When people think of a Florida vacation, they first think of Disney World and the rest of the Orlando tourist attractions but there is a lot more to Central Florida than Mickey and Shamu.
Ocala is 77 miles northwest from Orlando. Ocala has hills and sprawling horse and cattle ranches. There are many places to take trail rides. One such place is Youngâ€™s Paso Fino Ranch. You can take a tour of the ranch and facilities and also make arrangements to trail ride one of their beautiful Paso Fino horses. The guides are experienced and friendly. There were about 10 adults in our group with three children and we all had a good time.
Ocala is also the home to many fresh water springs that are great for kayaking and/or canoeing. We could not pass up the Silver River because we heard that there are Rhesus monkeys on the shores. The river is abounding in wildlife. In addition to the Rhesus monkeys, egret, heron, anhinga, ibis, snake, alligator and turtle can all be seen any day on Silver River.
Because the river is spring fed the water temperature remains cool even in the heat of Floridaâ€™s summers. The trip from the nearest boat launch at Ray Wayside Park up to the mouth of the springs is 5 miles. You are paddling against the current so the trip up stream is a challenge. The park service is supposed to start a canoe and kayak shuttle but that had not been in place on our visit. The trip is worth every once of energy.
The water is clear and you can see the sandy bottom and the canopy of trees makes it a very pleasant trip. You donâ€™t have to travel very far up river before you see the Rhesus monkeys in the trees. At first they might escape your glance but soon enough youâ€™ll see groups sitting on fallen trees watching you paddle up stream. It is against the law to feed the wildlife on the river and you donâ€™t want to get too close to the monkeys as they will bite.
In the 1930â€™s, Colonel Tooey created an attraction on the river by bringing the Rhesus monkeys to a small island in the river. Unbeknownst to Tooey, Rhesus monkeys are extremely good swimmers and escaped to other parts of the river.
If you make it to the top of the springs, you will be inside the Silver Springs attractions. Watch for the glass bottom boats. Although they are difficult not to notice, they run on electric and can sneak up behind you rather quickly.
Silver Springs, the headwaters of the river, is the largest artesian spring formation in the world. At certain locations the springs can reach depths of up to 80 feet and they are 99.8% pure. The main spring created a cavern 200 feet wide and 30 feet deep. The water flows from this spring with such force that you can see the sand and shells being tossed around at the inlets. The theme park does feed the wildlife up at the springs. So you will be sure to see gators, gar and other fish.
The total trip is 10 miles. Bring plenty of sunscreen, water and snacks so that you can enjoy a wonderful day on Silver River.
Directions to the boat ramp: At the junction of I-75 and SR 40 (exit 352, old #69) in Ocala, turn east (right) on SR 40 and go 9 miles to the Silver Springs attraction. Continue past the theme park on SR 40 for 3 miles to Ray Wayside Park. The park is 1/4 mile west of Delks Bluff Bridge. A canoe launch is located at the far end of the park just past the boat ramps. We paid a small usage fee of $3.00 at the time of our visit.
Just 120 miles southwest of Orlando is the City of St. Petersburg. St. Pete has that old reputation of elderly people sitting on green benches on Central Avenue in downtown. St. Pete has grown up quite a bit. Many of the folks who visited it in the 60â€™s, 70â€™s and 80â€™s would be surprised to see the downtown skyline filled with tall condos. It is a terrific little city. If you plan your trip for a weekend, youâ€™ll be pleasantly surprised as there is plenty to keep the gay couple or the gay family busy.
Every Friday night from 7-11 pm is the St. Pete Shuffle. This is not your grandmotherâ€™s shuffleboard! Each week there is a local band or DJ playing music. Beverages are usually available for a small donation but everyone is encouraged to bring their own snack and drinks. Someone is always available to explain the rules and the techniques of the game. This is a great place to meet new friends and everyone of every age and athletic ability enjoys themselves. Everyone is welcome here. St. Pete Shuffle is located at the historic St. Petersburg Shuffleboard Courts â€“ 559 Mirror Lake Drive (directions).
Looking for a place to eat before going over to St. Pete Shuffle, you can try Ratchadaâ€™s, CafÃ© Alma, Ceviche Tapas. These and other restaurant addresses can be found in http://www.stpete.org/pdf/restaurantguide.pdf.
Saturday Morning Market is also a happening place from October through May. You can buy a coffee and a breakfast crepe. Sit and listen to some great local music. Shop for fresh fruit and veggies and then buy a soft drink and sandwich for lunch and you never would have left Central Avenue. The Market boasts homemade cakes, pies, gourmet coffees, arts and crafts. The Saturday Morning Market is one of the finest, most organized and most enjoyable open air markets we have visited it is a perfect place to enjoy the best St. Pete has to offer.
Once your stomach and palate is satiated, it is time to move on to the beach. At the southern tip of Treasure Island on Sunset Beach is ‘Bedrocks Beach.’ A gay bar named Bedrocks sat on this site for a number of years. While the site is now a city park, many gays and lesbians still frequent the beach. If you are unable to find parking here, I suggest a ride down to Passe Grille Beach which is one of the nicest in the area. It has that quaint island feel and lots of white powder soft sand.
If you are looking for a more remote beach, try Fort DeSoto Park. The park is at the southern-most tip of Pinellas County. It has been named one of Americaâ€™s top beaches by Dr. Beach. Follow I-275 to the Pinellas Bayway exit (#4) and proceed west, following signs to Ft. DeSoto Park. Once in the park, follow signs to the North Beach and park in the last parking lot. Then walk a short distance, crossing the “rainbow bridge” and wading across a shallow lagoon. You will find yourself at a breathtakingly beautiful beach! Continue to your right (north) to the end of the island which is where gays and lesbians will congregate.
So, you have had all the sun you can stand and now you are ready to go dancing. Georgieâ€™s Alibi is the most popular gay club in town.
Sunday morning brunch at the Vinoy is always special but if you prefer to have your brunch poolside at your vacation rental, we understand completely. If you are looking for an artsy afternoon stroll, head back downtown and visit the Arts Center and the Museum of Fine Arts.
Other ongoing events in St. Petersburg
The Downtown Arts Association schedules on the second Saturday of each month a Gallery Walk from 5:30 â€“ 9:00pm. The galleries are open to the public and many offer special presentations and provide refreshments.
Gulfport is a small town just south of St. Petersburg that is home to many lesbian and gay residents. It hosts an art walk each month on the first Friday and third Saturday (http://www.gulfportchamberofcommerce.com/artwalk.htm).
There is an Italian market on 22nd Ave in St. Pete right off of I-275 called Mazzaro’s. They have a terrific assortment of meats, cheeses, desserts and prepared foods. On Saturdays, they have live music which makes the shopping pleasant and keeps the espresso bar crowded. For more information go to their website.