If there’s anything I’ve learned from living in Orlando for nearly 10 years, it’s that sometimes I feel compelled to trade in theme parks for state parks. I love rollercoasters and fried food as much as anybody, but there are times when my soul yearns to connect with something other than crowds of tourists. And when I want to relax and ground myself in the great outdoors, all I need to do is set foot on a nature trail and start walking.
Recently, I realized there was only one state park in Central Florida that I hadn’t yet explored: De Leon Springs State Park, a 625-acre slab of nature named after Juan Ponce de León, the Spanish conquistador fabled to have scoured the state in search of the mystical fountain of youth. After spending a day at the park, I discovered that it’s worth the wait — and the hour-long drive from Orlando.
Become a breakfast artist.
In retrospect, I’m not sure what took me so long to visit — I’d heard that this particular state park is home to a restaurant where you can make your own pancakes, and I’ve never been one to turn down an interactive culinary experience. So that’s where I began my day: at the historic Old Spanish Sugar Mill, located in — you guessed it — an old sugar mill dating back to the 1900s. The mill’s crowning feature is a 30-foot undershot water wheel that once generated the power needed to crush sugar cane.
For the past 50 years, the mill has found second life as a family-owned restaurant. And the Old Spanish Sugar Mill has lived up to its location by grinding flour on-site to make batter for fresh pancakes, bread and cookies. Its real claim to fame, though, is the fact that each table features its own griddle where guests can make their own pancakes.
Knowing that the Sugar Mill is popular year-round, I arrived about 15 minutes after its 9 a.m. opening time. The restaurant was already busy, but my companions and I were seated right away at a table overlooking the natural sulphur spring. Now I had some decisions to make: Pancakes or French toast? What kind of batter? Which toppings?
I’m the first to admit that I’m not a natural in the kitchen. Just how many pancakes would I ruin before I got the hang of using the table griddle? After a few recommendations and instructions from the server, it was go time.
So I poured a small, tentative amount of gluten-free pancake batter on the griddle. Before I flipped the pancake, I poked a few apple slices into the batter, which felt daring at the time but turned out to be a tasty decision. After a few minutes of cooking, I scooped up the flapjack and slathered it with peanut butter, more apples, honey and cinnamon — creating a breakfast masterpiece that was almost a shame to eat.
Get ready to eat a big breakfast —maybe wear stretchy pants or bring along a second stomach. The building doesn’t have air conditioning or heat, so layers are your friend. Also, you can’t make reservations unless you have a group of 10 or larger, so get there early and be prepared to wait. You can explore the park without losing your spot on the waiting list, so work up an appetite by wandering the nature trails, renting a kayak or going on a 50-minute boat tour.
Get lost in “old Florida.”
If you’re not too stuffed to swim after you consume your body weight in pancakes, take a dip in the park’s scenic spring, which is a balmy 72 degrees year-round. My companions and I opted to walk off the carbs by hitting the trails, instead. The park is a walker’s wonderland, with a 4-mile hiking trail and half-mile paved nature trail branching out into the wilderness.
Wandering around a bit aimlessly, we happened upon Old Methuselah, a beautiful 500-year-old cypress tree that looks down on the surrounding trees like a grandpa watching over his brood. I also passed by Monkey Island, a tiny island that used to be inhabited by escaped circus monkeys (but alas, it’s just vegetation now).
Surrounded by the sounds of nature — the wind rustling the leaves, the birds singing their hellos, and the thump-thump of my feet moving forward — I felt immersed in “old Florida.” It’s a place where live oaks dance with swaying palm trees. Where wilderness and wildlife beckon you back to a time when Florida was the frontier. Where explorers like Ponce de Leon scoured the mysterious swamps in search of treasure…
But perhaps it’s better that they didn’t find it — or the fountain of youth — and Floridians get to keep this small state park to ourselves. A day trip to this serene slice of nature may not be the antidote to aging, but it’s a relaxing remedy to theme park overload.
Marriott’s Cypress Harbour
Marriott’s Grande Vista
Marriott’s Harbour Lake
Marriott’s Imperial Palms
Marriott’s Lakeshore Reserve
Marriott’s Royal Palms
Marriott’s Sabal Palms