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See Tallahassee, Florida

Take a Look at Old and Natural Florida in Tallahassee
By Neilia Sherman

photo by: Linda Aksomitis

Tallahassee is very different than the Florida cities that most tourists visit. There are no theme parks, no tourist traps and pretty much everyone has a southern accent. That's because Tallahassee is much closer to the state of Georgia than it is to Miami and more closely resembles its Southern neighbors in topography, climate and lifestyle.

I didn't know much about Tallahassee before my visit and I must say that I was pleasantly surprised. I was, in fact, seeing 'the other Florida'. The climate is cooler and the look is different; there are lush rolling hills and giant oak trees covered in hanging Spanish moss. Some have grown to such an extent that trees on either side of the road actually meet in the middle, creating a natural canopy, thus five "official canopy roads" have been designated and these are very lovely roads on which to take an afternoon drive.

Some people are surprised to hear that Tallahassee is Florida's capital city, due to its distance from the ocean and 'sleepy town' image, but Tallahassee has fiercely clung to this title. The history of its designation goes back to 1823, when William Pope DuVal, governor of the new Territory of Florida, decided to choose a central location for the legislature. He sent one explorer on horseback from St. Augustine and another by boat from Pensacola and when the two met near a waterfall, in the spot the Indians referred to as "tallahasee" meaning "old town", it was declared Florida's capital.

One thing that I noticed about Tallahassee, is that the people love good food and they are willing to drive to wherever it takes to get it. That's why I found myself on the way to Bradley's Country Store, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, to get a taste of what is known as the best sausage around. And it was truly delicious. It is seasoned according to Grandma Mary's special recipe and folks have been coming from miles around for years, just to grab one for lunch or buy a bunch to take home.

It was also worth the drive to Nicholson's Farm House Restaurant, where I had the best steak that I've ever eaten. The farm house was built in 1828 and is now an historic site. I wolfed down a huge Delmonico steak, which was made with perfectly aged beef that was cut onsite and seasoned to perfection. The atmosphere here is relaxed and homey. The meal begins with a complimentary appetizer of boiled peanuts, a local favorite; that I must say did nothing for me, but were hastily gobbled down by my dinner companions. I did have an opportunity to try something else that sounded strange and was touted as a Southern delicacy, at a popular place for fresh seafood called Barnacle Bill's. When I was told that we had some orders of deep fried pickles coming, I thought, "how strange" but I loved them.

For elegant dining, you can't beat Chez Pierre, a charming French restaurant located in a beautifully restored house from the 1920's. Here I feasted on delicious rack of lamb. They offer superb appetizers and deserts and attentive staff who have a flair for dramatic presentation.

I stayed at the historic and sedate Governors Inn, which is right down the street from the Capitol buildings. Each of the 40 rooms is named for a governor from Florida's past. The staff was young, but very obliging. In fact when my luggage was lost, the front desk clerk found me brand new clothes with the price tags still on that had been left behind by a guest. Luckily, I didn't have to squeeze myself into these items that were nice but one size too small, as my luggage was found and delivered to my room later that evening. The rooms are charming with four-poster beds, elegant antique furnishings, terry robes and well-stocked bathrooms.

In the morning there is a nice complimentary continental breakfast with fresh fruit, tasty pastries and breads and delicious coffee. As an additional bonus, every evening there is a happy hour - also complimentary. I was surprised when I walked outside, to find that other than a restaurant across the street, there were few commercial enterprises in this historic part of the downtown area. I couldn't even find a variety store, as I was used to finding in most Florida cities.

Even though Tallahassee isn't on the ocean, there is plenty of wildlife in the vicinity. I got to see wildcats, otters, lions, red wolves, deer and bears on a tour of the Tallahassee Museum of History and Natural Science. These animals are lovingly tended to by long-time zookeeper Michael Jones, who actually raised one of the otters in his home for six months. All of the animals here have been rescued or are unable to return their natural environments for various reasons.

We also had the chance to explore several historic buildings, such as a one-room school house that had been used to educate the children of former slaves and the Bethlehem Missionary Baptist Church, which traces its founding to a slave preacher ordained in the 1850s.

An alligator at Wakulla Springs State Park.
photo by: Linda Aksomitis

Another wonderful place to see wildlife is Wakulla Springs State Park, home of one of the world's largest and deepest freshwater springs. On a boat cruise along the river, we caught glimpses of a number of alligators as well as unique birds such as anhingas and ospreys. As a childhood fan of Tarzan movies, I found it interesting to learn that Johnny Weismuller and Maureen O'Sullivan filmed many of the underwater scenes for their movies in these crystal clear waters, in spite of the fact that the year-round temperature stays between 69-71 degrees.

Tallahassee has the largest concentration of original plantations in the US. There are 71 plantations between Tallahassee and Thomasville, Georgia, which is only 28 miles away. I had only seen Southern plantations on television before this trip and it was a thrill to visit a couple of them in person. The most impressive was the Pebble Hill Plantation. I thoroughly enjoyed exploring room after room of this magnificent home and taking in the luxurious décor and the trappings of wealth everywhere, from the hanging tassels that were used to summon servants, to the collection of Audubon prints on the wall.

The former mistress of the 42 room house was so practical and conscious of the importance of preserving art , that when the original home on the site caught on fire, she demanded that each guest carry two paintings out each as they escaped the burning house. Her success is evident as one corridor is completely filled with this collection. Family antiques, significant collections, as well as porcelain, crystal, china and portraits are scattered throughout the house, adding to the fascinating atmosphere.

Brand new to Tallahassee is the Challenger Learning Center, a living memorial to the STS 51-L Challenger mission astronauts. It includes a state-of-the-art Space Mission Simulator, a digital planetarium and an IMAX. I visited just as the Center was about to open and had the opportunity to watch a group of students from Alabama participate in a space simulation. Half were at 'mission control' and the other half were 'on a space mission'. All of the students seemed to be engrossed in the experience as they got to attempt such activities as monitoring life support or implementing navigation order. This is a wonderful place to bring kids, as it is fun and educational.

One of the most serene and beautiful places that I have ever seen in Florida is the Alfred B. Maclay Gardens State Park, which includes 28 acres of ornamental gardens that were developed between 1920-1940 and then donated to the state. The featured plants of the gardens are Camellias, which were brought to Tallahassee for the express purpose of being planted in this garden. Today, there are over 150 varieties on display.

Tallahassee is definitely worth at least a 2-3 day visit. This city has a commitment to preserving the past, a respect for nature and a passion for politics. A visit here offers a chance to explore at much more leisurely pace. I enjoyed having the opportunity to learn about the 'other Florida' - the part that isn't all about theme parks and beaches - and especially enjoyed my first taste of good old-fashioned Southern hospitality.

For more information about visiting Tallahassee: contact the Tallahassee Area Convention and Visitors Bureau at 1-800-628-2866 or visit www.seeTallahassee.com

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