Feeling Outdoorsy in Ocala
Good weather and a chance to visit friends inspired me to drive to Ocala for a little camping with the dogs. It’s a straight shot up I-95 to Daytona Beach, then west to the sand pine scrub of central Florida.
Ocala National Forest has over 600 lakes, ponds, plus springs, sand pines, evergreen oaks and Florida’s largest population of black bears. I arrived at the Lake in the Forest Black Bear Resort on Half Moon Lake, a pet-friendly campground with a few cabins, lots of RV spaces and an area for tent camping. Walking the dogs under a star-filled sky, I heard rustling along the lake, which in daylight turned out to be ponies (llamas roam around the property, too). You can take riding lessons and trail rides, go fishing, boating or swimming, take nature hikes and watch birds here. But what I wanted to do on Saturday morning was explore the charming historic district and visit Ocala’s farm market (open 9am-2pm) at the town square, where heirloom tomatoes were selling like hotcakes. And if hotcakes are on your mind, The Lunchbox a block away has great pecan pancakes.
Cattle and Olives
After the market, I headed over to horse country, west of I-75, to visit a farm growing a replacement for the shrinking citrus industry: olives. Originally a horse farm, Clear Creek Farm is now home to Wagyu cattle and olive trees. Bill Dennis is the mastermind behind the enterprise, linking cattle raising and olive oil production. His splendid Italian olive oil press turns the olives into oil, and mashes the paste for cattle feed. Pits can be used as fire starters or fertilizer. See more about Growing Olives in Florida, left. After the tour, I stopped at The Artisinal Dish/Blue Wagyu nearby for a delicious steak sandwich.
From there, I headed over to Silver Springs, one of Florida’s historic tourist attractions, now a state park. The glass-bottom boat rides are still there, offering a thoroughly enjoyable short cruise across crystal-clear springs. You can also rent canoes and kayaks. Every second and fourth Saturday morning, the Cracker Village Tour takes visitors through a Florida Cracker homestead and kitchen. Silver Springs was a popular filming location for movies and television, including Tarzan the Ape Man; Creature from the Black Lagoon and Sea Hunt. A cool little storefront museum along the promenade sells vintage posters and photos of movies filmed there.
The next morning, I left early to visit another well-known spring, DeLeon Springs and check out the Old Spanish Sugar Mill Grill and Griddle House, known for their make-it-yourself pancake breakfast. For $4.95 per person, you get a pitcher of pancake batter made with unbleached white flour and their own mixture of five fresh stone-ground flours, plus raw honey, syrup and unsulphured molasses. There are gluten-free and vegan pancakes, too.
Early on a Sunday morning, the park was busy and the azaleas were in full bloom. You can swim in the spring-fed swimming pool here, rent a paddleboat, picnic or hike – the park is part of the Great Birding Trail. I stopped in DeLand before hitting the road for home. This college town was also busy on a Sunday morning, with students at coffee shops and the Indie Market at Artisan Alley, a collection of funky fashion and hipster art. Lunch at the Airport Restaurant and Gin Mill is highly entertaining – you can enjoy great burgers while you watch skydivers practicing. Or try it yourself! Tandem diving is only 100 bucks – and no doubt safer than the drive back to Miami on I-95