Heaven on Earth| Equestrian Communties and Nature Trails
As seen in the 2016 Winter Issue By Kim Henry
With an average year-round temperature of 70 degrees, Ocala, FL, boasts a more than average year-round world of beauty and adventure. Ocala supports a rich equestrian life for breeders, seasoned riders, and visiting newbies alike. Tucked into north central Florida, this town is home to just under 60,000 people, has a thriving downtown with a diverse range of restaurants, and the surrounding region provides many ways to soak up all of that endless Southern sunshine.
Whether it’s the love of competition, enjoying a leisurely ride through the stunning nature trails, or the long legacy of champions being born, bred, and broken in the region, Ocala is an equestrian dream come true.
The area has more horses in residence than any other county in the United States and was officially named ‘the horse capital of the world’ in 2007. Amid its rolling hills of limestone-rich grass is one of the largest concentrations of horses in the world with 45 different breeds, including the American Quarter Horse, Paso Fino, Arabian, and Warmbloods. The 600 thoroughbred farms have produced 45 national champions, six Kentucky Derby winners, 20 Breeders’ Cup champions and six Horses of the Year to date, and their accomplishments continue to bloom. In addition, there are hundreds of ranches that offer a wide range of riding options to guests of all ages and fitness levels.
“Horses in the Sun” (HITS) Show 2016
Ocala hosts one of the largest dressage/jumper horse shows in the country featuring over 100 different breeds. With a huge line-up of events throughout January and February 2016, HITS culminates in March with the Great American $1 Million Grand Prix. In the upcoming festival, there will be two new USEF-rated shows, making this event at Post Time Farm an ideal winter destination for anyone with a love of horses.
When you’ve finished admiring the wonderful equestrian life, there’s a wealth of other outdoor activities to be discovered. Located north of Orlando, Ocala National Forest is the southern-most forest in the United States and has more than 600 pristine lakes, rivers, and springs, allowing visitors to swim, snorkel, and dive in crystal clear waters all year round. Many of the scenic lakes were formed when limestone bedrock dissolved, causing the surface layer to slump and fill with water, creating an ideal setting for kayaking and canoeing. Each stream has its own unique characteristics such as Juniper Creek, which starts out scarcely wider than the canoe itself and ends up more than a hundred feet wide.
Accommodations within the forest range from different camping options to idyllic cabins. The campgrounds are divided into three classes based on the type of facilities offered and fees charged: developed campgrounds, primitive campsites, and dispersed tent camping.
The picturesque cabins, accommodating up to 10 people, are available at Lake Dorr or Sweetwater Spring, although it’s best to plan ahead as these two special locations tend to be in high demand.
Known as the gateway to the National Forest, Silver Spring Park has one of the largest artesian springs ever discovered. Dating back to the 1500s, Indian settlers resided around Silver Springs, and a dugout canoe can still be seen resting on the bed of the Silver River.
Visitors can enjoy a glass bottom boat ride, take a kayak, or canoe trip around the immensely beautiful springs and soak up the vast collection of natural habitats and wildlife.
For those who would like to soar over the water, as well as being on it, there are zip lining adventures galore. If flying over treetops, lime-rock canyon ridges, divine waterways, and oak- and pine-filled forests is something you can imagine enjoying, then there are professional guides who will help you make this a reality.
Taking a break from the great outdoors, Ocala also offers some inspiring indoor entertainment. The Appleton Museum of Art is an award-winning contemporary establishment, originally built to display and preserve Mr. Appleton’s extensive art collection. The 30,000 square feet of gallery space opened in 1987 and is now devoted to the permanent collections of approximately 18,000 objects include European, American, Asian, African, Contemporary, and pre-Columbian art and artifacts, alongside a number of temporary exhibits. The Appleton is one of the South’s premier art museums and a leading cultural institution in Marion County.
Diverse Culinary Delights
For a town of its size, Ocala has an eclectic choice of restaurants, from Asia to Italian, grills to vegetarian options, there’s something to satisfy every appetite.
Here’s just a little taste of what’s on the menu:
Latinos y Mas: This Latin fusion restaurant specializes in contemporary Spanish and Latin cuisine with a Mediterranean flair. You can expect to find anything from authentic Paella to freshly-made tacos in this relaxing, tasteful environment.
Amrit Palace: Transporting you directly to the heart of authentic Indian cuisine, this venue is a little slice of Asia in the heart of Ocala. Its exotic range of dishes include meat, vegetarian, and vegan options, making it an ideal choice for a family with diverse diets.
Ayuttaya Thai Cuisine: Offering the best in homemade Thai food, this establishment is well-known for its delicious menu and generous use of numerous herbs and spices. Lemongrass, chiles, galangal, basil, lime, and Kaffir fuse to create an array of delicious, fresh dishes.
Riccardo’s Restaurant: This family-owned venue provides traditional Italian meals and pizza that even New Yorkers describe as “outstanding.” Offering an impressive selection of homemade pies and generous size pizza-by-the-slice, Riccardo’s also has a traditional all-American breakfast menu and a special lunch menu consisting of a variety of homemade soups, salads, and sandwiches.
The Ivy House Restaurant: Southern hospitality doesn’t get much better than the homey atmosphere of The Ivy House. Named by Florida Trend as one of the “Top 500 Best Places to Eat in the State” for several years running, their specials include Southern fried lobster, delicious hand-cut steaks, and their unique baked krispy chicken.