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Okeechobee – A Texas Cow Town in the Middle of Florida



blog-0529550001394217780.jpgI didn’t know what to expect when I pulled into Okeechobee, Fla., but I can defiately say that I didn’t expect it to remind me of West Texas, right down to the city calling itself ”Cow Town.” But this is a western style town in the middle of the sunshine state, it’s dry and windy and surrounded by wide open spaces and lots and lots of cows. Rodeos are a big deal here and the name of the best local restaurant tells you what the local culture revolves around. It’s simply called “The Cowboy.”

In July, they have a big cattle drive – right down main streets of town. There are rodeos all year around.

Okeechobee, with a population of just under 6,000, is located smack in the middle of south Florida, about equal distance from both coasts and hard up against the western shoreline of Lake Okeechobee, the largest freshwater lake in Florida and the seventh largest in the United States. But locals stress another claim to fame about “The Lake,” as everyone around her refers to it. It is the largest freshwater lake completely within a single one of the lower 48 states.

The word Okeechobee in the tongue of the Seminoles who first settled here, means “big water.” It gets its water from the Kissimmee River, which links Okeechobee to Lake Kissimmee, some 60 miles to the west.

Tourism has most been limited to fishermen – - the lake is also known as the speckled perch capital of the U.S. - and rodeo fans who come for the many Cow Town events, especially the big one in July. But a new RV resort here is bringing in lots of new seasonal snowbirds and passing travelers. That’s what led us here, a chance to visit the Silver Palms RV Resort, located a half mile from Lake Okeechobee on the town’s eastern limits. We came here from Naples, where we stayed at a sister resort, the Naples Motorcoach Resort. Both parks are owned by Sunland RV Resorts, which operate high end RV resorts in California and Bay Harbor, Mich.

There are a couple of older RV parks in the Okeechobee area, and a KOA Resort park right across the street, but the Silver Palms caters to owners who buy a lot as well as renters. Overnight rentals start with a 40 by 70 foot spot on the grass with a concrete pad for $35 a night. Silver Palms is a master planned, gated community. Lot ownership starts at $55,000 and runs to $80,000, depending on size and location. An aggressive expansion will soon give the place well over 300 lots and a major footprint on the local economy, which has been clearly struggling, as evidenced by lots of shuttered businesses. There’s also a paucity of the traditional Florida tourist places like fancy restaurants and bistros and upscale shopping.

This is the cow country out here and if touristy hustle and bustle is what you seek, better head elsewhere.

If, however, you are looking to slow down, chill out, warm up and enjoy an area where the attraction is fresh air and lots of social activities with your RVing neighbors, this may be your diamond in the rough.

What the town may lack in activities, the RV resort more than makes up for in planned parties, events and gatherings around the swimming pool, clubhouse and members lounge area. On the week we were there, there was an old car show on Sunday, Margarita Monday – with free drinks and nachos from 2-4PM, a Mardis Gras parade and potluck party with free hurricanes on Tuesday and a boat tour of the lake on Wednesday. There are also poolside lunches three days a week and a big Saturday night dinner party.

And every day, starting early in the morning and going till dark, there are pickleball games. Pickleball, a racquet sport which combines elements of badminton, tennis, and table tennis and is played on outdoor courts, is reputed to be the fastest growing sport on America. The folks here take their pickleball very seriously but are always glad to explain it to a newcomer and offer newbie tips.

These people may like to party. But they are also pretty fit.

There are water exercise classes, line dancing lessons, a fitness center and fishing around several manmade lakes that are stocked with largemouth bass, some reputed to be in the 10 pound range.

The RVs include everything but trailers and popups. There are Class A, B, and C motorhomes as well as lots of Fifth Wheels. The more deluxe lots have pavers and owners can decorate them how they like. Many have installed tiki huts and small cabanas that hold washer and dryers or are an extra sleeping room for guests. A lot of the residents also have their own golf carts. Some have scooters. Everyone seems to ride a bike, which they use to drive to the community trash container, located at a remote end of the resort.

Again reminding me of Texas were the sound of cattle several times a day. A pasture borders the north end of the park and the black angus grazing there add to the bucolic, laid back vibes. A wetlands preserve borders the south end of the property.

We hung out at the pool on the days we were there. One morning, I borrowed a bike and rode a dozen miles or so along the Florida Trail, also known as the Lake Okeechobee Scenic Trail. Built atop the 35-foot high dike that surrounds the lake and protects the nearby community from flooding, this trail runs for over 110 miles. It’s pancake flat and offers beautiful views of the lake and surrounding wetlands.

The weather here is usually among the warmest in Florida. Because of the flat ranch land around here, there is almost always a breeze. During our visit the first part of March, the daily temperatures were in the low eighties every day.

We found the town and area to be refreshingly unlike any other place we’ve visited in Florida. It’s a great spot to relax. The residents I got to know during our stay here said they never intended to end up here but that the quieter pace of life and the friendliness of the people at Silver Palms kept them coming back, year after year.

Occupancy of the resort seemed pretty close to 90% or so, hence the expansion project. The whole complex is extremely well maintained and the rest rooms and showers are spotless.

Besides the many on site activities, the lake and the 110-mile bike trail were my favorite things to take in during our time and enough to bring me back someday. Below are some photos of the lake to show you what I mean. Our guide was Captain John Campbell, who has fished Okeechobee for more than half a century. He regularly takes folks out from the Silver Palms RV Resort and likes to weave in local history and information about wildlife as he takes them to the best fishing spots.


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