An easygoing cruise down the long underbelly of the Florida peninsula hearkens back to an older, simpler Sunshine State. This quieter coast with a slower pace preserves tourism 1950s style and what Floridians consider the "real Florida." Entertainment is as enchanting as a glass-bottom boat ride over crystal-clear springs and rarely more sophisticated than a mermaid performance or trained parrot show.
Starting in the heart of Florida's Dixie, the 360-mile (579-kilometer) drive visits the capital of Tallahassee before dropping south to a lovely state park, a 17th-century Spanish fort, and a national wildlife refuge. Then curving southeast, the route explores peaceful wetlands and mangrove-fringed shores. An excursion inland crosses citrus country and the haunt of writer Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings; Ocala offers good museums and one of the area's many natural-springs theme parks. Heading west again, you enter a land of alligators and manatees, pine hammocks and still more springs.
Start in Tallahassee
Tucked into the gentle hills near the Georgia border, Tallahassee was an 1820s compromise location between the former capitals of Pensacola and St. Augustine. Take a look at the land from the 22nd floor of the Florida State Capitol (S. Duval St.; tel. 1 850 488 6167). Beyond the city, nothing but forests stretch as far as the eye can see.
While here, walk to the adjacent Old Capitol (S. Monroe St. and Apalachee Pkwy.; tel. 1 850 487 1902; www.flhistoriccapital.gov), distinguished by its handsome Greek Revival portico and candy-striped awnings that re-create the way it would have appeared in 1902. Inside, restored areas include the rotunda, the governor's private suite, the supreme court, and the house and senate chambers.
Two blocks west, the Museum of Florida History (500 S. Bronough St.; tel. 1 850 245 6400; www.museumoffloridahistory.com) houses an overwhelming hodgepodge of stuff that includes a 12,000-year-old mastodon skeleton found in nearby Wakulla Springs; Spanish galleon booty; and a re-creation of early tourist camps.
North of Tallahassee is the Alfred B. Maclay Gardens State Park (U.S. 319; tel. 1 850 487 4556; www.floridastateparks.org/maclaygardens), a highly recommended attraction bursting with camellias, azaleas, and more than 300 other species of flowering shrubs. You stroll the wooded and formal areas on pine needle paths and breathe in beauty and serenity. For the best effect, sit on the bench in the walled garden and look through the arched wall and down a long, palm-lined vista to a reflecting pool and distant Lake Hall—you'll almost feel like you're in a landscape painting.
Head south on Fla. 61 and stop at Edward Ball Wakulla Springs State Park (Fla. 267 and Fla. 61; tel. 1 904 922 3632; www.floridastateparks.org/wakullasprings), a 6,000-acre (2,428-hectare) preserve centering around one of several springs in the state touted as Juan Ponce de León's fountain of youth. The 1937 lodge has an impressive lobby with painted cypress beams and a massive fireplace; the restaurant offers simple, wholesome fare. If you take a glass-bottom boat trip you're likely to see gators, turtles, and a multitude of graceful birds. There's nothing overly exciting about this antiquated, friendly attraction, which is exactly its appeal.
Continue south on Fla. 363 to St. Marks, a tousled little wharf town with a couple of seafood restaurants and a fishing camp. The point of land where the St. Marks and Wakulla Rivers meet quietly and flow to the Gulf first attracted military attention more than 300 years ago. At the San Marcos de Apalache Historic State Park (1 mile SW of Fla. 363 on Old Fort Rd.; follow signs; tel. 1 850 925 6216; www.floridastateparks.org/sanmarcos), you can see the remains of Spanish and Confederate forts; an informative museum holds unearthed artifacts.
Head northeast and east on U.S. 98 to Newport, then south on County Rd. 59 to St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge (tel. 1 850 925 6121; www.fws.gov/saintmarks), a 68,000-acre (27,519-hectare) tract on Apalachee Bay. The visitor center has exhibits and interpretive trails around freshwater and brackish ponds. You can also take the seven-mile (11-kilometer) road down to an 1829 lighthouse and adjacent observation tower.
East on U.S. 98 sends you down a long, lonely piece of highway. Along here fluffy pampas grass waves behind screens of trees. Quite a bit of forestry goes on in these woods, but you still have the sense you're visiting an area few people know about.
In Perry, you'll find out more about the forest industry at the Forest Capital Museum State Park (1 mile S on U.S. 19; tel. 1 850 584 3227; www.floridastateparks.org/forestcapital/default.cfm), a building redolent of cypress and cedar. Display cases, each made from a different native wood, show the importance of one of Florida's main industries. Included are exhibits on turpentine production, virgin forests, and the life cycle of a pine tree. Out back, surrounded by woods, an 1864 homestead of weathered boards gives a feeling for what it was like to light a candle in the wilderness.
Manatee Springs State Park
Continue south on U.S. 19 through the sparsely populated Big Bend area. Detours to the Gulf lead to untrafficked coastal villages. Go west on Fla. 320, just outside Chiefland. At Manatee Springs State Park (tel. 1 352 493 6072; www.floridastateparks.org/manateesprings), you can swim in the clear-as-glass headwaters of a first magnitude spring. Also in this delightful park, a short boardwalk trail ventures into a cypress swamp, ending at the Suwannee River.
From Chiefland, head south on County Rd. 345, then take County Rd. 347 west a few miles to the Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuge (tel. 1 352 493 0238; www.fws.gov/lowersuwannee). Hiking and biking trails in the 53,000-acre (21,448-hectare) refuge almost guarantee a look at alligators and wading birds.
Now continue south on County Rd. 347 and Fla. 24 across a series of bridges that link gorgeous islands rimmed by marshes and sun-spangled waters. Cedar Key, an island town that is still prospering, feels like a Key West from the past. A no-frills resort, it has the same ends-of-the-earth feel and stunning sunsets. Stop in the Cedar Key Historical Society Museum (Fla. 24 and 2nd St.; tel. 1 352 543 5549; www.cedarkeymuseum.org), an 1874 house that offers a vest-pocket overview of local history. Exhibits tell the Cedar Key story from prehistoric settlements to a watering stop for Spanish galleons to blockade-running during the Civil War to timber harvesting to the 1896 hurricane that wiped the town out.
Home of The Yearling
Head inland on Fla. 24 to Bronson, then take U.S. 27A to Williston and County Rd. 318 east to Citra. You're now in the rural South again, a land of rolling farms and cattle clustered in the gauzy shade of big live oaks. This is the heart of citrus country, so stop at a roadside stand for fresh oranges and juice, then go north on U.S. 301 and County Rd. 325. Beside the county park, the Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Historic State Park (tel. 1 352 466 3672; www.floridastateparks.org/marjoriekinnanrawlings) contains the house where the author wrote her 1938 classic, The Yearling, and other books. She chose the rambling one-story farmhouse with its citrus grove and pastureland as an "escape from urban confusion," which it still more or less is. A typewriter like the one she used sits out on a side porch, and an open suitcase lies half packed in the bedroom, as though she'd just returned from a trip.
Take U.S. 301 south to Ocala and make a pilgrimage to Silver Springs (Fla. 40; tel. 1 352 236 2121; www.silversprings.com), one of the oldest tourist attractions in the state and the first to use glass-bottom tour boats. Since 1878, visitors have been coming to this nature park to behold its crystalline waters and exotic flora. Billed as the world's largest artesian spring, the system is actually composed of about 150 springs that together gush 5,000 gallons of pure water a second. To get your money's worth, you need to take a glass-bottom boat ride and a Jeep safari into a 35-acre (14-hectare) habitat housing animals from around the globe.
Appleton Museum of Art
Backtrack two miles (three kilometers) to the Appleton Museum of Art (4333 N.E. Silver Springs Blvd.; tel. 1 352 291 4455; www.appletonmuseum.org), which presents a diverse collection of Asian art, pre-Columbian ceramics, African masks and textiles, and European paintings and decorative arts. The building, with its bright breezeways and large windows, has its own aesthetic appeal.
The late Arthur Appleton, whose 1986 donation built the museum, owned one of the county's 600 horse farms. Take County Rd. 475 (Third Avenue) or County Rd. 475A (27th Street) south to see a countryside graced with gloriously ritzy training and breeding facilities for thoroughbreds, Arabians, paso finos, and other breeds.
Site of the Dade Massacre
Go south on I-75 to County Rd. 48, heading east toward Bushnell. Follow signs to Dade Battlefield Historic State Park (W of U.S. 301; tel. 1 352 793 4781; www.floridastateparks.org/dadebattlefield/default/cfm), scene of a bloody episode on December 28, 1835. That morning, as 108 soldiers marched through woods and fields toward Fort King (present-day Ocala), a larger number of Seminole ambushed them, killing all but three. That sparked the long and costly Second Seminole War.
Manatee Wintering Grounds
Head back west on County Rd. 48 to Floral City, a faded flower from the turn of the century, then take U.S. 41 north to Fla. 44. This will bring you to Crystal River, one of the state's largest manatee wintering grounds. The chance to spot these rare sea cows—about 200 migrate to Kings Bay between January and March—makes scuba diving and snorkeling two of the area's most popular sports. To learn about the earliest humans here, follow signs three miles west to Crystal River Archaeological State Park (3400 N. Museum Pt.; tel 1 352 795 3817; www.crystalriverstateparks.org/StateHist.html), where Native American middens (trash mounds), burial mounds, and temple mounds date from 200 B.C. to A.D. 1400. A half-mile trail leads past mounds and ceremonial stones; the visitor center has displays.
About seven miles (11 kilometers) south on U.S. 19/98 (Suncoast Blvd.), watch for the entrance to Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park (tel. 1 352 628 2311; www.homosassasprings.org), centered around a 45-foot (14-meter) deep spring. An underwater observatory gives you close-up views of manatees, many injured by boats and awaiting release back to the wild.
Continue down U.S. 19 to Weeki Wachee Springs State Park (U.S. 19 and Fla. 50; tel. 1 352 596 2062; weekiwachee.com), a haven for earnest kitsch since 1946. The park offers a river cruise and animal demonstrations with tropical birds and native reptiles. But what everyone comes for is the mermaid show. An underwater window gives a wide view of the proceedings.
U.S. 19 and U.S. 27 will take you back to Tallahassee.
Tallahassee Area Convention and Visitors Bureau (tel. 1 850 606 2305; http://www.visittallahassee.com/); Perry Chamber of Commerce (tel. 1 850 584 5366; www.taylorcountychamber.com); Ocala/Marion County Visitors and Convention Bureau (tel. 1 352 291 9169; www.occalamarion.com); Citrus County Visitors and Convention Bureau (tel. 1 352 628 9305; www.visitcitrus.com).
—Text by By John M. Thompson, adapted from National Geographic Driving Guides to America