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Off-the-beaten-path getaways: Seven Old Florida towns make great bases

Last updated on September 19th, 2021 at 07:15 am

Small Old Florida towns that are charming and close to hiking, biking, kayaking and historic sites

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 Old Florida destinations:

One of the most picturesque Old Florida towns: Historic Fernandina Beach on Amelia Island.
One of the most picturesque Old Florida towns: Historic Fernandina Beach on Amelia Island. (Photo by Bonnie Gross)

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

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 Old Florida 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 a leading producer of farmed 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!

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.)

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 the Old Florida town of Avon Park. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

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 few of these Old Florida towns intact 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 these Old Florida towns and 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. The trail is near the Old Florida towns of Brookesville and Dunnellon. (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 Florida 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. There’s also good hiking at Chinsegut Wildlife and Environmental Area.

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. 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:

You could spend an hour just browsing all the stuff at the Grumbles Antique and Garden Shop in Dunnellon. (Photo: David Blasco)
You could spend an hour just browsing all the stuff at the Grumbles Antique and Garden Shop in Dunnellon, one of the Old Florida towns that dates to the 1880s. (Photo: David Blasco)

Dunnellon: Two rivers plus outstanding bike trail and hiking

You’d never know it now, but the little town of Dunnellon in northwest Florida was once so prosperous that its nickname was Boomtown.Today Dunnellon’s fame – and fame probably overstates it – is as the home of the spectacular Rainbow Springs and Rainbow River. In summer, thousands of people come here every week to float down the Rainbow River on inner tubes.

But there are more things to do in Dunnellon than kayaking or tubing the Rainbow River. It’s also a great place for hiking trails in the Halpata Tastanaki Preserve and bicycling on the Withlacoochee State Trail.

For a small town, Dunellen has a surprising number of good restaurants too. 

The historic town makes a good base for exploring this unspoiled region, especially in cooler months. It starts with kayaking the Rainbow, but we also recommend six more things to do.

Punta Gorda: Kayaking, biking, charming downtown

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.

Many things to do in Punta Gorda revolve around the water vistas along the wide Peace River, including parks and walking/biking paths along the waterfront, historic neighborhoods with cobbled streets and stately old homes. In winter, Punta Gorda’s calendar is full of festivals and its downtown buzzes with pedestrians on weekends

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.

One of the most interesting historic sites in Florida is near here — the Kingsley Plantation, which is part of a little known national park. The beautiful site tells stories of slaves and slave holders that may surprise you. Another historic highlight is Fort Clinch State Park, which preserves a stunning landscape of sprawling oak trees and a broad beautiful beach. The fort itself is fun to visit because there are re-enactors present to bring history alive.

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. Each of these Old Florida towns are the subject to a profile on Florida Rambler with things to do and places to camp or stay.

A note from the editor:

The information in this article was accurate when published but can change without notice. Please confirm details when planning your trip by following the links in this article.

This article is the property of FloridaRambler.com and is protected by U.S. Copyright Law. Re-publication without written permission is against the law.


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Nathan

Thursday 6th of May 2021

I'm a 5th generation Florida Cracker. I've watched the complete and total destruction of our coast lines.it's articles like this that encourage this devastation to our beautiful state. Please stop writing these articles. And if you must encourage them to leave these places as they found them. And go home.

pete zappa

Sunday 16th of May 2021

@Nathan, I totally agree with Nathan. Living in Venice is like living on the east coast only thing is the roads cant accommodate All these snowbirds moving here. Lets see what they do when the heat of Florida hits and theres our water drought that is inevitable. Stay away

Marlene Squires-Swanson

Monday 3rd of May 2021

Hello Bonnie:

I am formally inviting you and your husband to beautiful Madison, located in Northern Florida. We are at the half-way point between Atlanta, Tampa, Jacksonville, Panama City and Orlando.

Aside from the beautiful Blue Springs, and miles of bike trails, we offer self-guided historical tours, great restaurants, antique shopping galore, and a beautiful old-fashioned gazebo in the center of our 4-Freedoms Park in town.

I guarantee you will love it!

Please come and see for yourself!

Marlene Squires-Swanson Executive Director & Administrator Madison County Chamber of Commerce & Tourism

Bonnie Gross

Monday 3rd of May 2021

Thank you. I think Madison Blue is the most beautiful spring in Florida. I don't believe my travels took me through the town of Madison, though, so I will definitely put it on my "to do" list. --Bonnie

CJ Ross

Saturday 24th of April 2021

I live in (Vero Beach). A life-long Florida resident, I moved my family here in 2008 because there's no red tide and it reminded me of how nice and quaint it was Venice, FL, where I grew up. My kids are still here and love it. A safe, small Florida town that doesn't want to grow up. This is rare in Florida. Great fishing in shore. Manatee's show up at the Fort Pierce inlet daily. I mean daily, as I fish there as often as 4 days a week. I hope this gem remains the family-oriented town that it is. All of Indian River County is wonderful. I've lived in many Florida towns and don't plan on ever leaving Vero.

James

Saturday 17th of April 2021

Hi Bonnie, I must say as a person that drives the state of Florida monthly that most of your locations are spot on. But, as a 59-year-old black man and original Floridian, some of your locations still come with a caveat for person such as myself, i.e. Brooksville. All in all beautiful article

Bonnie Gross

Sunday 18th of April 2021

James, I hear what you're saying, particularly given the presence of that Confederate statue in front of the courthouse in Brooksville. Thank you for your comments! Bonnie

J. Griffin

Thursday 15th of April 2021

Cedar Key is not "East Coast". East Coast is the part of Florida on the Atlantic Ocean.

Bonnie Gross

Thursday 15th of April 2021

Thanks for reading my article. I should have been clearer. I was referring to the East Coast of the United States.

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