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Off-the-beaten-path getaways: Seven small towns make great bases for exploring Florida

Small towns that are charming, off-the-beaten-path and close to hiking, biking, kayaking and historic sites

Historic downtown Fernandina Beach on Amelia Island.

Historic downtown Fernandina Beach on Amelia Island. (Photo by Bonnie Gross)

Rambling around Florida, I’ve found a few spots that I consider outstanding places to stay while enjoying areas that are rich in natural beauty and history.

When I’ve visited  them, I found myself saying: “Well, I can’t do everything here; I’ll have to get back here again soon.” Some I have visited over and over. Others are on my list of places I hope to return.

Each offers a variety of activities within an hour’s drive.

As you plan your travels and outings in Florida, consider these destinations:

Jupiter:  South Florida but unspoiled

Jupiter Lighthouse, Florida

Jupiter Lighthouse (Photo by Bonnie Gross)

Jupiter is actually a day trip from my home in Fort Lauderdale, but I’ve spent the weekend there many times so I could fit in more activities. Its location is one of its key assets: It’s close to the six million people in the tri-county South Florida area, but just far enough away to be less intensely developed.

Jupiter is the only town on my list that lacks a downtown and a small-town ambiance. But it makes up for that with spectacular beaches, great snorkeling from shore, a picturesque lighthouse, one of the best kayaking rivers in Florida and several outstanding places to bicycle both on paved trails and through the woods.

The best place to stay when visiting Jupiter is in a cabin or campsite  in Jonathan Dickinson State Park. If you stay in the park, you can fill many days without going any farther. But then you’d miss climbing to the top of Jupiter Lighthouse or experiencing Blowing Rocks Preserve, with its dramatic rock-lined beach.

While here, be sure to dine at Guanabanas; it’s all open air with over-the-top tropical ambiance.

If you can’t stay in the state park, there are several other resorts and hotels in the area. On the upper end, there’s the The Jupiter Beach Resort. TripAdvisor folks like the more moderately priced Jupiter Waterfront Inn.

I have written extensively about things to do near here, so here are some resources. Each of these links includes more details and additional links.

Cedar Key: Out of the way, and better for it

Clear water and a pristine beach await you on a kayak trip to Atsena Otie Key.

Clear water and a pristine beach await you on a kayak trip to Atsena Otie Key just off shore from Cedar Key. (Photo by Dave Clausen.)

Despite the natural beauty of its location, Florida’s second oldest town (after St. Augustine, of course) has avoided too much commercial development.  Cedar Key has been named one of the 10 coolest towns in America and is often compared to a Key West a half century ago. Of all the towns on my list, it has the most charming downtown, the longest history and the most artsy ambiance.

We loved staying in the historic hotel on the main drag, the Cedar Key Island Hotel, and, as the East Coast’s biggest producer of clams, Cedar Key is a great place to eat seafood.

In the area around Cedar Key, there is an abundance of natural resources. I want to return to kayak around the nearby islands, some of which have excellent beaches. One of those islands, Atsena Otie, is a ghost town with an old cemetery and a few ruins — just the sort of place I live to explore!

It’s a top birding location and there are many hiking and biking options. And after dark, gaze at the skies: There is little light pollution here and the night sky sparkles with stars.

Resources for visiting Cedar Key:

Sebring & Avon Park: Exploring the Lake Wales Ridge

Lobby, historic Hotel Jacaranda in Avon Park

Lobby of historic Hotel Jacaranda in Avon Park.

A million years ago, the only part of Florida poking out a  vast ocean was a stretch of high ground in Central Florida along what is now U.S. 27. (And with rising sea levels, maybe that’s the place to invest in Florida real estate today!) Like an island, the high ground that remains has some vegetation  you won’t find elsewhere.

Florida’s Turnpike sucked most of the traffic off the old route along 27, leaving a little bit of Old Florida intact in a series of small towns along the Lake Wales Ridge. They’re charming, with old hotels that were once grand places to winter in Florida and are now atmospheric and affordable.

What I like best are the many park and preserves where you can hike, kayak, camp and explore.  There is a funky Florida winery with colorful free-range chickens, a state park that preserves huge ancient trees and a wild and pristine creek that is safe from development because it forms of the border of an active bombing range.

We’ve been back to this area several times, and still haven’t explored it all.

Here are resources for exploring the Lake Wales Ridge area, which contain details and many links to other places to explore:

Brooksville: The Withlacoochee and Weeki Wachee and more

Cypress forest along Withlacoochee State Trail in the Croom Tract of Withlacoochee State Forest.

A splendid bike path passes through a cypress forest. It’s the Withlacoochee State Trail in the Croom Tract of Withlacoochee State Forest. (Photo by Bonnie Gross)

An hour north of Tampa, surrounded by beautiful rivers and forests, the Brooksville area makes a good base for exploring a part of Florida that is rural and wild.  It’s an old town with a statue of a Confederate soldier in front of its courthouse and blueberry farms in the surrounding countryside.  The downtown is a walk back in time, with historic buildings and grand live oak trees.

The reasons I love Brooksville are many, because of all the natural features nearby: The Withlacoochee is a pristine river full of wildlife and scenery, the 46-mile-long Withlacoochee Trail is the best paved bike trails I’ve pedaled in Florida, and the quiet and shaded Dade Battlefield Historic State Park is eye-opening and thought-provoking.

Brooksville is also a good base for exploring some of Florida’s most beautiful springs: Weeki Wachee springs and river and its kitschy historic Weeki Wachee mermaid show plus, a little north of there, the Chassahowitzka River.

There’s even more: Read the stories linked below for additional interesting spots.

There are a few mom-and-pop motels in Brooksville, but most places to lodge are flavorless hotels along I-75. Campsites are plentiful. A great place to eat is the  Florida Cracker Kitchen.

More about exploring the Brooksville area:

Plus these three special spots:

These aren’t the only good bases for exploration. Here, briefly, are three other big favorites:

Punta Gorda

Punta Gorda is a fun little town devoted to bicycling with all sorts of hiking and birding. There is both terrific saltwater mangrove kayaking as well as one of the best paddling rivers I’ve “discovered” – Shell Creek. Here’s a Rambler guide to Punta Gorda.

Sunset over the Amelia River at Fernandina Beach on Amelia Island.

Sunset over the Amelia River at Fernandina Beach on Amelia Island. (Photo by Bonnie Gross)

Fernandina Beach

Up in the farthest northeast corner of Florida, Fernandina Beach has all of my favorite things, from old forts to bike trails to exceptional beaches and kayaking. The historic town has one of the best traditional downtowns around, with well-preserved Victorian architecture and many places to dine. Here’s a Rambler guide to Fernandina Beach.

Everglades City

Everglades City, at the end of the road on the Gulf Coast, is an outstanding place to make a base for exploring the Everglades and Ten Thousand Islands. You can kayak what I consider the most beautiful river in the Everglades (the Turner River), paddle in the mangrove islands, hike in several different state and national parks and eat stone crab in funky riverfront restaurants. Here’s a Rambler guide to Everglades City.

And there’s more:

Even with this list, I haven’t exhausted the possibilities. We also recommend these outstanding destinations, about which we’ve written:

 

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Everglades, FL
Punta Gorda, FL
Sebring, FL
Jupiter, FL
Brooksville, FL
Cedar Key, FL 32625
Fernandina Beach, FL 32034

 

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2 Comments

  1. Christy Cherry says:

    Thanks so much Bonnie for all of your backroad wisdom! We love exploring Florida with all of its personalities and use your suggestions often!

  2. John Gans says:

    And don’t forget to visit The Tilted Teacup Tea Room while exploring Brooksville for lunch.

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