Ah, Florida, how I love thee. Somewhere between the stereotypes and tourist traps lie small towns and treasures where the great outdoors still thrive.
My special corner of the world runs along the Gulf Coast. I’m sharing with you a few of my treasured stomping grounds around the Sunshine State where I love to get outside. You won’t find any big cities on this list. No far-away lands or exotic destinations. There’s nothing hidden about them (for the most part), just the words of some Florida native telling you how rad they are.
1. THE FLORIDA KEYS
A place most near and dear to my heart, I will return here often until the day I die. My grandparents first met at a church in Marathon in the 1950’s. They married six months later at the age of 18 and built their home in Key Largo where they raised my mother and her four siblings. My parents met in Islamorada in 1981 when my dad was building the 130 miles of powerlines from Homestead to Key West that still stand today. In 1985, my parents wed at Key Largo Baptist Church; the same place I went to Vacation Bible School in the 90’s. And where we celebrated my grandmother’s life, at her funeral in 2011.
There are over 1700 islands that make up the Keys, yet only 43 of them are actually connected by bridges. "Key" is derived from the Spanish word “cayo,” meaning small island. Each key is uniquely different and most people will proclaim their bias to one region over another: the Upper, Middle or Lower Keys. Then there’s Key West which is another story for another day.
Laid-back island life scattered with dive shops, dive bars, charter boats and swaying palm trees. It’s easy to get sucked into the “let’s runaway here” mindset, which is usually contemplated over a couple cocktails and a jaw-dropping sunset.
The ocean, crystal clear, intoxicating, azure blue, is home to beautiful coral reefs, wrecks and some of the best fishing in the world.
The locals around here are a tight-knit group with a tight lip on their spots. Somewhere along the coast, only accessible by small boat, and deep within the mangroves, there lies a popular chill spot called “The Grove.” This makeshift fortress consists of a plywood deck, a big yellow slide, a chain swing, a fire pit and a tattered boat sail for shade.
If you’ve never been, you’ll never find it. If you speak about it, you’re probably violating some unspoken code. If I told you, I’ll deny it. It’s a refreshing reminder that secret spots still exist, far, far away from the Disney Worlds of the world.
Must Do: Go fishing. Feed the tarpon at Robbie’s. Sandbar Sunday in Islamorada. Snorkel the Christ of the Abyss, an 8.5-foot, 4,000 pound bronze sculpture of Jesus Christ that stands in 25 feet of water (Key Largo, John Pennekamp State Park). Full Moon Party at Morada Bay. Contemplate life's mysteries over a rumrunner at a tiki bar. Do the “Duval Crawl.” Explore Fort Jefferson National Park (Dry Tortugas, 70 miles off Key West). See the Key Deer. Explore the Hemingway House.
My home grove-and-cow town in DeSoto County, tucked 46 miles inland from the Gulf of Mexico. It’s a small town where agriculture is king and life is centered around the great outdoors.
Citrus, melons and livestock make up the top industries in the county, which tends to shock mainlanders who think Florida is just beaches and theme parks. Florida ranks eighth in the U.S. for agricultural exports with over $4 billion and 48,000 commercial farms spanning 9.55 million acres. Florida ranked second in the U.S. for value of vegetable production and accounts for 63 percent of total U.S. citrus production. (2015. Florida Agricultural Statistics Service).
The endless acres of cow pastures, orange groves and farmland set the scene for many a long night and day spent in the woods. Hunting, campfires, mudding, shooting, fishing. It’s a barefoot, wild-eyed child’s dream to grow up in such a place where you can run free without fear.
Sundays are set aside for two things: church and the river. You’ll hear airboats for miles, sliding down the Peace River, usually headed to a stretch of riverbank to jump in and cool off.
Must Do: Go antiquing in Historic Downtown Arcadia. Camp at the Peace River Campground. Canoe the Peace River from the Canoe Outpost. Grab a gallon of strawberry orange juice from Joshua Citrus. Attend the Arcadia All-Florida Championship Rodeo, Florida’s oldest rodeo.
3. NORTH CAPTIVA ISLAND
North Captiva is a small blip on a chain of barrier islands that stretch from Bradenton to Fort Myers. I prefer North Captiva over some of the larger islands like Sanibel and Boca Grande because it’s inaccessible by land and I love that about it.
A deserted stretch of beach spans the middle of the island, setting a prime scene for camping. If you’ve ever been to a public beach in Florida in the prime of the summertime, you understand why a deserted beach is uncommon and dearly treasured.
The shallow waters on the bay side make it a challenge to get close to the island, but not impossible. If you can conquer the trek to get there, you will be greatly rewarded. We anchored the boat out a couple yards and floated our supplies up on an inflated air mattress. Be sure to check the tides in advance or you could wake up high and dry (like we almost did)!
From the front of our tent, the Gulf of Mexico rollers crash onto the untouched beach. Behind us, a view of Pine Island Sound, a calm, glassy harbor to keep the boat safe. Not a single soul passed by our way. I don't know about you, but this sure beats anywhere else we could possibly spend a Saturday night!
Our only miss was not bringing a camp table (rookie mistake). Juggling table space between a Yeti cooler lid and a plastic tub was not an effective work station for preparing food and mixing drinks.
Remember to preserve the beauty and leave the island without a trace that you were ever there. Extinguish your fire and take your trash with you.
Must Do: Erect tent, light fire, mix drink, kick back and enjoy the sunset.
4. LAKE PLACID
No, not the one in New York from that movie with the monster alligator. This Lake Placid is situated halfway across Florida, smack dab between Arcadia and Okeechobee.
Lake Placid is known for… well, lakes. 29 of them. The second largest is Lake “June-in-Winter” on which I’ve spent a good number of days throughout my lifetime. It's a place where families own lake houses for generations, summers at the lake are a long-held tradition and time slows down just enough for you to soak up the breathtaking sunset.
At 10 years old, I learned to wakeboard behind a bass boat on this lake. Too many a teenage summer was spent partying on wakeboats, blaring T Pain, shotgunning Bud Lights and trying to be professional wakeboarders.
On Sundays, everyone migrates to the sandbar. The music is loud, the relaxation is plentiful and everybody knows somebody.
Must Do: Sunset cruise. Shotski at Jaxsons. Summertime seafood boil. Shop and eat at The Blueberry Patch and Good News Juice and Smoothie Café. Explore historic downtown and check out the murals. Attend the Caladium Festival.
From the Keys to North Florida, it's amazing the change of scenery and what totally different worlds you'll experience. Rolling hills, plantations, tall pine trees. The closer you get to the "big bend" of the state, the greater glimpse you get of the thriving "Old Florida."
On the outskirts of Tallahassee, there lies a small town called Perry. For the past 15 years, my family, along with fellow camp members, has come here to hunt during the fall hunting season.
Way back off Highway 59, tucked deep among the planted pines, our camp doesn't necessarily require the "roughing it" factor. There are campers, fire pits, a cook shack, a shower/laundry shack, a shooting range and a shared barn to house the buggies and fourwheelers.
Many Thanksgivings were spent here, breaking bread with family and friends, debating over the Gators versus the Seminoles and telling ghost stories over campfire light.
Must Do: Go scalloping nearby (Homosassa). Experience the natural springs and crystal-clear rivers. Go hunting. Tailgate for the Florida vs. Florida State game.
My future goals include exploring more of my home state and finding some new haunts along the way. Fishing and camping along the east coast, diving the natural springs (Devil's Den!) and exploring the shorelines of the panhandle. I welcome your recommendations! What are your favorite places to get outside?