Beauty Queen: The Seven Sisters Inn, Ocala

    Nestled in the beautiful horse country of Ocala, the Seven Sisters Inn sets out to be a destination in its own right.

    Crimson, gold and green leaves fell from the trees in a whirlwind of autumn colors. Goats grazed and roosters strutted in grassy meadows. And in field after field, hundreds of sleek thoroughbred horses pranced about.

    Home to more than 900 horse farms, Ocala, a little more than an hour northeast of Tampa off I-75, claims plenty of world-famous equine champions. Farm tours are popular here along with horseback riding; but so are birding, hiking, camping, canoeing, snorkeling and even cave diving. With more than 430,000 acres of national forests and 200 spring-fed lakes and rivers, the area is a visual delight.

    And so, we were admittedly dissuaded when we entered town, which seemed a bit depressed in contrast with the opulent green of the horse farms' rolling hills. Here, a stone's throw from downtown, tucked amid a jumble of historic homes (and opposite an unattractive red brick building unabashedly identifying itself as "Grubbs Apartments") is "Florida's Enchantress." That's what Country Inns Bed & Breakfast Magazine called the Seven Sisters Inn, a bed-and-breakfast inn listed on the National Register of Historic Places. This Queen Anne-style Victorian house stands out like a beauty queen in a room full of wallflowers.

    Owners Bonnie and Ken Moorehardt have painstakingly restored the lovely inn: it is stately, elegant and furnished with period antiques. The home was originally owned by seven sisters (hence the name); and the rooms are decorated after each of their personalities.

    We stayed in Sylvia's room, one of the honeymoon suites, with its Victorian soaking tub, hand-painted armoire, fireplace and original antique furniture. Like rose-colored glasses, soft hues of pink - on the bed, curtains, walls and accents - set the mood.

    Bonnie and pilot/husband Ken purchased the original inn 14 years ago, but their new baby is the Victorian house next door, which they recently bought and refurbished. Here, the five bedrooms are elaborately decorated with items from their favorite countries: Argentina, France, Egypt, China and India.

    Their goal is to make the Seven Sisters a destination in its own right, so they offer murder mystery weekends, themed holiday events, romantic getaway weekends, trail dinners and hayrides. The Moorehardts also prepare wonderful meals for guests using recipes they collect from their worldwide travels.

    For breakfast, we enjoyed a yogurt and fruit parfait too pretty to eat; a broiled English muffin topped with cream cheese, cinnamon and apples; scrambled eggs with olives, tomatoes and feta cheese wrapped in a tortilla topped with garlic pesto. Oh, and smoked sausages cooked in apricot marmalade. Tea is held from 4 to 6 p.m.

    Fortified, we set out for a day of touring. We skipped the Discovery Science Center and Don Garlits Museum of Drag Racing, and opted instead for the Appleton Museum of Art's international collection. Then on to nearby Micanopy, the quaint town where "Doc Hollywood" was filmed, for several hours of antiquing; and finally to Cross Creek, for a tour of The Yearling author Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings' home and a stroll through the adjacent park.

    In the evening, we dined al fresco at Harry's Seafood Bar and Grille in Ocala's Town Square amid the sounds of soft conversation, clinking glasses and the clip-clop of horse-drawn carriages.

    A Theme Park for Nature Lovers

    Panthers and cougars and bears, oh my! You can see them up close and personal at Silver Springs, a theme park for nature lovers, just east of Ocala on S.R. 40.

    The park offers glass-bottom boat rides, bird and animal shows daily and a year-round schedule of special events including concerts, festivals, car shows and holiday extravaganzas.

    The new 80-foot-tall Lighthouse Ride carries visitors into the air for a bird's-eye view of the area. Another new ride, the Fort King River Cruise, brings passengers back in time, through Silver Springs' history. And check out the Fantastic Fountains water show, which includes fountains and water designs set to lights and music.