9 Florida's Small Towns to Experience Old Florida
By Gary McKechnie
Small doesn’t mean dull.
When you pay a visit to these largely bypassed destinations you’ll find one of Florida’s largest flea markets, the small town featured in a Hollywood film, an island that’s become a magnet for malacologists, and a drowsy fishing village chosen by readers of Budget Traveler as their favorite Florida destination.
Here are snapshots of some destinations that will link you to a time and a feeling many of us recall as Old Florida.
Driving through this seaside community of mobile homes is like driving back to the 1950s. But in 2005, retro cool Briny Breezes actually became part of Florida pop culture when a developer offered roughly $500 million to buy the community north of Delray Beach. A majority of residents accepted the generous offer (equating to a windfall of roughly $1 million per mobile home), but after the deal fell through in 2007, Briny Breezes returned to its roots as an authentic Old Florida community, and still sits undisturbed along A1A.
Off the coast of Fort Myers, this postcard-perfect, 10-square mile island is paradise found for conchologists (aka seashell collectors). Courtesy of a curving shoreline and crazy currents, every day the shores of Captiva and neighboring Sanibel Island (aka: the ‘Shellacious Islands’) are covered with a fresh layer of exquisitely beautiful seashells. Add to this exotic subtropical vegetation, and famous eateries such as the Bubble Room and Mucky Duck, and the upscale South Seas Resort, and you’ll understand why Captiva captivates.
A few miles north of McIntosh and 15 miles south of Gainesville, resident for resident, Micanopy may be Florida’s most famous place. “The Town That Time Forgot” received a mention in John Anderson’s 1992 classic song, "Seminole Wind," and then played a starring role in the Michael J. Fox film "Doc Hollywood." Given a wide buffer between the traffic of surrounding U.S. 441 and I-75, Micanopy’s downtown village clops along at a pace familiar to Floridians, circa 1901, with travelers arriving to meander along a few blocks of shops and sidewalk cafes, visit the strangely picturesque gothic cemetery, and perhaps even stay the night at the renowned Herlong Mansion bed and breakfast.
In 2011 more than 400,000 readers of Budget Travel magazine agreed that Cedar Key is Florida’s #1 small town (and #8 in America). To see what all the fuss is about, head about 50 miles southwest of Gainesville and follow Highway 24 until you reach the Gulf of Mexico. The calm and quiet Hemingway-esque fishing village is a natural destination for nature lovers (this and the adjacent Cedar Keys comprise one of the nation’s oldest bird and wildlife refuges) and adds a full calendar of events including springtime’s Old Florida Celebration of the Arts and the Taste of Cedar Key each October.
In 1972, newsman Charles Kuralt’s travels put him in Sopchoppy, and his report put this town south of Tallahassee on the map. His ‘On the Road’ profile of townspeople engaged in “worm gruntin’” (using a wooden stake and an iron bar to shake the ground and drive annoyed worms to the surface) caught the nation’s attention. More than 40 years later, travelers familiar with this fine art put Sopchoppy on their itinerary, especially during April’s Worm Gruntin’ Festival, which is part of ‘Wild About Wakulla!’ week.
On a brisk January day I drove down Highways 19/98 and into Fanning Springs, 45 miles west of Gainesville. Crossing the Suwannee River I pulled in for a swim at Fanning Springs State Park. Minutes later there were only two swimmers in the bracing waters of the crystal clear pool: a manatee… and me. Fanning Springs, which straddles the Gilchrist/Levy county lines, is on the road less traveled, but it’s the road to follow to find natural beauty, Fort Fanning Historic Park, and a refreshingly peaceful Florida town.
From a peak population of 2,000 in the late 1800s, the town of Fort White now settles for about a quarter of that. But the diminished numbers mask the town’s popularity. In the 1970s, travelers learned what the locals treasured when a phosphate company sold the nearby Ichetucknee spring and river property to the state of Florida. Now Fort White, about 20 miles south of Lake City, is the gateway to the Ichetucknee Springs State Park where folks climb into inner tubes and drift gently down the crystalline stream on a graceful 3.5-mile, three-and-a-half hour cruise through shaded hammocks and wetlands while enjoying one of Florida’s most pristine environments.
Because folks in a hurry tend to travel on I-75, when you roll into McIntosh on parallel Highway 441 you’ll find the village has remained blissfully undisturbed. In a setting that could have been be a backdrop from To Kill A Mockingbird, a sleepy few blocks contain a diverse collection of antique shops, an 1895 train depot, an art gallery inside the former headquarters of citrus magnate O.D. Huff, and a historic district with nearly 70 sites listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Where’s Waldo? It’s at the junction of highways 24 and 301 northwest of Gainesville. Built upon a citrus industry that flagged with multiple freezes in the late 1800s, Waldo got a boost in 1980 with the arrival of the Waldo Farmer’s & Flea Market, a 50-acre complex featuring 900 dealers and a 20,000 square-foot antiques mall. Today an estimated 40,000 visitors peruse its eclectic inventory each week. What else? In a city park, two historic markers planted beside a caboose note Waldo’s history as well as this quirky historical anecdote: In June, 1865, in a house near this site, Union soldiers seized “personal baggage belonging to Confederate President Jefferson Davis and some of the Confederate government's records.”
If you’re looking for unique Florida travel destinations go to VISIT FLORIDA's official travelers guide.