Manatees at Blue Springs. Photo by R.C. Staab

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These days, the term “Old Florida” is used loosely to refer to Florida, B.D. (before Disney) when Northern snowbirds flew south for warmer climates and discovered unusual farmlands and river camps, and you saw creatures such as manatees that existed nowhere else.

About 45 minutes northeast of Orlando off I-4 in DeLand and the western Volusia County, snatches of Old Florida await the adventuress traveler who either is exhausted by long lines for short rides or is looking for a more authentic experience.

Lace up your running shoes, grab your paddle, and prepare to lose yourself in a world where manatees graze in crystal springs, airboats skim across glassy waterways and alligators can be sunning below mangrove trees at the river’s edge.

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Visit the Premiere Spot to See Manatees

Dive into a watery oasis at Blue Spring State Park where 67 million gallons of crystal-clear water gush daily. Although manatees can be found in Crystal Springs on the Gulf Coast and the Indian River Lagoon near the Atlantic Ocean, there is no better place to see them in their natural environment, seeking warmer waters in the springs when the temperature drops outside.

Hundreds of manatees swim up the St. Johns River and head east into clear, emerald waters where they congregate in large groups. Busloads of tourists embark on a boardwalk that follows the springs for hundreds of feet and rest comfortably above the waterline so as not to disturb these large, aquatic mammals that are native to Florida. Even 50 feet away, the manatees are clearly visible.

The State Park offers hiking through lush trails draped in Spanish moss. When the manatees leave in early spring, visitors can swim in the refreshing water or simply bask in the serenity of this natural haven.

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Get Out on the Water at the Park

Embark on a guided eco-adventure with Blue Spring Adventures. Paddle through serene waterways teeming with wildlife, spot soaring eagles, and playful otters, and learn about the delicate ecosystem of the St. Johns River. Choose from kayak tours, Segway tours, pontoon boat excursions, or stand-up paddleboard journeys, each revealing a unique perspective of this natural wonder. Reservations are available in the morning. Walk-up tours are available most days.

Laugh and Learn with Captain Colin

About 20 minutes farther south on the St. Johns River, immerse yourself in the secrets of a river with St. John’s River Eco Tours at the end of a long road at Highbanks Marina and Camp Resort in DeBary. Choose from two daily cruises at 10 am and 1 pm, each led by an expert naturalist who unveils the wonders of this diverse ecosystem.

Spot playful dolphins and manatees gliding through the water, learn about the vital role of wetlands and discover the fascinating history of the river that has been a lifeline for centuries.

What sets St. Johns River Eco Tours apart are their eco guides led by jovial and informative owner Captain Colin Innes, who eagerly points out birds, alligators and manatees. If visitors are hoping to see manatees, he recommends the 1pm tour in December and January and the morning tours in February and March.

The signature stop on the tour is an opportunity to see, with any luck, an owl who may just swoop down and take food out of the Captain’s hand.

Munch on Alligators Tails at the Swamp House River Front Grill

St. Johns River Eco Tours. Photo by R.C. Staab
St. Johns River Eco Tours. Photo by R.C. Staab

Located in the same marina at St. Johns River Eco Tours, this historic restaurant with a bit of Key West in its DNA is housed in a 1920s cypress lodge with views of the river. They offer a unique dining experience with fresh seafood such as grouper, mahi and catfish and regional specialties while soaking in the ambience of crackling fireplaces and cypress beams. General Manager Eddie Clancy says his most popular dish by far is the Gator Tail appetizer which is specially hand prepared in a citrus marinade.

Snag a Bass at Highland Park Fish Camp

Also with access to the St Johns River but farther north of the Blue Spring State Park is Highland Park Fish Camp. Cast a line from the pier, launch a boat for an afternoon of fishing or simply relax on the deck and soak up the laid-back atmosphere. With a prime location with access to Lake Woodruff and smaller nearby lakes, this is one of the most popular places for bass fishing with special pricing for bass guides.

In addition to providing spaces for camping, the camp offers ensuite one- and two-bedroom cabins that can be rented by the night, week or month. Reserve ahead, especially for weekend rentals.

Find Spiritual Guidance at Cassadaga

Step into a world of mysticism and whimsy at Cassadaga, the oldest psychic community in the United States. In 1875, a trance medium named George Colby was guided by a dream and his spirit guide Seneca to Florida’s scrubland. Some 20 years later, his dream of a haven for spiritualists materialized as the Southern Cassadaga Spiritualist Camp Meeting Association. Victorian cottages blossomed around a central pavilion, each harboring the hope of connecting with the spirit world.

Colby’s legacy lives on down with quaint, old Victorian cottages where mediums offer readings. Stop first at the Andrew Jackson Davis Education Building and Bookstore and find out who is offering readings that day and week. As the printed signs suggest, use intuition to guide you to your spirit.

The Hotel Cassadaga and Metaphysical Center of the South is an attraction in and of itself. According to the staff, the hotel and town are busiest during solstices and equinoxes along with Halloween and special events. Be sure to wander through the enchanting Fairy Garden overflowing with miniature houses, bridges and whimsical creatures.

Do It Yourself at Old Sugar Mill Pancake

At De Leon Springs State Park, start your day with all-you-can-cook pancakes at the Old Sugar Mill Pancake House. The twist on the typical pancake house is that each table has its own mini griddles. Choose buttermilk or whole grain pancake batter, then grill them up and slather on an endless supply of butter, maple syrup and pancake syrup.

Feel Young Again (or Cold) in the Fountain of Youth

In the late 1800s, De Leon Springs, known then as Spring Garden, became a tourist destination by renaming its site in honor of Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon and claiming that spot as the legendary Fountain of Youth. Bathhouses and hotels rose, perpetuating the myth.

Though seekers of immortality might be disappointed, De Leon Springs, now a state park, offers genuine rejuvenation: crystal-clear waters, lush greenery and a whisper of playful legend.

The water is at a constant temperature of 68 degrees and, with park admission, swim at will with a regular lap swimmer in the large oval pool. Be warned that there is only one shower which sprays cold water.

Travel in Time at the Barberville Pioneer Settlement

Spiritualist await at Cassadaga. Photo by R.C. Staab
Spiritualists await at Cassadaga. Photo by R.C. Staab

At the Barberville Pioneer Settlement, this living history museum transports visitors to the 1880s with costumed interpreters demonstrating traditional crafts, historical exhibits, farm animals to feed and pet and even horse-drawn wagon rides. Explore the one-room schoolhouse, visit the blacksmith shop, climb on a railroad car and stop at a train station and see weaving, spinning and candlemaking.

Hike at Lake Woodruff National Wildlife Refuge

Witness the wonders of Florida’s diverse ecosystem at the Lake Woodruff National Wildlife Refuge. Hike 15 miles of trails through a mix of swamp bottomlands, freshwater marsh and oak and pine forests. Hunting and fishing are allowed with appropriate permits.

Learn about the Scrub Jay at Lyonia Preserve

Discover a hidden gem of serenity at the Lyonia Preserve named after the scrub plant rusty lyonia and consisting of of 360 acres of restored Florida scrub habitat. Stroll along the boardwalk through a rare sandhill scrub forest and witness the delicate beauty of pitcher plants and sundews.

Created by the Volusia County School and the State of Florida, the preserve features the Deltona Regional Library and Lyonia Environmental Center, where visitors can learn about the threatened scrub jay and gopher tortoise.

Check out the Murals and More in Downtown DeLand

Immerse yourself in the vibrant restaurant and shopping scene of downtown DeLand – the hippest place between Orlando and Daytona Beach. Admire a kaleidoscope of colorful murals adorning buildings, each telling a unique story and reflecting the town’s rich history and creative spirit.

Explore the charming shops and cafes lining the historic streets, browse local art galleries and admire the historic Athens Theatre which opened in 1922 and still offers local theater performances and concerts.

Gaze at Art at DeLand Museum of Art

Wander through galleries showcasing diverse collections, from captivating regional pieces to mesmerizing sculptures mostly centered around 20th-century and contemporary art. Engage with informative talks, educational programs and hands-on workshops. In addition to its uptown main art space, the museum has a second space in downtown DeLand used for special exhibits.

Soar at SkyDive DeLand

Swimming in the Fountain of Youth waters. Photo by R.C. Staab
Swimming in the Fountain of Youth waters. Photo by R.C. Staab

Located at the DeLand Airport, visit SkyDive DeLand, the so-called “Skydiving Capital of the World,” Their full-service Drop Zone is open 365 days a year and offers personalized experiences for jumpers of all skill levels. Experience the friendly skies and epic views over Florida’s heartland.

Check out the Stetson Mansion

Normally, an historic site such as the Stetson Mansion would be on the top of any visitor’s list to DeLand. However, this private estate that was once the home of hatmaker John B. Stetson is not a public museum or open 10 months out of the year. However, from early November to mid-January, the house is open to the public to see its extravagant Christmas decorations.

Tours are available during this time, but they must be booked in advance. The mansion is a mile and a half from downtown DeLand so make sure to drive by and take a peak from the road or sidewalk.

Tips for Visiting DeLand and the St. Johns River

Getting Around: I-4 provides easy access from Orlando and Daytona Beach to DeLand and all the attractions in this story.

Where to Stay:

The very reliable Hampton Inn & Suites Hotel sits north of downtown with easy access to locations along the St. Johns River. It offers a fitness center, outdoor pool, free hot breakfast and pet-friendly rooms. Near downtown is the Courtyard by Marriott DeLand Historic Downtown, the Historic Artisan Downtown Hotel and The DeLand Hotel.

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Author Bio: For more than 40 years, R.C Staab has been a tourism and culture expert who has been quoted by and had photos published in numerous publications including the New York Times, USA Today, the Wall Street Journal, the LA Times, and CNN. He wrote 100 Things to Do at the Jersey Shore Before You Die, now in its second printing, and is a frequent contributor to New Jersey Monthly magazine. His latest book, New York City Scavenger: The Ultimate Search for New York City’s Hidden Treasures, explores Manhattan from Battery Park to Washington Heights with both famous and unexpected sites in all neighborhoods, including Times Square, Greenwich Village and Central Park. Pick up a copy of his Jersey Shore book and his new NYC book. He splits his time between New York and Florida with his wife, Valari, and dog, Skye.

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