8 Great Dates

Plan the perfect date with one of these 

By Karin Fabry-Cushenbery

It’s February, and Valentine’s Day is quickly approaching. If you’re looking for something a bit different to do with your special someone, we have a few suggestions that just might earn you a bonus point or two.  

1. An Artful Evening

You’ve lived in Ocala most of your life, but when’s the last time you checked out the Appleton Museum of Art or took in a play at the Ocala Civic Theatre? If you can’t recall, we say now’s the time to make it happen. This perfect afternoon or evening out is sure to spark interesting conversation and unique entertainment. 

The Appleton has several exhibits on display (in addition to the museum’s permanent collection), including Karen Glaser: Swamps and Springs, which opens on February 10. Karen’s beautiful photographs detail images of Florida’s ecosystems from both above and below the water’s surface. Also check out Outsider Aviary: Robert W. Smeltzer’s Birds of America, an exhibit of Smelter’s hand-carved, life-sized birds. A bird lover and self-taught woodworker, Smelter created 242 carvings of birds, which were donated to the Appleton in 1993. 

After your trip to the Appleton, head across Silver Springs Boulevard for lunch or dinner at Mojo’s, an Ocala favorite. Then, head back to the cultural complex to enjoy a show at the Ocala Civic Theatre. The Spitfire Grill, a story about Percy Talbott, a young woman recently released from prison and looking to make a fresh start in a small Wisconsin town, will be on stage between February 8 and 25. 

For more information, including tickets and details, visit appletonmuseum.org and ocalacivictheatre.com

2. Ocala’s Fabulous Farms

The Ocala Farm Tour is a 3.5-hour driving and walking tour that explores three of Ocala’s most beloved horse farms, including one of the world’s few Thoroughbred centers. 

The tour is limited to 17 people, and guests will enjoy a leisurely drive in a Mercedes or Ford van through Ocala’s horse country while tour guides share interesting facts about Ocala’s extensive history, including the rich history of Ocala’s equestrian community. Participants will spend about 30 minutes at each location and will experience close encounters with horses of all breeds and disciplines. The tour costs $65 per person, and you can reserve your spot on farmtoursofocala.com

Just off Hwy 27 you’ll find Horse & Hounds Restaurant & Pub, the perfect lunch or dinner location following your equestrian experience. An Ocala favorite for decades, the atmosphere is casual and the ambiance perfect for horse lovers. Some lunch favorites include the Guiness beef stew and Beer Cheeseburger. Start your dinner off right with the Tomato Bacon Dill soup, a family recipe and Horse & Hounds tradition. Save room for a steak off the grill or a house specialty, including the Pecan Chicken or Honey Bourbon Salmon. You can check out the entire menu at horseandhoundsrestaurant.com

3. Wine & Dine

A short drive south of Ocala you’ll arrive in the quaint town of Clermont, where you’ll find Lakeridge Winery, one of Central Florida’s most visited wineries. Guided tours of the winery and complimentary tastings are offered seven days a week between the hours of 10am and 4pm. Your tour will include a history of Florida winemaking as well as the winemaking process. The tour lasts about 45 minutes and is followed by a wine tasting that features some of the winery’s top wines, including sweet, dry and even sparkling selections, plus beautiful views of Lakeridge’s muscadine grape vineyards. Situated on about 75 acres of rolling property, the vineyard is the perfect place to unwind, relax and enjoy conversation. More details can be found at lakeridgewinery.com

When the tour is over, make your way to The Southern on 8th Kitchen & Bar for brunch or supper. We love the country pork cordon bleu and herb-crusted garden chicken. They also have seasonal and seafood specials available. The Southern offers a weekend brunch from 11am until 3pm, which features a great variety of sandwiches, soups, starters and savory and sweet Southern brunch items. It’s nearly impossible to choose a favorite, but we loved the peach stuffed cornflake coated French toast. Yum! Happy Hour is weekdays from 4-6pm and weekends from 3-6pm. Dinner is served Tuesday through Thursday, 4-9pm; Friday, 4-11pm; Saturday, 4-10pm; and Sunday, 4-9pm. The kitchen closes at 10pm. You can peruse the menu at thesouthernon8th.com.

4. Adventure Awaits

If you and your sweetie are the adventurous sort, why not spend the day at The Canyons Zip Line & Adventure Park. If you haven’t been yet, we promise you’ll feel like you’ve been transported to a mountain community, complete with rock formations and elevation changes. 

The Canyons offers other cool adventure outings, including the Horseback Ride Fireside and the Full Moon Zip Tours. Billed as the ultimate horse encounter, the Fireside Ride begins with a meet and treat with your horse where you’ll get to know one another and take pictures. The ride is a moonlit outing through Big Cliff Canyon, eventually gathering at the Fireside Hideaway where you can enjoy a glass of wine, s’mores and friendly conversation. The tour takes place once per month during the full moon and lasts about two hours. If you’re looking for a more heart-pounding time, the nighttime zip is certain to get your blood pumping. Also taking place on the full moon, this nighttime excursion takes you through five zips and two sky bridges. Glow sticks will help light your way as you and your partner navigate through the trees. The night zip takes about 1.5 hours to complete. 

The Canyons also offers daytime zip tours as well as scenic kayak tours where you can paddle through Big Cliff Canyon in Lost Spring Lake. 

Reservations for all of these adventures fill up fast, so reserve your spot today by registering online at zipthecanyons.com.  

5. Drive-In Nostalgia

If seeing a movie is your idea of a great date, why not switch it up a bit and head out to the Ocala Drive-In? In operation since 1948, the Ocala Drive-In is one of just a few hundred drive-ins still in operation in the United States. Drive-ins had their heyday in the ‘50s and ‘60s, but the nostalgia and value factors have people flocking to them once again. Gone are the days of listening to scratchy audio through an outside speaker. These days, most drive-ins, including Ocala’s, are digital, and the sound is transmitted to the vehicle via an FM radio station. The weather is perfect to take a set of chairs and a blanket to share, open the back of the car and set up outside. The theater offers two screens, and your ticket is good for a double-header playing first-run movies on the same screen. The first movie starts at dark, and the second movie follows shortly after. 

Outside food and drink aren’t permitted, but that shouldn’t be a problem. The concession stand has a great menu that goes beyond the basic burgers and hot dogs, and all food is made to order, including the New Orleans-style muffuletta sandwich and poboys. And on top of it all, you can’t beat the price at just $6 per adult, $3 for kids ages 6 to 12 and free for ages 5 and under. Of course, for the purposes of this story, a babysitter will be in order! 

You can check the drive-in’s Facebook page or visit ocaladrivein.info to get the latest showtimes. 

6. The Wonders of WEC

Have you been out to explore the World Equestrian Center yet? If not, February is the perfect time to schedule your WEC date. 

The month of February features the 2024 Winter Spectacular Show Series, which is sanctioned by U.S. Equestrian. This circuit features Premier Hunter/Level 6 Jumper competitions, plus five weeks of Federation Equestre International competition. The winter circuit continues through March 10 and culminates with the grand finale of the Longines League of Nations qualifying event March 20 through 24. The competitions take place in both indoor and outdoor arenas at the facility between 8am and 4pm.

While at WEC, treat yourself to a unique or fine dining experience. The largest restaurant, Stirrups, is located at the Equestrian Hotel and features prime steak and chop options, plus Southern-style seasonal dishes, Florida seafood and more. Filo’s Mexican Cantina serves street tacos, burritos, quesadillas and more all day long, including breakfast. Ralph’s Burger & Sandwich Shop serves up classic burgers, salads and sandwiches with a few upgraded flavors thrown in for good measure. Make sure to try a homemade milkshake at Ralph’s! If you’re craving Italian, Viola & Dot’s Italian Kitchen & Pizzeria is the way to go, while the Yellow Pony Pub & Garden offers live music and a pub-style atmosphere, including appetizers to share and craft cocktails. Your date wouldn’t be complete without a sweet for your sweet, so be sure to stop in at Emma’s Patisserie for French macarons, European-inspired pastries and other elegant treats. Miss Tilly’s Lollipops is a classic sweet shop offering everything from yummy ice cream and homemade fudge to chocolates and other confections. See all WEC has to offer at worldequestriancenter.com/ocala-fl. 

If you really want to indulge in all WEC has to offer, book a staycation at the Equestrian Hotel, Ocala’s only AAA Four-Diamond resort, and pamper yourself for the evening, walking around the facility amongst the glow of nighttime lights and twinkling stars. Opt for a curated experience and enjoy breakfast in bed. Or, book a memorable spa experience, such as a couple’s massage, at the Calluna Spa, a 7,000-square-foot facility designed to pamper and indulge. Visit equestrianhotel.com to book your stay or learn more. 

7. Explore St. Augustine

St. Augustine is far more than the fountain of youth and the oldest schoolhouse. The cobblestone streets, rich architecture and seaside atmosphere make it perfect for a romantic night or, better yet, weekend away. Let your weekend start with checking in to The Local St. Augustine. This charming pink boutique hotel is modern yet eclectic at the same time. A relaxing pool and patio area are gently lit by overhead string lights, and the facility offers guests a variety of complimentary health offerings, including steam rooms and yoga classes. Voted “No. 1 Motel in the U.S. by USA Today’s 10 Best,” The Local, located on Anastasia Island near the Bridge of Lions, is within walking distance to many of St. Augustine’s historical sights, natural recreation areas, music venues, restaurants and more. Plus, it’s just a five-minute drive to St. Augustine Beach. Book your stay at thelocalinns.com

When you’re this close to the Atlantic, fresh seafood should be the plan for dinner. The Local is walking distance to the Conch House where you’ll find authentic Caribbean faire and signature dishes, such as the Minorcan conch chowder soup, banana pepper calamari, butter rum scallops, shrimp Anastasia and more. Make it a point to stop at The Tipsy Duck Parlor, which specializes in signature parlor drinks humorously called Ducktails. Each drink features a type of wine accompanied by a variety of fruit, syrups or more. The Tipsy Duck, served blended in a fun bathtub, includes sauvignon blanc, strawberries, fresh basil and rose syrup. Another favorite is the Fizzy Duck with chardonnay, vanilla bean syrup and pineapple juice served over dry ice. If you really want to step up your romance game, book a private carriage ride with The Tasting Tours. Guests can choose a private wine or dessert ride, plus other offerings. You can find out more on thetastingtours.com

8. Paddles and Pancakes

Start your day early with a kayak trip down the Silver River. Kick it up a notch by renting clear fiberglass canoes from Kayaking Silver Springs. Imagine an unlimited view down into our natural springs as turtles, fish and even the occasional gator or manatee swim by. We promise you’ll get a glimpse of the Silver River and Silver Springs State Park not often seen. Kayaking Silver Springs offers both guided kayak tours, including their popular two-hour clear kayak manatee tour at 9:30am and 12:30pm, and rentals for you to go and explore on your own. Before you set sail you’ll take part in a quick kayaking how-to to make sure everyone knows the proper and safe way to kayak. You’ll even be provided with a treasure map so you can locate all the sunken artifacts and spring locations. If you and your sweetie opt for a guided tour, your guide will share interesting tidbits about Florida’s native wildlife and ecosystems. Reservations must be made and paid for at least 24 hours in advance and can be made online at kayakingsilversprings.com.

Now that you’ve worked up quite an appetite, head south on 441 to Belleview for pancakes you have to see to believe. Todd & Shelly’s Farm Fresh Café & Pub offers a delicious brunch menu that features a stack of hotcakes that resembles a stacked cake more so than flapjacks. It’s like your own personal slice of heaven. The menu has far more offerings than pancakes, too, so check out their Facebook page for details.