I missed the 58th Annual Watermelon Festival in Newberry a couple of weeks ago, spending more time than I planned in the neighboring Alachua County town of High Springs.
I missed the seed-spitting, watermelon rolling and biggest melon competitions; couldn't cheer the crowning of this year's Watermelon Queen at the festival parade or enjoy the cake and pie-baking contests or marvel at the ever-popular hog-callers.
The pages from the past in High Springs more than compensated, however, especially when I could browse in the Great Outdoors Trading Company in the beautifully restored turn-of-the-century opera house on Main Street, and then take my books, maps and brochures into their little cafe alongside. There visitors can munch on all kinds of thickly stacked sandwiches, superior omelets and Swedish pancakes (you can buy the batter in the bookstore).
For a more modern escape in High Springs there's Floyd's Diner at 615 Santa Fe Blvd., the talk of the town and much of Gainesville ever since it opened a year and a half ago. Burgers, meatloaf, blackened chicken Caesars, chicken wings, onion rings, fish 'n chips -- they have it all, in a brand-new shiny import with ever-smiling service, skilled management, and immaculate standards, outside and in. Plus, it's in the perfect place -- the town that for years was a crucial crossroads for Florida's first railroad, running all the way from Cedar Key to Fernandina Beach.
The town prospered and grew along with the railroad, and High Springs could boast a roundhouse for turning the steam engines, a large ice plant, and that opera house. And by 1917, it had a class boarding house for the various supervisors of the line. Ten of them quickly filled the home, which was built on the site of the town's first bakery. Ten rooms and one bathroom!
After World War II and the introduction of diesels, the importance of the town to the railroad declined significantly and the boarding house was turned into apartment units. Today it serves as a top-flight bed-and- breakfast, an instant retreat to calmer times, a bungalow with an inviting porch complete with swing and lots of wicker and surrounding greenery.
The furnishings in the extremely well-maintained home are antique and period reproductions, and the five guest rooms offer a grand variety of styles and spirits, all with private bath. The top-of-the-line Green Room and Red Room are suite-size, the first with a daybed and a 55-gallon aquarium and the best view of the garden; the second with more than 350 classic nudes on the walls. Both have king-size beds.
The upstairs Navy Room and Peach Room have queen-size beds and antique iron-and claw-foot tubs with showers. There's an antique armoire and a daybed in the nautical escape. The Yellow Room is on the ground floor and has a walk-in shower -- not quite as specious as the Red Room's garden tub, which is large enough for two.
A complete breakfast -- featuring a variety of egg dishes, fresh fruits and juices, and right-from-the-oven muffins and rolls -- is included, as is a storehouse of information on local activities and attractions.
High Springs is close to all the action on the famous Ichetucknee River, the flowing stream fed by nine springs bubbling some 223 million gallons of water a day. It's Florida's favorite artery of inner tube transport, a six-mile stretch, the first four of which are in the state park, which means no development except the homes of beavers, otters, egrets, herons, and ibis. You rent the tubes up river, along with kayaks, canoes, snorkel and scuba gear, for exciting cave exploration.
Robert Tolf is the author of six books on country inns, including Florida Country Inns.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun