If you live in the US, you probably know that Florida is one of the more popular states for tourism. Whether you travel by car on Interstate 95, or fly into one of the larger cities, most families will visit Florida at one point or another. While the majority of tourists head to the popular Orlando area, there are so many other amazing places to visit on both sides of the state. Here are 3 special places we loved during a road trip to the Gulf Coast, each unique in its own way. You can easily combine them into a week long vacation, creating some amazing vacation memories along the way.
1. Siesta Key. Just a few hours west of theme park central, you’ll find the beautiful white sands of Siesta Key. This barrier island connected via bridge to Sarasota took Trip Advisor’s 2015 top honor as the #1 beach in the country. (You can also read about some of its many other awards.) I have to say that the sand truly was some of the softest, whitest sand I have ever stuck my toes in. There were 3 beach areas stretched out over 8 miles, with a full range of accommodations, so it was tough to decide where to stay. We choose the Crescent Beach area, which is a bit less populated than the main Siesta Beach area. If you are looking for a charming beach resort just a short walk from the sand, the Tropical Shores Resort is a good choice. Rooms are available in many sizes, and we loved having a kitchenette along with access to a barbecue grill, outdoor lounge chairs and patio tables. It was so nice to be able to relax and enjoy casual meals outside, and have a little open space to escape to when necessary.
You won’t have to go far to find all kinds of beach activities to choose from, including watersport rentals, beach yoga, snorkeling and swimming. From the Tropical Shores Resort, it’s just a short cab ride into town for dinner, with everything from seafood and crepes, to pizza and homemade ice cream. No matter where you stay, you must experience the Sunday night Drum Circle on the Siesta Key Beach. It’s a community gathering of music and dancing like you have never seen before.
2. Crystal River. From the Sarasota area, enjoy the scenic drive up the coast, until you reach the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge. You’ll learn about the West Indian Manatees that migrate to the area every year to enjoy the warmer waters of Crystal River. At River Ventures, we took a one of a kind snorkel trip to see these amazing creatures for ourselves. There are several trip options to choose from but before you go, they will educate you on the best practices to enjoy a “passive interaction” with the manatees and what you can do to help them. Manatees are protected under the Endangered Species Preservation Act, so the boat captains at River Ventures follow strict rules when you are in the water to protect these gentle giants. Seeing these magnificent creatures in their own habitat is truly a once in a lifetime experience that I know my family and I will never forget.
3. Rainbow Springs State Park. After leaving Crystal River, it’s a short drive to Rainbow Springs State Park, which is home to one of over 900 freshwater springs in the state. More than a dozen of the springs are now State Parks, offering plenty of recreational activities for visitors. Swimming, kayaking, glass bottom boat rides and manatee watching are just some of the things to do, and many of the popular springs are convenient to other attractions in Central Florida. With beautiful clear blue/green water, and a large swimming area, visiting Rainbow Springs was a fun way to spend a hot summer afternoon (the water is typically a cool 72 degrees). The water was quite deep (between 5 and 18 feet) so swimming is best for older kids that are comfortable in deeper water. It’s helpful to visit the website before you go to see specific rules and regulations, as each area is different. Other springs in the area, like Weeki Wachee Springs State Park, are a bit more commercialized, with a Mermaid Show (currently closed until September 26th) and a spring-fed beach area with water slides. Many of the springs throughout Florida offer kayaking or canoeing day trips to enjoy the springs at a more leisurely pace. And don’t forget that kids can participate in the Florida State Park Junior Ranger Program along the way. So next time you visit Florida, consider adding some of these natural wonders to your travels.