It’s a common occurrence to spot boaters and paddle-boarders enjoying the Sunshine State’s prettiest rivers, but the owners of Wekiva Island decided to take Floridians’ love for their waterways seriously, and create a ‘resort’ atmosphere with just the right balance of amenities and relaxed, back-to-nature ambiance. The resort has flush toilets (and, in a very happy departure from many campgrounds and beach-side facilities, they’re remarkably clean), convivial bar staff, and waterside, covered cabanas, (called ‘river banas’) for hire, when you want to make a full day of it. And you’ll want to; it’s located in Longwood, a 45-minute drive north of Lake Buena Vista.
River banas are a distinctive add-on that really does pay off in summer months, and we enjoyed one during a recent stay. Ours included a cushy sofa and chair for relaxing, a picnic table for lunching, two cabinets for storing our items for the day, and a cooler with ice-cold bottled water. There was also a grill for barbequing, had we wanted to make our own lunch. Two comfy Adirondack chairs occupied pride of place on the wide strip of white sand that spans the length of the waterway, along the built-up bank running parallel to the river. Soak up the sun with your toes in the sand, or have an afternoon snooze in the shade of your river bana. It’s all about how you do you!
Prefer not to spring for a river bana? No worries. There are a large number of Adirondack chairs set up on a boardwalk along the river, and they’re first-come first-served. Arrive early (especially in summer or on weekends), snag a chair and watch the parade of kayakers, canoers and paddle-boarders float by. When you need to cool off, the water is relatively shallow along the boardwalk, perfect for a refreshing dip. There are lifejackets available to those hiring a watercraft, but if you have young children with you who may not be strong swimmers, be sure to bring along a flotation device that will keep them safe on the water.
Guests using a river bana are allowed to bring along items for grilling, but there is also the Without A Paddle Café window-service take-away with familiar favourites such as quesadillas, coconut shrimp and fish tacos, as well as unfamiliar items (unless you’re a natural-born Floridian) including fried gator tail served with honey mustard sauce, Bang’n Gator Tacos, and Pizza Log ‘eggrolls.’
We tried the crispy Fried Fish Sandwich, with two surprisingly light fish filets on a large bun, with lettuce, tomato, onion and a side of tartar sauce, plus the mildly spiced Mahi Quesadilla, again packed with fish and each big enough to split between two, especially with a side of fries.
There are seven appealing vegetarian options, too, including a veggie burger, beefless BBQ beef sandwich, and crispy vegetarian ‘chicken’ tacos. All go down well with any of 18 craft beers on draft, bottled domestic beer (by the bucket, for groups!), hard ciders, a dozen wines and a selection of soft drinks from The Tooting Otter bar (just for clarification, “tooting” can either mean that otter was blowing on a horn of some kind, or it could mean it had a wicked case of…ahem…intestinal wind).
Other amenities include a big beach volleyball court and lawn games such as cornhole (a beanbag-toss style game), and periodic events, including live music and wine-and-paint evenings. The crowd here is mainly locals, so there is the added amenity of meeting some interesting people who really know the Wekiva area well.
The best experience, hands-down, bar none? Hire a two or three seat canoe, a single or double kayak, or a paddleboard and take to the river. Turn left when you reach the main river from the launch area and you’ll reach Wekiva Springs, the natural spring for which the town and the state park are named. Turn right and you’ll eventually reach the St John’s River—but it might take you most of the day to make the round-trip journey.
What will you see during your paddle? Probably turtles, definitely fish, without a doubt birds, possibly otters and maybe, but unlikely, a gator. There are few bodies of water bigger than a puddle that don’t have a gator in them, and this IS Florida in its natural state. But don’t worry; gators are lazy, they’re wary, and they’re not even a little bit interested in eating you. Fact is, no matter how thin you are, you’re too much meal for a Florida gator, and as long as you don’t harass them they’ll keep their distance and be happy about it. If you DO see a gator, enjoy your good luck, snap a photo so you can brag to your friends back home, and move on.
Wekiva River is spring-fed, which means much of it is crystal-clear, giving you an exceptional view of the fish and other wildlife going about their business. It’s not unusual to see schools of large bass, and the deeper corners of the river have been known to harbour 30 and 40 pound catfish. During our paddle we even saw a big gar, which swam lazily alongside our kayak and paddle-board, giving us a good, long show.
Another aspect of Wekiva Island we heartily support is their dedication to eco-friendliness. Recycling is a big deal, as is the reclamation of rainwater, but it goes far beyond that. Much of The Tooting Otter is on solar power, the restrooms and sinks are low-flow, and the landscaping is all native plants, which are adapted to Florida’s climate and don’t require much maintenance—or much water. The Island has also signed on to the 2030 Challenge, which means it will be carbon-neutral by 2030. We think that’s well worth supporting.
But the main reason for visiting is to truly experience the natural side of this great state, and to do so in comfort. It will surely count among your very best memories from your Florida holiday!
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