North Florida is a completely different region than south Florida. For those who want a more authentic old Florida experience, with less crowds, more small towns, and more space, this is the place!
Withlacoochee Park, in Dade City, is an inviting scenic area. As part of the green Swamp Wilderness Preserve, the park offers nature trails, picnic area, a playground, fishing, canoe launch, birding, and whimsical wood carvings. As we walked over a bridge, we spotted an alligator taking a swim! We did some bird watching, but only saw buzzards, ducks, and geese. The oak trees and Spanish moss were beautiful! We tried to visit the Dade City Depot, but found it closed. We did enjoy looking around the outside, with the 1950s style station wagon loaded with family and citrus, and the old truck with the driver.
Brooksville, in Hernando County, is another of Florida’s Main Street, USA towns. It was the Florida’s Outstanding Rural Community of 2000. We browsed through the 5 buildings of Rogers’ Christmas Shop! Rooms are arranged to show living rooms in a holiday setting. Decorations for any taste and budget are available. Perusing the decorations was fun! We came away with ideas for Christmas dancing in our heads. The town is full of old fashioned homes and stores. We ate at the Main Street Eatery. We had the best Cajun Hamburger Bean Soup! Service and atmosphere was friendly! Our meals included a half sandwich for MaryJo and a Cuban for Greg, and 2 iced teas. Cost before tip was $19.
What archeological site has 6 mounds and is the longest continuously inhabited Pre-Columbian Indian site? If you answered Crystal River, you’re correct! The population may have been as high as 7,500. Today, the history of the Native Americans is highlighted in the Visitor Center, with a timeline, displays of tools and a diorama. A midden (a heap of discarded household goods), burial mounds, and a ceremonial stone on which offerings were placed help us to understand more of the lifestyle that began about 500B.C. The site was used until about 1300 A.D. Whys did they build here? It’s one of History’s Mysteries. Excavations were begun in 1903 by Clarence Moore. Tours and Ranger Programs are available. Visitors may also fish in the waters, and bird watch. This is part of the Great Florida Birding Trail. Allow about 45 minutes, more if you plan to picnic. Admission is only $3 per carload. The park is off Rt. 19 near the town of Crystal River. Florida State Parks have been awarded the Best Parks in America. We enjoyed our visit!
A train display surprised us along Rt. 98, near Gulf Hammock in Levy County. It recalls the Patterson-McInnis Railroad, prominent in the area in the early 1900s, and part of the Patterson-McInnis Sawmill. The engine often pulled 30 or 40 cars piled high with logs. Logging was an important Florida industry. A small stream just behind offers shade and a moment of tranquility. This is an example of the surprises just ahead when traveling the back roads.
Another surprise was a scene of giant sea creatures in front of a lawn ornament or business ornament shop. Huge sharks, crabs and fish hung in the air or climbed on the fence. Right across the street was a lighthouse representing a church.
The end of the day was coming, with dinner at BBQ Bill’s in Chiefland. MaryJo couldn’t resist the sampler platter, a delicious combo of chicken, ribs, beef, and pork. Leftovers provided the next day’s picnic lunch! Greg had a taste for a porterhouse steak, also scrumptious. Three sauces were all tasty, although Greg preferred the spicy one. Two soft drinks with refills completed the meal. Our waitress was cheerful and efficient. Total was $34 before tip.
We fell in love today – with Cedar Key! It was a great start to the day! Cedar Key is a fishing village, clam farm community, historical area, and artist colony. It’s a place where the pace slows and visitors can enjoy the important things in life. Fishing, birding, swimming, boating, hiking, camping, shopping, eating, and sightseeing are all activities visitors can enjoy. The village is located in the Gulf of Mexico, among barrier islands with beautiful trees and shrubs and old Florida buildings. It was once a major supplier of seafood and timber products. We loved the colors of the houses and stores, the whimsy – like the monkey in the tree, the tiny beach, the shopping, the history, the Curdmudgeonalia Bookstore, and the myriad of choices for activities. We love Key West, and this is like Key West, minus the crowds, the high prices, and the long trek to get there. We’ll be coming back for a long week end ASAP! It’s about 45 minutes from Chiefland. Allow plenty of time! This is a jewel!
Down the road, we knew Dakotah Winery was waiting! The grounds say that this is a special place. An old Spanish cannon, a windmill, and antique wine making equipment are among the eclectic assortment of décor. Inside, the owners, Rob and Max Rittgers are enthusiastic, knowledgeable, and welcoming! We enjoyed meeting both gentlemen. Tasting is free, without pressure, and we enjoyed the wines so much, we bought several bottles. But wait, there’s more! A duck pond is in the back, with food to feed our feathered friends and the koi who share the pond. A shady grape arbor beckons. Inside, the winery is visible, and a well appointed gift shop might be calling your name. By the way, the name “Dakotah” is a Lakota Native American word meaning friend. Allow 30 minutes. We found another jewel!
“Florida’s Last Frontier” is Horseshoe Beach. A ride through mostly scrub brings the inquisitive visitor here. We sojourned at the park for our picnic lunch. The view was very pretty, with pelicans and islands in view. There are some attractive homes, and boats with interesting names like “Hell on Reels.” Our leftovers provided us with lunch. However, there is no swimming beach. Near town is Jackson Trail Park, a picnic area named for President Andrew Jackson, who has the dubious honor of executing 2 British subjects near there and almost causing a war, before he even became President.
By the time we reached Perry, we were ready to call it a day. Days Inn offered a good deal – $133 for a 2 night stay. They had a pool. Old Mexico on Byron Butler Parkway was a nice restaurant with good food. We did have a slight language problem and Greg ended up with a fishbowl sized drink and MaryJo was served sherry instead of chardonnay. Dinner was $40 before the tip.
A good Southern breakfast can be found at Hill’s Country Kitchen in Perry. Grits, biscuits, and even catfish can be had. Caution: Southern, tasty as it is, implies fried and lots of carbs. Our breakfast was $14: A 3 egg omelet with grits and biscuit and 2eggs, hash brown, and bacon, with 2 coffees.
The Forest Capital Museum and Cracker Homestead is worth a look! Did you know that turpentine was an important Florida industry? The pine tree contributes to about 5,000 other products. Wow! The self guiding museum spotlights the timber industry and native wildlife. Next door is an 1864 Cracker Homestead, complete with house, barn, outhouse, chicken house, and other farm buildings. Cracker is a term that refers to native Floridians and came from the crack of the Florida cowboy’s whip! A garden produces foods all year. Sugar cane was growing when we were there. Grapes are grown, too, for fresh fruit, jelly, and wine. The smoke house was used to preserve meat so the family could eat it all year. Take your time, and imagine life as it was then. Women washed clothes outside, pounding them on a workbench. They cooked in a detached kitchen, to lessen the risk of a house fire. Men hunted and farmed to provide food. We think it would be an adventure to try this life for a few days, but are glad we live in the 21st century. Allow an hour. Admission is $2 per person. A picnic area and playground are adjacent.
Poppa Jim’s is a good lunch spot. Fresh oysters are shucked right in front of you. Our server is the originator’s grand-daughter. She explained that the lunch counter is so wide because “Poppa,” a retired teacher, wanted to have room to keep the waiting oyster trays. Greg had the fresh oyster and the oyster stew! MaryJo had the Greek Salad, with fresh crab bits and tiny shrimp. It was all good, although the salad seemed to take awhile. Our bill was $19. Other items include gumbo, fried seafood, swamp cabbage (an old Florida classic), and po’boys. We asked about swimming beaches, and were told there are no swimming beaches in the area. Most locals go up to the “handle” to swim.
Downtown is historic and attractive, but small. There didn’t seem to be any eateries open after five. It is a good area for fishing, hunting, and hiking.
We breakfasted at Hardees. Yes, it’s a chain, but Southern to the core, bless their hearts. Featured on the breakfast menu were fried bologna biscuit, pork chop and gravy biscuit, and smothered potatoes. We each chose the tasty and more sensible breakfast wrap. Greg added hash browns, and MaryJo, grits. With 2 coffees, the tab was $10. One of our better deals! Nourished, we aimed our trusty car towards the north and the “handle” of Florida.
St. Mark’s Lighthouse, part of the Lighthouse Tour of Florida’s Forgotten Coast, was a priority for us. We really wanted to climb the lighthouse, but sadly for us, it’s closed to the public. However, we did do some hiking, birding and butterfly watching. We were rewarded with some gorgeous butterflies, a few birds, and a chat with the lighthouse keeper.
The lighthouse was built around 1829. The first lighthouse was built with hollow walls, for moisture control. However, the plans called for solid walls, so the lighthouse was torn down and rebuilt! The lighthouse keeper had to light 15 whale oil lamps every night, and then extinguish them every morning and clean all the glass! This took hours!
We took the Lighthouse Levee Trail, just in front of the lighthouse. On the way, we saw gulls, pelicans, herons, and egrets. Monarchs, Common Sulphurs, Viceroys, and Gulf Fritillaries danced by. Prickly Pear Cacti had just bloomed and were ready to be harvested by anybody who knows how to prepare the purplish fruit. This was used by American Indians. Sabal Palm, also known as Cabbage palm, grows on the trail. Natives used the palm for roofing weaving cloth, and ate the berries. Other plants included Red Cedar, Wax myrtle, and Bee Balm.
An appealing park, St. Mark’s offers hiking and biking trails, a Visitor Center, and public boat launch. Admission is only $5 per carload! Visitors could spend anywhere from an hour to a day.
Driving the Coast Road gave us ample scenery. The Gulf of Mexico was often within sight. At the Wakulla Visitor Center, we learned that some of the “Tarzan” movies of the 1930’s and 40’s featuring Johnny Weissmuller were filmed at Wakulla Springs. Just across the street from the center, was a park with springs that was once very popular. The belief that the water would cure anything from headaches to serious illnesses brought many people to the area. Today the springs are there, but all the bath houses are gone.
Further on, after more scenic driving, at Bald Point Park, we stopped for our picnic lunch. The view was splendid! The sand dunes, sea oats, birds and butterflies were so beautiful! We saw a myrtle tree covered with monarch butterflies! A stroll on the bright white sands was exhilarating! A few people were surf fishing. Driftwood was on the beach and cypress knobs straddled the shoreline.
There are many settlements along the coast road, including Panacea and Carrabelle. Carrabelle is a small town with an emphasis on fishing. It boasts the world’s smallest police station. The station is a phone booth! Often the squad car will sit next to the booth waiting for a call. It must be wonderful to live in such a low crime area!
Crooked River Lighthouse, another of the Lighthouse Tour lighthouses, is only open to the public on Saturday, but visitors are free to tour the lighthouse keeper’s home anytime. It is a replica of the 1895 four room house. The exceptions are air conditioning and modern plumbing. The lighthouse in made of iron and steel, and during renovation, the structure only had to be sandblasted and repainted – it was in that excellent repair! On the grounds is a picnic area with a 70 ft. pirate ship for children, called the “Carabella.” There are native plants and many bird species to observe. Admission is free. If it’s not Saturday, allow 15 minutes, unless children are with you. Then allow enough play time!
Home for the next 2 nights is St. Joe Peninsula State Park. It’s in the gulf, and is miles from any town. There are no concessions, but restrooms and showers are clean and modern. Two nights camping was $53 for our tent. For $5 we had firewood, and for $2 a bag of ice. Our site in Sandy Pines Campground is very pretty, and secluded. However, it’s on the edge of a swamp, and so rather damp. We heard an owl hooting while we ate our meal of homemade chili! Another campground is Gulf Breeze.
The BP Station is the center of commerce. Rentals at the Scallop Cove B. P. include canoes, kayaks, bikes, beach chairs and fishing equipment. Bait, groceries, ice cream, lunch, clothes, and souvenirs are available. They also have charter fishing trips. They do have the corner on the market!
A quick camp breakfast of coffee, fruit, and toast started us on our day. The owl was hooting during breakfast! Biking along the beach roads, renting of course from the B.P., provided an opportunity for us to get close up views of some of the pretty beach houses, see butterflies and birds, observe the plants, and get exercise. Cute names like Jamaica, Summer, and Bay Breeze were some of the street names. Houses were named Coquina, Almost There and Haven. We saw two dead snakes and remembered how the ranger had told us rattlesnakes are protected now because so many people deliberately kill them! Rattlesnakes have their uses – killing rats is one! Cost was $7 for an hour per bike.
The exercise had us ready for lunch, so we headed to Cone Heads, one of the only places to eat. We found a ship shaped building, painted bright blue, with tiki umbrellas covering the patio tables and an outdoor pool table. They sell produce, too! We each had a grilled fish sandwich with a side of fries and a glass of wine. Delicious! Our tab was $30 before tip. Other food items include burgers, salads, chowder, and desserts. There are some vegetarian items! Prices range from $3.99 to $13.99.
The beaches here are beautiful white powdered sugar sand! The dunes are protected, so don’t walk on them! Trees are magnificent, with Spanish Moss draped over the branches as decoration. There were very few people here when we were here, in early November. Most of the few business that are in the area are closed for the season. Boating, fishing, birding, swimming, and hiking are some of the outdoor activities to enjoy. History is rich in the area. Natives were here long before Europeans, as evidenced in tool and pottery remnants. Spanish explorers were here in the 1500s. Settlers began moving here in the 1800s. The American government bought much of the land in 1940 for military training.
Jellyfish, sea turtles, rays, and sharks are among the marine life. On land, rats, snakes, and mice might be seen. While we were registering, a woman called the ranger and said a snake was in her camper! There are many birds: terns, sandpipers, woodpeckers, wrens, woodpeckers, hawks, and ducks. Please heed the alligator warnings on the bay side and central areas. Always be careful in a wilderness area or preserve!
One of the local critters decided to check out our cooking bin during the night. It was closed and contained no food, but a crash woke us up to discover the contents spilled on the ground.
Greg decided to catch our dinner, and enjoy surf fishing. The Whiting were biting, and within an hour, he had 6 of them and a flounder to prepare. He had so much fun! MaryJo guarded the bait and fish from marauding sea gulls and plovers! A swim in the cool water was nice, too. Nothing like fresh fish, grilled over a campfire! The owl hooting in the swamp was a nice accent to the meal.
Taking down the tent and breaking camp is an easy undertaking when the weather is fine! We are partial to this area, although it is remote. Port St Joe is a picturesque little town which we passed through on the way out of the Panhandle.
Continuing on past pasture, homestead, small settlements, little towns, wood, and water, we eventually reached Suwannee River State Park near the pretty little town of Live Oak. Live Oaks, Red Cedar, and pines dominate the park. Bathrooms and showers are modern and well kept. There weren’t many campers when we were here, so we had plenty of privacy. Also, we were one of the only tents! Wood and ice are available at the Ranger Station, as are canoe rentals. The ranger told us that the nearest place to replenish supplies is the Wal-Mart in Live Oak, about 9 miles away.
At nightfall, after a pretty sunset, we had our campfire blazing and enjoyed our hearty sandwiches. The air got much cooler.
The 40-something temperatures had us hightailin’ it into town for breakfast! Just too cold for us to be standing around cooking if we don’t have to. Fortunately, we found Dixie Diner, a good southern cuisine eatery that offers pork chops and eggs, grits, biscuits and sawmill gravy, hot cakes, and good hot coffee. MaryJo had the chops and eggs, while Greg chose the manly Paul Bunyan Breakfast, sawmill gravy and biscuits, bacon, home fries, and eggs. Total for us both before tip was $17 – a good deal for a good meal with good service.
An after meal stroll around Live Oak was entertaining and informative. The Suwannee County Historical Museum, though small, is attractive, fun, and enlightening. Exhibits include a 192-s country kitchen, moonshine still, 195-0s phone switchboard, and a pony cart belonging to Florida’s first governor, Charles Drew. Admission is free. Randy Torrance, the curator, gave us some history of the town, and chatted about the current activities the museum sponsors. Allow at least a quarter of an hour. While in town, check out the courthouse, old court house, Methodist Church, and McHale’s Gifts, a fairy, dragon, and wizard store, and more!
Not more than a short drive away in White Springs is the Stephen Foster Folk Culture Center State Park. Activities there include camping, hiking, shopping, fishing, and horseback riding. The center is dedicated to the memory of Stephen Foster, writer of approximately 200 songs mostly in the 1850s and 1860s. Titles include “I Dream of Jeannie with the Light Brown Hair”, “Camptown Races,” and of course, “Swanee River.” Oddly, Stephen Foster was not a Southerner, but was born in Pittsburgh, PA. He never visited Florida, and was only in the South once. He died in 1864 at the age of 37. He has become something of a legend since. In the auditorium, exquisite handmade dioramas of some of his songs are shown. Pianos and organs of the time are on exhibit, including the von J’anko Keyboard. This is an extremely unusual keyboard, featuring 6 different rows of keys, invented in 1882. It is an impressive looking piece! On the grounds is the Stephen Foster Memorial Carillon, holding 97 bells, one of the largest in the world. Music is played on a regular basis. In addition there is a craft shopping area and a restaurant. Special events, such as the Florida Folk Life Festival are held on the grounds. Snapping turtle, alligators, Gulf sturgeon, and other wildlife call the park home. In the spring, a Florida Folk life Festival is held on the grounds. Admission to the park is only $5. Allow an hour, minimum.
White Springs itself was once a tourist town; known for the healing properties of the mineral waters. Before that, Native Americans held the area as sacred, because of the supposedly curing springs.
A warm afternoon called for a canoe ride on the Suwannee River. We paddled upstream, basking in the sun, and the rock formations, trees, and sandy banks of the river. At one point, a sturgeon stirred the waters! The surroundings are enchanting, the water cool, and the ride back easy! Going upstream first allowed us to drift back. Don’t forget to bring water to drink, and put on sunscreen ahead of time. For 2 hrs, the fee was $10.
A supper of chicken with peppers, scallions, and baked yams on the fire was delicious! Sitting close to the campfire kept us cozy! A glass of wine added to the ambience!
There is plenty to see and plenty to do here in North Florida! We recommend this trip to anyone wanting to get off the trails!
Thanks for reading my article. If you enjoyed it, please take the time to check out my website, [http://www.offthetrails.com/] to discover more great places to visit.