By Thomas Becnel

If you prefer country lanes to overcrowded highways, visit the Peace River in Arcadia.

George Buonocore was the manager at his family's upscale art gallery in Naples, but nobody would have guessed that when he arrived at the Canoe Safari outfitters in Arcadia.

He pulled up in a battered white pickup, wearing baggy shorts and a faded T-shirt, with weekend stubble and a carelessly tied ponytail. And he brought his own canoe - a green relic that appeared to be held together with bumper stickers.

OK, there were a few clues to his background. His Jamaican-born wife, Rachel, talked about "going to the loo" before getting out on the river. And they both wore nice sunglasses and name hiking boots. But, all in all, they looked like any other weekend paddlers on a clear, crisp February morning.

"We've got all kinds of boats, and I've got a captain's license, but we prefer canoeing down the Peace River," said Buonocore, then 25. "It's so nice, so . . . peaceful."

This is the ebb tide of Florida tourism. As thousands of snowbirds flock to the Gulf Coast, enjoying our warm, sunny beaches, hundreds of locals are heading inland to the quiet shade of places like the Peace River Florida.

Northerners have begun to discover the interior, too, as RV parks and golf courses replace cow pastures, while campgrounds and canoe outfitters do a brisk business in spring and summer.

The old railroad town of Arcadia, in the heart of the Peace River Valley, has become an antiquing destination, easily reached from Sarasota and Naples, Tampa and Orlando. Historic homes are being converted into bed and breakfasts, and Cadillacs and BMWs line the downtown strip on weekends.

This is also where the Old South meets an emerging Mexican population. Along U.S. Highway 17, which follows the Peace River from Bartow to Wauchula, and Arcadia to Punta Gorda, former migrant workers have begun to build communities with their own stores, businesses and restaurants. It's added spice to the local flavor soaked up by visitors.

In Zolfo Springs, near Pioneer Park and the Cracker Trail Museum, there are Mexican eateries. The Wauchula Super Market doubles as El Rancho Mexicano, while the Ceilito Lindo nightclub offers a little bit of heaven.

Even in Spanglish, the Peace River Valley remains rural, relaxed, with a history reflected in family farms, Baptist churches and the red-brick DeSoto County Courthouse. The river itself, dotted with cypress knees and draped in Spanish moss, winds south at a leisurely pace. Paddlers can bank on seeing a 'gator or two, along with turtles, egrets and cranes.

This place is just an hour from the Gulf Coast, yet it seems a world apart.

On this February weekend, Belton Wall, a Bradenton architect, said that he enjoys taking photographs around Arcadia, especially when he spies an old barn or gnarled oak. He stopped his station wagon along the road and took out an ultramodern tripod and an old-fashioned Kodak View Camera. With his slouch hat and gray beard, he could have passed for Clyde Butcher, the famous Florida landscape photographer.

"I grew up in Jacksonville, and I've always liked the back roads," Wall said. "I call 'em two-lane blacktops, and they're going away."

On this trip, he had plenty of time to compose an oaken image.

"Arcadia's a great little town," he said, laughing, "but don't try to visit before noon on a Sunday - nothing's open. I like to go to the antique stores. I collect paper goods, mostly, postcards and posters. And water towers, photos of water towers."

Arcadia's water tower isn't much to look at, but the downtown antique district features several structures that date back to the 1905 fire that swept through town. The Post Office Arcade building, constructed in 1926, is now painted a fanciful pink, while The Depot has been restored to a handsome brick with dark green trim. An old oak nearby is called The Tree of Knowledge, for the old men who've sat beneath it for years.

Restaurants in Arcadia include Wheeler's Café, Brenda Lee's Downtown Café, the Arcadia Tea Room restaurant and a vegetarian place, Good For You Health Food Store, just off the main drag. Still, this is cow country, where the billboards read "Enjoy beef. Real food for real people."

For dinner, locals often steer guests to Slim's Deep South Barbecue. The Arcadia family restaurant still serves plates of beef, chicken and ribs, but now the menu also includes Gorgonzola salads and grilled salmon with avocado mayonnaise and Key lime mustard sauce. Real food for real people, along with a little something for the antiquers.

At the Hot Fudge Shoppe, just off Oak Street, Kathy Bradt was serving as the unofficial downtown spokeswoman. She's not a native of Arcadia, but she had been in town long enough to have witnessed the antique boom.

"It just kind of happened," she said, shaking her head. "I never realized antiques were such a big business, but this time of year it's a mob scene. We're a nice little day trip from anywhere, so we even get people from the East Coast."

Bradt and her husband came from upstate New York, but they went south after they retired. "We looked around in Florida for years," she said. "We started in Jacksonville, went all the way down the coast, and ended up here. We liked the small-town atmosphere."

Arcadia might feel like a small town, but its 6,500 residents make it the biggest city in the Peace River Valley.

To the north, in places like Wauchula and Bartow, there's less to do, which suits many people just fine. The good, cheap Mexican restaurants along the highway are a welcome addition.

Gerald Eaton, an RV camper from Tecumseh, Michigan, had spent the winter at Pioneer Park in Zolfo Springs. He's not a fisherman, but he said he enjoys the quiet and just being near the river. He said he gets busier in March.

"I collect antique tractors and gas engines," Eaton said, "and there's a big flea market every year at the Pioneer Days festival."

Buonocore, the Naples gallery manager, grew up visiting the Peace River Arcadia with family and Boy Scout groups. Now he said he and his wife enjoy slow-paced camping trips.

"We paddle about 15 miles, but we take our time and stay overnight," he said. "We look for fossils, and I like to fish. I catch catfish, and we always bring a cooler with a little cooking oil and fish fry. French-fried catfish. Oh, it's heaven with a bottle of red wine."

For him the Peace River is a pilgrimage of sorts, part of an annual grand tour of the state. It ranks right up there with the Florida Keys, the Everglades and Cross Creek near Gainesville. "If we don't come here at least once a year, we feel guilty," he said. "It's part of our Florida-ness."

The Peace River of Arcadia, which was dredged for phosphate in the 1880s, isn't as spectacular as the spring-fed rivers of north Florida. It's tea-colored, tinted by the tannic acid released by vegetation, and might be more of an acquired taste. This keeps it quiet and makes it all the more enjoyable for river connoisseurs.