Words by Carmen Macri and Ambar Ramirez
Do you remember the feeling of your parents dropping you off at summer camp? Driving the whole way with the windows down, smelling the summer breeze, anticipation swirling through your body. The feeling seemed fleeting, especially as we grew up and grew out of our beloved childhood summer camps. But why does growing up mean we must say goodbye to the lore of summer camp? Just because we are adults now doesn’t mean we shouldn’t still be able to enjoy the simple things in life — like hanging around a campfire by a lake or taking a midnight dive under the stars.
Well, luckily for those who live in North Florida, that summer camp feeling is not one of a distant memory. Not while Declan Reiley, owner of Camp Declan, has a say in the matter anyway.
Growing up in lake cabins across Florida, Reiley shares his fondness for the feeling it brought to not only him but his friends and family.
“It all started when I was a little boy. My mom and dad had a lake house in Keystone Heights, which is near Interlachen. It was a family affair,” Reiley recalled. “They built the lake house with their own bare hands. I remember being 9 years old and seeing the big concrete truck come and pour the slab that became the foundation for that cabin on Lake Geneva.”
Fast forward a few years, Reiley was flipping houses when his brother invited him and his family up to his own lake house.
“Going there with my family and enjoying my brother’s lake house reminded me of what I had forgotten about my childhood and my love of lake houses,” Reiley said. “So I said, ‘I’m going to buy a lake house.’”
While still working as an economic developer for the JAX Chamber, Reiley had some spending money left over from when he was flipping houses. Hence, began the search for the perfect lake house.
Of course, Reiley had a very specific vision in mind for what this lake house would look like, where it would be located and so on.
“I had a vision in my head for if I could find the ‘dream lakehouse,’ what would the characteristics be?” Reiley said.
The criteria for this perfect lake house:
- Within a reasonable drive of Jacksonville.
- A clean swimmable lake for kayaking, canoeing, boating, fishing and swimming.
- A “not too nice” house (a house meant for purely for relaxation shouldn’t be a chore to keep up)
- Surrounded by a forest because trees are the perfect source of privacy (skinny dipping, maybe?)
- And the final request: a long winding driveway so visitors know they are approaching something special
With his sister and mom in tow, Reiley set aside a day to go look at some properties. They looked at houses on Black Creek, in Keystone Heights, but none were checking off any of the boxes. That is, until Reiley’s sister pointed out that they had one more property to check out in Interlachen.
So they drove to the final house, and one by one, Reiley slowly started checking off boxes on his criteria list. When they arrived at what is now known as Camp Declan, they were met with a long winding drive: check. As they approached the house itself, they saw it was nice but not “too nice”: check. When they hopped out of the car, Reiley and his mother went straight to the water because a clean swimmable lake was his number one priority… the big check.
While distracted at the lake, Reiley’s sister stumbled upon the unlocked front door of the cabin. At the time, Reiley had a Dalmatian. And like many dog owners, his life revolved around her. So, when Reiley walked into the abandoned cabin to find Dalmatian wallpaper plastered throughout, an internal box (maybe fate) was marked: check.
“First the driveway, then the lake, then the Dalmatian spots and the unlocked cabin,” Reiley recalled. “It was probably not three days later, I said to my mom and my sister, ‘I’ve got to buy it, and I’ve got to buy it before somebody else buys it.’”
And thus, Camp Declan was born After some much needed renovations, repairs and upgrades,
the formerly abandoned cabin took on a new life as the main house, while the once-empty cabana was now packed with all the essentials you’d expect at a lake house (including our personal favorite, a swinging daybed). The rickety wooden dock was replaced with a sturdy stainless steel one that can easily accommodate 20 people. Reiley also added a floating dock in the middle of the lake, scattered hammocks throughout the trees, set up a fire pit, and brought in a bunkhouse that can comfortably sleep up to 18 people (that’s nine bunk beds, for those keeping count), along with ping-pong tables, volleyball nets, floats, canoes and kayaks for guests’ use.
While it does have a summer camp feel, Camp Declan can (and should) be enjoyed all year round. We know how hot our summers can be, so cooler seasons might be more enjoyable, plus, you can actually enjoy the fire pit. It’s a bonus that prices don’t fluctuate based on the season. The rates remain the same, no matter the date or the demand.
Everything you see in and around the cabins has a story: Reiley either found it secondhand or he and his family made it themselves. Those welcoming warm blankets on each bed? Reiley’s mom personally made each one by hand.
“At that point in my life, I just wanted a place to get away from all the pressures of my professional white-collar career and enjoy what I remember about the lake house, and so it was my ‘toy’ for many, many years, and it was just me,” Reiley shared. “And only after my friends and family started to come did they actually persuade me to even consider renting it out to anybody else.”
We guess we should send personalized thank you letters to those who persuaded Reiley to begin renting out his lake house because this is truly one of Florida’s greatest hidden gems.
As further proof, Netflix filmed part of the “Untold: Swamp Kings” documentary on the property. The docuseries delves into the transformation of the underdog 2000s-era Florida Gators football into a formidable winning powerhouse under the leadership of legendary and uncompromising coach Urban Meyer. The four-part untold series unfolds through exclusive interviews with Meyer himself, as well as prominent players such as Tim Tebow, Tate Casey, Dallas Baker, Major Wright, and others.
Now through Airbnb, Craigslist, lakehousevacations.com, Glamping Hub or through his direct website campdeclan.com, you, too, can stay at what we call adult summer camp (minus all the organized events; you can organize that yourself).