By Kevin McGeever
Florida vacations are gifts that are best experienced and remembered with the senses.
Think about how song lyrics can trigger the memory of a first date or how the heady whiff of popped corn evokes a darkened movie theater.
Well, you’ve gotta come to Florida to forever appreciate the whiskered face of a manatee, to comprehend the clarity of a freshwater spring, to listen for birds in wilderness or the music of Spanish voices in a city park, to gawk at rockets that traveled millions of miles in space and found their way home.
A Florida vacation is sensory overload in the best way. The in-person connection -- to the subtropical wild, to cultures other than our own, to historic achievement -- embeds memories that are ours to keep and access and share whenever we want.
Here are 10 such Florida experiences, with testimonials from people who have been there.
The Fountains of Youth: Florida’s Freshwater Springs
Like our grandest natural monuments -- the Rocky Mountains, the redwood forests of California -- Florida’s 700-plus natural springs have been here for millennia.
The fresh water percolating from the Floridan Aquifer beneath the state’s limestone foundation -- in some locations, more than 65-million gallons a day -- is glass-clear and a constant 72 degrees. Swim. Paddle. Snorkel. Float. Dive. Repeat.
In the northern half of Florida, baptism in a freshwater spring is never more than an hour away -- oases named Rainbow, Wakulla, Vortex, Silver, Juniper, Ginnie, Troy, Weeki Wachee, and Gilchrist Blue.
“I've spent most of my adult life in Florida, 45 years worth, and have visited much of the state as a photographer,” says Peter W. Cross, who has captured images from Islamorada and Bahia Honda in the Florida Keys to Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary in the Everglades to the Suwannee River in north Florida.
“But it wasn't until recently that I made a day trip to Ichetucknee Springs -- and for the first time in all my Florida travels I had never seen something as peaceful, quiet and beautiful as the springs. It was like seeing one of the seven wonders of the world -- only on a smaller scale.”
The River of Grass: Everglades National Park
“There are no other Everglades in the world,’’ the Florida conservationist Marjory Stoneman Douglas wrote in the The Everglades: River of Grass, published in 1947.
Jeff Klinkenberg, another preeminent chronicler of native Florida, recalled in a VISIT FLORIDA story a 1992 conversation with Stoneman Douglas: “At the age of 102, she spoke in perfect paragraphs about the morning seven decades earlier when she had seen her first and only panther.”
The Everglades is one of the wild wonders of the world. Wild as in alligators and crocodiles, as in waterfowl like the elegant roseate spoonbill and swooping raptors like osprey and the American bald eagle, as in ghost orchids and old-growth cypress.
The National Park Service itemizes the big things to do here:
- Climb atop Shark Valley's 65-foot observation tower for a bird's eye view of the glades.
- Watch a sunset over Flamingo, the southernmost point in mainland Florida.
- Explore the pinelands by bike, paddle among mangroves on Nine-Mile Pond, or tour the Nike Hercules missile base.
Add to this list an airboat ride. The Everglades is 1.5-million acres of wetlands with but a handful of roads. The flat-bottomed skiff with an airplane propeller for power can skim at 40 mph over water just inches-deep.
But nothing explodes the senses like a swamp walk.
Carlton Ward Jr., an eighth-generation Floridian, National Geographic photographer, and conservationist, has spent a good deal of his adult life trekking knee-deep in water to record the natural movements of the Everglades.
“There is a wild heart here that is so absolutely amazing, and that’s as wild as anything that exists on this planet. And it’s here in Florida,” Ward says. “To be connected with this landscape, it’s something that has changed me as a person and a photographer.”
Meet a Manatee, a Florida Celebrity
Crystal River in Citrus County is the unsurpassed manatee capital of the world, the only place in America where you can legally interact with these gentle giants.
The 72-degree waters of Three Sisters Springs in particular are a winter vacation home for these half-ton herbivores who, like millions of Sunshine State visitors, trade the cold every year for comfort.
At places such as nearby Homosassa Springs and Apollo Beach, sea cows can be observed from a distance.
Better still is meeting a manatee in its natural habitat. There are rules of engagement prescribed by Florida Fish and Wildlife, such as don’t approach and don’t touch this threatened species.
But in addition to the pillowy physique and the adorable, smushed kisser, manatees are curious. They may come to you. And that human-animal communion only reinforces the desire to respect and take care of this creature.
Underwater photographer Carol Grant says: “When I observe manatees, I’m moved by how peaceful and at home they are in their watery world. Relax and notice their sweet black button eyes. Congratulations, you have peered into the heart and soul of the Florida manatee and you will likely be better for the experience.”
The World’s Launchpad: Kennedy Space Center
The names represent a historic and singular American brand:
- Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, the space shuttle.
- The right stuff and Alan Shepherd and John Glenn.
- Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and one giant step for mankind.
The Space Age, a continuing era of scientific achievement and discovery, of human derring-do, and sometimes of tragic sacrifice, began more than 60 years ago at Cape Canaveral on Florida’s mid-Atlantic coast. The launches are ongoing today. The visitor opportunities for a transformative experience occur daily at the Kennedy Space Center Visitors Complex.
Here are a couple highlights that are incomprehensible unless you go see them in person:
- The Saturn V, aka the Moon rocket, is 20 yards longer than a football field.
- The shuttle Atlantis, a sleek beast on permanent display at the Visitor Center, flew 33 missions in space totaling 126-million miles. Welcome home, Atlantis.
Janice and Donald Jones, longtime broadcast journalists and now video storytellers, have seen rocket launches and enjoyed the Visitor Center as professional reporters and as the parents of two boys.
“The Kennedy Space Center makes you feel like a kid again because you find yourself looking and learning in wonder,” Janice says. “To see an actual shuttle up close or to watch a rocket launch is an incredible and moving experience.”
“It’s pretty powerful walking into the past of space travel,” Donald says. “I was in awe standing next to the various spacecrafts and discovering so much more about the brave men and women who dared to launch into the unknown.”
The Dry Tortugas and a Fortress of Solitude
Dry Tortugas National Park, 70 miles west of Key West in the Gulf of Mexico, is a destination of natural wonders and American military history, with an overwhelming dose of being alone in the universe.
The seven small islands are specks in an otherwise vast, open sea -- accessible only by boat and seaplane. But getting here is worth the effort.
Writing for VISIT FLORIDA, natural Florida author Jeff Klinkenberg said of the park: “It’s a poem of waving palms, seabirds and turquoise fish. For others, it’s where soldiers who served in a fort named for Thomas Jefferson sweated and bled and died. For introspective sorts, it’s something like Florida’s Walden, a place for sitting and meditating and asking yourself questions. How would you, a 21st-century pilgrim, survive in a place where time is meaningless?”
From the air and the ground, the hexagonal fort is enormous, occupying virtuaIly all of Garden Key. Four sides are 477 feet long. Two are 325 feet. The 45-foot high walls overlook a moat 70 feet wide. A lighthouse reaches 155 feet into the sky. This is the largest brick-masonry structure in the Americas.
Camping is welcome here, but you must bring everything (tents, food, water). And if you dare, you will be rewarded with unforgettable natural experiences.
For snorkelers, life erupts beneath the surface of the Gulf: coral reef heads and shipwrecks, barracuda and nurse shark, and spiny lobster and all manner and color of tropical fish. A day of exploration transitions to a panoramic sunset and a night full of winking stars.
James Branaman, a video storyteller, can attest to the wonders on and around these remote islands. “Imagine wandering the giant fort on your own or snorkeling with 6-foot tarpon. Experienced kayakers can paddle three miles from Garden Key to Loggerhead Key to find empty beaches and seldom-visited snorkeling spots with giant fans and brain coral. If you have only a day, an amazing experience is traveling via seaplane to Dry Tortugas. From above, you’ll spot sea turtles, sharks, and shipwrecks in the shallow turquoise waters.”
Calle Ocho and Little Havana
“From South Beach, Wynwood and Coconut Grove to Little Haiti, Overtown and the Design District, Miami is an ethnic archipelago, with each island-like neighborhood possessing its own personality and pleasures.”
Little Havana is also a vibe. Immerse yourself in the energy. Drink cafecito, the sweet-strong coffee that fuels the city. Watch a cigar roller in one of the shops along Calle Ocho.
“When you come to Miami, if don’t have a guava pastelito, a cigar, and a mojito in Little Havana, then you haven’t visited Miami,” says Julio Cabrera, the classically-trained cantinero, or bartender, who co-founded Café La Trova, a retro Cuban hot spot in the heart of the neighborhood.
The National Trust for Historic Preservation calls Little Havana a national treasure for its historical, political, culinary and artistic contributions. Rafael Lima, a writer and journalist, knows this well. He tells visitors to “visit one of the fruit vendors that make mango shakes. Eat more than you should at Versailles. Stand in front of the Bay of Pigs monument to remember American and Cuban history. And go to Domino Park. But don't look at it as a curiosity, look at the old men and realize what made this country great is the immigrants who settled and created this nation.”
Destin, the Luckiest Fishing Village
Long before Destin became an international vacation destination, it was the “world’s luckiest fishing village.”
This is no humble brag, just geological good fortune. Destin comes closest to the 100-fathom curve of the Gulf of Mexico -- just 10 miles offshore to the brink of the Continental Shelf -- and thus offers the fastest access to deep-sea fishing in Florida. Blackfin tuna, grouper, amberjack, king mackerel, and the occasional wahoo and sailfish.
Since the early 1800s, Destin has had one of the largest recreational fishing fleets in the world. Charter boats are plentiful. The odds are good that you can take your fresh catch straight from the dock to the chef’s table.
“The Destin Boardwalk, where the fleet docks, is a family fun center,” says Brandon Shuler, a St. Petersburg-based professor, environmentalist, and father of three. “Walking along the docks, there are options for every type of angler: from headboats that charter for 4 hours catching nearshore species like trout, redfish, and Spanish mackerel to more adventurous 4- to 6-person tuna charters. Florida is the Fishing Capital of the World. Destin is its nerve center.”
It’s also worth remembering that Destin is the crown jewel of the Emerald Coast in Florida’s Panhandle. These Gulf-coast beaches rank among the best in the world. Beyond the good fishing, there are plenty of things to do on, in, and off the water.
Snorkeling Florida’s Reefs
The Florida Reef Tract is the only living coral reef in North America.
Yes, only. Which means if you have any interest in spending time in clear, warm waters with a colorful cast of thousands of fish, sea turtles, crustaceans, jellyfish, mollusks, corals, and sponges, then your opportunity awaits in a 350-mile stretch from the Dry Tortugas in the Gulf of Mexico to the St. Lucie Inlet on Florida’s central Atlantic coast.
The Reef falls within the greater Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. Inside its 3,800 square nautical miles, the Sanctuary protects “extensive seagrass beds, mangrove islands, more than 6,000 species of marine life, as well as pieces of our nation's history” such as 500 shipwrecks and other archeological treasures.
The sanctuary designation means that any activity altering the sea floor -- mining and oil drilling, as well as the anchoring, touching, and collecting of coral -- is prohibited. But the reef remains in jeopardy due to nitrogen from poorly treated sewage and rising water temperatures.
Key Largo in the upper Florida Keys is the self-proclaimed Dive Capital of the World. John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, the nation’s first undersea park, is a bucket-list destination for snorkelers.
Beyond the Keys, divers can explore more than 3,500 artificial reefs in Florida waters. The USS Oriskany, a retired aircraft carrier, was intentionally sunk in 2006 just 22 miles south of Pensacola. It is the largest artificial reef in the world.
Terry Gibson, a conservationist and native Floridian, has fished, surfed, and snorkeled Florida waters for most of his life. “Southeast and east-central Florida are two of the very few regions in the world where you can see (and photograph) Annelid worms in action,” he says. “Check out why scientists call these reefs ‘cities in the surf.’ The tiny organisms capture suspended grains of sand and excrete mucus as a type of ‘cement’ as they build their large fortresses one grain at a time.”
In Flat Florida, There Are Canyons
The website declares: “We strive to break all the rules about what people expect to find in Florida.”
Calling your attraction Canyons in a sea-level state is a seemingly preposterous first step, but the name fits.
At this Ocala theme park imagined from an abandoned limestone quarry, you can soar:
- between 15-story cliffs above a shimmering blue-green lake;
- on a zip line that stretches more than three football fields;
- at speeds up to 45 mph;
- with the occasional swooping hawk and kingfisher to keep you company;
- and the only sound is the whistling wind (besides your shrieking).
There are nine zip lines to choose from -- with such names as Sky High, Treetops, and Big Cliff Canyon -- plus two rope bridges, horseback trails, and wine and chocolate tasting.
Emily Nipps, a longtime Tampa Bay area resident and former Florida journalist, considers herself neither outdoorsy nor athletic, so she was hesitant about the Canyons Zip Line and Adventure Tours.
"The idea of hurling myself into the air, 150 feet above rocky terrain and lakes, isn't my typical idea of fun, though once you're surrounded by the peaceful, natural setting your worries sort of melt away," Nipps says. "I'll admit, I was trembling and on the verge of hyperventilating before that first leap. But once you step off the platform, there's no turning back, and there's a special sort of relief to that. Flying at 40 miles per hour, the woosh of the wind in your face, dangling high above a beautiful blur of greens and blues ... It's an exhilarating experience that everyone should try once."
Shhhhhh, You’re in the Ten Thousand Islands
If solitude is what you seek, then the Ten Thousand Islands region of Southwest Florida is your cathedral.
First, though, a disclosure: The name is a misnomer. There actually are a couple hundred keys, stretching from Collier-Seminole State Park past Everglades City and Chokoloskee, tapering off down near Flamingo.
Still, there are more than enough reasons to boat or paddle into this wild paradise.
The national wildlife refuge protects 35,000 acres of important mangrove habitats and a rich diversity of native wildlife, including several endangered species, according to the National park Service website. “Notable threatened and endangered species include the Florida manatee, peregrine falcon, wood stork, as well as the green, Atlantic loggerhead, and Kemp's Ridley sea turtles.”
Terry Tomalin, the leading Florida outdoors editor for 25 years, wrote for VISIT FLORIDA: “Some of the islands are no bigger than a basketball court. The major ones have names, such as Panther Key and Mormon Key, given to them by the area’s early settlers, rugged folk who made their living fishing and hunting the watery wilderness that has barely changed in more than 100 years.
“Just drop anchor off a sandy beach and watch that popping cork for the telltale signs of a feeding snook. The only sounds you'll hear will be the wind, the waves and the occasional cry of an osprey looking for its breakfast.”
Darron Silva, a Naples-based photographer and father of two, says he visits the region “every chance I get. And every time, I’m amazed at how quickly you leave civilization behind. Fifteen minutes after you leave the dock, the towering condos of Marco Island dissolve into a completely untouched wilderness full of wildlife. You see dolphins and osprey as you glide through the water on your way to a small island. For the best experience, hire a local charter captain to give you a private tour.”