A High Springs Hiatus

By Nancy Moreland

It seems that all roads lead to High Springs, Florida, where Highways 27, 441 and 41 intersect. Located about 20 miles northwest of Gainesville in Alachua County, High Springs is a crossroads for those traveling through North Central Florida. If you find yourself near this part of the state, linger for an afternoon or weekend. You’ll be glad you did. Like many small Florida towns, there’s more here than meets the eye when you’re just passing through.

Nature lovers, history enthusiasts, scuba divers, spring hoppers, shoppers and anyone wanting a relaxing, yet vibrant destination will enjoy High Springs.

High Springs is one of the jewels of Alachua County and Florida. Our motto, ‘Enjoy our Good Nature’ means more than our environment. Our citizens and businesses are what make it so special,” says City Commissioner Nancy J. Lavin.

Downtown Diversions

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the downtown historic district. A short stroll reveals different diversions, from regional cuisine and a microbrewery to shopping and watching movies in a vintage theater. Allow more time than you think you’ll need. “It’s a small town; all the shopkeepers talk to you,” says Danni Meissner, owner of The Mantle boutique. Acting as unofficial goodwill ambassadors, local folks love to share what makes their community special.

With shopping in mind, start at Meissner’s boutique. “We (merchants) move in and nestle into the character of the space, keeping the small-town America feel,” she says. Her collection of antique and contemporary gifts and home furnishings complements the Mantle’s spacious 19th century building.

In keeping with the casual, small-town vibe, Meissner and many Main Street merchants keep “ish” hours. As Meissner explains, “Because life isn’t scripted, sometimes we open earlier and close later!”

Across Main Street, The Bird Nest Vintage Market shares a similar love of eclectic design. Joanna Gaines would relish the shop’s mix of old and new. You can imagine her selecting a collection of cotton boll arrangements to fill a rustic tin container. From Christmas trees to cowhide rugs, beautifully burnished leather goods and burlap shabby chic decor, it’s a treasure trove of home décor. In homage to the previous tenant Sheffield’s Hardware, Nest owner April Griffin uses Sheffield’s vintage hardware bins, display cases and shelves to show off her wares.

If you want to purchase a one-of-a-kind memento of your High Springs hiatus, shop at Lanza Gallery, where paintings by 18 local artists capture the region’s natural beauty. Those who like wearable or functional art appreciate the gallery’s original jewelry and pottery selections.

Stepping inside River Run Olive Oil Company, you expand your culinary horizons. The light-filled space with its gleaming wood floors holds 60 varieties of international gourmet oils and vinegars, each with its own flavor profile. River Run elevates taste testing to a new level, allowing shoppers to sample flavors, while the staff offer tips on how to use and pair the oils and vinegars. Discerning cooks also enjoy the selection of specialty salts and spice mixes.

Tip: Check out River Run’s “Chef Night” every third Thursday – $15 buys you tapas samplers and teachable moments from a chef demonstrating tips and tricks for using oils and vinegars.

These are just a few downtown diversions. Allow a few hours and a leisurely stroll to explore others.

Stepping Back in Time

At the High Springs Museumyou learn that interesting things come in small packages. Native Americans, Spanish explorers, farmers, railroad men, phosphate miners and even bootleggers have left their mark on the area.

Housed in a historic railroad depot, the High Springs Chamber of Commerce staff advise visitors on what to see and do in the area. With their wealth of local knowledge, free parking and public restrooms, the Chamber is a good first stop upon arriving in town.

The restored Priest Theatre is the ideal place to while away a hot afternoon while enjoying current films at bargain prices. Florida’s oldest theater is open Friday, Saturday and Monday evenings.

If live theater is more to your liking, check out High Springs Playhouse. The volunteer-run community theater company has hosted productions since 1994. The 2019-2020 season features six shows.

Brewing a Small-Town Renaissance

As independently owned craft beer microbreweries pop up in small towns across America, they inject new energy into downtown areas. High Springs is no exception. Across the street from the Priest Theatre, High Springs Brewing Company follows the footsteps of other microbreweries with its convivial community gathering place. Formerly a welding shop, the brewery’s rustic industrial sensibility blends well with its environment.

Gainesville native Kiffin Ayers co-founded the brewery to create a family-friendly destination that people of all ages could enjoy. You’ll find corn hole, Jenga and other games adjacent to the spacious seating area. Along with a selection of his five “core and seasonal beers,” Ayers sells two national seasonal beers, two wine varieties, a hard cider and handcrafted non-alcoholic sodas. He hopes to add food trucks into the mix soon.

The Brewery hosts live music a few nights a week, Trivia Nights on Tuesdays and karaoke on Wednesdays.

Dining Downtown

Ask around town for dining recommendations and you’ll likely hear "Great Outdoors Restaurant". It may be the town’s busiest eating establishment, but it’s also one-part river cabin, with pecky cypress beams, cane back chairs, rustic wood tables and vintage wood canoes suspended from the ceiling.

Dine indoors in that riverine ambiance or outside, adjacent to the Patio River Bar and live music stage. In cooler months, try for a table near the stone fireplace. It’s an ideal perch after a day spent paddling the Santa Fe.

Across the street, a tiny gem called Bambi's Country Market & Restaurant breathes new life into a vintage gas station. You might not expect to find a menu with organic, 100 percent plant-based cuisine and gluten free desserts in rural Florida, but owner Bambi Liss fills the bill and the belly with her deliciously guilt-free fare. Her takeout sandwiches and salads make the perfect picnic for outdoor adventures. Check out the selection of locally sourced foods, including elderberry syrup. Bambi grows nearly all the food she serves on her nearby farm.

For desserts like your Nana used to make, stop by the winsome cottage known as the Secret Garden Bakery. If you like ice cream with an ample sprinkling of nostalgia, step inside the Florida Creamery’s old-fashioned establishment.

Gateway to the Springs

With an abundance of freshwater springs within proximity, it’s easy to see why the town’s nickname, “Gateway to the Springs” appears on a colorful mural at the corner of US W Hwy 27 and NW 237th Street.

Before you dip a toe into any of those chilly crystalline waters, visit the Florida Springs Institute in the heart of the town’s historic district. “We encourage people to stop here on their way to the springs,” says Zoey Hendrickson, an environmental scientist with the Institute. “North Central Florida is known as the land of a thousand springs. It is home to not only some of the most unique and fragile ecosystems on earth but is also the source of Florida’s drinking water. Our goal is for people to walk away with appreciation for Florida's Springs, an understanding of the issues facing our springs/drinking water sources and a greater knowledge of what they can do to prevent further harm to our springs and their natural beauty.” 

Did you know? Sixty percent of Florida’s drinking water comes from an aquifer, the source of the springs we love to explore. 

A central clearing house of springs-related information, the Institute is free and open to the public Tuesday-Friday, 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Inside, there’s a brief video about Florida’s springs, artifact displays and literature. (Be sure to pick up a map showing springs throughout Florida.) Children enjoy the kid-size table with spring-themed coloring books and the manatee skeleton display. Relax and review what you’ve learned in the peaceful shady garden out back.

The first Tuesday of each month, the staff present classes on springs ecology and advocacy. (Classes are free and open to the public; a $5 donation is appreciated to help support educational efforts.)

Don’t miss: Purchase a waterproof guide of fish species you can refer to while snorkeling!

Here are five springs within easy driving distance of town:

Ichetucknee Springs State Park: Eighteen miles northwest of town, these springs and the river of the same name are longtime favorites of Floridians. 

Poe Springs County Park: Less than four miles from town, a slice of wild Florida lives on at Poe Springs. Don’t let the nicely manicured park entrance and picnic areas fool you. Walk for 10-15 minutes along the boardwalk and natural Florida emerges. Eventually, you discover Poe Springs and a white sand beach hidden in the forest.

Ruth B. Kirby Gilchrist Blue Springs State Park: Technically in Gilchrist County, but well worth crossing the county line, this watery wonderland is just over six miles from High Springs. Florida’s newest state park boasts one of its prettiest springs, with water so blue and clear, you might think you’re in the Caribbean, except for the 72-degree temperature. Nestled into woods with a sandy beach, campground, picnic areas and boardwalk, it’s a refreshing diversion on a hot afternoon.

Ginnie Springs Outdoors: Seven springs converge at this popular, privately owned water recreation park. Just nine miles from town, the park also rents tubes for floating on the Santa Fe River.

Rum Island Springs: Though currently closed for maintenance, this county park is still accessible by paddling across the Santa Fe River from Gilchrist Blue Springs.

Divers and those wanting to learn to dive should visit Extreme Exposure Dive Shop for gear sales, rentals and repairs as well as diving instruction.

A Paddler’s Paradise

The nearby Santa Fe River is a recreational resource for kayakers, canoeists and tubers. If you don’t own a boat, call Jim Wood at Santa Fe Canoe Outpost. He rents ‘yaks, canoes and paddle boards. Wood also guides paddling trips and provides shuttle transportation to different locations. Tip: Book equipment rentals in advance to ensure availability.

A Storied Stay

By now, you may realize that High Springs deserves an overnight stay. A few blocks from downtown, Grady House Bed and Breakfast is a labor of love for owners Bobbie and Steve Sabo. Over its 102-year lifespan, the home has been a bakery and a boarding house serving railroad workers. Two former mayors of High Springs, George Grady and his daughter, Georgeann, once lived here.

Today, the elegant B&B accommodates up to 14 guests in five tastefully decorated rooms. Each reflects a different theme. Three rooms boast claw foot tub/shower combinations. The “romantic room” has a twin tub. The ground floor room has a walk-in shower. Televisions are tucked discreetly into armoires. Antique radios and ice buckets hint at a gentler time. It’s easy to discern the pride in Bobbie Sabo’s voice as she points out the inn’s unique features.

One of the nicest aspects of a Grady House stay is waking to Bobbie’s sumptuous breakfasts. The sunny natured innkeeper rises at 5 each morning to prepare a homemade feast for fortunate guests. Tip: Breakfast is included in your room rate only if you book through www.gradyhouse.com or by calling 386-454-2206.

Next door, the Sabos also operate Skeet’s Cottage. The 123-year-old structure was once home to Juanita Easterlin, who was born here in 1910. Nicknamed “Skeet”, the colorful maverick owned a gas station and restaurant before she was sent to jail for bootlegging.

One or both houses can be booked for reunions, wedding parties or other group gatherings. The inn’s spacious property features lovely gardens, koi ponds and a gazebo covered in jasmine.

There’s no better way to watch the world go by than sipping a lemonade on the Grady House veranda. In moments like these, you realize how lucky you were when you discovered this jewel of Alachua County.

For more information on High Springs, Florida, contact the Chamber of Commerce at 386-454-3120 or VisitGainesville.com or 866-778-5002.