hen I told friends that Bucko and I were going on a two night vacation in Ocala, they thought I was nuts. Boring Ocala, what on earth could we do there? Well, this column and the next one too will hopefully negate that impression. If you do some research anyplace holds interesting adventures just waiting to be instigated. And I’m a good instigator, especially when I am bored of the same old, same old. So off to Ocala we went.
The first task for our plans was finding a hotel to stay in. Nowadays, wherever we go, we always carry our own bedcovers and pillows and are careful about practicing social distancing, hand washing, and mask wearing. With these precautions taken, we feel we are as safe traveling by car in Florida than as staying at home.
What hotel to choose? After detailed internet searches, I found that there were three basic types of hotels in Ocala. There were many highway-located chain hotels like Hiltons and Marriotts and Holiday Inns. Nope, too boring. Then there were the budget hotels but these seemed a bit unsavory and located in unsafe areas with no restaurants nearby. No again. Finally, I located one in a category all by itself, the Shamrock Inn, a “historic hotel in walking distance to downtown Ocala.” Sounded good. Well, not so much. I’ll spare you the details, but my advice is to choose a different hotel. But thanks to the location, we made new friends with the family owners at the wonderfully authentic Cuban restaurant next door, La Vaca Frita.
We gorged for lunch one day and breakfast another on ample and tasty ethnic food. I even bought takeout empanadas (the best I’ve ever had) for dinner at home the night we left.
As long as I have interesting food to eat, I’m happy, but not as happy as I was one morning paddling a kayak with Bucko and another couple of friends on the nearby Silver River. Our trip was booked ahead with Lars Anderson (adventureoutpost.net) who offers kayak tours on upwards of 40 north and central Florida springs and rivers. Although we’ve been to Silver Springs before, we were happy to see it now in its present state. It was once the first large amusement park in Florida, complete with live animals on display. It was the filming site for Tarzan and Creature from the Black Lagoon movies but it hit financial walls. The springs got polluted from agricultural runoff. Its crystal clear waters lost their clarity and were overrun with harmful mats of brown algae that greatly reduced the fish and bird populations. Now, it is part of the state park system. Thanks to heavy rains from hurricanes in recent years, the aquifer has been recharged, the water is clear, and the fish and wildlife are thriving.
Bucko, Karen, Bill and I spent a couple of happy hours paddling easily within touching distance (but we didn’t touch) of blue herons, anhingas, wood ducks, tons of turtles and a few basking alligators of all sizes. Even more impressive for me was the diversity of flowering native aquatic plants. I spend many happy minutes photographing red cardinal flowers, purple pickerel weed blooms with attendant swallowtail butterflies, duck potatoes, and even alligator lilies, one of my favorites. In a surprise encounter, we even paddled with manatees that were very visible in the clear water beneath our kayaks and surfaced to breathe right among us. In another almost-encounter, something large fell from a tree with a splashing thud right in front of Bucko. Although we didn’t find out what it was, our best guess was a snake that fell off a branch, luckily not into our kayaks.
I highly recommend a visit to Silver Springs State Park for any of the nature lovers among you. Although most of the amusement attractions are just a memory, the historic glass-bottom boats still provide rides. Even without a knowledgeable tour guide like Lars, you can rent a kayak or canoe and check out the wildlife yourself. And if you are a walker – and the weather is cooler – the trails along the springs and in the upland woods provide their own nature sightings. Silver Springs State Park is only two-and-a-half hours from Amelia Island and doable in a day trip, so what are you waiting for? In these COVID-19 days, we have to do something!
Pat Foster-Turley is a zoologist on Amelia Island. She welcomes your nature questions and observations.