Once upon a Florida time, cattle ran free through the mid-section of the state. They were descendants of the longhorns brought aboard sailing ships to Florida's shores by early Spanish conquistadores.
Later, in the late 1800s, cattle barons made a handy profit from rounding up the free-ranging cattle and driving them in herds to western ports for shipment. It was a colorful way of life that set the scene for modern times in central Florida.
In the town of Arcadia, the way of life persists most stubbornly. Ranches surround the town, shops sell cowboy boots, and three times a year (November, March and July), rodeo excites the quiet town.
Other times of year, visitors come to canoe the aptly named Peace River. Outfitters provide equipment and shuttles for half-day to many-day adventures. Riverboat tours also operate on the pristine river, banked by cypress trees festooned with mistletoe. Look for ancient shark teeth on the sandy shores.
Peace River -- Julie Fletcher for VISIT FLORIDA
Downtown's historic district tells its past in the faces of brick buildings. Old homes hold a bed and breakfast and memories of yesteryear glories. Local restaurants serve diner-style comfort food and everything feels homey and relaxed.
Scattered throughout Arcadia's countryside, cattle ranches spread between tiny towns such as Ona, where you can find Solomon's Castle. The creation of a slightly eccentric artist, it is made entirely from recycled materials. Stay for lunch in The Boat in the Moat, the pirate ship he built next door.
Zolfo Springs provides a pleasant stop along the river, where Pioneer Park represents a gathering of old-time structures in a shady park with picnicking, camping and fishing.
Downtown Arcadia -- Julie Fletcher for VISIT FLORIDA
The main thoroughfare through this section of heartland, Highway 27, lies to the east. It stabs through the center of pretty little Lake Placid, but get off the main path to discover the treasures hidden here.
Enter a virtual trip into local history via Lake Placid's realistic and stylized murals painted on the sides of the family drug store, antiques marts, arts and crafts co-op, and other historic and commercial buildings. Some, like the cattle drive mural on a grocery store right off Highway 27, are orchestrated with sound effects. At the old train depot, learn more about the lake town's resort bygones under the leadership of the Dewey Decimal System inventor. Built in 1926 and listed on the National Historic Registry, it is home to the Lake Placid Historical Society.
Lake Placid has another reputation beyond its past. In present tense, it is known as the Caladium Capital of the World for the fluttering fields of dappled red, pink, green and white elephant-eared plants it grows. August is time to celebrate the reputation with a Caladium Festival that includes bus tours of scenic, colorful fields and yards.
Lake Placid murals -- Peter W. Cross for VISIT FLORIDA
For a lay of the land and its shimmering lakes, climb or take the elevator to the top of Placid Tower. To get close and personal, get on the water for renowned bass fishing and bird watching, or visit Lake-June-In Winter Scrub State Park on the north side of Lake Placid and Archbold Biological Station. Highlands County claims 77 lakes in all for watersports enthusiasts. Lakefront cottages and lodges offer profound escape.
Neighboring town Sebring has quite a different reputation. In contrast to the area's quiet, it boasts the thunderous noise of its international raceway, site of the Twelve-Hour Endurance Race in March. A deluxe boutique hotel at the hairpin turn accommodates fans and at other times offers racing school packages. Historic Kenilworth Lodge is another fabulous place to stay with a view of lovely Lake Jackson.
To retreat back to the quiet, visit Highlands Hammock State Park, Florida's oldest state park. It gets its name from the ridge that runs up the back of this part of Florida. At the state park, hikers and cyclists appreciate the ecology of swampland and uplands alike, where trees grow tall and deer, alligators and bald eagles live.
Sebring runs together with Avon Park, a historic citrus-growing and ranching town that offers conveniences to highway travelers, along with golf courses, a historic museum and downtown antiquing, for those who veer off the main road. The pastoral lakes setting of these towns furnish travelers with soothing vistas and happy places to play, explore and recharge.