cave, forest, free, hike, Uncategorized

Lecanto, Florida

 Dames Cave in the Withlacoochee State Forest

Most people visit Florida for its beaches, theme parks, Everglades and big cities like Miami or Orlando. But there is so much more to discover and explore like forests and caves.

The Withlacoochee State Forest is the third largest state forest in Florida with thousands of acres of trails, terrain, rivers and caves to explore. This forest is also part of the Great Florida Birding Trail. It is managed for timber, wildlife, ecological restoration and outdoor recreation.

We specifically came to the forest for the Dames Cave that I had found searching for kid friendly hikes and activities North of Tampa. The Dames Caves Trail is also called Trail 22 and is part of the Citrus Trail system of the Withlacoochee State Forest. It was very easy to find with our GPS and free parking was conveniently located right on the side of the road off of S. Lecanto Hwy (491). The caves are mostly known locally and even though there were some other hikers, it did not feel crowded.

Trail 22 is about 1.2 miles long and a sandy trail leads directly to the Dames Cave. It’s an easy flat hike on a soft path through beautiful pine flatwoods and is perfect for families.

Two of the most popular caves on this trail are called Dames Cave and Peace Cave. Dames Cave has also been called “Vandal Cave” due to the many graffiti drawings covering the walls. It may look like a giant hole in the ground at first, as the cave’s ceiling collapsed long time ago. We were able to look directly down about 15 feet into Dames Cave and it reminded me of a Mexican Cenote. On the side is a smaller cave entrance that can be climbed down.

The opening is mostly big rocks and roots of the tree and only a very short climb. Once inside the cave, there is a big open area with amazing rock formations, lots of graffiti and the opening that make it look like a cenote. Plants and roots grow on the edge of the walls.

There are several small openings that lead deeper into the rocks and connect to more caves. We explored another smaller cave that was completely dark. Even though the boys wanted to explore even further, we decided to skip any deeper and darker caves.

The Peace Cave is another bigger cave on the trail and is marked with a huge peace sign on a tree. It is more difficult to get inside and completely dark. There is lots of opportunity to hike further and several other trails connect to Trail 22 and to discover several more small caves.

This hike was the perfect combination of fun and adventure and was interesting for all of us.

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Avignon/Nimes, France

The Pont Du Gard Bridge in Southern France near Avignon/Nimes

The Pont du Gard is one of the sites that shouldn’t be missed on any trip to the South of France. The Aqueduct is one of the most beautiful Roman constructions in France and a Unesco World heritage sight. With more than a million visitors per year, Pont du Gard is the most visited ancient monument in France.

After visiting the lavender fields in Sault, we spent the day in Avignon before continue to drive to Spain. I love to revisit places I had seen as a child on vacation with my parents and sister. We had visited Pont Du Gard, when I was 8 years old. Since it was kind of one the way, I spontaneous decided to stop and revisit this beautiful bridge with my children. We arrived pretty late and the museum was already closed for the day, but the golden light of the sunset made up for it. It was a beautiful warm August evening and most of the people had already left for the day.

The bridge, which spans the Gardon, is 48 meters high; it extends over a distance over 272 meters but was originally 490 meters long.

We didn’t bring any bathing suites, but that didn’t stop us from heading directly to the Gardon River to cool off in the perfectly clear water. The boys tried to catch little fish with their hands, Olivia was splashing around happily, and I just enjoyed being there and appreciated the moment. Of course, I also took a lot of pictures.

We could have definitely spent the entire day there. A picnic at the banks, kayaking, the museum , a guided tour of the different levels of the bridge, swimming and the surrounding gardens offer so much possibilities. I do love to revisit places, so we might be back again. This time, I will plan it before and visit the entire site.

I am so happy we stayed for the spectacular illumination of the monument. They started at 10pm and were so worth it. The bridge and surrounding area was transformed with lights and pyrotechnics, to tell a beautiful story. It was the perfect ending to enjoy a warm summer night.

Opening hours of the site

From 9 am to 8 pm from January to March

From 9 am to 9 pm in April and May

From 10 am to 10 pm in June

From 9 am to 00 pm in July and August

From 9 am to 10 pm in September

From 9 am to 9 pm  from October to December

Entrance fee ticket:
– Discovery Pass (Pont du Gard, Museum, Ciné, the Mémoires de Garrigue path, Exhibition)
Adult rate: 9.50 € / pers (8€ On line preserved)
Reduced price: 7 € / pers
Free for children under -18 years

Free entry is granted to :

-People with disabilities, regardless of the degree of disability as well as up to one person accompanying them.

– Guided tour at the top level of the Aqueduct : + 6€ (Free under -6 years)

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Arcadia, Florida

The Historic Downtown Antique District of Arcadia, Florida

Florida is most famous for sunshine, beaches, amusement parks, oranges and maybe the Everglades. But there is so much more to our beautiful sunshine state. Most tourists visit Miami and Orlando, however some of Florida’s best secrets are in more remote locations away from tourist areas. Arcadia is one of those places and worth a visit.

Located just about one hour east of Sarasota and about one hour north of Fort Myers, Arcadia is nestled between miles of orange trees and cattle fields. It is a charming old Florida town with a beautiful historic Main Street. The Downtown Historical District now encompasses 3,400 acres with 293 historic buildings and is part of the U.S. National Register of Historic Places.

Driving by beautiful historic houses and old trees covered in Spanish Moss, Arcadia feels like being transported to a different time. But the main reason, we like to visit, is the historic downtown antique district on main street. The charming antique stores are filled with little treasures, collectibles, rare finds, antiques, vintage deco and much more. It is a dream for antique lovers and was even named the state’s “Best Place for Antique Shopping” by Florida Monthly magazine.

The heart of the historical district is extends 18 blocks and consists of buildings constructed between 1900 and the late 1920. Three buildings that survived the devastating 1905 downtown fire as well as those that were rebuilt, are generally masonry vernacular in style. The most imposing structure is the 1912 classical Revival courthouse as well as the 1906 Opera House that is both museum and antique store. It houses an amazing collection of historical items and the theater is in near original condition.

My favorite store is the Vintage Garden right in the beginning of Main Street. It’s full of shabby chic furniture, accessories, treasures and more. I just looooove it so much and would love to buy everything. And it is pink too. The perfect store for me.

Another of my favorite buildings is the Rosin Building, which is commonly called The Pink Building and is one of the most iconic buildings on main street. Over the years, the ground floor of the Pink Building has housed different antique stores, restaurants, a bar, a barbershop, a post office, a hardware store, a beauty parlor and a drug store.

I like to include my kids in our adventures and antique shopping might not be on the top of favorite things to do for a child or a teenager. To get them interested, everybody gets $5 or $10 and can buy whatever treasure they can find. That usually works perfect for my older boys, because they are very careful to spend their money wisely and want to find the greatest and best treasure out there.

Another fun way of getting the kids interested, is to find something odd or funny. It can be anything. In our case, we were looking for creepy faces. There are lots of beautiful old dolls, stuffed animals and toys, but some of them do look a little creepy. My sister noticed the first doll and took a picture of the face. Once we started to look for them, we noticed more and more faces of dolls, clowns and little figurines that qualified. It became a game for everybody to find the most fascinating and creepy doll face. Of course, we could have looked for something else instead, but the dolls just found us. Sometimes a creepy face is all it takes to get kids interested. (by the way, that strategy has worked for us before…. One time we visited the Louvre in Paris and my youngest son was so excited about finding naked baby bottoms in the pictures) Here is a little selection of our favorite doll faces:

Most stores open around 10 am and close around 4pm. One of the largest antique fairs in the state, the Antique Association of Arcadia hosts over 100 quality dealers is held monthly on the 4th Saturday of the month. We haven’t been to this event, but it sounds very interesting.

Anyways, Arcadia was the perfect place to spend the day with the family on an overcast Sunday. We found several little treasures and spent a beautiful day all together.

One last thing: There is an Annual Watermelon Festival in May at the height of the harvesting season. A watermelon seed spit competition is the perfect reason for my boys to come back. Or maybe looking for shark teeth inside the Peace River…… We definitely will visit again.

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Dunnellon, Florida

Tubing on Rainbow River and Rainbow Springs State Park

One of my favorite summer adventures last year was Tubing on the Rainbow River by Dunnellon….. In case you have never heard about this town, it is about 100 miles northwest of Orlando. There’s no better or more relaxing way to experience this magical river than tubing! At least it is for me…. I wasn’t sure if Chris or Olivia would be too excited to float in the rather cool water….The water temperature averages 72 degrees year-round. It is a little fresh going inside, but I promise it will be perfect about 1 mile down the river and the sun will be almost too much by mile 2.

There are different tubing experiences available. We decided to launch from K.P. Hole, a Marion County Park, and floated approximately 3 1/2 hours down the river. There was also the shorter option available from the State park which would have lasted only about 2 hours. I was unsure before if tubing from K.P. Hole park was not too long, but time went by way too fast and I wish, there would have been a 6 hour experience available.

We went tubing together with my sister and her husband, which made it even better. To stay attached, we tied our tubes together with ropes. We also brought waterproof bags, reusable water bottles (the only ones allowed), goggles, snacks, hats and of course sunscreen.

Despite being 30 feet deep in some places, it feels like you could reach out and touch the bottom since the water is crystal clear. We saw turtles, fish, dragonflies and forests of aquatic grass that provide food and habitat for many of the creatures that live here. Although everyone wonders about alligators, we did not see any.

As I mentioned before, Oliva would have not liked to be in a float for that long or even touch the cold water, so we resolved that problem and rented a kayak in addition to the tubes. It was the perfect solution, because we also transported all the drinks, snacks and even towels.

It was the perfect day and it was over way too fast. It was peaceful and beautiful. And it inspired us to visit more springs in the future.

 Tubing season runs April to October. On summer weekends, both Rainbow River tubing operations generally reach capacity, so early arrival is important,

The next day we visited the Rainbow Springs State Park to see the waterfalls. We love to visit waterfalls, but Florida doesn’t have too many…. So I was excited to find out there were some at Rainbow Springs.

Rainbow Springs State Park is magnificent and we strolled through shady gardens laced with azaleas, oaks and magnolias. The walkways are paved and even though some are a little steep, they are still pretty easy to navigate.

The walkways pass by three man-made waterfalls and a native plant garden. When we visited in August 2020 only two waterfalls were working at the time. We continued through the garden and passed many relics (remains of old animal cages) of the glory past, when the park was a private attraction.

At the end of the path, begins a small Butterfly Garden. The sun was casting the perfect shadow on the entrance gazebo, it was warm and other than butterflies, we were the only ones there. It felt so peaceful and perfect.

To our surprise, there was more… A small trail right out of a fairytale lead us to three nature trails through natural oak hammock and sandhill communities.

We did not have a map, so we just followed the colored markers of the trail. There is a blue, yellow and white trail and we decided to follow the blue trail.

It had rained the previous days, so the blue trail (which is the closest to the water) became muddy and inaccessible. We decided to go for the yellow trail instead. The trails offers both river and phosphate pit overlooks…..

This area was the first place where phosphate was commercially mined in Florida. The deep pits and spoil piles left behind were recovered by the forest and are looking unreal in a normally very flat Florida. What a surprise when the first pit suddenly appeared in front of us. (My batterie had died, so I didn’t take any pictures.)

The most fascinating thing were the changes throughout the trail. We started in a forest, followed by sandy terrain punctuated with ravines created by mining and restored by nature. It did not even feel like Florida. At times we felt lost, because we couldn’t see any markers. I would have loved to see more along the paths, but it made it also more adventurous. It was also very overgrown and felt a little longer than the miles on the sign. I still found it magical and we did not meet anybody during our walk. I highly recommend a hike on these trails and hope we will be back one day…