For the Holidays, Try the Warmth of Florida
By Gary McKechnie
Born and raised in Florida, I never gave much thought to why places were named the way they were until I thumbed through a state atlas and reached the W’s.
That’s where the list included places like Winter Beach, Winter Garden, Winter Haven, Winter Park, and Winter Springs.
I sensed a pattern.
Turns out that as far back as the 1870s these ‘winter’ names served as built-in marketing tools that promised travelers a haven (or park or garden or spring) from the brutal cold of winter.
In the 150 years since, nature lovers and outdoor enthusiasts from across America have made Florida their go-to destination to spend a warm Christmas, or for that matter, any holiday.
When you grow weary of being cooped up in the cramped indoors, this short list shows that Florida’s great outdoors offers America’s most diverse collection of wintertime activities on land and sea. While Florida’s the best warm place to spend the holidays, it’s the best place to spend the rest of the year as well.
Great Florida Birding and Wildlife Trail (GFBWT)
Each winter as snowbirds flock to Florida, following in their wake are hundreds of species of migrating birds including raptors, songbirds, and wading birds which likewise prefer the warm winter sun of Pensacola Bay and its adjacent rivers, estuaries, and marshlands. Locally, this renowned migration route offers nearly a dozen birdwatching locations where, on foot or while exploring via a canoe, kayak, or paddleboard, you’ll find yourself surrounded by nature as you savor the beauty and the timeless tranquility of birdwatching.
Gulf Islands National Seashore.
When a Southerner tells you they’re wintering in LA, don’t assume they mean California. Hundreds of miles of Gulf of Mexico shoreline affectionately coined ‘LA’ (for ‘Lower Alabama’) are part of America’s longest stretch of protected shoreline; its powder-soft white sands creating a subtropical twist on the snow-covered slopes of the north. Just gas up the car (a convertible will do), roll down the windows, and spend a few days coasting through the towns and villages that line the turquoise waters.
Pensacola’s backyard is the Gulf of Mexico and this plus three sprawling bays and the Blackwater River provide it with challenging offshore sport fishing teamed with a diverse population of freshwater fish. Anglers are on the waters all year ‘round, while in the winter months northern visitors are especially eager to exchange freezing ice fishing for pleasingly nice fishing from bridges, docks, piers, and aboard deep-sea charters.
A notable moment in outdoor recreation came when someone with a surfboard and a parachute thought they belonged together. The result led to the invigorating sport of kiteboarding, whose popularity reaches a peak along this stretch of coastline thanks to warm winter waters and a steady, snapping breeze that propels these sleek watercraft across the Gulf. Just getting started? Check out vendors such as Kitty Hawk Kites and Emerald Coast Kitesurfing Lessons for rental equipment and instruction.
Contrasting dreary gray winter months up north with the sight of the Gulf’s clean blue waters can fill nature lovers with a sense of discovery and a bit of aquatic anticipation. Just 300 yards off the coast, the Navarre Beach Gulf Snorkel Reef is your portal into the undersea world. Easily accessible to swimmers (and easier still via raft or paddleboard), this artificial reef introduces you to marine life including schools of tropical fish along with sea turtles, dolphins, and octopuses that frequent this sea life sanctuary.
Birding and Butterflies
Each year, Florida’s capital city finds itself in the right place (along two migratory pathways) at the right time (winter) for birdwatchers. That’s when more than 300 species of birds as well as thousands of butterflies flutter about state parks, wildlife preserves, and coastal sanctuaries. From Tallahassee south to the coast, mark your maps and explore the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge, Edward Ball Wakulla Springs State Park, the Apalachicola National Forest, Elinor Klapp-Phipps Park, Alfred B. Maclay Gardens State Park, Lake Elberta Park, and the L. Kirk Edwards Wildlife and Environmental Area.
Branching out from the heart of Tallahassee are nearly 80 miles of picture-perfect country roads where the overhanging limbs of huge moss-draped live oaks, sweet gums, hickory trees and pines create the purely Southern scene of an arboreal canopy. On a winter’s day, this can be a sensational sensation-filled road trip as you turn off the air conditioner, roll down the windows, and soak in the crisp cool breeze on a personal voyage of discovery.
The city’s gently rolling hills, flowing rivers, and wooded forests provide a natural setting for hundreds of miles of winter weather biking, hiking, equestrian, paddling, mountain bike, and running trails – a distinction that sparked the nickname (and the website) Trailahassee.com where you’ll find interactive mapping, GPS technology, personalized features, and details on outfitters and trail associations.
With waters surging to the surface at a constant 70 degrees, a swim in Florida’s largest and deepest freshwater spring may seem pleasingly warm; especially when the ambient temperature dips below a balmy 70 and the spring waters feel like a tepid bath. The spring is the source of the crystal-clear Wakulla River, a natural treasure for kayaking and canoeing where paddlers/nature photographers are focused on fish, manatees, turtles, native wildlife, migratory birds as well as alligators lazing on the banks in the warm winter sun.
Complementing the city’s 400 winter-perfect parks with a 1500s French fort, an 1800s plantation, and a recreation of a Timacua village is the National Park Service’s Timucuan Ecological & Historic Preserve. As one of the last unspoiled coastal wetlands along the Atlantic, this is an excellent environment for heading outdoors and exploring the marshes, coastal dunes, and the hardwood hammocks which served as home for indigenous peoples across 6,000 years of human history.
7 Creeks Recreation Area
In 2020, seven national, state, and city parks were merged into an expansive 5,000-acre recreational area of saltwater marshes, cypress swamps, and coastal forests with more than 30 miles of open and wooded trails creating a natural destination for hiking, biking, birdwatching, and horseback riding. Woven into this diverse landscape are seven creeks that provide travelers the option to explore backwaters via canoes, kayaks, and paddleboards.
George Crady Fishing Pier State Park
North of Jacksonville, the span that once linked Amelia Island and Big Talbot Island may be the only American bridge-turned fishing pier-turned state park. Load up your fishing gear and join dozens of anglers rolling carts packed with fishing poles, tackle, food, radios, chairs, and umbrellas along the mile-long pedestrian bridge. After you’ve found a spot, drop a line and wait to hook up with whiting, jack, drum, and tarpon swimming in the waters where the Amelia River merges into Nassau Sound.
With its compact historic district and bayfront setting, America’s oldest city is also one of its most walkable. The circa 1672 Castillo de San Marcos makes a good starting point before following the waterfront promenade along the broad waters of Matanzas Bay. Consider crossing the bay via the historic Bridge of Lions before returning to the heart of town through the Plaza de la Constitucion and on to the Lightner Museum and Flagler College (once the grand Ponce de Leon Hotel) before weaving your way through narrow streets and alleys to complete your round trip with a walk down the popular St. George Street pedestrian mall.
St. Augustine Lighthouse
Not a recreational sport, per se, climbing the 219 steps to the top of this iconic beacon is a challenge. At the peak, you’ll catch your breath before views of the coastline take your breath away. Easily visible in the distance is the historic district and, tucked between Salt Run and the Atlantic Ocean is 1,600-acre Anastasia State Park, a barrier island and coastal preserve of unspoiled beaches, tidal marshes, maritime hammocks, and ancient sand dunes that create a destination for swimming, camping, boating, fishing, shelling, bird watching, surfing, and hiking.
It helps if you look at ‘The World’s Most Famous Beach’ not so much as a single place than as a singular region. With more than 35 miles of coastline encompassing distinct beaches, parks, piers, marinas and communities from Ormond-by-the-Sea down to Ponce Inlet and its 52-acre Lighthouse Point Park, the coast blends in popular sections of shoreline that accommodate a variety of outdoor pursuits. There are secluded areas where couples and solo travelers can plant an umbrella and dig into a good book, and areas where motorists park on the hard-packed sands for a tailgate party interspersed with surf casting, skimboarding, kiteboarding, body surfing, parasailing, and the perennial favorite: Swimming in the Atlantic Ocean.
West Orange Trail
West of Orlando in the town of Winter Garden a railroad line was reconfigured into an incredibly popular recreational path that’s roughly 14 feet wide by 22.6 miles long. Bicyclists, pedestrians, joggers, roller skaters, and skateboarders can decide to go the distance, or launch a short excursion from one of four trailheads: Killarney Station in Oakland; Apopka Station in Apopka; Chapin Station at Crown Point Cross Road in Winter Garden; or from the Winter Garden Station (Hint: The neighboring historic village is the perfect place to enjoy a post-ride meal at a sidewalk café).
Thirty miles west of Orlando two aerial adventures can lure you out of your room and take you up in the air. Wilotree Park is a combination resort, campground, nature park, and flight center where you can take a tandem hang-gliding flight with a professional pilot. An exhilarating way to soak in a crisp winter breeze, you’ll also soak in views that include Walt Disney World and, further east, downtown Orlando. Ten miles south, Seminole-Lake Gliderport offers a similar experience, albeit one within the cockpit of a sleek sailplane. The unusual sensation of flying minus sound (there’s no engine) is as thrilling as the moment when the pilot lets you take the controls.
Holly Bluff Houseboats
It takes far more than a day to fully appreciate the natural beauty of the St. Johns River, so consider renting a houseboat to enjoy a multi-day experience. Located near DeLand (midway between Orlando and Daytona Beach) Holly Bluff’s fleet of 1- to 4-bedroom houseboats are fully-equipped with a kitchen, living room, television, and sun deck. An ideal adventure for friends and families, they’ll offer basic instructions before you and your crew set off in search of state parks, hidden coves, broad lakes, and waterfront restaurants. During the day you’ll be calmed by the scenery (and perhaps stop for a swim), while in the evening you’ll likely find a quiet place to drop anchor, prepare dinner, and enjoy the sights, sounds, and all-encompassing beauty of natural Florida. In the morning, wake up and do it all over again.
TAMPA and ST. PETERSBURG
Pinellas Bicycle Trail
At nearly 40 miles, this trail touches nearly all of the peninsula, from St. Petersburg all the way north to the Greek fishing village of Tarpon Springs. An extraordinary outdoor outlet for locals and winter visitors, along the trail you’ll roll past county parks and an unfolding series of cities and towns including Clearwater, Largo, Gulfport, and the lovely village of Dunedin.
A string of barrier islands runs from St. Pete Beach north to Honeymoon Island State Park which makes sunset celebrations a nightly ritual. About an hour before sunset, join locals and visitors along the shoreline (Clearwater Beach’s Pier 60 is a hotspot), look west, and let nature do the rest. More often than not, there’s a fiery finish to the day in the skies above the Gulf of Mexico.
Caladesi Island State Park
Accessing this unspoiled, uninhabited 2,450-acre island requires a 20-minute ferry ride across St. Joseph Sound before the captain navigates a waterway created by banks of mangrove trees. It’s a perfect introduction to the island where you’ll find a handful of services such as a small café and concession area which rents kayaks, beach chairs, and umbrellas. Other than that, the rest of the island is undeveloped, undisturbed, unhurried… and all yours.
Having placed nearly 80 artificial reefs off the coast (and with many of them accessible within a hundred yards of the shore), Fort Lauderdale is the only destination in the continental US where you can snorkel and dive on a living coral reef straight off the beach. Collecting around the reefs are large barracuda, parrotfish, goliath grouper, amberjack, and swarms of small fish. Further out, experienced divers have the advantage of exploring the nation’s greatest concentration of warm-water wrecks including the 324-foot Lady Luck that’s the centerpiece of Shipwreck Park – a collection of 16 other nearby wrecks.
Deep Sea Fishing
Long before Miami was known for fashion, it was known for fishin’. Charters including Miami Fishing Charter, Florida Native Charters, Deep Sea Fishing Miami and Shallow Tails sail out in search kingfish, sailfish, wahoo, mahi-mahi, grouper, snook, snapper, and tuna.
Everglades National Park
Granted the park’s Shark Valley Visitor Center is a 40-minute drive west of Miami, the payoff upon entering the nation’s largest subtropical wetland is finding yourself in the heart of natural Florida. Within its 1.5 million acres are alligators, panthers, foxes, and migrating and native birds including the American bald eagle. Tram tours depart from the visitor center -- but if you’re up for a more adventurous experience check out airboat tours (Wooten’s, Tigertail, Osceola, Buffalo Tiger, Sawgrass Recreation Park) or plan to stay overnight on a camping/glamping excursion in a modified chickee hut.
John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park (Key Largo)
There’s only one state park in America that’s underwater… and this is it. A winter’s dive into subtropical waters is refreshing, especially when it brings you face to fin with thousands of brilliantly colored tropical fish that meander among the coral reefs.
Florida Keys Overseas Heritage Trail
After crossing the first bridge that links Florida’s mainland to the Keys, the road rolls 126 miles to the end of the line at Key West. Along the way, an additional 90 miles of recreational trails run roughly parallel to US 1, including a continuous 34-mile stretch between Key Largo at Mile Marker (MM) 106 and Islamorada at MM 72 with other portions created by independent trails and sections of Henry Flagler’s historic East Coast Railway. Along the way the trail ties into ten Florida State Parks with access to ecological resources including Everglades National Park, Biscayne National Park, the Florida Keys Marine Sanctuary, the Great White Heron National Wildlife Refuge, Crocodile Lake National Wildlife Refuge, and Key Deer National Wildlife Refuge.
Want more experiences to warm your soul? Here's how to escape winter.