Ocala is famous for the picturesque horse farms that have made it a world-class equestrian hub, but it was a less heralded gem that inspired my recent Marion County road trip.
Nestled into an unlikely strip of businesses and tourist attractions such as Silver Springs, the Appleton Museum of Art (4333 E. Silver Springs Blvd., 352-291-4455) boasts an impressive permanent collection of Asian, African and pre-Columbian works as well as visiting exhibits showcasing modern art and creations by Florida artists.
It's just an added bonus that a road trip out of Southwest Volusia County takes a traveler through some of the most relaxing back roads territory that Florida has to offer. If you're not in a hurry — and you shouldn't be! — you can stop and gander for a few moments at the oversized wrought-iron bears and roosters at Barberville Produce, an utterly unique roadside fixture at the corner of U.S. Highway 17 and State Road 40.
The unhurried path also leads through the Ocala National Forest, where it's quite possible to spot an occasional deer peeking its head out of the trees that line the road. There are precious few watering holes in the forest, so I'd recommend stopping for an early lunch at William's Landing, the informal upstairs dining room at the Blackwater Inn, a fixture on State Road 40 next to the Astor Bridge on the St. Johns River.
Pull up a stool to one of the wooden tables next to the big picture window and check out the lunch special: On my visit, it was Southwest Catfish, a fried filet served with rice and Texas toast for $5.99.
The museum: It's a stately presence with its travertine marble and fountains tucked among a dense cover of trees that buffer the busy Silver Springs Boulevard. I caught the closing weekend of "The New Reality: The Frontier of Realism in the 21st Century," featuring new twists on paintings by Dali and Van Gogh.
The museum's next visiting exhibit is "Southern Journeys: African-American Artists of the South," which runs Saturday-May 23. There are other programs, such as Sunday afternoon art films that include Edward Hopper: The Silent Witness at 1:30 p.m. today. Visit appletonmuseum.org for details.
Dinner? Do Horse & Hounds, sister restaurant to the original Ocala favorite that opened recently across from the museum.