In driving across North Florida, you can still find old highways with abundant green space and small town charm. Highway 98 towards Perry is one of my favorites. Swallowtail kites are often seen in spring and early summer, hovering over piney woods and swamps. They literally dance on air, curling and dipping wings in their tight, graceful patterns. I've spotted bear and diamondback rattlesnakes on occasion, a sure sign of wildness. And in the ditches, I'll look for blue flag irises and spider lilies.
Of course, the 220-mile Big Bend Scenic Byway through Leon, Wakulla and Franklin counties is a huge draw (http://floridabigbendscenicbyway.com/). From unmarred piney woods and coastal expanses to wild rivers and historic towns, the byway is a scenic and cultural journey. And I like to expand the drive into Liberty County along Highways 65 and 12 in the Apalachicola National Forest. The flowering savannahs and pitcher plant bogs are some of the biological wonders of our area.
Restaurants are a basic part of the travel experience. Unless you bring all your own food, you have to stop somewhere, so it might as well be good. From my travels, I've made mental notes of several good restaurants throughout North Florida, especially ones named after fish, women or captains. Restaurants with foreign language titles are generally a safe bet, too. Florida is a melting pot, reflected in its variety of restaurants.
At one small town barbecue place, I always enjoy viewing hand-scrawled signs on the walls such as this one: "Mother's Day Special: Husbands get half off. Must have wife present at time of purchase." I usually offset a big lunch with a hike or kayak trip, and a big salad or veggie sub for dinner. It's like alternating regular and premium gasoline in your car.
Another favorite is the Dixie Grill in Live Oak, in the heart of Suwannee River country. One busy Saturday night, with the specials being all-you-can-eat ribs or catfish, one of the owners was making his rounds. He greeted nearly everyone by name-he shook their hands or touched them on the back or shoulder-but since I was a newcomer, he plopped down in front of me and introduced himself. No one was a stranger for long in his restaurant. I looked into his warm face, and said hello.
He had graying brown hair and just the right amount of plumpness for a restaurant owner. He asked me where I was from, but nothing more-not too nosy; he didn't ask what I did for a living. He wasn't a fan of cities and we talked a bit about my home area.
"Is this town growing much?" I asked.
"Sure is," he said. "We're getting more and more traffic. I like driving through a town without much traffic."
"Yeah, like Mayo. How do you know about these towns?"
"I like getting off the Interstate, and I used to take kids canoeing along the Suwannee."
The man smiled. He slowly rose to move onto another table. "Now, we got some good homemade pie tonight-coconut crème, chocolate, and hot bread pudding with rum sauce." Hmmm, homemade pie, I thought; that's the kind of solicitation I can tolerate.
"I'll be sure to save some room," I said.
The catfish was exquisite, flaky and tender, and the coconut crème pie? Well, I took a piece with me for the road, and it was gone by the time I reached Mayo.