunnels known as Utilidors — short for "utility corridors" — hidden from visitors but fanning out from Cinderella Castle and connecting under all the main attractions. To get inside, you can take the little-known Keys to the Kingdom Tour: a five-hour behind-the-scenes exploration of the park, including the tunnels, for $79.

Although you won't get to roam freely, you'll at least catch a glimpse of how the magic happens. Few outsiders get a peek: After researching books on the White House, the Supreme Court and the U.S. Capitol, I can say that Disney keeps its secrets better than all of those combined.

Brad Meltzer is a best-selling author who hosts H2 TV's Brad Meltzer's Lost History. His new book, The President's Shadow, is out June 23.

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