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May 5, 2004
Outside Magazine

Outside Magazine, August 1999

The Refuge at Ocklawaha

Ecocorrectness and gator tails in the heart of Florida
Despite its surfeit of sunshine, bargain airfares, and cheap car rentals, central Florida has long been a flyover zone for travelers seeking solitude and encounters with wild critters of the nonanimatronic variety. Until this June, that is, when the Refuge at Ocklawaha opened its ecofriendly doors less than 50 miles northwest of the paved and fertilized splendors of Orlando. A 52-acre converted farmstead bordering the silty Ocklawaha RiverÑand the sawgrass-and-marsh-choked wetlands of the 4,400-acre Ocklawaha Restoration AreaÑthe Refuge (at right) is about as unflashy a destination as you can find in these parts without pitching a tent. "The Refuge is the flip side of Disney,î spins green-resort entrepreneur Stanley Selengut, playing politically correct David to Walt's Goliath. "He gives people wonderful fantasy; we give them wonderful reality.î

A former importer of Peruvian woolen goods and native son of Greenwich Village, 70-year-old Selengut is one of ecotourism's founding fathers; he's renowned for developing an environmentally savvy (and profitable) cluster of platform tents called Maho Bay Camps more than 25 years ago on St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands. For the Refuge, Selengut landed backing from some of environmentalism's heaviest hitters: Excel Legacy Corporation (his partner in the venture), Pew Charitable Trusts, the St. Johns River Water Management Office, and the Florida Audubon Society. And while the team's high-concept vision won't be fully realized until next June, the Refuge (doubles, $100Ð$125; 800-392-9004) is certainly worth checking out now.

Guests stay in 23 Florida cracker-style cottages with tin roofs and screened porches, some of them Depression-era sharecropper's quarters now spruced up with terrazzo tile and Shaker-style rocking chairs. (Tentative plans call for another 37 cottages, complete with solar showers, composting toilets, and Internet access, by January.) The former rancher's house, a high-ceilinged, cypress-paneled affair, now serves up Old South delicacies such as Cajun steamed crabs and grilled baby gator tail. At the kennel-cum-studio, local artists teach free courses ranging from basket weaving to nature photography. Future diversions include crafting refuse into useful household items, conservation lectures, and a photovoltaic energy exhibit.

The wetlands surrounding this hubbub of activity, thankfully, needed little earnest improvement. Overgrown with ferns, blackberries, and the country's second-tallest magnolia, the Refuge hosts 135 bird species, including ospreys, ibis, and roseate spoonbills; Audubon staffers lead regular outings. A ten-mile trail winds atop the Ocklawaha's bermed riverbank, an optimal predawn spot for watching black bears, armadillos, and feral pigs. Or explore the otter- (and gator-) infested waters. The resort rents bikes for $15 a day, horses for $30, and canoes for $25.

If you're not careful, an activities-crammed sojourn at the Refuge can become a bit exhausting. Happily, when the odd summer monsoon sweeps through, guests can content themselves with stretching out on a porch and listening to the rain tap on the tin roof. - STEPHANIE GREGORY

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