The Florida First Travel Company

Where Florida gives up its secrets

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By Susan & Simon Veness

So, you’re looking for a get-away-from-it-all holiday. Good idea. We have a solid recommendation for you – head for Florida.

Yes, the land of busy theme parks, bustling beaches and non-stop nightlife is the ideal place for that relaxing, carefree and individual vacation, if you know where to look (and, here at America First Coast Travel, that is our speciality).

For those still keen on the all-action hustle-bustle of places like Orlando, this is definitely the place to come. But, equally, there are numerous places you can go where the only crowd you’re likely to see might be a flock of seagulls or a pod of dolphins.

Put simply, Florida is a guaranteed natural delight, and there are now a myriad of choices that cater for the more laid-back and low-key holiday lifestyle, many of them within only a short drive of the key gateways of Miami, Tampa and Orlando.

We started on this trend in last week’s blog, which highlighted the more offbeat attraction of Cape Coral, and it started us thinking. If this was your idea of travel paradise, could we come up with another five similar destinations that offered a tranquil, calming vibe?

Five? Pah! We have 12 for you, and each one has a level of distinctive style and enchantment that really highlight the multi-faceted treasure that is the Sunshine State.

Without further ado, let us take you on a magical mystery tour of these dozen priceless hideaways that all feature plenty of sun, sand and happy-go-lucky holiday adventure.

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Cedar Key

Cedar Key: Take a trip back to pre-tourist Florida in this delightful retreat on the Gulf Coast, 140 miles north of Tampa. Founded in 1859, it has largely eschewed the 20th century, let alone the 21st, hence this is about as old-fashioned as the Sunshine State gets, a glorified fishing village that still welcomes small numbers of visitors each year to its timewarp charms. The downtown area is the very epitome of quaint, and the local attributes include excellent secluded beaches, great fishing opportunities and lush natural preserves, including the Cedar Keys National Wildlife Refuge. The seafood is pretty darned good, too.

Pocket Park at Seaside take you away
Pocket Park at Seaside

Seaside: We’re reliably informed that this cute-as-can-be seaside town with the most apt name on earth is a “new urbanist” community, but we just like to think of it as the place where Jim Carrey filmed his movie The Truman Show. It is a totally modern, master-planned town of pastel-coloured houses, white picket fences, art galleries and boutiques, plus a gorgeous beach that is part of the often-overlooked South Walton conglomerate in Florida’s north-west, or Panhandle. It’s a bit of a drive from Orlando (all of five-and-a-half hours) but it’s well worth it for the isolation and fabulous views on the Emerald Coast.

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Seaside Crane Pavilion

Gulfport: Tucked away between the city of St Petersburg and the barrier islands of the Gulf Coast, Gulfport is a super little artist-infused retreat that attracts a lot of locals at weekends but is largely quiet and reserved during the week, when its downtown area is an enticing mix of cafes, bars and gift shops, as well as its own beach and adjacent nature preserve. The pier is a great spot for some relaxed fishing, or you can head to the nearby Municipal Marina where various charters will introduce you to big game fishing. Clam Bayou Nature Park is popular with kayakers and paddle-boarders as it features the mangroves of the river estuary as well as hiking trails.

AMELIA ISLAND FERNANDINA BEACH Peter W. Cross and Patrick Farrell take you away
Amelia Island State Park

Amelia Island: While it is no secret to Floridians, this beautiful member of the Seas Islands chain in the north-east is little-known internationally but fully deserves its get-away-from-it-all qualifications. With 13 miles of mostly wide open beaches, superb golf and masses of the natural side of the state, this is a genuine eco-friendly playground with all mod cons. Main town Fernandina Beach is a big tourist draw, but it’s easy to escape the crowds here, with more than 40 public beach access points, including the chance to go horse-riding in Amelia Island State Park, with its pristine sands. It is 170 miles from Orlando, but several light years in cultural terms.

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Palm Coast

Palm Coast: Mid-way between high-profile Daytona Beach and historic St Augustine on the Atlantic Coast is the relative backwater of Palm Coast, a neat collection of low-key beachfront resorts, golf courses and wildlife-rich territory boasting marshlands, estuaries and some of the best bird-watching in the state. Crowds are almost unheard of here, but miles of pristine beach aren’t, hence this is a genuine seaside escape that still features all the attributes of fine accommodations, excellent dining and a typically friendly welcome. Eco tours are a prime attraction, with both manatees and dolphins frequently spotted along the shore.

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Crystal River

Crystal River: Returning to the Gulf Coast – just 80 miles from Orlando and 70 from Tampa – Citrus County is arguably the state’s ‘sweet spot’ for nature adventures of the finest kind, as well as a guarantee of rarely encountering a crowd. At the heart of the county is Crystal River, a slow-paced community that has become famous for its chance to swim with manatees, go scalloping (a rare summer treat) and revel in the picturesque waterways that offer all manner of fishing, kayaking and snorkelling tours. For beach lovers, there is also lovely Fort Island Beach, where you might just be the only visitors on a weekday.

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Dunedin

Dunedin: Amongst the glittering array of Gulf Coast resorts and cities is the small-town style of Scottish-tinged Dunedin, a real gem in its own right and the understated alternative to the bustling, bright communities just to the south. Only 20 miles west of Tampa, it offers a lovely historic downtown area, plus access to miles of nature trails and a multitude of options for biking and kayaking, as well as being a mini epicenter of Florida’s craft beer scene, with eight breweries within the city limits, including the state’s oldest, the Dunedin Brewery. Even better, this is the gateway to the twin remote beach nirvanas of Caladesi Island State Park and Honeymoon Island, which remain totally untouched by any man-made development.

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Santa Rosa Beach

Santa Rosa Beach: Returning to the Emerald Coast, and close to Seaside, this 26-mile stretch of stunning white sand features no fewer than 16 distinct beach neighbourhoods that offer the perfect opportunity to find your own ideal seaside retreat. As well as tempting golf and watersports, the area is notable for Point Washington State Forest, with its 15,000 acres of natural preserve and 27 miles of hiking trails, plus the highly original community of Gulf Place, an artist colony in-the-making that feels more like the chilled out Florida Keys than the Panhandle.

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Bill Baggs State Park

Key Biscayne: If you’d like to sample some of that Miami Beach glitter and glamour but don’t want to be in the heart of it, head for Key Biscayne, the island retreat south of the city in the heart of Biscayne Bay. Not only does it boast some gorgeous beaches in its own right – several of which you might have largely to yourself on a typical week day – it also features the fabulous Ritz-Carlton hotel in its central section, which is sandwiched by two lush state parks, Bill Baggs Cape Florida and Crandon Park, where everything is suitably natural and the Cape Florida Lighthouse is a local icon, offering a grandstand sunset view each evening.

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Key Biscayne

Tavernier: The Florida Keys are not often the place for crowded beaches and bars (with the exception of Key West), but, if you’re looking for one of the more out-of-the-way destinations in this totally tropical locale, the town of Tavernier, just south of Key Largo, is the place to go. In just a few square miles you have everything the Keys are famous for, including great kayaking, fishing, scuba-diving and snorkelling, as well as several nicely low-key resorts. For something really different, hire a paddle-board and explore the exotic mangroves along Tavernier Creek in splendid isolation.

Kayaking take you away

Tequesta: Florida’s Treasure Coast, on the peninsula’s Atlantic seaboard, is one of the more subdued, unfussy regions of the state as a whole, and you can really feel that remote, natural vibe in tiny Tequesta, a town of barely 5,000 situated 90 miles north of Miami (and just 95 from Freeport in the Bahamas). It is not so much the community here as the lure of a unique spot of Sunshine State coastal beauty at Blowing Rocks Preserve. In the middle of the natural beauty and beaches of Jupiter Island, Blowing Rocks features rare ecosystems from its Anastasia limestone, with a variety of endangered plants and animals, plus the signature high-tide spectacle of the sea creating 50ft ‘fountains’ through holes in the rock.

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Blowing Rocks Preserve

Boca Grande: Coming back (as we do, often) to one of our favourite parts of the Gulf Coast, 100 miles south of Tampa is fabulously secluded Gasparilla Island, at the entrance to the Charlotte Harbor estuary, with main town Boca Grande. Like neighbours Captiva and Sanibel to the south, Gasparilla is an environmental wonderland of slow-paced charms, with beaches rich in shell collecting, offshore fishing (from Uncle Henry’s Marina) and a variety of eco-tours. Visit the Gasparilla Inn & Club and you’ll be transported back to early 20th century Florida, with all the grace and elegance of the period. Even better, Boca Grande is a great point from which to explore the bliss-out destination of remote Cayo Costa, reachable only by boat and truly the stuff of get-away-from-it-all dreams.

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Boca Grande

Are you inspired yet? This delightful dozen should pique the curiosity of any seaside-loving visitor, but would you like more? Drop us a line on the The Florida First Travel Company Facebook page, and we’ll tailor our next blog to individual requests. How’s that for service?!

Susan & Simon Veness are the UK’s leading experts on Florida, having written about it for more than 25 years and sold more than half a million copies of their books about Orlando, Disney and the Sunshine State.

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