(Originally published in the April 2017 issue of BMW Owners News Magazine.)
This past winter, in particular, was very cloudy. Don’t get me wrong…our winter here in the Southeast, was extremely mild this year. But as far as my outlook, demeanor, thrive and jive – it was cloudy. With my bad case of wanderlust (okay, I admit – I’m a travel junkie), the few months of downtime just didn’t do my soul any justice. With one more month of winter hovering, attempting to suppress every bit of spunk I had left, I gathered all the strength I could muster and rose up in utter determination to be back to my happy place. The perfect remedy? ROAD TRIP! A quick glance at the national weather map turned my head South. And, there commenced the travel plans for Florida in February!
Ahhhhh, Florida. Some of the first visuals that come to mind: Daytona Beach, Key West, Orlando, Fort Lauderdale, Miami. I needed to look deeper and find off-the-beaten-path places that not only stirred my thrive and jive again, but also would be appreciated by my fellow two-wheeled travelers. Like a piercing ray of sunshine bursting through, I found the perfect destination – “Old Florida.” Long forgotten as a vacation destination, this region of the Sunshine State is gloriously full of rich historical treasures, bursting with flora and fauna, along quaint waterfront towns that have somehow survived the big shift in Florida tourism. In researching this northern Gulf coast area, I was hooked head-over-Fashionista heels! And when this beautiful synchronicity happens, I start packing my saddlebags!
With my route plugged into Google Maps on my ever-omniscient iPhone (“avoid highways” checked, of course), I set out solo on Superbowl Sunday and rode 400 miles to my “staging location” – Valdosta, Georgia. The first official stop on my journey to Old Florida was only 94 miles away, and I wanted to get a good night’s sleep after a long, chilly day in the saddle. That evening, I enjoyed watching the Superbowl from the pub in a really great chain hotel in Valdosta, while taking pre-travel notes. (Always utilize your BMW MOA benefits for discounts on chain hotels and B&B accommodations – I do!)
I awoke to brilliant sunny skies and knew this trip was the remedy my soul desperately needed. I departed mid-morning on Hwy. 221 S out of Valdosta and took a right onto Hwy. 146 (Ashville Highway). Gorgeous! The road swept through hilly, country roads with massive ancient oaks dripping in Spanish moss for as far as you could see. I suggest riding this stretch very casually so you can hear gentle “Old Florida” calling out and appreciate all of its glory. I approached the historic city of Monticello and enjoyed the ornate architecture of the stately courthouse that I circled during my navigation to Hwy. 19 S. After a mile or so, I turned right onto Waukeenah Highway. Wow! Another fantastic ride just seeping with Old Florida scenery. Next it was Hwy. 59, Hwy. 98, Hwy. 267, then a left into the Edward Ball Wakulla Springs State Park (let them know you are staying at the Lodge when entering, which will excuse your gate fee.)
WAKULLA SPRINGS, FLORIDA
Amidst the flora and fauna of the “Big Bend” region of northwestern Florida, lies a hidden little gem – Edward Ball Wakulla Springs State Park, home of one the deepest and largest freshwater springs in the world, as well as a 6,000 acre wildlife sanctuary. In 1937, businessman Edward Ball purchased Wakulla Springs. Through the work of skilled artisans and craftsmen, he built an elegant 27-room Spanish-Moorish guest retreat (The Lodge at Wakulla Springs) using “heart” cypress wood, ornate iron work and imported Tennessee marble throughout the Lodge. Touted as North Florida’s castle, this was my destination for the evening. Upon arrival (easy parking for motorcycles), I knew I was victorious in my quest to discover Old Florida. The “Great Lobby” was a knockout with its checkerboard marble floors and staircase, antique furniture, massive fireplace, historic relics, Spanish-style light fixtures, and most impressively – the ceiling with hand-hewn cypress panels and beams which were decoratively painted depicting local wildlife scenes. If that wasn’t enough to overload my senses, the elevator (c.1937) did me in. The walls were made of walnut with inlays of various colored woods and is the “only known surviving period Art Deco elevator still in use.” It was so charming, with just a smidgen of creepy. I rode that elevator every chance I got!
My newly renovated room was fabulous (Room 28) and included the same gorgeous marble floors that adorned the lobby and dining hall. As soon as I unloaded the bike, I quickly Fashionista’d up and headed for the Edward Ball Dining Room for lunch (pricing for lunch and dinner is moderate, and breakfast is included in room rate). The decor was extremely reminiscent of the 30s and 40s, complete with music from that era playing in the background. Since it was a Monday in February, the lunch crowd was light, and most diners were dressed very casually (with the ambiance of the room, I wanted to put on my pearls and a lovely ballgown). I dined on specialties privy to the Lodge and area: Wakulla Oysters on the half shell, Navy Bean soup (original recipe of the Lodge) and a lovely salad. It was delicious and the perfect energy I needed for a full day of exploration.
Steps away from the back exit of the Lodge is the original tri-level diving platform for a swim into the famed Wakulla Springs. Also, the Florida State Park Service (which now owns the entire property) has a dock and visitors’ center offering boat rides throughout the springs/river area. The cost is $8 for an hour of sightseeing and is well worth it! A fun fact about Wakulla Springs – “The Creature From the Black Lagoon” was filmed on site, as well as a few of the Tarzan movies.
On my boat excursion, I viewed an abundance of native wildlife including a family of five Manatees (the winter is Manatee season in Florida’s warm rivers and springs). After docking back at the Lodge, I took some time to wander about and take in the serene surroundings. Prior to a lovely nap in my room, I visited the Lodge’s soda fountain for a peek at the world’s longest marble soda counter – an impressive 70 feet in length. Later that evening, I enjoyed a fantastic dinner in the dining room, and must recommend the “Wakulla’s Famous Old South Fried Chicken.” There are certainly many entrees on the menu that look enticing, but the reviews I read prior to my visit mostly raved about the fried chicken – and they weren’t lying!
Before it was time to nestle into my lovely bed, I was given a “behind-the-scenes” private tour by one of the many fabulous staff members at the Lodge. One of the highlights was peeping into the secret Bourbon vault that Edward Ball had built during Prohibition. During that “dry” period of Americana, he would invite trusted friends into the vault for an evening nip of the forbidden brown nectar. My kind of guy! From my arrival earlier that afternoon to the moment my head hit the pillow, I felt the “quiet elegance” of The Lodge at Wakulla Springs and knew I had begun my journey for forgotten Old Florida with the perfect place! (www.wakullaspringslodge.com; 850-421-2000)
I awoke the next morning to another bright day with not a cloud in the sky, and I thought of the song “Here Comes the Sun.” The smile had definitely returned to my face, and it was all right! I packed up and set out for my next destination…but first – a few fun detours. Heading south, back the way I came, I found St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge. Worth the $5 price of admission, the views were stunning with pristine nature and wildlife all around. The prize for a drive to the end of the refuge – St. Marks Lighthouse. Nice detour!
My next stop, after traveling south on Hwy. 98 (the main thoroughfare of the Big Bend) and taking a right onto Hwy. 51, was Steinhatchee – a sleepy little fishing village that’s known for its voracious scalloping season (June-September). Visitors are allowed to shallow dive for their legal limit of bay scallops during the season. Local restaurants in Steinhatchee serve up the delicious delicacies, as well as other native seafare. After a quick look around, I departed south on Hwy. 358 and connected back up with Hwy. 98 to make my last side trip of the day.
I crossed over the historic Suwanee River and took a right on Hwy 320. Destination: Manatee Springs State Park ($4 for motorcycle entry). The facility has fantastic parking and scenic boardwalk-type walkways that overlook the gorgeous Manatee Springs where you can view Manatees (in the winter season) and a plethora of other native wildlife. During my research, I read nice reviews about the park itself. But what really caught my eye was the onsite Anderson’s Outdoor Adventures (kayak/canoe/paddleboard rentals, and boat tours). It wasn’t the water calling my name, but their BBQ certainly was. These guys smoke the most amazing BBQ pork (and chicken) I’ve ever tasted – it’s cheap and freaking fantastic! I ordered the BBQ ribs and annihilated them in no time. With my belly full and ready to arrive at my final destination, I found my way back out of Manatee Springs State Park and took Hwy. 345 to Hwy. 24 westward to the Gulf.
CEDAR KEY, FLORIDA
The moment I crossed the breathtaking marshes and channels leading into laid-back Cedar Key, I knew I should have booked two nights here – at least. My accommodation for the night, Cedar Key Bed & Breakfast, was absolutely perfect with easy parking on the quiet street. The owner, Alice, is big on aesthetic detail, and it shows throughout this delightful property. I immediately felt welcomed and relaxed. My room was impeccable, but still maintained an antique charm, and I enjoyed a delicious bubble bath in the antique claw foot tub before departing for my evening of exploration.
Cedar Key, labeled “Las Islas Sabines” by a Spanish cartographer in 1542, is rumored to be the second oldest city in Florida. From the Paleo period to the Indian War, the Civil War to the present, this 1-square mile city (population of less than 800 people) is brimming with history and the soul of Old Florida. I enjoyed a short walk to the waterfront and then to 2nd Street where most of the shops in this tiny town are located. Low-key character truly bursts through the seams in this old-fashioned village full of art galleries, boutique shops, seafood restaurants, one market and one convenience/liquor store.
I dipped into the historic Island Hotel (c.1859) for a peek and to enjoy an evening libation in their “Neptune Bar.” It was there that I met a few locals, some of which were in the clam farming business. Contradictory to the ultra-casualness of this little town, Cedar Key began a multi-million dollar commercial clam farming industry in the 90s which is currently thriving off the charts, thus breathing life back into the village. (You can score “World Champion Clam Chowder” at Tony’s on 2nd Street.) It was also at the Neptune Bar that I ran into the “Three Amigos,” as I nicknamed them. They were longtime buddies from Gainesville, Florida who vacationed in Cedar Key most of their lives. We chatted more about this paradise on the Gulf over scrumptious, local peel-and-eat-shrimp at Big Deck Raw Bar. After a nice evening, I excused myself and slipped back to my dreamy B&B for some peaceful sleep.
I arose early the next morning, fresh and ready for the new day. Following coffee with my innkeeper, Alice, I stepped outside to breathe in the fresh salt air and spied a BMW motorcycle across the street with the rider standing near. Of course I walked over, and before I knew it, we were enjoying great fellowship and riding stories over coffee. I bid him farewell and placed an MOA membership form into his hands, as he hadn’t yet joined our ranks. Pulling away later that morning, I realized the dark clouds haunting my winter had dissipated. It was another sunny day and more of Old Florida to discover. (www.cedarkeybedandbreakfast.com; 352-543-9000)
That day, I had one important side trip – Crystal River. I followed Hwy. 24 out of Cedar Key and took a right on Hwy. 98. An hour later, I was peeling off my riding attire and squeezing into a wetsuit. I was there with a mission – to rub a Manatee belly. May sound strange, but it was a “bucket list” item.
Thanks to the fine efforts of my captain, Rick, and co-owner, Laura, of Fun 2 Dive, I came away that day fist pumping. Manatees can be very shy, and strict laws prohibit swimmers pursuing them. However, if a Manatee approaches on its own, you may gently give it a rub. I was blessed that day with a curious little guy who needed some attention. Quite exciting, I must say. (www.Fun2Dive.com; 352-228-2279)
MOUNT DORA, FLORIDA
I took a turn east and unchecked the “avoid highways” box to fast track to my last destination. After nearly two hours on the road, still a little damp from the Manatee adventure, I arrived at Farnsworth House Bed & Breakfast in historic Mount Dora. The innkeepers, knowing I was coming on a motorcycle, gave me a parking spot in their carport. (It’s the little things that make a stay so enjoyable.) I was still smiling, but relieved to grab a hot shower and relax. I was totally exhausted, so opted to walk the short distance to Jeremiah’s for dinner, a classic neighborhood restaurant and pub. I didn’t last long chatting with the locals and had my weary body tucked into my comfy bed in no time.
After a delicious breakfast prepared by the super-hospitable innkeepers, Kim and Soren, I set out to explore my last stop in Old Florida. Founded in 1880, the hilly area of Mount Dora rests on a plateau 184 feet above sea level and is situated on the banks of Lake Dora. It was a winter retreat for fishermen, boaters and hunters in the late 1800s, and then in the 1920s, experienced a boom with its residential and business development.
Today, Mount Dora is a mecca for art galleries, specialty boutiques, cafes, pubs and restaurants. I left my motorcycle parked at the B&B and enjoyed a fabulous day on foot perusing several sassy boutique shops; photographing historic buildings and landmarks; and spending quiet time down by Lake Dora near the Lakeside Inn. It was another gorgeous, sunny day, and my soul was soaring. (farnsworthhousebb.com; 352-409-0330)
As I sat by the lake that day and pondered my amazing journey that was drawing to an end, I had a distinct thought – Old Florida may have needed me just as much as I needed it. If you think about it, I was searching to rediscover my sunshine and, consequently, sunny Old Florida is searching to be rediscovered. 💃🏻