You were going to drive out west with the kids, see the mountains and the canyons. Or fly up to New York City to take in a couple of shows. Then you looked at the budget, did the math and concluded that a vacation may be out of the question this year.
But wait! You need not be stuck with a "staycation" after all. Drive 200 miles north of Tampa Bay — that's one lousy tank of gas — and find yourself in a different landscape, a different rhythm. It's Florida, but not as you know it. In Tallahassee, the accents are softer, the tea is sweeter, trees are hugged daily and history abounds. Here, you can visit a 17th century Spanish mission, commune with panthers and stroll around a plantation house once lived in by a princess of France. All that in one afternoon and for less than the price of a ticket to Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.
Now, you probably think of Tallahassee as the place where lobbyists in $100 ties drink $200 bourbon while hanging out with lawmakers as they conspire to wreak havoc on the taxpayer. That image might be accurate sometimes, but there's more to the story than that.
• The Capitol is one of Tallahassee's most interesting attractions. The silver-domed old building, restored to its 1902 incarnation, is now a museum, with exhibits related to Florida politics (the state has been what Dave Barry calls a "weirdness magnet" ever since it became part of the United States in 1821). The adjacent "new" Capitol (as it's called, even though it was completed in 1977) boasts the best view in town from the 22nd floor, and some fine public art, commissioned back when we actually cared about culture. The lobby has murals of iconic Floridiana (oranges turned into flowers, a cattleman's hat, a rocket, diaphanous blue water, a large mockingbird) by world-renowned painter James Rosenquist. Upstairs in the House of Representatives, check out the murals by Tarpon Springs artist Christopher Still, taking you from the prehistory of the peninsula 10,000 years ago through the Spanish settlement, the Cotton Kingdom and on to the 21st century. All free; call (850) 487-1902 for information.
• The Museum of Florida History (500 S Bronough St.; (850) 245-6400) is a block away from the Capitol and is like the state's attic. There is a trove of peculiar treasures: tattered Civil War banners, Florida movie posters (The Creature from the Black Lagoon filmed in part at Wakulla Springs), old-time tourist souvenirs and World War II relics. Admission is free.
• For an even more vivid evocation of Florida's past, one you can walk through and touch, the Tallahassee Museum of Natural History (3945 Museum Drive; (850) 575-8684) on the shore of Lake Bradford allows you to experience Florida as it was 150 years ago. The Big Bend Farm is a collection of 19th century buildings carefully moved from Wakulla, Liberty and Calhoun counties and reassembled to show what life was like (outhouse and all) back before Henry Flagler and Henry Plant made the state safe for indoor plumbing and tourism. There's a garden with corn, beans, greens and cane, the staples of Southern cuisine, as well as hogs, chickens and cows. The scents are as authentic as the weathered wooden boards.
Most Floridians then lived on small hard-scrabble farms. A few lived in comparative luxury on a plantation. Catherine Gray, a relative of George Washington's, married Prince Achille Murat, Napoleon's nephew and onetime crown prince of Naples, in 1826. He drank himself to death in 1847, but she lived on in Bellevue, an airy raised cottage now at the museum. It's not as fancy as you might think, not for a woman who was declared a princess of France by Emperor Napoleon III. But Bellevue is far more comfortable than the spartan cabins where the slaves lived. The one here is a reconstruction (few people bothered to preserve the originals), but you can see that plantation life wasn't glamorous for the people who picked the cotton.
The museum's very best feature, however, is its wildlife. You wander along raised walkways over the swampy palmetto and oak forest, critters to the left and critters to the right, many endangered: red wolves, bobcats, wild turkeys, gray foxes, black bear. They live in large enclosures where they can run, swim and generally act in the ways they did in the wild. The river otters, with their combination stream, swimming pool and water slide, put on a great show (they love an audience). Other animals are more shy, especially the Florida panthers. If you wait patiently, you can watch them play like kittens, leap onto a branch (they can jump 15 or 20 feet in the air) and lounge in a tree, staring at you with their golden eyes.
• Back when the panther ruled the Florida wilderness, 300 years before the first Europeans landed on the Atlantic coast, the Apalachee built huge earthworks on the shore of Lake Jackson, just north of Tallahassee. Considered one of the most important pre-Columbian sites in the Southeast, the mounds were a sacred place. There were once at least six of them, but some have been plowed under. The Lake Jackson Mounds Archaeological State Park (3600 Indian Mounds Road; (850) 922-6007) lets you climb the biggest one, which is 36 feet high.
The park is a great place for a picnic, with the breeze blowing off the lake and the oak trees whispering overhead.
• Or you can tote a cruelty-free tuna sandwich and a slice of carrot cake from New Leaf Market (1235 Apalachee Parkway; (850) 942-2557) over to San Luis de Talimali, a restored and re-created 17th century Franciscan mission on a high Tallahassee hill (2020 Mission Road; (850) 487-3655). For 50 years, until it was abandoned in 1704, this was the capital of Spanish West Florida, the seat both of temporal and spiritual power. Careful excavation is still ongoing (sometimes you can see archaeologists at work), but we know that the Spanish built a friary, a fort and a church, very like the ones you can see now. The Apalachee held council meetings in the big roundhouse and played ball in the courtyard. San Luis was the central gem in a string of missions from Pensacola to St. Augustine.
• The Spanish left traces of their attempts at colonization all over the place, including at Wakulla Springs, 13 miles south of Tallahassee. Of course, paleo-Indians settled near the vast, deep spring (one of the largest in the world) 10 centuries before Juan Ponce de León ever took ship. And even before then, not long after the peninsula rose from the sea for the last time, mastodons and saber-toothed tigers roamed around Wakulla. You can still see mastodon bones down in the blue heart of the spring.
Wakulla Springs State Park (550 Wakulla Park Drive; (850) 926-0700) is the place to go and cool off from all that culture you've been getting. Even in a North Florida August, the water stays about 70 degrees. You can also hike the nature trails and go on the Jungle Cruise, a boat trip along the Wakulla River where you'll see alligators, deer, osprey, anhinga, turtles and jumping mullet, not to mention the tree Johnny Weissmuller swung from in his Tarzan movies.
The tab for all these attractions (not counting food) adds up to $18. San Luis, the Museum of Florida History and the Capitols are all free. Entrance to the Mounds costs $3 per car, Wakulla Springs is $6 per car, and the Tallahassee Museum of Natural History is nine bucks for an adult. Even if you have a blow-out dinner at Wakulla Springs Lodge (the fried chicken, the shrimp and the pecan pie are to die for), you'll still have spent less than you would in one afternoon at Disney World. And you will have seen what the state park service likes to call "the real Florida," a rapidly disappearing wonder.
Diane Roberts is a professor of English and writing at Florida State University.