Arcadia deserves a round of applause for its tough resilience alone, having survived droughts and floods that have wiped out whole farms, a turn-of-the century fire that toppled the business district, a 2004 hurricane that toppled everything.
Some local historians prefer to think of these tragedies as “character building” – which is believable when you experience the town’s charm. People come from all over the country to sift through Arcadia’s antique shops, and ambitious entrepreneurs open restaurants, cafes or inns to cater to modern expectations.
Arcadia is clearly proud of its rugged and colorful history, offering walking tours and preserving old buildings to harken its roots. Business owners and residents support each other, directing guests to their friends who run the Canoe Outpost, or suggesting the best slice of pie down the street, or telling funny stories about neighborhood lions roaring in the night.
Nestled in Florida’s heartland, Arcadia is hard not to love. It’s not Disneyworld and it’s not the beach, but it’s friendly, homey and sweet. And it seems there’s a treasure for everyone if you just know where to hunt.
A Collector’s Dream
Downtown Arcadia is quaint and compact, comprised mostly of one main avenue – Oak Steet – surrounded by a cluster of early 1900s buildings, most of which were built after a 1905 fire and damaged 100 years later by Hurricane Charley. Few hints of destruction remain, though some resilient shopkeepers and bar and restaurant owners are glad to share their stories of survival.
The area comes alive on Saturdays, particularly on the fourth Saturday of each month, when more than 100 antique dealers roll up and set up tables around a four-block district. During winter and spring months, thousands of curious collectors might arrive, sifting through military weapons, comic books, Depression glass, silverware sets, artwork, stamps, dolls … you name it, you’ll probably find it here.
“We try to come every month, and it gets addictive,” said Farrah Wright, a 60-year-old retiree from Sarasota who was looking at wristwatch display with her husband, Richard. “You can spend all day here getting wrapped up in all this. It’s a collector’s dream.”
It’s also a big day for downtown eateries such as Wheeler’s Cafe (13 S. Monroe Ave.), known for its diner-style Southern cooking and generous slices of chocolate cake and peanut butter pie. The menu isn’t fancy – meatloaf, fried okra, BLTs – but is true comfort food and caters well to the antique-loving crowd.
If you do want fancy, Mary Margaret’s Tea and Biscuit (10 S. Polk Ave.) is just around the corner and an unexpected touch of drama and class for lunch. The owners, Bruce Neveau and Dennis Tyson, renovated and elegantly redecorated the multi-room restaurant in 2009 and named it after their late mothers. The two dress in dapper 1920s-style tuxedoes and top hats and use British tearoom recipes passed down from Neveau’s ancestors from Liverpool. Think warm scones with clotted cream and cucumber sandwiches, but Mary Margaret’s also serves BBQ pork wraps and daily specials that would suit more hearty appetites.
“We wanted to have that lady’s tea room feel but have a menu for men, too,” Tyson said. “About 30 to 40 percent of our customers are men. We’ve had large biker groups come in to eat lunch.”
Most downtown businesses, including the restaurants, shut down by 8 p.m. or earlier, so if you’re staying overnight, it’s good to have a comfortable place to settle in for the evening. The best bet is the Oak Park Inn (2 W. Oak St.), a quirky, well-kept hotel with a different theme and décor for each room. Upstairs in the common area, one can grab a DVD or sit in in a comfy couch and read a book. The fun is in choosing which room suits you best – Art Deco or Caribbean? French or Spanish?
Room prices are reasonable, between $110 and $130 per night, and include breakfast coupons for one of the nearby cafes.
Encounters with Native and Not-So-Native Wildlife
If antique shopping’s not your thing, or you’re simply longing to get out into wild Florida, Peace River is the perfect antidote. At the Canoe Outpost (2816 NW County Rd. 661), you have your pick of canoeing or kayaking excursions, from quick paddles to overnight camping trips. Everyone in Arcadia seems to instinctively know and warn when the tide is high or low, but no matter; it’s a slow-moving, serene river that’s fairly easy to navigate.
Peace River is also known to be a great spot for fossil hunting – mostly teeth and animal bones – and wildlife spotting. Lazy gators, foxes, tortoises and cranes are common sights.
For the more extreme and exotic wildlife, head about 10 miles up Highway 70 to Lions, Tigers & Bears, Inc. (9801 NE Bahia Ct.) for face-to-face – well, behind sturdy fencing – encounters with lions, tigers, and yes, a humongous black bear. And also leopards, gibbons, coyotes, goats, emus, donkeys and dozens of other species of animals Lynn and Dennis Whittmeier have taken in over the years.
The couple moved down from Canada several years ago and bought 40 acres of land with the intention of opening an animal sanctuary more humane than others they had worked for in the past. Volunteers help them with feedings and cage cleaning, but keeping such animals healthy and safe is a round-the-clock lifestyle, Lynn said.
“We’re a teaching facility, and we think it’s an important message for people to know these animals are not pets,” she said. “About 95 percent of these animals come from private owners who don’t realize what they’ve gotten themselves into.”
The other five percent? About stray or adopted 35 cats and some wayward chickens and cranes stumbled upon Lions, Tigers & Bears and decided to make it their home.
Downtown Arcadia – Oak Street (Oak Street, Arcadia, FL 34265): Regarded as one of the best antiquing spots in Florida, Oak Street is home to 20 antique stores, carrying everything from fine jewelry to ‘70s and ‘80s kitsch, as well as furniture, war memorabilia, dolls and anything else your collector’s heart desires. The real magic happens on the fourth Saturday of every month, when more than 100 antique dealers show up with folding tables and huge displays of treasures, covering about three blocks of Oak Street. The street is also the site of dozens of buildings in the National Register of Historic Places, including the reportedly haunted Opera House and a restored train depot. A handful of shops and restaurants sell walking tour booklets for more insight into Arcadia’s rich history – just ask around; it’s a small town.
Peace River (2816 NW County Rd. 661, Arcadia, FL 34266): No one knows exactly why the Peace River is named so, though the early Spanish settlers’ clash with the Seminole Indians might provide a clue. An unknown Spanish cartographer who was updating a map of the New World in the 1500s sketched his best guess of the river’s path in a previously uncharted region. He apparently decided to call it Rio de la Paz, or the “Peace River” – an interesting name choice for a waterway in a valley that would later be the site of an extremely lengthy and bloody battle between the Spanish and the Indians. Today, most would think Peace River refers to its serene, slow-moving waters which bring a sense of heavenly solitude and a new appreciation of Florida wildlife.