North Central Florida:
The Way IT USED TO BE

BY JANET GROENE

North Central Visitors Guide - Free Magazine Subscriptions & Download

The clock stopped in much of north Florida about 50 years ago, which makes the North Central Region a perfect vacation venue for the unhurried visitor who loves nature and prefers life at a snail's pace. A day's drive north from Miami, this is a land of pine forests, bubbling springs and lazy rivers. Songwriter Stephen Foster never saw the region's Suwannee River, yet he made it famous with his unforgettable Old Folks at Home melody. Today, the Suwannee and a network of other rivers are among the state's top places to canoe, kayak and fish.

Early settlers in the region arrived by steamboat until a highway and a railroad were built, replacing what had previously been an ancient trading route. Fortunes were made in tobacco, railroading and lumber. Grand mansions were built in communities such as Monticello, Quincy, Live Oak and Madison. Wealthy northerners came to "take the waters" at White Springs while Havana thrived as a leading tobacco auction town. Fortunes changed, however, when I-10 bypassed the communities and passenger trains stopped serving them. Only the mournful whistles of freight trains passing forgotten crossings break the small-town silence.

Today, many of these small charming towns welcome visitors to delightful B&Bs, antique stores, down-home cooking and southern hospitality. Sophisticated restaurants, resorts and nightlife are virtually unknown outside of the region's major cities, although major changes are coming to Suwannee County and its county seat, Live Oak. In 2011, voters approved the selling of wine and liquor by the bottle and drink. A boutique winery is eyeing a location here, a new resort for naturists will open and restaurateurs are shopping for sophisticated cellars.

Tallahassee, the state capital and western bookend of the region, provides hotels, fine dining, shopping and entertainment. Gainesville is a college town with youthful pizzazz and highbrow polish.

Overall, the North Central Region is largely rural, sparsely populated and its greatest assets are exceptional natural blessings that make the area popular for biking, fishing, birdwatching, hiking, camping, kayaking and canoeing. Cave diving in the freshwater springs of the Suwannee River attracts expert scuba spelunkers from around the world.

MUST SEE, MUST DO

Established in 1633 by Spanish Franciscans, Mission San Luis in Tallahassee was burned to the ground by the Spanish and their Apalachee allies in 1704 to prevent approaching British troops from taking it over.

Now much of the village and a fort have been rebuilt on the historic site in compliance with original Spanish plans. Buildings include a massive council house replicating the one that was used for Apalachee tribal meetings. Interpreters in period costume describe Apalachee life and at various times during the year there are historical re-enactments.

HERITAGE AND CULTURE

Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park north of Live Oak is one of Florida's largest and best venues for music festivals. Situated on the banks of the Suwannee River, it hosts a variety of festivals featuring big-name stars of country, bluegrass, folk and western music. Covering more than 500 acres, the park has campsites, cabins, fishing, birdwatching, canoeing, kayaking and an arts and crafts village.

CITY LIGHTS

Tallahassee has posh hotels and upscale restaurants befitting a state capital. Among them are the Governors Inn and the Hotel Duval with reputations as "in" spots for dining and nightlife. A college town (Florida State University), Tallahassee also has an abundance of pubs, clubs, sports bars and other "happening" places. The primary performing arts venue is the Tallahassee-Leon County Civic Center, which features Broadway shows and musical performances.

FUN FOR FAMILIES

Steinhatchee Landing Resort is an idyllic retreat where the Steinhatchee (steen-hat-chee) River meets the Gulf of Mexico. This is a laid-back place where families can swim, fish, canoe, kayak and wade in shallow waters to gather scallops.

Resort accommodation consists of upscale cottages with full kitchens. Drive to nearby restaurants whose menus feature fresh Gulf seafood. One of the resort's most famous guests was former US President Jimmy Carter who praised the place as a superb family getaway.

Family vacations in the North Central Region primarily involve nature and the outdoors. Parks such as Fanning Springs, Suwannee River, Stephen Foster and O'Leno state parks represent what family holidays here are all about: camping, swimming, fishing, snorkeling, hiking, scuba diving, canoeing and kayaking.

RECOMMENDED DRIVES

Driving west from Lake City to Tallahassee on US Route 90, visitors see communities frozen in time. Embodying all the quiet grace of yesteryear, towns such as Monticello, with its grand old 1890 opera house, merit exploration. In the similar community of Madison, a walking tour reveals several blocks of homes and buildings whose architecture dates as far back as the 1700s. One of the buildings was actually used as a hospital during the Civil War. Just off the highway in tiny Greenville, there is a monument to music icon, Ray Charles, who grew up there.

THE GREAT OUTDOORS

The Suwannee River Wilderness Trail runs about 170 miles from White Springs to the land's-end hamlet of Suwannee where the river enters the Gulf of Mexico. The river weaves through long stretches of wilderness and its banks are lined with towering pines and stately cypress. With adequate supplies and planning, paddlers can camp the entire distance or spend nights in rustic lodges along the way. This is a trail that can be navigated in its entirety or in part.

The North Central Region is known for some of the best cave-diving sites anywhere. Two of the most popular are Devil's Den and the Blue Grotto near Williston. Located in the southwest corner of the region, Devil's Den features stalactites, intricate rock formations and 33-million-year-old fossil beds while the Blue Grotto is one of the deepest caverns in the state. Be warned, however; cave diving is only recommended for scuba divers trained in this sport as these labyrinths are often entered through narrow underwater passages.

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