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Rainbow River and Devil’s Den: The in-state getaway you need

Sprinkle in sunflower picking in Dunnellon, and a long weekend is salvaged.
A cormorant hunts for fish in the water at Rainbow River in Dunnellon.
A cormorant hunts for fish in the water at Rainbow River in Dunnellon. [ DOUGLAS CLIFFORD | Times (2016) ]
Published Jun. 27|Updated Jun. 28

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.

Family has summer vacation plans. Family member develops curious sniffle, ominous scratchy throat. Family member says, “#%$$@%%*&.” Family member takes COVID-19 test. Family vacation falls apart.

That was our situation just before a flight to Costa Rica. We canceled and started climbing Insurance Claim Mountain. After quarantine and recovery, though, everyone was itching to step away from the works of William P. Hulu.

We booked an Airbnb two hours north in Dunnellon and loaded the truck for ADVENTURE, EXPLOITS and ... INNER TUBES. As a bonus, we stumbled into an enchanting field of sunflowers. Who even needs a chocolate tour at the foot of a volcano, am I right? Actually, I don’t want to talk about it.

For your Florida travel consideration, let’s break down a three-day itinerary:

Tubing on Rainbow River

I pictured floating down a river to be elegant and simple, like a Regency-era duchess taking a bath. Foolish! Foolish fool!

First, the basics. Tubers can launch from Rainbow Springs State Park, $22 per person for a two-hour float, or KP Hole Park, $30 per person for a four-hour float. Both include tube rental and shuttle service. It’s first-come-first-served and weekends are busy, so go early. We opted for the two-hour journey. Honestly, four hours of anything except sleep is too much. In my next piece, I will discuss why all movies should be 90 minutes.

Because my family pushed off first, I got stuck on the dock like a broken doughnut. I asked strangers for a push. Into a river! For fun! I expected to be swept along, to relax and watch cormorants, to nervously play “Alligator or Textured Log?” But I found myself grotesquely flopping around to create motion, trying to remember Michael Phelps.

Dark clouds shielded the sun one hour in, a breeze finally propelling me. My elegant dreams were coming true. Then, uh, the clouds rumbled to a deluge. We hovered near someone’s private dock (I know, this is a no-no, but I didn’t want to perish) and eventually finished our float. We hopped out while workers informed the aghast party in front of us they had two more hours.

That said, it was sufficiently magical. A pair of river otters swam right up to us! The water was stunningly blue and peaceful, minus the people playing rave music on a Bluetooth.

TIP: Wear a wide, waterproof hat so you can scream, “I’M SO GLAD I HAVE THIS HAT!” between alternating blasts of rain and sun.

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Related: 3 unusual Florida vacation spots, 4 hours or less from Tampa Bay

Snorkeling in Devil’s Den

The ladder leading down to Devil's Den, a prehistoric sinkhole and snorkeling attraction in Williston, Fla.
The ladder leading down to Devil's Den, a prehistoric sinkhole and snorkeling attraction in Williston, Fla. [ STEPHANIE HAYES | Times ]

The next day, we took a 30-minute drive to Williston to snorkel in a prehistoric karst sinkhole named after Satan. Chill! Legend states early settlers named the cavern Devil’s Den because of steam in the mornings.

Important: Scuba diving is walk-up, but snorkeling is by reservation only. It’s not the most intuitive website, and we may have accidentally booked 12 times. When we called, no one replied. However, reserve you must. The dive shop bears signs that say, to paraphrase, “We don’t care how far you drove, check the website.”

Snorkeling is $15-$22 per person, with mask, snorkel and fin rental an extra $10. We waddled down the hole, past influencers doing the squat thing where the butts are forward and the heads Exorcist around. (What is that?)

I had not snorkeled since age 12, which ... pause for math ... never mind. It felt strange at first, like drowning in 72-degree water. After gripping the railing and thinking of the chocolate tour in Costa Rica, I relaxed and breathed through the tube. We enjoyed 90 minutes of stunning mermaid action with bluegills swimming past our masks. Gorgeous. This is, frankly, a can’t-miss Florida wonder.

On a tip from Times contributor Kristen Hare’s book “100 Things To Do In Tampa Bay Before You Die,” we noshed an enormous country lunch at The Ivy House. So good. I asked for the secret ingredient in the stewed tomatoes. Ritz crackers.

TIP: Get a waterproof phone sleeve for epic photos, or at least some blurry footage of a turtle.

Sunflower picking at Cannon Farms

A sunflower at Cannon Farms in Dunnellon, Fla. The farm is open to the public in May and June for flower picking.
A sunflower at Cannon Farms in Dunnellon, Fla. The farm is open to the public in May and June for flower picking. [ STEPHANIE HAYES | Times ]

I’ll start with the bad news: This stop is closed for the season. It’s worth noting for next year, though, when you will still mentally need to walk through a flower field.

We drove past the commercial business Cannon Farms and learned it’s open to the public for parts of May and June. It’s $5 to walk the fields of sunflowers and zinnias, take photos and snip a sunflower. Prices to fill a plastic cup or a bucket go up.

This was real bucolic stuff, a calm end to all the harrowing bodies of water. We bought a yellow watermelon and a jar of peach jam, refreshed and ready to return to William P. Hulu.

TIP: You like corn? Corn seems to be the hottest farm item, but it’s not always available. Follow the farm’s Facebook page for updates on corn supplies. Don’t say I didn’t CORN you. I’m so sorry.

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