NORTH CEN­TRAL FLORIDA: Springs and se­cret edens

Travel Guide to Florida - - TABLE OF CONTENTS - BY JANET GROENE

Trav­el­ers trea­sure ru­ral, re­mote North Cen­tral Florida for its nat­u­ral gifts in­clud­ing the cel­e­brated Suwan­nee River, clear­wa­ter springs and such a di­verse dis­play of wild places, flora and fauna that nat­u­ral­ist John Muir walked 1,000 miles to see them. Brack­eted by two high-spir­ited uni­ver­sity cities are miles of “blue” by­ways that stitch to­gether home­town ham­lets where time stands still.

ARTS AND CUL­TURE

At the Harn Mu­seum of Art at the Uni­ver­sity of Florida in Gainesville see one of the world’s iconic Ham­mer­ing Man stat­ues by Jonathan Bo­rof­sky plus more than 10,000 pieces of African, Asian and con­tem­po­rary art. Also on dis­play are com­pre­hen­sive col­lec­tions of An­cient Amer­i­can, oceanic and nat­u­ral his­tory art. Five out­door spa­ces in­clude the Asian Wa­ter Gar­den and an Asian Rock Gar­den.

The­ater-go­ers can find live pro­fes­sional pro­duc­tions as well as art cinema and art ex­hibits at Gainesville’s ar­chi­tec­turally impressive Hip­po­drome. It’s housed in the his­toric Fed­eral Build­ing, richly de­signed with Corinthian col­umns and elab­o­rate trim.

An­chored by an early (1857) Gainesville homestead, Mathe­son His­tory Mu­seum show­cases lo­cal his­tory and na­tive plants in its botan­i­cal gar­den. The com­plex also in­cludes the orig­i­nal tool barn and a quaint 1935 taber­na­cle that serves as the mu­seum library. The Florida Mu­seum of Nat­u­ral His­tory on the Uni­ver­sity of Florida cam­pus is best known for its But­ter­fly Rain­for­est. Don’t miss its ex­ten­sive col­lec­tions in fields of ar­chae­ol­ogy, pa­le­on­tol­ogy and eth­nol­ogy. Out­doors, stroll along na­ture paths.

Stephen Fos­ter Folk Cul­ture Cen­ter State Park in White Springs has camp­sites, cab­ins, ranger-led events and hik­ing trails, the same as other state parks, but res­i­dent artists make this stop a vi­brant cen­ter for Florida folk art ev­ery day. Pro­grams fea­ture per­form­ers, song­writ­ers and ex­pert crafters.

Head­ing west to Tallahassee via I-10, stop briefly in Greenville. Tour the re­stored home of jazz leg­end Ray Charles (1930–2004) by ap­point­ment or just grab a quick photo of the impressive bronze statue of the blind mu­si­cian. Con­tin­u­ing west to Mon­ti­cello, see the his­toric Mon­ti­cello Opera House. In the vaude­ville era, tour­ing troupes played the area’s many opera houses. This one still hosts live per­for­mances.

The Tallahassee Mu­seum is a 52-acre col­lec­tion of build­ings rep­re­sent­ing 19th­cen­tury com­mer­cial, farm and so­cial life in North Florida. One of the most in­trigu­ing is Belle­vue, a modest but car­ingly re­stored plan­ta­tion home of a real princess. Cather­ine Dainger­field Willis, great grand­niece of Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton, be­came a royal when she mar­ried Prince Achille Mu­rat, a nephew of Napoleon Bon­a­parte. When Napoleon was ex­iled, the cou­ple fled from France to the United States. The prince served as Tallahassee post­mas­ter and Cather­ine bought a 520-acre cot­ton plan­ta­tion. Their burial plot is in the St. John’s Episcopal Church Ceme­tery in down­town Tallahassee.

Tallahassee’s per­for­mance arts in­clude fully staged Florida State Opera pro­duc­tions at Florida State Uni­ver­sity. A large out­door venue for sea­sonal fes­ti­vals, con­certs and events is the Cap­i­tal City Am­phithe­ater at Cas­cades Park down­town. Civic venues of­fer oc­ca­sional tour­ing shows such as a Broad­way se­ries.

AT­TRAC­TIONS

De­pot Park, a 32-acre fam­ily play­ground and cul­tural cen­ter on the site of Gainesville’s his­toric rail­road sta­tion, is fully ac­ces­si­ble to adults and chil­dren with phys­i­cal chal­lenges. On hot days, get wet in the splash pad. On the wa­ter’s edge, you may see pop-up art gal­leries, food trucks and fes­ti­vals through­out the year. Come here any day to find out­door grills, pic­nic pavil­ions and na­ture trails. En­joy in­door fun at De­pot Park in the Cade Mu­seum of Cre­ativ­ity and In­ven­tion, which will open in stages early 2018. Bring the fam­ily to en­gage with dis­plays high­light­ing in­no­va­tion.

In Tallahassee, Good­wood Mu­seum & Gar­dens be­gan as a 2,400-acre corn and cot­ton plan­ta­tion in the 1830s. The stately home was owner-oc­cu­pied into the 1920s and its fur­nish­ings re­flect its many lay­ers of his­tory. The gar­dens have been re­turned to the orig­i­nal, 19th-cen­tury plant­ings of heir­loom roses, bulbs and sago palms. Some­thing is in bloom all year in a set­ting of tow­er­ing live oaks.

De­spite its mod­ern look, Tallahassee is one of the South’s old­est com­mu­ni­ties. The Span­ish set­tle­ment at St. Augustine traded with the Apalachee tribe here 500 years ago. When the Bri­tish won Florida from the Span­ish, the tribe fled west and burned their village. Now it has been re­con­structed, a liv­ing replica of Span­ish and Na­tive Amer­i­can life. The Mis­sion San Luis de Apalachee in Tallahassee is a busy village peo­pled by Span­ish “sol­diers” at the fort, “fri­ars” at the church and na­tive towns­peo­ple who raise crops, weave, make horse­shoes, feed chick­ens and meet at the coun­cil house. A faithful restora­tion, based on orig­i­nal Span­ish records and placed on ac­tual sites, the Mis­sion re-cre­ates the village when the tribe and their Span­ish friends fled ap­proach­ing English ar­mies in 1704.

Although the Tallahassee Au­to­mo­bile and Col­lectibles Mu­seum has more than 150 ve­hi­cles, it’s about much more than cars. The 100,000-square-foot build­ing holds one of the na­tion’s largest dis­plays of Stein­way pi­anos plus ex­ten­sive col­lec­tions of juke­boxes, knives, vin­tage sports items, dolls, Na­tive Amer­i­can relics, old toys, rail­road mem­o­ra­bilia and rare odd­i­ties. Plan to spend all day.

The Chal­lenger Learn­ing Cen­ter in down­town Tallahassee is a uni­ver­sity-led outreach for stu­dents from kinder­garten age to 12. Adults are wel­come. See eye-pop­ping IMAX doc­u­men­taries and at­tend plan­e­tar­ium shows.

BEACHES AND OUT­DOOR GEMS

Nat­u­ral­ist John Muir trekked through this re­gion to end his fa­mous Thou­sand-Mile Walk to the Gulf at Cedar Key, not­ing many pre­vi­ously un­recorded species of birds and plants. Look for them in the re­gion’s state and na­tional forests, pre­serves and parks. Stretches of the Great Florida Bird­ing Trail thread through the re­gion, of­fer­ing sight­ings of up­land and coastal species. Hik­ing trails abound.

Beach­go­ers speed past this area, lured to the snow-white sands of the Emer­ald Coast or east­ward to the At­lantic beaches. That’s good news for lo­cals who know a dozen hid­den springs, which feed the rivers, are pop­u­lar swim­ming holes where hik­ers and pad­dlers pause for a swim. Keaton Beach, a fish­ing village south of Perry, has a sandy beach on the Gulf of Mex­ico.

Tub­ing the area’s unique springs pro­vides an in­ti­mate look at a tan­gled wilder­ness. Float through tun­nels of veg­e­ta­tion too small for ca­noes. En­try points in­clude Blue Spring State Park in High Springs and Fort White’s Ichetuck­nee Springs State Park.

The Suwan­nee River can be pad­dled for its en­tire length, from north of Jack­sonville to the Gulf of Mex­ico. Prim­i­tive camps are pro­vided for overnight stays. Overnight lodg­ings, sup­plies and restau­rants are found in White Springs and Dowl­ing Park.

An ex­cep­tional net­work of hik­ing, bik­ing and eques­trian trails is well main­tained and mapped, thanks to the Florida Trail As­soci- ation. Gainesville’s Loblolly Woods is a serene hide­away in the heart of the city. The two-mile-long Hog­town Creek Green­way loop trail re­wards all with views of woods, wa­ters and wildlife seem­ingly un­touched by ur­ban sprawl.

The Osce­ola Na­tional For­est’s most pop­u­lar spot is Ocean Pond, a two-mile-wide swim­ming hole with a sandy beach. The 200,000-acre for­est has hik­ing, bird­ing, ATV, mo­tor­cy­cle and eques­trian trails.

The Tallahassee–St. Marks His­toric Rail­road State Trail runs 20.5 miles from the cap­i­tal to St. Marks. It’s part of Florida’s Green­ways and Trails Sys­tem, a Na­tional Recre­ation Trail and a por­tion of the de­vel­op­ing 120-mile “Cap­i­tal City to the Sea Loop” cor­ri­dor on the Big Bend Scenic By­way. Traila­has­see.com is an on­line re­source with in­for­ma­tion and maps of more than 600 miles of trails in the Tallahassee area.

Tallahassee’s Al­fred B. Ma­clay Gar­dens State Park is a botan­i­cal show­place, renowned for win­ter bloom­ing camel­lias.

More of the re­gion’s unique flora and fauna is found at such di­verse spots as the sprawl­ing sa­vanna at Paynes Prairie Pre­serve State Park, a pre­his­toric sink­hole at Devil’s Mill­hop­per Ge­o­log­i­cal State Park, the wet­lands en­vi­ron­ment at Cedar Key and wooded up­land habi­tats in state and na­tional forests.

EN­TER­TAIN­MENT

City life throbs too, thanks to ma­jor uni­ver­si­ties in Tallahassee and Gainesville. In­ter­na­tional stu­dents and fac­ulty bring di­verse cul­tures, eth­nic cuisines and youth­ful en­ergy to cities known for Old South her­itage, food and hos­pi­tal­ity. As the state cap­i­tal, Tallahassee also hosts na­tional and in­ter­na­tional po­lit­i­cal power bro­kers. In this re­gion, va­ri­ety is the spice of life.

In the two ma­jor cities, stu­dent hang­outs ac­count for a large slice of nightlife. Abun­dant choices are found in af­ford­able and su­per­charged restau­rants, sports bars, cof­fee houses, jazz joints, open-mike nights, dance clubs and pubs.

In Gainesville, the mother of all hang­outs for ev­ery man­ner of Ga­tor bait from Uni­ver­sity of Florida stu­dents to el­derly alumni is The Swamp Restau­rant near the Ben Hill Grif­fin Sta­dium where the Florida Ga­tors foot­ball team draws huge crowds. Since 1994 the eatery has been serv­ing the faithful with food, drinks, re­unions and cheer­ing sec­tions in­doors and out. The front lawn is paved with com­mem­o­ra­tive bricks. The place to go pub-crawl­ing is West Uni­ver­sity Av­enue, ei­ther near cam­pus or in His­toric Down­town, where a dozen hot spots are mere yards apart.

Bo Did­dley Plaza is a com­mu­nity cul­tural cen­ter in Gainesville’s His­toric District. By day it’s busy with lunchtime con­certs and a weekly farm­ers’ mar­ket. Free con­certs take place ev­ery Fri­day night from May to Oc­to­ber.

As the home of Florida State Uni­ver­sity, Tallahassee has a youth­ful buzz and foot­ball ma­nia. And, as the state cap­i­tal, “Tally” hosts trav­el­ers from all over the world.

Here, nightlife venues range from ear­shat­ter­ing clubs fa­vored by stu­dents to more se­date places for po­lit­i­cal deal mak­ing. A must­see is the Brad­fordville Blues Club, the only Florida club on the Na­tional Blues Trail. Set your GPS and fol­low the dirt roads un­til you come to the bon­fire and hear the wail of the blues.

Krewe de Gras has a Ca­jun theme and live mu­sic in the cap­i­tal. Also known for drinks, late nights, high en­ergy and live mu­sic are Bull­win­kle’s and The Moon. Level 8 Lounge in the elegant Hotel Du­val is pop­u­lar for both af­ter-work and af­ter-din­ner drinks, tapas and live mu­sic.

ROAD TRIPS

The belly of this re­gion is so sparsely pop­u­lated that al­most any paved road is a good place for a jog, two-wheel jour­ney or a leisurely drive. The way is rimmed with wild­flow­ers and passes by farm fields and pas­tures of graz­ing cat­tle, horses or goats.

The main east-west route I-10 roughly fol­lows an­cient paths used since preColom­bian times. Old roads that par­al­lel the in­ter­state pass through charm­ing com­mu­ni­ties where the clock stopped once the in­ter­state opened. Start­ing at Lake City, per­haps with a loop up to White Springs, take US 90 west­ward, stop­ping at Live Oak for fried chicken at the Dixie Grill and a visit to the mu­seum in the old rail­road de­pot.

Con­tinue west to Suwan­nee River State Park on the site of a van­ished com­mu­nity called Colum­bus. The park of­fers cab­ins, camp­sites, a boat launch and pic­nic sites. Hik­ing trails take you past Civil War-era for­ti­fi­ca­tions, sawmill re­mains and an old ceme­tery. The high­way then leads you through Madi­son with its stately court­house and an­te­bel­lum homes. Hotels once pa­tron­ized by to­bacco auc­tion­eers and cot­ton fac­to­ries now stand empty but the small down­town grid has an­tique shops and a few restau­rants.

West of Madi­son off US 90, the Hix­town Swamp Con­ser­va­tion Area is a ma­jor win­ter­ing spot for wad­ing birds. Pub­lic ac­cess al­lows wildlife-view­ing, fish­ing, pic­nics and hik­ing. Like Madi­son and Live Oak, Mon­ti­cello is the county seat, cen­tered by a grand court­house. Drive around the small his­toric district, en­joy a meal and buy a bag of treats at Tu­pelo’s Bak­ery. There’s also a mu­seum in the old jail that’s worth check­ing out.

US 27, the orig­i­nal high­way from Mi­ami to the Midwest, pro­vides an in­ter­est­ing north-south road trip through this re­gion. Known by dif­fer­ent names in­clud­ing Claude Pep­per Me­mo­rial High­way through­out the re­gion and the Apalachee Park­way in Tallahassee, it links High Springs, with its funky restau­rants, B&B inns and old opera house, to Perry, home of For­est Cap­i­tal Mu­seum State Park. Lit­tle towns along the way in­clude Bran­ford, where cave divers find lodg­ings and out­fit­ters, and Mayo, where you’ll dis­cover au­then­tic coun­try food and cap­ti­vat­ing an­tique shops.

SHOP­PING

The cities have pop­u­lar shop­ping malls, an­chored by fa­mil­iar na­tional chain stores, but the area’s most off­beat shop­ping is in com­mu­ni­ties where for­mer main-street mer­can­tiles have evolved into bou­tiques sell­ing an­tiques, hand­made items of all kinds, spe­cialty foods and baked goods. Within a stroll of two or three blocks you can have lunch and shop for one-of-a-kind sou­venirs.

Mi­canopy (Mick-can-OH-pea) is a tiny hide­away on the site of a pre-Colom­bian set­tle­ment that was plat­ted by a New York de­vel­oper in the early 1800s. Man­sions, homes and mer­chants took root, only to see a fickle pub­lic move on to other set­tle­ments. Seem­ingly frozen in the 1950s, the ham­let has restau­rants, book­stores and an­tiques.

Alachua’s old town cen­ter, home of quaint gal­leries and restau­rants, is com­ple­mented by the new Alachua Gate­way Cen­ter just out­side the his­toric district. Shop and dine your way through both. At Dowl­ing Park, crafters at Ad­vent Chris­tian Village re­tire­ment com­mu­nity cre­ate hand­made quilts and baby gifts for sale in the Rus­tic Shop.

The re­gion has six winer­ies in­clud­ing the Dako­tah Vine­yards and Win­ery in Chiefland. It of­fers tast­ings, tours and dis­counts on case lots.

But­ler Plaza in Gainesville fea­tures two mil­lion square feet of re­tail space that in­cludes 150 stores and nu­mer­ous restau­rants. Open­ing in 2018 in Gainesville, Cel­e­bra­tion Pointe is a 225-acre shop­ping, din­ing and en­ter­tain­ment cen­ter an­chored by a Bass Pro Shop (al­ready open), a 137-room hotel and a mul­ti­plex movie the­ater com­plex.

Eth­nic food stores are abun­dant in the two col­lege towns. On South­west 34th Street in Gainesville, large stores spe­cial­ize in In­dian, Mid­dle Eastern, In­done­sian, Philip­pino and Asian foods rarely found else­where.

Bradley’s Coun­try Store, reached from Tallahassee via one of the re­gion’s oak­cloaked “canopy roads,” re­tains the old-time charm of the 1927 orig­i­nal. Sausages are still made and smoked on-site. Stop to buy sou­venirs and stock up on smoked meats, lo­cal honey, coarse-ground grits, may­haw jelly, crack­lings and such.

OP­PO­SITE CEN­TER: Bird­ing in Wakulla County. OP­PO­SITE BOT­TOM: Bird at Paynes Prairie Pre­serve. TOP: Foun­tain at Florida’s His­toric Capi­tol. ABOVE: Drive down Cen­ter­ville Road in Tallahassee.

OP­PO­SITE TOP LEFT: Down­town fes­ti­val and art show in Gainesville. OP­PO­SITE TOP RIGHT: The Hip­po­drome in Gainesville. OP­PO­SITE BOT­TOM LEFT: African Dance Fes­ti­val, Tallahassee. ABOVE: Fam­ily out­ing at Ma­clay Gar­dens in Tallahassee.

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