For many people, vacations are a chance to forget the day-to-day. That means exercise regimens are left behind with the laundry and the dirty dishes.
But for others, like Nate, exercise is more than something done to ward off love handles. Much to my bewilderment, he believes that an enjoyable vacation must include some amount of physical exertion.
Weekend trips centered on biking were a natural fit, and Nate became increasingly excited as we researched Florida's scenic and wild trails. He also happens to love wild things, even the creepy-crawly variety, of which this state has a seemingly endless supply.
Kara, on the other hand, is more comfortable with animals grilled medium rare, covered in sautéed mushrooms. Perspiring while on vacation is acceptable in the context of jasmine-scented steam rooms; sore muscles are an unavoidable consequence of massage.
Indulgence, from being slathered in therapeutic mud to savoring a Pinot Grigio, is the cornerstone of Kara's ideal vacation. Thus, staying at charming bed & breakfasts seemed a perfect equalizer to our trip's more active elements.
Toss in a few gourmet meals, a bottle or two of the aforementioned vino and three unique Florida destinations and you have the essence of a great compromise - a vacation equal parts pampering and play.
Seaside Cycling in New Smyrna Beach
A quick ferry ride brought us to Hontoon Island State Park, our first destination. Located just west of DeLand, Hontoon Island is in the middle of Florida's longest river, the St. Johns.
Nate and I traversed the island's 5.5 miles of level dirt and grass biking and hiking trails.
After all the riding, my quads wouldn't hold up for the three-mile hiking trail that led to a large Indian shell mound.
We were tired and dirty, and the cozy Night Swan Intracoastal Bed & Breakfast, named for owners Chuck and Martha Nighswonger, was a welcome sight. From our upstairs window, we enjoyed a perfectly framed view of the Indian River. The inn has its own pier and dock and is within walking distance of New Smyrna Beach's historic downtown.
After cleaning up and relaxing awhile, Kara and I cast away on the Marine Discovery Center's tour, motoring northward along the Intracoastal past palatial homes and cozy waterfront cottages.
We paused at the Ponce de Leon Inlet Lighthouse, its red brick form framed magnificently by the setting sun. Our return route took us deep into the rookeries, where two great blue herons faced off in a territorial showdown. Pelicans dove for fish while cormorants, egrets and herons took refuge in the mangroves, the greenery obscured by multicolored feathers.
Perhaps subconsciously swayed by our feathered friends, we went straight to Norwood's Seafood Restaurant, where Kara feasted on king crab, her favorite of favorites. I dove into the rich blue crab stuffing surrounding my tender grouper.
Morning at the Night Swan brought us cream cheese-stuffed French toast, providing delicious - if not trainer-recommended - fuel for the bicycling ahead.
Via a dusty gravel road, Kara and I arrived at Spruce Creek Preserve, 10 miles of mountain biking paradise. The twisting single-track trails offer constant surprises and picturesque views of Spruce Creek. We hopped over exposed roots, ducked under branches and charged up hills.
The trails accommodate a variety of skill levels, and we tried them all. The result was an adrenaline-pumping workout and a number of small bruises for Kara - marks she would later point to proudly as evidence of her adventuresome spirit.
After a quick stop at Norwood's Restaurant and Wine Shop, we enjoyed a bottle of Vouvre and a starlit dinner of Stilton and Emmenthaler cheeses on the Night Swan's dock, the occasional splash of a fish chasing its evening meal the only interruption.
While I had no trouble eating a hearty breakfast, I was apprehensive about our planned kayaking trip, since I had never sat so close to the water (and thus so close to the creatures lurking beneath). It turned out there was no need to worry. We even ventured off the river, past oyster beds, into narrow waterways surrounded by mangroves.
Nate was thrilled when dolphins surfaced a few feet from us. We paddled lazily in circles, trying to get close. One flipped, showing us its white belly.
After returning the kayaks, Nate and I headed to the beach. I'd enjoyed the challenging mountain biking the day before, but biking on the beach was more my scene. I stayed close to the water, where the ground was firm, while Nate skidded out on the thick, powdery sand.
Finally, we locked up our bikes outside of Chases, a beachfront restaurant, and treated ourselves to tropical drinks.
The "Real Florida" in High Springs
It's hard to miss High Springs' railroad heritage, we realized while ordering sandwiches through the ticket window at the Station Bakery & Café, a converted depot. But this small town has a second identity: It attracts adventurers from all over for cave diving and snorkeling in the springs along its Santa Fe and Ichetucknee rivers. Nate and I opted for canoeing, since the thought of dark, underwater caves makes me shudder.
Lily was the most memorable of the springs we visited, since it's home to Ed Watts, who lives in a grass hut on stilts and is usually wearing nothing more than his signature faux-fur loincloth. We had heard about Ed and I wasn't sure what to expect, but he was harmless, and a gregarious host. In fact, the Santa Fe Canoe Outpost offers full moon trips that either go upstream to River Rise in O’Leno State Park and back, or downstream to Lily Spring. A bonfire will be burning by the time you return.
With loincloths behind us, we moved on to our next B&B, the Grady House. Once a railroad boarding house, this craftsman-style home charms with creaking hardwood floors, claw-foot tubs and fresh-baked cookies.
With glasses of red wine, we wandered the house's gardens, toasting next to a moonlit koi pond.
We awoke to delicious breakfast options that include fresh brewed coffee, eggs benedict, gruyere frittata and strawberry cheesecake French toast. Then it was off to O'Leno State Park, where we biked rolling paved trails through mature pine forests. Children, undaunted by alligator warning signs, swam the cool Santa Fe. We locked our bikes to a small pine and hiked to the "river sink," where the Santa Fe mysteriously vanishes underground, emerging several miles later.
Nate and I said good-bye to High Springs and headed southeast to Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park in Gainesville. There, we viewed the Alachua Sink, a depression usually filled with alligators as far as the eye can see. Vegetation covered the water during our visit, but we saw enough 'gators sunning on the banks to last me a lifetime.
The Gainesville to Hawthorne State Trail, an old railroad route, starts at the prairie, so we climbed on our bikes. The trail took us up and down hills, past a continually changing landscape of prairies, lakes and forests.
The wildlife did not disappoint. A deer dashed across Nate's path, and a deadly coral snake - or so I was convinced - slithered into some high grass as I sped by.