We decided to start the new year off in true state park style, so a road trip was in order. After sleeping through the midnight celebrations, we got up New Year's Day and hit the road, heading north three hours. We had a couple of destinations planned, and thankfully they were in the same neighborhood. Our first stop was the State Of Florida's Nature & Heritage Tourism Center.
After Olivia signed us in, we took our time wandering around this educational facility. My head was close to exploding, because everywhere I looked were brochures for state parks and attractions. Anything and everything significant to our great state was represented:
The Center is perched above the historic Suwannee River, made famous by folk musician Stephen Foster. His ode to the river is our state song, but we learned that Mr. Foster never even set foot in Florida. Still, it's a great song, and he contributed many other great songs like it during his short life.
We relaxed for a few moments on the back porch at The Center, gazing down on the dark waters of the Suwannee. I was surprised at both its deep color and narrow width. I realize that we are technically experiencing winter, but I still thought it would be much more grand.
We headed back inside and continued to collect brochures and dream of future trips. My arms were so full that the ranger manning the desk offered me a bag! I was thrilled when I saw it. Yes, that is true joy on my face:
Once we had our fill, we wandered down the sidewalk to the remnants of the White Sulphur Springs. Apparently this area was once known as a health spa of sorts, and the main building is still standing:
Current day (with Rob):
Previously known as:
This place was pretty cool! We wandered around inside and out and got our first up-close look at the Suwannee River:
Pretty soon it was time to get down to the main reason for our visit: Stephen Foster. I had done some research and found that the park displays over 4 MILLION Christmas lights each year. New Year's Weekend happened to be the last weekend for the display, so we planned to stay late enough to see the lights. We made it into the park with enough daylight to see the sites:
Stephen Foster has a lot of things to offer, and we tried to experience them all while we had the chance. First, we stopped in at the museum:
There are mementos from Stephen Foster's life, and also some very intricate dioramas. Oddly enough, they were created by a company here in our hometown of DeLand! The dioramas tell the stories of some of Stephen Foster's most notable works, and they all have some kind of moving parts. The pictures aren't that great, but here are some:
There were also a couple of portraits of Stephen Foster by Howard Chandler Christie. His name may not be that familiar to you, but one of his most famous works is titled Scene of the Signing of the Constitution of the United States and hangs in the U.S. Capitol Building.
From the museum we wandered the grounds to the 92 bell Carillon Tower. The bells chime every hour with, can you guess?, Stephen Foster songs!
While it isn't possible to go to the top of the tower and see the bells, the bottom floor is full of more Stephen Foster memorabilia, including a couple more dioramas. After spending some time here, we decided the next best thing to do would be to enjoy the picnic lunch we brought.
Then it was playtime:
Pretty soon we decided to make another trip down to the Suwannee River. A few photo highlights:
The pole here shows the water levels on the given years, compared to how low the river is in the background. Wow.
After wandering around on the river bank for awhile we decided to hit the Florida Trail. We didn't go very far, just far enough to reach a small primitive campsite. Then we turned around and wandered back.
By the time we walked back up from the river, we noticed that the lights were coming on! We knew it wouldn't be long until the sun was gone for the night and the magic of the Christmas lights would begin. For the time being we decided to check out the Craft Square.
There were several different buildings, each housing something different. Beading, quilting, aromatherapy, stained glass. There was an artisan at each stop, teaching their art and selling goods. It was neat! We also checked out the gift shop, which had a beautiful Christmas tree set up:
At the edge of the Square was a bonfire, and we sat down to enjoy some s'mores:
At this point let me tell you, we pretty much had the entire park to ourselves up until then. It was as if we were in our own personal playground! And just when I didn't think it could get any better, we did something very cool. We took a horse-drawn carriage ride through the park to see the lights! *sigh* I just wish I had better pictures to share. I have a lot to learn about my camera and its nighttime settings!
After the carriage ride we walked around some more and took more photos. Then we drove around and did more of the same:
And finally, our magical beginning to 2011 was over. It was time to head home. It was a very long day with lots of stuff packed into it, and I wouldn't change a single thing. We got to see a huge park on our own terms. Not a bad way to start the year, I'd say!