A new year inspires renewal and fresh starts. Exploring Florida can offer many “new beginnings” as we discover adventures along roads less traveled. There’s so much to discover and no better time to begin than right now. Begin checking off your Authentic Florida bucket list with these 14 ideas that will kickstart your 2016:
Paddle Juniper Springs Run
Juniper Springs Run, Ocala National Forest
”Stunning” aptly describes the Juniper Springs Run, a slow moving, winding creek that will gently carry you through pristine and lush forested hammocks. Glide under fallen trees past fields of colorful wildflowers as shafts of sunlight shine through overhanging trees into crystal clear water and a shallow sandy bottom below. This Florida treasure is located in the Juniper Springs Wilderness area of Central Florida’s Ocala National Forest, halfway between Ocala and Daytona Beach. The park is an ideal base for exploring the rest of the National Forest that has so many recreational choices for hiking, biking, kayaking and swimming in Florida’s refreshing springs, lakes and rivers.
For more: Juniper Springs, Ocala National Forest
Flock to See White Pelicans
Florida’s White Pelicans
One of Florida’s most beloved events is the arrival of the white pelicans. From a distance, these birds could be mistaken for a flock of swans. Distinctive with snowy white feathers and pink-tangerine colored bills, they are shy in nature and congregate in isolated areas. From fall until spring they are found on secluded beaches, in estuaries, lakes, mangrove islands – often within protected areas. To ensure a sighting try using a local eco-tour operator who knows where to find them. Here are a few popular locations: St. Mark’s National Wildlife Refuge (St. Marks); Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge (Titusville); Fort DeSoto Park (St. Petersburg); The Celery Fields (Sarasota); White Pelican Island (near Boca Grande).
Florida’s scallop season runs from late June to mid-September. Prime destinations include Hernando and Citrus Counties along Florida’s Nature Coast, the Big Bend/Steinhatchee River area, and the fertile bays of the Florida Panhandle. The little mollusks are found in shallow water and are fun to catch and delicious to eat. To gather the tasty morsels, snorkel on the surface scanning the grass beds and sandy spots below. You’ll begin to see scallops among the blades of seagrass. The shells are grayish in color and fit in your palm. Scoop them up and fill your buckets. On shore many local restaurants will cook your freshly caught cleaned scallops for you. Popular half-day group tours on pontoon boats charge around $75 per person.
For more: Florida Scalloping
Climb a Fort in St. Augustine
Castillo de San Marcos, St. Augustine
Whether planning a romantic getaway or a seaside vacation, there are many reasons to visit St. Augustine. Most people visit Florida’s oldest city for its rich and layered history, and no trip to St. Augustine is complete without a visit to the city’s Castillo de San Marcos. It is considered the most well-preserved and oldest masonry fort from the Spanish colonial period in the United States. Visitors enter the massive structure by crossing a moat and walking through a gate into living history. Volunteers dress in period costumes adding a touch of authenticity as they share historic stories and answer questions. It is easy to understand why the Spanish built this immense fortress on Matanzas Bay, with a commanding view of the harbor.
For more: Florida’s Charming St. Augustine
Bike the Withlacoochee Trail
Florida’s Withlacoochee Trail
Enjoy a carefree bike ride through natural Florida along Central Florida’s Withlacoochee Trail. Bikers, hikers and equestrian riders, from beginners to advanced, can trek along 46 miles of a continuously paved trail through three counties – Pasco, Hernando and Citrus, from Dade City to Citrus Springs. Orginally a railroad track, the scenic, shaded trail runs through canopied oak hammocks, cypress swamps and pine woods, past ranches and farms, and is convenient to charming restaurants. Inverness, with its historic downtown, is good starting point. Follow the trail to Floral City, and if you are ambitious, head further south to Nobleton. Be sure to stop at Ferris Groves for a fresh Florida strawberry shake.
Float Down the Ichetucknee River
Ichetucknee River, Fort White
Relax and enjoy total serenity immersed in the beauty of Florida’s nature while tubing down the Ichetucknee River. Located near Fort White, northwest of Gainesville, the Ichetucknee Springs and River has been a destination for tubers, families and college students seeking the bliss of drifting on one of Florida’s most scenic waterways. Admire the overhanging trees and blue skies; enjoy crystal clear slow moving water; listen to birds; glimpse deer and turtles along the banks; let go of all your cares and worries. This six-mile river will not disappoint as one of Florida’s most authentic pleasures. The park is open year around, but prime tubing season begins Memorial Day until Labor Day.
For more: Tubing Florida’s Ichetucknee River
Beach it: Gulf Islands National Seashore
Gulf Islands National Seashore
Enjoy a picnic on the longest stretch of protected shoreline anywhere in the United States. The Gulf Islands National Seashore, on Florida’s Panhandle, is among the most spectacular stretches of beach in Florida – and that’s saying a lot in a state with over 600 miles of beaches. Extending along the barrier islands from Florida’s Navarre Beach all the way to Gulf Port, Mississippi, the gleaming white “sugar” sand gleams against the contrasting Bahamas-like emerald green waters. On Santa Rosa Island you’ll find shaded picnic pavilions to enjoy this amazing vista. The seashore is also home to salt marshes, sand dunes and maritime forests and home to seabirds such as plovers, terns, and sanderlings. Be sure to check out the historical Fort Pickens, located on the westernmost part of Santa Rosa Island.
Hike “Old Florida” at Myakka River State Park
Myakka River State Park, Sarasota
Lose yourself in a delightful slice of “real” Florida at Myakka River State Park. East of Sarasota, the park is one of the state’s oldest and largest parks, consisting of scenic riverine swamp, wetlands, prairies, hammocks, and pinelands. Visitors can see wildlife as they hike or bike one of the many trails, fish the river, ride in the airboat, enjoy an old-fashioned tram ride or walk a suspended bridge through the tree canopy. And if you want to see alligators, Myakka is your place. You’ll lose count with the number of gators you’re likely to encounter.
For more: Myakka River State Park
Join A Sea Turtle Walk
Florida Sea Turtle, photo courtesy Edward Perry
An evening beach walk during sea turtle nesting season is one of Florida’s most magical experiences. From May through October, mother sea turtles lumber onto shore to carefully dig nests and deposit eggs. Unfazed by observers, turtles, in a trance-like state, drop nearly 100 eggs into a sandy nest. Guided summer walks let visitors personally witness Mother Nature at work through the Sebastian Inlet State Park, the Sea Turtle Conservation Society and the Canaveral National Seashore. If you don’t get a chance to join an organized walk, consider a visit to the Melbourne Beach Barrier Island Sanctuary in the Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge, the most significant area for Loggerhead sea turtle nesting in the Western Hemisphere.
For more: Join a Florida Sea Turtle Walk
Muck About in the Big Cypress
Big Cypress Preserve Swamp Walk
Florida’s renowned photographer, Clyde Butcher, highlights nature through his inspiring black and white photos. Visiting the Clyde Butcher Gallery, located on US 41 in Florida’s Big Cypress Preserve, is not only special, but it also home to a unique Florida experience – a Swamp Walk. (Yes, a Swamp Walk.) For more than 20 years guests have had an opportunity to “muck about” in a cypress swamp on a tour. The guided walk is a very special eco-friendly adventure directly behind Clyde’s gallery in the Big Cypress Swamp that includes a trek through fresh water dotted by dense hammocks of Bald Cypress trees. Yes, guests do get wet, but they get to experience firsthand the Big Cypress Swamp, not as a scary and foreboding place, but as a vibrant and fragile ecosystem.
For more: Big Cypress Swamp Walk
View Pasco’s Iconic Stilt Houses at Sunset
Pasco County Stilt House
Originally constructed as wooden fishing camps elevated over water on deep pilings, stilt houses date back to the early 1900s. Fishermen built the houses as resting spots so they could extend their hours-long and sometimes days-long fishing trips. “Squatters rights” determined the location and as fishermen found the spot they liked, they built their lodge over the water. Stilt houses can still be viewed throughout Florida – in Miami’s Biscayne Bay (Stiltsville), and Charlotte Harbor in the Fort Myers area, and thirty miles northwest of Tampa off the shores of Pasco County, where you can view nine rustic stilt houses. One of the best ways is via a Sunset Dinner Cruise from Port Richey’s Gill Dawg Marina. Once on the Gulf, you’ll see these surreal structures rising from the bay, and as the sun sets, the sky will transform into an amazing Technicolor pink-tangerine vista with the Pasco County stilt houses silhouetted against the sunset sky.
Attend a Florida Sugar Cane Boil
Florida Sugar Cane Syrup Boil
Between Thanksgiving and the New Year, an historical tradition known as a “sugar cane boil” dates back to the earliest pioneers in rural Florida. Making cane syrup is a “heritage art” centering on family, friends and community. Cane syrup is caramel-flavored, slightly bitter syrup made from the juice of sugar cane. Historically, cane syrup was the main source of sweetness for small communities where sugar was harder to come by. Even today, for many, it is the preferred natural sweeter over refined sugar and is poured over pancakes, bacon, sausage, grits, eggs and biscuits. Public Cane Boils are plentiful including several hosted by Florida State Parks (Dudley Farm State Park, Stephen Foster Folk Cultural Center) and historical farms (Fort Christmas, Barberville Pioneer Settlement) and Museums (Tallahassee Museum, Silver River Museum) and during the annual Florida State Fair.
Get Folksy at the Florida Folk Festival
Florida Folk Festival, photo courtesy, Florida Folk Festival
Experience the best of Florida music, arts and culture on Memorial Day weekend at the annual Florida Folk Festival held at the Stephen Foster Folk Culture Center State Park in the charming town of White Springs. Here, one of the oldest state folk festivals in America takes place annually along the banks of the Suwannee River. The event celebrates Florida’s land, food, people and diverse cultural heritage. More than 300 performances by Florida’s greatest folk and roots artists, including national recording artists, songwriters and musicians of swing, folk, blues, gospel and country entertain visitors at this laid-back weekend celebration. While there, enjoy the Stephen Foster Museum displaying exhibits and dioramas about American composer Stephen Foster’s music and songs, including “Old Folks at Home” that made the Suwannee River famous.
For more: 2016 Florida Folk Festival
Eat “Apalach” Oysters Fresh Off the Boat
Apalachicola, or “Apalach” to locals, is a coastal town about 75 miles southwest of Tallahassee. As Florida’s oyster capital, it supplies the majority of the state’s catch. . Deeply rooted in centuries of Florida fishing, shipping, trade and commerce, the town is filled with charming 18th and 19th century homes. As for the oysters, visitors can get them freshly served raw or cooked – any way you like at many local eateries. Favorites include the Hole in the Wall (23 Avenue D), Up the Creek Raw Bar (313 Water Street), Boss Oysters and the more upscale Owl Cafe.
For more: Apalachicola: Florida’s Oyster Republic
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