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.
The stretch of central U.S. 27 from just south of Ocala to Sebring takes you past cattle ranches, scenic lakes, citrus groves and plenty of advertising for the not-so-far-away theme parks, such as Legoland and Disney's Magic Kingdom. A leisurely drive along flat vistas and rolling green hills, this part of 27 can provide a respite from the busy interstate tangle of Orlando and will give you a closer look at Florida's agricultural roots. Here are eight stops you'll want to make along the way, driving from north to south.
LAKE GRIFFIN STATE PARK, FRUITLAND PARK
After a short stroll in the woods, marvel at the majesty of the state's fifth-largest live oak tree at Lake Griffin State Park. Once you pay your respects to the tree, enjoy boating, canoeing, fishing, nature-watching and romping at the park's playground. The Dead River flows through the park and connects to Lake Griffin, the state's eighth-largest lake.
SHOWCASE OF CITRUS, CLERMONT
"If you see gators, snakes or turtles, let me know. I'll jump off and try and catch them - seriously," says Anthony Copeland, the tour guide driving the 13-foot swamp buggy for an eco-safari that spans the cattle and citrus ranch at Showcase of Citrus in Clermont. Sure enough, when tourists spot a snapping turtle, Copeland hops off the swamp buggy and chases after it before it escapes into the swamp. Copeland almost gets stuck in the murky waters but makes a quick save, boarding the vehicle again and showing visitors a picture of the Eastern diamondback rattlesnake he captured during a previous tour.
The yellow-and-black-striped vehicle (a converted school bus on monster truck-sized wheels) is said to be the largest 4x4-ride truck in the world, says Showcase of Citrus owner John Arnold. The eco-safari gives visitors a chance to feed water buffalo, a zebra and Ankole-Watusi cattle. Kiddos on the tour get a chance to drive the monstrous vehicle. Back at Farmer John's Country Store, buy in-season citrus, berries and veggies--or pick your own in the U-Pick area. You can also feed a hog, emus, chickens and goats.
THE PRESIDENTS HALL OF FAME, CLERMONT
So you're driving through the rolling hills of Route 27 in Clermont and you look over and see President Barack Obama sitting on a bench, waving at you. Wait -- that's not the real president, it's a statue at The Presidents Hall of Fame! The museum features founder John Zweifel's miniature White House replica, which once toured presidential libraries.
Zweifel gets an annual Christmas card from the White House that--you guessed it--he displays in the museum. See presidential mannequins, campaign posters and other presidential memorabilia from throughout history (ever heard of Lincoln's death mask?). The museum attracts curious passersby, but other visitors have included presidential relatives and White House employees -- including, recently, a former White House butler, says Santiago. Take your picture in front of the "Lincoln Memorial" or "Mount Rushmore."
LAKERIDGE WINERY & VINEYARDS, CLERMONT
Wine in Florida? Yes, and it's a thriving business. Lakeridge Winery & Vineyards produced 1.25 million bottles in 2013 and is the biggest winery in the state. The winery mostly uses Florida's muscadine grapes, which have 7 percent more antioxidants than the average grape, says the winery's Ginny Horn. The winery also makes wine with muscadine hybrid grapes and produces red, pink and white wines that range from dry to dessert-style sweet. The free tour and tasting at Lakeridge starts with a short video, followed by a guided tour through the factory and ending with a tasting of about 10 varieties at the horseshoe-shaped bar right in its busy store. If wines aren't your thing, then try the winery's chilled muscadine juice, refreshing on a warm day.
WEBB'S CANDY SHOP, DAVENPORT
Webb's Candy Factory in Davenport has been around since the 1930s and sells a wide array of sweets such as goat milk fudge and citrus candies, as well as exotic Florida wines and a gift shop stocked with kitschy souvenirs.
Five things to try (and buy) at Webb's Candy Shop in Davenport, which has been around since the 1930s:
1. Exotic wines made in Florida with names like Florida Sunset, Key Lime, Hurricane Five, Mango Mamma and Festiberry. The wines are made from fruits and veggies (yes, veggies) grown in Florida. Webb's will also ship its wines.
2. Goat milk fudge made on-site.
3. Hand-made ice cream in flavors like key lime.
4. Citrus candy, made right there at Webb's.
CAPTAIN FRED'S AIRBOAT NATURE TOURS, LAKE HAMILTON
If you want to hold a baby gator or get a bird's-eye view -- literally -- of nature, your Route 27 itinerary should include a stop at Captain Fred's Airboat Nature Tours, where you can skim out onto scenic Lake Hamilton via airboat. Owner Wayne Niedlinger fills visitors in on facts about alligators, birds, turtles and fish during the tour, which lasts about an hour. Captain Fred's is licensed to keep baby gators as pets until they are four feet long, and during the tour young and old alike can hold a little gator. Most of the tours take place during the day but, weather permitting, an evening tour can provide a spectacular sunset view.
DAVIDSON'S OF DUNDEE, DUNDEE
Indulge your sweet tooth at Davidson's of Dundee. Stand in front of the large sampling area to try 12 different kinds of citrus candies (they're sweet but won't stick in your teeth) and more than 25 jellies and marmalades, including coconut spread, Datil pepper jelly (which packs some heat), orange marmalade and other delicious concoctions.
Most are made right there at Davidson's, which has been around since 1967, says cashier July Cross. In fact, you can watch the candy being made through windows right in the store. Davidson's sells many of its products in tourist venues throughout the state and even at theme parks, says Cross. Other authentic Florida treats available at Davidson's include coconut patties, in-season citrus fruit, key lime juice, mango butter, pecan pralines, gator jerky and orange blossom honey.
FLORIDA'S NATURAL ORANGE JUICE GROVE HOUSE, LAKE WALES
What could be more refreshing than a glass of fresh Florida orange juice? At the Grove House, operated by Florida's Natural Orange Juice, you'll discover that the majority of oranges grown in the state are used for juice, and you can sample fresh OJ and ruby red grapefruit juice. Depending on the day of your visit, the Grove House may also have orange strawberry juice or orange mango, says sales assistant Corinne Quattlebaum. Browse through the Grove House to find out more about the history of Lake Wales and the town's connection to orange juice, and watch a video to see how OJ is made. The gift shop sells citrus-themed apparel, food products and items like golf balls stored in a Florida's Natural Orange Juice carton. The Grove House is open from October through Memorial Day, although it will open in the summer to accommodate large groups, says Quattlebaum.
-- Story by Vanessa Caceres for VISIT FLORIDA; photos by Peter W. Cross for VISIT FLORIDA