Florida has a lot more than sand and surf! I asked writer Cheryl Rodewig, a resident of the sunshine state, to put together a list of great things to do where you’re free to forget your towel. ~ Susan
Story and Photos by Cheryl Rodewig
I’m not a beach person, so why did I move to Florida? It’s a question no one’s ever asked, but I’ll answer anyway. It’s gorgeous. The state has a wealth of natural beauty even better than its beaches. There are crystal-clear springs, picturesque farms, hundreds of species of wildlife, forests of mangroves, and more. Beyond sand and surf, these are the eight outdoor adventures in Florida you shouldn’t miss.
1. Kayaking in Cocoa Beach
A dense network of mangroves covers much of Florida’s coastline, a natural playground for kayakers. Maybe your first mangroves experience is always your favorite. For me, my fondest memories are at Cocoa Beach.
Try an evening paddle on the Banana River. It’s not actually a river but a brackish lagoon that serves as essential habitat for manatees, terrapin turtles, pelicans, and more. And it’s lined with mangrove tunnels. Sometimes the roots are so thick, you have to pull yourself through with your hands as tree crabs skitter by, half-camouflaged. Go with a tour and your guide will explain the secrets of this unusual ecosystem. And for the grand finale, a gentle pink sunset over the lagoon.
Tip: Be sure to eat heartily before you go. We had plenty of water but worked up an appetite.
2. Biking on Sanibel Island
Sanibel Island is famous for beachcombing, something about the curve of the coastline washing up more shells than anywhere else in Florida. But away from the shore, you’ll find 25 miles of bike trails on this scenic island, over two-thirds of which is protected land.
Biking seems to be the preferred mode of transit for outdoor adventures. There are plenty of places to rent a set of wheels. Bike racks are everywhere. Cars look out for bikers. No one seems in a rush.
The flat, wide trails made cycling easy, and I passed several bikers on my way to the shell museum, historic village, and the general store where I bought a delicious, budget-friendly lunch. Along the way, I pedaled past the massive J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge, worth a day on its own, especially if you enjoy birding.
Tip: Stay in Fort Myers. It’s typically cheaper than Sanibel and has more amenities (grocery stores, etc.). We stayed at the new Luminary Hotel downtown for the riverfront views and stellar on-site restaurants.
3. Seeing Dolphins in the Ten Thousand Islands
Despite years of visiting Florida, I’d never heard of the Ten Thousand Islands till relocating here. Now it’s one of my favorite places in the state.
The cluster of well over 10,000 islands and islets near Naples is home to several bottlenose dolphins, meaning a dolphin tour here is a must. Our guide with Dreamlander Tours knew right where the dolphins were.
On the way back from visiting a secluded island, the magic happened. In the wake of our boat, a pod of dolphins leapt by twos and threes, one jumping straight up and touching its tail.
4. Walking the Ramparts of an Island Fort
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When I start pining for European castles but can’t hop on a transatlantic flight, I head for a 19th-century Florida fort. They don’t have the same gilded domes and fairy-tale turrets, but the stately grandeur is there with the added backdrop of beautiful turquoise water.
Fort Zachary Taylor
Dating back to 1845, Fort Zachary Taylor is part of a state park in Key West. Climbing to the top of this national historic monument gives you an incredible view of the Gulf of Mexico. Walking the complex takes less than an hour, a nice diversion from the bustle of Key West. Afterward, grab a Cuban from the on-site Cayo Hueso Café and relax at a shady picnic table.
Tip: Dry Tortugas National Park, featuring a much larger fort, is just 70 miles off Key West’s shore. It takes a whole day, and you’ll want to book the ferry well in advance, but this unfinished island fortress is king of them all.
Fort De Soto
Fort De Soto on Mullet Key near St. Petersburg makes for a great day-trip if you’re staying in Tampa Bay. You can climb to the top for the views, but the cavernous rooms are just as fun to explore. From one part of the fort, you can even glimpse Egmont Key State Park across the channel, where Fort Dade lies in ruins.
You can climb only one of its buildings, but Fort Dade has a certain romance to it. The stairs to the top of the largest building remind me of an Aztec temple, and the walls are light blue, mirroring the sky.
Since Fort Dade is accessible only by ferry from Fort De Soto Park, it makes sense to combine both forts into one day. Bring lots of water with you. Egmont Key, an oasis for shorebirds and sea turtles, is undeveloped.
5. Zip-Lining Over a Canyon
A canyon, you say? In Florida? I had a similar reaction.
Turns out, Central Florida is a very cool place to visit for lake-filled canyons and thrills. The Canyons Zip Line and Adventure Park features the state’s longest, highest and fastest zip-lines, built in a former limestone quarry.
The deluxe tour includes nine zip lines, two rope bridges, and one rappel. If you’re not familiar with zip-lining, don’t worry. The guides give you a starter zip on the ground, and they clip you in so you don’t have to mess with the mechanics.
I learned you can control your speed based on how far you lean back in your harness. Going fast is cool, but it’s worth slowing down as you fly through the air to enjoy the scenery (see the feature pic).
6. Riding a Camel on Safari
On a 47-acre farm in Pasco County, north of Tampa, antelope, deer, zebras, and more roam, grazing on the open grasslands. It hardly feels like Florida. The safaris at Giraffe Ranch offer a few ways to see the preserve. You can walk beside a llama, ride in a vehicle (yours or theirs), take a Segway… or go by camel. Domesticated for thousands of years, camels are often called the ships of the desert, easily carrying hundreds of pounds for several hours.
I’ve been horseback-riding a few times, but riding a camel is a different experience, swaying side to side. Overall, I found the ride more comfortable. Your vantage point from atop the hump is also a great place to survey the ephemeral wetland and its many inhabitants, from ostriches to Brazilian tapirs.
Tip: If you’re closer to Lakeland, try their sister site, Safari Wilderness Ranch, which offers similar experiences and is even larger: 260 acres.
7. Driving a Two-Seater Catamaran
Want to drive your own boat? You just need your driver’s license (plus a free safe boating certificate if you were born after January 1988). And the boat, of course.
This is another outdoor adventure you can enjoy in the Ten Thousand Islands. There’s nothing like zipping through the water on your own private catamaran for two.
We signed up for a ride with Marco Island Eco Tours, which provided the watercraft, a cooler with bottled water and the guide who kept us from getting lost among the mangrove islets. The two-seater CraigCat tops out at 25 mph, fast but not jet-ski-level intensity. It’s not all about the speed, though. This is a true eco tour. We slowed down to admire the wildlife, including dolphins and birds.
You stop at an island beach for shelling and lounging, which is a great opportunity to switch drivers so both of you get a chance behind the wheel if you’re traveling as a couple.
Reminder: Put sunscreen on your feet, assuming you’re wearing sandals. We didn’t, and you can guess what happened.
8. Manatee-Spotting in the Springs
Here’s a fun Florida fact: The entire state rests on a vast aquifer, bubbling to the surface in some 700 freshwater springs. They’re great for tubing, canoeing, swimming, snorkeling and scuba diving.
But best of all is manatee-watching, especially in Citrus County, “the Manatee Capital of the World.” Hundreds of manatees flock here in winter for the 72-degree springs. They’re basically marine snowbirds.
Three Sisters Springs is prime for viewing manatees. The refuge covers 57 acres of wetlands, but the highlight is the long looping boardwalk around the blue-green spring. The water is crystal-clear so you can easily see these gentle giants. Admission includes a trolley ride that shuttles you to and from the parking lot, doling out manatee trivia along the way.
Peak season is technically November to April, but I recommend sticking closer to January to March due to the vagaries of Florida weather. The colder it is, the better for seeing manatees. Make sure you have a light jacket or sweater, too. Remember — this isn’t the beach!
Cheryl Rodewig has been writing about travel for more than a decade, especially in the Southeast where she’s road-tripped across the region. When she’s not planning her next getaway, she’s helping brands tell their stories with marketing and content strategy. You can read her work in USA Today, The Guardian, Hertz, Fodor’s, and all over cherylrodewig.com.
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