5 Favorite ‘Off the Beaten Path’ Destinations

    By Gary McKechnie

    If you’re looking for places that will get you away from the cities, far from the interstates, and into the true heart of Florida, here are five recommendations:

    Florida State Caverns State Park (Marianna)

    Turn back the clock 100 years -- or 1,000, or 10,000 -- and throughout all that time the caverns below what would become Marianna were growing at a glacial pace. (It takes a century to create one cubic inch of limestone!) If you can go on a cool and clear morning and join just a handful of others on the tour, you’ll have an extraordinarily good time learning from the park ranger, photographing elaborate formations, and – at one point – getting chills when the lights are turned off so you can experience a darkness so complete you can’t see your hand in front of your face. Marianna is just about 66 miles west of Tallahassee.

    Kingsley Plantation (North of Jacksonville)

    While I had traveled around northeast Florida, visiting Amelia Island, taking the Mayport ferry across the St. Johns, and exploring Little Talbot Island State Park, it turns out there was something I was missing. On a road trip when I had a little more time to explore, near the Mayport ferry I saw a sign pointing toward the Kingsley Plantation. Down a long, long dirt road I drove until I reached what was a semi-circle of Stonehenge-style ruins. They looked like public art, but then I realized what they were: slave cabins. Eerie and unforgettable. Hard to believe this happened here, and remnants of that era remain.

    Houseboating on the St. Johns River (Southwest of DeLand)

    Bar none, one of the best experiences in Florida is one that will really get you off the beaten path -- a houseboat excursion from Holly Bluff Marina. On a houseboat you can reach stretches of river that will never see a strip mall or stop light, and you can do this for a single day, a weekend, or longer. (By all means, go longer if you can.)

    Fort Gates Ferry (Ocala National Forest)

    Florida’s oldest ferry spans the St. Johns River and to reach it you have to drive down a long forest road. As you tool across the river, it’s as if you’ve fallen back in time to the 1930s. I shot some video on my phone and patched it together to give you an idea of what it’s like. You’ll find this north of Eustis in the Ocala National Forest. Don’t miss this.

    Big Cypress Reservation: Seminole Nation (south of Clewiston)

    Spending time with the gracious Seminoles was one of the best experiences of my life. Unforgettable. I visited the Seminoles at Big Cypress Reservation, and not only were they extremely kind to me when I stayed for a few nights in a chickee hut (where I could hear the horses and alligators and water buffalo tromping in the swamp outside), it was like I had fallen back in time and was able to get a glimpse of their world. 

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