Ocalans know that Florida isn’t only theme parks and beaches—it’s full of hidden gems. In fact, you might say that Marion County itself is a shining example, resting between Florida’s two coasts and at a comfortable distance from the hustle and bustle of the bigger cities.
We’ve all entertained out-of-town friends and played tour guide in order to give them a great experience. But have you ever had a staycation, where you took advantage of all the great things our area has to offer? Whether it’s the art scene, our rising downtown nightlife, protected natural areas or fun excursions, our region has so many unique options to explore. So, we’ve compiled a few of our favorite can’t-miss staycation outings and insider recommendations. Whether you have an evening or a whole day, treat yourself to experiencing some of our local treasures.
Downtown Ocala is, in many ways, the center of Marion County, with its vibrant scene and pleasingly walkable access to some of the town’s best shops and eateries. If you haven’t visited in a while, there are some great newcomers that should definitely pique your interest. First up are some of the interesting bars and breweries.
The Keep, formerly Ocala Wine Experience, is a cozy and quirky wine shop and lounge. Co-owners Megan Whittaker and Mark Sykuta had their own vision in mind for the historic bar, including a new name and a penchant for pop culture. The name refers to the last stronghold in medieval castles and place where valuables are kept—and the goods are in The Keep. Though small, its bright red exterior and décor choices like clocks on the ceiling make it unforgettable. They also exclusively sell boutique wines, Whittaker says.
“We work with Murielle’s Winery, which is our best-selling wine off the walls,” she explains. “They do wines for us exclusively!”
The Keep’s upstairs lounge is a great place to hear live music by local artists on Friday and Saturday nights.
The upstairs bar and lounge has that speakeasy vibe and is an off-the-beaten-path hangout among locals interested in good wine and hot musical acts. (The Couch Series actually started there). The outside patio, where you can enjoy a meal, some mead on tap (yup, mead…that’s right), and hookah smoking has a combination you won’t find elsewhere.
Whittaker and Sykuta shared, that among their favorite things to do, when they play tourist, is to spend a day at Rainbow Springs.
“I love going out to Rainbow River. It’s my favorite thing,” Whittaker shares. “It’s so beautiful and not too far of a drive. We love going out to walk the trails, hiking and going swimming in the springs. It’s such a great package. We like to also hit The Blue Gator in Dunnellon. That would be a great day out.”
They also love to visit The Appleton Museum, check out the new exhibitions and revisit the permanent collection.
“We are members of the Appleton, so we will plan to check out a new restaurant for lunch and then head over to the museum for a few hours, especially if they have a special event during the weekend,” Whittaker explains. “It’s something we don’t necessarily have time to do unless we have a few days off. But it is always such a great experience.”
A few blocks down from The Keep, on Broadway, the recently opened Big Hammock Brewery has a rotating list of craft beers and wines and a menu ranging from bar bites to rice bowls. Big Hammock has an open kitchen to give diners a glimpse at who is making their dinner and how, as well as some great Florida-centered décor, like an upside-down canoe suspended over the booth seating.
A few blocks north of the downtown square is Muddy Lotus Tea, where the air is “still” in the best way possible. Kibbie Fulton, the alchemist, is the owner of Ocala’s very own kava bar. With the burgeoning sober curious lifestyle, this is a good place for those 18 and older to socialize in an alcohol-free setting. The positive stillness of the air emanates from Fulton herself, who takes pride in the diversity that the place attracts and says that her main goal is “human acceptance.” It’s well known that kava bars tend to attract those of all ages, races, genders and creeds, and this diversity is also reflected in the décor. Filled with local art, the calming space includes icons from Eastern religions like Hinduism and Buddhism. Featured kava and kratom drinks are a popular choice. The root tea (kava) is a long-used alcohol alternative, while kratom (leaf) is used to reduce stress and anxiety. A full lineup of events, from live music and karaoke, to hands-on art nights and drum circles provide an interesting alternative to the bar scene and a way to meet some new friends.
If it’s a culinary experience you’re craving, downtown has a wealth of choices from Feta Mediterranean Cuisine, which sources local seafood and vegetables for their delectable dishes; Katya Vineyards Restaurant, where the attention to detail is impeccable and the menu changes every week…did we mention the wine?; Ivy on the Square with its charming staff, stylish decor and scrumptious Southern comfort food; Brick City Southern Kitchen, which offers finger-lickin’ barbecue and smoked meats, scratch-made sides, and one of Florida’s largest curated whiskey collections; Mark’s Prime Steakhouse for its romantic setting and great steaks; and the delightful Stella’s Modern Pantry for their heavenly gourmet desserts, intimate wine and cheese board service with a front-row view of the bustling downtown scene, and great sandwiches. Stella’s is also great shopping destination, whether you’re a serious foodie or just looking for a special treat for a loved one or yourself…Yes, yourself. You’re on a staycation after all!
A little farther away from the square, nearer to the S-curve, you’ll discover Ocala’s Downtown Diner, which is a classic breakfast and lunch spot with lots of vegan and gluten free options, in addition to the typical diner favorites.
The Downtown Diner, like The Marion Theatre, Reilly Arts Center, and Ivy on the Square, adds to the vintage charm present in so many of our local establishments. The Diner transports one back to the 1950s with its classic diner décor. In the afternoon, the place buzzes as patrons interact with the sweet and friendly wait staff.
While there is plenty to do in Ocala, other treasures lie just beyond the city limits.
Just 10 miles south, is Belleview, home of the hidden gem B.D. Beans Café and Coffee Company. The café is just off U.S. 441, and is a fun, kitschy eatery that is open for breakfast and lunch. Expect a visual feast as well, as this cafe has a wealth of local art and a great collection of eccentric Americana on display. The kind and accommodating wait staff easily develop a rapport with the customers, who return again and again. This is a memorable place that will find its way into your heart, whether for your regular coffee run or a delicious meal with friends.
Just behind B. D. Beans is the All About Art Gallery, owned and operated by Donna Damato, featuring great local art available for purchase. Damato opened the gallery in 2000, to “promote local artists, because back then there weren’t a lot of places that did.” In the 19 years they’ve been open, she says they’ve successfully worked with hundreds of artists from the region.
“What I hope to do is to find an artist that isn’t well-known, promote them and give them the confidence to take their art to other places,” Damato explains. In addition to selling art, they also offer classes where local artists instruct students in a variety of mediums, and are open to artsy types of all ages. The works available for purchase range from great knickknacks, jewelry, and delightful kitsch pieces to visually arresting paintings, sculptures, and mixed-media works of art.
Heading a few more miles east are the bucolic neighborhoods of Ocklawaha and Weirsdale. Perhaps the best-known attraction in this area is the large and beautiful Lake Weir and the park that gives you a front row seat to it: Carney Island Recreation & Conservation Area. Carney Island is a gorgeous park with lush wooded areas that are a sight for sore eyes. It’s a place that truly offers fun for the whole family including a playground, beach area, and boat ramps. While there is a parking fee, it’s quite literally a small price to pay for all the potential fun to be had there. Recently, the historic Ma Barker House was relocated to the area and now sits in the lush woods of Carney Island. The fascinating home-turned-museum offers an opportunity to learn some local history and maybe get a little spooked. The house has been preserved in a state as close as possible to the day of the famed shootout with the FBI, bullet holes and all. Many tour-goers even claim to have encountered the spirit of long-deceased crime queenpin Ma Barker, while touring the house. Currently, tours are available by appointment only.
Interestingly connected to the Ma Barker story is Gator Joe’s Beach Bar & Grill. The restaurant’s namesake was a locally famous and elusive gator that lived in Lake Weir at the same time the Barker gang resided in Ocklawaha. The local institution is an experience all on its own. The rustic feel of the restaurant is modeled after a beachside shack and there’s nothing more beautiful than dining out on the back dock that looks out over the lake. With its location and famous fried gator tail, Gator Joe’s is surely one of Marion County’s most unique eateries.
Cassandra Hines, who is a frequent visitor, spends lots of time on the lake.
“After a day on the scenic Lake Weir, Gator Joe’s is a perfect spot for the whole family to wind down,” she says. Hines also recommends another lakeside restaurant, Eaton’s Beach Sandbar & Grill.
“It features a Florida-Louisiana fusion and that’s something you don’t want to miss,” she raves. “And the beachfront steam shack, downstairs, is a must-try!”
For a true adrenaline rush, the only place to head is north. North Marion is an area that is known for its wide open spaces, acres of farmland, and horse pastures. In addition to all that natural beauty, there are a few hidden gems waiting to be discovered here too. For starters, there is Canyon Zip Lines and Adventure Park, for those with an adventurous nature. How does a zip line park work in Florida with its typically flat terrain? The site is actually built on an abandoned limestone mine where the canyons are concealed by woods. In addition to the exhilaration of zip lining, the park also offers horseback riding, which gives visitors another great experience if you prefer something a little more down to earth.
Once you’ve worked up an appetite, head over to the Yum Yum Kitchen food truck where you can enjoy breakfast or lunch fare like rice bowls, burgers, sandwiches and burritos.
“My family and I have been going for as long as I can remember,” recalls local resident Delaney VanNest. “I definitely think more people should know about it and go try it out because it’s one of my favorite places to eat!”
So after reading about a few of our hidden gems, have we inspired you to take your own staycation and enjoy all our area has to offer? Or maybe we jogged your memory about some of the places you have been wanting to get back to or are eager to check out. We know there are so many more great places to visit and activities in our area to discover, so we’d love to hear about your favorite spots. Check out our exclusive online content at www.ocalastyle.com and let’s get social about it as well! Follow us on Facebook @ocalastyle, Instagram @ocalastylemagazine and Twitter @ocalastyle and share your own hidden gems, and tag us on your posts—we may just feature your recommendations in a future story.