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
In my estimation, no wildlife experience in the world compares to interacting underwater with manatees.
2. Kayaking in bioluminescent waters
In summer, the waters of
After-dark trips into the mangroves with
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
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
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
6. Slogging through a real Florida swamp
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
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
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
9. Experiencing the Everglades’ roadside attractions
You could choose to paddle the 99-mile Wilderness Trail or tent camp in
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
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
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
Orlando, too, has its share of dolphin experiences, most notably
12. Fishing for tarpon
If you’re going to set your sights on
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
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.