These getaways to Old Florida natural areas are testament to the unspoiled parts of our state—a step into history and prehistory, a way to ground yourself in the real Florida you’ve been missing.
Written by Marie Speed and John Thomason
Florida’s Forgotten Coast: St. George Island and Environs
This stretch of coastline southwest of Tallahassee is the way Florida used to be, the real deep-by-the-Gulf part of the state with its most beautiful beaches, vast oak forests, quaint fishing villages and aquamarine waters. Development is inevitable (how far behind can the next fantasy Seaside be?), but there is still a sense of pristine wilderness and simplicity and uncrowded beaches that is unmatched anywhere else. Dr. Julian G. Bruce St. George Island State Park, the easternmost eight miles of the 2,023-acre St. George barrier island, is all about those vast white unpopulated beaches with great shell collecting, hiking trails and primitive campsites. Dog Island to its east is even more untouched, reachable only by private boat or aircraft, and is arguably the most unspoiled and lovely island in the Gulf.
This is where to go to rediscover the natural reaches of the Gulf region, relatively unpopulated, laid-back, with an emphasis on good fishing, fresh seafood, salt marshes, southern seaside living. This is not about luxury retreats and sunbathing (although you can find this) and all about reconnecting. And the added bonus is exploring the small towns along this coast, and Apalachicola, its historic lynchpin.
Frequently scheduled climbs of the 72-foot St. George Lighthouse, ca. 1852, at the center of the main island offer visitors stunning vistas. In Panacea, at the Gulf Marine Specimen Lab, a fun and educational marine-life showcase run by biologist/novelist Jack Rudloe, you can get up close and personal with a wide variety of sea creatures collected from local waters; in Carabelle, you have Camp Gordon Johnston WWII Museum and the Crooked River Lighthouse; In Apalachicola, the Apalachicola National Estuarine Research Reserve highlights the Apalachicola estuary and floodplain basin with nature walks and live marine exhibits; and there is must-see bustling historic downtown Apalachicola with historic homes and waterfront, great restaurants, art galleries and more.
WHERE TO STAY
St. George Island has a wide range of VRBO options, and Apalachicola has some great hotels, like The Gibson Inn, a restored hotel and restaurant originally built in 1907 featuring a wide veranda, and a superb, newly refurbished restaurant, The Franklin.
WHERE TO EAT
It’s all about great fresh seafood, cold beer and southern cooking up here; holes in the wall earn bonus points. On St. George island, Blue Parrot Oceanfront Café, the quintessential Florida seaside bar and grill, only yards from the Gulf surf; in Panacea, Mineral Springs Seafood featuring in-house smoked fish and a wide assortment of homemade fish/seafood dips, and very fine Angelo’s Seafood restaurant with its bay views; in Carabelle, Fathoms Steam Room & Raw Bar; in Eastpoint, Lynn’s Quality Oysters; in Apalachicola, Oyster City Brewing Company, Tamara’s Café downtown, and Hole in the Wall Seafood—a must-visit for oyster lovers.
Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park
100 Savannah Blvd., Micanopy, FL 352/545-6000
This vast 21,000-acre prairie between Gainesville and Micanopy in Central Florida stretches in a wide panoramic basin as far as the eye can see, and was the first state preserve in Florida (1971), thought to be named after King Payne, a Seminole chief. It has the feel of an inland sea that has retreated, leaving a prehistoric imprint of ponds and marshes, hardwood hammocks and scrub.
Paynes Prairie has the kind of primitive pull that the Everglades has, an inhospitable beauty that makes you want to get in it, not just admire it from the safety of an observation deck (and there are several). To that end, there are eight different trails, some as short as under a mile; another, the Cones Dike Trail, is a decent eight-mile hike. The landscape alone is worth the effort, but the wildlife is an excellent reason to take a walk, with a herd of bison (yes, they were introduced in 1975) and a wild horse population descended from ones the Spanish brought here hundreds of years ago. There are also deer and sandhill cranes and bald eagles among the almost 300 species of birds.
You enter the park from either the north or the south sides. The north side has the La Chua Trail, which is famous for its massive alligators, heaped together like so many old tires—with teeth—and the Alachua Sink, a natural sinkhole, the trees draped in elegant Spanish moss. You may be more likely to see the bison herd, which numbers around 70 now, at the south entrance, but they appear to be a little more elusive.
While you’re here, keep in mind that the University of Florida is only 10 miles away, with its own attractions. Obviously, this is the hallowed home of the mighty Florida Gators football team, but you can also take in the Harn Museum of Art, the Florida Museum of Natural History and the Butterfly Rainforest. Cross Creek is also nearby, where you can visit writer Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ house and grab a Florida cracker dinner at The Yearling. Nearby Micanopy, where you should stay, is also worth exploring for its bookstore and historic district alone.
WHERE TO STAY
The Herlong Mansion in Micanopy is only a mile from Paynes Prairie and is a great bed-and-breakfast with a longtime following. And the requisite front porch, complete with rocking chairs. 402 N.E. Cholokka Blvd., Micanopy, 352/466-3322
WHERE TO EAT
Antonio’s Made in Italy is great Italian at 22050 Highway 441, Micanopy, 352/591-4141; Blue Highway Pizza is no ordinary pizza joint—all handcrafted yumminess, including paninis, at 204 U.S. Highway 441, Micanopy, 352/466-0062; The Yearling is Southern and pure Old Florida; where else are you going to find a catfish sandwich? 14531 E. County Road 325, Hawthorne, 352/466-3999.
Big Cypress National Preserve
52105 Tamiami Trail (Oasis Visitor Center), 239/695-4111
This national preserve neighboring the Everglades is larger than Rhode Island, and is a freshwater swamp ecosystem with the largest panther habitat in South Florida and wet backcountry that is open to hiking, paddling and off-road vehicles like swamp buggies (with a permit). The preserve is a mix of sawgrass prairie, cypress strands (which are rivers that course through the sheet of water that is historically the Everglades’ “river of grass”) and occasional dry pine and tropical forests.
There are hikes you can take that vary in length starting at the Oasis Visitor Center, including the Florida Trail, a rugged and wet hike that crosses the most remote sections of the preserve for more than 30 miles, which is not for the faint of heart; it is described as the “toughest backpacking trip in Florida.” Still, a tough wet hike, no matter how short, is simply the best way to really get into the Everglades, to feel part of its primitive, strange and powerful beauty.
Big Cypress is also only a few miles from the Everglades itself, and the towns of Everglades City and Chokoloskee, gateway to the Ten Thousand Islands.
There is so much to see here, from a taste of the Everglades terrain to sampling other nearby wild places, like Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve (home of the ghost orchid, 137 Coastline Drive, Copeland, 239/695-4593); the historic Smallwood store in Chokoloskee, site of the The Killing Of Mr. Watson (Peter Matthiesson); the spooky Loop Road drive, a National Park boat tour departing from Everglades City into Chokoloskee Bay and the Ten Thousand Islands (Gulf Coast Visitor Center, 815 Oyster Bay lane, Everglades City, 239/695-3311); Clyde Butcher’s iconic Big Cypress Gallery (52388 Tamiami Trail E., 239/695-2428); the historic Rod & Gun Club in Everglades City; stone crabs on the Barron River, and more. Your trip to these parts, however, especially for hiking or kayaking, is best reserved for months from about November through February during dry season and without the mosquitos that can be unbearable in the summer. And keep in mind some parts of the Everglades and Chokoloskee are still being reconstructed after the devastation of Hurricane Irma in 2017.
WHERE TO STAY
We like the Ivey House Bed and Breakfast in Everglades City—which also doubles as a kayak outfitter if you want to paddle the nearby Turner River or Sandfly Loop. 605 Buckner Ave. N., Everglades City, 239/695-3299.
WHERE TO EAT
From Oct. 15 through May 15, stone crabs are in season, and this is where they come from. There are several places along the Barron River where you can eat your fill, and a few seafood restaurants in Everglades City. (Fried gator will be on the menu.) We like Triad Seafood, 401 W. School Drive, 239/695-0722; City Seafood, 702 Begonia St., 239/695-4700; Camellia Street Grill, 202 W. Camellia St., 239/695-2003—all in Everglades City.
465 Wakulla Park Drive, Wakulla Springs, 850/561-7276
The natural freshwater springs in central and north Florida are ancient wonders in the state; Wakulla Springs, about two hours east of Panama City outside Tallahassee, is the largest and deepest freshwater spring, its name thought to be derived from the Native American word for“river of the crying bird.” It is regarded as one of the natural wonders of this region, with an enduring sense of mystery.
Florida industrialist Edward Ball bought the property in 1934 as a way of preserving wildlife and the habitat; the state of Florida had bought the entire park by 2000 to protect the quality of the groundwater. The springs, which have been measured to more than 300 feet in depth (but no one knows how deep they go), offer a glimpse into prehistory, and the sense of that is palpable; the first set of mastodon bones were discovered here in 1850, and since then nine other Ice Age mammals have been found; archeological/paleontological digs are still underway that have unearthed more bones as well as stone tools, canoes and other artifacts dating to prehistoric cultures. To date, the source of the springs is still a mystery.
The springs are also known for their rich wildlife, from alligators to manatees and birds and waterfowl, as well as their crystal clarity; there’s a reason “Tarzan’s Secret Treasure” (1941) and “Creature from the Black Lagoon” (1954) were filmed here.
The guided boat tours are a must here, but weekdays may be best; pre- COVID, the springs could get crowded on weekends and are a popular family destination. There is a six-mile hiking trail as well as swimming.
WHERE TO STAY
Integral to the springs experience is a stay at the historic Edward Ball Wakulla Springs Lodge at the springs, a large Spanish-style dinosaur built by Ball during Florida’s land boom in the 1930s, when he bought the springs, with a soaring Great Lobby made of heart cypress wood, period furniture, colorful painted ceilings and the original elevators. This is not a luxury experience; it is a state-owned park lodge, but it offers a glimpse into a grand Old Florida that complements the Wakulla Springs vibe.
WHERE TO EAT
You can always grab a casual bite at The Lodge itself (people love the atmosphere), but we also like Panhandle Pizza, 8875 Woodville Highway, Tallahassee, 850/228-6210 or The Kastnet, a down-home, family-owned seafood place at 892 Woodville Highway, Crawfordville, 850/421-1255.
Sanibel and Captiva Islands
West of Fort Myers, FL
You know you’re getting away from it all when your wheels hit the Sanibel Causeway, west of Fort Myers, and before you know it you’re off the Florida mainland and on island time—specifically that posh stretch of land, roughly in the shape of a jagged Nike swoosh, from Sanibel up to Captiva and Cayo Costa. There is one way in and one way out; following the necessary stop at the historic Sanibel Lighthouse, at the far eastern beachhead of the island, journey west and north for down-to-Earth fun.
From hiking and birding to angling and kayaking, the islands are rich with opportunities to reconnect with nature. The Bailey Tract, a 100-acre region once owned by a Sanibel pioneer family, features five interconnected trails coalescing around a mangrove island where reptiles bask, wading birds feed, and marsh hares frolic. At the Clinic for the Rehabilitation of Wildlife—known by its snappy acronym, C.R.O.W.—visitors can peek at rescued and recovering ambassadors from some four dozen species, including screech owls, skunks, hawks and a yellow-bellied cuckoo. Even in Sanibel’s central thoroughfare, Periwinkle Road, much of the pedestrian sidewalk is a de facto nature trail, complete with covered tree canopy, where bicycle rentals are a breezy solution to the frequent traffic gridlock in season.
But the outdoorsy behemoth of Sanibel is indisputably the JN “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge, a 5,200-acre attraction up the road to Captiva. The refuge offers four walking trails, saltwater fishing, kayaking, canoeing, standup paddleboarding and cruises with a Coast Guard-licensed captain and naturalist. The best bang for your buck is the famous Wildlife Drive. For $10 per car, you can motor the 4-mile route and stop as many times as you want to walk around, binoculars in hand, to scope the 240-plus bird species that alight there. Pelicans converge in battalion-like numbers, bald eagles nest atop the hardwood hammock, and gators prowl the freshwater marsh. The route concludes with a brief nature trail on a boardwalk, where giant pileated woodpeckers may be present, adding their percussive soundtrack. It’s a magical place.
WHERE TO STAY
At Captiva’s South Seas Island Resort (5400 Plantation Road), nestled within a 330-acre wildlife preserve, guests are said to be steps from manatee and dolphin sightings at the on-site marina, and shelling and sunset gazing are favorite pastimes on its 2.5-mile stretch of private beachfront. The six restaurants and 20 pools don’t hurt, either.
WHERE TO EAT
The Bubble Room (15001 Captiva Drive, Captiva) is world-famous for a reason: It’s as much kitsch museum as restaurant, its décor a cocktail of year-round Christmas dioramas, photographs of Golden Age movie stars, model trains whizzing around tracks, and more. Some of the original menu items developed by its eccentric founders in 1979 remain, like the seriously addictive Parmesan-coated Bubble Bread. The portions are enormous, and a single serving of house-made cake can feed an extended family.