Escape from Paradise with Ingrid Lemme-Chalut

Ingrid Lemme-Chalut

Discovering Florida’s Nature Coast – Inverness!

For those of you who fell in love with Long Island’s East End and are old enough to remember when Montauk was still an unassuming, small fishing enclave and not considered part of “The Hamptons”, this feature is for you. We recently experienced a couple of Florida’s more or less undiscovered towns in Citrus County, about a good half hour east of Crystal River, that reminded us of The Sunshine State’s days long gone by. Elvis filmed scenes for his 1961 movie “Follow that Dream” at the historic courthouse in Inverness.

We’d come for the annual Floral City Strawberry Festival, to take on the 14-mile Withlacoochee biking trail, experience the thrill of an airboat ride and to discover the historic town of Inverness. The Withlacoochee biking trail was named after the Withlacoochee River, a native word meaning “crooked river”, as the river twists and turns surrounded by lush cypress, gum and maple trees, through Citrus County’s gorgeous swampland.

We had reservations for the weekend at The Central Motel of Inverness. Located along the Withlacoochee State Cycling Trail, the Central Motel turned out to be the prime location to experience all we came for. The lovely front desk lady granted us an early check-in and we were able to change for a quick lunch in town before our airboat ride afterwards. Our room was neat and clean and appeared as recently refurbished. A secure bicycle storage, available for guests that bring their own bikes, and a couple of bike rental shops are close by. So is “Cinnamon Sticks”, a family style restaurant that would suit us perfectly for an early breakfast the next morning.

We arrived at Wild Bill’s Airboat Tours a half hour before our departure to visit ‘Bubba’ the 14 foot live gator that lives on premises, and to sign the forms releasing Wild Bill from any responsibility if we’d accidentally be eaten by a gator—just kidding. The U.S. Coast Guard licensed and certified young captain then took us on an educational and at times thrilling ride through the swamps that are only accessible by airboat. The 150 miles long Withlacoochee River is quite unusual, because it flows north, through the Withlacoochee State Forest, to the Gulf of Mexico. We experienced Old Florida up close. Herons, egrets, wild ducks, snakes, exotic wildlife and plants, 100 year old cypress trees, and a momma gator with her babies chasing each other on her back, it’s truly nature at its best!

Inverness features several really cute restaurants in and around its historic downtown area, one of which we had lunch at right after we’d checked into the motel. The food at the “Bistro Too Pizza Kitchen” by the historic courthouse turned out to be real winner and set the tone for us foodies. We walked all over, took photos of colorful murals, historic side streets, fountains, cute cafes and even more colorful ice cream shops. The Valerie Theater and Cultural Center in the historic Courthouse Square advertised the play of “Bill W. & Dr Bob” who could not stop drinking. It took a spiritual awakening and reaching out to help other ‘drunks’ to formulate the AA program that has helped millions.

For our dinner the first night we went to “The Cove Pub and Grub”, located right along the Tsala Apopka chain of lakes in Inverness. Popular with locals for boat-up dining, it was packed! This unique, indoor and outdoor restaurant is famous for their sunsets and “the best chicken wings you’ve ever had”. Of course we ordered “Lou Ann and Kemper’s” famous wings and fish and chips, and we assure you that we are glad that we followed the owner’s lead. On the way back to the motel we stopped downtown for an addictive moose-tracks ice cream at the colorful Pinecone’s Ice Cream Parlor.

After a good night’s rest and a scrumptious breakfast the next morning at Cinnamon Sticks, just steps from the motel, we went right back downtown to check out the Farmers Market at the Depot that was already brimming with all kinds of vendors and shoppers. The depot is facing a section of the Withlacoochee State Trail that winds through the District. We bought a beautifully hand-crafted picture frame with shells, created by Woody, a man who is severely handicapped since a stroke. His wife Peggy who manned the stand was later interviewed by a camera team from the City of Inverness! I also got the cutest handmade artisan soap from another local vendor, “River Gypsy”, that soap now gracing the guest bathroom in our beach-house, and nobody is allowed to use.

At 10 am we went to ‘Select E-Bike’ to select our electric bikes. The last time we did longer rides on regular bikes was 8 miles around Michigans’s famous Mackinac Island and it was really hard on us. Therefore e-bikes for longer rides, please, if possible. Family owned and operated, Select E-Bike is located right on the Withlacoochee Bike Trail. We got to ride the trail with Lorraine Ladish, the stunningly beautiful, host and creator of Viva Fifty, a bilingual community that celebrates being 50+, and her husband Phillippe Diederich an author and photographer, and the lovely Skye Rogers. I had a hard time not staring at Skye’s husband Eric’s masculine chest as he wore his shirts always half way buttoned down.

Our first stop on the Withlacoochee Bike Trail was Fort Cooper State Park. With over 700 acres of nature at its best, Fort Cooper offers a spot for relaxing, hiking, studying nature and learning about Florida’s rich history. Another stop was Ferris Groves Fruit Stand where fresh strawberries, oranges, tangerines, grapefruit, honeybells, tangelos and more were offered for sale, as well as chilled strawberry milk shakes.

For Floral City’s annual Strawberry Festival, held annually the first weekend in March, we parked by the Citrus County auditorium near the Inverness airport and hopped on a School Bus that brought us to the fest grounds! I grew up in Germany, so this was my first. The Floral City Strawberry Festival celebrates its tasty namesake with a full weekend of fun that has been a local tradition for generations. Featuring over 200 booths filled with crafts, artists, non-profits and commercial vendors who offer their wares in colorfully decorated booths as well throughout Floral Park. The Beer & Wine Garden by the main stage offered multiple selections, while diverse bands kept the crowds entertained. The Strawberry shortcake was really yummy, which shouldn’t be a surprise as the rich and fertile spring-fed soil of Citrus County is known for producing remarkably delicious fruit.

Inverness, the quintessential small town done right, is full of locally owned restaurants, pubs, and shops. But dinner and drinks were planned at Nine State Brewery, a family owned brewery, located in downtown Inverness. Eric Lesage, the owner and head brewer, has been brewing beer for over 10 years. In addition to their great brews, Nine State also serves authentic Korean cuisine, crafted by Jeannie, Eric’s mother. We especially loved her Korean Dumplings!

You can imagine that we slept soundly after a whole day of biking and walking in the warm Florida sun, but nevertheless got up early to catch the 7:30 am service at the Our Lady of Fatima Catholic Church in Inverness. Breakfast we had just minutes from there at the Cattle Dog Coffee Roasters, locally-owned, serving over twenty fresh roasted, flavored coffee varieties. Coffee was hot and awesome, and so was our breakfast and the fresh pastries!

We dropped off the room keys in a basket by the front desk. Real keys like the olden days! And since the Strawberry Festival is located in Floral City, 8 minutes apart from Inverness, we planned to ride through its “Avenue of Oaks” before we’d go back on the road home. Floral City, though carrying the name ‘city’, is a small town that in the early 1900s had a bigger population, then fueled by phosphate mines and timbering. The charming, single-stoplight community is also home to the Floral City Heritage Hall Museum and the historic Duval-Metz House that held its bi-annual Open House that very day! Built in c. 1863, the Duval-Metz House is known as the oldest home in Citrus County and listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

By the time we finished talking with the volunteers, dressed in period at the Duval-Metz House, we were ready for lunch. We stopped once again in Inverness, this time at “Stumpknockers On The Square”, a casual, quaint restaurant with a Southern feel, in Historic Downtown. Marcus had “Tim’s Favorite Salad”! Tim, the owner, must be fond of HUGE portions and so was my husband!

On the way back home we stopped somewhere by “The Villages” to visit with my old Montauk friend Peter Nordholm for coffee. Peter believes that he was conceived in Montauk, and he himself lived on Old Firestone Road in Montauk for 20 years in a house that was in his family for over a hundred years! Peter will be celebrating his 86th birthday, on May 7th, 2023.

Until next month from Amelia Island!

                — Yours in travel, Ingrid

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