Florida Tours and Sightseeing
By Gary McKechnie
Florida may be the most fascinating state ever, and I’m not just saying that because I was born here. It truly is an incredible place to visit and tour. There are coral reefs and limestone caverns, crystal-clear natural springs and backwoods swimming holes, remote pine forests and even more remote regions deep in the Everglades. Its history precedes the Plymouth Rock Pilgrims by 10,000 years or more and runs a direct timeline to the Space Age. Because it’s a destination unlike any other, it’s a place everyone likes to visit.
What can top off a trip is seeing it with someone who knows it like a native, namely Floridians so passionate about where they live they’ve researched every aspect of its history. Armed with that knowledge, they invite visitors to join them on tours to share insights about local culture, nature, wildlife, the environment… and sometimes just plain weird trivia.
In Marianna, an hour west of Tallahassee, you can join a park ranger at Florida Caverns State Park for a tour that descends into the state’s largest limestone cavern. In this intricate underground world, rangers share unbelievable information such as the length of time it takes for nature to create one cubic inch of limestone (about 100 years). Incredibly, the tour is free – but the memories are priceless.
One of Florida’s most popular tours is actually more than one: Airboat rides. Located nearly everywhere in the state from the Everglades to Kenansville to Inverness and beyond, when you find yourself in the neighborhood of an airboat tour… take it! Pilots are passionate about the woods and waters they navigate, and whether you’re flying across a freshwater river or a brackish lagoon, the wildlife you’ll see and the thrill you’ll get will stamp your Florida passport with indelible memories.
Adding a high-clearance swamp buggy to airboat rides is Billie Swamp Safari at the Big Cypress Reservation of the Seminole Tribe. Visiting Billie Swamp – the tribe’s tourist destination about an hour south of Lake Okeechobee – was one of the best experiences of my life. Viewing the land the way the Seminoles see it gave me an even greater appreciation for Florida.
Further south, at Everglades National Park, rangers are leading free tram tours into the famed and fragile ‘River of Grass’ to reveal that an empty expanse of reeds and wilderness is actually a vibrant ecosystem teeming with life. Just west of the Everglades off the coast of Fort Myers, a tram tour at Sanibel Island’s J.N. ‘Ding’ Darling National Wildlife Refuge will likely include a look at alligators on the shore, crabs climbing mangrove trees, or an abundance of migratory birds fluttering across Tarpon Bay. Florida’s beauty is found in every corner of this refuge.
There are also wildlife parks where guests are invited to meet rare and endangered species. Take a tour of the wonderful Seacrest Wolf Preserve south of Chipley and where members of “ambassador wolf packs” are as playful as puppies and as stunningly beautiful as any animal you’ve ever seen. Visit Jacksonville’s Catty Shack which hosts day tours, night tours, and sleepovers beside cougars, leopards, lions, and tigers (but no bears). At Two Tails Ranch in Williston, guests can learn about elephants and meet other residents including zebras, tortoises, emus, ostriches, and camels.
And why pay good money to watch a horror movie when you can take a guided after-dark ghost tour to see some of the most haunted sites in St. Augustine and Key West? Far less creepy is the legendary Conch Tour Train of Key West, which has been rolling around this famous island since 1958.
Finally, there’s only one space center on earth open to visitors – and it happens to be in Florida. On the Kennedy Space Center’s bus tour you’ll see the towering Vehicle Assembly Building where rockets are prepared for launch; massive crawlers that move the rockets to the launch pads; and the launch pads themselves where Americans were sent to the moon and will someday depart for Mars. Ultimately, this highly-recommended tour takes you to the Saturn V Center where you’ll see an actual Saturn V rocket, the Apollo 14 capsule, and even a moon rock you can touch.
Which goes to show that Florida tours are out of this world.