Southern Comfort

Whether you're boating, biking, paddling, or just walking, you'll find something fun to do in Tallahassee.

I had just finished reading the historic novel Apalachee when I last visited Tallahassee's wild and woodsy backyard. So as I paddled the dark tannin-tinted waters of the Wakulla River with nothing to break the silence but the occasional osprey whistle and lazy slap of oars, I slipped easily back to the quiet times when Apalachee natives and Spanish missionaries populated this land. Like me, the Indian princess heroine named Lucia had glided beneath great, bell-bottomed cypress trees and strong, straight magnolias blossomed with flowers like fine white porcelain bowls.

Along the river and throughout the woods of still-pristine lands, the past peeks out at you as you paddle, swim, bike, hike, fish, boat and otherwise explore. It's not difficult to understand why the native Apalachee found this a magical land, especially come spring when azaleas and camellias add their color to the showy burst of life. This is not your college son's Florida, where sunny beaches, palm trees and party-time nightlife are the purpose. Closer to Atlanta than Miami, this is deep Florida: country largely untamed and rich with vast acreage of forests to investigate; a stream in American history that runs bottomless; a Florida where Southern accents and manners balance the raw with the genteelly refined.

Deep Florida. Three hundred and sixty feet deep, in fact, if you're looking down the chute of springs clear as holy water at Wakulla River's source. Edward Ball Wakulla Springs State Park preserves the springhead, one of the largest and deepest in the world. At 120 feet deep, the springs hold ancient secrets in its bowels - evidence of the mastodons and saber-tooth tigers that hunted its shores before the Apalachee.

Today, other toothy beasts, an estimated 400 alligators in the park, sun on banks or blow bubbles from below the surface. Mullet leap, coot hens fuss, limpkins wail, Suwannee cooter river turtles bump the logs, and vines swag from tree to tree - making it all feel like a scene from Tarzan. Which it is: many of the series' episodes were filmed here.

The park affords easy opportunity to tour the waters on narrated boat excursions, including a glass-bottom boat ride (when available). Climate-controlled to 69 degrees year 'round, the waters do feel holy on a hot summer day and the park has set up a roped-off area and diving platform at the beach. Nature trails explore the habitat of white-tailed deer and wild turkeys. Indoor exhibits picture the prehistoric life once here and include a freshwater aquarium.

Plan on lunch at the park, whether at a picnic table or inside the historic Wakulla Springs Lodge, built with railroad cash in the 1930s and serving Southern-fried, pecan-crusted hospitality. The lodge, with its lobby of marble and hand-painted cypress beams, also rents out 27 period-furnished rooms.

Nearby in St. Marks I truly feel I'm living in Apalachee virtual reality. Once an important port and site of a Spanish fort, today it has nodded off into a sleepy fishing town surrounded by the past and in-your-face nature. San Marcos de Apalache Historic State Park preserves a fort site from colonial days, oft mentioned in the novel I felt I was reliving.

St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) preserves a whole lot more that has to do with the state's past and the planet's future. A favorite of birders, hikers, nature photographers, fishermen, crabbers and cyclists, its swamps, marshes and slash pine forests shelter alligators, coyotes and more than 300 species of birds.

But perhaps the most celebrated creature associated with the refuge visits only briefly in October and inspires the refuge's annual Monarch Butterfly Festival. The migrating butterflies congregate around St. Marks Lighthouse, a historic exclamation point in this remarkable world sequestered from development. Visitors can drive or bike to the landmark. The statewide Florida National Scenic Trail sends 49 miles through the refuge as another, more involved option for nature hikers.

Serious outdoors folk can spend weeks swallowed by deep wilderness - hiking, canoeing and camping in Apalachicola National Forest, named for its past inhabitants. The sheer purity of the surroundings makes it easy to forget that one's communing with nature at the edge of Florida's capital city. The state's largest mass of federally protected land, Apalachicola National Forest buffers Tallahassee on the west with 571,088 acres of longleaf pines, majestic glossy-finish magnolias and domes of cypress.

Bicyclists take to the forest's public roads or the mountain bike loop trail at Munson Hills. At Leon Sinks in the national forest, boardwalks take you around a unique feature of regional geology, namely the limestone sinkholes that honeycomb the underground terrain. Here they are visible from above and exhibits explain the phenomenon. At another day-use park, Silver Lake Recreation Area, you can swim off the beach, launch a canoe, have a picnic and walk it off on the nature trail.

For paddling these and other local waters, rent from Wilderness Way, which also conduct tours, mostly in St. Marks NWR and along the Wakulla River. It offers combination "yak and bike" shuttle service and rents bicycles, too.

For the blossomiest show in Tallahassee, wander the grounds at Alfred B. Maclay Gardens State Park. Nature and biking trails skirt natural ravines and Lake Hall yields bass, bluegills and bream to the casting crowd. But attraction centers around the masterpiece circa-1923 to 1945 gardens. Of course spring is the best time to see the azaleas and camellias in countless varieties at their peak.

Year 'round, Tallahassee dresses its road in Scarlett O'Hara charm. Like doting Old South aunties, massive live oaks hunch over the town's canopy roads waving delicate, intricate Spanish moss like lace hankies. The winding roads lead straight to the past, to natural and historic places steeped in adventure. Old St. Augustine Road, for instance, follows the same route the missionaries took from the original capital of East Florida, St. Augustine, to the region's more than 100 missions.

Some of the country roads take you to archaeological sites from that time, such as Lake Jackson Mounds Archaeological State Park and Mission San Luis, where ongoing digging reveals to the casual visitor the games, burial and midden mounds, religion and lifestyles of some of the state's earliest human inhabitants. Other back roads pass the old hunting and cotton plantations that are a legacy of a later era. (The nation's largest concentration of original plantations - 71 in all - lies between Tallahassee and Thomasville, Georgia, 28 miles away.)

History and nature again entangle among the wooded grounds of the Tallahassee Museum, where boardwalk trails take you within eyeshot of today's native Floridians - Florida panthers, bears and red wolves - contained but with wide range and natural habitat. The "history" part of the mostly outdoor museum lets you explore a historic schoolhouse, plantation manor, caboose and 19th century farm populated by live animals and costumed re-enactors (Saturdays and Sundays only).

Downtown Tallahassee, the streets tell still more stories of bygones. Stroll the 10-block historic district to explore old segregated cemeteries, parks, legislative buildings, museums and gracious Southern architecture.

Reward yourself after roughing it in Tallahassee's rugged backwoods with the head-of- state treatment at the handsomely appointed Governors Inn. Indulge in some of the finest Southern fare, fused creatively with Italian and American style, in one of Tallahassee's new breed of fine restaurants - Andrew's 228, Chez Pierre, Cypress and Georgio's included. The refined part of the Tallahassee equation, these are the gathering spots for senators and statesmen who savor their inimitable atmosphere and everything from blackened grouper to butternut-squash-and- walnut ravioli.

For more casual repast, Po' Boys Creole Café and Kool Beanz Café are top picks. Thanks to the omnipresence of Florida State University and Florida A & M University, the town also has a youthful vibe and a post-dinner walk may turn up an offbeat jazz club or a locally colorful pool hall.

No matter where your feet take you - or your bike, boat, kayak or fins - adventure in Tallahassee comes with a twist of history and a seemingly unlimited expanse of the great wide open. Go there, go wild, go deep.

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