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Fuel up and head out to explore Florida Scenic Highways

Fall means new TV shows, pumpkin-spice everything and, in Florida, the beginning of weather that's just merciful enough to warrant rolling down the windows on a long drive.

You probably have your favorite road trip routes, and so does the Florida Scenic Highways program (floridascenichighways.com). The organization has declared 26 Florida thoroughfares officially scenic, not only for their dazzling views but also for attributes like historical significance and recreational resources. So show some respect the next time you're stuck in gridlock on the Courtney Campbell Causeway — make that the Courtney Campbell Scenic Highway.

To earn the scenic designation, each road was championed by a grass roots group. Volunteers hype up their highways with things like road markers, audio tours and smartphone apps.

"There are so many strong stereotypes associated with the state, and that makes it even better when you can tell a different story," said Wanda Maloney, coordinator of the Florida Scenic Highways program.

That starts with Floridians telling ourselves a different story. This fall and winter, take the scenic route and explore a different side of Florida.

Old Florida Heritage Highway (Scenic U.S. 441)

Away from the roar of the crowd at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium at the University of Florida awaits a chorus of oak trees swaying in the breeze and more than 270 bird species. Off the beaten path in Paynes Prairie, keep your eyes peeled for bison and wild horses. And in Evinston, you'll find Wood and Swink Old Store and Post Office. Built in 1882, the humble pine structure is the oldest operating post office in Florida.

The Old Florida Heritage Highway and its loop/spur roads total approximately 48 miles from State Road 441 to the Alachua/Marion County line. It is just a 15-minute drive from UF, but it ushers visitors into "older, untouched Florida," says Sean Plemons, content manager for Visit Gainesville.

"It is close, but it is so different," Plemons says of the road.

Enjoy the laid-back pace of the Micanopy Fall Festival; this year's event is Saturday and Oct. 30, when Cholokka Boulevard comes alive, but isn't crazy-busy, with musicians and craft vendors.

Bibliophiles should visit Cross Creek, the hamlet where Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings wrote several novels, including the 1939 Pulitzer Prize winner The Yearling. In addition to touring the author's home at Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Historic State Park, make plans to return in 2017. To commemorate the 75th anniversary of the publication of Cross Creek and Cross Creek Cookery, a handful of special events is in the works.

Where to stay: Herlong Mansion is a historic B&B with its original 1845 mahogany floors, fireplaces and leaded-glass windows. Campers can head to Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park or Twin Lakes Fish Camp. For something less rugged, opt for one of the many hotels near UF; find a list at visitgainesville.com.

Where to eat: The Yearling Restaurant in Micanopy serves cracker-style seafood, while Pearl Country Store is popular for barbecue. Save room for pastries at Mosswood Farm Store and Bakehouse.

More info: Go to explorehistoricalachuacounty.com or take the audio tour by dialing (352) 327-9005.

A1A Scenic & Historic Coastal Byway

A great starting point at the northern point is Ponte Vedra Beach, then south to St. Augustine and on down the coast.

Sadly, Hurricane Matthew took a toll on parts of this 72-mile scenic highway when it hit Florida this month, particularly near the southern end in Flagler County when large chunks of northbound lanes were washed away. (Part of A1A in Flagler Beach is closed to traffic, and reconstruction could take six months to a year. Detours are utilizing local roads.)

Along this mostly two-lane highway stretch along the Atlantic coast, Nov. 6 brings the second annual Spoonbills and Sprockets cycling tour, offering a 36-, 72- or 100-mile sightseeing ride.

"We get tons of people that show up. They really love being able to travel along the beach, and they also get to see downtown St. Augustine," says Danielle Anderson, president of Friends of A1A Scenic & Historic Coastal Byway.

If you prefer two feet over two wheels, then wear comfortable shoes for the seventh annual 72-Mile Super Scenic Garage Sale on Nov. 19. Stroll past endless treasures as businesses and community groups set up their wares along the scenic corridor.

Turning toward the holidays, one of the area's most popular attractions is Nights of Lights in St. Augustine, when everything from the city's monuments to its palm trees are wrapped in millions of white lights. National Geographic named the event one of the 10 best holiday light displays in the world, so visit early to avoid the Christmas crowds. The display runs from Nov. 19 to Jan. 31.

Where to stay: Casa Monica Hotel in St. Augustine combines 19th century Mediterranean architecture with modern luxury. For something more affordable, opt for Magic Beach Motel in Vilano Beach, featuring retro decor and in-room kitchenettes.

Where to eat: In St. Augustine, a favorite local seafood spot is O'Steen's Restaurant on Anastasia Island. "It is cash only, and they usually have a long wait … but it's so worth it," Anderson promises. While you wait for the restaurant's popular fried and broiled seafood, browse for unique souvenirs next door at Anastasia Antique Center.

More info: Visit scenica1a.org or download the First Coast 360 app for Apple or Android. Find upcoming events at totallystaugustine.com, visitstaugustine.com and visitflagler.com.

Scenic Sumter Heritage Byway

Dawn Cary knows what you're thinking.

"When people think of Sumter County — especially visitors — they think of The Villages," Cary says.

Retirees aren't the only ones who should flock there.

"Sumter County has it going on," says Cary, secretary of Scenic Sumter Heritage Byway's corridor management entity.

Take a weekend to explore this 62-mile stretch west of Orlando and traversing Clermont, Bushnell, Webster and surrounding parts of Central Florida. Load up the bikes to stretch your legs along the Van Fleet Trail. Paddle the Withlacoochee River. Visit the cemetery. Yes, really.

"Florida National Cemetery is kind of like Florida's best-kept secret. It's like a mini-Arlington," Cary says. More than 130,000 veterans are buried there, from as far back as the Civil War and Spanish American War.

Fall is also a good time to check out Dade Battlefield Historic State Park, the site of the opening skirmish of the Second Seminole War back in 1835. Today, beneath the shade of the same oak trees and pines, the place buzzes with activity.

Where to stay: There are plenty of campgrounds and RV parks along the route. For something more comfortable, options include Webster Country Cottages, Cypress House Ranch, Pana Vista Lodge and Microtel Inn and Suites by Wyndham Bushnell.

Where to eat: Hayseed Cafe and Farmers' Market Restaurant in Webster; Waller's Restaurant in Bushnell; and Catfish Johnny's in Lake Panasoffkee, which serves up homey Florida staples like grouper and frog legs.

More info: Go to sumterbyway.com.

Dalia Colón is an arts and travel journalist in Riverview. Follow @daliacolon.

Fuel up and head out to explore Florida Scenic Highways 10/20/16 [Last modified: Thursday, October 20, 2016 10:40am]
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