By Chelle Koster Walton
For the briefest, longest moment I was there. Decked out in hoop skirts with the warm breeze twiddling my hair, I was hearing the paddleboat captain swearing under his breath about this “damn crooked river.”
His 300-foot-long, 80-foot-wide, three-story riverboat dealt with the same spooky Spanish moss-shrouded, witchy-armed trees, tyrannasaurish gators, and primordial brewed cypress-leaf tea we witnessed on our two-hour cruise along the Old Channel, the St. Johns River pre-straightening.
With not a building to be seen and only the occasional dove coo and osprey shriek to be heard, the preserved lands of Blue Springs and Hontoon Island state parks clenched us tightly in the past. Hard to imagine that some 80 miles north, this same river parts big-city Jacksonville. But then the St. Johns, which stubbornly flows south to north, flashes a number of personalities.
The St. Johns River Cruises out of Blue Spring State Park is one of many tourist excursions along the 310-mile river (the state’s longest), including a sternwheel paddleboat tour out of St. Johns Rivership Co. in Sanford to the south. On its way, the river forms a number of lakes, widens and narrows, and contorts along a series of twists and turns despite early straightening efforts, using only handsaws, oxen and dredges, that ultimately chopped 21 miles off the river.
In its more commercial areas, the St. Johns provides watery views for many a restaurant, campground, and resort. Near Blue Springs State Park in DeBary, the Highbanks Marina & Camp Resort is home to the Swamp House River Front Grill, a sports bar setting overlooking the marina and river. Since alligator tail is practically mandated at Florida’s river restaurants, you should try the proficiently executed tropical blackened gator tacos.
To the south near Cocoa, the temperament feels even more old Florida country style at Lone Cabbage Fish Camp, where airboat rides are a sideline. Or is it the other way around? In any case, don’t miss the catfish nuggets and Kickin’ Bayou Shrimp.
To the north, the Victorian town of Palatka with its pretty churches, murals, and Ravine Gardens State Park embodies the very soul of a country river town. The St, Johns meets another charming juncture at Mayport, where motorists along scenic Route A1A must drive aboard an old-school car ferry to continue across the wide mouth of the river and continue to Jacksonville.
Florida’s most populous metro area grew up around the St. Johns River, which cuts through the middle of its downtown. The Riverwalk and Museum of Science and History are highlights of the Southbank. The gardens of the Cummer Museum of Art overlook the mighty waterway.
On the North bank, the Hyatt Regency Jacksonville Riverfront lies but a few blocks away for overnighting down by the riverside.
For more information about and around Florida’s rivers, see the whole Along Florida's Rivers series.