March is a month that brings classic, vintage and wooden boats of all types to Tavares on Lake Dora, Fla. Some are drawn to the Sunnyland Antique and Classic Boat Festival, one of the largest antique and classic boat shows on the East Coast. Others come for the Tavares Spring Thunder Regatta, which attracts boats from far and wide for competition and camaraderie. Participating in either of these events is a ton of fun, but there can be just as much enjoyment in getting there. As they say, it’s about the journey.
For 27 years now a gathering of fun-loving wooden boat owners has enjoyed the scenic beauty of the St. Johns River and its connecting waterways as a primer for the Sunnyland Boat Festival. The Sunnyland St. Johns River Cruise is a five-day affair, with the group motoring south from the Florida Yacht Club in Jacksonville towards Tavares and enjoying the sights along the way.
This year the cruisers will meet on March 22 and 23 to prep and launch their boats, coming from all across North America to take part. Unfortunately, some of the stops along the river can only accommodate up to 30 boats, so there is a limit on the cruise size. However, the organizers are also starting a northbound cruise at the end of the boat festival for those not able to do the southbound cruise.
Guy Marvin III has run the southbound event for the past 18 years and explained that some participants have enjoyed the trip so much that they have participated in all or almost all of the 26 cruises. It’s easy to understand why after hearing about the sights and experiences along the way.
Monday, March 24 marks the first leg of the cruise. Start times are “at a socially decent hour,” according to Marvin, and participants have their luggage trucked along the route so as not to overload their boats with clutter. The boats make their way up the river to the rustic Outback Crab Shack, just south of Green Cove Springs. This is the first stop on what some might consider a cuisine cruise. After dining on seafood and lobster, everyone goes back to their boats for a two-hour ride to Palatka where they spend the night.
The next morning, again “at a socially decent hour,” the fleet is off once more for a trip through Dunns Creek and on to Crescent Lake to Crescent City. The creek is an authentic Florida creek with narrow passages and lots of wildlife. It feels a little bit like a step back in time, with little of the modern world in sight. The creek then opens up to the shallow yet enjoyable Crescent Lake. The trip across the lake culminates at the Sprague House, a spectacular B&B built in the 1800’s, where a special lunch is provided. Then it’s back to Palatka via another rustic waterway called Murphy’s Creek. Some say they’ve seen wild boar back in these waters. In town cruisers have a chance to wander around and explore the quaint buildings, shops and murals of Palatka.
Day three finds the boats at lunch in Welaka, at another legendary eatery, the Shrimp R’ Us, where shrimp are fixed three different ways “with all the fixings and a great dessert.” By the afternoon, the boats are sitting a little lower in the water as they head on to possibly the most challenging leg of the cruise: crossing Lake George. Lake George is Florida’s second largest lake and land is not visible from one side to the other. When the wind picks up it can be a tough ride across. Those who want to experience typical Florida springs make a heading for Silver Glen Springs on the southwest side of the lake. After swimming in the consistently temperate 72-degree water, the fleet moves on to yet another unforgettable meal and a good night at Blair’s Jungle Den, a rustic eatery and fish camp in Astor.
The last day of the cruise sees another leisurely start and a box breakfast. There is a brief detour along the way to view manatees at Blue Springs. Then it’s on to the final stop at Sanford, where rigs and trailers await to haul the boats to the festival that starts the next day in Tavares. It’s the perfect end to a delicious cruise – the opening of one of the premier wooden boat festivals in the country.
SUNNYLAND BOAT FESTIVAL:
Dates: March 28th to 30th, 2014
Location: Wooten Park, 123 South Joanna Ave, Tavares, FL 32778 | 28.48.043N, 81.43.655W
Cost: Adults $5, Children $3
Dates: March 21st to 23rd
Location: Wooten Park, Tavares, FL