NORTH CENTRAL FLORIDA:
A WELCOME SURPRISE

BY JANET GROENE

North Central Florida Tourism Guide - Free Magazine Subscriptions & Download

In the galaxy of Florida tourism, North Central Florida often goes unnoticed. It has few beaches and no theme parks, yet many visitors are now discovering what nature enthusiasts have long known. Rare natural scenes thrive in the prairies, forests, sweetwater springs, free-flowing rivers and the remote Big Bend area on the Gulf of Mexico.

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 9,000 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 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 19th-century 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 grand-niece 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. At the water’s edge are art galleries, food-truck rallies and frequent festivals. 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 in 2017. 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 Indian 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 Indian 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 that the flow of major rivers such as the Suwannee, Ichetucknee and Santa Fe throws up banks of pure white sand where hikers and paddlers pause for a swim. More than a dozen hidden springs that feed the rivers are popular swimming holes. 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 Association. 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. 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 region’s 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 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, south of Main Street, where a dozen hot spots are mere yards apart.

Opening in phases throughout 2017 is Celebration Pointe, a 225-acre shopping, dining and entertainment center anchored by a Bass Pro Shop, a 137-room hotel and a multi-plex movie.

Newly rejuvenated in 2016, 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 happen every Friday.

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 ear-shattering clubs favored by students to more sedate places for political deal making. A must-see 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 pre-Colombian 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.

LGBT SCENE

“In” spots for LGBT visitors can change quickly, so it’s best to get current local knowledge. In addition to places that may be presently in vogue, many of the mainstream clubs and restaurants sponsor LGBT nights and other special events for the rainbow community.

In Gainesville, connect first with the Pride Community Center of North Central Florida. Serving the entire North Central Florida region, it’s a pipeline to social events and specialty organizations catering to and for gay parents, walkers and runners, drug and alcohol concerns, helplines, advocacy, health agencies, crisis referrals, ministries, bookstores and much more. One recommended nightspot is the University Club (ages 18 and over).

In Tallahassee, the Family Tree Center has a library of resources serving every aspect of the LGBT community’s interests. Its meeting rooms and tent rentals are available to LGBT groups. Visit the center’s website for a calendar of current LGBT-friendly social events.

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.

Ethnic food stores are abundant in the two college towns. At the Equal Ease Plaza 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 oak-cloaked “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.

SPAS

Early in the 19th century, health-seekers came to soak in mineral water spas at White Springs. The waters had been so sacred to Native Americans that wounded warriors of any tribe could come here to heal together. The entire region is still peppered with springs warm enough for year-round swimming. Cave diving in the springs attracts an international who’s who of advanced underwater explorers.

In Gainesville, Floating Lotus Therapeutic Spa and Health Center offers yoga, waxing, facials, detox, BioMat therapy, acupuncture and a full massage menu. A Touch of Heaven does hair and nail salon services, facials, weight loss, bronzing, wraps and body treatments including cellulite reduction.

In Tallahassee, Better Living Day Spa specializes in wraps, skin care, waxing, sauna and body and nail services for men, women, couples and groups. Most therapists on staff at Kanvas, a day spa and skin-care center, are also bra-fitting specialists. On-site is a shop selling luxury lingerie. The menu includes prenatal massage. Visitors who have a bad reaction to local sun or allergens come to Kanvas for Natura Bisse SOS Instant Rescue skin-relief treatment. Millennium at Midtown’s spa menu is extensive and includes chair massages while the salon offers permanent make-up applications for eyes, eyebrows and lips.

ALL IN A DAY

LAKE CITY/COLUMBIA COUNTY

Rise and shine as you greet the morning at Alligator Lake Park, known for its extensive hiking and biking trails teeming with birdwatching and nature encounters. Afterward, it’s time for a stroll through downtown Lake City, filled with eclectic shops, local art and an historical museum. After lunch at the Marion Street Gastro Pub and Deli, dive into Florida’s cool and refreshing spring waters at the world-famous Ichetucknee Springs. Relax a bit before heading back to downtown Lake City for cocktails and dinner.

GAINESVILLE

Kick off your day with a refreshing dive into one of the area’s natural freshwater springs. After working up an appetite, grab lunch at the award-winning Great Outdoors Restaurant in High Springs. Discover the past at the Florida Museum of Natural History before heading out into nature at Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park or down a 120-foot sinkhole at Devil’s Millhopper Geological State Park. As the sun sets, head into lively downtown Gainesville for dining options like Dragonfly Sushi, The Top, Manuel’s Vintage Room or Emiliano’s Cafe.

TALLAHASSEE

Take a guided tour of the 1845 Historic Capitol (now a museum) and Museum of Florida History. Breeze through Florida State University and Florida A&M University campuses and Cascades Park. Enjoy lunch outdoors before exploring Mission San Luis, the only re-constructed 17th-century Spanish mission in the southeast. Head to the Tallahassee Museum to zip through treetops and over cypress swamps, tour pioneer buildings and observe native wildlife. Dine at an award-winning restaurant followed by a nightcap at the renowned Bradfordville Blues Club.

WAKULLA COUNTY

Begin your day wildlife watching at the beautiful St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge. Then head over to Wakulla Springs State Park where you can board a Jungle Cruise from Wakulla Springs up the river. Lunchtime is the perfect time to slip into the Edward Ball Dining Room and stop at The Soda Fountain for a root beer float at the world’s longest marble soda fountain. Round out the day with an afternoon kayak trip to explore more of the endless natural resources in the area.

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