Kentucky isn’t the only land of plenty for horse lovers. Ocala, Florida, located between Gainesville and Orlando, has an equestrian industry dating back nearly a century. Driving into town, the first signs of recognition are the white fences and the farms lined with majestic oak trees draped in Spanish moss. It’s here that thoroughbred horses are raised before going on to compete in races, giving Ocala the nickname of the “Horse Capital of the World.”
In 1916, Carl G. Rose arrived in the small central Florida town to oversee the construction of the state’s first asphalt road. While here, he purchased land, founding Rosemere Farm in 1935, making it the county’s first thoroughbred farm. He found success in 1944 when one of his horses became the first Ocala thoroughbred to win a race in Florida.
Ocala’s reputation for equine excellence only grew over the years, after a thoroughbred from the area won the 1956 Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes. Today, there are over 900 horse breeding farms and training facilities.
It attracts celebrities and horse lovers like John Travolta and is the site of annual competitions and events like the Live Oak International. Even if you’re not into horses, the Ocala Food and Wine Festival brings the best restaurants together for one delicious weekend.
How to Get to Ocala
Depending on where you’re coming from, flying is typically the fastest, but most expensive, option. Because of the wealth of the area, Ocala has private airports like Jumbolair, and plans are ongoing to reopen Ocala International Airport. In the meantime, your best bet is to fly into Gainesville, a 42-mile drive away, and rent a car. The airports of Orlando and Daytona Beach are a bit further.
Ocala is located right off I-75, so it’s easy to get to and from major cities. Or opt for the slow and scenic journey on Amtrak with rail service on the Silver Star line to Jacksonville with a bus transfer into town.
Where to Stay in Ocala
The five-star Equestrian Hotel is a luxury property with horse details around every corner, including carpet inspired by bridles, plush leather chairs and animal artwork on the walls. Large guest rooms overlook the World Equestrian Center grounds and have claw-foot tubs. The hotel also has multiple shops and restaurants, not to mention a master sommelier on staff.
The Hilton Ocala has everything you’d expect from the hotel brand, but this outpost is set apart by its resident Clydesdale, named Buddy. The property also has two restaurants to choose from, an outdoor pool and fitness classes.
The Equus Inn is another option, with equestrian-inspired rooms and perks like free daily breakfast, an outdoor pool, a self-serve bar stocked with craft beer and wine and a fitness center open at all hours.
What to Do in Ocala
The World Equestrian Center is known as the “Disney World” of horses, where owners bring their horses to compete for a hefty prize purse. The WEC’s over 300-acre campus has a number of shops and restaurants to check out, especially for all of your equestrian-related essentials like boots and saddles. If your interest in the creatures goes even further, many of the horse farms also offer guided tours.
This part of central Florida is also surrounded by natural springs, which remain the same temperature year-round. Here you can swim with manatees or kayak. Silver Springs State Park has glass-bottom boats and was a filming location for Creature from the Black Lagoon. The waters of Rainbow Springs State Park are believed to have healing properties — whether or not that’s a credible claim, paddling through is lovely.
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The nearby Ocala National Forest also offers fishing, snorkeling and boating. But if you want to take your adventure up a notch, join an ATV tour to travel the trails around the park, spotting wildlife along the way.
Where to Eat and Drink in Ocala
Ocala has a range of delicious restaurants from laid-back fish camps to upscale steakhouses worth a splurge. Make a reservation at Mark’s Prime, a local favorite since 2002, serving the highest quality USDA-certified steaks and Florida seafood. The location may seem odd for a winery, but Katya Vineyards has earned Wine Spectator awards for its house-made wine and fine dining menu.
Travolta loves Tony’s Sushi, a Japanese steakhouse serving sushi, yakitori and teppanyaki. For a casual bite after a day on the water, head to Swampy’s, a favorite for the Rainbow River tubing crowd. Chow down on gator bites and po’ boys. When you’re ready for a drink, you won’t have to go far. The Ocala area is home to three craft breweries: Infinite Ale Works, Big Hammock Brewery and Bites and Hiatus Brewing Company.
Brown water lovers should head to James Two Brothers Distillers, a local distillery offering tours and tastings of its whiskey and rum. And if you’re ready for a nightcap, head to the Yellow Pony Pub at the Equestrian Hotel. The bar has saddle seats and an extensive whiskey menu. Don’t miss the Old Fashioned, made with bourbon infused maple syrup and black walnut bitters.
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