I met a woman named Amy at Yom Kippur services in Tallahassee. She turns out to be longtime friends with my friend Loyce, who I met years ago when we were room-mates at Elat Chayyim the week that Reb Zalman was there in 2004. The two of them swept me away for lunch on the day after Yom Kippur.
We drove through Apalachicola National Forest -- tall longleaf pines outside the windows of the car -- to reach Edward Ball Wakulla Springs State Park [here's its Wikipedia entry], home to one of the world's largest and deepest freshwater springs.
The springs form the headwaters of the Wakulla River, which runs through old-growth cypress swamp. It's incredibly picturesque: knobbly cypress knees poking up at the edge of the clear waters, trees of all kinds bearded with ubiquitous Spanish moss. Many of the trees and plants down here are familiar to me, as someone who was born and reared in south Texas, but Spanish moss wasn't a commonplace sight where I grew up. It's pretty much everywhere in Tallahassee, though.
What is now state park was once the estate of Edward Ball, an entrepreneur and railroad magnate. (According to Wikipedia, some considered him a robber baron.) He bought 4,000 acres of land and built a 27-room lodge at the headwaters of the river. It's made of Spanish-style stucco with a red tile roof, decorated with wrought iron and marble. Now it's a hotel and restaurant: our destination for lunch.
I had just photographed the signs warning swimmers about alligators, and informing visitors of the need to protect the area's "gentle giants" -- the West Indian Manatee -- when a riverboat glided by and the captain called out, "Did you see them?" Sure enough, at the other side of the river, three grey shapes were visible through the waters: two adult manatees with a baby swimming alongside.
We stood there for a while and beamed and marveled. Manatees! Right there in the river! And then we headed into the lodge, which is funky and awesome. The painted ceiling in the great room caught my eye, as did the framed poster from Creature from the Black Lagoon -- filmed on location at this very spot.
And the dining room has that gracious old Southern feeling, with its high ceilings and big windows overlooking the trees and the river. On the menu I read the story of Old Joe, an 11-foot, 200-year-old alligator who had "never molested man, woman, child or pets," until he was "murdered by an unknown assailant on Sunday night, Aug. 1, 1966." (The taxidermied alligator himself sits in the great room / lobby.) We also chuckled over the reprinted menu from 1946. Amusingly, the dishes on the menu haven't changed all that much, though the prices have gone up a bit.
What a blessing to be able to savor Southern food (mmm, cheese grits and fried green tomatoes) in such a beautiful spot with such companions! It was an unexpected treat -- one of the highlights of my brief trip to Tallahassee, for sure.
And when my flight out was delayed such that there was no way I could make my connection, and I wound up staying an extra night, the folks at Hillel kindly welcomed me for Shabbat: davening, and supper, and the birkat hamazon which we bentsched with great gusto, and even some songs and table-pounding at the table afterwards. Thanks for your warm hospitality, Tallahassee!