North Central Florida:
Where Nature and Culture Meet

BY JANET GROENE

North Central Florida Tourism Guide - Free Magazine Subscriptions & Download

In the 190 years since Tallahassee became Florida’s capital, most of North Central Florida has faded from the spotlight. Today, the region’s only city lights are found in Gainesville and the capital itself, both of which are hip, young university towns. So why do in-the-know visitors seek out this area? Nature’s gifts are abundant and small-town hospitality is still a way of life. Serenity sells.

The timeless Suwannee River flows free here, providing miles of unspoiled wilderness for paddlers, campers, anglers, hikers and birders. Beneath the many springs that flow into the river are underwater caves that attract expert cave divers from around the world. Within this small region alone, you’ll find the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge, the Apalachicola National Forest, as well as numerous state parks and forests, nature reserves, scenic byways, unspoiled rivers and archaeological sites.

WHAT’S NEW

In 2013, Heritage Park and Gardens in Live Oak opened a new community history center where travelers can tour a regal 1950s family mansion and acres of park-like grounds. For now, the house and grounds are handsome venues for indoor and outdoor events, art shows and festivals. In time, the house will be furnished with period pieces.

Opening in 2014 in Tallahassee, the Cascades Park Amphitheater is a major history, education and entertainment venue. Big-name performances will be held in the $40-million complex, which also features bike paths, a water play plaza and a water fountain sculpture.

The 500th anniversary of the founding of Florida in 2013 spawned important additions including a permanent exhibit about the state’s Spanish past, titled “Forever Changed: La Florida, 1513 to 1821” at the Museum of Florida History in Tallahassee.

HERITAGE AND CULTURE

Florida’s benign climate and abundance of natural foods sustained Native Americans as early as 14,000 years ago. Sites pertaining to their history are still being excavated. Today, tribes such as Seminoles and Miccosukees make important contributions to the state’s cultural tapestry.

In the early 1500s, Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto ventured westward from St. Augustine into the present sites of Gainesville and Tallahassee. Mission San Luis, established by the Spanish, has been faithfully rebuilt on the original site and is a major attraction in Tallahassee.

The Spanish introduced horses, cattle, pigs, oranges and countless other species that transformed North Florida. Its rich lands attracted such notables as the exiled Prince Achille Murat of Naples, who built and settled at Lipona Plantation east of Tallahassee. The first railroad in the state crossed this region, running from Tallahassee to the Gulf-port town of St. Marks.

Passenger trains stopped serving the area when Interstate 10 bypassed little communities along US 90 and the region became “too poor to paint and too proud to whitewash.” While other regions flourished with high-rise housing, dams, drainage systems and concrete cloverleafs, North Central Florida slumbered. As a result, today’s tourists get to enjoy more nature and less congestion.

MUST SEE, MUST DO

Mission San Luis was restored on original sites occupied by Apalachee Indians centuries ago in Tallahassee. Many structures, built from original plans found in Spain, rise from their original foundations. Interpretive characters in authentic costumes inform visitors on daily life during the Spanish era as they tend fires, defend the crude fort against hostile tribes, raise chickens, create ironwork, cook corn and venison, and re-create ceremonies in the chapel and council house.

Goodwood Museum & Gardens, a plantation in the heart of Tallahassee, has been restored to its 1930s look, but its story goes back centuries. Don’t miss the docent-guided tour followed by lunch in Fanny’s Garden Café.

At Edward Ball Wakulla Springs State Park near Tallahassee, float on primeval waters surrounded by a jungle filled with deer and nattering birds. Three Tarzan films and The Creature from the Black Lagoon were made here. Take a boat tour and stay in a charming lodge built in 1937 where the freshwater spring is one of the largest and deepest in the world.

The Tallahassee Automobile Museum displays one of the American South’s largest private collections, each filled with important and one-of-a-kind finds. In addition to more than 140 rare automobiles, the museum houses Lincoln’s funeral coach and large exhibits of boats and motors, fishing lures, golf clubs, toys and dolls, office machines, Steinway pianos and more.

In Gainesville, the Kanapaha Botanical Gardens feature the largest display of bamboos in Florida and the largest herb garden in the Southeastern USA.

Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park near Gainesville is another of the region’s geological oddities. When naturalist William Bartram arrived in the 1700s, he found a vast savannah, flourishing with wildlife and distinct species. After unseasonable rains in the 1870s, the area became a massive lake, only to drain completely when a sinkhole opened up in 1891, turning it back into the lush prairie you see today. Bison, wild horses and scrub cattle have been re-introduced to the area, where visitors can also view more than 270 species of birds plus countless plants, trees and small mammals.

TOWN AND COUNTRY

Tallahassee and Gainesville are home to Florida State University and the University of Florida, respectively. As a result, populations ebb and swell as students come and go. Tallahassee’s complexion also changes when the state legislature is in session. Both cities offer shopping, fine dining, museums and special events.

Venture out of the cities to explore small towns and fishing ports. For instance, less than an hour from Tallahassee, Sopchoppy is as close to Mayberry as you’ll experience. Established in 1528, the nearby historic settlement of St. Marks is definitely worth exploring.

If you’re in Wakulla County in December, check the Operation Migration website as this is one of the places where you can watch whooping cranes as they follow an ultralight to their winter home in St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge.

Santa Fe College in Gainesville has a teaching zoo where students become certified zoologists. Visit the monkeys and the planetarium next door. Outside Gainesville, historic Micanopy is the town that time forgot and where the movie Doc Holliday was filmed.

DINING AND NIGHTLIFE

Since the universities in Tallahassee and Gainesville are popular with foreign students, both cities offer an abundance of affordable ethnic eateries.

Gaines Street in Tallahassee (known as G Street or Railroad Square to locals) is a lively hangout known for its trendy restaurants, boutiques and studios.

College Town at Madison Street, just two blocks from Tallahassee’s FSU campus, is another dining and entertainment complex with trendy bars, lounges and restaurants. Tallahassee also offers a good choice of ultra-fine dining restaurants. Georgio’s excels in gourmet Greek cuisine. Sage features a varied menu with entrees ranging from Scottish salmon to fresh-caught striped bass. Andrew’s Capitol Bar and Grill does superb salads and sandwiches while Andrew’s 228 bistro specializes in American and Italian fusion.

Small towns best known for simple restaurants serving fresh-from-the-fleet seafood include Cedar Key, Steinhatchee, St. Marks, Sopchoppy, Panacea/Ochlocknee Bay and Wakulla/Crawfordville. Savor the full range of Gulf of Mexico seafood as well as smoked mullet, a regional specialty usually made into a dip.

One of Gainesville’s treasures is The Yearling Restaurant at Cross Creek where you can order conventional foods such as chicken and grouper or sample such Old Florida specialties as cooter (turtle), venison, alligator and quail. Hours are limited so check ahead.

THE GREAT OUTDOORS

The Suwannee River song is familiar to most, but in truth, this untamed waterway is one of the South’s great unsung recreation resources. There are no dams and few markers. Only through patient homework can outsiders learn about the many places that offer lodgings and paddle-in camping along the river.

Dozens of boat ramps throughout the region range from crude gravel slopes to wide paved ramps suitable for larger boats. Canoes and kayaks can be walked in at hundreds of spots. White Springs is the best place to find an outfitter that rents canoes and kayaks and also provides pick-up downstream. Here, you’ll also find the Nature and Heritage Tourism Center with displays and information on the Suwannee River Wilderness Trail.

Lakes and rivers abound, making North Central Florida a favorite among hikers, fishermen and paddlers. Freshwater springs fed from deep under the limestone gush with sweet water that flows into the Suwannee and other rivers. They’re popular swimming holes because water temperatures remain a steady 72 F year-round. Cave diving in the springs is for highly experienced underwater spelunkers only.

Many segments of the 500-section Great Florida Birding Trail thread through the area while the lonely stretches of this region’s Gulf coast are a goldmine for birdwatching and fishing. Sparsely populated Gulf shorelines known as the Big Bend are familiar to boaters as the “long, lonely leg” because waters are shallow and harbors are few. While the area is ideal for gunkholing (cruising) in shallow-draft boats, larger boats must stay well out to sea.

Spectator sports center around small-town baseball teams and rodeos, high school and college sports, and include big-ticket football games played by the Florida State Seminoles and the University of Florida Gators.

Tallahassee and Gainesville are both bicycle-friendly communities. As a result, country roads, some of them designated cycling trails, are popular with cyclists and motorcycle riders. A favorite bike route is a 20.5-mile paved trail from Tallahassee to St. Marks, with two optional unpaved links. There are plans to extend it to the beach. Another is the mostly paved Big Shoals trail near White Springs. The Gainesville-Hawthorne State Trail travels through lands made famous by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings in her book The Yearling.

In the luxury outdoors category is Bienville Plantation near White Springs. It’s one of the South’s prestigious hunting and fishing resorts and corporate retreats where guests have access to a chain of lakes, trophy bass fishing, alligator hunting and fast-paced quail shoots. Lodging is available in five-bedroom cabins and five-course gourmet meals are served in the dining room.

BEST PLACES TO SHOP

Governor’s Square Mall in Tallahassee is a two-level shopper’s nirvana with such features as stroller rentals, ATMs and a large choice of eateries. Dozens of small stores are anchored by JCPenney, Sears, Macy’s and Dillard’s.

The real shopping treasures in this area are the unique boutiques, consignment shops, galleries, studios and workshops one stumbles upon in hamlets such as Havana, Micanopy and Madison. Old tobacco warehouses, downtown mercantiles and former banks now house artists and antiques merchants.

RECOMMENDED DRIVES

The joy of driving in the area is not so much about where as when. Hundreds of miles of rural roadsides are strewn with wildflowers, starting with hot pink phlox in February and March and ending with the brassy glow of goldenrods in the fall. Throw a dart at the map to enjoy two-lane roadways. Some are what locals call canopy roads, where limbs of ancient live oak trees stretch over the road to form a verdant tunnel dripping with Spanish moss. The most popular are around Tallahassee, where nine designated canopy routes total 78 miles.

The Big Bend Scenic Byway follows a high ridge once trod by pre-Columbian Indians, later followed by waves of pioneers, traders and tourists. This picturesque 220-mile route is bordered by Apalachee Bay on one side and Apalachicola National Forest on the other. Be sure to watch for playful dolphins as they feed and frolic in the bay.

Inland, near Gainesville, the Old Florida Heritage Highway forms the Scenic US 441 corridor. Featuring loop and spur roads, it covers 48 miles from State Road 441 to the Alachua-Marion County line.

FAMILY ACTIVITIES

Most family activities here involve small-town festivals. All state parks and a majority of other natural areas offer ranger-guided programs, hiking and nature trails, and exhibits.

Highlights for children in Gainesville include the Butterfly Rain Forest, the hands-on Discovery Room at the Museum of Natural History and the Cade Museum, where programs focus on young inventors and entrepreneurs from 5-12 years of age.

At Mission San Luis in Tallahassee, children can watch “Indians” and “Spanish colonists” doing everyday 18th-century tasks. The Museum of Florida History houses a mastodon skeleton found in Wakulla Springs and the Tallahassee Museum is made up of historic buildings, a schoolhouse, rail cars and one of the South’s largest zip line systems.

The Forest Capital Museum State Park in Perry has exhibits plus a talking tree, which educates children about forestry. A number of log cabins and historic buildings on the spacious grounds allow families to stretch their legs while observing pioneer life. Energetic kids may also wish to climb the viewing tower at Paynes Prairie to sight bison and wild horses.

ACCOMMODATION OPTIONS

In Gainesville, check out the quaint bed-and-breakfast district located near downtown shops and restaurants.

The Aloft is the newest hotel in downtown Tallahassee and just steps from the State Capitol complex, museums and hip dining spots.

In Crawfordville, the Best Western Plus Wakulla Inn & Suites offers comfortable accommodation at reasonable rates.

INSIDER’S TIPS

While simple drives along country roads are a pleasure in North Central Florida, this is also timber territory. Logging trucks are heavily laden and ungainly. Give them a wide berth.

Unless you’re visiting the cities to attend football games, it’s best to avoid Gainesville and Tallahassee during big football game weekends because of heavy traffic.

If you enjoy a drink with dinner, plan ahead. Lafayette is a dry county and does not serve alcohol anywhere, while other counties prohibit alcohol sales on Sunday.

Franklin County
Gainesville
Crystal River
Flagler Museum
Martin County
Holiday Inn Club Vacations
Florida Southern College
Northwest Florida
Sebring