By Vanessa Caceres
If you visit the town of Okeechobee, you’ll start to notice something -- you’re seeing cows everywhere.
Cows in the green, flat fields surrounding the downtown area. Cows in the murals that adorn some of the town’s walls. Cow paintings for sale inside the Brown Cow Sweetery. The mascot for the local high school: a Brahman bull. Plus, the town’s nickname is, of course, Cowtown.
It’s all because Okeechobee County, from which the town takes its name, is the largest cattle- and calf-producing county in the state of Florida.
If you’re looking for slice of life in a small town with a focus on agriculture -- and lots and lots of cows -- then Okeechobee is the place to visit.
“You can get out of the hustle and bustle of the coast and enjoy nature here,” said Bert Culbreth of Okeechobee.
About a two-hour drive from Orlando and one hour from West Palm Beach, Okeechobee has another claim to fame. It’s at the top point of Lake Okeechobee, the latter a Seminole Indian word that means “big water.” The town of Okeechobee draws a large share of anglers and boaters. In fact, the town is considered the Speckled Perch Capital of the World.
But exploring Okeechobee’s mainland has its own rewards. Here are some fun things to do in the town of Okeechobee:
1. The downtown shops
Okeechobee’s Main Street area is small but includes a range of shops and eateries, boutiques, a book store, a pharmacy, Serenity Coffee shop, and Gladys’ Restaurant. At the corner of Main Street you’ll find the folksy Brown Cow Sweetery, where you can indulge in quiches or sandwiches and top off your meal with ice cream or gourmet chocolate.
2. Flagler Park
Adjacent to the Main Street shops is Flagler Park, where you can stroll by a helicopter and tank placed there in honor of local veterans, along with a memorial for those who fought in wars. Further down in Flagler Park is a new butterfly garden with nine sculptures of colorful butterflies. The plants in the garden are the types that naturally attract butterflies. Take a few minutes to sit on one of the benches there (shaped like butterflies, naturally) and, sure enough, you’ll see bees buzzing and butterflies flittering around.
Okeechobee is a welcome addition to the statewide street mural trend, and you’ll find six colorful murals around town to show off its history. Many of the murals are painted on businesses that match the mural subject. For example, there’s a phone company mural on a telecommunications business building. There’s also a series of murals that look as if real people from the past are walking in and out the business doors. With the murals, you can learn more about cattle drives and the railroad coming to town, which boosted business.
4. Flea markets
Right down the street from each other you’ll find the Trading Post Flea Market and The Big O Flea Market. (Big O is a nickname for Lake Okeechobee.) Whether you need fishing poles, hunting gear, DVDs, books, bikes, or produce, these weekend markets probably have it. You can also grab home cooking, such as a grilled cheese sandwich, while country music plays in the background.
5. Western living
Get a real slice of cowtown life at Eli’s Western Wear, where locals gather to buy new cowboy hats and boots. Take a look before you go inside to read local signs for turkey hunts, rodeos, and herding dogs for sale. Inside, you may see employees steam-shaping a hat for a customer. There are lots of cool-looking boots, purses, and outfits (get your wallet ready). If you want more of the country lifestyle, Culbreth recommends the Okeechobee Livestock Market. “It’s a fun place to get lunch and watch the cattle auction on Monday or Tuesday,” he said. There’s even a live stream for the market on the website.
6. Lots of eating
There’s no reason to leave Okeechobee hungry. Start out with lunch or dinner at Lightsey’s Seafood Restaurant, where the motto is, “If it swims, crawls, or hops, we probably serve it.” Heather Crawford of Bradenton, Fla., recommended the Florida oysters and hush puppies. “Great food, staff, and atmosphere. This is our favorite place,” she said. At Lightsey’s, you can try gator, frog legs, or cooter, a kind of local turtle. Naturally, there are some great locally-caught freshwater fish options, and there also are seasonal options like Florida lobster. Lightsey’s adds to the regional flair by serving beers from various Sunshine State breweries. The restaurant is adorned with animal heads, from deer, boar, bear and more -- many of them given to the restaurant by local hunters. Other spots to fill your belly: Parrot Island Bar & Grill, Nutmeg’s Café, and Pogeys Family Restaurant.
7. The outdoors
Taylor Creek Stormwater Treatment Area offers serene, rustic wilderness views, and you’ll likely see alligators. (Remember: no feeding, and keep a safe distance). Enjoy walking, running, or biking there. Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park, a short distance from the downtown area, has more than 100 miles of trails and swamp buggy tours. It also has an International Dark Sky designation, meaning the sky is dark and beautiful at night, with scads of stars visible. The Lake Okeechobee Scenic Trail, encircling Lake O, offers walking, hiking, biking and horseback riding.
8. Arnold’s Wildlife Rehabilitation
Get up close with a variety of animals—we’re talking a veritable Noah’s Ark—at Arnold’s Wildlife Rehabilitation, about a 20-minute drive from downtown Okeechobee. The kind folks working at Arnold’s help animals that are injured or that don’t have homes. That makes for some interesting animal combinations, such as the wallaby hopping around with deer and birds in the background. Watch panthers sunning themselves and ring-tailed lemurs that once belonged to the Barnum & Bailey circus and that still do tricks on a swing when people walk by. During a recent visit, staff members Cierra White and Vickie Theros took a few minutes to tenderly hold a baby squirrel after they prepped food for the monkeys. Then they showed off an owl, cats, and an opossum -- all animals in need of extra care. Arnold’s is open to the public, but it’s recommended you call first.
8. Hunting and shooting
Keep your eyes open for signs around Okeechobee about local hunting areas; hunting is popular in the area. Culbreth has the scoop on those into sport shooting: Pine Creek Sporting Club, OK Corral Gun Club, and Quail Creek Plantation. “We have several premier shooting clubs, each with their own identity. Pine Creek is a private club whereas OK Corral and Quail Creek are open to the public. OK Corral offers a lunch daily, brunch on Sunday and dinner Friday night,” he said.
Okeechobee hosts rodeos at its arena several times a year, including special events like the Bull Bash and the Cowtown Spring Rodeo. In a total town personality switch, Okeechobee also hosts the trendy and annual Okeechobee Music & Arts Festival, taking place over several days. Past fests have featured Snoop Dog, Halsey, Travis Scott, and Arcade Fire, among dozens of other artists.