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Tallahassee and Wakulla County, Florida – Viva Florida 500

Jordan Wright
April 11, 2013
Special to Washington Life 

Tally's Historic District - Park Avenue

Tally’s Historic District – Park Avenue

As Florida celebrates its 500th anniversary of Ponce de Leon’s arrival, visitors to the state should put Tallahassee high on the list of sites to visit.  Better known for lobbyists and legislators, Gators and Seminoles, the state capitol is a fascinating historical and recreational locale with as many diversions as a visitor has time to enjoy.  “Tally”, as the residents fondly call it, is a surprisingly hip city with restaurants and cafés highlighting both Old and New Southern cuisine.

Along the Native American Heritage Trail archaeology seekers can explore the Lake Jackson Mounds Archaeological State Park with its six earthen temple mounds and imagine the ancient Native culture of the Apalachee Indians, or take in 12,000 year-old paleolithic artifacts in the city’s spectacular history museum.  History buffs can trace Hernando de Soto’s Trail of 1539 and his winter encampment in Tallahassee and follow the paths of the early Spanish explorers that traded with the coastal city of St. Augustine.

A pelican skims the surface of the St. Marks River - photo credit Jordan Wright

A pelican skims the surface of the St. Marks River – photo credit Jordan Wright

Birders can delight in over 372 species of birds that reside in or migrate through this region on one of the country’s major flyways, while eco-tourists can tour thousands of acres of protected wetlands and forests to wonder at the fascinating flora and fauna of the area’s waterways.

First impressions have a way of coloring the traveler’s experience, and Tallahassee gets off on the right foot.  To get a sense of how old Florida’s state capitol is, begin in the city’s Park Avenue Historic District with a stroll beneath live oak trees dripping with Spanish moss past Tallahassee’s 19th C architectural gems.  If you’re there on a Saturday the “Downtown Marketplace” vibrates with live entertainment, a farmers market, music, arts and crafts, and storytelling for kids.  You’ll be on the expansive boulevard known as “Chain of Parks”.  From there, go two blocks south to East Park Avenue and tour the William V. Knott House.  Built in 1843 and since restored to its 1930’s splendor, this elegant home is where Union troops read the Emancipation Proclamation and where Mrs. Knott wrote quirky poetry that she attached to her furniture.

On South Monroe Street you’ll come up on the Florida Historic Capitol Museum with its magnificent stained-glass dome.  A beautifully preserved structure built in 1902 it tells the story of the state’s fascinating political history.  Of particular interest is the current “Navigating New Worlds” exhibit featuring the Michael W. and Dr. Linda M. Fisher collection of Old World maps of Florida dating from 1493, one year after Columbus’ arrival on American shores.

Effigy vessel A.D. 1350-1500 found on Fort Walton Beach on display at the Museum of Florida History - photo credit Jordan Wright

Effigy vessel A.D. 1350-1500 found on Fort Walton Beach on display at the Museum of Florida History – photo credit Jordan Wright

On South Bronough Street lies the Museum of Florida History housing exhibits ranging from the prehistoric era to the mid-20th century.  With 27,000 square feet of gallery space devoted to over 45,000 artifacts, this remarkable museum is a veritable treasure trove with hands-on exhibits highlighting Spanish exploration and Florida’s indigenous tribes.  Be sure to check out the pirates’ booty of diver-discovered jewelry and gold doubloons retrieved form shipwrecks off the coast. Native artifacts and prehistoric skeletal remains are wonderfully displayed and include a full-size mastodon recently discovered in nearby Wakulla Springs.  The museum also showcases Floridian curiosities like early antique cars, World War II memorabilia, a collection of early Lily Pulitzer dresses, orange crate labels and unique inventions.

Early orange crate label and 1910 Electric Car at the Museum of Florida History - photo credit Jordan Wright

Early orange crate label and 1910 Electric Car at the Museum of Florida History – photo credit Jordan Wright

Art lovers can tour the 6,000 square foot permanent exhibit named “Forever Changed: La Florida” highlighting Florida as a colony of both Spain and Great Britain.  Current shows include “Reflections: Paintings of Florida from 1865-1965” an impressive 85-piece collection of fine art with Florida subject matter including works by Martin Johnson Heade, N. C. Wyeth and Hudson River School artist, Herman Herzog.  The show runs until May 6th.

If you remember the landscape paintings of Old Florida sold by the side of the road between the mid 1950’s to the 1980’s, you’ll appreciate Cici and Hyatt Brown’s collection of the “Florida Highwaymen” paintings that showcases works by 23 of the original 26 artists.  Many credit A. E. Backus who taught other young African American students how to paint.  For a schedule of lectures, re-enactors and musical performances at the museum go to

Head north and east to South Duval Street and Kleman Plaza, where the Challenger Learning Center boasts a 3-D IMAX theater, a space mission simulator and a 50-foot high Digital Dome Theatre and Planetarium that is out of this world.

The blacksmith at his forge and pumpkin cooking at the Mission San Luis - photo credit Jordan Wright

The blacksmith at his forge and pumpkin cooking at the Mission San Luis – photo credit Jordan Wright

Three miles from downtown Tallahassee is the Mission San Luis, the westernmost of forty-one missions built by the Franciscan monks in the 17th century.  The sprawling 65-acre property consists of the only reconstructed mission of its kind in Florida.  There are many buildings to explore and costumed docents to guide you through the living quarters and demonstrate cooking, sewing, blacksmithing and archery typical of early life in the mission.   The massive church with its huge oil paintings, a 60-foot high Apalachee council house woven of over 100,000 Sabal palm fronds and numerous outbuildings reveal daily life for its inhabitants.  At the blockhouse and stockade, cannons dot the palisade as militia masters demonstrate the art of loading and firing a musket.

The reconstructed Apalachee Council House at Mission San Luis - photo credit Jordan Wright

The reconstructed Apalachee Council House at Mission San Luis – photo credit Jordan Wright

In 2009 a large Spanish Colonial style visitor center was completed housing an archaeological research center, art gallery, theater, classrooms, gift shop and banquet hall.  Groups can call in advance for a catered lunch of authentic paella, from Valencian chef Juan Ten.

Tree to Tree Adventures Zipline at Tallahassee Museum

Tree to Tree Adventures Zipline at Tallahassee Museum

Minutes from downtown is the Tallahassee Museum – a living museum nestled between Lake Bradford and Lake Hiawatha.  From elevated boardwalks it’s easy to spot panthers, bobcats, alligators, black bear and other indigenous Florida wildlife in their natural habitats.  Or soar over bald Cyprus swamps on the super cool “Tree to Tree Adventures”.  With over 19 zip lines and 70 obstacles, you can view the museum’s 52 acres from the treetops.  Back on terra firma join a fossil dig or nature program, or just walk the shaded grounds to see a 1930’s African American church, Jim Gary’s brightly painted metal dinosaur art, Bellevue, the plantation home of George Washington’s great grandniece, a 19th century farm, an 1890’s schoolhouse and the old Shephard’s Mill.  You’ll think you stepped into the Florida of days gone by.

Jim Gary's metal dinosaurs roam the Tallahassee Museum and Gardens - photo credit Jordan Wright

Jim Gary’s metal dinosaurs roam the Tallahassee Museum and Gardens – photo credit Jordan Wright

Along the Miccosukee Road is the Goodwood Museum and Gardens.  A splendid antebellum house reminiscent of Old Florida, it’s filled to the brim with a vast collection of antiques.  The property, which once consisted of 2,400 acres, was a former cotton and corn plantation and the home was built in the 1830’s.  Its current twenty acres have eleven historic outbuildings and a reconstructed carriage house that is a favorite spot for weddings, conferences and banquets.  The beautifully restored gardens feature vibrant camellias, fragrant magnolias, highly scented freesias and row upon row of roses that peak in April.  If you are a rose fancier you’ll be wowed at the 150 varieties on the grounds.

The grounds at Goodwood Museum & Gardens in Tallahassee - photo credit Jordan Wright

The grounds at Goodwood Museum & Gardens in Tallahassee – photo credit Jordan Wright

A handful of historic homes and smaller museums are just as intriguing. Tallahassee Antique Car Museum, Mildred and Claude Pepper Library & Museum, Beadel House at Tall Timbers, John G. Riley Museum of African American History & Culture, Maclay Gardens and State Park, and The Kirk Collection. 

STAY

The Sheraton Four Points Downtown is conveniently located in the heart of Tally.

The Hotel Duval is an upscale boutique hotel with a modern, hip dynamic.  Visit the rooftop restaurant and Level 8 Lounge for a fabulous sunset view of the city and craftmade cocktails.

DINE

There are a myriad of options for dining in this hip, vibrant city where chefs have caught on to the locavore movement in a big way.

Mini crab cakes at Avenue Eat & Drink - photo credit Jordan Wright

Mini crab cakes at Avenue Eat & Drink – photo credit Jordan Wright

Avenue Eat & Drink

Upscale wining and dining in a casual setting.  Check the blackboard for specials and let the sommelier pair your meal from their extensive wine cellar.  Expect organic meats and local produce from Executive Chef Greg Brown.

Lobster Benedict and a plate of  the "Slutty Brownies" at the Paisley Cafe - photo credit Jordan Wright

Lobster Benedict and a plate of the “Slutty Brownies” at the Paisley Cafe – photo credit Jordan Wright

Paisley Café 

This adorable spot in a clapboard house has the best sandwiches and baked goods in Tally.  Try their chef-driven brunches on Saturdays and Sundays with Aunt Ruby’s hoe cakes, real Southern biscuits, lobster benedict and housemade berry tea.  Take home a bottle of Tupelo honey and a “Slutty Brownie” from the bakery case.

The Paisley Cafe in Tallahassee - photo credit Jordan Wright

The Paisley Cafe in Tallahassee – photo credit Jordan Wright

Cypress

Sophisticated Southern dining with exquisite gourmet dishes and cocktails alongside works from local artists.  Order a platter of artisan-made cheeses including Sweet Grass Dairy’s “Green Hill” made in nearby Thomasville, GA.  Try a “Gallagher” cocktail made with cane rum, pineapple, ginger and a combination of cherry and apple liqueurs.

Shula’s 347 Grill

Aged Black Angus steaks and double-cut chops get top billing at the Hotel Duval.

Sweet Pea Café

Delicious vegan and vegetarian lunch and dinner till 8pm in a cute tin-roofed barn-red restaurant.

Chef Matt Hagel and Owner Ruben Fields Miccosukee Root Cellar Focuses on Local Flavors - Photo by Scott Holstein

Chef Matt Hagel and Owner Ruben Fields Miccosukee Root Cellar Focuses on Local Flavors –
Photo by Scott Holstein

Miccosukee Root Cellar

Farm-to-table dishes from Executive Chef Matt Hagel who sources organic products from over a dozen local farms.   Housemade breads, ice creams and desserts plus a collection of craft beers including Big Nose IPA from Swamp Head Brewery of Gainesville, FL.  Live music on the weekends.

ST. MARKS AND WAKULLA COUNTY

A side trip to Wakulla County, a 30-minute drive from central Tallahassee to the Gulf, should be on everyone’s itinerary.  For nature lovers this area of beaches, marshes and pristine estuaries at the east end of the “Forgotten Coast” is unparalleled.  Guided tours of the waterways by kayak or canoe are easily arranged, as are scuba and snorkeling adventures in the blue green waters to explore Wakulla Springs, the deepest and longest known submerged freshwater cave system in the world.  Birders take note: It’s a flyover site for the endangered whooping crane.

Of particular interest to historians is the San Marcos de Apalachee Historic State Park situated at the end of the Tallahassee/St. Marks Historic Railroad Trail, an abandoned former rail line to the coast where walkers, equestrians and cyclists enjoy the 19-mile flat-as-a-board pathway.  The park sits strategically along the St. Marks and Wakulla Rivers and contains the ruins of a Spanish fort first built of wood in 1679 and fifty years later reconstructed of stone.  Civil War buffs will know the presidio as a military post and cemetery for Andrew Jackson’s troops in 1818.

Beer boating  along the St. Marks River at the Port - photo credit Jordan Wright

Beer boating along the St. Marks River at the Port – photo credit Jordan Wright

At the end of the road is the quaint town of St. Marks, a small port noted for its historic lighthouse and crab processing plants.  It is here that you can catch a ride on a peaceful solar-powered boat along the St. Marks River escorted by a Green Guide Master Naturalist.  Herons of all varieties as well as manatees, bear, ibises, turtles, alligators and leaping mullet are easy to spot through the long-leaf pines and tupelo trees.

STAY

Wakulla Springs Lodge build by Edward Ball 1937

Wakulla Springs Lodge build by Edward Ball 1937

Wakulla Springs Lodge and the Wakulla Springs State Park – Docent and historian, Madeleine Hirsiger Carr has written a fascinating book chronicling the restoration of the magnificent lodge built by Edward Ball in 1937.

The Sweet Magnolia Inn – A charming bed and breakfast constructed of solid rock and coquina shells, that once knew life as a general store, a brothel and even the City Hall.  Each room has its own Jacuzzi tub.  Bikes are available to rent.  On Sundays the inn serves casual food and a jazz band plays till early evening.  Call in advance and genial owners Denise and Andy Waters will cater a delicious lunch with wine and beer or a cocktail spread of cheeses and hors d’oeuvres and deliver it to your boat for a sunset cruise.  Her shrimp salad is legendary.

Shell Island Fish Camp, the oldest fishing camp in Florida.  Anglers can catch speckled trout, red fish, blue fish, tarpon, cobia and more.

DINE

Boat or drive to the Riverside Café for local grouper, Gulf shrimp and mullet.  Blue crabs all year and stone crabs from October through mid-May.  Wash it down with a frosty 420 IPA from Georgia’s SweetWater Brewing Company.

Appalachicola oysters ready for the grill - photo credit Jordan Wright

Appalachicola oysters ready for the grill – photo credit Jordan Wright

Deal’s Famous Oyster House has its share of seafood too – grouper, flounder, catfish, scallops and plump Apalachicola oysters.  After all that’s what we came for.  There’s no alcohol served in this family style spot, but the restaurant has a specialty you won’t find anywhere else.  Something the old folks call a “pogo stick” which is an old time percussion instrument on a tall stick with a cymbal on top and a drum connected to it.  When waitress Zodie Horton bought the place from the Deal family she learned to play it from Mrs. Deal.  Expect to hear songs like “Cotton Eyed Joe” and don’t be surprised to see locals joining in on spoons or washboard. On Port Leon Drive next to the post office or access by boat from the St. Marks River.

In nearby Crawfordville try the family-owned Spring Creek Restaurant, another old-line Florida spot where you’ll find oyster stew, crab cakes, fried quail, hushpuppies and tomato pie.  Wakulla Adventures now offers a sunset cruise from there.

FESTIVALS

“Wild About Wakulla Week” is a week-long festival bracketed by two popular festivals, The Sopchoppy Worm Gruntin’ Festival held the second Saturday in April and the Wakulla Wildlife Festival.  A two-day event held the third weekend in April. 

WILDLIFE TOURS

Arrange Wakulla Adventures solar boat tours through Palmetto Expeditions who can also help with certified birding and wildlife guides, fishing and scenic cruises, historical walking tours, scuba and snorkeling gear rentals, and specialized catering.

Jars of local mayhaw jelly at Tomato Land - photo credit Jordan Wright

Jars of local mayhaw jelly at Tomato Land – photo credit Jordan Wright

On your way back to Tally be sure to stop at Tomato Land for wild mayhaw jelly, pecans, local hot sauces and stone ground grits.  The kitchen makes oyster and shrimp po’ boys and fried green tomato sandwiches.  Fish Fry Fridays platters come with cheese grits, coleslaw and hushpuppies. A small farmers market with locally grown produce is next to the parking lot.

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