An adventurer’s guide to Florida
Native Americans called the Everglades the pa-hay-okee, or “grassy waters.” The legendary River of Grass is now protected as Everglades National Park, which is both a World Heritage Site and International Biosphere Reserve. And that means that the glades are something special, a piece of the primitive past preserved in delicate, rare beauty for future generations. The green and amber waves of saw grass are alive with long-legged birds, alligators, and a host of other animals, and opportunities for unique adventures abound. From the Gulf Coast Visitor Center, take a boat to see dolphins, birds, and other wildlife. Or rent a canoe or kayak and get out on your own, or on a guided tour. A swamp walk is another way to experience the best of the Everglades; be prepared for an exotic commune with nature. At sunset watch for the flight of thousands of flamingoes and other water birds. This park is a unique American icon that you don’t want to miss.
Ten Thousand Islands
A maze-like archipelago of green mangrove islets, the Ten Thousand Islands are a destination awaiting exploration. Marco Island is the jumping off point for excursions into the Ten Thousand Islands and lesser-traveled parts of the Everglades. A haven for dolphins, manatees, roseate spoonbill, herons, osprey, terns, and cormorants, the islands are populated almost solely by wildlife. Start with a boat ride to the sanctuary of Cape Romano Shoals, a stunning white ribbon of sand. Take a kayak or canoe on an eco-tour up the darkly mysterious Turner River, past Calusa shell mounds and a photo album worth of wildlife. The really adventurous can take on the Wilderness Waterway, a winding 99-mile water trail from Everglades City to Flamingo, at the southern end of Everglades National Park. The journey is five to ten days by canoe, six to eight hours by motorboat.
Strong arms and a spirit of adventure are all you need to see the best of southwest Florida. The Great Calusa Blueway is a 190-mile paddlers’ dream encompassing backwaters of the Gulf of Mexico. The trail meanders from narrow mangrove tunnels out to open-water bays that teem with herons, osprey, dolphins, and manatee. As you glide quietly along, the ripple of your craft barely disturbing the water, you can explore inland tributaries and barrier islands. Rent a kayak at Fort DeSoto Park in St. Petersburg and enjoy an easy 2.3-mile paddling trail. Or venture out into the bay and Gulf to visit Shell Key Preserve or Egmont Key National Wildlife Refuge. Serious paddles can do the full ten miles around Mullet Key. Just north of Fort Myers, Charlotte Harbor Preserve State Park is best explored by kayak or canoe. With 43,000 acres, it’s Florida’s third largest state park; the 100 miles of shoreline are an invitation to paddlers.
Sanibel and Captiva
Go aquatic on Sanibel and Captiva Islands. These slender curves of sand and lagoon seem made for watery fun. Hunt for sea shells and ocean gems along the shore – the area is known as the Seashell Capital of the World. Take a dolphin-watching or sunset cruise out into the dazzling, calm waters of the Gulf of Mexico. Book reservations for a snorkeling, diving, or fishing expedition. Or catch a boat out to tiny Cabbage Key in Pine Island Sound for a journey back to the early days of Florida tourism. The inn and restaurant date from the 1930s; the easygoing attitude is timeless. After lunch, stroll the nature trail on this car-less piece of heaven. If you’ve ever had a hankering for hoisting a mainsail, you can learn to learn to read the wind at sailing school on Captiva, or brush up on current skills by chartering a boat. Freedom is a full sail, a steady tiller, and a secluded cove for lunch.
Cape Romano Dome House
Visit the Cape Romano Dome House, the futuristic dream home of a retired oil producer, whose eccentric vision resulted in a half dozen raised concrete igloos on the southern tip of Marco Island. The builder’s eco-friendly design was a hurricane-proof, rainwater-collecting structure that would be self-sustaining and long-lasting. But beach erosion had the last word, and the domes became uninhabitable; they now stand nearly 200 feet off shore. The 1981 pleasure domes have been abandoned to the waves and the birds. Photographers and boaters now enjoy the domes’ vacant-house aesthetic. The piers supporting the domes have become a reef, harboring a community of underwater life.
Horseback Riding in Tampa Bay
That’s right, you can take a horse right out into the bay for unusual views of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge. If you love both horses and water, this magical experience is for you. A one-hour excursion with Cypress Breeze Farm in St. Petersburg takes you along North Skyway Park beach, into Tampa Bay, and onto a sandbar. The horses actually swim in the water, so get ready for some wet fun. The excursions have become so popular that now three outfitters are offering aquatic equine adventures. The horses are generally big sturdy draft horses, such as Belgians, Clydesdales, Percherons, and Shires; these good-natured steeds float well and don’t sink in the mud. Participants report an oddly satisfying mix of saltwater, seabirds, schools of fish, and horse snorts. Tours on Horseback offers beach riding for those who prefer staying dry while enjoying views of the sea.
What’s it like to own an island? Get away from it all on Cayo Costa, a wild and gorgeous seven-mile-long strand of serenity near Fort Myers protected from development. Accessible only by boat, this barrier island has an interior of palmetto palm and pine forest and a shell-littered beach where you can watch pelicans dive and dolphins leap. In the summer, loggerhead turtles lay eggs here. A public ferry takes you out to the island; spend the entire day if you wish. There are five miles of inland trails, or you can simply wander the beach and find the perfect picnicking and swimming spot.
Parks and More Parks
Unique adventures in parks extend well beyond the Everglades. On a ranger-led swamp walk in Big Cypress National Preserve, you’ll get your feet wet and gain a feel for the life of the real Florida outback. Or, for something different, try a hike through lush greenery and standing water to a natural sinkhole. A guided swamp canoe trip is another exciting way to delve into Big Cypress country. At the J.N. Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge, there are 6,400 acres of seagrass beds, cordgrass marshes, mangrove forests, and West Indian hardwood hammocks for exploring. Wildlife, of course, takes precedence here. Your visit might include a guided kayak, canoe, or stand-up paddleboard tour of Commodore Creek and Tarpon Bay. And there’s plenty of hiking, with sightings of water birds and shorebirds guaranteed. At Myakka River State Park near Sarasota, rent a kayak or canoe and you have 14 river miles and two lakes to choose from.
Each coastal strand has its own vibe, and comes with warm breezes and lots of shorebirds. Near Tampa, Caladesi Island and Fort DeSoto (an artifact of the Spanish-American War) are natural beauties largely untouched by development. St. Pete and Clearwater Beaches are favored by those who love fine restaurants and resorts such as the 1920s pink palace, the Don CeSar. Madeira Beach is the historic capital of grouper fishing; local restaurants serve it up in a number of tasty preparations. Drive south over Tampa Bay on the spectacular golden-ribbed Sunshine Skyway to more beaches, each beautiful in its own way. Siesta Key, for example, is renowned for its brilliant quartz sand and turquoise waters. This eight-mile strand has twice been named America’s best beach. It’s just right for a romantic getaway, family vacation, or sporty retreat.
Boating and Fishing
A boat, a fishing rig, a cooler, and some shades—make the backdrop just about anywhere in coastal Florida and you have the makings of a one-of-a-kind day. With 1,350 miles of saltwater coastline, anglers haul in buckets of fish in rich estuaries, off gorgeous beaches, and in the deep oceans off the Florida peninsula. More than 7,000 freshwater lakes and 10,000 miles of river add exciting freshwater possibilities to the roster of fishing adventures. In southwest Florida, go for game fish such as tarpon near Boca Grande, a charming old village at the end of skinny Gasparilla Island north of Fort Myers. Seek grouper off the Pinellas County coast, or cast for snook on a fly rod closer to shore. Those who simply want to navigate to a secluded island or beauty spot can rent a motorboat or sailboat and cast off to adventure.
Art, Culture, and History
Wealthy art lovers know paradise when they find it. That’s why circus impresario John Ringling and his wife built a home in Sarasota and a museum to house their world-class collection of European art. Works by the likes of Peter Paul Rubens, Marcel Duchamps, are Diego Velazquez are displayed in the Ringling Museum of Art. The couple’s home, Ca’ d’Zan, is a 56-room Venetian Gothic palace open for touring. The on-site Circus Museum is a nod to Florida’s historic place in the story of the traveling show. American inventor Thomas Edison and automaker Henry Ford also appreciated the Florida climate and culture. The good friends built side-by-side houses in Fort Myers. Ramble through the grounds and estate buildings and picture the two titans of industry sitting on their porches discussing projects and planning trips to the Everglades. The Edison-Ford Estates rank among the ten most visited historic home sites in America.
Unique wildlife experiences are what make many Florida vacations stand out. Whether it’s watching a pod of dolphins leaping in your bow wave, snapping a photo of a heron at the moment of catching a fish, hearing the primordial bellow of an alligator on a grassy bank, or simply seeing a manatee floating gently along, Florida wildlife puts on a show you’ll always cherish. Dolphin Explorer runs family-friendly eco-tours and dolphin sunset cruises from Marco Island. The voyage wends through inlets and waterways and ends with a shelling expedition on remote Keewaydin Island. Participants can help locate, count, and identify individual bottlenose dolphins as part of an ongoing study. Or sit back and enjoy: The sight of wild dolphins following the boat puts a smile on everybody’s face.