Heart of Florida: Scenic Trail of Arts and Culture

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An artistic and cultural thread holds together the small towns of north central Florida.

The hamlets of north Florida have their own, very specific identities. Ocala is horse country, where rolling green pastures stretch wide; Gainesville is, thanks to the presence of the University of Florida, an orange-and-blue college town.

But despite these general and seemingly counterintuitive tags, there’s an artistic and cultural thread that binds these and other settlements throughout the Rainbow River, Cross Florida Greenway and Old Florida regions. Thus the creation of the Heart of Florida Scenic Trail offers “inside track” kind of guide to the urban experiences, small towns, literary sites, art galleries, botanical gardens, state parks, theaters, music venues, dance companies, antiques shopping, historical regions and museums of North Florida.

The Trail was developed by Florida’s Eden. The organization works at the confluence of the economy, environment and education to build a sustainable and prosperous economy for the North Florida region.

Florida’s Eden directors Annie Pais and Stewart Thomas did an updated 2010 version of the Heart of Florida Scenic Guide this past year. The online "flip page" live version is on their website, and visitors can email and print individual pages.

It is this “wildness and mystery” that has attracted writers and artists throughout the years, from novelist Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings to the Highwaymen painters. And it is this juxtaposition of rural and urban cultures that makes following the trail such a great idea for a weekend’s trek throughout the region, a path I recently took.

What you choose to do in this wide swath of “real Florida”—visit Kika Silva Pla Planetarium and Santa Fe College Teaching Zoo on the Santa Fe College Campus in Gainesville, check out the historic Wood & Swink Country Store and Post Office in Evinston, buy some sunshine at The Orange Shop in Citra—depends on both your interests and the routes you take.

The same goes for where you eat and stay along the way. I chose one of the most lovely bed-and-breakfast lodgings in Florida: the Herlong Mansion Historic Inn & Gardens. It's a restored property on the National Register of Historic Places, and worth a look even if you don’t spend a night.

The latter is located in tiny Micanopy—population approximately 650!—the oldest inland settlement in the state, and just south of Gainesville; this is a great base if you love antiquing, as the main street is lined on both sides with veritable labyrinths of collectibles. The town is the hub of the Old Florida Heritage Highway, with 48 miles of roads through tree canopies draped with hanging moss and where the pace of life is unhurried. In nearby Ocala, a district that boasts many elegant abodes, you can take a self-guided walking tour of historic homes; contact the Ocala/Marion County Visitors and Convention Bureau for details.

I started in Ocala, where you can pick up pamphlets and maps at the Visitor’s Center at the Ocala/Marion County Visitors and Convention Bureau. The Center is conveniently located two blocks off the downtown square, at 112 N. Magnolia, and is open Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. - 5 p.m.

Literature in hand, I got my culture on right away simply by walking down the street to the Downtown Square. A nostalgic town square complete with Americana bandstand has grass that is cornered with painted sculptures of horses, part of a project called “Horse Fever,” which brought artist-designed equines to the streets of Ocala.

Surrounding the Downtown Square is “Brick City.” That’s the nickname for downtown, given that after it burned down in 1883 on Thanksgiving, it was rebuilt using fireproof red brick, granite and metal.

Brick City is home to an astounding amount of cultural and artistic options in just a few square blocks, as well as one-of-a-kind shopping and excellent restaurants. You can listen to live music and taste wine at the Ocala Wine Experience, for one experience.

I immediately popped into Brick City Center for the Arts, a gallery and gift shop that showcases local work. The space is also home for the Marion Cultural Alliance; the MCA is the organization responsible for “Horse Fever,” which goes a long way toward bringing Ocala’s two identities—Horse Capital of the World and Haven for the Cultural Arts (okay, I made that last slogan up, but it’s true enough)—together.

Then I treated myself to dinner down the street in the restored building that houses Harry’s Seafood Bar and Grille, indulging in New Orleans-influenced dishes such as succulent crawfish tails and oyster po’ boys.

The next morning I was off for a literary feast—a visit to the Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Historic State Park in Cross Creek, which is also recognized as a National Historic Landmark. The house is open to the public for guided tours, which are entertaining and informative; for instance, I learned that Rawlings once used a published copy of her famous novel The Yearling to bludgeon a cottonmouth in her bathroom.

Do note tours of the home, normally offered Thursday through Sunday are suspended in August and September to do preservation and maintence work. The park is open daily year around. Because the house and farm has been restored to painstaking time-period detail, a park ranger notes that the heat can be overwhelming for some park-goers in these un-air-conditioned circumstances.

Cap off the Rawlings trek with a stop at The Yearling Restaurant, just a quarter-mile from the park. Here you can sample items that Rawlings herself might have hunted, cooked and eaten—gator, quail and “cooter” (turtle)—as well as more comfort-driven Southern fare. If you’re not the bed-and-breakfast type, look into staying here as well in the Secret River Lodge (named for Rawlings’ little-known children’s book), comprising seven restored cottages perched along the creek.

And if cooter isn’t your pleasure, continue on to Blue Highway, a pizzeria, a surprisingly innovative pizza place. The owner tosses one pie with local, handmade tempeh that’s been marinated in buffalo wing sauce, and has an assortment of antipasti, salads and sandwiches that make use of seasonal regional produce. It’s just the fuel you need before tackling the exhibits at the Micanopy Historical Society Museum or going on a downtown Gainesville Art Walk, which take place the last Friday of each month.

But don’t worry if you miss it, or run out of time to pick organic blueberries at South Moon Farm, or can’t get to the Samuel P. Harn Museum—the “Art Museum of the Gator Nation”. Because the best thing about the Heart of Florida Scenic Trail is that no matter how many times and ways you travel it, you’re always welcome back.

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