Wonders of Old Florida

By: Lauren Tjaden


They’re out there, usually off of the well-worn path, hidden away from the interstates, just waiting to be discovered. Some are fascinating, while others are historical, enchanting, or unusual. And some are just plain odd.

I’m talking about Old-Florida gems, flying under-the-radar in every corner of the Sunshine State. They include Greek villages, mermaids eating underwater, alligators leaping five feet into the air to retrieve a snack, and experiences as serene as floating down a river with an inner-tube planted under your backside.

Read on to map out your own Florida road trip and reveal new adventures.


Nestled on the shore of Apalachicola Bay on Florida’s Forgotten Coast, the charming town of Apalachicola once held bragging rights as the third busiest port on the Gulf of Mexico. Its maritime culture is still vibrant: numerous oyster harvesters, shrimpers, and seafood workers make their home there, and more than 90% of Florida's oysters are harvested from the Bay. For a blast-from-the-past, explore the town’s eclectic shops and galleries, sample local seafood, and stay in one of the immaculately restored B & B’s.  


~ Lauren Tjaden for VISIT FLORIDA

Castillo de San Marcos
St. Augustine
Gray, strong, and stern, the Castillo de San Marcos towers against the western shore of Matanzas Bay, a testament to tumultuous times. The oldest masonry fort in the continental United States, its first stones were laid in 1672 by the Spanish. The Fort is open to the public every day of the year except Thanksgiving and Christmas, and hosts numerous events that include historical weapons demonstrations and reenactors.

Ft. George Island
If this island could talk, the stories it could tell. Native Americans thrived here, fishing the rich salt marshes. Colonists built a fort as well as the Kingsley Plantation on its sands, complete with a main house, kitchen and slave quarters that survived the years. In the 1920s, the well-to-do favored it for vacations. Today, you can kayak and fish the same waters the Timucua did, explore the plantation and check out the visitor center in restored Ribault Club, once an exclusive resort. Off-road biking, hiking, and boating round out the activities.

Hotel Ponce de Leon (Flagler College)
St. Augustine
Nicknamed "the Ponce," this hotel, which dates back to 1887, boasts everything grand: soaring ceilings with images of angels and lions, stained glass, arches, mosaics, intricate murals and more. The brainchild of Henry Flagler, New York entrepreneur and cofounder of Standard Oil, the hotel’s Spanish Renaissance Revival style heavily impacted southern Florida architecture for the next 50 years. The hotel closed its doors in 1967 and was sold to Flagler College. It’s since been renovated to its original glory.



~ Julie Fletcher for VISIT FLORIDA

Ichetucknee Springs State Park
Fort White
During the 1950s and 1960s, when tubing became popular, college students from the Gainesville area discovered Ichetucknee River and Springs, gathering in great numbers to enjoy the summertime ritual. Loncala Phosphate Company owned the surrounding land and allowed the recreation, but no good deed goes unpunished, and the tremendous volume of visitors soon overwhelmed the company as well as the natural resources. In 1970, Loncala, concerned about the fragile ecosystem, sold the property to the state of Florida. The state cleaned up the river and added facilities, and in 1972 the springs and river were declared a National Natural Landmark. Today, from the end of May until early September, you can tube down the sparkling river for six delightful, refreshing miles. Your gang can rent tubes from vendors located four miles northwest of Fort White, off State Roads 47 and 238.

Juniper Springs
Silver Springs
Built in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps, this park’s setting is utterly unique. Encompassed by the desert-like Big Scrub area, it’s a natural oasis, where you’ll discover hundreds of tiny bubbling springs as well as massive ones spouting out of crevices in the ground, all beneath a thick canopy of trees. It features a swimming hole, campground, picnic facilities and a mill house.

Marineland Dolphin Adventure  
St. Augustine
In 1938, Marine Studios opened its doors as a movie studio designed to film aquatic life and underwater action. Over the years, its name and mission changed. Today Marineland, touted as the world's first oceanarium, invites visitors to learn about and interact with dolphins, in programs for landlubbers as well as folks who want to enjoy dolphins up-close. You can touch them, feed them, and even swim with them.

Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings State Park
Cross Creek
The books of Pulitzer prize-winning novelist Marjorie Rawlings whisk readers back in time to frontier Florida, and her words have their roots in the miniscule community of Cross Creek, in which she lived. This park lets you explore in her restored 1930s cracker style home and farm. The park is open every day; tours of the house are offered from October through July. Recharge your batteries with a picnic in the adjacent county park, which offers a boat ramp to Orange Lake and a playground, or a meal at the Yearling Restaurant.

Encompassing 1.03 square miles between Gainesville and Ocala, this tiny city bills itself as “the town that time forgot.” Browse its famed antique shops on Cholokka Boulevard, once an Indian trading route, or grab a bite at one of the tempting diners. While you’re there, check out the nationally acclaimed Greek revival mansion and other historic buildings. For a dose of Southern hospitality and a good night’s sleep, stay in the Herlong Mansion Historic Inn (1845), now a bed and breakfast.

Rainbow Spring State Park
From the 1930s through the 1970s, Rainbow Springs, the state’s fourth largest spring, was home to a privately-owned attraction. Today, Rainbow Springs and Rainbow River offer swimming, snorkeling, canoeing, tubing and kayaking—sure to make a splash with your tribe. Canoes and kayaks can be rented at the headsprings.

Silver Springs State Park
You can get a glimpse into the vibrant underwater world without getting your toes wet on a glass bottom boat ride at Silver Springs. Heralded as Florida’s first tourist attraction and one of the largest artesian springs ever discovered, this natural landmark has been drawing visitors since the 1870s. The park also offers kayak and canoe trips, special event productions, and more, as well as its sister water-park, Wild Waters. Open 365 days a year, the cost of admission to Silver Springs is only $2.

St. Augustine
Steeped in history, the nation’s oldest city offers a handsome Lighthouse, wonders like the Castillo de San Marcos and the Hotel Ponce de Leon, and an enchanting historic district, complete with narrow cobblestone streets, old-world cafes, bars, eclectic shops and bed-and-breakfasts.

Suwannee River State Park
Live Oak
Remnants of the past are on display in this graceful, natural retreat. Soldiers built the long mounds of earth along the river during the Civil War to guard against Union Navy gunboats. Look further, and you’ll find a one of the state’s oldest cemeteries nestled under a stand of trees, as well as a paddle-wheel shaft from a 19th century steamboat. Make sure to climb the bluff overlooking the spot where the Withlacoochee River melds with the Suwannee River on its journey to the Gulf of Mexico. The park offers extensive trails boasting panoramic views of the rivers, as well as fishing, picnicking, and canoeing and camping.


~ Lauren Tjaden for VISIT FLORIDA

Florida Caverns State Park
Utterly unique to the state, Florida Caverns Park boasts stunning formations of limestone stalactites, stalagmites, soda straws, flowstones and draperies. Thanks to President Roosevelt's New Deal, created to provide jobs during the Great Depression, your posse can enjoy them today. Starting in 1935, workers from the Civilian Conservation Corps and the Works Projects Administration developed the park, which officially opened to the public in 1942. The park offers guided cave tours, fishing, canoeing, boating, camping, picnicking, and hiking as well as a nine-hole golf course.

Stephen Foster Folk Culture Center State Park
White Springs
Late American composer Stephen Foster wrote about banjos, bees and a little farm in his song "Old Folks at Home," a tune that brought fame to the Suwannee River. The park, situated on the banks of the Suwannee, honors Foster’s memory, featuring exhibits about his most renowned songs. Demonstrations of quilting, blacksmithing, and stained glass making, as well as hiking, bicycling, canoeing, and wildlife viewing are popular activities. Special events include the Florida Folk Festival, held annually on Memorial Day weekend, in addition to concerts, weekend retreats, a regional quilt show, a holiday light display and an antique tractor show.

Wakulla Springs State Park
Wakulla Springs
Hidden deep in the old forests south of Tallahassee, Wakulla Springs is home to of one of the largest and deepest freshwater springs in the world. It offers a wealth of wildlife, daily guided riverboat tours, glass bottom boat tours, swimming, and trails. Built in 1937 by financier Edward Ball, the Wakulla Springs Lodge is open year-round, complete with a dining room overlooking the spring.



~Julie Fletcher for VISIT FLORIDA

Bok Tower
Lake Wales
Paths that wind through trees and woodland pools, festooned with azaleas, vibrant with color. A 205-foot Singing Tower carillon that entertains with daily concerts. A magnificent 1930s Mediterranean-style mansion that begs to be explored. If you’ve been to Bok Tower Gardens, you’ll agree, remarkable is an apt term for the attraction, offering unique experiences to more than 23 million visitors since 1929.

Citrus Tower
For a sweeping view of central Florida, take a ride to the top of the Citrus Tower, one of Florida’s first attractions. Built in 1956 on a tall hill, the tower rises an impressive 226 feet, equivalent to 22 stories. At the top, the glass-enclosed observation deck provides a unique perspective of Clermont and the area’s rolling hills and abundant spring-fed lakes.

Daytona Beach Spring Break
In 1986, MTV launched its first spring break special from the Daytona Beach, brimming with revelry and excess. It was the place to be, and from the 1980s into the 1990s, the city drew as many as 350,000 students each year. The city’s reputation is now family friendly, but those looking for a sizzling club scene won’t be disappointed, with bars like Razzles, Aqua, and the Ocean Deck. Daytona Beach is dedicated to safety too, with a party bus that offers free rides to spring breakers all night long.


~ Daytona International Speedway

Daytona International Speedway
Nestled against Florida’s Atlantic coast, Daytona is heralded as the birthplace of car racing. Soon after the invention of the automobile, famed auto personalities – including Henry Ford-- began to race their machines on its hard-packed sands, starting at Ormond Beach and racing all the way to Ponce Inlet and back. The city’s love of racing continues with the iconic Daytona International Speedway. Since opening in 1959, it’s hosted the prestigious Daytona 500, held annually in February. Though its steeped in tradition, there’s nothing antiquated about the track. With a complete makeover, it’s now the world's first true motorsports stadium, where you can witness some of the most exciting racing in the world, tour the facility, or even get behind the wheel of a stock car yourself.

Don CeSar
St. Pete Beach
Dubbed the ‘Pink Palace,’ this iconic resort has been pampering the jet-set since the height of the Gatsby Era in 1928.   It boasts 277 decidedly swanky rooms, two deluxe heated pools, and a luscious sugar-sand beach. If you feel like being spoiled, a vacation there will do the trick. Or just indulge in a meal at the award winning Maritana Grille or Sunday Champagne Brunch Buffet at the Sea Porch.


~Lauren Tjaden for VISIT FLORIDA

In 1949, Owen Godwin turned 110-acres of cattle land into this toothy theme park and wildlife preserve. It’s still a must-do, with shows that feature enormous alligators leaping out of the water to grab food from a trainer's hand and alligator wrestling done ‘Cracker style.’ Experiences include exploring a swamp at night, armed only with a flashlight, and the opportunity to get up-close-and-personal with a variety of dangerous beasts.

Tampa Bay Hotel (University of Tampa and Henry B. Plant Museum)
Now referred to as Florida’s “first Magic Kingdom,” the Tampa Bay Hotel was a flamboyant giant built between 1888 and 1891 by Henry Bradley Plant, boasting 511 rooms, Florida’s first elevator, and an abundance of Victorian gingerbread, minarets, domes and cupolas. The hotel first housed prosperous clients and then the United States Military during the Spanish–American War, but closed in 1930 as the Great Depression threw its grey cloud over tourism. In 1933, the Tampa Bay Junior College moved into the empty hotel, transforming rooms that hosted Teddy Roosevelt, the Queen of England, Stephen Crane and Babe Ruth into classrooms and offices. The junior college was expanded, becoming the University of Tampa, and today encompasses the Henry B. Plant Museum, complete with original, opulent furnishings and artifacts.

The Ringling Ca’ d’Zan
Opulent, splendid and romantic, the 36,000 square foot Ca’ d’Zan Mansion boasts 41 rooms, 15 bathrooms, and a fascinating history. One of America’s wealthiest couples, circus king John Ringling and his wife Mable started building the “House of John,” inspired by the Venetian Gothic style of the palazzos, in 1924. After Ringling’s death in 1936, the house fell into disrepair, but a restoration and conservation project, completed in 2002, returned the mansion to its former glory. Today, you can tour this architectural treasure, open daily from 10 a.m. through 5 p.m.

Kapok Tree Inn Restaurant (Kapok Special Events & Gardens)
Gaudy, sprawling, and absolutely different, the Kapok Tree Restaurant once lured international tourists with country dinners served amidst tropical gardens adorned with statues, paintings and chandeliers. Richard B. Baumgardner designed and built the 200-seat Inn, which opened in 1958. Though wildly successful, the Inn unexpectedly closed in 1991. Today, the Kapok property is home to the Thoroughbred Music store, along with Kapok Special Events & Gardens, which promises a fun visit or a memorable location for your big event.

Lake Eola Park
Hailed as the centerpiece of downtown Orlando, Lake Eola Park is a splendid oasis, boasting a fountain that changes colors at night. That would please Jacob Summerlin, the wealthy Orlando resident who donated the land for the park in 1883, on the condition that trees would be planted, a ‘driveway’ would be built around the lake, and that the park be kept beautiful. All of his requirements and more have been satisfied: swan-shaped paddle boats dot the lake, as well as live swans, which you can feed, and joggers make good use of the sidewalk surrounding it. The Relax Grill offers a place to satisfy your appetite, and the Walt Disney Amphitheater features concerts and plays.

Sarasota Jungle Gardens
Encompassing 10 acres, Sarasota Jungle Gardens has been drawing visitors with its lush gardens and bird and animal shows since 1936. Today, it’s still a family favorite, where you can help care for injured animals plus enjoy experiences like hand feeding flamingos, counting baby ducks, watching a cockatoo ride a unicycle and much more.

The Senator (The Phoenix)
Estimated to be 3,500 years old, the Senator was the 5th oldest tree in the world, as well as the largest Bald Cypress in the United States. Destroyed by arson in 2012, a version of the Senator lives on. Big Tree Park now houses a memorial to the leafy giant, in addition to a clone of The Senator, planted near the playground, dubbed "The Phoenix."


~ Betty Wojcik

Spook Hill
Lake Wales
Some claim that this free roadside attraction is a gravity hill, just an optical illusion. Others insist that you can actually defy gravity there, and that the hill is haunted. In either case, it’s worth a visit. You’ll be amazed when your rolls uphill and backward—or when it feels like it does.

Stetson Mansion
This magnificent gilded age mansion hosted President Cleveland, the King and Queen of England, and Henry Flagler—and you can visit it. Built in 1886 for famed hat maker John Stetson, this estate was hidden and lost for 100 years before being restored to its original glory. Now a private residence, it offers tours as well as celebrations.

Tarpon Springs
Want to know what coastal village living in Greece is like? The historic riverfront town of Tarpon Springs, a mere 20 minutes north of Clearwater, will transport you across the miles and years. In the early 1900s, natural sponge beds were discovered in Tarpon Springs, and Greek sponge divers arrived to take advantage of the bounty. Today the city boasts more Greek Americans of any city in the U.S., and its famed Sponge Docks, nestled along the Anclote River, are still its most acclaimed feature.  But there’s more: eclectic stores, antiques shops, authentic Greek restaurants, and the ornate St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral add to the city’s allure.

Ted Peters Smoked Fish
St. Petersburg
This decidedly humble, family-owned restaurant opened in 1951, serving fish smoked over a smoldering fire of red oak, as well as burgers and beer. Bring cash; that’s all they accept.

Columbia Restaurant
Ybor City
Hailed as Florida’s oldest restaurant and the largest Spanish restaurant in the world, the Columbia Restaurant had an unassuming beginning as a corner cafe serving up Cuban coffee and sandwiches to local cigar workers. Cuban immigrant Casimiro Hernandez, Sr. founded the eatery in 1905, and it’s been in the same family since it opened, over 110 years ago. Over the years, it’s served stars like Liberace, Bruce Springsteen, Marilyn Monroe and many more. Today you can enjoy its authentic flavors at seven locations, including the original in Ybor City.

Vinoy Hotel Renaissance St. Petersburg Resort & Golf Club
St. Petersburg
From when it opened in 1926, the history of Vinoy is a fascinating tale that pleads to be explored. It started as a bet between a famed golfer and wealthy businessman, catered to the glitterati in the 1920s, and was a training center for the military in the Second World War. After falling into decline, it was closed in 1974, only to be reborn and restored to its former grandeur in the 1990s. Located less than one mile from the St. Petersburg Pier and the Dali Museum, today this landmark resort is as posh and pink as ever, pampering guests with its lush rooms, restaurants, heated outdoor pool, and golf course.

Warm Mineral Springs
North Port
Fifty years ago William Royal dove into Warm Mineral Springs, and what he discovered under its waters changed archaeological beliefs. Royal found the bones of extinct animals, stalactite formations, and human remains, including a ten-thousand-year old human skull, proving Homo sapiens had arrived in North America four thousand years earlier than previously believed. Today the springs function as a health spa, with visitors soothing away their ailments in the warm mineral waters.


~ Weeki Wachee Springs State Park

Weeki Wachee Springs State Park
Weeki Wachee
Swimmer and dive instructor Newton Perry, looking for a site for a new business in 1946, saw promise in Weeki Wachee, a spring brimming with rusted refrigerators and abandoned cars.  He invented a method of breathing underwater from air hoses, trained pretty girls to swim with the hoses—as well as eat bananas underwater and do aquatic ballets – and built a theater in the spring. By the 1950s, Weeki Wachee was one of the nation’s most popular tourist stops. Even Elvis came to see the mermaids. In 2008, Weeki Wachee Springs became one of Florida's newest state parks, and was restored to its former beauty. Today, your posse can still see the mermaids perform, as well as swim at Buccaneer Bay, see the animal/reptile show, or enjoy a riverboat ride down the Weeki Wachee River. 


Breakers Hotel
Palm Beach
If you want to be pampered like a Rockefeller, book a stay at the Breakers. American industrialist Henry M. Flagler founded this opulent Oceanside resort in 1896, which was immediately a hit with the celebrities and stars. Twice fire destroyed the hotel, and twice it was reincarnated, more glamourous each time. When it reopened in 1926, it was modeled after the Villa Medici in Rome, with Flagler bringing in 75 artisans from Italy to craft intricate paintings across the ceilings. Today, you can still bask in the luxurious surroundings and service that presidents and European nobility enjoyed.  

Coral Castle
Edward Leedskalnin was unusual in many ways. He weighed only 100 pounds and stood a smidgen over 5 feet tall, but what really set him apart was that from 1923 to 1951, he single-handedly, secretly carved over 1,100 tons of coral rock into a fantasy world, using mere homemade tools. See it for yourself; the Coral Castle lives on, open every day to welcome visitors.

Crandon Park
Biscayne Bay
When the caravan of a traveling animal show broke down in 1948, it stranded the show’s bears, monkeys and a single goat, and Crandon Park Zoo was born. The zoo grew over the years, with more animals arriving and the addition of a miniature train. But being located on an island meant whenever a storm or a hurricane blew by the animals were endangered, and in 1965, numerous animals drowned in their cages in Hurricane Betsy.  MetroZoo (now Zoo Miami) was built in a larger, inland location, and in 1980 Crandon became nothing more than a memory. In 1991, the site of the old zoo opened as The Gardens at Crandon Park, a botanical garden. The park offers a sprawling beach, a nature center, marina, golf course and tennis center.

Deering Estate at Cutler
Named for businessman and philanthropist Charles Deering, who lived on the property from 1922 until his death in 1927, this 444-acre estate encompasses natural, archaeological, and architectural treasures—and it wants to share them with you. Snuggled against Biscayne Bay, it offers diverse experiences that include butterfly walks, tours of the historic Stone House and Richmond Cottage, opportunities to examine fossils and tools left behind by pre-historic humans, as well as tours of vibrant natural areas where 50,000-year-old fossils have been found.

Fisheating Creek
West of Lake Okeechobee and north of the Everglades, you’ll find Fisheating Creek Outpost, where you can enjoy camping, paddling, hiking and eco-adventures along one of the most unspoiled creeks in Florida. Over the years, the creek was an integral part of local peoples’ lives, and they depended on it for recreation as well as sustenance. The Lykes Brothers -- the largest landowner in Florida and the 9th largest landowner in the United States -- barred development along the creek, and ran a campground and a canoeing concession at Palmdale. In 1989, the Brothers closed the creek to the public, and a 10-year legal battle ensued between the Brothers and the state of Florida. In the end, both parties agreed to a settlement, and the corridor of land -- 18,272 acres -- became Fisheating Creek Wildlife Management Area.  

Whitehall/Flagler Museum
Palm Beach
You can’t beat the wedding present Henry Flagler built for his wife, Mary Lily Kenan Flagler: a 75-room, 100,000-square-foot Gilded Age mansion that the New York Herald described in 1902 as ‘More wonderful than any palace in Europe, grander and more magnificent than any other private dwelling in the world." It functioned as the Flagler’s personal residence until 1913 and then as a hotel from 1925 to 1959, but was in peril of being razed when Henry Flagler's granddaughter, Jean Flagler Matthews, sprung to the rescue and formed a nonprofit corporation to purchase the property. In 1960, Whitehall was opened to the public with a grand "Restoration Ball." Today you can tour the property, still a wonder for the senses.

Key West
During sailing’s golden age, over 100 ships per day navigated the Southernmost City’s treacherous waters, and at least one per week would wreck.  ‘Wreckers’ would the race to the reef, saving the crew and the cargo. The salvaged goods were sold at auction in Key West, with the courts awarding generous profits to the wreckers, making Key West the wealthiest city in the nation by the 1830s. Today visitors can enjoy the city’s quirky personality, explore its historic district, three civil war era forts, the nation’s only African American refugee cemetery, as well as Ernest Hemingway’s home and the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum.

Biscayne Bay
In the 1930s, "Crawfish Eddie Walker" built the first shack on stilts above the shallow waters of Biscayne Bay, allegedly as a place to gamble, which was legal one-mile offshore. People built more of the odd buildings over the years, and Stiltsville became known as party central. Accessible only by water, there were reports of illegal alcohol and gambling, resulting in several police raids, which only added to the area’s glamour. Though 27 structures existed in the 1960s, fires, hurricanes and Mother Nature insured every building was relatively short-lived. In 1985, the bottom land on which the stilt structures sit was deeded to the Federal Government as part of Biscayne National Park, and in 2003, a non-profit organization called the Stiltsville Trust was established. Today, only seven houses remain, which you can view from a boat. Public access is by permit only.


~ Peter W. Cross for VISIT FLORIDA

Everglades National Park
South Florida, with car entrances in Homestead, Everglades City and Miami
After Miami land developer Ernest F. Coe pitched the idea of the Everglades as a national park in 1928, Congress declared it one in 1934—though the process languished for 13 years before the park was dedicated in 1947. As the largest subtropical wilderness in the United States, encompassing 1.5 million acres across Monroe, Miami-Dade, and Collier counties, it’s almost impossible to overstate the importance of the ‘River of Grass.’ Lauded as an international treasure, this utterly distinctive wetland provides vital habitat for numerous rare and endangered animals. Today in the park, you can reconnect with nature and a quieter, wilder time, experiencing birdwatching, hiking, biking, camping, boating, fishing and tours.

The Seven Mile Bridge
 Overseas Highway, The Florida Keys
Spanning magnificent sweeps of turquoise water speckled with tiny islands and boats, this bridge begs to be enjoyed in a convertible, on a bike or motorcycle, or even on foot.  The current road bridge was built from 1978 to 1982, and links Knight's Key in the Middle Keys to Little Duck Key in the Lower Keys. But it’s only half of the story: two bridges exist here. The modern bridge is open to vehicles; the older bridge is open to pedestrians and cyclists only. The older bridge, built from 1909 to 1912 under the direction of Henry Flagler and Clarence S. Coe, originally had a name as long as a train --the ‘Knights Key-Pigeon Key-Moser Channel-Pacet Channel Bridge’-- and was in fact built to carry trains as part of the Overseas Railroad. When the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935 damaged the line, the United States government bought and refurbished Seven Mile Bridge for automobile use.


~ Peter W. Cross for VISIT FLORIDA

Vizcaya Museum and Gardens (Villa Vizcaya)
James Deering, of the Deering McCormick-International Harvester fortune, built this sumptuous estate between 1914 and 1922 in the subtropical forest on the shores of Biscayne Bay. Today visitors can explore this immaculately preserved haven of pristine beauty, just south of Miami’s modern skyline.

Sponsored listings by VISIT FLORIDA Partners

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