On vacations, things hardly ever go as planned.
After living in Florida for nearly three decades, it gets harder to find a new place to explore. I’ve experienced the quirkiness of Key West, the theme-park overload of Orlando and the laid-back charm of Cedar Key.
But checking the map, I recently discovered a trip I could take in one day and see a couple of things I had overlooked, probably because they were too close.
It involves a drive up scenic State Road 19 to Palatka, and then back down scenic State Road 17. Keep in mind that “scenic” often translates to “trees,” but at least it’s a chance to get out of city congestion.
It starts by going west on State Road 40. You pass the freeway and then the gated areas where wealthy people are kept.
You keep going past the horse farms and the peanut stands, which let you know you’re in the country. (Why do you never see boiled peanuts on a restaurant menu in town?)
Your first opportunity for tourist-type browsing is Barberville Roadside, where you can pick up a full-size giraffe or buffalo for your lawn. The unmissable store features yard art gone wild among their wide selection of interesting items.
Farther west on State Road 40, you turn north on State Road 19. You’re now in the Ocala National Forest, and you’ll pass several trail heads for hiking. At least I passed them. You may want to actually stop and walk. In my defense, it was mid-July, and this whole day trip would be better in the cooler months, as I would find out.
Your destination on State Road 19 is Salt Springs, a little town that features some down-home type restaurants, businesses for fishermen and hunters and the Salt Springs Recreation Area.
Unless you’re in the mood for swimming, you might not want to pay the $6 per person charge for the Recreation Area, but there’s a way to see the Salt Springs Run for free. Walk a two-mile trail, located off State Road 19 south of the recreation area. You’ll find an observation tower when you get to the water.
This was the only trail I took and it was obvious that no one had been down it recently, as the webs of banana spiders blocked the path every ten feet. Using a tree branch to break the webs, I looked like an explorer hacking through the jungle.
Our main goal at Salt Springs was to visit the big Community Flea Market. We had to laugh (to avoid crying) when we found out it’s held only in the cooler months. This shows it’s always a good idea to call ahead, and not go tearing out of the house when you see something on the Internet.
But, on vacation, it’s important to take disappointments in stride. Let’s face it, plans never work out. Vacation is a lot like warfare. You study the map, plan the logistics, and when the battle starts, everything changes.
The key for a good vacation is to enjoy the unexpected things that always happen, such as meeting Dawn Ray, and her “art mobile” in Salt Springs. She had decorated every square inch of her car by gluing toys and pretty much anything imaginable.
And at a road side gift shop, we met the proprietor who once had a gift shop on State Road A1A in Daytona Beach and now operates on a lonely stretch of country road. Peacocks were walking around the property with their chicks, which was interesting to see.
Traveling north on State Road 19, you reach the city of Palatka, and the destination is Ravine Gardens. This is a worthwhile visit, especially in spring, when azaleas are blooming along the trails. They also have a display of state flags, and it’s interesting to see them close up rather than postage-stamp size in a book.
The circle tour then continues with a drive down “scenic” State Road 17 through Pierson, which meets State Road 40 at Barberville. A turn toward the east takes you back to Ormond Beach.
All in all, a pretty good day trip, but highly recommended for the cooler months for walking trails and gardens, and of course, visiting a large flea market.