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A Snowbird's Guide Back Home

What to see and do while driving from Florida back to the Midwest.



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Like swallows returning to Capistrano, snowbirds pack up their Tommy Bahama flip-flops and Lilly Pulitzer golf attire around this time and flock from Southwest Florida back to where they came from. And that tends to be Middle America: Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois (and those other states I tend to forget). 

While many of our winter friends will have their Mercedes and Lexus rides loaded onto trailers, before hopping a plane back home, I’m here to tell you that if you are physically able to drive back, you absolutely should. Why? Because it makes you appreciate the time away. You see, when you have to work for your winter break, there is a level a satisfaction that doesn’t materialize when you can basically blink your eyes and reappear in a new location. As they say, “Getting there is half the fun.” Also, there are a bunch of stops between here and “there” that will help you appreciate the weirdness that is America.

So I suggest you give yourself five days of leisurely exploration and renew your love affair with I-75 and the magic it offers. I’ve carefully mapped out a route for you to take on your journey north. I’m only telling you how to get there—not how to get back. That doesn’t mean I don’t love you. But as the country song says, “How can I miss you if you won’t go away?”

OK, first things first. If you are driving a Tesla back home, I did not plan this route to include stopping at superchargers. It doesn’t mean you can’t still do this, but you might want to bring one of those hand-crank generators with you. Also, traveling with a car loaded with luggage and snacks, etc., is awful. Don’t do it. Ship your stuff back home and leave the food to questionable gas stations and amusement park vendors—as God intended. So fill up the tank, go to the bathroom (again) and let’s head out on the highway—lookin’ for adventure.

Vrrroooom: While most TripTiks would have you pull off the interstate in St. Petersburg to visit the headquarters of the Home Shopping Network—“We made shopping from home possible before the Internet! (But are now mostly for the infirm)”—I have faith that you can hold out for about 3.5 hours before pulling into gorgeous Silver Springs State Park (silversprings.com) in Marion County—home to 85 percent of weird news that comes out of Florida (“Son Kills Mom with Bike Chain Over Episode of The Apprentice,” “Decapitated Cow Crashes Car into Alcoholics Anonymous Meeting Place”). But Silver Springs State Park is a world away from the horrors that can be Central Florida. It is one of the largest artesian springs in the world and was the set the 1960s television series Sea Hunt, as well as the film Tarzan, so you know it must be cool.

The water is crystal-clear (Hey, what’s that like?), and if you take a glass-bottom boat tour (or rent a kayak to experience the beauty at your own pace) you can even see a dugout canoe from the early Native American residents, lying on the bottom of the Silver River. Tickets to the park are only $2, and glass-bottom boat tours start at $11. You can be in and out of there in a couple of hours and back on the road, or you can stop by John Travolta’s place at Aviation Estates in Ocala. He’d love to see you.

If Travolta’s not home, I suggest spending the night at the BG Ocala Ranch (bgocalaranch.com), where you can rent a luxury cottage for the night and go on a trail ride within the 500-acre Florida Horse Park before dinner. Remember, horseback riding is what made America great, so you might as well get reacquainted with that.

The next morning I suggest you get an early start and reconnect with I-75 for the 139-mile jaunt up to Valdosta, Georgia, hometown of the late crooner Billy Joe Royal, best known for the ’60s hits Down in the Boondocks and Cherry Hill Park, as well as Demond Wilson, best known for playing the role of Lamont Sanford in Sanford and Sons. Fun fact: Thanks to cotton, in 1910 Valdosta was ranked as the richest city in America by per capita income. Unfortunately, in 1911, the boll weevil showed up and things haven’t been the same since. Stop by the city’s oldest restaurant, King’s Grill on North Patterson Street, for a real Southern breakfast and then hightail it out of there.

After all, just 228 miles away is Atlanta, the perfect backdrop to your next stop, Alpharetta, Georgia, home of (according to Wikipedia) Trammell Starks, “musician, composer of many songs featured on The Weather Channel in the early to mid- ’90s.” Based on that alone, why wouldn’t you want to stop there? However, this trendy suburb of Atlanta is a great place to experience one of the cooler new entertainment pastimes—escape games. Urban Escape Games (urbanescapegames.com) “locks” you in a room with a few friends, co-workers or politicians until you figure out the code to break out. Room themes range from jewelry heist to FBI Mafia investigation. You have one hour to escape by solving puzzles and cracking codes. People are raving about these, so be cool and give it a try. It’s like being in an episode of 24 except you’re not Jack Bauer and you shouldn’t threaten to kill the person next to you in order to learn more info.

Upon your escape, I suggest a hearty meal (perhaps at E.M.Bop, a highly regarded Korean barbecue joint), as you need to drive four straight hours to one of America’s great cultural centers: Dollywood (dollywood.com), in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. Plan ahead to rent a one-bedroom cabin overlooking the Smoky Mountains and you’ll be happier than a speckled pup. (FYI, some of Dolly’s cabins require a three-night minimum.)

The next morning you owe it to yourself to purchase the VIP Tour experience and see Dollywood like an insider. You get a personal tour guide for the entire day, front-of-line access, a meal (of your choice!), valet parking and a gift from Dolly herself! Regardless, nothing says “Appalachia” like an afternoon at Parton’s theme park—well, moonshine at the lake, perhaps, but we’re on a schedule here. I suggest another relaxing night at the cabin before I force you back into your trusty family truckster.

Now, if you’ve started this trip toward the end of April, try to time it so you hit the Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event (April 27-30, rk3de.org) at the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington. It is one of the most prestigious equestrian competitions in the world. In fact, it is the only four-star-rated (given only to the Olympics, World Championships and six annual events around the globe) in the Western Hemisphere. It’s like nothing we have in Southwest Florida. Tickets run anywhere from $15 to $55 per day. If you don’t feel like crashing in a stable for the night, I’d recommend you check into the 21c Museum Hotel (21cmuseumhotels.com) in downtown Lexington. Located in the historic former Fayette National Bank Building, the hotel was ranked the fifth-best new hotel of 2016 by USA Today.

From there you’re only three hours to Columbus, which is where you probably live. I bet you miss us already.

 

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