Just a short drive from greater Orlando’s theme park zoo is a region touted as "Orlando’s Oasis." Indeed, visiting places such as the historic town of Sanford is like stepping back into Old Florida — and I don’t mean that in a geriatric sense.

The historic St. Johns River, once the major transportation and exploration artery to Florida’s interior from Jacksonville, passes by Sanford. The waterway is a source of recreation, ranging from fishing to eco-touring to bird watching. Several companies operate airboat tours, and a number of quality fishing guides can introduce you to the winding river’s unique freshwater fishing opportunities.

Captain Tom Van Horn operates Mosquito Coast Fishing Charters. A trip with him includes loads of local history, plus tutorials on the flora and fauna and how and when to catch fish. (Hint: Spring and fall are the best.)

Captain Tom Van Horn operates Mosquito Coast Fishing Charters.

Photo Credit: Ken Perrotte


Canoeists and kayakers like Wekiwa Springs State Park, consisting of nearly 7,000 acres and featuring a perennially cool, spring-fed creek. Several burial mounds from the days of the Timucua Indians remain visible today. (Another hint: The park and the nearby access points to the water can be crowded in the summer as locals gather to escape the heat.)

Another way to see the area is from the water. Enjoy some food and drink by cruising on the 105-foot "Barbara-Lee," an authentic sternwheel paddleboat. Lunch and dinner cruises are offered. Steamships on the St. Johns carried nearly 100,000 tons of freight each week in the late 1800s.

The 105-foot Barbara-Lee is an authentic sternwheel paddleboat.

Photo Credit: Ken Perrotte


The Sanford waterfront is beautiful.

Veterans Memorial Park, on Seminole Boulevard, next to the marina and just off the town's nice waterfront walkway, is an excellent place to stroll and learn more about the area's military history and the veterans honored here.

Veterans Memorial Park, Sanford, Fla.

Photo Credit: Ken Perrotte

Some dining tips include the Smiling Bison, in downtown Sanford and featuring creative (even eclectic) dishes with unusual ingredients; and the Jolly Gator Fish Camp, a no-frills, definitely-old-school eatery near C.S. Lee Park's boat ramp in Geneva. Assorted fish, gator chunks, even swamp cabbage are on the menu.

For drinks in Sanford, check out Celery City  Craft Beer. More than 51 craft brews are on tap, including many of Florida’s local favorites.

For a crazy-vibe pub experience, go to the Imperial. This well-stocked bar operates inside the eclectic (there's that word again) Washburn Imports furniture store in Sanford's downtown.

Ken Perrotte is a Military Times outdoors writer.