by Sharon Therien
A Mix of Culture and Nature in a Columbia County Getaway
I enjoy art and shopping, while my hubby Jim prefers natural surroundings and outdoor activities. One thing we both enjoy is the beauty and serenity of peaceful places. When we planned a romantic getaway from our normal lives, we discovered the perfect blend of culture and nature in Columbia County.
The Grand Dame of Lake City
A historic landmark that’s been around for more than 100 years, The Blanche hotel put us in a romantic mood as we stepped inside. With its grand staircase, pillars and polished wood floors, we could imagine the balls held under the sparkling chandelier during this grand dame’s storied life. Restored to her original beauty, the hotel now serves as a hub in downtown Lake City, which is where we planned to spend our first day.
After leaving our charming, modern, comfortable room equipped with a coffee maker and mini-fridge, we were already in the heart of Downtown Lake City, so we decided to take a stroll down North Marion Avenue.
A Taste of the Arts
Just steps from our hotel we discovered Gateway Art Gallery, featuring paintings, photography, woodwork, jewelry and other handcrafted items by North Florida artists. Run by the Art League of North Florida, the gallery even offers classes. Jim and I looked at each other and decided to do something we had been wanting to do for a long time. We signed up for a class later that afternoon, then headed off to do some more exploring.
Across the street, at Blue Goose Studios, I fell in love with the repurposed furniture and handcrafted items by local artist, Janet Moses. Next door, I discovered more furniture to love at Furnishings on Marion in their chic mix of old and new. At the cute Southern Sisters Boutique & Embroidery, there were so many unique gift items, I couldn’t resist picking up a personalized coffee mug for our pet sitter. After our afternoon art class, we strolled to the other end of Marion, where we stopped in at Treasures of Lake City and discovered a treasure trove of new and antique estate jewelry and furniture.
Savoring the Flavors
We had worked up an appetite during our afternoon of shopping so we crossed the street and headed down the block to Marion Street Bistro & Brew House. Jim loves craft beer so he was immediately in heaven and began reading through the offerings on the chalkboard. I opted for a Mai Tai from their extensive cocktail menu and admired the exposed brick architecture and original 1905 tiles in this historic former pharmacy.
We started with a dozen gulf oysters on the half shell and a bowl of French onion soup. The house-made garlic crostini, crust of melted cheese and drizzle of sherry put the soup over the top in flavor. For his entree, Jim opted for the Southern-style shrimp and grits. “This sauce is different from anything I’ve ever had,” he said, savoring each bite. He was talking about the house-made gravy made with house-smoked brisket, ham and tasso. I had a taste and it was indeed heavenly. I went with the Chairman’s Reserve signature filet mignon, which more than met its reputation. I ordered it Cajun style, adding blackened shrimp on top because when I heard Jim order shrimp I thought– Two can play that game.
We were enjoying this evening out and took our time, savoring our meals. We couldn’t pass up dessert when we heard they were house-made, so we split a heavenly creme brulee, my absolute favorite. The local musician playing guitar created such a nice ambiance that we took a seat at the bar for a nightcap to enjoy our evening out a little longer.
Serenity on the River
The next day was for outdoor adventure. We planned to go tubing down the Ichetucknee River at Ichetucknee Springs State Park. The park’s convenient tram service helped us get from place to place–between the parking lot, the general store, and the tube launch and pickup spots. We rented a two-person tube from the general store so we could float together. We chose the Midpoint Tube Launch, and after about an hour, we had the choice to get picked up or keep going. We were enjoying ourselves so much that we stayed on the water for an extra hour.
As we floated along, we let go of all of our stress and just immersed ourselves in our surroundings. The water was so clear, it shimmered turquoise. Looking down, we could see fish swimming through the river grass. We floated through shaded hammocks in the cool water, just enjoying the day. It was so relaxing and a wonderful way to spend quality time together away from the distractions of everyday life.
We returned to the adorable Ichetucknee General Store for lunch. It made us feel like we were at an old-fashioned ice cream stand, so we ordered classics that fit the setting. Jim got a cheeseburger and I ordered chicken tenders–both with fries of course. We capped off our lunch with some ice cream– a hand-dipped cone for me and a root beer float for him.
For the next leg of our journey, we wanted to be away from the action and closer to nature so we found a cute place on the Santa Fe River on VRBO.com. It was the perfect vacation rental, set on a private, wooded lot, with a patio and large yard and located just two miles from Ichetucknee Springs State Park. It had everything we needed for the two of us, and more, and the friendly, thoughtful owner had provided coffee and the next day’s breakfast for us. We relaxed on the deck for a few hours before heading out for our evening adventure.
We followed the Santa Fe River 20 minutes south to a restaurant called Great Outdoors in the nearby city of High Springs. We sat out on the patio, surrounded by plants and live music. Hubby had the Root Beer Pork Chops with mashed potatoes and bacon gravy, while I went with the Caribbean Mahi-Mahi served over black beans and rice topped with fresh mango salsa and fried plantains. Everything was prepared perfectly and the atmosphere was just lovely.
Our next adventure was going to be another new experience for us– a magnificent moonlit paddle on the river, which we had reserved in advance. We chose a tandem kayak for the two of us and joined several other couples as we followed the ranger along the river. Here we were, just a few hours later, back on the river but with such a different view. The moment felt magical as the moonlight reflected off the ripples our paddles made on the water, twinkling like stars on the river. It was the perfect ending to our stress-free getaway.
What we discovered during our romantic getaway was that Columbia County had the perfect blend of everything we both needed for a relaxing, stress-free getaway. Jim ended up enjoying the art class and now has a new hobby, and I couldn’t get enough of the natural world. In the end, we both ended up loving every minute of our trip to Columbia County, Florida and every moment we shared together. (As of August 2022, the moonlight paddle adventure is no longer available, but may become available in the future.)
Plan your romantic getaway to Columbia County, Florida