In the heart of Wakulla Springs State Park, a 6000-acre wildlife sanctuary populated by manatees, alligators, and waterfowl, the Wakulla Springs Lodge is an amazing place to stay and to eat. “Welcome to the REAL Florida” reads a sign as you enter the park and wind through a canopy of hardwood forest towards the two-story Moorish-Deco edifice built in the 1930s and little changed since then. There are no TVs in guest rooms (but there is WiFi internet); the lobby ceiling is a glorious painted tableau that melds Teutonic folk art with Arabic and Native-American symbols and crests of Europe’s noble families; and the lobby walls are adorned with backlit transparency photos that show life at the lodge in the mid 20th century: bathing beauties frolicking, glass-bottom boats gliding over the spring basin. A placard at the front desk advises that the air conditioning system is unique, cooling the inn using pumped-in fresh spring water. Does that explain the sweet, moss-green scent that gives this place such a dreamy feel? Next to the original walnut-walled elevator (close the iron gate yourself, please) is a poster from the 1954 movie Creature from the Black Lagoon, which was filmed hereabouts to take advantage of the primeval ambience.
The setting is echt-Florida and the menu is an upscale reflection thereof. Dinner is a big-deal meal here, and priced accordingly, featuring such local delights as oysters, deviled crab, shrimp, and ham-laced navy bean soup that has earned legendary status over the years. But our favorite meal is breakfast. Bright and early, birds outside the great arched windows of the dining room are busy on their morning errands, providing a colorful backdrop to a table crowded with sizzled ham steak, cheese grits, biscuits and sausage gravy, and, best of all, fried chicken. The chicken is cooked when ordered (there’s a 25 minute wait), arriving at the table still too hot to handle. Its crunchy-chewy crust outdoes bacon as a luxury breakfast meat. This is fried chicken at its finest, and a reminder that northernmost Florida is America’s deepest South.