Great American Pie Festival

By Andrea Hewitt

The 11th annual Great American Pie Festival was held April 28-29, 2012 at Lakeside Park in in beautiful Celebration, Florida.

The highlight of the event, which is sponsored by Crisco®, is without a doubt the Never-Ending Pie Buffet.  For $10, ($5 for children and seniors), festival attendees can purchase a wrist band which allows them all access to the all-you-can eat pie buffet.

At the Pie Festival, patrons are treated to award winning pies from a number of restaurants and bakeries, including Baker’s Square Restaurants & Pies, Bonert’s Slice of Pie, California Raisin Marketing Board, Village Inn and many more.  Ice cream, toppings, and beverages are provided by Publix Supermarkets, Dunkin’ Donuts, and Smuckers. 

The festival features entertainment in the forms of local and national recording artists, comedians, and authors throughout the weekend.  Another feature is the Challenge of the Iron Pie Makers, were teams have a limited time to create a pie using secret ingredients that are unveiled on stage.

At the Crisco booth, attendees are given the opportunity to make their own pies and get Crisco® Pie tips from Chef Michele Stuart.

The American Pie Council hosts the National Pie Championships, in which amateur, professional and junior chefs compete for the prize of Best Pie.  Other activities offered at this years festival include pie decorating, pie tin art contests, and of course, a Pie Eating Contest.  

Besides pie, there are a multitude of other food vendors, and arts and crafts booths to visit during the festival.

Click here for the 2012 Festival Program, which provides a schedule of events and a map of the festival.

Whether your favorite pie is pecan, lemon meringue, chocolate mousse, or traditional apple, the Great American Pie Festival is the festival for you.  Bring your appetite- who knows, you just might discover a new favorite.

Wekiwa Springs State Park

By Andrea Hewitt

For a fun-filled day of outdoor activities with family and friends, consider a visit to Wekiwa Springs State Park.  Located in the heart of Seminole County, Florida, Wekiwa Springs sits at the headwaters of the beautiful and scenic Wekiva River. 

A favorite activity of park visitors is canoeing or kayaking the river.  Canoes and kayaks can be rented within the park, and visitors can choose to paddle down either the Wekiva River or Rock Springs Run.  An array of fish, turtles, and other wildlife (including alligators) can be seen in the crystal clear waters.  

Swimming and snorkeling are permitted at the springs (but not in the Wekiva River or Rock Springs Run) and are very popular.  The swimming area is quite large, with plenty of room to swim.  The water is a brisk 72˚ year round.

There is a large sloping green that overlooks the spring, and is perfect for a picnic spread.  There is also a multitude of picnic tables and pavilions that are ideal for family events.  

Near the picnic area is a small playground.  Also available is a sand volleyball court and horseshoe pits.

The park boasts over 13 miles of marked trails.  Among the different trails to hike is the Tram Bed Horse Trail- an eight mile trail that is horseback rider friendly.  There is also a nine mile off-road bicycle trail; bicyclists are also permitted to utilize the equestrian trail.

It is not uncommon to spot the native wildlife while hiking along the nature trails.  Hikers may come across turkey, white tailed deer, fox squirrels, even the Florida Black Bear- which is sighted frequently in Seminole County.

Camping is another highly popular activity within the park.  Full facility campsites, primitive, and group camping accommodations are all available within the park. Click here for details and information regarding camping and reservations.

With so many activities to enjoy with family and friends, it is no wonder why Wekiwa Springs State Park is perhaps one of the most popular State Parks in Florida.  The park gets exceptionally busy on beautiful Florida weekends, so get there early.

Admission to the park is $6 per vehicle up to eight people ($2 per extra passenger), $4 for a single occupant vehicle, and $2 for pedestrians and bicyclists.

Lakeridge Winery & Vineyards

By Andrea Hewitt

Sitting on more than 120 rolling acres in Clermont, FL, Lakeridge Winery & Vineyards is known world wide as a pioneer in the development of table and sparkling wines from Muscadine and hybrid grapes. 

Lakeridge Winery is Florida’s largest premium winery, and has won more than 700 awards for excellence in wine making.

Thanks to Florida’s warm, humid climate, the hybrid and Muscadine grapes that Lakeridge Winery specialize in allows the winery to produce more than 80,000 cases of wine each year.

The winery hosts a wealth of festivals throughout the year.  There is a Wine and Chocolate festival, as well as festivals that celebrate Jazz and Blues.  

The Harvest Festival, which takes place each June, consists of over 80 arts and crafts booths, live music, food and wine, and grape stomping.  Click here for information on the other festivals that take place at the winery throughout the year.

Perhaps the best way to explore the winery is by taking part in the complimentary tour and wine tasting.  These are offered seven days a week and allow the visitor to see the production area and take in views of the vineyards.  At the Wine Tasting, visitors can sample a variety of wines that are produced at the winery. 

There is a large retail area and a gift shop on site that offers all of the Lakeridge Wines; also offered is a plethora of wine accessories and gifts, cheeses, crackers, and other gourmet foods.  

Just 25 miles west of Orlando, Lakeridge Winery & Vineyards is certainly worth a visit should you find yourself in the Central Florida area.  Pay a visit, and you too will see why more than 110 thousand people visit the winery annually.  

Weeki Wachee Springs State Park

By Andrea Hewitt

Though a popular venue for weddings, reunions, and retreats, it is the mermaids of Weeki Wachee Springs State Park that have been attracting visitors since 1947.

The popularity of the mermaids boomed beginning in 1959 when ABC purchased the spring and constructed the 400-seat Underwater Theater to develop themes for the mermaid shows. Since then, the park has attracted nearly a half a million visitors annually. Weeki Wachee Springs became a state park in 2008. 

The Underwater Theater features a multitude of shows, including Fish Tails- a live underwater performance that offers a behind the scenes look at how the mermaids have been entertaining visitors for more than 60 years. 

The Little Mermaid and Mermaid Training shows are entertaining, but more geared toward a younger audience.

Another show featured at Weeki Wachee Springs is an Animal Show- an educational and entertaining program that provides guests with an up-close look at Florida wildlife.

The Wilderness River Cruise offers a peaceful and leisurely tour of the Weeki Wachee River. About 30 minutes long, the cruise offers a great opportunity to view a wealth of native wildlife.

Canoeing and kayaking are very popular on the crystal clear Weeki Wachee River. Through Paddling Adventures, visitors can rent canoes and kayaks to take in the natural beauty of the river at their own pace. 

The $13 admission fee (for adults; $8 for children 6-12) includes entrance to Buccaneer Bay, Florida’s only spring fed water park.

Buccaneer Bay features flume rides and a lazy river. There are covered pavilions, picnic tables, and a white sandy beach area for the enjoyment of visitors. 

Weeki Wachee Springs State Park is a great place to take the family for a fun filled day of swimming, exploring, and of course, encountering the world famous mermaids. 

Spring Training Baseball

By Andrea Hewitt

It is no secret that living in Florida has its advantages, given the states’ vibrant cities, warm weather, and natural attractions. For baseball fans, spring is just another perk to add to the list for living in the Sunshine State. 

During spring training, Major League Baseball teams are divided into two leagues: the Cactus League, who undergo spring training in Arizona, and the Grapefruit League, who train right here in Florida.

Over a dozen cities throughout Florida play host to the top MLB teams in the country. Hosting cities include Clearwater, Tampa, Sarasota, Kissimmee, and Jupiter, among others.

Champion Stadium at the ESPN Wide World of Sports at Walt Disney World is where the Atlanta Braves call home during spring training. The stadium seats 9,500 and features an array of amenities. 

Steinbrenner Field in Tampa hosts the New York Yankees, perhaps MLB’s most popular franchise and likely the most recognizable team worldwide.

Roger Dean Stadium in Jupiter seats close to 7,000 and is home to both the Miami Marlins and the St. Louis Cardinals during spring training.

Click here for spring training schedules for 2012. 

Spring training baseball in Florida is a great way to spend time with the family, no matter what team you support or what city you see a game in. So grab a some sunblock and some ballpark treats, and go enjoy a game. 

Winter Park Sidewalk Art Festival

By Andrea Hewitt

This year marked the 53rd Annual Winter Park Sidewalk Art Festival. The festival was held March 16-18, 2012 in beautiful Central Park, along Park Avenue in Winter Park, Florida.

The festival features artwork from 225 artists from around the country and around the world. Categories include: Clay, Digital Art, Drawing and Graphics, Fiber, Glass, Jewelry, Leather, Metal, Mixed Media, Painting, Photography, Sculpture, Watercolor, and Wood. 

The Leon Theodore Schools Exhibit features numerous pieces of artwork from Orange County middle and high school students. 

The Children’s Workshop Village offers easel painting for children ages 2-12.

During the festival, admission to the Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art is free. The Morse Museum features a comprehensive collection of works by artist and designer Louis Comfort Tiffany.

Food and live entertainment from local musicians add to the already vibrant atmosphere of the festival.

The piece that is awarded Best of Show is donated to the City of Winter Park and will be displayed in the Winter Park Public Library.

The Winter Park Sidewalk Art Festival is a great venue to see and shop for artwork from hundreds of talented artists. 

Admission to the festival is free. 

Road Trip Edition: Copperhill, Tennessee

By Andrea Hewitt

While there is a plethora of things to do all around Florida, sometimes it is nice to just get out of town and discover what other states have to offer. And what better way is there to actually get out there and explore than a good old fashioned road trip. 

This particular road trip originates in Kissimmee, Florida, with a destination of Copperhill, Tennessee: about a nine-hour, 550 mile drive. 

While there is admittedly not much happening in the small mining town of Copperhill, it is home to a resort called Whitewater Express. Although Whitewater Express is primarily geared for large groups (youth camps, retreats), they certainly cater to smaller, individual groups as well.

There are many private cabins on the property. For a large family getaway, book the beautiful and spacious Mountain Lodge- it is the newest cabin and it sleeps 18-20 people very comfortably. The large front porch and second floor balcony offer spectacular views of the mountains. The lodge features a full kitchen and large, wood burning fireplace.

Whitewater Express offers many activities that your group can participate in, from horseback riding and mountain biking, to whitewater rafting on the Ocoee River (this activity is seasonal and starts in April.) For the more athletically inclined, there are intense rope and obstacle courses to challenge.

Check out their website for individual group rates and rental fees. Tip: unless you select a package that includes meals, it is recommended that you stop at a grocery store for all provisions before settling in, as it is a bit of a drive through windy mountains to get back into town.

For those interested in finding their fortunes via prospecting, be sure to check out the Salty Dog Gem Mine at the WagonMaster Adventure Ranch in Murphy, NC. This is another great place for the entire family to visit, especially those with smaller children.

Only a 30-minute drive from Copperhill, the Salty Dog Gem Mine offers the opportunity for visitors to pan for gold with ore from an active fossil mine in Dahlonega, Ga. Also, an activity worth exploring is mining for precious and semi-precious gems: emeralds and garnets, obsidian and aquamarine, among many other gems from local mines as well as mines from around the world can be found here.

Overall, this area is a great place to spend time unwinding and relaxing with family and friends. And after a couple of days of roaming around the remote mountains of Tennessee and North Carolina without television or Internet, a visit back to civilization may be in order.

Atlanta, Georgia is only a two hour drive from Copperhill, and is a great city to check back into reality with. Historical and vibrant, Atlanta offers loads of local restaurants, shopping, attractions, and nightlife to explore. Obviously, the city’s highlights cannot be seen in a day, so plan accordingly.

And as with all good things, road trips must too come to an end. Before heading out of Atlanta, why not visit historic Stone Mountain Park, a family-oriented park that sits on over 3,200 acres just outside of Atlanta.

Stone Mountain itself has been billed as the largest exposed piece of granite in the world, and at its summit, reaches 1,686 feet. Visitors can walk up and down the mountain, or take the Summit SkyRide to the top.

Whether your visit takes you through the amusement park or up the mountain trails, Stone Mountain Park is a fun place to visit with the family, whether you are just passing through or staying the day.

This particular road trip included a fair mixture of rural-living and city-life, and provided a great setting for quality family time. In four days, four states and 1,130+ miles, there is literally something for everyone to enjoy. 

Crystal River Archaeological State Park

By Andrea Hewitt

Situated on beautiful and scenic Crystal River, Crystal River Archaeological State Park features a pre-Columbian, Native American burial and temple/platform mounds. The six-mound, 61-acre site is one of the largest continuously occupied sites in the state.

Throughout the park, visitors will find “narrative exhibits”: a recording provides detailed information facts about each mound.

Crystal River Archaeological State Park also offers a variety of Ranger Programs for children of all ages.

Aside from the mounds, the park features a museum which displays artifacts related to the site. While the park itself is open 365 days a year, the museum is open 9 a.m. until 5 p.m., Monday through Thursday.

The park also features a small picnic area, and fishing is permitted in the park.

Crystal River Archaeological State Park is an ideal place to fish, picnic, and view wildlife, but it is the historical and cultural aspects of the park that are truly reason to visit.

Admission is $3 per vehicle to enter the park.

Floral City Strawberry Festival

By Andrea Hewitt

This year marks the 25th Anniversary of the Floral City Strawberry Festival, which is being held March 3-4, 2012 at Floral Park, in Floral City, Florida.

The festival features scores of local vendors, selling arts and crafts ranging from paintings and prints, handmade birdhouses and feeders, walking sticks and wind chimes, handmade jewelry and soaps, even furniture, just to offer a few examples.

Locally made jams, jellies and honey can be found for sale, as well as native plants and accessories for the home.

And what is a festival without food? Strawberries, of course, are the main attraction at the Strawberry Festival, and they are available in many varieties: by the flat, half flat or pint. Or, they can be found in the form of shortcake, milkshakes, and chocolate covered, among others.

Other food vendors offer the traditional festival food staples, from kettle corn and funnel cakes to burgers and hot dogs. Everything else from barbecue, seafood, brats, and gyro’s, even boiled peanuts, is available at the festival.

There is a children’s activities area that features carnival-style games and contests.

Live entertainment is on hand throughout the weekend at the Strawberry Festival, this year featuring local musical act ROCK STEADY.

The Floral City Strawberry Festival is a great way to spend part of the weekend. From shopping the local vendors to enjoying the local fare, the festival truly does offer something for everyone to enjoy.

There is limited free parking at Floral Park. Paid parking ($3) is located close by. A shuttle service is offered continuously from the Citrus County Fairgrounds, just south of Inverness.

Admission to the Floral City Strawberry Festival is $3 for adults; children ages 12 and under admitted free.

Rainbow Springs State Park

By Andrea Hewitt

Once a bustling private tourist attraction for nearly 50 years, and before that a mining location for phosphate, Rainbow Springs was bought by the State of Florida in the mid 1990’s and was entered into the State Park system; since then, its beautiful, crystal clear springs and luscious gardens have been enjoyed year round by countless visitors. 

The springheads are perhaps the most popular feature of Rainbow Springs State Park, which is located in Dunnellon, Florida. There is a large swimming area available and users must remain within the designated swimming areas. Swimmers are permitted to bring foam “swim noodles” into the water (inflatable rafts are prohibited);  this is recommended as the water is ranges from about 6 to 15 feet. A mask and snorkel are also recommended as there is an abundance of fish life to be seen, as well as turtles and cormorants. 

The gardens of Rainbow Springs State Park are alone reason enough to visit; shaded by towering, twisted oaks and magnolias, paved paths weave throughout the gardens in the park. There are three manmade waterfalls that serve as an extra scenic perk, as well as a native-plant butterfly garden. Tip: visit the park during the early spring to enjoy the vibrant red, pink, white, and peach azaleas blooming.

A 2.5 mile paved nature trail winds throughout the park and is a great way to see all of the parks’ features, not to mention the wildlife. 

There is a full-facility campground located approximately 1.5 miles downstream from the headsprings, or a six mile drive. The campground also features an amphitheater. 

Canoes and kayaks are available for rental at the headsprings. Many boaters choose to launch their private vessels from KP Hole County Park, which is about 1.25 miles downstream from the headsprings of Rainbow Springs State Park. The stunningly clear Rainbow River is 5.6 miles long and is teeming with wildlife, from a variety of fish species, to birds, turtles, and otters.

Tubing is another popular activity along the Rainbow River, but it is not allowed in the headsprings. Tubing is a seasonal activity- it is only available from the first Saturday in April through Labor Day. Click here for more information on tubing the Rainbow River.

There is a gift shop and a snack bar located near the main entrance to the headsprings. Leashed pets are allowed in the park, but not in the swimming areas. 

Click here for a map which details entrances to the headsprings, campgrounds, tubing, and KP Hole.

Rainbow Springs State Park is ideal for family outings, reunions, even weddings. There are four pavilions at the headsprings and there is a multitude of picnic tables.

Admission to the park $2.00 per person at the headsprings entrance. See the website for prices regarding camping and tubing.

Fort Cooper State Park

By Andrea Hewitt

Looking for a park that is ideal for outdoor family outings, or perhaps a scenic place to jog and exercise outdoors? What about miles of marked trails, ideal for observing  native Florida wildlife? Look no further than Fort Cooper State Park in Inverness, Fla.

The park is named for Major Mark Anthony Cooper, Commander of 380 First Battalion Volunteers. Major Cooper built the Fort in April 1836 to protect the sick and wounded during the Second Seminole War. Fort Cooper was used as a reconnaissance, observation and dispatch post until 1842 by various U.S. Army detachments. Click here for more details on the history of the park.

Situated on Lake Holathlikaha, Fort Cooper State Park is suitable for hosting events such as birthday parties or family reunions. There are multiple picnic facilities and a playground. Nearby, The Lake Lodge can accommodate up to 50 people and features a kitchen.

Private boats are not permitted on the lake, but canoes and paddle boats are available for rental as the water level permits. Currently, water levels are too low for this activity. Also available for use is a sand volleyball court and horseshoe pits. Fishing, of course, is also permitted and is a popular activity on the lake.

The park features over five miles of self guided trails, which offer endless opportunity for wildlife viewing. The park is part of the Great Florida Birding Trail. A trail extension connects the park to the multi use paved Withlacoochee State Trail.

Along the trails, massive twisted and tangled oaks are a common sight and are quite beautiful. Beyond the more dense inland woods lies the sand hill community- an open, pine scrub region were deer and turkey are commonly seen.

Youth and primitive camping is available at the southern end of the park. Reservations are required.

Fort Cooper State Park is rich in history and ideal for recreational activities, relaxing, and taking in the natural beauty of the outdoors.

There is a fee of $3 per vehicle to enter the park.

Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park

By Andrea Hewitt

For an up close encounter with an abundance of Florida’s native wildlife, consider a visit to Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park in Homosassa, FL.

At Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park, the main attraction of the park would certainly be the manatees, which can be viewed from an underwater observatory from the main spring. The park also features longtime (and honorary Florida resident) Lu, the 52-year-old hippopotamus.

At the park, visitors can view a variety wildlife, including manatees, black bears, bobcats, white-tailed deer, American alligators and crocodiles, Red Wolves, and river otters. 

Visitors can access the park in one of two ways: either via tram or boat (weather permitting) from the West Entrance of the park, or by driving to the Wildlife Park in Homosassa. The boat ride, which is about 25 minutes, winds through Pepper Creek and is a great setting to see wildlife and beautiful, native vegetation.

There is a 1.10 mile nature trail that loops through the park; it offers endless photographic opportunities to capture the abundant birdlife and wildlife that can be found there.  

There are choice programs offered throughout the day at the park. The Alligator and Hippopotamus Program is educational and entertaining, and the Wildlife Encounters program should not be missed. There is also an informative Manatee Program. Check the website for a schedule of show times.

There is a picnic area as well as concession stands and a restaurant at the park. The Visitor Center has a gift shop for all souvenir needs.

The admission fee is $13 for adults and $5 for children ages 6-12. The park is opened 365 days a year, from 9:00 a.m. through 5:30 p.m.


Fort De Soto County Park

By Andrea Hewitt

Pristinely beautiful, historic, and natural, Fort De Soto Park is an outdoor-lovers’ dream come true. 

Fort De Soto Park is located in Pinnellas County, Fla., approximately 30 minutes south of Tampa. The park is made up of five interconnecting islands and is sprawled out over 1,100 acres. 

Some of the main features of the park are: a family camping area that includes over 200 reserved camping sites, a historical fort, and multiple picnic areas.

But what attracts most visitors to the park is the beach itself. Fort De Soto was named America’s #1 Beach by TripAdvisor in 2008 and 2009, and it is no wonder why: soft, white sand and the calm, warm waters of the Gulf are reasons enough to rank it among the top beaches in the country.

Other highlights include a 2.25 mile self-guided canoe trail and seven miles of paved trails- which are ideal for bicycling, jogging, and other activities. 

At the dog park, dogs are able to swim and play leash-free. Water fountains and dog showers are available. 

The park is fisherman friendly. Here, anglers can cast for a variety of fish from either a 1,000 foot Gulf pier as well as a 500 foot Bay pier. For a fee, boaters may utilize the 800 foot boat ramp.

Fort De Soto offers everything that makes Florida’s Gulf Coast such a draw for tourists and locals alike; water and nature lovers have a bounty of activities to choose from while visiting.

There is a $5 admission fee per vehicle to enter the park.

Cedar Key

By Andrea Hewitt

If hiking through scrub trails, bird watching, canoeing and kayaking, fishing, and having priceless views of awe-inspiring sunsets are things you consider yourself to fancy, then consider a visit to Cedar Key, Fla.

Located 50 miles southwest of Gainesville, Cedar Key is a quiet island community that truly emulates “Old Florida.” You will find no stop lights or chain restaurants here, only cute, eclectic art shops and boutiques.

Rich in small town flavor, it is said Cedar Key is the island community where time stands still. Cedar Key is located on Way Key, the largest island in the “Cedar Keys”.

Cedar Key may very well be one of the most dog-friendly communities in Florida; many of the Bed and Breakfast’s and rental bungalow’s allow pets. Also, a handful of the shops and bars allow dogs as well- even offering water and treats for your four-legged pal.

Aside from canoeing and shopping, there are a multitude of state parks on and around Cedar Key that are worth exploring.

Cedar Key Scrub State Reserve offers 13 different hiking and off-road bicycling trails and a picnic area. You can canoe or kayak through the marshes, and a wealth of bird life can be found throughout the park.

Cedar Key Museum State Park contains artifacts and exhibits that illustrate Cedar Key’s history as a port city and railroad connection during the 19th century. Part of the collection has sea shells and Indian artifacts collected by Saint Clair Whitman, the founder of the first museum in Cedar Key. Whitman’s house is located at the park and has been restored to reflect life in the 1920s.

The fresh seafood and abundance of wildlife viewings are reasons enough to visit, but it is the the laid back and care-free atmosphere of Cedar Key that are reasons to want to keep coming back.

About Andi

This is my maiden post to this blog, a blog that I will continue to update as the semester progresses. This blog is requirement for a Writing for Mass Communications course that I am enrolled in. Stay tuned for reviews of select State Parks around the Nature Coast, as well as ideas for weekend getaways and exciting outings around greater Central Florida.