Our tour guide gave a thorough environmental and historical education as the ride and a boardwalk trail took us through palmetto flatlands and an eerily beautiful cypress swamp.
The 4,700-acre Forever Florida near St. Cloud has taken the same idea to a gallop with the addition of several zip lines. Something more authentically Cracker? Horseback riding adventures put you in the yesteryear saddle. You can even join the ranch’s cowmen for three hours on their daily rounds. Or do an overnight camping Horseback Safari complete with riding instruction and campfire meals. Participants must be age 12 or older. To ride the zip lines, kids must be at least 10 years old and 70 pounds.
There’s also a Cypress Canopy Cycle Course, where you pedal the treetops hanging from a cable. Families with small kids can opt for the tamer, nature-focused Coach Eco-Safari aboard a big-wheeled, open-sided converted bus.
Westgate River Ranch was first to combine ranching and vacationing in a resort setting. It provides rooms, efficiencies, and cabins, plus a number of cowboy activities, including a Saturday night rodeo that made me feel pretty much the cowgirl as the crowd stamped its feet to cheer on the performers.
Eat your meals at the western-style Smokehouse Grill or River Ranch Saloon, sign on for a hayride, entertain the kids at the petting farm and mini golf course, or go on a boat or horseback ride.
Creek Ranch raised the bar on the ranching-resorting package when it debuted its luxury all-inclusive bunkhouse experience more recently. Luxury, good food, and Florida style: This is my kind of cowgirling.
“Our accountant told us ‘the cows just aren’t paying the bills,’ ” owner Jim Black said, explaining the family’s move into the hospitality industry.
Once the family’s home, the bunkhouse has gotten a designer make-over. Named for family members and decorated by Jim’s mother, Jane, each of the five rooms has a stylish, boutique personality all its own. What they don’t have are televisions and door keys.
A big-screen TV, however, resides in one of the roomy public areas indoors and out. In the morning, I preferred to sit with coffee overlooking the nature’s-got-talent show — wild turkeys, sandhill cranes, wood storks, eagles, and white-tailed deer — from a rocking chair on the front porch.
Guests can also stay in a three-room Cracker cottage on property. Rates either way include breakfast and all beverages and ranch activities — swamp buggy, airboat, and sunset pontoon rides; horseback and four-wheel all-terrain vehicle riding; nature walks; bike use; skeet shooting; and fishing. You can also opt for a meal package, and it just wouldn’t be right to overlook a worshipful tribute to the bunkhouse kitchen.
Staff serves up Southern fried chicken in the formal dining room, hearty breakfast in the kitchen, ribs and chicken barbecue lunch in the screened Boat House, and a key lime pie that squeezes the Florida pucker into this particular ranch experience.
On my recent visit, I was ready to get my cowgirl on, Florida-style. It started with a true Florida whoosh as I boarded a small airboat that whisked around Lake Hatchineha at the Everglades’ Chain-of-Lakes headwaters. The boat’s shallow draft allowed us to skim over grass marshes into small log-jammed creeks, flushing water fowl and majestic birds as we roared.
The four-hour horseback ride and tour of the cattle operation facilities was enough for me; I passed on the cattle-herding adventure.
The weekend ended in true cow-hunter style, with a morning of shouldering a 20-gauge shotgun and yelling “pull,” then trying to knock yellow clay disks out of the cloud-puffed sky. Let’s just say I was bested by a 12-year-old computer geek. Bow-legged, saddle sore, shoulder-bruised, and having sated my inner cowgirl, I decided to forego the cowboy boots and stick to flip-flops.