This past weekend, I eased into that gator experience by returning to a spot that has been a favorite for years and also offers a likely opportunity for close-range gator spotting. At least, as close as this gator-fearing wanderer wants.
With its weatherworn deck and one-room indoor dining space (the latter cooled by a pair of wall-unit air conditioners), Shady Oak isn't a fancy date-night dining spot.
At the same time, there's really nothing more romantic than a lovely sunset view of the St. Johns River in a setting that's remarkably unspoiled for being about 10 miles west of downtown. So maybe it's a terrific spot, if your date happens to go for that kind of stuff.
Inside, there's also a small bar that's typically populated by local regulars. There are fishing tales about the ones that got away, jokes and local gossip. Even if you enter as an outsider, it's likely that you'll be welcomed into the conversation — especially after a couple of draft beers, which are priced as low as $1.
The place has been around since the late 1950s and, as the bargain beers suggest, not much has changed. There are a few old portable TV sets, but folks don't seem to pay much attention to them. There's a fancy new jukebox, but that's not a big draw either.
Instead, the highlight at Shady Oak is sitting on that deck, watching the boats glide along the river or the occasional gator surface in the water near the deck. The best approach is from the river, where boaters can dock and dine on what is touted as the best catfish sandwich on the river.
By land, the approach is still scenic, especially if a visitor takes time to travel Old New York Avenue, which cuts through pastures and streams before passing railroad tracks by the old Amtrak Station that's only a stone's throw away from Hontoon Island State Park, yet another quiet nature retreat.