When people think of Florida, most think of Orlando, a town that’s bursting at the seams with mega theme parks like Disney and Universal Studios or Miami, Florida’s largest cosmopolitan area, sizzling with heat and excitement. There is a part of Florida that is somewhat overlooked in popular tourist guides and it’s the Florida that I love the most. If you dare to leave the highway while driving south from the Georgia border on Hwy 75, and explore some of the little towns that dot the northern part of the state, a different world awaits. It is old Florida, a slower, more natural world filled with underground springs, alligator nature preserves and quaint old villages wrapped in southern charm and Spanish moss. I’d like to take you on a tour of my favorite spots in old Florida, and share with you some of the best kept secrets known to only state residents and few lucky visitors.
Take a walk along the boardwalk for a wonderful view of the Suwannee River and swamp which is alive with cypress, gum, ash and maple trees. The spring in Florida’s largest state park produces an average of 100 million gallons of clear, cool water daily. Water from the spring run flows into the Suwannee River and then meets the Gulf of Mexico 23 miles downstream. In winter, West Indian manatees swim upriver to the warmer waters of the springs. It’s hard to believe these huge 13 foot long, one-ton gray sea creatures make the journey to live and play in the spring’s 72 degree year-round water. If you visit the park at the right time of year you’ll be able to spot their large gray bodies in the 1,000 foot spring run, a thrilling sight!
Just a five minute drive from Hwy 75 and located south of Gainesville Florida you’ll find Paynes Prairie State Preserve. This is the place to visit if you want to see alligators up close and personal, and in their natural habitat. This park was was voted “Best Place to View Alligators” by readers of Florida Magazine in 2006.
There are many ways to enter the Park. The three used most often are: from Bolen’s Bluff which is just a little side entry but which often has wild horses, the main State Park Entry which has an interpretation center and concrete walkway, and Alachua Sink which has lots of water and now has a raised wooden walkway to look down on the sink.
Be sure to head out to the ‘gator hole’, or more commonly known as the Alachua Sink. This sinkhole swallows millions of gallons of water daily, silently recharging the Floridian aquifer – providing fresh drinking water to the state. It is also a popular hangout for hundreds of alligators who revel in the mud and muck.
Micanopy is the oldest inland town in Florida and is located on an old Timucuan native American village, which was discovered by Hernando de Soto in 1539. This is a village where one ambles. I can’t imagine anyone, ever, being in a hurry when visiting this place. It begs you stay awhile and unwind. The town’s abundance of antique boutiques and cafes are all shaded with long overhangs (a necessity in the Florida summer) and with plenty of sitting areas, you can’t resist “sittin’ a spell” and let time slip by. Don’t forget to explore the many small and not so small shops in the “town that time forgot”. The village has been named as the “best place to buy antiques” by Florida Monthly Magazine and you can easily spend an entire afternoon browsing and perhaps purchasing antiques, arts, crafts, collectibles and hand-crafted jewelery.
If you’re tired of sleeping in sterile hotels and motels that dot the highways of Florida, try a stay at a large estate called the Herlong Mansion located in the historic town of Micanopy. Named “Florida’s most elegant Bed and Breakfast” by Florida Trend Magazine, Herlong Mansion evokes the old south with its Corinthian style columns supporting a wide two level veranda and overlooking stunning gardens. Sitting on the veranda, sipping iced tea, you feel as if you’ve escaped into the past, into Old Florida, a place where you can while away the evening chatting to new found friends.