Wauchula – In the middle of vast acres of orange groves and fields of grazing cattle, there’s a Main Street in the middle of Hardee County. It has a store that sells artsy gifts, a tiny Italian restaurant, a coffee place, an ice cream shop. Just a block away is a quaint B&B called Quilter’s Inn.
And there you have it: Downtown Wauchula.
But for those looking for a slow-paced, quiet and unusual kind of Florida, Wauchula is your place.
There is plenty to do, to be sure. There are long drives through the countryside, mooing at cows and scaring off crows and vultures. There’s the Peace River, where you can canoe or hunt for fossils. There are antique stores in neighboring Arcadia. There’s even a semi-famous castle – more on that later.
Still, in a state where people understandably are used to theme parks and beaches, there’s always the guest that’s going to ask Quilter’s Inn owner and hostess Pattie Detwiler: OK, what do we do next?
“You city people,” said Detwiler. “You don’t know how to relax.”
What do you get when you cross a junk collection, an artist, an architect and 70-acre Central Florida swamp?
Behold, the spectacle of Solomon’s Castle.
A 20-minute drive from the heart of Wauchula, the castle is the most memorable landmark you’ll find in Hardee County, with its three-story, 12,000-square foot castle made of old aluminum newspaper printing plates, a replica of the Alamo and a huge 16th century galleon. All is the handiwork of one man.
For $10, you can hang out on 77-year-old Howard Solomon’s property for as long as you like. You can take a tour of the castle, once featured on HGTV’s Most Extreme Homes in America.
He and his wife, Peggy, raised his children there (one of whom is married with children and still lives in a “chocolate house” he built on the property) and the couple still resides in the castle.
A guide will tour you through the home, which displays hundreds of odd but very well done sculptures made out of old car parts, tin cans, toys and other scraps once discarded in a junkyard. Each piece has a story and a punchline.
But the real fun is in wandering around the grounds, where you’re likely to run into Solomon himself, a small, wiry man who is friendly and surprisingly down-to-earth. An orange, tail-less tabby named Bobby will walk up to inspect you and his grown children run the gift shop, which sells Solomon’s wooden sculptures and other gifts for reasonable prices. The “Boat in the Moat” restaurant is your typical lunchtime fare, though the walnut pie is a recipe you’ll beg to take with you.
For a more serene adventure, the Peace River is a short trek from the middle of town and offers half-day or day-long canoe runs. Canoe Outpost shuttle drivers will take you upstream and drop you and your canoe off in the river, where you can lightly glide downstream and gaze at heron, eagles and the occasional lounging alligator.
You also may spot small groups of people near boat ramps, wading knee deep with trowels, snorkel masks and sifting screens. Peace River is a popular spot for fossil hunting, a lesser-known Florida hobby that anyone can do.
Springtime is best, since that’s when the river is clearest, but people hunt year round for tiny bits of ancient artifacts. The most abundant fossils are shark teeth, but many have found mammoth teeth and mastodon teeth, as well as small bones.
There are the usual river activities – fishing, camping, picnics. During peak tourism seasons and holidays, the Peace River can get busy, so it’s best to call ahead and reserve a kayak or canoe if you’re planning to make a day out of it.
Back at Quilter’s Inn, it feels at times as though Detwiler is running a one-woman travel agency for all of Wauchula and the surrounding area. She admits, many Wauchula residents would just as soon keep their little town a secret, preferring the simple life to a hub of commerce and activities.
Still, it’s nice to be free of the pressures of hitting all the hot spots, and it’s the perfect getaway if you only have a day or two to spare. At Quilter’s Inn, visitors can sit on the wraparound porch, sipping wine and reading about the wedding of two local farmers’ kids in the newspaper.
Not all tourists are able to sit still long enough to enjoy the simple oddities of this rural Florida town. But for those that do, it is worth it.