While you wouldn’t head to Rome and skip the Colosseum, or go to Paris and avoid the Eiffel Tower, sometimes the most fun you can have abroad is when you leave the obvious behind.
Take Florida. Renowned for theme parks and balmy days, a lot of its most exciting haunts lie in the less discovered places: the pockets of nature not found in guidebooks and the cultural treasures secreted away.
Historic towns, scenic parkland, a fascinating variety of plant and animal life – endless exploration waits. Here’s the Floridian pursuits that’ll keep you interested.
An hour’s drive from Greater Fort Lauderdale is a riveting, unusual sight: a sculpture garden made entirely of stone. Built by one man, Edward Leedskalnin, the structure is known as Coral Castle
. He devoted almost three decades to carving over 1,100 tonnes of coral rock into intriguing statues, creating this totally unique temple of American eccentricity at its finest.
Florida isn’t all fast-paced action and adventure – there are plenty of secluded spots for those in search of peace and quiet. Part of the Sea Islands chain of barrier islands, Amelia Island is on Florida’s Atlantic Coast (about 40 minutes from Jacksonville), and has a reputation as a luxurious destination with interesting annual festivals, great golf (there are over 117 holes for avid golfers to try out), tasty restaurants and stunning beaches.
Make it a trip with forever-memories and book in for a horseback ride on the beach, where you can walk, trot or canter you along the sandy beach, splashing away at the water’s edge. Book one at sunset for an unforgettable experience – not to mention Instagram-worthy snaps. Fernandina Beach has lovely trails to explore on foot or bicycle and is a great destination for bird-spotting or digging up shark’s teeth. If you’re feeling energised, hop in a kayak or go paddle-boarding with the local dolphins.
In Weeki Wachee Springs State Park (about an hour north of Tampa Bay), take in the underwater mermaids show, which has been running since 1947. Enjoy the natural landscape around you with a boat ride in the Weeki Wachee River, where you can expect to see manatees, freshwater fish, turtles, otters, various bird species and deer. The mermaid show takes place in a 400-seat submerged theatre, and the mermaids perform some impressive feats, including eating and drinking underwater. If you’re tempted by the mermaid life yourself, sign up for a paddle board tour on the river or enjoy the waterslides at Buccaneer Bay.
Located in Palm Beach County on the Atlantic, Delray Beach got its reputation as ‘the most fun small town in America’ for a reason. With its annual Garlic Festival (really) and eclectic mix of galleries and shops in the Pineapple Grove Arts District, this place has a distinct charm. There’s plenty of entertainment in the area, with performance venues and bustling restaurants everywhere. The Morikami Museum and Japanese Gardens in Delray Beach are another off- the-beaten-track destination where you can relax and enjoy six gardens from different historic periods.
Reconnect with nature at Torreya State Park in Liberty County in Florida’s northwest. Named after the Florida Torreya, a super-rare tree that still grows in the park, the site features terrain unusual for Florida: ravines down below, with high bluffs up above, overlooking the Apalachicola River.
An ideal exploring ground for hikers, with moderate and more difficult trails, you might be able to spot some of the over 100 species of birds on your trek. Don’t miss the photo op that is the view from the top of the bluffs – it’s breathtaking. And, while you’re in Liberty County, you’ll want to check out the wildflowers: in the spring, you’ll find them all down State Road 65, which goes through the Apalachicola National Forest.
Flickr CC-BY Ocala National Forest
Central Florida has some of the best-kept secrets when it comes to natural splendour, like the Ocala National Forest, where you can rent a canoe and glide along the Salt Springs Run, hike part of the Florida Trail, go for a dip in Juniper Springs, ride a horse or even go camping, surrounded by pristine, unspoiled nature.
When you visit the area, be sure to stay in the heart of historic Putnam County, Palatka, which has a quiet, old-world feel. Glimpse some Floridian tradition in the town’s annual festivals like the Blue Crab Festival, St. Johns River Catfish Festival and Bostwick Blueberry Festival, to name a few. You can also try your hand at bass and shrimp fishing or go birding. If art is your passion, you’ll enjoy the murals depicting Putnam County’s history scattered around downtown Palatka.