WAKULLA SPRINGS STATE PARK
I am leaning over the side of the boat watching a duck race us through the still water of the Wakulla River. He goes AWOL for a time and then suddenly reappears, moving like a rocket just under the surface.
There is other wildlife to observe but I miss it, intent on my feathered friend. Alligators on this side, manatee on that. So many birds — egrets, cormorants, anhingas, herons, moorhens and even some sinister vultures — in the water and trees. A conga line of turtles on a log.
But the supercharged duck is new. I've been on this river boat cruise at least 10 times and have never seen anything like him. Perhaps he's a hooded merganser, a diving duck that likes to swim underwater. Perhaps he's a she. Whatever, he is hardly exotic, I know, but he's entertaining and I seem to be the only one enchanted by, or even aware of, his antics.
The duck show is part of the reason I keep coming back to this state park. I always find something new among the familiar to appreciate. The other reason is the biscuits and gravy at the restaurant at the historic Wakulla Springs Lodge.
For my family, staying at the Wakulla Springs Lodge is like putting on a comfy pair of shoes. We know what to expect, most of the time anyway. We've stayed at the lodge, built by financier and land baron Edward Ball in 1937, a half dozen times in the past decade. There's a ritual. We drive up U.S. 19, leaving in the morning so we can stop at Bar-B-Q Bill's in Chiefland for lunch. (My boys love the salad bar and pulled pork; I like the chicken noodle soup and brisket.) If we go on a Sunday, we make sure to get to Bill's by 11:45 a.m.; otherwise, we are crowded out by the after-church folks. Then we travel on to Perry and turn left at U.S. 98, after we pass the neon sign that says "Take a kid fishing" at Wilson's, a bait, tackle and convenience store. Thirty minutes later we're at Wakulla.
The red-roofed, Mediterranean-inspired Wakulla Lodge is a rare find in Florida, which is why it's on the National Register of Historic Places. It's not as grand as the national park lodges out West, but it has some of the same flavor — most notably, no TVs in the rooms and a darkness to the halls. It has high ceilings and is charmingly creeky. There are just 27 guest rooms, but each is spacious, especially the closets, which look like they could house a couple of small kids. That has always been a fun curiosity.
A big restaurant serves three meals a day, and a gift shop with an old-fashioned soda counter sells all sorts of souvenirs. The lodge lobby is framed by marble floors, arched windows and hand-painted cypress beams. A big draw is the 800-pound, 11-foot stuffed alligator in the glass case. "Old Joe" apparently kept an eye on swimmers in the springs from a spit of land out back before he met his demise.
Also in the lobby is the lodge's only TV, which is usually tuned to Florida State games on Saturdays during the football season. Accommodations are a hot ticket on weekends when the Seminoles play at home. Tallahassee is just 20 miles north.
The lobby can be drafty in winter, but on one visit, a roaring fire took care of that. On our most recent visit in late November, we were told there was no firewood, which was a disappointment because it was plenty chilly.
Between our last two visits, the management of the lodge was transferred from the state to Cape Leisure, a Brevard County company that handles the concessions at a number of public parks in Florida, including Weeki Wachee Springs and Homosassa Springs. We noticed a few little changes, and not necessarily good ones. That sole TV that used to be a big-screen number is now a smaller, older one. Several guests were irritated that the cable was out, making football watching impossible. And the lack of firewood was odd. The lodge didn't seem quite as clean, but hopefully those bugs will be worked out as Cape Leisure settles in.
Speaking of bugs, our room on our most recent stay was infested with ladybugs. They must have hatched on the ceiling between housekeeping service and check-in. Cute at first, but then we imagined hundreds of them flying about. Management moved us to a room that overlooked the springs, so I considered our strange encounter lucky.
So what is there to do at Wakulla Springs State Park? When the weather is warm, there's a large beach and a swimming area that's roped off from the river and springs. This separates the humans from the gators, a barrier I have always been dubious about. How do the gators know to stay on their side of the rope? On our first trip here, I held my breath until my husband and young son got out of the water. I had taken that river cruise and seen all those prehistoric bruisers with the big chompers.
The 79-degree spring-fed water beckons swimmers when humidity and temperatures spike. A 20-foot diving platform attracts the brave, who jump feet first into the deep springs. Uh, that's on the other side of the ropes, so you know I've not taken the plunge.
Despite the warm water, there were no swimmers during our November stop, which gave dozens of manatees free rein to glide, roll and generally bump around. We climbed the diving platform to watch them. I have never seen anything like it in previous visits. The clear water affords a tremendous view of dozens of manatees all up and down the river. That's the benefit of a winter visit.
You don't have to stay at the lodge to enjoy the springs, the river cruise and walking trails. In the summer, there are lots of day visitors using the facilities for changing clothes and making use of the vast parking lot.
Truth is, a visit here is pretty low-key.
I mentioned the biscuits and gravy for breakfast, a dish that changes slightly each time we visit. On our first visit they were perfect, another time a tad too peppery and once a wee bit thin. In November the iconic Southern breakfast treat was back to just right. At dinner, we like the fried green tomatoes, navy bean soup and the "Select a Feast" where diners choose among oysters, shrimp, scallops, soft-shell crab and fish of the day lightly breaded and fried along with hush puppies. Pick three for $18.95 and you won't have to eat for days.
First, a priceless cruise
After we check in, I make a beeline for the boathouse to get my tickets for the guided Wakulla River tour. Every time. If it's early enough in the day, I'll take it twice. It's a 3-mile, one-hour or so jaunt up the river and back. I find it relaxing and illuminating.
The guides are state park employees, and I always hope I don't get one who's too corny. That means one who doesn't tell too many jokes about The Creature From the Black Lagoon, filmed on the river in the 1953, or something about Tarzan swinging from the trees. Three of the classic adventure movies starring Johnny Weissmuller were filmed here starting in 1938.
The fleet of open boats with roofs, sort of like pontoon boats, makes the journey several times a day. Initially, I was fascinated by the gators, swimming in front of the boat and sunning on the banks. Then it was the turtles that sat so close to the larger reptiles' jaws. On another visit, I was riveted by the anhingas perched perfectly still with their wings outstretched to dry.
Other passengers are always fascinating too, especially the little kids who can't stay in their seats and the people who like to be spotters. They are the first to stand and point when they see a gator or a manatee.
It might be selfish, but I like to keep my finds to myself. It makes me feel like I am alone in the wild, which of course I am not. Besides, I don't want the boat to tip as everyone rushes from one side to another just to see a baby gator sunning on the banks. Relax, people, there will be more.
That's why I am the only one watching the racing duck. It is just he and I and the Wakulla. Another trip to Old Florida.
Janet K. Keeler can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8586.