By Lauren Tjaden
Within an hour of the City Beautiful, you’ll find not only some of the world’s most luscious beaches, but some must-do activities:
The tiny town of Groveland, located west of Orlando, may not be renowned for its nightlife, fine dining, or high-end shopping. However, it does boast some of the finest hang gliding on the planet, at Quest Air Hang Gliding. A long time favorite training ground for elite members of the sport, it also offers tandem hang gliding – which means you can experience Florida’s soft thermals for yourself.
You’ll be paired with an experienced instructor, and the flight can be as gentle as you like. This is me taking a young girl for a flight. Note the big wheels, which make landing and takeoff a non-event.
Reservations are recommended.
Lay an Egg
A Turtle Walk is simple, perfect and unforgettable. Orlando is less than an hour from Brevard County, the largest sea turtle nesting area in the Western Hemisphere. Thanks to the Sea Turtle Preservation Society, during June and July of each year you can watch the magic unfold.
You’ll soak up an educational presentation about sea turtles while volunteer teams scout the location of nesting Loggerheads. Then, under the cover of darkness, you’ll tiptoe out to the shore to observe a mother Loggerhead sea turtle laying her eggs. Call 321-676-1701 during May to make reservations.
Let off Some Steam
When I went ballooning with Thompson Aire Ballooning in Orlando, I didn’t understand that it’s more than a ride, more than an adventure. It’s a ritual. We started by releasing a small test balloon to see which way the wind was blowing aloft, and then drove to the early morning field, glistening with dew.
The balloons took life as the sun edged over the horizon.
And then there was the flight.
When we rose in the air the heat of the fire warmed my head, and its roar drowned out conversation. There was no sensation of movement whatsoever, no sensation of flight, just the earth moving away from us, fading into a patchwork of pastures, groves and lakes.
The morning fog swirled in tiny circles on the lakes below us, drifting wisps of enchantment over our reflection. Cows loped across a field, eager for their morning feed. Once we dipped close to the swamp, and I plucked a needle from the top of a pine tree.
Afterward we drank champagne and told bad jokes, a precursor to an indulgent breakfast. Yes, you should go.
Be an Airhead
Camp Holly in Melbourne is as old-Florida as it gets.
The sign means what it says. They don't care what you wear.
The décor is a hodge-podge of low ceilings, gator-foot mugs, and signs that warn about children being snatched up by reptiles.
It also happens to offer the best airboat ride I’ve ever experienced.
A real gator hunter took us out. His family lives on gator meat. Seriously.
The ride was a breathless affair, flying close to the edges of the swamp. But we had time to soak up the natural beauty, too.
See the Light
You can see Florida's tallest Lighthouse in Ponce Inlet—and climb it too.
The Ponce de Leon Inlet Light Station boasts being one of the best preserved, most complete lighthouses in the nation. My rear-end and legs were whimpering after climbing to the top of the 175 foot tower.
But it was worth every one of the 203 steps.
The Lighthouse is strangely beautiful inside, with a spiral staircase that seems to go on forever. It twists smaller and tighter the higher you climb, and when you look down, it curls in an endless ribbon.
Your voice echoes off the thick walls when you talk, and it feels mysterious and very old.
When you finally reach the top and open the door, it literally takes your breath away. You can feel the wind and the gasp of fresh air. The world spreads below in a vast panorama; you can see the caps on the ocean waves, boats cruising the inlet, and even the high rises of Daytona Beach towering to the north.
And when you’re done, you can go kick back on the beach.
Photos by Lauren Tjaden for VISIT FLORIDA