After ten weeks of rehabilitation at SeaWorld Orlando, SeaWorld’s Animal Rescue Team returned a female manatee named Magnolia to the waters of Crystal River, Fla. 3-17-15 SeaWorld FWS Permit Number MA7701911.
A new year inspires feelings of renewal and fresh starts. Exploring Florida can offer new beginnings for discovering real Florida. There’s no better time to start than right now with these 18 Authentic Florida bucket list adventures:
Plunge into the Blue
Gilchrist Blue Springs State Park, a “Shangri-la” just west of High Springs was recently purchased by the Florida State Park system. Gilchrist Blue Springs releases 55 million gallons of fresh water daily, flowing into the Santa Fe River. Swimmers jump from a huge wooden platform into crystal clear water; families picnic under sprawling oaks; paddlers launch kayaks or paddle boards along the spring run. And visitors enjoy a short walk on the rustic wooden boardwalk to the scenic Santa Fe River.
Gilchrist Blue Springs State Park: floridastateparks.org
Shelling in the Ten Thousand Islands
Board a small passenger boat at Goodland Marina, south of Naples, and embark on one of the best shelling experiences in Florida. A naturalist guide from Marco Island Boat Tours becomes your personal shelling captain. Breathe in salt air under cloudless blue skies, keeping an eye out for dolphins as your captain determines the best shelling stops based on wind and tides. One popular spot is unofficially named “Shell Key” where layers of shells reveal prized rarities such as the Junonia.
Marco Island Boat Tours: marcoisland-boattours.com
Pancakes on the Griddle
Everyone, from children to grandparents, enjoys a perfect “old Florida” family dining experience at The Old Spanish Sugar Mill Grill & Griddle House at De Leon Springs State Park just north of Orlando. Breakfast is the main attraction, as guests make their own pancakes on a sizzling hot griddle in the center of the table. Constructed of old pine and cypress, this restaurant resembles a wooden barn and overlooks the sparkling De Leon spring and swimming area.
The Old Spanish Sugar Mill Grill & Griddle House: oldspanishsugarmill.com
Ocala is the epicenter of Florida’s equestrian industry. Located in Central Florida’s Marion County, it is home to more than 70,000 acres of horse farms set amidst sprawling oak trees and rolling green pastureland. For a unique “behind the gates” experience, try Farm Tours of Ocala. Owner Karen Grimes is a local expert and industry insider, who shuttles guests in her comfortable van to visit thoroughbred racehorse farms, sophisticated equine breeding farms and event facilities that focus on sport horses.
Farm Tours of Ocala: farmtoursofocala.com
Birds of Plenty
Both casual bird watchers and avid birders will enjoy, learn and gain first-hand birding experience at the Space Coast Birding and Wildlife Festival, set for Jan. 24-29 in Titusville. This annual festival provides a crash course on birding and features renowned experts who will personally conduct immersive field trips, classes, panel discussions, hikes and expeditions to identify birds from gulls to shorebirds, warblers to sparrows.
Space Coast Birding and Wildlife Festival: spacecoastbirdingandwildlifefestival.org
Enter a Time Warp
A dirt road meanders through a thick mossy oak hammock to a campsite where cabins with screened porches and a bait shack face a river. Anglers idly sit on a seawall with fishing poles dangling lines into the waterway against a backdrop of cabbage palms. Mary’s Fish Camp, circa 1946, nestled along the Mudd River in the community of Bayport, on Hernando County’s Gulf coast, has been a landmark fishing spot for more than 70 years.
Mary’s Fish Camp: marysfishcamp.org
Datil Do Ya
Minorcan Clam Chowder is one of St. Augustine’s signature dishes, known for its rich tomato base and a little “heat” from the key ingredient, the locally-grown datil pepper. Two restaurants that stand out with locals for serving the tasty chowder are Aunt Kate’s and Barnacle Bill’s Seafood Restaurant. Aunt Kate’s, overlooking the scenic Tolomoto River, provides a scenic setting for tasty seafood while Barnacle Bills, located in historic St. Augustine, reflects the area’s Minorcan heritage while serving up this traditional dish.
Aunt Kate’s: aunt-kates.com
Barnacle Bill’s Seafood Restaurant: barnaclebillsonline.com
Glide Through the Trees
Nestled within a shady, oak-canopied forest among acres of ranches and pastureland in eastern Pasco County, thirty miles northwest of Tampa, is TreeHoppers, a zip-line aerial adventure park. Walk, crawl, climb and zip through the forest across boardwalks, through swinging nets and hoops, over logs and branches, zipping between wooden perches. Families, children and friends will all become absorbed in the thrill and excitement, and spectacular vistas, high above the treetops.
Paddle Your Heart Out
Hernando County, on Florida’s Adventure Coast, recently unveiled a coastal paddling trail through the salt marsh ecosystem at Bayport Park. The beauty of this adventure is the total immersion into the natural surroundings of a vibrant tidal estuary, where fresh water from springs meets the salt water from the Gulf of Mexico. The paddling trail connects Bayport Park to Linda Pedersen Park with a navigable waterway that winds through inlets of cordgrass, cabbage palms and mangroves.
Florida’s Adventure Coast: floridasadventurecoast.com
There She Blows
Martin County, on Florida’s east coast, provides an escape from congested beaches and bumper-to-bumper traffic. A distinctive vibe embraces the natural environment. One of the most popular natural attractions is Blowing Rocks, a unique destination where coastal waves forced through limestone rock crevices create a geyser effect, often erupting 40-50 feet into the air. Drive the scenic Bridge Road to Hobe Sound Beach passing under an enchanting canopy of Florida banyan trees. From there, walk south along the spectacular Atlantic Ocean to the Blowing Rocks.
Discover Martin County: discovermartin.com
Scenic Boat Tours
Five minutes north of Orlando, Winter Park was originally developed for wealthy Northerners seeking a tranquil place to escape harsh winters. Winter Park’s Scenic Boat Tours, created in 1938, navigates through the popular and pristine Chain of Lakes. Breathtaking views of nature plus a historic overview of the luxurious private homes and estates along the shores create nostalgic memories for visitors. Keep an eye out for the occasional water skier, yogi on a paddleboard or sunbathing alligator.
Winter Park’s Scenic Boat Tours: scenicboattours.com
Bite Down on Florida’s Kumquat
Florida's Dade City celebrates the kumquat, a lesser-known petite golden gem of the citrus family. Set for Jan. 27, the annual Kumquat Festival honors Dade City’s distinction as the world’s leading supplier of the tasty little fruit. Admission is free for this homegrown family event that provides fruit tastings of every imaginable combination, from kumquat pies to salsas. But the best-kept secret is the Kumquat Growers Open House Jan. 25 and 26, featuring packinghouse and grove tours.
Dade City Chamber of Commerce: dadecitychamber.org
The Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge in Brevard County on Florida’s Space Coast is home to a very special kayak tour. As evening stars twinkle above, a phenomenon known as bioluminescence glows in the water below. Tiny organisms living in the water glow iridescent green when the water is stirred up. Darting fish create glowing trails, and paddle strokes produce eerie wisps of mesmerizing nightlight. Titusville’s Day Away Kayak Tours features nighttime paddling trips from May through September.
Day Away Kayak Tours: adayawaykayaktours.com
See Florida’s Gentle Giants
North of Tampa, Citrus County is known for its abundance of freshwater springs. From November through March, visitors travel to observe the largest known gathering of manatees in Florida as the marine mammals congregate in the warm 72-degree water of Kings Bay. One of Florida’s most beautiful springs is Three Sisters Springs Refuge, where the distinctive clear translucent blue hues provide a stunning pool for manatees to congregate around the bubbly springs.
Three Sisters Springs Refuge: threesistersspringsvisitor.org
St. George Island State Park, in Florida’s Panhandle, can be summed up in one word: Pristine. Nine miles of beaches with towering sand dunes create a “real” Florida setting that will please the pickiest beach snob. Gentle Gulf of Mexico waves soothe and relax visitors as they discover miles of sand and water. Add camping, fishing, kayaking, hiking and biking, and real becomes ideal. After a full day satisfy your appetite with some of the world’s finest oysters harvested right on Apalachicola Bay and featured by area restaurants.
St. George Island State Park: floridastateparks.org/park
Pensacola is known as “the birthplace of naval aviation” and for every Navy, Marine and Coast Guard aviator training begins at Pensacola’s Naval Air Station. No wonder this is home to the U.S. Navy’s famous Blue Angels and the National Naval Aviation Museum. The free museum displays more than 150 restored aircraft that showcase the spirit of naval aviation, with tales of combat and profiles of courageous military accomplishments. And, if you are fortunate to be in Pensacola during the Blue Angels practices, you’ll witness a spectacular show.
National Naval Aviation Museum: navalaviationmuseum.org
Known as the “Shark Tooth Capital of the World,” Venice Beach in Sarasota County is famous for the prehistoric fossilized sharks teeth that wash ashore daily. Ten million years ago, when Florida was submerged, the area teemed with sharks. Sharks teeth collectors report the best places to find the tiny fossils (most are 1/8 to ¾ inches) are at any beach access south of the Venice Jetty including Caspersen Beach, Casey Key and Manasota Key.
Visit Sarasota: VisitSarasota.com
Adventure into the mystical, magical world of Florida’s Mangrove Tunnels and experience Florida’s unique ecosystem up close while admiring wildlife above and below the canopied waterways. For the outdoor enthusiast, paddling through Florida’s mangroves is a treasured adventure. Mangroves provide a rich ecosystem and are found in coastal areas from as far north as Cedar Key on the Gulf coast all the way around the tip of the Florida Keys to Cape Canaveral on the Atlantic coast.
Southwest Florida native Robin Draper is a freelance writer who enjoys exploring the authentic side of Florida through travel, reading, cooking, gardening and the arts.