U.S. Route 27, a 1,373-mile highway that runs from Fort Wayne, Ind., to the tip of the Florida peninsula, travels in Florida from north of Tallahassee down to Miami, ending not far from the Miami International Airport. It was once a major road used by those in the Midwest, Tennessee, Kentucky and Georgia to journey to Florida before major interstates like I-4 and I-75 were built, says Mike Camarano, a senior cartographer with AAA.
U.S. 27 provided a direct entry to the state's less populated central areas, says Camarano. The road's designation as an official U.S. interstate highway in the 1950s helped contribute to the growth of towns like Sebring, which is located smack in the middle of Florida. On a map, Route 27 in Florida looks like a spine --hence its nickname as the backbone of Florida.
If you like rustic and natural, then the stretch of U.S. 27 from just north of the tiny town of Havana south to Ocala is for you. You'll enjoy vistas of pine trees, produce fields, horse farms and easy access to state and local parks that feature camping, nature watching, hiking and swimming in crystal-clear springs. Even with the back-to-nature focus, north U.S. 27 in Florida still conjures up a few off-the-wall surprises, as well. Here are our picks for the top places to stop, starting from the north and driving south:
TOWN OF HAVANA
The Havana of the Sunshine State is actually named after the Cuban town because of the bustling cigar industry that was flourished there. Now, it's a quaint little North Florida town about 15 minutes from Tallahassee and it's known for antique and art shops. Stop by Magnolia Café & Coffee House for a cup of joe or a shrimp salad.
FLORIDA'S STATE CAPITOL BUILDINGS, TALLAHASSEE
Smack dab in the middle of U.S. 27 in Tallahassee, you can see where state laws are made. The Florida Historic Capitol Museum is preserved as the 1902 version of the building and lets you glimpse the former state Supreme Court, governor's suite and senate and house chambers. The museum also displays Florida history under themes such as education, environment and great events. The newer State Capitol building, completed in 1977, gives you a panoramic view on the top level, 22 floors high, of Tallahassee and all it has to offer. Check out other floors in the building for Florida murals, the state's Great Seal, the governor's office and a view of the two legislative chambers. The Capitol Welcome Center in the lobby is operated by VISIT FLORIDA.
ARTHUR JAMES ROBINSON'S PECAN HOUSE, LAMONT
Take a road break at Arthur James Robinson's Pecan House stand and stock up on tupelo honey, country sausage, jellies (mayhaw jelly is a local specialty), peanut brittle, sweet onions and, of course, pecan varieties like pecan rolls, honey pecans and pecan pralines.
If you're not hungry before you arrive at Robinson's Pecan House, you will be once you get there. Large yellow signs with red lettering lure you to stop by this roadside attraction to try tupelo honey, country sausage, jellies, peanut brittle, sweet onions and, of course, pecan delicacies such as pecan rolls, honey pecans and pecan pralines. A fixture in Lamont at the same location for more than 45 years, visitors snatch up Pecan House tupelo honey, chocolate amaretto and mayhaw jelly, says owner Arthur Robinson.
LOCAL PARKS AND SPRINGS
It's hard to swiftly sum up all the natural beauty that the northern leg of Florida's U.S. 27 has to offer, but here are a few highlights:
On or nearby north U.S. 27 in Florida, you can visit six state parks. We're not even counting the numerous local parks right on the road.
U.S. 27 is close to several of Florida's 900-plus (yes, 900) freshwater springs, one of the largest concentrations in the world. Take an inner tube to the springs -- or better yet, rent one from places like Ichetucknee Tube Center in Fort White, off of 27 -- and spend a lazy afternoon swimming, snorkeling and tubing in Poe Springs Park, Ginnie Springs and other nearby springs and rivers. "I've seen people floating down the rivers on air mattresses," says Ronnie Wolf of Sarasota.
f you're a scuba diver and looking for more adventure, some of the springs, such as Ginnie Springs, offer cave diving.
Glimpse the inspiration behind the Florida state song, "The Swanee River (Old Folks at Home)," on the banks of the Suwanee River. Songwriter Stephen Foster is said to have changed the river's name in his song so it would sound better. You'll get your best view of the Suwanee at Ivey Memorial Park, where you can also swim in the park's springs.
Just 3 miles north of Branford and Route 27, Little River Springs State Park features a 150-foot-long spring run with a cave system that's more than 1,200 feet long. The park was recently renovated to include concrete walkways and steps leading down to the spring from an established river level
TOWN OF HIGH SPRINGS
Belinda Nelson remembers when High Springs was a sleepy railroad town. She would come to the drug store for ice cream or go watch a movie in the movie house. Now, High Springs has transformed into a day trip stop-off for a bite to eat and antique shopping before visiting local parks and springs, says Nelson. And that old drug store? Nelson and her husband actually operate W.O.C. Ministry, a free gathering place for kids, in that same space. High Springs has converted a number of its old buildings into shops and restaurants. Stop by The Great Outdoors Restaurant for local catfish or Apalachicola oysters and to view memorabilia that's a nod to High Springs' natural surroundings.
HORSE COUNTRY, OCALA
Nestled into a landscape of idyllic, green, rolling hills, the horse farms on Route 27 will make you wonder if you're actually in Kentucky or Virginia. The town of Ocala is known as the Horse Capital of the World. It earned the name because the calcium-rich soil grows grass that's ideal for horses, says Karen Grimes, owner of Farm Tours of Ocala. Marion County -- where Ocala is located -- is one of only four major thoroughbred centers around the globe. It's home to a whopping 600 thoroughbred farms, and these farms have produced six Kentucky Derby winners and 45 national champions, among other honors. For a closer look at horse farms, Farm Tours of Ocala will take you to three farms for an interactive look at life among the horses. "We take people behind the gates," says Grimes. A good portion of the tour takes place on or near Route 27.
Five reasons to stop at the Ocala Drive-In Theater:
1. Watch your movie on a massively large screen outside while you munch in your car on popcorn or pigs in a blanket from the concession stand. "You've got the freedom to come as you want. Kids come in their pajamas," says owner John Watzke.
2. Give your family a glimpse of bygone days. With fewer than 400 drive-ins remaining in the United States, "This is a piece of American history that's fallen to the wayside," says Watzke.
3. The owners of the Ocala Drive-In are part of a family with a history in the movie projection business that dates back more than a century, says Watzke, who operates the drive-in with his brother.
4. It's an affordable, family friendly outing. Some recent screenings have included "How to Train Your Dragon 2" and "Transformers." You can enjoy a double feature for only $6 per adult and $3 for each kiddo between 6 and 12. If they're younger than 5, they get in free.
5. When movies aren't playing on the weekends, stop by the drive-in space for the regular flea market or special events, such as a car show and a Jimmy Buffet concert that was recently telecast to drive-ins across the country.
-- By Vanessa Caceres for VISIT FLORIDA; photos by Peter W. Cross for VISIT FLORIDA, unless otherwise noted.