The next time you're roaring up Interstate 75 north of Tampa, take a few giant steps backward in time and detour to Dade City. The town was named (as was Dade County) for an Army officer, Maj. Francis Langhorne Dade, a Virginian who was in command of the 110-man detachment ambushed by Seminole Indians three days after Christmas 1835, while en route from Fort Brooke (Tampa) to relieve Fort King (Ocala).
The downtown historic district, especially the area around the newly restored 1909 County Courthouse, is home to a fine variety of antique and gift shops in lovingly restored early 20th century cottages and frame homes. They sport monikers like Country Charm, Fort Dade Antique Mall, Heart's Desire, Tickle Your Fancy and Remember When, and are flanked by an inviting inventory of restaurants and cafes.
A longtime favorite of mine is Seventh Street's Lunch On Limoges, run by Phil Williams and Skip Mize, who serve magnificent muffins and pecan-crusted grouper along with special desserts in an elegant corner of a modernized general store that has been in Williams' family since 1908.
Two blocks away is the newer Kafe Kokopelli, built into a former garage and featuring Southwestern specialties. And in the former City Hall, jail and fire department is Jeter's Olde City Hall cybercafe where you can get online while sipping your drink and diving into deli sandwiches.
Al's Place, a couple of storefronts from Lunch On Limoges, is the place for ice cream sodas and banana splits, and two doors away you can rely on the Cuban sandwiches at A Matter of Taste.
Dade City shopping and snacking is only a few minutes from the perfect base camp, the Azalea House, at the gateway to downtown. Built in l906 of heart pine and other sturdy woods harvested in the area when timber fueled the local economy, the historic home was given its second life five years ago when it opened as a bed-and-breakfast.
Responsible for the rebirth was a mother-daughter team from Miami, where Grace Bryant had a successful career as an interior designer. Her daughter Nancy, a court reporter in Miami, makes the trip to Dade City whenever possible.
The house was not exactly derelict when the two took over, but it definitely needed some major work -- $65,000 to be exact -- for its transformation into a class country inn. Each of the three guest rooms was individually stylized, starting with the smallest, the Rose Room on the ground floor. Upstairs are the Green and Blue rooms, the latter known as the romantic retreat with a Victorian bath and adjoining "sleep porch" with twin beds. Each of the rooms has a private bath, ceiling paddle fan, TV and king-size bed.
The main-floor public space -- parlor, well-stocked library and television room -- reflects the talents of the decorator-innkeeper, as does the dining room, where complimentary continental breakfast is served. Fresh fruits and juices are prepared for the guests along with muffins, various cereals, freshly brewed coffee and tea. It's all served in the handsome dining room or out on the veranda, which is a popular place to partake of the late afternoon complimentary chilled wine.
A good time to visit Pasco County, known as "the southernmost star of Florida's Nature Coast," is Labor Day weekend. There's a Pioneer Florida Museum Gospel Sing on Sept. 5 and Pioneer Florida Day on Sept. 6, featuring a Florida Cracker cow camp complete with chuck wagon and re-enactment groups, displays of antique cars and tractors, and a variety of arts and crafts demonstrations.
The museum, situated a mile and a half from downtown, presents Pioneer Craft Day the second Sunday of each month. That's when local artisans conduct hands-on demonstrations of quilting, weaving, basket and hook-rug making.
On Nov. 14, the Pasco County Fairgrounds in Dade City will be home to the 11th annual Florida Bug Jam, when some 400 Volkswagens will be on view and there will be live entertainment and a memorabilia auction.
Best-known of Pasco County's annual fairs are the Nov. 6 Air & Car Show with a fine collection of antique wheels and wings along with exhibitions of daredevil aerobatics and sky-diving, at the Zephyrhills Municipal Airport; and the Rattlesnake Festival, now in its 33rd year, in downtown San Antonio.
IF YOU GO
Getting there: From Interstate 75, take Exit 59 east on County Road 52 through San Antonio eight miles directly to Dade City and its main street, Meridian Avenue. The inn is on the left -- north -- side.
Rates: Range from $65 to $79 with a $15 extra charge per person for guests using the Green Room's sleep porch. Continental breakfast and afternoon wine are included. The inn is smoke-free, and pets are not allowed.
Information: Contact Azalea House, 37719 Meridian Ave., Dade City, FL 33523; phone 352-523-1773.