Off-the-Beaten Path Florida Vacation Excursions

Having grown up and lived in Central Florida for 40+ years, I pride myself on being able to enjoy this state without needing to step foot in a theme park and without having to stand in lines for hours.

In our 13+ years of parenting and travelling, we’ve amassed a list of destinations that we’ve enjoyed, some have been repeated multiple times, and some have been once-in-a-lifetime experiences.  Regardless, we’ve been fortunate enough to give our kids these experiences, and for many of them, we’ve never had to leave our state. Soooooo…if you’re looking for things to do in Florida this summer, here are a few of our tried & true favs!

Beaches

Forget Clearwater and Daytona.  Florida has 1,197 miles of coastline and 663 of those are beaches, so why in the world would you go to a beach where you have to spend HOURS sitting in traffic, looking for parking, and fighting for an inch of sand to spread your towel!?!?!  No, when we take the kids to the beach, we have two favorites, and both are guaranteed to a better experience than the Spring Break hot spots.
Anna Maria Island
Barrier Island just across the bridge from Bradenton
We’ve been going here since I was a kid, and it’s like going back in time.  There are no high rise hotels, no miles of box stores and chain restaurants, and no traffic jams waiting for pricey parking spaces.  The beaches on Anna Maria are shaded, crystal clear, and usually not very crowded.  In fact, if you get there early (9am-ish), you can get any parking space and picnic table under the pines that you like.
Gasparilla Island
IMG_0887Barrier Island at the mouth of Charlotte Harbor
As much as I want to keep this place a secret, I’m convinced that it is the BEST beach in Florida.  This is the island where we spent our summers and our FIRST beach choice every time.  Unlike it was in the 70s & 80s, this island is mostly private and exclusively private, at that!  However, the county and state have been diligent and proactive in their efforts to preserve the beaches and lighthouses. Yes, lighthouses…plural. There are days when you can go to the beach and be one of only a handful of people on the beach.  Most days, we arrive around 9am-ish, and we are the ONLY people on the beach.  Yes, a few more families will show up, but seriously, I don’t consider a dozen families a big deal.

Natural Springs
Central and North Florida are FULL of springs and most of them are owned and operated by state and county organizations and open to the public.
Salt Springs
2b4ab751a84e29995c2537642563c9e3In the middle of the Ocala National Forest, Salt Springs is a National Park and for whatever reason, a true hidden gem.  Granted, it’s in the middle of nowhere, but an easy drive from Orlando, Tampa, and Jacksonville.  In addition to being one of the prettiest, cleanest, and unpopulated springs in Florida, it has a great campground.  The kids love camping there, and who wouldn’t blame them?!?!  Tons of shade, animals (yes, we’ve seen a bear and several deer), bicycle riding, space to play, and a short walk to the swimming whole, which just happens to be the spring head for nearby Lake George.

Theater of the Seas
FB_IMG_1495636604572Islamorada in the Florida Keys
This 1946 roadside attraction in Islamorada is a throwback to a simpler time when people were fascinated with nature and didn’t need faster, brighter, scarier, thrilling rides and attractions.  At Theater of the Seas, you can still swim with dolphins and sea lions, snorkel, and basically chill, but in the most natural, relaxing setting you can imagine.  There are no chlorine pools…just natural lagoons.  We loved it. The kids loved it, and it is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Tarpon Springs Sponge Docks
Tarpon Springs, north of Tampa Bay
Dating back to the early 1900s, the sponge diving industry in Tarpon Springs has thrived and attracted visitors.  As worried as I was about taking my kids to stroll through the Sponge Docks, I was pleasantly surprised at how much they loved sampling all of the sweets and shopping in the quaint local shops of sponges and soaps. As a foodie, I loved going there as a child, but I worried that my own kids would moan, whine, kick, and scream, but they loved it.  Between the restaurants, shops, and boat trips, it’s a must.

Suncoast Primate Sanctuary
near Tarpon Springs
Since we’re visiting Tarpon Springs, then a stop by the Primate Sanctuary is highly recommended.  This is NOT a zoo.  It is a sanctuary for retired, abused, and elderly primates.  All of the animals come from NASA, zoos, shows, and even private owners who could no longer care for them.  The sanctuary utilizes local volunteers and much of their revenue comes from Groupon-style coupons.  We’ve taken the kids several times, and it’s great to see these animals being cared for and not required to “perform.”  You can even enter the sanctuary from the Pinellas Bicycle Trail.

St. Augustine, FL
There are no theme parks, no roller coasters, no thrills.  However, there is a ton of history, kitschy attractions, and cool activities.  Yes, St. Augustine is the OLDEST inhabited city in North America, and everyone should visit for that reason alone.  However, there’s soooooo much more to see and do.  Our kids LOVE going.
Castillo de San Marcos–the fort
Trolley tours of the town–hop on and off all day
Ghost tours
Pirate Museum–as cheesy as it sounds and as hesitant as I was to go, it was actually VERY WELL done and my husband even enjoyed it!
Craft Breweries–Ancient City Brewing, Bog Brewing, and Old Coast Ales
Lighthouse on Anastasia Island
Ripley’s Original Museum
and sooooo much more!

Florida Caverns
near Marianna (outside of Tallahassee)
Yes, there are caverns in Florida, they’re owned by the state, and you can tour them.  As much as Florida is “sea-level” and flat, Florida has a vast network of caverns and springs. Granted, I wouldn’t suggest a caverns tour for anyone who’s claustrophobic or very tall, but otherwise, it’s a truly fascinating site and tour.

Bill Baggs State Park
FB_IMG_1495638614023south of Miami Beach
This is possibly the prettiest spot in Miami, and the only place I know where you can spend the day swimming at a the base of a lighthouse and watch manatees swim by.

Homassassa and Crystal River
north of Tampa Bay
Speaking of manatees, the springs and rivers around Homassassa and Crystal River are havens for manatees.  Yes, the springs and rivers are beautiful on their own, but imagine paddleboarding over a herd of manatees gently swimming along.  They are amazing creatures and to see them in their natural habitat is humbling.
**Make sure you know the law regarding touching manatees.  One hand is touching. Two hands is molesting. Don’t get arrested for molesting a manatee.

Whispering Oaks Winery and TMMA Farms
FB_IMG_1495638571141near Ocala and The Villages
While the winery and the farm are not connected, they are just down the street from one another and make a great little side trip and one that appeals to adults and kids alike. Like many new Florida wineries, Whispering Oaks is making wine from blueberries–their own blueberries and blueberries grown in the surrounding area.  What makes Whispering Oaks unique is, in addition to great wine, they have the most amazing herd of “happy” goats.  Stop in for a tasting, play with the goats, and then, head just down the street for a tour of the alpaca farm.  We stopped in, at the suggestion of the Whispering Oaks staff, and spent hours playing with and learning about the alpacas.  Tours are only offered October thru May, so plan accordingly, and check out their event calendar; they may have a special event going on that will make the day even better.

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