(Cedar Lakes Woods and Gardens; Williston FL) We spent the better part of 3 hours exploring this beautiful oasis just 30 minutes southeast of Gainesville.
It took us about an hour and 45 minutes to drive the 113 miles to Cedar Lakes. The property is within throwing distance of neighboring Devil’s Den Spring, a privately owned, ultra-popular snorkeling / scuba mecca that emerged from an expanded sinkhole. Cedar Lakes is not as widely known as its spring neighbor, but I would argue it is just as breathtaking, if not more.
In 1991, a man by the name of Dr. Raymond Webber discovered this 100+ year old former lime rock quarry. He purchased the space with the intent to use it as a giant personal fishing pond. He converted this then-swamp, into a wonderfully transformed, beautiful, and warmly welcoming 20-acre botanical garden which he opened to the public in 2014. Dr. Webber also purchased and subsequently donated the 64-acre surrounding woodlands area Conservation Florida in an effort to protect the property in the future.
After parking our van in the grassy parking lot, we followed signage which led us to the ticket booth office. Inside the booth, Lori foreshadowed my visit by stating, “This place is good… for your soul.” Intrigued, I began my walk toward the center of the property. Steps behind the ticket office was an area full of miniature collectibles strategically scattered on the ground. Tiny porcelain homes at my feet gave the impression that little fairies had inhabited this magical wonderland. Continuing down the dirt path beneath unlit string-lights that were certain to be beautifully illuminated at nighttime, we found a large tortoise happily (and slowly) chasing a toy ball in a secluded and shaded area. My family had no idea what we were walking to, but I had cheated by Googling what was just moments away, and I was super excited!
The dirt path eventually came to an end, at which point we switched over to our new paved concrete path, which took us toward the right amidst lots of greenery – multiple mini-garden spaces, each seemingly committed and dedicated to someone special to the Gardens. Some were memorialized and punctuated with a large stone and a simple namesake display informing you of the garden you were walking through. Others served as the foreground, while teasing of a larger, grander, background that could not yet fully be comprehended, shielded by an abundance of trees.
At one point in our path, we walked up to, and eventually through a beautiful red Torii gate. Traditionally, these impressive structures were found within Japanese Shinto shrines, symbolically indicating the transition point between the ordinary and that which was considered to be sacred.
Upon taking the very next turn on our paved trail, I knew that we were indeed crossing over into the sacred space of the Gardens. Multi-colored lights accented the trees that adorned the red garden bridge, a very surreal space which begged our family to take a family photo. A small pond lay just below our feet as we posed there, and blue, red, and purple lights lit the trees which canopied the space just above our heads.
Essentially our path thus far was spiraling us downward toward the heart of the Gardens. The trees disappeared at the bottom of this spiral and the skies overhead opened for us. A large, serene, lake surrounded us. In the distance, a waterfall gently cascaded just beneath a small red Asian pagoda, seemingly perched atop the highest point of the property. Just beside it stood the house of Dr. Webber, with his personal belongings strewn along the back porch, hinting to visitors that he could make a celebrity appearance at any given moment. Narrow walkways traversed the lake, and visitors were peacefully scattered throughout, in small self-quarantined groupings. A small rowboat seemed to have been lifted directly from a scenic painting, with a simple gazebo just across the lake behind it. Supposedly somewhere in the water lived a 100-lb catfish.
Lori in the ticket booth was right! I felt relaxed and my family was at ease. The busy shopping areas and loud interstates of Orlando felt like they were worlds away. We were in a fantastic nirvana, wonderfully to ourselves, free of any of our daily worries. Cedar Lakes Woods and Gardens will provide you with a very peaceful escape, and hopefully do wonders for your soul as well.