The world moves at a kinder, gentler pace in the countryside of Alachua County. The easygoing residents of the county’s rural hamlets practice Southern hospitality like old-time religion. People look you in the eye, inquire “How y’all doin’ today?” and happily pause for leisurely conversation.
As a tightly-wrapped urbanite Yankee, I find this brand of languid, friendly living a pleasurable form of culture shock.
More than 80 years ago, another Northern woman discovered enchantment – and inspiration – in this remote nook of Florida. Settling into a humble, Cracker-style cottage in Cross Creek, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings transformed her fascination with this “backwoods country” into enduring tales of untamed nature and unbreakable human spirit. Her novel, The Yearling, earned a Pulitzer prize in 1939.
Rawlings’ home is now a state historic site, and 1930s-garbed park rangers create an illusion of time travel as they guide visitors through the carefully restored dwelling. The author’s manual typewriter still sets on the screened veranda where she wrote, and from this vantage point it’s easy to see why Rawlings called Cross Creek “the essence of an ancient and secret magic.”
At the nearby Yearling Restaurant, I got acquainted with some cheese grits, super-sized hush puppies and tender morsels of batter-fried ’gator tail. Clever displays of memorabilia and the house musician, veteran bluesman Willie Green, make this rustic roadhouse an irresistible diversion. Just save room for some sour orange pie.
A short drive along winding, canopied roads takes you to Micanopy. Time apparently refuses to budge in this picturesque village, and dozens of antiques shops and galleries make it a great place to slow down for an afternoon of shopping. At Old Florida Café, the kitschy collection of vintage Floridiana exudes pure yesteryear charm.
Located a few steps away, the Herlong Mansion Historic Inn and Gardens can help erase any memories of the 21st century. Amenities at this majestic, antique-filled inn range from in-room massages to wine and cookies provided afternoons and evenings. Their two-story veranda is world class.
For an optimal blend of nature-based recreation and relaxed civilization, head for High Springs. Just outside “the friendliest town in Florida,” the crystalline waters of Ginnie Springs Outdoors park remain a constant 72 degrees – making this a hot spot for cooling off in summer. As a matter of fact, floating down the Santa Fe River in a giant pink inner tube has become my favorite “thrill ride.”
Then, as the evening sky reflected cotton-candy colors in the pristine waters of the Santa Fe River, I launched into the day’s final adventure. A guide at Santa Fe River Canoe Outpost shoved my kayak afloat for an unforgettable full moon tour.
Allowing more than a dozen canoes to glide past me, I hung back to watch mullet leap from the water and wait for the glowing moon to emerge from lacy cypress trees. The cool night air roared with a bullfrog-and-cicada symphony.
Fortunately, the cottage I booked at The Magnolia Plantation Inn featured a jumbo Jacuzzi. After soaking my paddling-weary muscles, a porch overlooking water gardens beckoned me outdoors. Taking a seat in a ladder-back rocker, I was content to do nothing more than listen to the gentle splash of fountains. Life in the slow lane rocks.
Get a first-hand look at the lives of tough and resourceful Cracker settlers at Dudley Farm Historic State Park, about 10 miles west of Gainesville in the town of Newberry. The period-attired park staff continues to work the farm just as the pioneering Dudley family did more than a century ago. Chores include feeding chickens (kids are invited to help), tending livestock and raising crops. The farm’s 18 buildings, ranging from a tool shop to a smokehouse, illustrate how self-sufficiency was essential to survival on the Florida frontier.