You’ve been to Orlando to see the Big Mouse.
And you consumed an industrial-sized tropical drink in a neon South Beach cafe.
And you’ve done Bike Week, when the Harleys flock to Daytona like swallows to Capistrano.
And you say you’ve done Florida?
Not so fast pal.
My Florida is so much more than theme parks and beaches and aging Boomers playing Easy Rider.
It is big and beautiful and mysterious. It’s historic and epic. And of course it’s weird and tacky and ludicrous.
Here are some places you need to “do” if you want say you’ve done Florida.
Ron’s Magical Mystery Tour of Florida in 10 easy side trips.
- Solomon’s Castle
Drive down a secondary road in the middle of nowhere DeSoto County until you spot a very small sign pointing you into a wooded glen. There, quirky artist Howard Solomon has built his citadel, which looks to be made from 10,000 rolls of heavy duty aluminum foil but is really cobbled together from old metal newspaper printing plates. Howard filled his fortress with his own sculptures, made from old machine parts, oil drums and other castoffs (Hey, he’s been called the “DiVinci of Debris.” And he dug a “moat” to accommodate an absurdly contrived Spanish galleon with which to guard his kingdom.
Seriously, Disney needs to hire this guy.
- Dunlawton Sugar Mill Gardens
Florida at its best. Historic ruins. Breathtaking gardens. Concrete dinosaurs.
Port Orange’s best kept secret was a sugar plantation that abruptly went out of business when Seminoles, or possibly slaves, slaughtered the owner. The old millworks are still there. Now the 12-acre site is a lovely botanical garden teeming with spreading oaks, azaleas, magnolias, native plantsand an assortment of “prehistoric monsters.” This last because, briefly, in the 1950s, it was called Bongoland and sported a fake Indian village, miniature railroad, Flintstone-esque dinosaurs and a baboon named (what else?) Bongo.
3: Chief Tomokie
The chief is in residence at Tomoka State Park, near Ormond Beach, in the person of an outrageously kitzy 40-foot sculpture created more than half a century ago by artist Fred Dana Marsh. Here’s the way my pal, Daytona Beach News Journal columnist Mark Lane, describes it: “The statue depicts an Indian legend manufactured in the 1950s. It shows the nude orange Amazon, Oleeta, aiming an arrow at Tomokie with murderous intent. Nearby, warriors are poised as back up. The tribe turned on Tomokie for the sacrilege of drinking the Water of Life from the Sacred Cup, because, well, who wants put up with that?” Who indeed?
Oh, and take along a bicycle. Tomoka State Park is situated on “The Loop,” a popular 34-mile scenic road that may be Florida’s most beautiful ride.
Nothing weird about this wonderful little town near the banks of the Chipola River. It is the Tupelo Honey capital of Florida…heck, maybe the world. Here Peter Fonda filmed “Ulee’s Gold,” about – what else? – an eccentric beekeeper. There’s a two-day Tupelo Honey fest in May. Don’t like honey? Take a camera, kayak and pole and visit nearby Dead Lakes, which owes its haunting beauty and great fishing to thousands of drowned cypress trees. And if you think only Gainesville has a Lake Alice, think again. Alice lives in Wewa’s lovely downtown park as well.
- Bok Tower
Another one of Florida’s best kept secrets. This 205-foot, 60-bell, “Neo-Gothic/Art Deco Singing Tower” in Lake Wales sits atop (I’m not making this up) Iron Mountain – at 295-feet one of Florida’s highest points. The tower is a monumental work of art in its own right. The carillon music is sweet. The gardens and grounds spectacular. Gainesville photographer John Moran collaborated on a stunning book about Bok aptly titled “Finding Yourself: A Spiritual Journey Through a Florida Garden.” If you can’t find yourself at Bok you are hopelessly lost.
- Falling Waters and Florida Caverns
Yes, Florida does have a waterfall, and caverns you can visit without scuba gear. Best of all, these two state parks are just 25 miles apart, in Jackson County. At Falling Waters you can watch a typical Florida stream abruptly drop 100 feet into a sinkhole and vanish from sight. (If you want to see what Florida will look like after we’ve drained the aquifer, this park is lousy with sinkholes). Then head north to Marianna and tour Florida Caverns, a series of “dry” (air-filled) caves, replete with “dazzling formations of limestone stalactites, stalagmites, soda straws, flowstones and draperies.” Of course the highlight of the tour is when the guide turns out the lights, giving you a breathtaking view of….absolutely nothing.
- We all want to know what the future holds, right. Florida’s own “spiritualist community.” wrapped around lovely Lake Colby in Volusia County, boasts the Cassadaga Psychic Spirtualist Center, the Cassadaga Spiritualist Camp and any number of seers who stand ready, willing and able to read your palm, tea leaves or, for all I know, goat entrails. Even if you don’t buy into that stuff, Cassadaga is a genuine historic artifact and has been ever since 1875, when celebrated “trance medium” George P. Colby founded his spiritualist camp to do readings, lead seances and maybe even bust the occasional ghost.
Where to start? Well, there’s the town’s annual Worm Grubbing Festival – this devoted to the art of hammering wooden stakes into the ground and vibrating them until the worms finally surrender. Then there’s the legend of the Wakulla Volcano, derived from long time sightings of strange glows and smoke emanating from a nearby swamp that may be camp fires…or something entirely more otherworldly and sinister. Even if you at not a wormaphile and don’t buy all that X-Files stuff, this one-time railroad town is nestled up against a bend in one of Florida’s prettiest little rivers, the Sopchoppy, and it’s begging to be canoed, fished and otherwise savored.
- Little Talbot Island
No tacky roadside attractions here. Just pure natural beauty and vibrant history. Start with Little Talbot Island State Park, with five miles of stunning white sand beach and endless expanses of marshy wetlands. Throw in Kingsley Plantation, once owned by a woman who had herself been a slave. Then see the Ribault Club, a restored Gadsby-era playground where the rich and shameless once wiled away their winters. Stop by the Huguenot Memorial, denoting a brief French occupation before the Spanish cleaned house. An awesome tree-lined bike path will take you to scenic Nassau Sound. And after you’re done with all that, hop the St. John’s Ferry for seafood in Mayport.
Just to say you’ve been there, that’s all. There are only a couple of rickety shacks left of “downtown” Two-Egg, at the intersection of state roads 69 and 69A in Jackson County. Take a selfie next to one of the “Two Egg” signs (if they haven’t been stolen again). And if anybody’s around, ask them how the town got its name (they still argue about it) and what they know about the Bellamy Bridge Ghost, the Two-Egg Stump Jumper (aka little hairy Bigfoot) and Long Cane Grinding Day (end of October or early November).
Listen, even if you’ve already been to two rodeos and a goat-roping, you’ve never seen anything like these slices of real Florida.
(I originally wrote this for Gainesville Magazine in 2017. Some of the reasons I love this quirky state of ours. Also these are all great places to see while riding on a bicycle.)