For non-Florida residents, the Sunshine State conjures up images of an oversized mouse, oranges, alligators and all-around weirdness. But across this 500-mile long, 160-mile wide stretch of always-sunny, sometimes-swampy, never-boring landscape, there’s a lot more this multi-dimensional corner of America than meets the eye. So pack up the car, blast that summer playlist, slip on your flip flops and grab your beach towel … it’s time to see a side of the Sunshine State you won’t see on the 6 o’clock news.
For a truly authentic Florida experience, start in the panhandle along 30A, a little-known 28.5-mile stretch of highway along the Gulf of Mexico that’s lined with quaint, charming beach communities that include Grayton Beach, Santa Rosa Beach, Seaside (where The Truman Show was filmed) and Rosemary Beach among others. The best way to experience this authentic beach area is to rent a house for a few days — and make sure you get a golf cart from Tygar Jons Beach Rentals, which also offers stand up paddleboards, pontoon boats and other beach essentials. Have dinner at the famous The Red Bar and brunch at Seaside’s Great Southern Café. Later in the evening, call up Tygar Jons again and let them set you up with a bonfire on the beach, complete with s’mores and your beverages of choice. Pop into Grayton Beer Company to sample local beers, check out local hiking trails and sink your toes into the whitest, softest sand you’ve ever had the pleasure of seeing.
Next, head down highway 98 (with a quick stop in Steinhatchee for a bit of scalloping) all the way down to Weeki Wachee, just past Crystal River. Here, you’ll find Florida’s only spring-fed water park, which features a white sandy beach, beach volleyball, river rides, a kiddie pool area and (wait for it) real live mermaids. You did choose Florida for your road trip adventure, so you wanted weird, right? You got it. Weeki Wachee’s famous mermaid show began in 1947 and has been making waves ever since. Enter the 400-seat submerged theater and watch as live mermaids perform a show you’ll never forget. After the show, rent a kayak and look for manatees or head to Buccaneer Bay for flume rides and other attractions.
Next, drive directly east, where the wonderful world of weird continues in Cassadaga, The Psychic Capitol of the World. People from all over the country visit this small Spiritualist community to communicate with loves ones they’ve lost and get a glimpse into their futures. Stay for the day or take your chances at the supposedly haunted Cassadaga Hotel and schedule a reading with one of hundreds of local tarot card readers, palm readers, mediums and other certified Spiritualists.
Once you know what your future has in store, zig zag back down west to Boca Grande, a charmingly rustic town that’s famous for tarpon fishing, banyan trees and Moscow mules. Gear up for a guided fishing charter and watch the tarpon roll, then head to The Temptation Restaurant & Bar for some seafood and, of course, a Moscow mule, a cocktail made with a high-quality vodka, ginger beer, and lime juice, garnished with a slice or wedge of lime and served in a copper mug.
Last, but most definitely not least, head down the infamous Alligator Alley, through Miami and past the world-renwoned Florida Keys until you literally can’t drive anymore. Hop on a boat, ferry or seaplane and head 70 miles west to Dry Tortugas National Park, a 100-square-mile-park comprised of seven small coral reef islands. Home to clear waters and a 19th century fort, Dry Tortuga offers campgrounds, and amazing marine life. Snorkel. Sun. Swim. Dive. We recommend camping overnight to get the full experience, but whether you camp out or stay for the day, it’s a little-traveled slice of Florida you’ll remember forever.
Did we leave any of your Florida favorites off the list? Let us know in the comments below!