Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Florida's comfy new cabins

Gallery: Florida's comfy new cabins
CLERMONT, Fla. - In the afternoon, we lolled on our large, screened-in porch, watching the sun sink slowly behind the tree-bordered lake below. After sunset, we went back into our air-conditioned, two-bedroom, two-bath cabin, cooked on a state-of-the-art Jenn-Air stove, and ate dinner in our knotty-pine-paneled dining/living room.

We had just about all the comforts of home - for $110 a night - in one of the many cabins built by the state park system in the last few years.

Our cabin was one of 20 built last year in Lake Louisa State Park, which is off U.S. 27 south of Clermont - more important, about seven miles from Walt Disney World and Universal Studios.

Being relatively close to the theme park gave us a bonus. "Go out on the park road at 9 o'clock tonight and look east," advised Chuck McIntire, the park manager. We did that, and from a rise on the road we watched Disney's fireworks shows at the Magic Kingdom and Epcot.

Compared to older, more primitive cabins in some state parks, the new ones are far more modern. One bedroom had a queen bed, the other had two twins. The sofa could convert into a bed, so the cabin could sleep six. There were two bathrooms, both with tubs. Our kitchen was fully equipped with pots, pans, china, silverware, microwave, refrigerator, stove, toaster, coffee maker and dishwasher. The dining/living room had the kitchen at one end, a gas-log fireplace at the other.

We loved the L-shaped, screened-in porch, which was perhaps 10 feet deep with rocking chairs, a loveseat swing and a picnic table, cooled by three overhead fans.

Now for the downside: Lake Louisa State Park occupies an abandoned orange grove whose trees were killed by hard freezes in the 1980s, leaving much of the park treeless and desolate-looking.

"We've planted 500,000 pine trees, and that will turn the landscape to what it was before," McIntire says. Pine trees take 45 to 50 years to mature, however, so perhaps our grandchildren will enjoy a forested park.

That said, McIntire is quick to point out the park's assets.

"This is the best for wildlife viewing. We see deer, turkey, otters, foxes, flying squirrels, quail, alligators, bobcats," he says. "We're also part of the Greater Florida Birding Trail, so we see migratory birds in winter - a lot of swallowtail kites, owls and hawks."

There's fishing on Dixie and Hammond Lakes, plus canoeing and kayaking, but gas motors are not allowed. One hiking trail circles Dixie Lake, which lies below the new cabins. There's an equestrian camp with 11 horse trails. Every Saturday morning, the park offers Coffee With Rangers, and from October to April, there's a campfire program.

Best of all is the park's peace and quiet, a world away from the frenzy of touristy Orlando.

Lake Louisa's new campground also is state of the art. It has 60 sites with electricity and water; 15 also have sewer connections.

"This is one of the nicest parks I've been in," says Robert Martindale, a full-time RVer who stays here as long as he can during Florida visits and moves when time limits run out.

Lake Louisa isn't the only park where the state has built new cabins. Five new cabins each have been built in Stephen Foster, Suwannee River and Fanning Springs State Parks, all of them on the Suwannee River Wilderness Trail in northern Florida.

Those new cabins, however, are smaller than the ones at Lake Louisa. They also have two bedrooms, but one has bunk beds instead of twins, and there is only one bathroom. They have screened-in porches, but the interiors are more compact.

In our cabin at Stephen Foster Folk Culture State Park, for example, the kitchen, dining and living room were together in an L-shaped room. The gas fireplace was faced with rock, and the room had a checker/chess board table and a radio. (None of the state park cabins have televisions or telephones.)

"Our cabins were built two years ago, and they're busy on weekends, holidays and special events," park manager Barbara Roberts says. And though the cabins can sleep six, "we do get a lot of single couples," she adds.

The Stephen Foster park is activity-oriented and attracts thousands of visitors annually. Its famed carillon, with the largest tubular bell system in the world, rings every 15 minutes and plays mini-concerts four times a day. The carillon is 50 years old this year.

Nearby, the Stephen Foster Museum celebrates the life and work of the composer, who wrote the state song, "The Swanee River" (Foster's title was "Old Folks at Home"). Oddly, Foster never visited Florida or the Suwannee River - he just thought its name fit the music.

The park is host to one of Florida's major events, the Florida Folk Festival, staged annually over Memorial Day weekend, and it sponsors other events through the year. The park also has a crafts shop and program that brings in expert craftsmen for workshops and demonstrations, including glassmaking, quilting, blacksmithing and dulcimer playing. The statewide "Jeanie" vocal competition is an October highlight.

The park lies on the steep banks of the Suwannee River, but the river had little water in it when we visited. In fact, a tour boat that used to cruise from the park no longer operates.

Swimming is not allowed because the river is not staffed with lifeguards. But visitors can go canoeing and kayaking on the river, and there are miles of trails through the woods.

All told, the state park system has 176 cabins, some of which were built in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps. Thirty-five have been built in the last two years. The park system has plans for cabins in 10 more parks, but they are not yet funded.

Miami Herald
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