St. Johns' Getaway
Unexpected enchantments await in Florida's West Volusia County
A brilliant sunrise pierces a fog bank over the St. Johns River. (David A. Brown photo)
DELAND, Fla. -- Admittedly, I wasn’t expecting this from a recent trip to Northeast Florida’s West Volusia County, but it was kind of like getting to know the quieter of two siblings – the one whose charm and talent live in the shadow of a more exuberant, outgoing personality.
Nothing at all wrong with that high-profile sibling; it’s just that their naturally engaging traits tend to get more attention – often at the inadvertent cost of overshadowing a lesser-known, yet equally gifted individual.
However, when given the chance to shine, that other child may absolutely knock your socks off with abundant personality rich with engaging charisma.
That’s the impression I got from a February visit to an absolutely gorgeous stretch of Florida’s St. John’s River situated in West Volusia. I joined a handful of fellow scribes to fish with some of the top regional crappie tournament pros and the folks who make the equipment that keeps them competitive.
Click image to see photos of St. Johns
The St. Johns – the state's only north-flowing river – offers lots of great crappie habitat, along with some spectacular natural scenery along its 310-mile range from the St. John’s Marsh origin to its Atlantic exit at Jacksonville's Mayport Inlet. We worked well upriver from the coastal end, with our headquarters at Hontoon Landing in the tranquil town of DeLand.
Now, they say that confession is good for the soul, so I must confess that I have long equated Volusia County with Atlantic beaches – principally, world-renowned Daytona. Went there a lot in my youth and never thought twice about the area’s inland offerings.
Given the fact that I shot a lot of the images in my book, Sportsman’s Best: Surf Fishing (http://www.floridasportsman.com/2014/01/15/sportsmans-best-surf-fishing/), in the Daytona area, and given the fact that I hold many fond memories of high school adventures on this famous stretch of sand, I certainly understand the Daytona dominance.
But – but, Volusia County has much more to offer and my visit to the west side piqued an interest that’ll certainly bring me back.
Between fishing trips, I enjoyed the relaxed, waterfront ambiance of spacious accommodations at Hontoon Landing Resort (www.hontoon.com) – right across the river from Hontoon Landing State Park. Sunrises and sunsets over the water were breathtaking.
And talk about wildlife galore – manatees, heron, ospreys, eagles, turtles, otters and gators – lots of gators. If you’re envisioning those little ankle biters that they let you hold at various reptile parks, think again. I’m a lifelong Floridian whose seen plenty of alligators and I spotted a couple of straight-up Sunshine State swamp dragons that had me shaking on the bow.
When good fortune brings me back to West Volusia County, I’ll spend a little more time checking out some of the area’s outdoor accents such as:
- DeLeon Springs State Park (DeLeon Springs) – Swimming in a natural spring pool and breakfast at the Old Spanish Sugar Mill Griddle house where guests flip their own pancakes on personal griddle tables.
- Skydive DeLand (DeLand) – Free falling nearly 14,000 at 120 mph won’t make my wife very happy with me, but I think it sounds cool.
- Reptile Discovery Center (DeLand) – Venomous reptiles – another thing my wife doesn’t want me messing with, so I’ll just watch the pros handle those snakes and lizards (many of which pose little danger to humans). The ones with fangs are “milked” of their venom, as this facility houses the Medtoxin Venom Laboratories, which collect venom to ship worldwide for anti-venom production.
- Green Springs Park (Enterprise) – Dazzling emerald waters in one of Florida’s few remaining green sulfur springs.
- Hontoon Island State Park (West of DeLand) – Native American shell mounds, nature trails and lots of wildlife.
- Deep Creek Stables (Deleon Springs) – Horseback riding through Lake George State Forest, buggy rides, skeet shooting, hayrides and cozy cabins.
- River Quest (St. Johns River) – Kind of like a treasure hunt on the water with clues and coordinates leading to special places and stories.
For information on West Volusia County attractions and accommodations, visit www.visitwestvolusia.com.