Gator Country: Three Day Trips from Gainesville
My husband and I took three day trips from Gainesville this winter. We live in North Florida, so some of the places we visited were familiar territory for us, but other places were new adventures. Our trip yielded some expected pleasures and some surprises, too. That's what makes road trips so exciting - you never know what you might find around the next bend.
East to Palatka, 44 miles
Palatka is a straight shot from Gainesville. Get on Florida Highway 20, head east and in 44 miles Palatka welcomes you. We arrived in time for breakfast at Angel's Diner, on Reid Street, where long ago I learned that the lunch deserves a thumbs-up. The diner is named after Porter Angel, who began serving breakfast here more than 75 years ago, earning it the title of Florida's oldest diner.
Angel's is a blast from the past - the 1950s past - all done up in green, pink, yellow, black and white. It's famous not only for its food but also for a unique beverage, the pusalow, which everyone raves about. No one seems to know exactly what the drink has in it, but the consensus is that if you stop at Angel's, you've got to have one. Be sure to bring cash, as the diner does not accept credit cards.
Behind the diner is Palatka's downtown district, where small businesses, shops and government buildings are located and where I discovered a full-sized replica of Elvis Presley on a street corner greeting shoppers. The passenger line Amtrak stops a few blocks away, and the old train depot houses a museum filled with train memorabilia, thanks to the work of the Palatka Railroad Preservation Society, which organized in 1993. The community has done a lot over recent years to fix up the town, and though some buildings still need more attention, Palatka becomes more appealing with each visit.
Head east from the diner and you'll come to the town waterfront, which stretches along the west bank of St. Johns River. Picnic tables, swings and benches provide plenty of spots to kick back and watch the fish jump. Anglers come from across the state for bass tournaments here, but the brackish waters are also home to many saltwater fish, shrimp and blue crabs. You can enjoy much of Florida's seafood at Corky Bell's Restaurant at Gator Landing, a long-established Palatka favorite.
Not far from the waterfront is Ravine Gardens, a state park known for its collection of azaleas. The most popular way to see the gardens is on a driving tour down Ravine Drive; if you are in an RV, be aware that the entrance has a low arch and a turn at the exit has a clearance of less than 20 feet. Palatka hosts an annual Azalea Festival in March, and is also known for its bluegrass festivals, which attract thousands of people twice a year to Rodeheaver Boys Ranch, south of town in Ocala National Forest.
Returning to Gainesville on Route 20 you'll pass near the Florida School for the Arts, which offers a full roster of public exhibits and performances during the school year. It makes a nice stop, and the students' passion for their work is contagious.
West to Chiefland, 39 miles
Chiefland is another easy trip: Just head west on Florida Highway 26, then south at Trenton on U.S. Route 129. Chiefland's most popular attraction is Manatee Springs State Park, located about five miles west of town on the Suwannee River. When my husband and I left on this trip, the air temperature was 19 degrees. Yes, Florida does sometimes get pretty darn cold in the winter! The following day, with temperatures hovering in the 60s, we watched two brave swimmers make their way into the springs, where the water temperature remains at 72 degrees year-round.
Cypress trees shade the boardwalk where visitors line up to catch a glimpse of the manatees, those strange, lumbering "sea cows" that make their way up the river from the Gulf to shelter in the warm winter waters. In the summer a different species arrives in the river: the endangered sturgeon. Unlike the docile manatee, the sturgeons - some reported as large as seven feet long and weighing 170 pounds - can pose a danger for boaters, and they amaze onlookers when they jump out of the water.
Manatee Springs is one of the best state parks I've found for viewing Florida wildlife. Over the years, I have seen deer, opossums and armadillos. I've even had an up-close-and-way-too-personal experience with a raccoon, which leaped on top of our tent in the middle of the night. Bird-watching is a treat here, too.
Another area attraction is Dakotah Winery, upriver on Florida Highway 19. The grounds are filled with antique grape-growing equipment. An arbor-covered picnic area overlooks the vineyards, and ducks and fish splash in a pond nearby. But the real fun happens inside the large, attractive winery, which includes a gift shop, wine tasting room and underground wine cellar. The wine list includes wine made from Florida muscadines - native grapes that come in a number of varieties, bringing to the table different colors, sizes and tastes. If you've never tasted a muscadine, try some muscadine jelly or sip a glass of muscadine wine; the flavor is gentle, slightly sweet and grapey.
Back in town, the newly renovated Chiefland Golf and Country Club attracts golfers, and the Watermelon Festival, held each June, draws thousands for a day of fun. Shopping and dining is pretty typical of most small towns, and a couple of motels provide accommodations for out-of-town guests. But if you want a really unique overnight stay, or if you just want to spend a few hours watching the night sky, you can sign up for a membership ($35) at Chiefland Astronomy Village, a kind of astronomy commune that offers 30-amp RV hookups for folks wishing to visit "one of the premier dark-sky observing sites in the Eastern United States."
South to Williston, 26 miles
Florida Highway 26 will take you out of Gainesville to the small town of Archer; here the route turns south, headed to Williston, just 14 minutes away. Although Williston has a general aviation airport and an 18-hole golf course, it is the most rural of the towns we visited. This is horse country, whose rolling farms and thoroughbred horses create a picturesque landscape. It is the birthplace of Foolish Pleasure, the 1975 Kentucky Derby winner. While driving down a side road, we happened upon three jockeys putting their horses through a practice race. Who knows, we might have witnessed a future Kentucky Derby winner.
There are more than 600 springs in north and central Florida, and many of the larger springs attract scuba divers, cave divers and snorkelers. The springs connect through Florida's underground aquifer, where the water is filtered by limestone to a crystal clarity. Williston is home to two of the most famous springs: Blue Grotto, the largest clear-water cavern in Florida, and Devil's Den, a prehistoric spring located within a dry cave. Devil's Den is one of the most awesome sights I have seen in my Florida travels. Here scuba divers and snorkelers descend two flights of underground stairs to reach the water, all the time surrounded by stalactites, fossil beds and other underground rock formations. I was not prepared to dive, but was permitted to take the underground journey to the water's edge. Devil's Den is on the grounds of Devil's Den Resort, a diving resort that provides many amenities and accommodations for divers. There are quite a few rules and regulations when it comes to diving at any facility, so be sure to call ahead.
For most folks familiar with the region, it is the Ivy House that has put Williston into their GPS "favorites" list. A combination bed and breakfast and gift shop housed in a historic house on Main Street, the Ivy House caters to anyone looking for a special meal in a special setting. Southern comfort food is the specialty, and the owners promise "no mysterious ingredients." The few antiques shops scattered around the small town are also a draw for those who would like to poke around before returning to Gainesville.
A Detour Provides a Moment of Excitement
These three excursions turned out to be great trips, and close enough to Gainesville so our adventures didn't gobble up the gas. We did decide to make a detour off the beaten track, somewhere in the direction of the small town of McIntosh, a little east of Williston. Suddenly, in the middle of nowhere, the GPS announced: "Satellite signal lost." I immediately went into panic mode, realizing there was not a soul within 10 miles of our location, and we had no idea which way to go at the approaching stop sign. Finally, after several minutes, which seemed like hours, the signal returned and we were on our way. Maybe I'll carry an old-fashioned map as backup on our next road trip.