Lodgings that take you back to nature
06/08/2013 12:00 AM
06/11/2013 4:25 PM
Central Florida is famous for a lot of features, but your first association probably isn’t “cabins in the woods.”
Yet Florida’s award-winning state park system makes it the ideal place to plan a family vacation in a cabin surrounded by nature. Four state parks within 90 minutes of Orlando offer affordable cabins. They range from well-equipped two-bedroom houses a half hour from Disney World to rustic cabins without air conditioning on an island accessible only by boat.
Because they are popular and a good value, the cabins are often booked up, so plan ahead. You book cabins through ReserveAmerica.com and, for the most popular dates and locations, you may have to reserve months out. The good news, though, is that the penalty to change dates is only $10 and the cancellation fee is $17.75. Weekends and holidays require two-night stays.
These cabins have one other quirk: To encourage you to unplug and enjoy the natural world, you won’t find televisions, phones or WiFi.
The largest and newest cabins are at Lake Louisa State Park in Clermont, near Disney World. The most rustic ones, which are almost like camping, are at Hontoon Island State Park in Deland. The other two sets of cabins — at Blue Spring State Park in Orange City and Silver River State Park in Ocala — are well equipped and located in particularly appealing parks.
Here’s a profile of each park’s cabins with tips based on my visits.
The cabins at Lake Louisa State Park are big — all have two bedrooms and two bathrooms plus a full kitchen. With a sleeper sofa in the living room, the cabins would be quite comfortable for six people. The kitchen has a microwave, dishwasher and everything you need to set up housekeeping. A large screened porch with rocking chairs overlooks a little lake in the distance. In winter, you can use the gas fireplace for a cozy ambiance. Cabins have heat and air conditioning and rent for $120 a night.
There are 20 cabins here, many more than at other parks, so it is much easier to get reservations.
A key advantage to Lake Louisa is that families can use these cabins when visiting Orlando’s theme parks. After a day of frenetic stimulation at an attraction, kids might benefit by spending a day exploring forest trails. You might even spot some of the abundant wildlife, including birds, gopher tortoises and deer.
Unfortunately, there is no swimming at Lake Louisa State Park, and many of its appealing features are enjoyed most in cooler weather. The park has 25 miles of hiking trails. South Florida visitors will be delighted by its rolling hills, some over 100 feet high! We also enjoyed coming upon former orange groves now gone wild. Plucking an orange from a tree made a refreshing treat on a hike.
You also can rent kayaks or canoes for $8 for two hours at the ranger station and explore Lake Dixie.
Blue Spring State Park has something special every season of the year, thanks to the stunning spring and its clear water.
In summer, it is wildly popular for swimming in the 73-degree water. You can rent inner tubes and float from the spring boil about a quarter-mile downstream to a swimming dock. Then walk the trail back to the spring head and do it all over again.
In winter, the spring is closed to swimmers and open to manatees. Hundreds of the endangered mammals gather here as the nearby St. Johns River cools down, making it the best place in the state for manatee viewing from land. Manatee season is weather-dependent, but generally occurs November to March.
In spring, as the weather turns warm and humid, Blue Spring has a brief firefly season. For a few weeks in April (again, timing depends on weather), the woods fill with thousands of blinking fireflies at dusk.
Year-round, there are trails to explore and kayaks and canoes that can be rented for scenic paddling along the St. Johns and several nearby creeks. You also can take a narrated boat tour of the St. Johns River from the park’s boat concession or take a Segway tour of the park.
The park is in the middle of a wide swath of undeveloped woodland and its woods are full of birds. Wild turkeys frequent the grassy hillside next to the historic Thursby House, built by pioneers in 1872, when Blue Spring was emerging as an important steamboat landing on the St. Johns. The Thursby House is open for self-guided tours and has historic artifacts that tell the history of the Blue Spring.
Thankfully, a park with so many assets also has top-notch cabins, although not many. With six cabins and the popularity of both manatees and swimming, snagging a cabin here can take planning. You can reserve cabins up to 11 months in advance, and weeknights are often available with shorter notice.
The two-bedroom cabins are secluded from the busy spring and its parking lot by their location in a thick oak hammock. Cabins can accommodate up to six people with two bedrooms (one double bed and two twins) plus a sleeper sofa in the living room. There’s one bathroom. Kitchens have dishwashers and microwaves and cabins have gas fireplaces for use in winter. Cabins have a screened porch, outdoor grill with a picnic table, heating and air conditioning. Price: $95 per night.
The cabins at Silver River State Park are similar in size to Blue Spring (they sleep six in two bedrooms with one bath) but in some ways are even more appealing. Each “cabin” — really more house than cabin — is surrounded by big trees and vegetation, separated from neighboring cabins. Out back, there’s a fire ring for campfires and s’mores. The metal roofs and porches make these structures look like Florida Cracker houses. The screened porches are massive and hold a picnic table and a few rocking chairs. The living rooms are a bit roomier than Blue Spring.
There’s a full kitchen and dining room table for six, cozy wooden cabin-like décor and a gas fireplace that provides a warm glow in the cabin with the flick of a switch in winter. At the ranger station, you can check out board and card games. The kitchen has a dishwasher and microwave. My only criticism: Don’t plan to do real cooking. There are no serving dishes, no cutting board and few pans. Cabins have heat and air conditioning
It’s easier to book cabins here because there are 10 of them. Price: $110 per night.
Silver River State Park is full of recreational opportunities. It has15 miles of lovely forest trails that can be walked or ridden on mountain bikes. From the park, you can rent canoes or kayaks and it’s an easy paddle up the beautiful Silver River to the spring boil. You’ll see wildlife on this paddle — lots of birds, alligators and, if you’re lucky, wild rhesus monkeys.
The monkeys are part of the colorful history of Silver Springs. In 1930, according to the Silver Springs Theme Park, a fellow called Colonel Toohey operated the “jungle” tour and placed rhesus macaques monkeys, indigenous to Central and East Asia, on an island to delight his visitors. He didn’t know that monkeys are good swimmers. The escaped monkeys have thrived ever since, with a population now estimated at 200. Because they’re an exotic species, state officials aren’t wild about them — but visitors are.
The park has a charming “Cracker village,” where a cluster of historic buildings forms the Silver River Museum and Environmental Education Center. The center is open to the public on weekends and holidays for a $2 admission.
Silver River State Park also has a concessionaire who operates guided horseback trail rides through the park. Cactus Jack’s Trail Rides (352-266-9326) charges $40 for one hour; $60 for two. Riders must be 6 or older.
Adjacent to Silver River is the Silver Springs Theme Park, which is going to end its life as a commercial attraction and become a state park this fall.
Hontoon River State Park cabins are in a totally different category; they appeal to folks who want more of a camping experience. They offer the fun of being in the woods and cooking over a campfire, while guaranteeing you’ll stay dry in a storm and have a refuge from mosquitoes.
Six very basic cabins are in a shady, open forest. There’s no heat or air conditioning, no kitchen and, like the campers, you walk to the central bathroom with hot showers and flush toilets. The cabins have bunk beds with vinyl-covered mattresses and you bring your own sleeping bag (or linens).
The cabins have a screened porch with a table and chairs — perfect if you get bad weather. They also have ceiling fans in the bedroom and porch, lights in both bedroom and porch and a single electric outlet. The cabins come with a fire ring with a grill and a picnic table, like the campsites.
It costs $30 a night for a four-bunk cabin; $35 for six bunks. The larger cabins have a larger screened porch area.
What makes the cabins at Hontoon Island especially attractive is their remote location. Hontoon Island State Park is in the St. Johns River and the only way to reach it is by boat. A free electric ferry buzzes back and forth every few minutes, carrying hikers, campers and fishermen and all their gear. Campers and cabin guests and gear are then shuttled by van to the campground a half-mile from the marina.
As a result of the island’s location, it has no cars, no concrete, no crowds and no development within sight.
The park has an extensive trail system. I recommend the 3-mile-long Hammock Hiking Nature Trail, which takes you through a thick hardwood forest with lots of sprawling live oaks draped with Spanish moss. The path ends at a huge Indian shell mound, a hill about 20 feet high and 400 feet long.
The park is also a great base for kayaking or canoeing. Circumnavigating Hontoon Island in a canoe or kayak is a perfect day’s paddle. You can bring your own or rent them at Hontoon at a rate of $20 an hour or $40 for the day. Note, however, that there are only two double kayaks and five canoes and they cannot be reserved. On busy weekends you must get to the marina early.
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