4 Road Trips off Florida's Highways
By Chelle Koster Walton
When highway hypnosis sets in, take the off-ramp to fun.
Milton, exits 26, 28
With the Blackwater River at its back, Milton’s Historic District remembers days of shipping in supplies for building ships and its handsome brick buildings. Today the river brings paddlers to town to lunch, shop and admire its murals.
Ponce de Leon Springs State Park, exit 96
Plunge into 60-degree waters at this clear springs pool. Set up a picnic lunch and hike through the woods to recharge and further refresh.
Some of Florida’s most unusual geographic features require but a quick detour into nature. Florida Caverns State Park takes you underground more than 50 feet for a cool escape in every sense of the word. The eponymous centerpiece of Falling Waters tumbles 75 feet over the edge of a stovepipe sinkhole.
Monticello, exit 225
Take a break from Tallahassee-area traffic on a back-road segue to this small town with a domed courthouse, 19th-century buildings, canopied streets and gracious Victorian homes, some of
which double as B&Bs.
Madison, exits 251, 258
Stop at the Chamber of Commerce for a driving/walking tour brochure, and set out to explore the town’s 19th-century homes, antiques shops and famed monuments. Fill up on Southern cooking at O’Neals Country Buffet.
Suwannee River State Park, exits 262, 275
Your respite here can be as quick as a cool dip or as lingering as a canoe paddle way down upon the Suwannee River. Explore nearby Ellaville Ghost Town if you have time.
There’s reason enough to veer off the interstate and stay a couple of days here. The Suwannee River gives up some of the state’s best paddling that takes you past a carillon tower at the state park. It chimes songs by Foster, who penned Florida’s state song without ever having seen the river.
Micanopy, exit 374
This sweet little antiquing town lets you while away the hours on childhood memories and ice cream. Should time escape you, the Herlong Mansion B&B will accommodate.
Dade City, exits 293, 285
It requires some back-road zigzagging, but Dade City’s affordable antiques shops and Pioneer Museum alone make it well-worth the effort. Have lunch at fun-for-the-family Kafe Kokopelli.
Oscar Scherer State Park, exit 200
Unexpected green space tucks away miles of nature trails, a sand beach and a freshwater swimming hole. Bring the binoculars for prime birding, and spend the night in a tent if you can’t tear yourself away.
Punta Gorda, exit 164
A mix of new and old, Punta Gorda’s historic district makes you hungry just driving through. Tour the town’s murals, play in the interactive fountain at Laishley Park Municipal Marina, then choose from Irish fare to Latin fusion and everything in between.
Bonita Springs, exit 116
This is the closest I-75 gets to the Gulf, so take advantage and head to Bonita Beach for family-friendly seashore, burgers at Doc’s on the beach and a visit to classic Everglades Wonder Gardens’ zoo.
Plant City, exits 21A, 21B, 22
Most famous for its strawberries and the annual March festival celebrating them, any time of year it makes a pleasant bypass to yesteryear in its historic downtown district, antiques shops and circa-1908 Plant City Union Depot.
Lakeland, exit 31
Stimulate the mind at the Polk Museum of Art and Florida Southern College campus, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. There’s even a museum for the kids, plus a nice selection of restaurants.
Cassadaga, exit 116
Exit into the future. Known for its community of spiritualists and psychics, it’s the place for a palm-reading and perhaps a ghostly encounter.
De Land, exit 118
Stretch your legs on a stroll down Woodland Boulevard, browsing, noshing, admiring the circa-1920 brick buildings and stopping to relax and play at Chess Park.
Flagler Beach/Bulow Plantation Ruins State Park, exit 284
Have breakfast or lunch at the pier, then cast a line or scour the beach for bird and right whale sightings. Get a sweet taste of Florida’s sugar-growing heritage at Bulow.
Christmas, exit 215
Most visit here in December to get their holiday cards postmarked. Other times, check out the recreated Fort Christmas and airboat tours.
Fort Pierce Inlet State Park, exit 131B
Need a beach fix? This is one of the East Coast’s most laid-back beaches, despite its surfing reputation. Families with wee ones appreciate its quiet inlet waters.
John D. MacArthur Beach State Park, exits 79A, 79B
Traffic picks up as you enter South Florida,so plan an intermission at this beach breakaway with lots of room to spread out, walk and learn about the environment.
In 15 minutes, go from staring at the road to gazing at boat traffic from Fort Lauderdale’s Port Everglades. Swim, fish, picnic and return to your car with a better attitude.
Oleta River State Park, exit 10B
Rent a kayak or mountain bike to take advantage of Oleta’s trails and freshwater river. This Miami urban oasis has it all – from a cross-country bike course and sand beach to a fishing pier and cabins.