Quick Trips: The Rainbow River and the Ocala Hilton Experience
— This is the first of our occasional articles about quick trips from Florida’s Nature Coast. —-
Last year I went to Ocala for the Florida Outdoor Writers Conference and had a blast. NatureCoaster won two awards: first place for our 15 second promotional spot and second place for our writing on Gems of the Nature Coast: Ozello. What an honor!
I visited Silver Springs, kayaked the Rainbow River and learned a lot about outdoor writing as a business. I networked with like-minded nature lovers who work to promote Florida’s amazing offerings to a big, big world.
And I met Sally White, writer of “Adventures of Mom,” a world traveler, wife of Randal White, former Chef of the Year by the American Culinary Federation and a Crystal River native.
Sally is a real go-getter who lives in the area and generously invited me to kayak with a local, as well as experience the recently reimagined Ocala Hilton, and their award-winning restaurant (which Chef Randal just happens to run).
How could I say no?
Kayaking with a Native
We took a quick trip to KP Hole in Dunellon and launched mid-afternoon. Serenely paddling up river, we passed several residents on kayaks and paddleboards. The Rainbow River is a natural, spring fed river, but it is bordered by homes in several places. Near the entrance to Rainbow Springs State Park we met a few tubers. (FYI: It’s a good idea to paddle up river first so the paddle back is easier.)
Tubing is a popular activity from Rainbow Springs State Park. You can rent a tube and get in at the State Park and just float down the river, enjoying the flora and fauna au natural. The river is spring fed, so it stays a constant 72-degrees Fahrenheit and crystal clear. Weekends can be busy.
Kayaking gives you more control, and Sally showed me parts of the river I had previously been unaware of. Two gorgeous lakes derived from lime rock mining pits, with unknown depths and crystal-clear water, provided a change from the flow of the river.
We discovered turtles, anhingas, herons, a cormorant tree, spider lilies, and fish of all sorts on our adventure.
What I experienced mostly was a sense of tranquility and discovery combined with a budding friendship.
Back to the Ocala Hilton
I went back to check into the Ocala Hilton. When the doors to the lobby opened automatically, I was greeted with a colorful, lively art fixture that looks like birds, or fish, or butterflies rising up in a swirl of light. It gave me a sense of joyful respite as I ventured ahead and was warmly welcomed. Andrea Bonflis’ Submerged Garden murals behind the front desk again brought peaceful nature to mind.
The 9th floor is referred to as “The Club on 9” and it is a special place that is available for a $40 upcharge from any room reservation, as long as there is availability. My key was required in the elevator to get to Club level where a transparent urn of fruited ice water greeted this parched kayaker.
With a glass of the cool, citrus infused water, I walked to my room, suitcase in tow. To my right was a lounge full of amenities that is only for Club guests. It looked interesting, but I needed to get settled. Opening the door to my room, I was greeted by a spotless environment featuring a magnificent view of the hotel’s 6-acre property, pool, and resident Clydesdale horse, “Buddy”.
All of the amenities one expects in a Hilton were there, and more. Three cups of snacks – gummy bears, chocolate covered almonds and pretzels were nicely arranged in front of tempting sparkling and non-sparkling waters in glass bottles, with an adorable key bottle opener next to the lounging chair – an a work area, which I ignored. “This is how hotel rooms as supposed to feel,” I thought. As I went to hang my clothes, two guest bathrobes greeted me – aaaahhhhh…
After snacking and resting a bit, I ventured to the Club 9 Lounge where Chef Randal was demonstrating (and serving) crab cakes for guests. I introduced myself and took a couple of the round delights with his special sauce.
Exiting the elevator on the first floor, the beautiful art and a soulful voice, with ringing six-string chords greeted me. Jordan Mae, a delightful young lady who is studying at college and working on a budding music career. Live music is a regular part of the Market Kitchen & Bar, an Open Table Diners Choice award restaurant.
The volume was just enough to be heard and quiet enough to enjoy conversation with Sally and our server, so I tried a blueberry mint lemonade with my crab cakes and was wowed with the fresh lemon and blueberry flavors, perfectly mixed and accented by a sprig of fresh mint – from the Hilton’s onsite garden. (FYI: Patrons are given the opportunity to pick their own herbs from the bountiful garden by the hotel’s gracious staff whenever possible. Click here to tour of the garden with Chef)
The Market Kitchen & Bar
Then we ate!
We decided on a variety of appetizers:
BOSS HOG WINGS were amazing crispy pork shanks, glazed with bourbon-root beer sauce, accompanied by smashed potato, and these sautéed onions
AHI TUNA POKE bourbon infused ahi tuna, avocado, Bermuda onion, sticky rice, wasabi
MARGHERITA FLATBREAD roasted tomato basil concasse, garlic, buffalo mozzarella
SPICY PICK’N CHICKEN fried chicken fritters, goat cheese grits, mushroom, onion, bleu cheese crumbles
I loved them all, but the Ahi Tuna Poke won out as my favorite. The tuna was so fresh and well-seasoned, while the sticky rice was a perfect balance – and the avocado was a great texture and flavor balancer. (Confession: I LOVE Ahi tuna. I eat it whenever the opportunity presents itself!)
A very close second was the Spicy Pick’n Chicken because of the many textures and flavors (who thought of putting goat cheese in grits?).
Did I mention the amazing desserts?
Chef Randal White
The presentation of each of these dishes was part of the fun of eating them. Market Kitchen and Bar’s chef is quite creative. In fact, Chef Randal White has The Chef’s Table show airing on PBS in Gainesville, and a Florida Southern Cooking cookbook on Amazon.
He heads a team that is focused on locally sourced, fresh farm-to-table creations. The meat is Florida grass fed and pasture raised and custom cut from the Florida Meat Company, the cheese is from the Holstein dairy cows of the Cypress Point Creamery in Hawthorne Florida, handcrafted jellies and jams from Windmill Acres in Ocala, and, of course, the garden on-site for daily, hand-picked vegetables and herbs.
Breakfast of Champions
The next morning, I met Sally for breakfast at the Ocala Hilton’s restaurant. I chose the buffet, which included a freshly made omelet with ingredients of my choice. Sally had eggs benedict, and we were met by the hotel’s General Manager, Rich Larkin, who enjoyed steak and eggs. Rich explained that the 30-year old hotel property had become stale, entrenched in its horse racing heritage and he was brought in to update the property by its new owners a few years ago.
Rich took this task to heart. He worked with his staff to create the “Unbridled Spirit” that I felt when I first entered the property – a combination of restfulness and playfulness that a horse displays when you remove its bridle. Here is a man, representing an organization, who shows his commitment to his task by investing in the property, its amenities and especially his staff.
Meeting the Staff
At every step of my stay at the Ocala Hilton, I felt a sense of excitement and concern for my well-being and comfort from the staff of this property, as well as a sense of unity and pride in work.
Ciera Crippen checked me at the front in with warmth and efficiency.
Freddy Lopez joined our table for appetizers and was a delightful host, explaining the unbridled spirit philosophy and sharing his love of the hospitality business and the Ocala area. He is the hotel’s Food & Beverage Manager.
Our beverages were brought by Shannon Medici, who offered to let me pick my mint in the garden and made sure that delicious satisfaction was the result of her drink deliveries. Shannon is the Bar Manager, and while I visited, she was working with her staff on perfecting a Mint Julep for the Kentucky Derby party May 5.
Breakfast was served by Erica Romero, a stylish lady with lots of grace and an infectious smile. Erica, like Shannon the night before, was attentive to my satisfaction with the food I had ordered and had the right combination of availability and aloofness that allowed me to enjoy my breakfast and my conversation, but with freshly filled coffee that never got cold.
At the buffet, Jennifer Hanson helped me get juice and pastries (which are made daily on the premises – you can taste the difference!) with a smile and southern charm. She explained each of the buffet items, and let me tell you the bacon rocked!
Upstairs in Club on 9’s Lounge, a gentleman named George Cochoran was both friendly and accommodating. George came to Ocala from Miami with lots of hospitality experience. He shared that he arrived in the area with limited hopes and a responsibility to help with his aging parents, but he has found a wonderful community that has slowed him down and contributed to his quality of life.
This was my second trip to Ocala for fun. There are many things to do here, so I expect to go back (and I need to have a Buddy encounter). I plan to return to Silver Springs Museum to continue exploring Florida’s natural history. I want to experience The Canyons zip line and Canopy Tours. The Silver River awaits for a more secluded kayaking adventure. I want to tour the horse farms. Downtown Ocala is a Main Street community, which means they are working on promoting small businesses and community activities in the downtown core and I like that. And I haven’t even started on the Ocala National Forest.
Ocala has a visitors and convention bureau that will help you with planning your Getaway. Feel free to contact them at their website.
Oh, and I recommend staying at the Ocala Hilton in case you didn’t notice.
** The Ocala Hilton provided accommodations and meals for this article, but the opinions are my own.