Face it. Most tourists come to Florida for the wild adventure of lying on a beach and breaking from their comfort zones with a daring mango margarita. That’s a shame, because there’s way, way more adventure to be found in Florida than most realize. Some of it happens beachside, sure, but a lot more is tucked away in the creases and wrinkles that give the state its true character. There are at least 13 you should have on your list…celebratory mango margarita optional.
1. Swimming with manatees
Here’s one thing that happened to me when I did the manatee snorkel in Crystal Springs. After being nuzzled and mesmerized by the curious, blimpy creatures, one baby approached me. As schooled, I scratched its head using only one hand. It went vertical in front of my mask as I continued to scratch its neck. Then it took my hand between its two fins and folded it to its chest. It hugged me!
In my estimation, no wildlife experience in the world compares to interacting underwater with manatees. Crystal Springs National Wildlife Refuge is known around the world for its huge population of the creatures, which can grow to be 3,500 pounds and look something like stuffed gunny sacks. At first their size intimidates, until you get used to their gentle nature and the way they nudge your mask and nibble at your wetsuit.
Bird’s Underwater Dive Center can set you up with equipment and all the pointers you need to interact with the protected creatures. It’s super important to practice your Manatee Manners at all times, and you won’t be going anywhere until you know them all. This is the only place in North America where you can legally swim with manatees, so treat the activity like the privilege it is.
2. Kayaking in bioluminescent waters
In summer, the waters of Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge near Kennedy Space Center visually explode with the magic of microscopic bioluminescent organisms called dinoflagellates. That is, if you paddle among them, breaking the water’s surface to trigger the phenomenon.
After-dark trips into the mangroves with A Day Away Kayak Tours will get you stirring up the bioluminescence effect. It’s trippy and at times disorienting when the waters start looking like shooting stars in the night sky. Each stroke flips a switch. Flitting fish and skimming dolphins spark underwater fireworks as you paddle above and alongside them, the eerie beat of the drum fish sounding from below.
3. Following the climbable lighthouse trail
Florida, with its highest land at 345 feet above sea level, affords scarce opportunity to climb. Its trail of open-to-the-public lighthouses, however, offers you just that. Not only will you get a good cardio workout, but it’ll take you to some of the best coastal views around. The 219-step climb up the spiral-striped St. Augustine Lighthouse, for instance, ends with views of Anastasia Island. Its monthly Sunset Moonrise Tour is the ultimate experience (and the haunted tours are pretty great, too).
Ponce de Leon Inlet near Daytona Beach, Jupiter Inlet near Palm Beach, Cape Florida in Miami, Key West, Port Boca Grande, Anclote Key near Tarpon Springs — as you loop the state, you’ll find that each lighthouse has its own character and stories. However you decide to go about it, try to end at Pensacola Lighthouse and its 177-step tower for an overlook of the Gulf of Mexico. If you can, time your visit during a practice session of the Blue Angels flying team.
Note: Check the lighthouses’ websites before you visit. Some, like Boca Grande and Anclote Key, are open for climbs only on specific dates.
4. Snorkeling for scallops
Don’t be fooled by those beautiful blue eyes. When you reach down towards one, the scallop will snap shut, and you don’t want your fingers anywhere near. It happens to everyone at least once…or so I tell myself. And it startles more than hurts.
Scalloping around Florida’s “Big Bend” (the region that connects Northwest Florida to the rest of the state) reaps enough rewards to offset the clampdown. Steinhatchee and Port St. Joe are the main areas for recreational summer scallop harvesting by snorkel and fin, and any number of charters will take you to scalloping grounds by boat with gear provided. I recommend Capt. Jim in quiet, lovely Steinhatchee.
5. Joining a sea turtle patrol
I will never forget the deliberate, labored movements of the mother loggerhead turtle as she dug a hollow in the sand using her front flippers. My own memories came back in a flood as I and my then-teenage son watched, by the light of the moon, soft eggs the size of ping pong balls drop into the nest. By the time she finished, covered the nest, and trundled back down the beach, we had spent a couple hours witnessing a ritual and miracle as old as the sea.
We booked our sea turtle patrol with the Sea Turtle Preservation Society based near Melbourne. The tours run several nights a week and include a classroom briefing. Reserve as far in advance as possible for the May through July walks, as you won’t be the only one wanting to witness the magic.
6. Slogging through a real Florida swamp
Waist-deep in Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park, you can stalk wild orchids. Your guide will point out a number of varieties, but hopefully you’ll be luckier than I was — no famous ghost orchid blooms for me. The striped yellow rat snake coiled on a stump, brilliantly hued bromeliads, and riotous greenery made the hunt worth it, though.
A number of parks and organizations lead tours through swamps and sloughs during the summer, when rains fill water stores. Most famously, nature-art photographer Clyde Butcher and staff lead swamp walks year-round, departing from his gallery in Big Cypress National Preserve.
7. Piloting a houseboat on the Suwannee River
The last time I houseboated the Suwannee, prehistoric gulf sturgeon leapt in the waters around us. Osprey shrieks seemed to herald our passing. It was cumbersome steering our boat along the waters, but the pure wilderness, crystal springs, and old Florida river towns on the legendary Suwannee were enough of a distraction to make it worth the elbow grease.
We sang “Old Folks at Home” at the top of our lungs — it felt like we were living a Stephen Foster song on this houseboat venture. Two- to seven-day (or more) voyages depart from Gateway Marina in the coastal village of Suwannee, and I would highly recommend going for more than two.
8. Surfing Sebastian Inlet
Full disclosure: I’ve stood up on a surfboard for approximately 30 seconds, despite a lifetime of trying. But I do consider myself a fully qualified surf mom — capable, to my son’s chagrin, of coaching from the beach.
Florida’s coastline, particularly the Atlantic side, has plenty of fine surf spots. And although Cocoa Beach gets all the flap, shredding the waves (see, I even know the lingo) at Sebastian Inlet State Park is the ultimate. You’ve made the big-time when you surf here, so if you’re a beginner, check into lessons around the Vero Beach area instead.
9. Experiencing the Everglades’ roadside attractions
You could choose to paddle the 99-mile Wilderness Trail or tent camp in Everglades National Park. But if you’re looking for a soft adventure introduction, follow my favorite way to explore: along Tamiami Trail’s funky attractions.
Riding an airboat, going on a swamp buggy tour, watching alligator wrestling, scouting for the Skunk Ape, and eating frog legs and gator tail — that’s true Everglades adventure in my book. Just west of Miami, the trail of roadside attractions begins with the Shark Valley entrance to the park, where you can bike a 15-mile loop past gators lounging right alongside the road. It lies adjacent to the Miccosukee Indian Village.
Continue west to just shy of Naples and stop along the way at places like Ochopee for Skunk-Ape Headquarters (which defies rational description), Coopertown for ‘Glades chow and airboating, and Wooten’s Airboats for more gators than most people see in a lifetime.
10. Diving the Keys
It’s kind of touristy, but my favorite dive in the Florida Keys took us to the submerged, eight-foot Christ of the Abyss statue off the shores of Key Largo. It wasn’t just the statue — it was the burst of small fish flushing from Technicolor coral, the barracuda, angelfish, and, well, I could go on and on.
Diving anywhere in the Keys rocks, but another bucket-list spot is Looe Key Sanctuary Preservation Area. An annual underwater music festival takes place in July, making it a two-fer.
11. Playing with dolphins
This one might leave you conflicted, but most of the dolphin encounter attractions around the state offset the notion of interacting with captive wildlife by educating the public and assisting in research (and even organizing therapy programs for returning veterans). You’ll find the greatest concentration in the Florida Keys, where you can do everything from swim with a dolphin to paint with one at Dolphin Research Center in Marathon.
Orlando, too, has its share of dolphin experiences, most notably Discovery Cove, an all-inclusive day resort. Wherever you go, you’ll likely remember your time with these unique creatures forever.
12. Fishing for tarpon
If you’re going to set your sights on fishing in Florida, you may as well set them high and go for the “silver king,” the reigning sovereign of all game fish. Southwest Florida is known as the Tarpon Capital of the World, especially at Boca Grande, where the “World’s Richest Tarpon Tournament” takes place each May.
Chartering a captain for tarpon fishing can run into four figures in Boca Grande, but the catching is good all along both coasts. Try the Fort Myers Beach area, which hosts its own, more affordable “Ding” Darling & Doc Ford’s Tarpon Tournament in May.
13. Camping and biking Withlacoochee
Vast Withlacoochee State Forest north of Tampa finds that perfect camping middle ground between primitive wilderness and commercial campground. It offers camping in a number of different locations within its 157,000+ acres, so there are options to suit all levels.
Then there’s its 46-mile Withlacoochee State Trail. The rail-to-trail paved pathway travels through forest wilderness and into charming small towns such as Inverness and Floral City. You wanted true, authentic Florida adventure? You got it.