North Central Florida:
THE QUIET GRACE OF Yesteryear

BY JANET GROENE

North Central Florida - Free Magazine Subscriptions & Download

Until the 1950s, North Central Florida was one of the nation's breadbaskets. Then canneries clanked to a stop. Interstates stole traffic that once sustained small towns. Passenger trains were replaced by freight cars. Only the timeless Suwannee River continues to stream across this portion of the state, a recreation resource that goes on giving to in-the-know paddlers, anglers, birdwatchers, hikers, campers and cave divers from all over the world.

This is the Old South, just below the Georgia border, where cattle graze and huge hay baling machines sweep across fertile fields. Except for Tallahassee and Gainesville, populations are sparse.

White Springs is home to one of the state's oldest hotels and it's a major outfitting point for Suwannee paddlers. Once-affluent towns including Monticello, Micanopy, Quincy and Madison still have mansions built by wealthy lumber and railroad barons a century ago but many are now museums or B&Bs. Madison has the most and best surviving homes. Take a driving or walking tour to see block after block of architectural treasures.

This region has been a major trading route since before European settlement. Thanks to an elevated natural ridge above the swampy terrain Native Americans travelled to the Atlantic to trade with tribes there. The Spanish settlement at St. Augustine relied on the agrarian Apalachee tribe in present-day Tallahassee for corn, squash and other vegetables.

Early settlers arrived by steamboat and ox cart. Then time stood still. Travelers in search of an unhurried vacation in a natural setting of bubbling springs and babbling rivers will find North Central Florida an uncrowded, almost unknown, tourism discovery.

WHAT'S NEW

At Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park, old species thrive in the prairie environment. It became Florida's first state preserve in 1971, and three years later it was designated as a National Natural Landmark. The Prairie continues to be new and exciting as populations increase. Climb the viewing tower at the Visitor Center. With luck you'll spot bison or wild mustangs.

At the Tallahassee Museum, a new zip line attraction has 70 games and challenges and 10 lines for adventurous nature watchers. Select from three levels of difficulty topped by a two-hour commando course through the treetops.

HERITAGE AND CULTURE

Long before the Spanish era, Native Americans in this region fished, hunted and tilled fields for corn and squash. With European settlement came vast plantations. Surviving from that time is Goodwood Plantation, now an oasis of lawns and live oaks surrounded by high-rise buildings in Tallahassee. Take a guided tour of the mansion to learn about families who lived here until the 1970s. Don't miss the grounds, outbuildings and gardens.

From the Civil War era, the Battle of Olustee is remembered each year near Lake City in February. See more than a hundred authentically dressed "Yanks" and "Rebs" re-enact the fight that kept Union forces from capturing Tallahassee. It was the only Confederate capital that did not surrender. Other special events take place at Olustee's battlefield, which is worth a pensive visit any time.

The South's cultural history lives in its music at Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park north of Live Oak. 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, equestrian trails, birdwatching, canoeing, kayaking and an arts and crafts village. Folk music is preserved at Stephen Foster State Cultural Park, especially during the annual Jeanie and Stephen vocal auditions held here. Young people compete for music scholarships while dressed in fashions from the 1800s.

Throughout 2013, VIVA Florida 500 is a statewide anniversary celebration of the state's founding by the Spanish. Special museum exhibits and events focus on the Sunshine State's Spanish heritage. A new permanent exhibit with a second phase opening in 2013 at the Museum of Florida History in Tallahassee is "Forever Changed: La Florida 1513–1821."

MUST SEE, MUST DO

Established in 1656, Mission San Luis in Tallahassee was burned to the ground by the Spanish and their Apalachee Indian allies in 1704 to prevent its capture by approaching English troops.

Now much of the village and fort have been rebuilt on-site in compliance with original Spanish plans. Buildings include a church and a massive council house replicating the one used for Apalachee tribal meetings. Interpreters in period costume describe tribal life. Through the year there are historical re-enactments and "villagers" in period dress gardening, blacksmithing or cooking over open fires.

At the Florida Museum of Natural History in Gainesville, accent is on locally found fossils, Native American history and a Butterfly Rainforest with hundreds of living specimens plus a research laboratory. A Waterways and Wildlife exhibit follows the flow of water through Northwest Florida, said to be the most biodiverse region of the state. Don't miss the museum gardens.

Also in Gainesville, Kanapaha Botanical Gardens has a huge assortment of plants including the state's largest bamboo collection. Maclay Gardens State Park in Tallahassee is also known for its camellias, spring blooms and year-round activities, such as trail riding, hiking and picnics.

The Tallahassee Antique Car Museum is more than cars. A private collector has amassed enormous collections of "things" from knives and bicycles to toys and rare Steinway pianos. Wheeled vehicles alone range from fire trucks to kiddy cars. Rail memorabilia fills an entire section. Arrive early because you'll stay here longer than you planned.

TOWN AND COUNTRY

Tallahassee, the state capital and western bookend of this region, has upscale restaurants and posh hotels including a new Sheraton downtown, the stately Governors Inn and the boutique Hotel Duval, which is also an "in" spot for dining and nightlife. The home of Florida State University, Tallahassee also has an abundance of pubs, clubs, sports bars and other "happening" places. The Tallahassee-Leon County Civic Center features Broadway shows and musical performances.

As a university city, Tallahassee also has a wealth of ethnic restaurants and student hangouts serving budget meals. Gainesville's University of Florida lends youthful pizzazz and a cultural component to the region's other large city. International students come from all over the world. For visitors that means a wide choice of authentic, economical ethnic restaurants.

DINING AND NIGHTLIFE

For a unique family dining experience, seek out The Yearling Restaurant in Cross Creek, where author Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings lived just down the road in a simple cabin surrounded by flora and fauna described in her books. The restaurant is homey and unpretentious, yet it captured the coveted Golden Spoon Award from Florida Trend magazine. Eat traditional foods or try venison, cooter, alligator and other native critters. The Rawlings homestead nearby is a state historic site open to the public. Cross Creek/Hawthorne is 14 miles from Gainesville.

Georgio's, with two locations in Tallahassee, is a place to celebrate gourmet Italian and Greek food, good wine and attentive service. Food Glorious Food, affectionately known as FGF by locals, has a varied menu with flamboyant deli desserts. In Gainesville, Mildred's Big City Food features farm-to-table, local, sustainable foods. It won a Golden Spoon Award for its extensive, eclectic menu and comprehensive list of wines by the glass or bottle.

High Springs, popular with paddlers and other serious outdoor types, is the home of the Great Outdoors restaurant, known for all-American steaks, hand-carved roast beef, signature salads and bodacious burgers. In Live Oak, Big Daddy's is a fresh, family-owned barbecue place decorated with hunting motifs and taxidermy. Choose the buffet or order from an extensive menu that includes smokehouse barbecue and much more.

Because some counties still prohibit the sale of alcohol, nightlife is spotty outside Tallahassee and Gainesville, where nightspots offer all types of music, quaffing and dining. Very local but trendy spots for wining, dining and song are also found in Micanopy, Madison, Alachua and High Springs.

THE GREAT OUTDOORS

The Great Florida Birding Trail is now complete statewide including the rich, varied avian habitats of North Central Florida. It isn't one contiguous trail, so plan your trip with the help of the website.

The Suwannee River Wilderness Trail follows the river through this region and ends at the Gulf of Mexico. Much of the route can be driven by car but the best portions include primitive, but well-maintained, campgrounds that can be reached only from the river. Popular start-stop points include White Springs, which has outfitters, and Advent Christian Village in Dowling Park, which also has lodgings and restaurants. The Santa Fe River is also popular with paddlers; outfit at the Canoe Outpost in High Springs.

Among the best spots in the area for cave and cavern diving is Blue Grotto near Williston. An extensive cavern system, the site features an air-filled diving bell about 30 feet down where several divers at a time can observe the underwater world. Permanent guidelines throughout the system go as deep as 100 feet, but divers are urged to stop at 60 feet unless they have extensive, advanced cave-diving training and experience. Like the region's other springs for divers and swimmers, this is a year-round attraction where water stays 72 F winter and summer.

Any of the area's springs that are open to the public (usually as state parks) are of interest and almost all have an unusual history or feature. At Wakulla Springs near Tallahassee, take a boat tour to see the jungle where many Tarzan movies were filmed. A rustic lodge offers meals and overnight accommodation.

BEST PLACES TO SHOP

Oaks Mall in Gainesville and the Governor's Mall in Tallahassee are anchored by major chains, such as Sears, Penney's and Dillard's. Monticello, Madison, Havana, Quincy and Micanopy are popular for antiques and artisanal works.

Market Day held at Advent Christian Village, Dowling Park, on the first Saturday of each month, features bluegrass music, crafters from throughout the region and special sales at the village's unique shops. Have lunch overlooking the Suwannee River.

SCENIC DRIVES

Driving west from Lake City to Tallahassee on U.S. Route 90, visitors see communities frozen in time. Find all the quiet grace of yesteryear in towns, such as Monticello with its grand old 1890 opera house, and Madison with its many blocks of historic homes. Take a self-guided walking or driving tour through the history of American architecture dating back to the 1700s. Just off the highway in tiny Greenville, see a monument to music icon Ray Charles, who grew up there.

FAMILY ENTERTAINMENT

Steinhatchee Landing Resort is a fairy-tale village with cute, self-catering cottages on the Steinhatchee (steen-hatchee) River just before it enters the Gulf of Mexico. Families can swim, fish, canoe, kayak and wade in shallow waters to gather scallops.

Family vacations in the North Central Region primarily involve nature and the outdoors. Places, such as Paynes Prairie, Suwannee River, Fanning Springs, Stephen Foster and O'Leno state parks, represent what family holidays here are all about: camping, swimming, fishing, ranger-guided nature tours, snorkeling, picnics under centuries-old live oaks, hiking, scuba diving, canoeing and kayaking.

INSIDER'S TIPS

Ichetucknee Springs State Park offers a rare peek into an unspoiled outback. Sit in an inner tube to float down a spring "run" through a primeval wilderness whispering with wildlife. The North Central Region borders Georgia, so don't overlook taking in such sites as Wild Adventures theme park in Valdosta, historic Thomasville with its many antebellum mansions and the giant flea markets at Lake Park just over the state line.

Interstates 10 and 75 cross at Lake City, a hub for chain hotels and restaurants that are also found along both interstates and in Tallahassee and Gainesville. If you are collecting frequent guest points, you'll find member properties galore in this region. Except for the two university cities, public transportation is sparse in the region. Tallahassee has the best frequent air service, but many visitors also fly into Valdosta, Georgia or Jacksonville.

Franklin County
Okeechobee
Royal Shell
Crystal River
Florida Keys
Gainesville
Holiday Inn Club Vacations
Florida Southern College
Flagler Museum