How many small towns can you name where visitors can dive in underwater caverns, sit atop an elephant, ride a vintage train, wander through a botanical garden and eat the best Southern soul food you’ll find this side of Mississippi?
Williston, Florida, claims all these and more.
You might not realize this driving through the sleepy downtown with its handful of antique shops. Gazing at the vintage storefronts, you imagine their potential. While downtown Williston waits for its rebirth, many civic minded residents work behind the scenes, hosting festivals and community fundraisers. It’s only a matter of time until the little town undergoes a renaissance. “Recently, the old high school was sold to a developer. It is our understanding that the future development of this area will include various storefronts. Once the development begins, this should bring more life to the downtown area,” says Mayor Jerry Robinson.
In the meantime, Williston has no lack of visitors, thanks to unique natural wonders that attract visitors from around the world. It’s a destination where you easily strike the right balance between adventure and leisure. Known as the “Gateway to the Nature Coast”, it’s situated between Ocala and Gainesville in north central Florida’s rural Levy County.
“Williston is a hidden gem that provides a great opportunity for visitors to experience some of the last remaining parts of Old Florida,” says Levy County Commissioner Matt Brooks.
A Farming Foundation
As you might have guessed, the town is named after its founder, Jesse Mercer Willis, a tax collector and homesteader who settled here in the 1850s. Williston’s agricultural origins linger in fields and farms outside town. Peanuts, watermelons and other crops are grown locally. It’s also home to cattle ranching and horse farms, proudly claiming itself the home of 1975 Kentucky Derby winner Foolish Pleasure.
Jesse Mercer Willis’ son diverged from his father’s path to become a doctor. He worked at what was once the town hospital — today, it’s an unassuming ivy-covered building on Main Street.
Dr. Willis did the community a great service when he brought a special baby into the world 85 years ago. Born in a farmhouse outside town, the baby grew up to become Mrs. Mimi Hale, proprietor of The Ivy House Restaurant, a beloved Williston institution cherished by locals and travelers alike. Accompanied by her daughters and daughter-in-law, Mimi still works at the restaurant. “I can’t wait to get to work every morning,” she says with a smile. Housed in a turn of the century home, the Ivy House puts its own stamp on Southern fare. Paring the standard stewed collards with cabbage, for instance, removes any trace of bitterness. And the six-ingredient cornbread could stand in for dessert any day. Your plate will runneth over with food and friendliness – the portions are generous enough to share and the kind staff make you feel instantly at home.
Base Camp for Adventure
That hearty cuisine serves you well after a long day adventuring on backroads outside of town. You’ll need more than an afternoon to experience the area; begin your journey by deciding where to stay. Happy campers find multiple options here. If your idea of camping means surrounding yourself with all the comforts of home and never lacking for entertainment, consider Williston Crossings RV Resort. This massive RV community features a pool, fishing lake, shuffleboard and pickle ball courts, a fitness center, clubhouse, laundry facilities, a dog park and more. The resort offers hundreds of shaded and open campsites, including drive-in, back-in and pull-through sites. With a daily roster of activities, it’s nearly all-inclusive. You need only bring groceries and active wear, because you’ll have plenty to do.
Those who prefer primitive tent camping, simple RV sites or cabins, should check out Devil’s Den, less than three miles from downtown. It’s situated along a peaceful pastoral lane lined by woods and horse farms with pastures spreading out like emerald velvet. (More on Devil’s Den later.)
For non-campers wanting ready access to Devil’s Den, the Two Hawk Hammock guest house is a convenient base within easy walking or driving distance. “We bought the property because it was next to Devil’s Den and because of that tree,” says owner Heidi Schwiebert, gesturing to a venerable live oak. The tree’s expansive limbs sprawl along the ground and create a “hammock” (a Floridian term for a stand of trees). When Heidi and her husband Ken discovered their new home, they also discovered two hawks living in the oak tree. Two Hawk Hammock was born in that moment.
The guest house features four rooms, each with a queen bed and two twin beds. Every room has an outside entrance and access to a community kitchen/dining area, laundry and TV rooms. Traveling with a group? Rent the whole house for up to 16 people. A Friday and Saturday night stay with a “whenever” check-out time on Sunday costs $850. The affable Heidi invites guests to visit her furry family members in the barnyard: donkeys, miniature horses, a dog and cat. The expansive property with its gazebo, shady picnic area and old fashioned tree swing welcome family reunions and weddings, too.
It’s hard to fully comprehend Devil’s Den Spring until you see it with your own eyes. Even then, it’s hard to understand the forces that created this prehistoric phenomenon. Standing on a viewing platform as the Florida sun forms beads of sweat on your brow, you peer down through a small opening in the earth where a glowing blue pool of 72 degree water appears. Below the surface, Devil’s Den is shaped like an upside down mushroom that drops down 54 feet. Early settlers gave the spring its devilish moniker one winter morning when they saw steam rising from the spring like a cauldron.
Tucked into a dry cave, this underground spring is famous among cave divers and archeologists who found animal fossils dating back to the Pleistocene Age here. Stone steps lead down into the subterranean pool, which is typically filled with snorkelers and cave divers by mid-morning. Many travel from across the globe to explore its underwater rock formations. A privately-owned scuba diving training center, the attraction features a heating swimming pool for dive instruction and equipment rentals. Tip: Unlike other Florida springs, Devil’s Den is limited to divers and snorkelers only. Arrive early; on busy summer weekends, the facility may limit entry.
Nearby, another underwater cavern awaits exploration. Turning off Highway 27, you drive along a sand road tunneling through a leafy green canopy. Could this rural lane possibly lead to a world-famous dive site? The Blue Grotto hosts a steady stream of divers who, like Jacque Cousteau once did, explore Florida’s largest underwater cavern. The dive site contains training platforms in its open water basin. In the upper cavern 30 feet beneath the surface, divers find an air bell of fresh compressed air. Pausing inside this unique pit stop, they have a 360 degree view of the upper cavern. From here, a guideline directs them down 50 more feet to the crescent shaped lower cavern, where the walls are lined with prehistoric fossils.
The facility is designed for divers, with a swimming pool for dive instruction, equipment rentals, a tank refill station, places to hang up wetsuits, a bathhouse and cabins for overnight stays.
A Botanical Paradise
Some people see potential beauty where others see an abandoned lime rock quarry. That’s what happened at Cedar Lakes Woods and Gardens, a rare find in a small town. Ray Webber began building his botanical paradise of gardens, waterfalls and koi ponds in the early 1990s. Today, the 110-acre property brims with bamboo, gingers, ferns, vines, palms and other tropical foliage. A peaceful retreat from the outside world, the gardens are surrounded by a 54-acre conservation easement with cedars, hickory, pine and other trees. Strolling the stone pathways, a gentle breeze stirs in the bamboo. An inquisitive squirrel crosses your path as you pause to contemplate a waterfall gushing over moss-covered quarry walls worn by time. The gardens are within walking distance of Devil’s Den and Two Hawk Hammock. Check the website for special events taking place throughout the year. Tip: Wear non-skid flat or low heeled shoes to explore the gardens.
The best way to explore the 174-acre Kirby Family Farm is on its 19th century narrow gauge train. Founded as a ministry to help at-risk and special needs youth “stay on track or get back on track”, the Farm welcomes the public with events throughout the year, from Wild West reenactment weekends to a Christmas Express train ride through a holiday lights display. While the focus is on fun, kids also learn about local agriculture and history as they explore this agritourism destination.
Want your family to learn where food comes from? Visit the Red, White and Blues Farm, from spring through June to pick buckets of fresh blueberries. Afterwards, sample a blueberry milkshake or other locally grown fresh food at their Farm Store.
For an experience unlike any other in Florida, make an appointment to visit Two Tails Ranch. The privately owned sanctuary shelters Asian and African elephants needing a temporary or permanent home. On her guided, by appointment tours, Owner Patricia Zerbini gives visitors up close and personal encounters with these majestic animals. The ninth generation of her family to work with exotic animals, Patricia draws on decades of experience. She shares that knowledge with visitors, while providing an unforgettable experience. After all, how often do you get to feed or ride an elephant?
And just when you thought Williston was just another small Florida town, it surprises you again.