To the casual tourist, it might appear as if not one single inch of Florida’s 65,758 square miles remains without highrise hotels, resorts, and theme parks. With a population of over 20 million and growing by the hour, it’s true much of the state has been paved over with multi-car driveways, but it’s also true that much of it remains true to its roots. The Old Florida that you won’t see in glossy tourist brochures.
It only stands to reason that Floridians know of places Michiganders don’t. They know where Spanish moss still dances freely with Gulf breezes. They know of peaceful sugar-sand beaches without frisbee throwers. They know where alligators still roam in abundance, and they know of places where only a kayak will put them face-to-face with gentle manatees in their natural habitats. They are well aware of small quaint towns where time has said “pooey” on the rest of the state. Places major highways have left deserted to accommodate the never-ending two-way flow of tourist traffic.
This is your lucky day. You’re going to be let in on a few select secret hideaways and attractions you aren’t supposed to know about, so take note. If enjoying the lesser-known charm of the Sunshine State in it’s most true to form original condition sounds better than well-known tourist traps and blanket-to-blanket crowded beaches, read on.
1 The Nature Coast
Highway U.S. 19, which runs along Florida’s Gulf Coast, was, once upon a time, prior to the birth of interstates, a major two-lane highway. Much of the highway still remains crowded and congested as large cities have grown up around it, but if a traveler heads north from Clearwater, in roughly 60 miles things will begin to spread out again. Once you see a giant plaster dinosaur, and you will see it, you’ll be entering the laidback Florida of yesteryear.
Wild Bill’s Airboat Tours in Inverness should not be missed, and it’s only a short distance off of 19. The rides are mainly enjoyed by locals and their out-of-town guests so it’s rare to ever have to stand in line. The 60-90 minute ride takes guests deep into pristine lily-padded inland waters where gators lurk, water birds gracefully perch, and snakes slither and swim. Keep a camera ready. You never know what you’ll see.
Manatees lie in wait in Crystal River, billed as the “Home of the Manatee.” Several locations rent kayaks and will tell you how to navigate to where they are. If kayaking is too stressful, not to worry. Homosassa Springs Wildlife Park, just outside of Crystal River, is the place to go. Here you can view manatees and other species of fish from an underwater observatory. The park also features alligators, birds, mammals, and reptiles, all native to Florida.
Further up the highway lies the town of Cedar Key. Nowhere screams old Florida more than this town. Just driving there is enjoyable, but once you arrive you’ll start wondering ways to can come back and live. The pier is full of small fresh seafood restaurants and if you want to catch your own fish on a chartered boat, you can bring them in and most of them will prepare them any way you like. The town has its own uncrowded beach and several local hotels are available.
2 Silver Springs and the Ocala National Forest
Go where Tarzan filmed some of his movies. Located just outside of Ocala in North Central Florida, take a ride in a glass-bottomed boat and be mesmerized by the abundance of underwater life in the largest artesian spring ever discovered, the likes of which you’ve never seen. You’ll see an original dugout canoe used by early Native-Americans in the area.
Silver Springs is Florida’s very first full-scale attraction, but, because it’s off the beaten path, an enjoyable day in a less-crowded atmosphere can be had. The wooden walkways house vendors and such and on many days live entertainment can be found in various areas.
Silver Springs is the gateway to the Ocala National Forest which is a nature lovers paradise. Lakes, twisting streams and creeks, and giant natural springs make it an ideal location for swimming, canoeing, kayaking, fishing, water skiing, and diving. Wildlife lovers will find more than they bargained for, and hiking trails run throughout. Rental cabins are located throughout the forest and they are perfect for relaxing in the midst of this land before time.
3 The Panhandle
Pensacola and Panama City immediately come to mind when thinking of Florida’s Panhandle. While these two cities offer tremendous beaches and entertainment, they can also offer tremendous crowds depending on the time of year.
For a quieter more peaceful stay minus so many sweaty bodies, try some of the smaller panhandle towns such as Mexico Beach. The people are friendlier and the cafes, diners, and hometown bars are mostly full of locals. How about having your own private beach? Take a drive along the coast and pull over where you don’t see any other cars. Your privacy is just on the other side of a small sand dune where even passing cars can’t see you.
4 The Everglades
While everyone knows the Everglades are there, they may not know what opportunities are available for the avid adventurer. Airboat rides, canoeing, kayaking, and fishing are well-known activities, but if someone wants to get back to basics and experience the huge swamp as it always has been, they will need to break free from the norm.
Several companies offer backcountry adventures where you’ll wander into the deepest darkest part of the swamp and pitch a tent. Nothing around you will have been disturbed by progress as nature lies in the same place and way it has for centuries. Bugs, reptiles, and things that go bump in the night will surround you as you sleep with one eye open. Everything is as it has been since before Florida was Florida, and there is absolutely no better way to witness it.
The best way to find Florida’s out of the way less discovered areas is to simply take a wrong turn. Hop off an exit and keep going. You’ll be surprised at what’s waiting for you.