Very often when we hear about Florida, the first thing that comes to mind is Miami or Disneyworld in Orlando. I came to the US over 10 years ago and the first year lived in Orlando, where most of my ‘career’ as an 18-year old student from Russia was working in the travel and hospitality industry. My English wasn’t that good and I started with jobs such as hostess in Macaroni Grill and a housekeeper. Moving on to become a waitress, first at a steakhouse on the touristy International Drive, and later in the Double Tree at Universal in Orlando was considered a huge promotion.
During that first year working jobs of the hospitality industry I did my best to explore what I could in Florida and went to all of the parks of Disneyworld, drove to Tampa, Cocoa Beach, Daytona Beach, Miami and Fort Lauderdale. Even though I didn’t see much influence of Disneyworld in those parts of the state, Florida felt the same to me because of its heat, humidity, the smell of fast food, burning asphalt, and evaporation after rain.
A lot has changed in my life since then. During the last ten years I lived in other countries and states going to universities and building a career. The travel part of my life, however, remained the same. This January I went on a road trip to Florida in our RV and immediately recognized the smell that never changed. This time I was here with my husband and our one-year-old daughter driving around the entire coastline of the state.
We started our journey in Atlanta and made it to Savannah, Georgia. We didn’t have a set route. My husband, Justin, did not have any specific places in mind that he wanted to visit. I, on the other hand, desired to go to some touristy places that I had seen photos and heard of.
On the Atlantic side these locations included:
- Castillo de San Marcos in Saint Augustine
- Cape Canaveral and Kennedy Space Center
- The affluent Boca Raton not far from Miami
- Key West
On the side of Mexican Gulf the cities of:
There is a lot of information on different travel sites and blogs about all those places. While driving from one typical touristy destination to the next though, we found real gems of Florida that were somewhat off the beaten path, some of them more so than others. At least those spots were not included in Top-10 places to see in Florida when I did my search.
Most of these ‘hidden’ sights became an ideal entertainment for us and our daughter.
This safari attraction is located about 20 miles away from West Palm Beach. Imagine a huge territory that you can drive around in your own vehicle, following a special road that can be crossed by zebra, antelope or rhinoceros. We saw all of these from our windshield while moving with the speed of 5 mph. From side windows we looked at ostriches, monkeys, giraffes, buffalos and many other animals. Only the lions were resting behind a fence. We connected our phone to the safari’s website and listened to the information about every creature that we passed.
After this amazing driving tour we parked our RV in a special parking lot and went to a different part of the park with a garden full of tropical birds and a pond with exotic fishes. We spent a lot of time observing and feeding giraffes, petted lama and goats, and were covered with parrots in a special fenced room. All of us were really excited.
After Lion Country Safari we spent a few days in Miami visiting my friends and then moved towards Key West.
Bahia Honda State Park impressed us a lot. It is situated on the 37th mile of the highway going through Florida Keys. The beaches of this park are considered the best in South Florida. We first went to the beach on one side of the park that faces the Atlantic Ocean (at that point sort of mixed with Caribbean Sea), and then explored the side of the Gulf of Mexico.
Initially we stopped in Bahia Honda parking lot overlooking the Gulf just to have lunch. The beauty of this place made us stay longer. After our meal we rode bikes, and climbed an abandoned bridge with beautiful vistas. Later we changed into swimsuits and went to explore both beaches. Unfortunately we didn’t have much time to enjoy the sun because it started raining. We decided to spend the night in one of the campsites of Bahia Honda, but later found out that the reservations have to be made at least a week in advance or even way before in the summer time.
I was driving most of the route through the Florida Keys where we stayed for five or so days. While passing the Key of Islamorada I saw a little pier and a crowd of people surrounded by pelicans. I got curious and wanted to find out what was going on there, but the turn towards the site wasn’t obvious and I decided not to brake at the last minute. I continued driving… and guessing.We made it to Key West, the Southernmost city in the state of Florida. We had a great time first on the beach, then riding our bikes around town, having lunch in one of the restaurants and observing many chickens and roosters running on the streets. It was fascinating to see these creatures sleep on top of the trees at night.
Feeding Tarpon at Robbie's of Islamorada
Driving back from Key West I remembered about that place with the pelicans. This time we made the right turn and found out about the gathering. It was a restaurant and its main attraction – feeding small fish to huge tarpon.
Both adults and children were feeding these fish. Practically all the kids of different ages were having a blast while adults discussed behavior of fish and found the best angle to snap some photos and videos. Aya and I stood aside and observed. As usual I was explaining and commenting to her about what was going on. She was fascinated with tarpon, but the pelicans waiting for their share of bait seemed to capture her interest even more.
We decided not to eat in the restaurant since we had already had lunch, but the served dishes certainly looked delicious. As always we were glad we stopped and got a close look at the tarpon and pelicans.
Leaving the Florida Keys we headed towards Everglades National Park where we wanted to see alligators. Justin found Flamingo Campground that was on the shore of the Gulf. We made it there close to 3 pm. He took Aya on a bike ride while I stayed in our RV making us dinner and cooking soup for our daughter. They didn’t take too long to return due to increasing dusk mosquito activity in the park. The darker it was getting the more mosquitos were attacking our motorhome. We decided not to stay there for more than one night.
Next morning we slowly left the park while stopping at different points of interest along the route. We went on a walk in mangroves, hiked a short path to the oldest (so they said) mahogany tree in North America and visited a pond with alligators. When one of those creatures began moving and swimming from one place to another the entire crowd was following it. It wasn’t easy to have a good look at it, so we decided to move on. We continued our route on highway 41 stretching from Sweetwater to Naples through the town of Ochopee and Big Cypress National Preserve.
Here we got to see many more alligators in their natural habitat, freely swimming in canals or laying in the sun along the highway. The road was practically empty which gave us an opportunity to make frequent stops and observe these creatures to the fullest.
When we got close to Ochopee we saw fish jumping and rising above water in the canal.
For those of you who don’t know, fly fishing is Justin’s hobby and work. So not thinking twice he rigged the rod and threw a line in the water. I stayed in the motorhome with Aya. In about two minutes I heard from my husband, “get the camera ready” and immediately understood what had happened. An alligator ate the fly. I came out of our RV holding Aya in one arm and camera in another hand. Justin was smiling and barely able to hold on to the rod in his hands. He pulled the creature to the shore and cut the leader without taking the alligator out of the water. It turned around, slowly swam away and made a splash with its tail. Landing the alligator made Justin’s day. I enjoyed the show as well.
We drove by Naples and closer to the evening were approaching Fort Myers. The traffic was terrible due to the road construction. Aya was tired and nothing entertained her at that point. She was constantly whining and we were getting exhausted. Via the app www.rvparking.com I started looking for a campground to spend the night in and found Red Coconut RV Park just 3 miles away from us. It was perfectly located half a block away from the beach. We ended up staying there for two nights and enjoyed our stay to the max, riding bikes on the shoreline, swimming, splashing in water, building (or trying to build) sand castles, and tanning.
After Fort Myers we headed up north towards Sarasota to go grocery shopping at Trader Joe’s. While on the way there, we found out about a small town and beaches of Boca Grande on Gasparilla Island, part of which is a National Park.
We entered the island via a toll bridge and drove on the main road stretching throughout Gasparilla for 7 or so miles. I could tell that there are a lot of tourists there in the summer, but during our January trip we met only locals who lived in the nice houses with breathtaking views. We also got to enjoy beautiful vistas of the shore from the windows of our motorhome when parked on one of the beaches. After Aya’s nap we went to the beach, which had no more than 15 people on it. The water of Mexican Gulf was of an especially turquoise color that couldn’t be compared with the water in any of the coastal places we visited on this trip.
Aya played for a couple of hours with the shells that covered this entire beach as far as we could see. I would say the only negative was the sharp drop off in water 10 meters or so from the shore. But even despite this little detail I would gladly go back to Boca Grande.
Next day we arrived in Clearwater, the first beach I visited after landing in the states over ten years ago. We took a stroll on the pier, enjoyed the sunset and watched Aya play in the sand. After early dinner we continued our route north towards the town of Weeki Wachee.
From the Visit Florida Instagram account I found out about the small village of Weeki Wachee, which is famous for its river Weekie Wachee with crystal clear water. I have never seen this type of river before, so we planned to float it. Floating Weekie Wachee is the main attraction of the area, with a few companies renting kayaks, canoes, and boats. We rented a canoe from the company that was the closest to the put in. After a short briefing we were sitting in our canoe enjoying flora and fauna.
Float lasted 5.5 miles. Justin paddled the first three miles while I was watching Aya and not letting her fall in the river. Swimming was allowed only in designated areas in which we stopped for lunch and ate sandwiches standing in water. We saw a manatee and various fishes, but mullet was the most common species. It was Saturday and the river was crowded, but a lot of the people we spoke with were from Florida. My guess is that the out of state crowd comes in the summer months.
After lunch I decided to learn to paddle a canoe and Justin and I switched places. Now he was watching Aya while I was trying not to crash us into trees and branches hanging over the water. After about a mile my arms got tired and I turned around ready to hand the paddle to my husband, but Aya was asleep in his arms and he was afraid to move and wake her up. Without words we understood that I would be the one continuing to paddle. We resumed the float and the silence, and just looked at the surroundings. Unfortunately my arm muscles were in pain, but at the same time the skill of paddling a canoe had improved.
Houses appeared instead of trees as we left the area of the river that flows through the national park. We started meeting locals in their motorboats with blasting loud music that wasn’t allowed back in the park. At the end of 5.5 miles we neared the take out where we returned the canoe and went to the shuttle that took us back to the parking lot of the put in.
After Weeki Wachee it took us a couple of days to get to Tallahassee, the capital of Florida. At a certain point we had to slow down and think about our route because of a tornado watch and warning in the entire area of Southern Georgia and Northern Florida. Luckily, we didn’t run into a tornado, but still had to deal with strong winds and thunderstorms.
After the capital we proceeded with our route towards the area called the panhandle. By accident we ended up in the small town of Panacea and Holiday Park and Campground.
This RV park is located in pine forest on the shore of the Ochlokonee Bay in the southern part of Panacea. Besides the natural beauty and tranquility of this place, we especially liked this area because it lacked numerous typical touristy amenities. Two days in a row we rode bikes on Mashes Sands Road, which goes through local houses and marinas with boats, and ends on a white sand beach. We spent some time there playing with sand, observing fish and bird life and examining a dried and salty tree that was thrown on the shore by winds from the Gulf.
In the evening we enjoyed our dinner at the local seafood restaurant Tropical Trader Shrimp that served delicious and large meals. Before going to bed we walked in the park and enjoyed the sunset. Next morning while Justin was packing up our RV to continue the journey I ran after Aya who was chasing sea gulls and pelicans on the pier and trying to catch them.
Other beach towns that we visited in the Panhandle, on this trip included:
We didn’t spend much time in them because we had already explored them in 2015 during a different road trip while I was pregnant. Just like last time we took a walk on a wide shoreline in Pensacola Beach; however this time there were three of us.
The last town on our trip was New Orleans, Louisiana, thus fulfilling my travel dream of driving along entire Florida coast. I got a bonus as well in a form of visiting some parts of Alabama and Mississippi states.