NORTH CENTRAL FLORIDA:
SPRINGS AND SECRET EDENS

Travelers treasure rural, remote North Central Florida for its natural gifts including the celebrated Suwannee River, clearwater springs and such a diverse display of wild places, flora and fauna that naturalist John Muir walked 1,000 miles to see them. Bracketed by two high-spirited university cities are miles of “blue” byways that stitch together hometown hamlets where time stands still.

BY JANET GROENE

A DAY IN...


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 historic museum. After lunch at the Marion Street Bistro & Brew House, 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, a natural history museum at the University of Florida, 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 or The Top.

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 before exploring Mission San Luis, the only re-constructed 17th-century Spanish mission in the southeast. Zip through treetops and over cypress swamps, tour pioneer buildings and observe native wildlife at the Tallahassee Museum. Dine at an award-winning restaurant followed by a nightcap at the Bradfordville Blues Club.

WAKULLA COUNTY

Begin your day wildlife watching at St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge. Then head over to Edward Ball Wakulla Springs State Park where you can board a Jungle Cruise from Wakulla Springs up the river. Lunch 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 a kayak trip to explore more of the endless natural resources in the area. End your day at Posey’s Up the Creek Steam Room & Oyster Bar in Panacea to savor some of the best seafood in Florida.

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 10,000 pieces of African, Asian, modern and contemporary art.

Theatergoers can 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 (1867) Gainesville homestead, Matheson History Museum showcases local history and native plants in its botanical garden. The Florida Museum 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 ethnography. Outdoors, stroll along nature paths.

Stephen Foster Folk Culture Center State Park in White Springs has campsites, cabins, ranger-led events and hiking trails. Programs feature folk art, concerts, retreats and expert crafters.

Heading west to Tallahassee via I-10, stop briefly in Greenville. Tour the restored childhood home of jazz legend Ray Charles by appointment, or just grab a quick photo of the impressive bronze statue of the iconic 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 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 downtown Cascades Park.

ATTRACTIONS

Depot Park, a 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. Enjoy live concerts and events like food trucks rallies and art festivals. Enjoy indoor fun at Depot Park in the Cade Museum for Creativity & Invention. 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.

Despite its modern look, Tallahassee is one of the South’s oldest communities. The Spanish settlement at St. Augustine traded with the Native American Apalachee people here 500 years ago. When the British won Florida from the Spanish, the Apalachee people fled west and burned their village. Now it has been reconstructed, a living replica of Spanish and Native American 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. The Mission re-creates the village when the Natives and their Spanish friends fled approaching English armies in 1704.

Although the Tallahassee Automobile Museum has more than 160 vehicles, it’s about much more than cars. The building holds one of the finest private displays of Steinway pianos plus extensive collections of boats, knives, vintage sports items, dolls, Native American artifacts, motorcycles, and rare oddities.

The Challenger Learning Center in downtown Tallahassee is a university-led outreach for students from kindergarten to age 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 a dozen hidden springs that feed the rivers, which are popular swimming holes where hikers and paddlers pause for a swim. 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 Nature Path 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 lake with a sandy beach. The forest has hiking, birding, ATV, motorcycle and equestrian trails.

The Tallahassee–St. Marks Historic Railroad State Trail runs 16 miles from the capital to St. Marks. Trailahassee.com is an online resource with information and maps of trails in the Tallahassee area.

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 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.

The Swamp Restaurant in Gainesville, the mother of all hangouts for every manner of Gator bait, from University of Florida students to elderly alumni, closed this year to rebuild. It will be back in the fall of 2022 with a newly constructed building featuring all of the charm and appeal that has attracted loyal customers since 1994. It is located near the Ben Hill Griffin Stadium where the Florida Gators football team draws huge crowds. The place to go pub-crawling is West University Avenue, either near campus or in Historic Downtown, where around a dozen hot spots are mere yards apart.

Bo Diddley Plaza, named for the legendary singer/songwriter, is a community cultural center in Gainesville’s Historic District. Free concerts take place every Friday night from May to October.

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 dealmaking. A must-see is the Bradfordville Blues Club, the only Florida club on the Mississippi Blues Trail.

Known for drinks, late nights, high energy and live music are Bullwinkle’s Saloon 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 U.S. 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. 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. The small downtown grid has antique shops and a few restaurants.

West of Madison off U.S. 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 historical district, enjoy a meal and buy a bag of treats at Tupelo’s Bakery & Café. There’s also a museum in the old jail that’s worth checking out.

U.S. 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.

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 is home to quaint galleries and restaurants.

The region has several wineries including Island Grove Wine Company and Bluefield Estate Winery, both creating fruit wines.

Butler Plaza in Gainesville features more than 150 stores and numerous restaurants. In Gainesville, Celebration Pointe is a shopping, dining and entertainment center anchored by a Bass Pro Shop, a 140-room hotel and a multiplex movie theater complex.

Ethnic food stores are abundant in the two college towns. On Southwest 34th Street in Gainesville, large stores specialize in Indian, Middle Eastern, Philippine 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.

Central Florida
Flagler Museum
Daytona Beach
Martin County
Florida Keys
Crystal River
St. Augustine