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Florida’s Outdoor Coolest Spots for Summer

Florida’s Outdoor Coolest Spots for Summer

What would outdoor Florida be without wading along the shoreline, swimming, tubing, snorkeling, diving, kayaking, boating and fishing?

Definitely a sorry place indeed – I honestly wonder how many of us would stick around without all these wonderful wet places we take for granted.

Fortunately for visitors and residents alike, aquatic preserves, the Florida Springs initiative, the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, Coral Reef Conservation all ensure these ecosystems will be around for a long time, thank goodness.

Let’s explore a bit of what we take for granted – Florida’s outdoor coolest spots.

Floating over Another World in Florida’s Outdoor Coolest Spots

A small group of us took up the offer to go on a free snorkeling trip to explore the estuarine world of Gasparilla Sound-Charlotte Harbor Aquatic Preserve in Southwest Florida near Punta Gorda and Placida.

Florida's outdoor coolest spots - Snorkeling in Gasparilla Sound.
Snorkeling in Gasparilla Sound.

Off we go on a pontoon boat. Even non-swimmers felt comfortable about getting wet. The water depth was, at most, four feet so it was easy to stand up at any time.

What a difference a mask and snorkel make! I float along, hands loose at my sides, looking down at swaying clumps of sea grass. Schools of little fish dart back and forth. A young grouper goes by giving me the eye but moving on quickly. I’m in their water world now – a visitor in a foreign land and it is fascinating.

I stand up with reluctance. Our two hours are up. Bummer. I promise myself I’ll be back.

In the upper Florida Keys at Key Largo is John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park. Land sits next to water with its living communities of protected coral reefs. Naturally, snorkeling tours are immensely popular. Make reservations at (305) 451-6300. The two and a half hour tour take you out by pontoon boat. You are in the water for an hour to an hour and a half. Bring gear or rent equipment there (prices on Web site). Snorkeling tour fee is $29.95 for an adult, $24.95 for children under 18.

Springs Bubble with Blue Beauty

Florida's outdoor coolest spots - divers at Ginnie Springs
Divers at Ginnie Springs

Forty-four parks, mostly in Central and North Florida, have accessible springs – get wet, canoe, bring a picnic lunch, dive, even float on an inner tube, carried by the current on clear blue water. Some samples: Ginnie Springs Outdoors near High Springs. Ichetucknee Springs State Park where tubing down the river carries on as a family tradition over the generations and Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge, the last undeveloped habitat in Kings Bay with 30 known springs. This is a refuge for West Indian manatees.

Water trails in Florida are called blue highways. They meander through mangrove, down rivers, along the coast, paddling can be very addictive – and for the super serious there is the CT, the Florida Circumnavigational Saltwater Paddling Trail. It is the longest saltwater paddling trail in the continental United States. The keeper of all things related to Florida paddling is the Florida Paddling Trails Association.

Florida's Outdoor Coolest spots - canoeing at Alexander Springs
Canoeing at Alexander Springs.

For a truly other world experience, join A Day Away Kayak Tours for a black night/cold light bioluminescent night tour in the Indian River Lagoon. Bioluminescent season started in June and continues until October. See their calendar to know when the black nights (no moon) times are. Prices vary by weekday/weekend and whether you bring your own boat or use theirs. To know more call (321) 268-2655. No need to be a kayak expert – they’ll have you gliding along in no time.

Three of us went on this tour, leaving from the Haulover Canal Launch Site 20 minutes east of Titusville We pushed off at sunset stopping first in an area known for manatee sightings (not that night) then lazily making our way to the Lagoon. Now it is dark, pitch dark. I dip my paddle in the water and a trail of silver follows the paddle. A mullet swims by trailing bioluminescent in its wake. No one really knows what causes millions of tiny organisms in the water to light up when the water is disturbed and it only happens in certain months.

Overhead the sky is a huge inverted black bowl filled with stars. We rest our paddles. It is utterly silent and so beautiful it takes my breath away. Pictures? No. I didn’t even try.

This is one of those “you have to be there” experiences.

Florida’s outdoor coolest spots are waiting for  you – just do it!

 

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Key Largo has Conch Fritters Calling Your Name

Key Largo has Conch Fritters Calling Your Name

Sitting outside on the patio we all sigh with relief. After a long car ride we’re in the Keys at the Key Largo Conch House, Mile Marker 100.2 Oceanside in the Upper Keys.

Key Largo Conch House
Key Largo Conch House. Photo by Lucy Beebe Tobias

Something profound happens when the mainland recedes. The Overseas Highway is the one and the only road. It goes straight south through the Upper, Middle and Lower Keys ending at Mile Marker 0 in Key West.

Florida Bay on one side, the Atlantic Ocean on the other – the view is water, water everywhere all the way down the Keys.

Just that sight – two horizons of water – lowers everyone’s stress level 100 percent. Goodbye busy world, hello island time.

We’ve arrived. There is no hurry to do anything.

Let’s read the menu.

Conch Chowder and Key Lime Pie Calling for You in Key Largo

Conch chowder and key lime pie are required eating, seriously, it is part of the Keys ritual. Throw in a side of conch fritters to cover the conch bases.

Island time induces life changes. After traveling for 24 years Ted and Laura and their sons Jon and Justin in 2004 moved to their favorite vacation place, Key Largo, and opened the Key Largo Conch House, serving an award-winning menu for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

We’re glad they caught island fever.

In the Keys food and fun are joined at the hip.

Key Largo, where we stayed for a few days, has the distinction of being home to the nation’s first underwater park, John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park. Next-door is Key Largo National Marine Sanctuary. The long stretch of protected coral reefs with features like the Christ Statue and the Spiegel Grove and 600 species of fish is a magnet for snorkelers, divers and a variety of glass bottom boat trips, including daily trips from the state park. No wonder Key Largo has the nickname Diving Capital of the World.

For those who want to stay on dry land and still learn new things visit Dagny Johnson Key Largo Hammocks State Botanical Site on County Road 905 in Key Largo to get a look into a tropical density that can be quite surprising.

A failed condominium project, all that remains (mercifully) is a large arch at the entrance and a paved one-half mile boulevard. Altogether the park has six miles of mostly paved trails. This park has one of the largest pieces of West Indian tropical hardwood hammock left in the United States.

Imagine early explorers trying to machete their way through an ecosystem so dense it is hard to see through the trees.

Seeing Key Largo by Bike

For sightseers (including us) who like the passing view from bikes, the Florida Keys Overseas Heritage Trail is a work in progress. It is certainly preferably to actually being on the Overseas Highway with car traffic.

From our hotel, the Holiday Inn, Key Largo to Islamorada, about 10 miles, the Trail is pretty well finished. In the few spots we encountered construction, the workers actually stopped to let us go by.

African Queen is docked in Key Largo
The real African Queen from the movie of the same name is docked at Mile Marker 100 in Key Largo. Photo by Lucy Beebe Tobias

A must-see tourist attraction – At Mile Marker 100 the African Queen is docked. Yes, that one. The unforgettable boat from the movie starring Bogart and Hepburn. Partially restored, donated funds are sought to finish the restoration.

Sunset provides another Keys ritual.

It happens every evening.

Be there.

Plan ahead to dine Bayside to watch the sun go down.

We did just that at the Bayside Grill directly behind DiGiorgio’s Café Largo. Sitting upstairs on a screened in porch we opted for fish tacos, another good choice in the Keys. As advertized, the sunset was spectacular.

A sunset on the keys in Key Largo. Photo by Lucy Beebe Tobias
A sunset on the keys. Photo by Lucy Beebe Tobias

But then, this is the Keys where time is measured in sunsets and conch fritters are calling your name.

UPCOMING

Like to garden but don’t know how to get down and dirty in Florida?

Join Lucy for a two-hour gardening workshop on Saturday, Nov. 15 at Longboat Key Education Center.

Lots of hands on fun, plenty of takeaways and you’ll go home inspired. To know more and to register call (941) 383-8811 or visit the Website

 

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