By Sarah Sekula; Published on usatoday.com
As spring breakers pour into Orlando, at some point, they may want a break from all the manufactured theme-park fun. For USA TODAY, Sarah Sekula finds just the right side trips that offer a change of pace and will have visitors feeling downright Floridian in no time.
Play on the beach
New Smyrna Beach, which has nearly a dozen miles of coastline, is the perfect spot to pitch an umbrella, build sand castles and swim to your heart’s content. You can also scope out the area’s teeming marine life by skimming across its waters. Head to the Intracoastal Waterway for a stand-up paddle-boarding session. Expect up-close encounters with manatees, dolphins, pelicans and fish of all sorts as you glide along. It’s equally peaceful and thrilling at the same time.
Come nighttime, though, head to Canaveral National Seashore (about a 30-minute drive away) to spot marine life on land. From May through November, you can witness baby sea turtles hatching and making their way to the sea.
Once you’ve worked up an appetite, JB’s Fish Camp, an Old Florida waterfront eatery, is a legendary spot to refuel. Rent a boat and catch your own fish; this restaurant will cook it up for you. Or just order off the extensive menu, which includes alligator meat and charbroiled shrimp kabobs. If you visit during the summer, cool off inside the Marine Discovery Center to learn about the surrounding ecosystem.
Drive time: One to 1 1/2 hours
Information: nsbfla.com; nps.gov/cana
Step back in time
Many travelers flock to the 449-year-old city of St. Augustine purely for its rich history. However, it’s more than that. Start the day in the heart of the historic district, where the aroma of pastries and fresh bread fills the air thanks to the Bunnery Bakery and Cafe, which serves chocolate croissants and cinnamon rolls. Make a beeline for the boutiques along King Street, where you’ll find unique jewelry, handmade soaps and personalized stationery. And save time for some general lounging, too: There are 43 miles of beaches.
For a quick history lesson, visit Castillo de San Marcos National Monument, which used to protect St. Augustinians from invading British troops. From there, you can peek across the bay at the palatial Anastasia Island mansions. Nearby, Cousteau’s Waffle & Milkshake Bar serves waffles topped with s’mores and key-lime-pie milkshakes.
Then, join the Augustine Haunted Pub Tour for a spooky storytelling excursion through downtown. End the night at Ice Plant Bar, a former ice plant dating back to the early 1900s. The mixologists pay close attention to the art of ice harvesting as well as local ingredients, which make for pretty tasty cocktails.
Drive time: About one hour
Enjoy a light show
During the summer, a trip to Mosquito Lagoon should be on your short list. Thanks to a large concentration of single-celled bioluminescent organisms that light up like fireflies in the water, you’ll get a glow-in-the-dark light show on most summer nights. Take a nighttime kayak tour and watch as each stroke of your paddle leaves behind a glowing swirl of blue light.
“When the sun went down, the water lit up,” says Sarasota resident Aaron Pollard. “The fish darted under our kayaks and paddle boards, and their trails followed them underwater. At one point, a mullet jumped right into our kayak. A lot of people will head to Puerto Rico for this experience, but we have this magic right here in Florida.”
Don’t forget to pack the bug spray, though. It is called Mosquito Lagoon, after all. And if you time it just right, you could even see a rocket launch, since the Kennedy Space Center is nearby. During the daytime, it’s worth a trip to see the space center’s new Atlantis exhibit, where guests get up close with a space shuttle orbiter.
Drive time: About one hour
Swim with mermaids
If you are itching to flipper-kick your way alongside a manatee or two, Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge is one of the best places to do it. Although you can spot them year-round in the clear, 72-degree water, November through March is the best time to go; hordes of them flock there once the sea temperatures drop a bit. It’s not called the manatee capital of the world for nothing. And since West Indian manatees can weigh up to 1,500 pounds, they’re hard to miss.
“We’ve traveled the world to find wildlife adventures, and still nothing quite compares to swimming with manatees,” says wildlife blogger Cristina Garcia. “It’s something we keep coming back to over and over.”
If you’d prefer to see wildlife without getting soaked, opt for nearby Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park, a 210-acre preserve. You can take a leisurely boat ride through the rain forest and potentially spot the park’s four resident manatees — Rosie, Electra, Ariel and Lorelei. Along the way, keep your eyes peeled for flamingos, blue herons and Key deer. The park has elevated boardwalks and bridges among the many lagoons and educational offerings daily.
Drive time: About two hours
Information: fws.gov/crystalriver; floridastateparks.org/homosassasprings
Walk on the wild side
People visit Everglades National Park, the largest subtropical wilderness in the continental United States, for the gators. But did you know it’s home to crocs, too? This is the only place worldwide where the toothy reptiles live side by side. Track them down by racing through the mangroves via airboat, reaching 50 mph, or by sitting still to soak up the scenery. Or try a nighttime tour to hear the hum of crickets and frogs while surrounded by the red glow of gator eyes.
“Alligators are literally everywhere,” says conservationist and Everglades fishing guide Kevin Merritt. “You could easily count 100 or more on nice, sunny days.”
Believe it or not, you may even see a Burmese python, walking catfish or green iguana; they are all invasive species that have taken up residence here. And it gets even wilder — there are also bull sharks.
“During summer, places like Crab Key Bight can have as many as a dozen bulls 4 to 8 feet long patrolling the shallows, looking for mullet and stingrays, which is quite a humbling sight,” he says.
Drive time: About four hours