By a conservative estimate, I've driven past the Jolly Gator Fish Camp about a thousand times without stopping.
That all changed on a recent leisurely Friday, the kind of fall afternoon that makes it worth living in Florida despite relentless teasing about our tourists, inefficient election counting, zombie attacks and oddball residents.
The Jolly Gator is four miles east of the Seminole County community of Geneva, next to the C.S. Lee Park Bridge on the St. Johns River. Like many of these places, it's not fancy.
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- New Smyrna Beach
4650 Rte 46, Geneva, FL 32732, USA
There's a small indoor restaurant (open 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday-Thursday; 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday and Saturday) with about a dozen tables and a diner atmosphere.
There are more tables on the outdoor screened patio, where it's easier to watch birds or guests departing on airboats next door. After lunch or dinner, a stroll on the camp's pier is a simpler diversion.
Try the Gator Po'Boy, prepared Cajun style. I skipped the swamp cabbage — made from hearts of palm, slow-cooked with bacon, sausage, onions and celery — but it's on my list for next time.
While a slow weekday afternoon is a good time to savor the silence, the Jolly Gator also can be rowdy. Bands and karaoke rule on Friday and Saturday nights, and there's a Sunday afternoon blues jam.
The Jolly Gator (4650 E. State Road 46, thejollygator.com) aspires to be biker-friendly and family oriented, which means dart boards on the patio and swing sets in the grassy yard outside.
For inland residents, the Jolly Gator is more convenient than driving to the Atlantic coast. Also within reasonable distance is Gators Riverside Grille (4255 Peninsula Point, Sanford), another rustic bar and eatery next to the Osteen Bridge, just south of Lake Monroe on the St. Johns.
Gators (gatorsriversidegrille.com) features a big outdoor deck for bands and a menu with grouper sandwiches and fried catfish entrees that are both winners. There's plenty of boat traffic, which provides more entertainment.
Also recommended is Lone Cabbage Fish Camp (8199 State Road 520, Cocoa), famous for airboat rides on the St. Johns. In New Smyrna Beach, JB's Fish Camp (859 Pompano Road) offers the prospect of kayaking and dolphin sightings in the Indian River.
And that's dining with a Florida view.