by Jim Byers
Miami you’ve likely heard about. The Tampa Bay Area is probably not unfamiliar. And almost everyone knows Orlando.
But there’s so much more to Florida than its big cities. Take a short drive from the more popular sites and you’ll find amazingly clear natural springs, unspoiled beaches, great food, and fun, casual towns. There’s even an island not far from Tampa populated entirely by monkeys.
Here’s a look at one Florida lover’s favourite lesser-known destinations in the Sunshine State.
NEW SMYRNA BEACH
Just a short drive from Orlando, this wonderful town is extremely informal but charming. The main street features lovely home décor shops, casual restaurants and several places to buy a t-shirt or a pair of nice flip-flops. The Breakers, a fun restaurant right on the sand, has great ocean views. The New Smyrna Beach Museum of History is a great spot to learn about the colourful history of the region, including early tourism efforts and the area’s fame as a surfing spot. Around the corner is The Hub on Canal, a multi-purpose space that displays locally-made art of all kinds and also acts as a bit of a community centre. Riverpark Terrace is a terrific restaurant that offers both indoor seating and a fine dining area set amid a verdant garden. The folks at Salty Rentals will let you take out a bike and explore the area. The sand here is quite firm, so you can even ride your bike along the beach. Locals gather every morning on the boardwalk to watch the sun come up – how nice is that?
Perfect for: Artsy types who also enjoy a good beach.
CRYSTAL RIVER AND HOMOSASSA SPRINGS
This marvelous area a couple of hours north of Tampa doesn’t get a lot of attention in tourism guides. There’s a small beach outside Crystal River, but the area is better known for its numerous crystal-clear freshwater springs and for its resident manatee population. The Plantation on Crystal River can take you out for a snorkel trip with giant, gentle manatees – an experience you’ll never forget. They also have a nice pool with a tiki bar and a fine golf course. Katch 22 is a wonderful restaurant a few minutes outside of town with a very modern feel. The folks at Hunter Springs Kayaks can take you on a guided tour along the achingly pretty Chassahowitzka River, while Wild Bill’s Air Boat Tours offers a slightly more adrenaline-pumping experience. Homosassa Springs has a wildlife centre that features everything from bald eagles to black bears, Florida panthers and cotton candy-pink flamingoes. As if that’s not enough, the aptly-named Monkey Island on the Homosassa River is populated entirely by monkeys.
Perfect for: Nature lovers and folks who want a bit of an adrenaline rush on their vacation.
This is a bit of a hidden beach town just south of Sarasota, on the Gulf Coast. It was very much a spot for A-listers back in the day, with celebrities such as Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, Babe Ruth and others making regular appearances. Buildings are kept low-rise here by law, so you won’t find huge towers blocking your view of the water. The beach is well-known by folks who gather here to pick up shark’s teeth, and there’s a nice pier for watching sunsets. Sharky’s is a fun, casual spot right next to the pier, with huge, American-style portions that make it a great value. If you want something a little more sedate or stylish, try the Crow’s Nest, which overlooks a pretty marina on the north edge of town. The main street boasts many pretty shops, including a branch of Kilwins Chocolate, which is great for sweets or a scoop of cold ice cream on a hot day. The Inn at the Beach is right across the road from a nice, sandy beach with great sunsets.
Perfect for: Beach combers and folks looking for a relaxed Florida holiday.
Perhaps because it’s surrounded by more famous cousins such as Fort Lauderdale and Palm Beach, I find Delray doesn’t get a lot of attention. But it’s a fabulous Florida destination, with a compact, walkable downtown that Canadians love and a fine beach. There are several nice art galleries in and around what’s called the Pineapple Grove Arts District, including Arts Garage. The Delray Center for the Arts at Old School Square is a lovely old school that dates back roughly 100 years and puts on great displays. For a bit of history, visit Morikami Gardens. A beautiful Japanese garden just outside of town, it tells the story of the rough go that Japanese immigrants had when they arrived many years ago. Deck 84 is a nice restaurant with tables facing the Intracoastal Waterway and a fine patio. The Seagate Hotel is a stylish spot down by the water, while the Hyatt Place is a bit further inland but has nice design features and a pool. Doc’s All American is a great spot for burgers and shakes. Delray also is home to the glorious Silverball Museum, where you’ll find fabulous old pinball and video games you can play for a very reasonable price. They offer food and old-time soda pop.
Perfect for: Folks looking for an Atlantic coast alternative to Miami and Fort Lauderdale.
This is one of the coolest towns I’ve found yet in Florida, a way-off-the-beaten-track city that’s east of Panama City Beach on the Florida Panhandle. It’s not quite the city that time forgot, but it’s close. You’ll find some cool shops and a very good craft brewery called Oyster City and shops selling old buoys, pirate statues and other bric-a-brac. Gibson Inn is a fine old hotel with a massive porch that just begs for a cold, frosty glass of lemonade or an Oyster City brew. There’s surprisingly cool shopping, too, with a few stores that wouldn’t look out of place in South Beach. You can find great kayaking and solitude galore at nearby St. Vincent Island National Wildlife Reserve, just west of town. A few minutes east is St. George Island, with a great lighthouse and family-style seafood joints.
Perfect for: Families, or anyone looking for a slice of old-time Florida.