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BIKING: Discovering Florida on Wheels : Discovering Little-Known Florida on Two Wheels

<i> Groene, of De Land, Fla., is an author of cookbooks and travel books. </i>

Dave Pierce knew that there was another Florida, one different from the bustling pressure cooker of southwest Florida where he made his living as a registered nurse.

Putting his old life aside, he plunged into the tourism business in a part of Florida most folks never heard of and wouldn’t believe if they did.

White Springs? Well, it’s near Jasper. That’s near Live Oak and Lake City.

No? Try Jacksonville, then due west for about 60 miles. It’s an area of pine forests, bubbling sulfur springs, the meandering Suwannee River and long, lonely highways where Pierce’s guests can bicycle for miles before they see a car.

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On the usual Suwannee Country Tour you’ll meet nice people of all ages from towns nearby and from as far away as California and even overseas. A few may be bicycle or canoe jocks who sprint ahead of the pack. There will probably also be a family with children as young as 8 or 10, a 60-ish widow on a rented bike, singles, couples.

All-Inclusive Package

There’s more to it, though, than the bicycling, canoeing, perhaps some inner-tubing or camping. Pierce has probed all the lanes and byways, poked around old ruins, and enlisted townspeople until his tours fit city-weary travelers like a well-worn buggy seat.

The Jasper Combo Tour, an all-inclusive package, begins on Friday afternoon as guests converge on White Springs, a town with a story. Early Indians believed that the springs had sacred healing powers, and no wounded warrior would be attacked if he came here for sanctuary. That spirit remained into Civil War times, when families and their slaves came here to escape the fighting.

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At the turn of the century, when sulfur baths were a health craze, the population of White Springs swelled to 30,000 in summer. Today’s it’s under 800. You can still see the old bathhouse, which has been partially restored, and smell the tangy springs as they pour up from the ground and spill out into the Suwannee River.

The tour fee includes a motel that, in kindness, might be called modest. Somehow, though, it’s right. There are no telephones, but a black-and-white TV plays hazy Andy Griffith reruns.

Explore Craft Shops

Take time to explore the town’s few craft shops and the old Country Store, founded in 1865. The Stephen Foster Memorial here merits a tour of an hour or more. (He wrote a song that made the river famous, but misspelled the name.) It’s the site of a folk music festival on Fourth of July weekend, the Florida Folk Festival attended by 10,000 people on Memorial Day weekend and the Jeanie Ball (named for the Stephen Foster song) in early October.

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At dinnertime the tour sets out by car for the Mt. Pleasant Baptist Church, miles down a dirt road, where church women serve such black regional specialties as fried chicken, collard greens with fatback, ambrosia, corn bread and stewed chicken wings.

The evening entertainment is provided by a clogging group that demonstrates a few dances and then brings bikers into the circle for a lively lesson.

Saturday morning starts with breakfast at Mae’s Country Kitchen where there’s nothing fancier than eggs, bacon, sausage, country biscuits, grits and an endless supply of coffee.

The first day’s bicycle ride is 28 miles, not unreasonable even for out-of-shape desk pilots.

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You Can Ride--and Rest

You stop every five miles or so, where you’re met by a van carrying ice water, fruit, first-aid supplies and a repair kit. For those who drop out there’s a bike rack on the van and a ride to the next stop.

Along the Woodpecker Route are stops at a country church, an old tobacco barn and turpentine still, and lunch by the Suwannee. The sights are those of a gentler time long ago: fields filled with new-mown hay, an antebellum mansion with its paint peeling, fences twined with flowering vines, proud farms, abandoned shacks.

Choose any room you like when you reach the Jasper Hotel. Ann Greer bought the place at a sheriff’s auction in 1928 and, except for some new plumbing, it hasn’t changed much. Only recently have locks been put on some of the doors, and they’re only for show.

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Now 92, Miss Annie will probably be there in the parlor to welcome you. Leave your duffel and strike out for the drugstore, where a soda fountain straight from the 1950s serves sodas for a dollar.

Dinner is mountains of crispy catfish with all the trimmings--hush puppies, barbecued beans and slaw. Dave Pierce discovered a man who does it all authentically and well. If you’re not tuckered enough after the 28-mile ride, try the town roller rink. Or sit on the hotel veranda and watch the local kids cruise up and down the main drag.

Always on Sunday

Breakfast on Sunday is one of host Pierce’s specialties. He brings out more of the fresh-baked bread he also serves at lunch, homemade granola, fresh fruit with yogurt, bran muffins and juice.

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The second day’s ride is 30 miles and it’s hillier. Or, elect to canoe one day and bicycle another.

On Sunday there’s a stop at Suwannee Springs, another abandoned health spa among ruins of what was once a thriving community. Lunch is leftover catfish, rafts of cold meats and cheese, more homemade bread, gallons of icy fruit drinks.

The weekend tour ends Sunday in mid-afternoon with towering, double-dip cones back in White Springs.

Other Suwannee Country Tours center around De Land and Cassadega (one is a college town, the other a community occupied by mediums), Howey-in-the-Hlls, Amelia Island (explored by the French in 1516), Ichetucknee Springs and little-traveled areas of the Gulf of Mexico.

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Tours are for seven nights, weekend packages for two or three nights. What they all have is the surprises held by an unspoiled Florida undiscovered by the outside world.

For more information: Suwannee Country Tours, P.O. Box 247, White Springs, Fla. 32096, phone (904) 397-2347.

White Springs is east of the Live Oak interchange of Interstate 75 and north of the Lake City exit off I-10 west of Jacksonville. Pickup at airports, bus stations or Amtrak in Gainseville, Jacksonville or Lake City can be arranged.


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