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5 Florida Road Trips That Are Worth The Drive And Aren’t Disney World

by Staff

FLORIDA — If the magic is gone from endless lines of screaming children and antsy teens at Walt Disney World and other theme parks, or even more reserved crowds at Kennedy Space Center, we offer five alternate Florida road trips:

St. Augustine To Cedar Key, about 130 miles: You may be tempted to stay in St. Augustine, a cultural melting pot known as the “nation’s oldest city.” Start out at the Castillo de San Marcos, a 17th-century Spanish stone fortress. St. Augustine’s museums and historic landmarks, including Ponce de Leon’s “Fountain of Youth” and the oldest wooden schoolhouse in the country, are endlessly fascinating, but it’s also a first-class beach, golfing, fine dining and shopping destination.

Near the start of the route is the licensed and accredited St. Augustine Wild Reserve, home to a menagerie of 150 exotic rescue animals, including a rare golden tabby tiger, Siberian lynxes, Arctic and grey wolves, snow and Bengal tigers, African lions, leopards, hyenas and coatimundis, coyotes, a cougar, a black bear and a white-tailed deer.

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The route skirts several state parks, including Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings State Park, a good halfway point. There, the cracker-style home and farm where she wrote her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, “The Yearling,” and other works of fiction, has been restored and preserved.

The final stop is the quaint, old-fashioned vacation spot of Cedar Key, where some of the best clams in Florida are found.

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A brown pelican perches on a pier at Cedar Key. (Shutterstock/Thomas O’Neil)

Key Largo to Key West, about 106 miles via U.S. Highway 1, the Overseas Highway: With flat turquoise water on either side and brilliant sunsets, a road trip through the Florida Keys — a string of 800 tropical islands linked by 42 bridges known as popular destinations for fishing, snorkeling and scuba diving — is a sensory delight.

The undersea John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park on Key Largo is a popular spot — one way to enjoy it is in a glass-bottom boat tour, but more adventurous visitors can get closer by scuba diving or snorkeling.

With reservations, you can swim with the dolphins at Grassy Key’s Dolphin Research Center. The Keys are also a great place to see sea turtle nests — there are more of them here than anywhere else in the country. And, of course, eat at the Green Turtle Inn.

Ernest Hemingway made his way to Key West via Paris and then Cuba. Visiting the Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum in Key West is one of the more touristy things to do, along with Ghosts And Gravestones of Key West, named one of the top 10 ghost tours in the country by USA Today.

A trip to the Florida Keys offers a chance to see coral reef, whether from a glass-bottom boat or during scuba diving and snorkeling. (Shutterstock/EB Adventure Photography)

Tallahassee to Pensacola, about 200 miles: This drive, an immersion in state history and culture, starts in Florida’s capital city and heads west across the Panhandle to Pensacola. The first stop is Chattahoochee, a town with an important U.S. Supreme Court legacy regarding the hospitalization and treatment of people with mental illnesses.

Next up is the quaint small town of Marianna, and a detour through the stunning Florida Caverns State Park and Blue Springs Recreational Park. DeFuniak Springs, regarded as a hidden Florida gem, has hundreds of grand Victorian mansions, plenty of dining and shopping options, and the perfectly round, 40-acre spring-fed Lake DeFuniak, one of only two of its kind in the world.

At the end of this road trip, Pensacola’s sugar sand beaches, where a look up in the clouds could be rewarded with the sight of the U.S. Navy Blue Angels world-renowned flight squadron.

Colored lights give an ethereal glow to the already stunning caves at Florida Caverns State Park, one of the state’s hidden gems. (Shutterstock/IrinaK)

Wild horses couldn’t drag you away: Florida’s first state park, Paynes Prairie Reserve State Park near Micanopy in Alachua County, offers 21,000 acres of protected savanna where herds of wild horses and bison roam. Any one of eight trails, one of them the 16-mile paved Gainesville-Hawthorne State Trail, could put you within eye shot of these amazing creatures, along with about 300 species of birds, alligators, deer and other animals. This park, also a designated National Natural Landmark, was once home to Seminole tribes.

Wild horses roam the 21,000 acres of Paynes Prairie Reserve State Park. (Shutterstock/jodieg)

Meet Lu, the oldest living hippopotamus in captivity in North America: Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park about an hour north of Tampa has some of the best natural springs in Florida. When Homosassa Springs was a train stop in the early 1900s, passengers picnicked and soaked in the springs while train cars were loaded with cedar, crabs, fish and spring water. One passenger, Bruce Hoover of Chicago, called it “the most beautiful river and springs in the world” after a visit in 1924, according to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

The Underwater Observatory allows visitors to “walk underwater” and see manatees and various fresh and saltwater fish swim about. Other wildlife protected at the park include flamingos, whopping cranes, black bears and, of course, the bull hippopotamus Lu, who is retired from entertainment.

He was almost kicked out of the park once but lives there permanently under the order of former Gov. Lawton Chiles, and is also an honorary citizen of Homosassa. Each of the animals in the park has a unique life story, but one thing in common: They are there because they are unable to survive on their own in the wild.

The bull hippopotamus Lu is permanently retired from entertainment at Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park. (Shutterstock/Sunshower Shots)

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