By Susan & Simon Veness
For all the fact much of the Sunshine State’s immense holiday reputation is based on the obvious charms of the theme parks, big cities, nightlife and lively beach scene, there is just as much to enjoy when you look beyond the headline attractions and discover the more offbeat locations, Florida’s ‘other side,’ if you like.
With a wealth of state parks, small-town charms, unusual destinations and secluded beaches, this is definitely the place to come for a genuinely surprising vacation experience, one that is loaded with the ‘Wow’ factor and full of novel opportunities.
Yes, we know we have been banging this drum for a while now, but it is what we’re passionate about, and it is definitely something the majority have yet to cotton on to.
And, in our current situation of needing to de-stress and get away from it all, we think it’s worth continuing to highlight these genuinely captivating alternatives to the mainstream Florida holiday.
St Andrews State Park
Set in the middle of the extensive splendour that is the state’s Panhandle, the beautifully white-beach-fringed north-west sector that stretches for some 200 miles, St Andrews is a haven of tranquil seaside solitude.
With just over 1,200 acres of prime real estate only three miles east of Panama City Beach, the park highlights five distinct ecological landscapes in one compelling location that offers immaculate beaches, walking trails, kayaking and a campground.
Shuttle boat tours are also offered across Gulf Bay Pass to Shell Island in spring and summer, opening the way to an even more secluded stretch of pristine beach that is hugely popular with bird-watchers, shell collectors and fishing aficionados.
Fort Clinch, Amelia Island
When you’d like a bit of Civil War history with your holiday, head for beautiful Amelia Island in north-east Florida (about a three-hour drive from Orlando), where you will not only be among a relative few in this offbeat backwater but you can soak up almost 300 years of colonial and antique American heritage.
Fort Clinch State Park has its origins as far back as 1736, when this corner of the New World was being fought over by Britain, Spain and France. The main Fort itself was built from 1847 to 1869 and began under Confederate control before being taken over by Union troops, and it has been restored to represent life from that period.
In addition to the Fort, the park also features 3.3 miles of blissfully oak-shaded cycling and driving options, six miles of off-road cycling and hiking, and several miles of inviting beachfront. Bicycle hire is available from the impressive Visitor Center.
Wakulla Springs State Park
Just 14 miles south of state capital Tallahassee is one of Florida’s genuine rural gems, and a real discovery in geological terms. Home to the world’s largest and deepest freshwater springs, Wakulla Springs is a sparkling aquamarine realm set amid the ancient cypress swamps that made it the perfect location for many Hollywood movies, including Tarzan’s Secret Treasure in 1941 and The Creature From The Black Lagoon in 1954.
Nowadays, the state park offers guided boat tours through this lush array of tropical finery, which is also full of fascinating wildlife, including Florida’s ever-present alligators and manatees, as well as a super-abundance of bird species.
There are more than nine miles of scenic hiking trails, a spacious picnic area and the chance to go snorkelling and swimming in the designated swimming area near the main spring, as well as a 22ft diving/observation tower that is a signature element of the park.
And be sure to visit the 1930s Spanish-style lodge, with its period furniture, original elevators and colourful painted ceilings that depict Old Florida scenes and wildlife.
Bass Fishing in Central Florida
Unless you are already a major fishing devotee, you may not be aware that Florida is the Bass Fishing Capital of the World, and home to many records for this much sought-after angling species. It therefore makes sense to give it a try with any visit, especially in the Orlando area, which is packed with great lakes for this very purpose.
Kissimmee is home to a number of different fishing guides and tours, all within an easy drive of the main tourist areas, and there are a chain of lakes from Shingle Creek, close to International Drive, all the way south to Lake Okeechobee and, ultimately, the Everglades.
Large-mouth bass of 10lbs or more are common on 35,000 acre Lake Kissimmee, and the waterways – a mix of lakes, locks and canals – are carefully maintained to keep the system healthy. So, when you’re looking for an authentic experience away from the many theme parks and other attractions, be sure to put bass fishing on your list: https://www.experiencekissimmee.com/things-to-do/outdoor-adventures-activities#pg=1&tid=76
Best Hotels: There are dozens of hotels and thousands of private villa homes in this area. The Bohemian Hotel Celebration is one of our favourites for its boutique charm, while Encore Resort at Reunion is a great villa choice.
Gilchrist Blue Springs State Park
Here’s another in a seemingly endless stream of natural delights.GilchristBlue Springs is tucked away in central Florida, 28 miles north-west of Gainesville, on the Santa Fe River and a genuine undiscovered hideaway for the vast majority.
It is the most recently created state park but that hides the fact this is an ages old location that is almost prehistoric in its appearance, centred around the core Gilchrist Blue spring that produces a whopping 44 million gallons of water a day on average, making for a wonderfully scenic vista with its crystal clear waters.
Hire a canoe, kayak or paddle-board and meander around the waterways leading to the Santa Fe, watching out for mullet and gar that are usually clearly visible in the ‘mixing waters’ as the spring-fed section reaches the river. Ospreys also use this as prime feeding territory, while turtles, river cooters and other wildlife are plentiful among the thickets of majestic cypress trees.
Sombrero Beach, Florida Keys
Remember those secluded, locals-only beaches we mentioned earlier on? Well here’s a great example, tucked away in Marathon in the heart of the Keys. It is only a mile off the main beaten track of Highway 1 that runs right through the islands, but Sombrero is a cosy back-yard playground for the islanders hereabouts.
With its sugar-soft sand and brilliantly blue sea, this location sums up much of the state’s appeal while keeping things low-key and small-scale.
Along with free parking, the beach offers disabled access on a wide, flat path, a picnic pavilion, children’s playground, volleyball court, restrooms and showers. It may be only a relatively narrow strip, a man-made recreational area barely 100 yards long, but it is perfect for sunning, snorkelling and fishing in the shallow waters during park hours from 7.30am to dusk.
Everglades Airboat Rides
The Everglades are not a ‘secret’ destination as such, but one of the essential experiences that may not be immediately evident is to take a tour by airboat, one of the Sunshine State’s signature experiences.
These magnificent wetlands, marshes and swamps cover more than 1.5 million acres, much of them inaccessible on foot or by vehicle. But you can get the full effect of this vast ‘River of Grass’ on an airboat, which skims over the water in thrilling fashion – a bit like flying at ground level!
There are a good variety of operators who can all offer the full airboat experience, but two we always like to highlight are Tigertail Airboat Tours, operating in the Miccosukee reservation close to Miami, and Billie Swamp Safaris, who feature a wide array of tours in the heart of the Seminole Indian Reservation.
Florida Caverns State Park
Tucked away in the extreme north of the state, an hour’s drive north-west of Tallahassee, the Florida Caverns are a real local anomaly for a state that exists almost entirely above ground because of the high water table.
Here, diving more than 60 feet underground, this unique series of limestone caves and tunnels offer a fascinating glimpse of stalagmite, stalactites, flowstones and columns on a 45-minute tour that features the outstanding Wedding Room, with formations in the shape of a wedding cake and pipe organ respectively.
Special LED lighting enhances the natural colouration in the different caverns that were only opened up to visitors in 1942, five years after they were discovered.
There is more to explore in the rest of the 1,500-acre park, too, including the visitor centre and museum that highlight the cave tours; two networks of nature trails; and a picnic pavilion, as well as the quirky Blue Hole swimming area, which is fully 35ft deep.
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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