I’m standing in the middle of a sugar cane field, sipping on watermelon moonshine. “Everything here is done by hand,” says Zak, an assistant distiller at Sugar Sand Distillery in Sebring, Florida. The new small-batch distillery is the only one in the country to create spirits using a true farm-to-bottle process, with every step done manually on site. The fruity moonshine and bright limoncello (infused with lemons from the owners’ backyard) taste a bit sweeter knowing they were crafted by hand on this sun-drenched 10-acre farm in rural Florida.
It’s not just at the distillery that I feel this sense of small-town earnestness. Sebring is the kind of place where everyone still knows each other’s names and they’re eager to know yours, too. The town has become synonymous with its world-renowned raceway but its real charm is to be found in its people and natural beauty. Where else in the world are you likely to bump into the restaurant’s owner at dinner? Yet that’s exactly what happens over my buttery, pan-fried grouper at Chicanes Restaurant & Bar, a lakeside restaurant housed within Inn on the Lakes. The hotel’s owner, Phil Hatfield, lives on site and is just as often in his lobby office as he is chatting with guests at the restaurant, or on the hotels’ Mediterranean-style terrace.
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The next day brings me to Highland Hammocks State Park. I stand quietly on the cinnamon-coloured trail as my guide and park ranger Laura McMullen imitates a bird call, hoping to hear the trill of a Florida Scrub Jay echoed back. The disappointment on McMullen’s face when she can’t summon the bird is as real as her passion for the rest of the area’s flora and fauna, and her genuine desire to share it with me. Along the Cypress Swamp Trail, she points out leggy herons and the amber eyes of alligators camouflaged by cabbage palms, while brown anole lizards skitter across our path.
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Later, I get a deeper immersion into Sebring’s lush swamplands with Airboat Wildlife Adventures. Blue bottle dragonflies escort our amphibious boat through narrow waterways framed by giant oaks draped in Spanish moss, and up over muddy islands. Cotton candy-pink roseate spoonbills stand stilt-legged at the water’s edge, joined by turtles and frogs. The alligators are elusive, their monstrous shadows visible just below the water’s surface as they dip out of our view. “Forget the Everglades - this is the real ‘Old Florida’,” says owner Jon Scott.
And perhaps therein lies the secret to Sebring’s hospitality: a place relatively unchanged for decades that retains its grit and warm country cheer. The best place to experience this might be the historic city centre. Antique shops and faded cafe awnings line Circle Drive, which wraps around a green plaza where the U.S. flag snaps in the wind atop its pole. Stop into Mon Cirque, a Parisian-inspired wine bar, for a glass of pinot gris or satiate your sweet tooth with a creamsicle float from the retro, diner-style Sebring Soda and Ice Cream Works. Either way, a stay in Sebring will be just as sweet.
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