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5 Day Trips From Tampa and the St. Pete Area

Anna Maria City Pier. Anna Maria is one possible destination if you’re looking for day trip ideas from the Tampa Bay area.

If you’re looking to get away from the Tampa Bay/”Champa Bay” area for a day or the weekend, you’ve got plenty of options. Although Orlando is just an hour or so away, you actually have many more day trip options near Tampa that you may not have considered yet. Here are five day trips from the Tampa/St. Pete area to check out next time you need a nearby getaway.

Herlong Mansion Bed and Breakfast in Central Florida’s town of Micanopy.

Micanopy, Florida

The tiny town of Micanopy, Florida, is small in size but big on charm and history. Located just 15 minutes from the University of Florida (go Gators), Micanopy (pronounced mic-uh-NO-pee; population: 700) is the oldest inland town in Florida, according to the Town of Micanopy website. The town has served as an Indian trading post, farming town, and Hollywood movie setting in the past. Now, visitors flock to Micanopy for antique shopping and other unique stores and a friendly small town experience. If you can stay overnight, the Herlong Mansion Bed & Breakfast is the place to hang your hat. Built in 1845, and listed on the National Register of Historic Places, Herlong offers just the right kind of feel for a visit to Micanopy.

Round out your visit to Micanopy with a few hours spent at Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park, where you may get lucky enough to see some wild buffalo and horses roam, as well as a few big alligators. Paynes Prairie, also located in Micanopy but away from the “downtown” area, has lots of trails to explore. Find our guide to visiting Paynes Prairie here.

Silver Springs State Park

Silver Springs State Park, home to glass-bottom boats so you can see what’s beneath the water.

Located in Ocala, Silver Springs State Park feels like a step back in time, which may not be a coincidence. After all, Silver Springs State Park has attracted visitors since the 1800s and served as a Hollywood set where shows like “Sea Hunt” and movies like “Creature from the Black Lagoon” were filmed.

What keeps visitors coming back, aside from the beautiful park itself (which actually feels like an autumn stroll up north if you visit during Florida’s winter months) are its glass-bottom boats. Step on the boats for a tour, and you can see down through the clear water to spot marine life and the occasional manatee and alligator. The park has many underwater springs, with some that are millions of years old.

In addition to glass-bottom boat tours, Silver Springs State Park attracts visitors for kayaking, paddle boarding, hiking, or trying to spot the 200 rhesus monkeys that live in and near the park.

Anna Maria Island

The beaches at Anna Maria Island can’t be beat. Catch them at the right time, and you may even avoid crowds.

You’ve got some great beaches in the Tampa area, like Clearwater Beach and St. Pete Beach, but there’s something special about Anna Maria Island. Make your way through the town of Bradenton to reach Anna Maria Island for an “Old Florida” feel. Anna Maria attracts snowbirds and beach lovers who want a quiet pace of life. Anna Maria is home to two piers (including the recently remodeled Anna Maria City Pier), unique shopping that’s mostly along Pine Avenue, and miles of beaches that provide killer sunset views. Don’t forget seafood restaurants and the nearby authentic fishing village of Cortez. Oh, and if anyone in your group misbehaves, you can throw them in “jail”–Anna Maria City Jail, an open-air area that once housed those who were naughty, usually after a night of drinking.

Word about Anna Maria has gotten out, so best to arrive as early as possible for your day trip from Tampa. Pay attention to any parking signs, as visitor parking is often a topic of debate among year-round residents. You can also use a free trolley from MCAT to travel from the town of Anna Maria to the tip of Anna Maria Island, where you’ll find Bradenton Beach and Coquina Beach.

Myakka River State Park

An alligator just hanging out at Myakka River State Park.

There are alligators, and then there are ALLIGATORS. Myakka River State Park offers both small alligators and ALLIGATORS–the kind that you snap pictures of and share on social media to wow your non-Floridian friends.

Located in Sarasota, Myakka River State Park has been around since the 1934 and is considered one of Florida’s oldest parks. Among its 58 square miles, you’ll find hiking, camping, biking, and lots more. Want to get the real scoop on the park? Take a boat or tram tour. There’s even shopping at the Pink Gator Cafe.

And about those alligators: The park is home to 4,000–yes, 4,000–alligators. That’s why no matter where you go in the park, if you’re near water, you have a good chance of seeing one or multiple alligators hanging out and catching some rays. Keep a safe distance and use whatever close-up lens you have available to get the best shots. On the boat tour, the captain will take you near some park areas where you also may be fortunate enough to see a few more gators.

Boca Grande

One of two lighthouses in the quiet enclave of Boca Grande.

The affluent enclave of Boca Grande has quietly attracted visitors to its beaches, shops, and restaurants for decades. Still, its out-of-the-way location on Gasparilla Island in Lee County doesn’t mean it goes unnoticed. From the Bush family to Fox News host Tucker Carlson to Clemson U. head coach Dabo Sweeny, many celebs and politicians have spent some time in Boca Grande.

Once you pay a toll to cross the Boca Grande Swing Bridge, you’ll pick up on a different, laidback feel. Visit Boca Grande to fish (it’s the so-called Tarpon Capital of the World) and visit not one but TWO lighthouses. Boca Grande Rear Entrance Range has a more traditional lighthouse look, while Port Boca Grande Lighthouse and Museum is smaller and located inside Gasparilla Island State Park.

Boca Grande also has a small but cute downtown area for shopping and restaurants. There’s also The Gasparilla Inn, a treasure trove of history and a local destination for golf, spa time, and tennis.

Golf carts gathered outside Gasparilla Inn on Boca Grande.

What to Know Before You Visit Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park

Boardwalk at La Chua Trail, Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park in Micanopy, Florida.

Want to see where wild horses and buffalo roam? You don’t need to buy a ticket to go out west. Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park near Gainesville boasts a population of more than 50 wild bison as well as wild horses, alligators, and almost 300 species of birds. Here’s the scoop on its history and what to know before you visit Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park.

History of Paynes Prairie Preserve — and How Did the Buffalo Get There?

As far back as 1774, naturalist and artist William Bartram wrote about the land that is now Paynes Prairie Preserve, calling it “the great Alachua Savannah.” Yet even before his writing, Native Americans (including members of the Seminole tribe) called the land that is now Paynes Prairie home, dating back 15,000 years. The land also was valued by Spanish explorers. The landscape that makes up Paynes Prairie has always attracted such interest because of its unique mix of marsh land, wet prairie, and open water, according to the park website. It 21,000 acres is also home to 430 vertebrate species. The park has 20 unique biological areas.

In 1971, Paynes Prairie became the state’s first official preserve. It will celebrate its 50th anniversary this year, in 2021.

Keep an eye on the sky at Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park for great potential pictures.

Although Paynes Prairie is in the Gainesville area, it’s officially in the town of Micanopy (mick-a-no-pee), which has a charming small downtown area and was recently named one of Florida’s most charming small towns by Travel + Leisure. We’ll write about Micanopy for our next blog article and include a link here. You can easily combine a day or two visit to both Paynes Prairie and Micanopy.

But what about one of the preserve’s most famous inhabitants, the bison? They were actually introduced to Paynes Prairie in the mid-1970s, after the land became a preserve. The wild horses are said to be descendants of the horses brought to the area by Spanish explorers. And the alligators? As you likely know, they are long-time residents in many, many areas of the Sunshine State, but places like Paynes Prairie give you a closer-up view.

Although not visible in this picture, this is a prairie area where the bison roam at Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park in Florida.

What to Expect When You Visit Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park

With its massive size, Paynes Prairie has a lot to offer, including:

–Hiking

–Camping

–Fishing

–Biking

–Wildlife viewing

–Boating

–Birding…and more.

The trick is knowing where to go depending on what you want to do. The park’s many trails do not all branch out from the same location, which is why you may want to decide in advance what you want to do. Here is a link to a map of Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park to help you plan ahead.

A deer spotted at Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park.

If your focus is wildlife photography, particularly alligators, the best recommendation is La Chua Trail, located beside a smaller residential community. The trail is 3 miles round trip. La Chua takes you briefly through a small stable (no animals in it; it’s a nod to the area’s cattle and horsing heritage), followed by a long boardwalk that goes over a marsh area. Then, the Alachua Sink is home to alligators sunning themselves (but see our tips below regarding how to plan your visit, as you may or may not spot them). On the trail, you also encounter a platform that overlooks Alachua Lake.

If you want to really learn more about Paynes Prairie and try to see the wild bison, then go to the park’s main entrance. You’ll pay $4 to $6 at the ranger station, and drive a couple miles back to the Visitor Center. The rustic and recently renovated Visitor Center has historical information, exhibits, and “home on the range” type views that look out on to the prairie where the bison are often found. Less than a five-minute walk away is the observation tower, where you up your chances of getting a great view of the bison if they are on the prairie. Additionally, there is a trail that will take you closer to the prairie.

The observation tower near the Visitor Center at Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park.

The park’s main entrance includes the campground, several other trails, and Lake Wauberg, where you can can fish and boat.

As you get to know the park, feel free to explore some of the park’s additional trails outside of the main park area. In addition to La Chua, these include Bolen Buff Trail, the Ecopassage Observation Boardwalk, and the Gainesville-Hawthorne State Trail. Of note, the Gainesville-Hawthorne State Trail is paved and goes on for 16 miles. It’s a historical railbed between Gainesville and Hawthorne and is popular with bikers. However, the trail also has a grassy area, making it great for multiuse.

We explored Bolen Buff Trail (2.5 miles roundtrip) once to take a chance at seeing wild horses or the bison herd. Alas, no spottings, but we did see recent animal dung from one of these famous inhabitants.

A view inside the Paynes Prairie Visitor Center.

6 Tips for Your Visit to Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park

We absolutely recommend a visit to Paynes Prairie to see “wild” Florida or for wildlife photography or birding. Still there are a few tips to follow to help you plan your visit.

  1. Have a few dollars on hand. We know, who carries cash? The park entrance areas outside of the main entrance request that visitors pay up to $4 per vehicle, placed in a blue envelope. Once you pay, you can take a tag to hang in your car. It’s an honor system. There may be a way you can handle this transaction online instead, but we didn’t see how. Hence, have some cash on hand. For the main park admission, you can pay online.
  2. Know in advance that the major wildlife sightings are not guaranteed. Our big motivation is getting those primo wildlife shots, such as alligators, horses, and bison. After two visits, we have yet to see these animals at Paynes Prairie. Well, we saw the buffalo during our first visit, from the Visitor Center and Nature Center. They were so far, not even our telephoto lens on a nice camera captured a good shot. That said, we spotted a deer right away during one visit, and we’ve seen many types of birds. Sometimes, it’s just dumb luck to see the animals you want to see.
  3. Also know that weather may affect what you can do. If you visit in the summer (aka, Florida’s rainy season), water levels may affect certain trails. That’s what happened twice for us on La Chua Trail, where we barely got past the elevated boardwalk before signs said the trail was closed. due to high water levels. On Cones Dike Trail, in the main park area, the walk lasted just a couple minutes before it started to get muddy (again, from rain).
  4. Use the park’s map to help show you where to go. Seasoned hikers likely already know this, but here’s a tip for the less experienced among us. You can have a link to park maps on your phone but also take a screenshot of them. That way, if internet signal is not available, you still know where the heck you are going. As mentioned earlier, use the maps to plan your visit as the options at Paynes are diverse.
  5. Find out which trails allow you to bring your best canine friend and which ones don’t. Understandably, not all trails allow pets because of the wild animals living there. Per the park map we have seen, Cones Dike, Bolen Buff, and La Chua trails do NOT allow animals. The Lake, Chacala, Jackson’s Gap, Ecopassage Boardwalk, and Gatesville-Hawthorne trails allow your favorite Fido or Fluffy.
  6. If you are fortunate enough to spot alligators, bison, or horses, leave them alone.
This sign at Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park in Florida says it all.

Here Are Things to Do at Bahia Honda State Park in Big Pine Key, Including Snorkeling

A view near the entrance of Bahia Honda State Park in Big Pine Key, Florida Keys.

No question about it, if you’re into snorkeling and visiting the Florida Keys, a guided boat ride that takes you to specific reefs or other areas is the way to go. However, maybe you’d rather explore something close to shore on your own or you’d like to do some DIY snorkeling and exploring in addition to a boat tour. For that reason and many others, Bahia Honda State Park on Big Pine Key in the Florida Keys could be just the place you need to visit.

Located at Mile Marker 37 (in the Keys, locations are often given by their Mile Marker, or MM), Bahia Honda offers pristine views for snorkeling, beach time, fishing, kayaking, and lots more.

Some background to get you started: The 500-acre Bahia Honda State Park is located in the Lower Keys, meaning that it’s closer to Key West than it is to Key Largo in the Upper Keys. The islands in the Keys are 125 miles long that go from south of Miami to Key West. The famous Mile Marker 0 is in Key West.

Bahia Honda, which means “deep bay” in Spanish, was part of Spanish nautical maps hundreds of years ago, according to the park website. The Florida Park Service gained control of the park in 1961. If you want to discover more about the park’s history, including the role played by a massive hurricane in 1935 and some related railroad history, check out the details here on the park website.

Sand art at Bahia Honda State Park. Notice the shark at the top.

5 Things to Do at Florida Keys’ Bahia Honda State Park

If you’re coming to Bahia Honda State Park from Islamorada or Marathon, you’ll cross the famous Seven Mile Bridge and drive a short distance before reaching the park. If you’re coming from the Key West area, you’ll drive through Big Pine Key and the area famous for Key deer. When you get to the park, be prepared to pay $8 per vehicle to enter the park.

Once you’re at Bahia Honda, here are just a few things you can do for fun:

Snorkeling: When snorkeling at Bahia Honda State Park, you’ll see small fish (and maybe the occasional big one), seagrass, shells, and clear water. If you’re a longtime snorkeler who’s been to the Caribbean, it may not compare. That said, you’ll have some decent underwater views and a relaxing beach day at Bahia Honda. During our visit, most of the people we saw in the water had their face masks and snorkels, with their heads underwater. The most interesting find for us while snorkeling was a six-inch living conch shell. It was a lot bigger than shells you may usually find while beachcombing.

The best time to snorkel is when it’s high tide. Here’s one site you can check for high and low tides. Did you forget to bring or buy snorkel gear? No worries. The park has a nifty gift shop (more on that later) where you can buy or rent snorkeling equipment.

If that doesn’t satisfy your desire to snorkel enough, Bahia Honda State Park also does boating tours that will take you snorkeling at Looe Key National Marine Sanctuary, where you’ll find reefs and coral. The boat leaves three times a day, and the price is $29.95 for adults and $24.95 for kids under age 18. You can bring your own equipment or rent it. We didn’t do the boat tour, but here’s where you can find more information about it, including a $3 off coupon for the 9:30 am tour. The tour allows you to snorkel for about an hour and a half.

Beach time at Bahia Honda State Park. The park has two beach areas.

Sunbathing: Many times, a visit to the Keys is focused on fishing, for all of the obvious reasons. However, maybe you just need some time to veg out on the sand and take the occasional dip in the water. There are two areas where you can do just that at Bahia Honda State Park. Loggerhead Beach is the longer of the two beach areas, although not very wide. Calusa Beach is smaller, more focused on swimming and snorkeling, and provides a view of the Old Bahia Honda Bridge. Between the two beaches, Calusa is the one where you can view those famous Florida Keys sunsets. There is a third beach area called Sandspur that is undergoing reconstruction due to damage from Hurricane Irma in 2017.

A view of Old Bahia Honda Bridge in Bahia Honda State Park.

Taking in the view along Old Bahia Honda Bridge: The Old Bahia Honda Bridge is an unused rail bridge that connects Bahia Honda Key with Spanish Harbor Key. Although a gap in the bridge prevents you from walking fully across, you can use a trail access point near the park’s gift shop and restrooms to access the bridge and get a super-scenic view of the park, the water, and the sky or sunset, along with the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean. Even the gap in the bridge makes for some interesting photos.

Browsing the gift shop: Bahia Honda State Park has a pretty cool gift shop that’s clean and comfortably air conditioned, which will feel refreshing after you’ve spent time out in the sun. In addition to the usual mix of T-shirts, beach bags, mugs, and snorkel gear, you also will see some display-only items, like a finding from the Atocha shipwreck now famous throughout the keys. The gift shop is also where you go to check in for the snorkeling boat tours. Plus, the gift shop includes a deli with drinks, sandwiches, hot dogs, and yes, Key lime pie.

Fishing: You are in the Florida Keys, after all, so fishing is a natural part of the fun at Bahia Honda State Park. One fruitful spot we found was following the walking trail past Calusa Beach and walking until there’s a concrete barrier beside the water. You’ll have a close view of the Bahia Honda Bridge. Drop your line down in the water and see what you can catch. We think we spotted a small shark at one point that made the fish temporarily scurry. No spearfishing or collecting of tropical fish is allowed, according to the park website. Don’t forget to get your Florida fishing license.

Sea turtle mural spotted at Bahia Honda State Park.

And Even More Things to Do at Bahia Honda State Park

Above are some of things we were able to see or do while at Bahia Honda State Park in Big Pine Key, but there are plenty of other things you can do during a visit, including:

–Biking along the 3 1/2-mile hard road that is in the park

–Birding

Camping for RVs and tents, but there are also six camping cabins

–Kayaking (rent a kayak from the gift shop area)

–Scuba diving

–Stargazing if you are camping there or staying at the marina (here’s info on boat slip rentals); it’s the darkest spot for stargazing in the Florida Keys, according to the park website

–Sunset watching

–Visiting the Sand & Sea Nature Center near the gift shop and main parking area. It includes displays of local sea life, but it was not open when we were there.

View of the trail where you can access Old Bahia Honda Bridge.

Three Quick Tips for Your Time at Bahia Honda State Park

  1. The park is open from 8 am until sundown, so plan accordingly.
  2. Dogs are allowed but there are several restrictions. They aren’t allowed on beaches, in buildings, or in the camping cabins. They must be well behaved and on a 6-foot leash.
  3. Use the map at this link to help you plan where to go.
Flower spotted at Bahia Honda State Park.

Things to Do When You Visit Florida’s Gatorland

Gators at Gatorland in Kissimmee, Florida.

Ready to see some gators? If you’re planning a visit to the theme park Gatorland in Kissimmee, Florida, in the Orlando area, you’ve come to the right place. Gatorland has been around since 1949, even before a mouse named Mickey came to the area and started the local Disney empire. A visit to Gatorland can fulfill your need for a smaller, more laidback theme park and help you check off “See an alligator in Florida” from your to-do list.

Here are some basics on how Gatorland works, followed by a few ideas of things to do at the park that go beyond just staring at the gators (not that there’s anything wrong with doing just that).

First, start your visit getting a picture at the historic gator mouth entrance, which has large teeth and looks like, well, a gator mouth. Post your pics to social media and make your family in the Midwest jealous. Use the hashtags #gatorland and #WeAreAlligators.

You’ll find birds at Gatorland that like to show off for the camera.

Next, wait in line for your Gatorland tickets. Gatorland is more affordable than other theme parks, averaging $30/ticket for adults and $20 for kids. If you are a Florida resident, Gatorland often has 50% specials, so that price slashes down to $15/ticket. (Check their website for package deals, like Gatorland Grunt.) Parking is free, too. Like any theme park, we recommend getting there earlier for a better parking spot and fewer people in the ticket lines. You can go to the head of the line when you buy tickets in advance. Make sure to get a park map, which attendants should offer to you.

Once you’re in the park, you’ll immediately see alligators. Lots of them. The park has several set ups toward the front, including smaller alligators that lay on top of one another and sun themselves and a larger area for some big gators. The park has a Juvenile Jumparoo, where you pay a few bucks and get small fish and a fishing pole to try to feed the juvenile gators. They will happily take the bait.

Next, most of the park’s main attractions follow a horizontal line where you can see more gators, snakes, birds, a petting zoo, white gators (two of only 12 leucistic gators known to exist in the world, according to Gatorland) and shows. Behind these main attractions is a Breeding Marsh (read below for details) that’s a peaceful home to more than a hundred gators and many more birds. Even further behind that you can see even more animals, including crocodiles, owls, and raccoons. Use the train ($2) if you want to check out all the park has to offer without walking too much.

These gators in the Breeding Marsh are hanging out and getting some sun.

If you have little kids, don’t miss the playground and the Gator Gully Splash Park (don’t worry, moms–no real gators are in the splash park to our knowledge). The part of the park with the kids’ stuff also has enclosures where you can see baby gators, panthers, and giant tortoises.

Gatorland also seems to constantly add new attractions, such as its Stompin Gator Off-Road Adventure, which takes passengers on a massive all-terrain vehicle for a look at Florida wetlands and ultimately toward a huge pond of gators. There’s a separate admission fee for it.

So, you get the idea. There are plenty of animals even beyond just gators to keep you entertained at Gatorland. Now, here’s even more insight on what to see and do at Gatorland. For more details, read older articles about Gatorland here and here from our other blog, Florida Culture.

5 Things to See and Do at Gatorland

This gator is on the prowl at the Breeding Marsh.
  • Take some excellent pics at the Breeding Marsh. At the 10-acre Breeding Marsh, there are hundreds of alligators that sun themselves all day and breed in the spring. You get to see these alligators by walking along a boardwalk that goes above the marsh and via an observation tower. If you’re lucky, you’ll hear an alligator bellow–it’s a sound you don’t want to hear at night if you’re alone in a swamp. What’s also cool is the multitude of egrets living at the marsh who also have babies every spring. You can get close enough for some great pics while also staying just far away enough to keep them safe. Fun fact: Parts of the 1984 movie “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” were filmed at the breeding marsh. You’ll see some of the staff dressed as if they helped out Indiana Jones in the movie with their hats and khaki shirts.
Discover the powers of a gator’s jaw at “Alligators–Legends of the Swamp.”
  • See a show. These aren’t Broadway style shows, but you’ll see a real production. During “Alligators–Legends of the Swamp,” discover more about these prehistoric creatures and watch employees pry open the mouth of select gators (we watched the gator Mighty Mouse). The whole experience would feel down home at the swamp if you weren’t surrounded by a hundred or so fellow tourists. You’ll also get some practical tips, like how to run away from a gator. Don’t run zig-zag, as you may have heard before! Run straight and run fast. (For the record, alligators are probably more afraid of us than we are of them…but knowing how to escape never hurts.) Gatorland has another show, Up Close Encounters, where you get to see snakes and other exotic animals.
Watch these birds show off for spectators at Gatorland.
  • Interact with animals. Another cool thing about Gatorland is that you can actually interact with the animals. There’s an open display of parrots (don’t reach out to touch them, they bite!), and they’re colorful and loud. Then there’s the bird aviary, filled with hundreds (or thousands?) of parakeets. Buy a stick covered with food and they’ll perch on you, including on your head and shoes. For another photo opp, take a picture with a small snake and a small gator with its mouth taped shut. Or, after shows like “Legends of the Swamp,” pay $10 to get a pic of you or your favorite frenemy (er, loved one) sitting on top of a gator. Then, there’s the petting zoo, with goats and other friendly barnyard animals. Finally, take the boardwalk down to Flamingo Island (yes, there are flamingos there) and pay a quarter to throw some gator chow into the water for the gators who also live there. You may also see egrets hitching a ride on top of a gator’s back.
Here’s where to get some fresh lemonade, fudge, and chocolate-covered pretzel sticks.
  • Eat. If all this gator hunting has you hungry, you have the usual theme park eats. There’s also Pearl’s Good Eats, which serves gator nuggets (tastes like chicken, we hear). Then, our personal favorite is Gator Jake’s Fudge Kitchen, with homemade lemonade, fudge, and chocolate-dipped pretzel sticks.
  • Get the zipline view. The Screamin’ Gator Zipline is seven stories high and goes over hundreds of gators and crocodiles. We have yet to try it, but AOL Travel rates it as the best ziplines in the world. There’s a separate admission fee for it. In fact, you should make sure to check the park’s website for other special experiences and programs with extra admission fees but that may be worth it for you or your fellow visitors (like Gator Night Shine).
Don’t miss Gatorland’s funny signs, scattered all around the park.

Here’s What You Can Do at Myakka River State Park (and Yes, There Are Plenty of Alligators)

Alligator just relaxing at Myakka River State Park.

There are lots of reasons you should visit Sarasota’s Myakka River State Park, located in Southwest Florida off of Interstate 75. But we’re guessing the real reason you want to visit is for the alligators.

That’s evident from the moment you drive a couple miles back from the main entrance toward the Myakka Outpost, during which you reach a short bridge area where people congregate because they’ve spotted a gator (or two or three). A Japanese tourist tries to take an alligator selfie with the gator she spots (no worries, she keeps her distance). She and her companions see a man in a kayak coming toward them. “Oh no, he’s going to get near the alligator!” she exclaims.

Somehow, he kayaked by unscathed.

Alligator living at Myakka River State Park in Sarasota.

What Is Myakka River State Park?

Myakka River State Park was developed in 1934 by the Civilian Conservation Corps and is one of Florida’s oldest parks. Its 58 square miles offers nearly 39 miles of hiking trails, camping, biking, canopy walking, scenic driving, tram tours, and gator tasting at its restaurant, the Pink Gator Cafe.

The park is beautiful in any season and has lots to explore but as mentioned before, the gators are the big draw. When the weather is warm, you can see dozens of them (together or separately) sunning themselves or gliding along in the river. The park attracts visitors from around the world who are fascinated by these prehistoric creatures, and they may occasionally wonder if the gator is going to pounce at them.

The truth is, they’re probably more afraid of you than you are of them. Unless provoked, alligators seem to want to keep to themselves. Give them a wide berth, and use a telephoto lens on your camera or the telephoto on your phone to get great shots.

Meandering among the trees at Myakka River State Park.

5 Things to to Do at Myakka River State Park

So, let’s say you’re ready to visit Myakka State Park in Sarasota. Pay your $6 entrance fee ($6 per car, fees vary if you’re on a bike or a tour bus) at the ranger station. What are some things you can do there? Here’s the scoop.

  1. Take a boat tour. The flat-bottom boat will take you out on Upper Myakka Lake, where you’ll feel the breeze on the water. If you’re OK with the price, we think this is the best way to get an overview of the park and some fun banter about the park’s history and wildlife, provided by the captain. You will likely see alligators as well. Boat tours last about an hour and are $20 per adult and $12 per child over age 3. Boat tours are offered five times a day (weather permitting) between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. but are more frequent during busier times. Tours are first come, first served. No reservations are accepted in advance. For more details about the boat tours, read the article from our other blog, Florida Culture. Or, check out one of our older articles….an oldie but goodie.
  2. Catch a tram. If you’d rather stick to land, then you could do a tram tour. The trams at Myakka State Park will give you the lowdown on the park, just like the boat rides will do. Your chances of seeing an alligator may be less, but we did spot a deer and lots of birds during a previous tram ride. Tram tours are also $20 for adults and $12 for kids and last about an hour. If you have your heart set on a tram tour, check with the park in advance. We went on a busy day and were told they weren’t doing the trams that day. The tram rides also may get canceled due to high water levels on the trails, which can happen during Florida’s wet summers. Here are more details on Myakka Park tram rides from a 2021 article on our other blog, Florida Culture.
  3. Take a hike. Literally. Put on some good waking shoes, and hike Myakka River State Park’s many walking trails. In fact, there are more than 38 miles of trails to explore, and they’re maintained by the Florida Trail Association. At one trail not far from the ranger station, you can climb to the top of a tower and take in the view from a canopy walkway (the hike is about 45 minutes roundtrip). If you park near the Myakka Outpost, which is also where you buy tickets for the boat and tram tours, you’ll find lots of trails you can explore. Here’s a more detailed map of biking and walking trails. There also are 12 miles of equestrian trails where you’ll feel like a real pioneer (here’s a map). Whether you’re on foot, bike, or horse, check at the ranger station to find out which trails may be flooded out or overgrown during the summer or early fall.
Wildflowers in late spring at Myakka State Park in Sarasota.
  1. 4. Check out in-season special attractions. One of our favorites in the spring if you’re up for some walking is a visit to Deep Hole, which requires a special permit (30 are given a day) but can enable you to potentially see lots and lots of alligators together during mating season. If you catch it at the right time, it’s a photographer’s dream. The two-mile walk to Deep Hole takes you through dry prairie with little shade. We visited once and apparently hit it at the wrong time, as we barely saw any gators. During another visit, we saw many more. Just remember, it’s not the hike for young kids who get tired easily as there’s nowhere else to really go except staying on the trail. Here’s an article about our previous visit to Deep Hole. Then, in late spring (usually in May), the park gets filled with yellow wildflowers called Coreopsis leavenworthii and Coreopsis floridana. As you can imagine, they’re great for photos for your own enjoyment or on your Instagram feed. They’re easy to access as all you have to do is pull over to the side of the road while driving in the park. We saw some women all dressed up to take pics among the photos, walking in their spring dresses right past cage-like wild hog traps (wild hogs are a nuisance in the Florida wilderness).
  2. 5.Check out the Pink Gator Cafe and Myakka Gifts & Boutique. If you want to look at everything alligator themed (even if some of it is made in China), then visit the Pink Gator Cafe and the souvenir shop located at the Myakka Outpost. You can also try gator stew or gator bites there or just get a refreshing drink after all of your exploration.
Lots of nature close ups to be seen at Myakka State Park.

There’s lots more to do at Myakka River State Park–we’ve just shared some of our frequent choices over the years. In addition to what we’ve listed, you can:

–Launch a boat

–Go camping (they even have log cabins)

–Go fishing

–Go canoeing or kayaking

–Use the mountain bike trail

–Bring a picnic

–Enjoy the playground

Moody sky and a gator at Myakka River State Park.

Some Final Tips for Your Visit to Myakka State Park

  • Go early if you can. During prime tourist season (including around the Christmas holiday and the winter/spring), cars can get backed up at the ranger station to get in. Inside the park, it’ll feel a little more theme park-like during those busy times. You may not have the park to yourself if you’re there at its 8 am opening, but your chances are much better than if you go at noon.
  • Bring bug spray, sunscreen, a hat, and water.
  • Double check the pet policy. You can bring your favorite Fido to Myakka Park (including for camping in developed areas), but we’re guessing it’s best if you have a well-trained dog that stays on a leash and you can keep him or her away from shallow water.
  • Make sure your GPS takes you to the main entrance off of SR-72. We once jauntily followed directions to the more isolated north gate, only to arrive and see that gate was only open on the weekends. It took us about a half hour to drive to the main gate.
The always fascinating alligators at Myakka State Park.

5 Can’t-Miss Florida Day Trips Near Sarasota and Bradenton

A deer spotted at Paynes Prairie Preserve, near Gainesville.

Looking for day trip ideas from the Sarasota or Bradenton area? We’ve got you covered.

Sarasota and Bradenton are nicely situated to explore what the Sunshine State has to offer. Although both are coastal towns on the Southwest Gulf, they’re just close enough to the middle of the state to make Tampa about an hour away, Orlando two hours, West Palm Beach three hours, and Miami four hours. However, we share here some day trip ideas that go beyond those busier destinations. We also focus for the most part on outdoors destinations, although we do make mention of a few indoors sights. If you’re reading this article during the pandemic, follow any recommended safety precautions while indoors.

All right—let’s go explore.

1. Sebring and Lake Placid

Florida isn’t just about the coastlines. On the drive to Sebring, located smack dab in the middle of the Sunshine State, you’ll meander on backroads where you can spot wildlife like birds, deer, wild turkey, and farm animals like cows. Sebring itself is mostly a retiree enclave, but it’s also famous for the 12 Hours of Sebring annual race. We recommend Sebring as a slower-paced day trip escape. Make sure to include Highlands Hammock State Park in your visit and its canopy walkway for prime nature viewing (the trip to Sebring is worth a visit alone for Highlands Hammock). You can also make your way to the Sebring pier on Lake Jackson and visit Sebring Soda & Ice Cream Works, which sells 300 different types of sodas.

A view of trees at Highlands Hammock State Park in Sebring.

About 20 minutes south of Sebring is Lake Placid, a town with several nicknames, including The Caladium Capital of the World (96% of the world’s caladiums are grown there) and the Town of Murals. That’s because the town has more than 50 murals depicting Florida and Lake Placid history. It’s also home to a clown school. Both Sebring and Lake Placid offer a small town feel with quaint shops and eateries.

Distance: 1 ½ to 2 hours from Bradenton and Sarasota

Other nearby towns: Avon Park, Palmdale (home to one of our fave spots, Gatorama)

Other articles we’ve written about Sebring or Lake Placid: U.S. 27 Road Trip: From Sebring to Miami, Visit Florida

Lake Placid: The Caladium Capital of the World, Visit Florida

Lake Istokpoga: Trophy Fish, Photos & Gators in Lake Placid, Visit Florida

Golf carts outside of The Gasparilla Inn in Boca Grande.

2. Boca Grande

Boca Grande is not that far at all from Sarasota and Bradenton, but it tends to fly under the radar. However, if you’re an angler, you’ve likely heard of Boca Grande as it’s the Tarpon Capital of the World, attracting fishermen from around the globe for good catches. Otherwise, Boca Grande is an upscale but understated coastal area, famous for the historic Gasparilla Inn and its two lighthouses. It’s the sort of place where when you cross the Gasparilla Bridge to get there (and shell out $6), you’ll feel like you’re crossing into another laidback way of life.

Distance: 1 to 1 ½ hours from Bradenton and Sarasota

Other nearby towns: Fort Myers, Punta Gorda

Our other articles about Boca Grande: 7 Things to Do in Boca Grande Florida, Florida Culture Blog

Four Lighthouses in Florida You Should Visit, Florida Culture Blog

Boardwalk at Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park.

3. Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park and Micanopy

Located south of Gainesville, Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park encompasses more than 21,000 acres with several different park entrances. Although Florida has lots of beautiful parks, the big draws at Paynes are the wild bison and wild horses. The bison live on the—take a guess?—prairie of the park. You won’t always spot them but if you do, you’ll feel like you’re out West. The wild horses wander in the park and while we didn’t see them during our visit, we did see, um, evidence that they had passed by pretty recently. Paynes Prairie also offers excellent views of birds (300 species), alligators, and deer. The park is designated as a National Natural Landmark.

An antiques shop in picturesque Micanopy.

Before or after your visit to Paynes Prairie, make the short drive to the charming small town of Micanopy (pronounced mi-ka-no-pee). It has real Southern charm with historic mansions, billowing trees with Spanish moss, and antique and arts shops. There are also a couple of eateries where you can sit outdoors and people watch or enjoy live music. Often called “the town that time forgot,” Hollywood filmmakers haven’t forgotten Micanopy. Footage from the town appears in films like “Doc Hollywood.” The late rocker and Gainesville native Tom Petty mentioned Micanopy in his song “A Mind With a Heart of Its Own.”

If you have time to stay overnight, the historic Herlong Mansion Bed & Breakfast is the place to stay.

Distance: 3 hours from Bradenton and Sarasota

Other nearby towns: Gainesville, Ocala

The lighthouse at Egmont Key.

4. Egmont Key State Park and Shell Key Preserve

If you live in West Bradenton or Anna Maria and own a boat, your visit to Egmont Key State Park is only a short boat ride away. If you were a bird, you could fly there. If you have neither a boat nor wings, take in the view while crossing over the Sunshine Skyway Bridge and hop on a ferry that will take you to Egmont Key or Shell Key Preserve.

Egmont Key is a state park that was charted by Spanish explorers in the 1500s and housed soldiers during the Civil War. Nowadays, Egmont has old military buildings, a lighthouse, gorgeous beaches, shells, and several trails. It’s also home to a large gopher tortoise population, so you may just see a tortoise or two or three crossing your path. We thoroughly enjoyed Egmont Key, but you do need to plan ahead, as there are no restrooms and no food for sale. Bring your snacks and drinks, and hit the restroom in advance from places like St. Pete’s Fort De Soto Park (assuming you took the Egmont Key Ferry from the park).

Beach life at Shell Key Preserve.

Similarly, Shell Key is a smaller destination that’s near Egmont Key and Fort De Soto Park. The main goal at Shell Key is to find shells, and they definitely are in abundance. If you bring snorkel equipment, you may even find shells underwater that are 6 inches to a foot long, much larger than what you’ll find on a typical day wandering along other beaches. Shell Key also is a great destination to find sand dollars. Again, bring your food and drink. Plus, no restrooms.

There are a few ferry companies that will take you to Egmont Key or Shell Key, but the one that appears to be the largest is Hubbard’s Marina. Keep in mind the cost to take ferry as well as parking and toll costs if you’re starting at Fort De Soto Park.

Distance: A 45-minute to an hour drive to St. Pete’s Fort De Soto Park, then the ferry ride to either destination is about 20 minutes

Other nearby towns: St. Petersburg.

Our other articles about Egmont Key and Shell Key: What It’s Like to Visit Egmont Key in Florida, Florida Culture Blog

Here’s What It’s Like to Visit Fort De Soto Park and Shell Key Preserve in St. Pete, Florida Culture Blog

A cattle mural in Okeechobee reflects the town’s ag history.

5. Okeechobee

Talk about Cow Town. Okeechobee is THE place to go if you want to see cattle. It’s the type of town where Florida’s agricultural roots shine through. In fact, Okeechobee County is one of three of the largest cattle-producing counties in the state, according to the Florida Beef Council. Florida ranks 13 in the nation for its cattle production.

Okeechobee has a downtown area with a few small shops, colorful murals, and Flagler Park (which features military helicopter and tank as well as a colorful butterfly garden). Okeechobee also has a walkway along the massive Lake Okeechobee, where we spotted gators cruising along in the water. Of course, a lake means good fishing, and that’s another reason to visit Lake Okeechobee. About 10 to 20 minutes from downtown, we visited Arnold’s Wildlife Rehabilitation Center, which is a full-time home to more than 300 animals. They include panthers, cows, deer, kangaroo, and many others. The friendly staff also rehabilitate animals year-round so they can return to the wild.

Distance: 2½ hours from Bradenton and Sarasota

Other nearby towns: Fort Pierce, Port St. Lucie

Our other articles about Okeechobee: Fun Things to Do in the Town of Okeechobee, Florida, Visit Florida (make sure to read about Lightsey’s Seafood Restaurant, which is worth a visit)

A “butterfly” spotted in downtown Okeechobee.

7 Things to Do in Boca Grande, Florida

Beach life in Boca Grande, Florida.

Looking for a day trip or weekend getaway in Southwest Florida? There’s a good chance you haven’t thought about visiting Boca Grande. Here’s why you should.

For starters, Boca Grande is likely closer than you think. It’s located on Gasparilla Island, situated on the Gulf in Lee County (Fort Myers also is in Lee County). From our home in Bradenton, the drive there was a little under 90 minutes away. That means if you’re in Bradenton, Sarasota, or Fort Myers, Boca Grande is a getaway without feeling too far away. Boca Grande is close to Charlotte Harbor and Punta Gorda, both in Charlotte County.

A trip to Boca Grande could be the quiet, Old Florida destination you need for a break. To get to Boca Grande by car, you have to cross the Boca Grande Swing Bridge in nearby Placida, Florida. Pay your toll of $6 (be ready for it—they accept cash or credit card but no Sunpass), and you’ll cross over the only way by vehicle to reach North, Cole, and Gasparilla islands.

Once you make that crossing, your mindset starts to shift as you take in the calming view of the water. Boca Grande is calm by design, as it’s an affluent, hidden enclave that offers just enough to do for all ages without feeling overwhelming or as flashy as Naples or West Palm Beach. The Bush family has spent a lot of time there over the past few decades. Clemson University football head coach Dabo Sweeny and University of Alabama head coach Nick Saban both have been spotted there, according to Sports Illustrated.

You may have heard of Boca Grande if you’re into fishing—after all, it’s the Tarpon Capital of the World—but otherwise, it seems to keep a low profile.

The view from one of Boca Grande’s lighthouses.

Before we share a few things to do in Boca Grande, here are a few helpful history factoids:

  • The Calusa Indians were the first inhabitants of Gasparilla Island. Researchers have since found 20-foot high shell mounds in the area filled with pottery and arrowheads.
  • Sportfishing has always been a big attraction in Boca Grande. There are long-time fishing families still in the area.
  • Phosphate, which is used in just about everything, is a big Florida commodity. In the 1880s, phosphate was discovered near Punta Gorda, about 20 miles away from Boca Grande. Factor in Boca Grande Pass as one of the deepest natural inlets in Florida (about 80 feet deep), and that led to the development both of the town of Boca Grande as well as the railway system reaching Gasparilla Island. In turn, that also would lead to the construction of two lighthouses on Gasparilla Island, which we’ll describe below.
  • Wealthy people from the North came to visit Boca Grande as a vacation destination. In turn, the now-famous Gasparilla Inn was built in 1912.

Now that you know a little more about Boca Grande’s history, let’s take you on a little trip so you know more things to do during a visit to this Southwest Florida town:

Boca Grande Entrance Rear Range Lighthouse.

1. Visit the lighthouses. Lighthouses have a quiet charm about them, so we rank this high on the list of things to do in Boca Grande. The two lighthouses are often confused—in fact, they even had the same name at one point due to a clerical error.

First there’s the Boca Grande Entrance Rear Range in Boca Grande, which has a more traditional lighthouse look. It’s the one closest to the actual town of Boca Grande, before you reach Gasparilla Island State Park. The lighthouse originally stood in Lewes, Delaware, but was taken apart and then moved to Boca Grande in the 1920s to help guide ships. The phosphate industry in the Boca Grande area died out in the 1970s. There was talk of demolishing the lighthouse in 2004, but that was met with much resistance. The lighthouse is now maintained by the Barrier Island Parks Society. You currently can’t climb to the top, but make sure to check the society’s webpage for updates.

Port Boca Grande Lighthouse and Museum.

Just about a mile down, drive to Gasparilla Island State Park and you’ll find Port Boca Grande Lighthouse and Museum, built in 1890 and originally used to guide ships into Charlotte Harbor. It doesn’t have a traditional lighthouse look as you just climb up a flight of stairs to reach it. It’s now home to a museum and gift shop. The Port Boca Grande Lighthouse also is managed with help from the Barrier Island Parks Society. Due to COVID-19, as of October 2020, the Port Boca Grande Lighthouse was closed, although you can still walk around the exterior and enjoy the beach area in Gasparilla Island State Park. Park admission is $3. Check the lighthouse’s webpage to find out when it is usually open.

A recent article we wrote provides more detail on the history of Boca Grande’s two lighthouses.

2. Check out the beaches. Like any Southwest Florida coastal town, this is the obvious idea. The beaches are beautiful, with turquoise water, blue sky, and white, puffy clouds. You can search for shells and shark teeth, throw a fishing line in the water, or just relax in the Gulf.

Man fishing at Gasparilla State Park in Boca Grande.

3. Fish. In the Tarpon Capital of the World, you’ll find your share of anglers from around the globe, all ready for a fresh catch. “From Boca Grande Pass to Bonita Springs, fishing guides and amateurs alike try their hands at catching one of these powerful adversaries,” according to the Boca Grande Beacon’s 2020 Visitor’s Guide. In fact, a fully-grown tarpon can weigh 50 pounds or more, and they’re known to put up a fight. Thousands of tarpon gather in the Boca Grande Pass from April to August. You’ll also find plenty of other fish to keep you busy if you’re not ready for the tarpon challenge, including:

  • Snook
  • Grouper
  • Flounder
  • Pompano
  • Mackerel
  • Mangrove snapper.

Use your own boat, rent a boat, or get in touch with a local Boca Grande fishing guide to properly guide you.

4. Check out The Gasparilla Inn. Wealthy society members from Boston were the first customers of The Gasparilla Inn in the early 1900s. J.P. Morgan and Florida railroad tycoon Henry Plant stayed at the inn as well. Since its opening, the inn has maintained its elegant reputation, and it’s a historic hotel as designated by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. You can golf, head to its beach club, play tennis, go to the spa, or enjoy a meal at several on-site dining locations. Whether you’re able to stay at the inn or not, The Gasparilla Inn is still worth a stroll to check out local history.

Golf carts outside the Gasparilla Inn.

5. Go on a golf cart journey. Golf carts rule in Boca Grande—so much so that there are cut-out paths in the downtown area specifically for carts. There’s even a July 4th Gulf Cart Parade. If you spend time near Gasparilla Inn, you’ll see a whole fleet of golf carts waiting to take you around. Can’t snag a golf cart ride? Then biking is the second-best option. Boca Grande is flat and scenic, making it ideal for biking.

6. Take a walk down Banyan Street. Named for the massive and beautiful Banyan trees that line it, Banyan Street is so picturesque, it’s even popularly used for weddings. The picture here of Banyan Street is from photographer Paul Marcellini. The trees on Banyan Street were first planted in 1915 by the developer of The Gasparilla Inn.

Sign spotted outside Temptation Restaurant in downtown Boca Grande.

7. Spend time in downtown Boca Grande. It’s a small town, but there’s still plenty to do in the downtown area. Here are a few highlights:

  • Grab a bite to eat at some of its popular eateries, including Loose Caboose, Temptation, The Pink Elephant, and The Outlet on the Innlet. This TripAdvisor link will give you the scoop on the restaurants we mention here, as well as a few others. Many restaurants in town have outdoor seating.
  • Go shopping. Boca Grande has its share of souvenir shops with Old Florida décor, souvenirs, Boca Grande-themed clothing and signs with witty sayings (one of our faves: Exercise all you want, you can’t burn off crazy). The downtown also has a quaint grocery store called Hudson’s with a pink old-fashioned gasoline pump out front.
  • Check out the four-panel aqua-filled mural depicting life in Boca Grande.
Old-fashioned gas pump outside Hudson’s Grocery.

9 Free Things to Do on Anna Maria Island

Nestled away in Southwest Florida is the beautiful Anna Maria Island, located in Manatee County and just a few minutes from Bradenton. In Anna Maria, you’re also just a short distance (traffic notwithstanding) from Sarasota and the tiny, authentic fishing village of Cortez. So, what can you do for free on Anna Maria Island?

The barrier island of Anna Maria reflects “Old Florida,” a time before high rises took over the skyscapes of many Florida coastal cities. (Fun fact: One of the original Anna Maria pioneers, Charles Roser, was an inventor of the Fig Newton cookie.)

To this day, Anna Maria remains a family-friendly and snowbird-friendly destination that maintains a small-town feel. As Anna Maria receives more accolades from national media—include Southern Living —it’s attracted more tourists, and the traffic to get there during its busiest times can be brutal. Still, with the Gulf quite literally in your backyard (there are seven miles of beaches) on one side and Tampa Bay on the other side, the island maintains its tranquil charm.

Anna Maria Island is home to three towns: Anna Maria, Holmes Beach, and Bradenton Beach. There’s plenty to do on Anna Maria Island, but like any vacation destination, some of it requires a hit on your wallet. Let’s look at some of the free things you can do on Anna Maria Island during your next visit.

Humans aren’t the only ones that enjoy the view on Anna Maria Island.

1. Hang out on the beaches. This is the low-hanging fruit among the free things you can do on Anna Maria Island but probably the most popular as well. The beaches are gorgeous. Whether you take an early morning walk, sun yourself like a lizard midday (Use sunscreen, please! Skin cancer treatment is practically a hobby in Florida), or peacefully enjoy a sunset, you can’t go wrong. Even during storms, the beaches are photogenic. There are several public beaches with large parking lots, restrooms, changing areas, and lifeguard stations, including Coquina Beach and Manatee Beach.

For a more dramatic look, there’s Bean Point right at the northern tip of Anna Maria Island. If you fly over Anna Maria, you can’t miss it, jutting out dramatically among the gulf’s turquoise waters. The cool thing about Bean Point is you see where the gulf and the bay meet.

Anna Maria Island’s Bean Point.

For even less crowded areas, check out any of the public beach access areas on Anna Maria Island that may have a limited number of parking spaces or be pedestrian access only.

Tip: Anna Maria has limited parking spots near Bean Point, and parking also is limited around the smaller public beach access areas. Follow any parking restriction signs and if you’re not staying on the island itself, arrive early to obtain a spot without schlepping all your beach stuff forever from your car.

Anna Maria’s City Pier, which was recently rebuilt.

2. Spend some time on the piers. There are two iconic piers on Anna Maria Island—the Rod & Reel Pier and Anna Maria City Pier. Rod & Reel Pier doubles as a restaurant and now has a small resort area adjacent to the pier. Anna Maria City Pier, which has been around since 1911, was damaged during Hurricane Irma in 2017 and reopened in June 2020. Both piers serve as good fishing spots and provide tranquil views of the gulf, nearby Egmont Key (look for the white lighthouse), and the Sunshine Skyway Bridge going into St. Petersburg. Along the Anna Maria City Pier, we recently watched tens of thousands of tiny, brown fish swim together in shallow water and occasionally jump out of the water when a larger-sized snapper or snook swam below them. Tip: You can watch the sunrise from the piers; the sunset views are on the beach side of the Anna Maria Island.

City Pier visitors gather around a woman who just caught hundreds of tiny bait fish through cast netting on Anna Maria Island.

3. Window shop. Don’t have any money to spend? Don’t worry. Window shopping is fun on Anna Maria Island. First, there’s Pine Avenue, which has an array of eateries and shops and is flanked by the beach on one end and Anna Maria City Pier on the other end. When you’re ready to spend a little cash on food, you have a few choices. Two of our faves are The Donut Experiment and Poppo’s Taqueria, both popular destinations that have now expanded in the Bradenton area (Poppo’s) or around Florida (The Donut Experiment). Read our previous Pine Avenue articles here and here. There are also some cool shops on other parts of the island. Our top picks: The Original Sand Dollar Gift Shop, which sells affordable coastal décor and jewelry; and Rader’s Reef, an old-fashioned seashell and antique shop where you just might have the privilege of meeting the owners’ basset hound.

Bayfront Park is another place where you can enjoy Anna Maria Island for free.

4. Bring a picnic to Bayfront Park. A short distance between the two piers is Bayfront Park, which has a smallish beach area as well as some stately Australian pine trees and a couple of picnic tables and grills. The town of Anna Maria sometimes holds events at Bayfront Park, and it’s a reasonable alternative if you’re having trouble finding a spot on the beach or if you want somewhere you can set up a picnic.

5. Walk or bike around the town of Anna Maria. Whether you just want to get some exercise or your goal is to marvel at the ever-expanding homes on the island, there’s always an interesting view during a walk around the town of Anna Maria. Don’t miss the luxury, multimillion-dollar homes on North Shore Drive and nearby streets. There’s even a home near Bayfront Park that has a see-through pool that’s partially visible from North Bay Boulevard.

Roscoe the basset hound sniffing away at Anna Maria Island’s Scentral Park.

6. Take Fido to Scentral Park. Or, take the kids to the playground, or take your teens to the skate park. You’ll find these attractions, along with a baseball field, off of Flotilla Drive. The aptly named Scentral Park is a newer dog park that has wide-open grassy areas along with some shady cover. There are separate areas for large and small dogs. Dogs aren’t allowed on Anna Maria Island’s beaches, so the dog park may be just what you need to get Fido some exercise.

7. Check out the outdoors markets. Down at Coquina Beach, there’s the Beach Market at Coquina Beach, where you’ll find a lively mix of prepared food, produce, and arts vendors nine months out of the year, on Sundays and Wednesdays. The market is held under the shade of the Australian pines. From October till May on Tuesdays, the town of Anna Maria also has a newer farmers market held at City Pier Park featuring local growers and other items.

8. Go to jail. Go directly to jail, do not pass go, do not collect $200….jail time is indeed what you’ll get at the Anna Maria Jail, an outdoors, square-shaped, enclosed area that was used from 1927 to 1940 to hold the town’s rabblerousers. Those who stayed had to endure the heat and the mosquitoes. Nowadays, you can swing by just long enough to get a few pictures. If you’ve got a little extra time, the Anna Maria Historical Society is right next door and worth a visit.

9. Take the trolley. The free Anna Maria Trolley allows someone else to do the driving for you so you can sit back and take in the view. The trolley, operated by MCAT, starts as early as 6 a.m. and goes from the City Pier in Anna Maria to the southern tip of Bradenton Beach. Here’s a link to the trolley schedule and a trolley map (click on the area that says “Trolley: Anna Maria Island.”)

Beach views on Anna Maria Island.

Big Alligators and Big Fun at Circle B Bar Reserve in Lakeland

So just what is there to do at Circle B Bar Reserve in Lakeland? Lots.

Circle B Bar Reserve offers peace, quiet, and bird and gator spotting. Located on 1,267 acres of what was once a cattle ranch, Circle B Bar Reserve (find a link to a small map and more info about the reserve here) is now operated by Polk County Environmental Lands and is a great–and free!– place to visit. Here’s why:

Saharan sunrise at Circle B Bar Reserve.
  1. It’s a bird watcher’s and nature lover’s dream. Egrets, herons, woodpeckers, ibis, and dozens of other birds were spotted during our recent visits. Circle B is also known for eagles, armadillos, bobcats, and otters, to name just a few.
  2. It’s popular for nature photography. Visitors with fancy cameras and even tripods are commonplace at Circle B Bar Reserve.
  3. You will likely see alligators. We can’t promise you’ll see the massive gator crossing a trail as shown in this video from Tampa’s Fox 13 in 2018, but with the massive size of Lake Hancock onsite, you’re bound to see, at a minimum, gators coasting along in the water.
  4. You’ll help educate the kiddos on nature. There’s a Discovery Center to help everyone in your crew learn more about the reserve.
  5. Circle B Bar Reserve is a peaceful place to take a walk and get away from the digital world. Need we say more?
Landscape view at Circle B Bar Reserve. L
Egret at Circle B Bar Reserve, munching on a dragonfly.

Get Ready for Your Next Visit to Circle B Bar Reserve

So, what are some tips to keep in mind for visiting Circle B Bar Reserve in Lakeland? Here are a few pointers.

  • If you’re visiting with kids, plan your trail walk in advance. That’s because there’s a labyrinth of trails onsite, some of which are longer and less shaded in the others. You probably know what your kids can handle depending on their age, so check out the trail descriptions at this link. Some easier trails include the Shady Oak Trail, Alligator Alley, and Lost Bridge. (Our personal fave is Alligator Alley with the views of the massive Lake Hancock.) Look near the Discovery Center for a paper copy of the map. There also are maps on display at some points along the trails but we found them small and hard to read. So, grab a paper copy or take a picture of the map and then you can enlarge it with your phone. Of course, if you have any questions about where to go, staffers at the Discovery Center can help.  
  • Wear good walking shoes. You would think this would be obvious but during a recent morning visit, we saw two—TWO—grown men in separate groups who were barefoot. This is Florida, people! There are surely snakes all around, not to mention animal droppings and sharp sticks. Ow.
  • Bring water while you explore. Again, this seems obvious, but we don’t mind stating the obvious. Although you’re probably wise enough to think about water, what we didn’t think about during one recent visit to Circle B Bar Reserve is that we’d end up on a trail that would take us to another trail and before we knew it, we didn’t know where we were—and it was about 95 degrees outside. Thankfully, we did have some nice agua to keep us hydrated but if we didn’t, our little adventure would have been less pleasant, especially because we also had a big Nikon camera to lug around.
  • Respect any signs for trail closures. Sometimes, certain trails are closed for maintenance or to give the animals living there some space and privacy—such as during alligator mating season. Considering the size of some of those prehistoric creatures, we’ll give them all the space they need. The Circle B Bar Reserve link here will alert you to any trail closures.
  • Keep the pets at home. Pets aren’t allowed at Circle B Bar Reserve, surely because of the abundance of wildlife living there. Apparently, music and balloons aren’t allowed, either (we’re guessing for similar reasons). However, there are picnic areas, so if you’re OK having a lower-key celebration, this could be your park.
  • Respect the wildlife at a distance. When we lived in Lakeland a few years back, there was another park where people would go to see “Big Mama,” a 12-foot gator living there. We heard that people would try to get near Big Mama and feed her. We don’t know if everyone who did so survived, but suffice to say that the nice folks at Circle B want you to take your snaps of their resident gators and other animals from a respectful distance. See, socially distancing prepared you for this—and that’s what telephoto lenses are for!
  • Make a side trip to downtown Lakeland. If you’re visiting from outside of the area and want to make the most of your time, nearby downtown Lakeland has some cute restaurants and shops. It also has Lake Morton (famous for its resident swans) and Florida Southern College, with its Frank Lloyd Wright architecture.
Heron at Circle B Bar Reserve.

Enjoy your visit to the beautiful Circle B Bar Reserve, and make sure to tag us on Instagram with any photos you take. Our account is @Florida_Culture. For more Florida travel tips, check out our other articles on this site or on our other website, Florida Culture. Happy travels to Circle B Bar Reserve.

7 Florida Shows to Watch While You’re Staying Home

Looking for shows to watch while you’re stuck at home during the coronavirus pandemic? Consider choosing a show that was set in Florida or with Florida connections. With the Sunshine State’s beautiful backdrops (even if some of these shows weren’t actually filmed in Florida), you’re guaranteed to see gorgeous scenery and most likely some wild-and-crazy antics associated with our fine state. This is by no means a “best of” list, but just something to get the binge-watching juices flowing.

Oh, and if you’re actually looking for things to do, you can check out the blog we posted recently on our other site, sharing some fun Florida-themed things to do while you’re stuck at home.

  1. “Tiger King.” We are relentlessly jumping on the “Tiger King” pop culture bandwagon with including this one. Although the new Netflix reality docuseries is mostly in Oklahoma—the home to “Joe Exotic”—there are several Florida connections, including Big Cat Rescue in Tampa and Maria Tabraue, an exotic animal owner/former drug dealer alluded to have inspired “Scarface” (an infamous film also tied to Florida). Joe Exotic—words alone just can’t describe him—is definitely an honorary #FloridaMan.
  2. Dexter.” This dark series from Showtime, set in Miami, focused on a serial killer who would only kill those he deemed as bad people. Dexter’s “dark passenger” made for some great acting and there are some great scenery shots, too, although we later learned the series filmed mostly in Long Beach, California, and not Miami. You can also find “Dexter” on Netflix. We especially recommend Seasons 1 to 4, the final of which featured the brilliant John Lithgow.
  3. Golden Girls.” This could be just the “comfort food TV” you need right now. The four gals who feel like good friends lived it up in Miami (actually, it was filmed in front of a live studio audience in California), contending with friendships, relationships, and a leftover slice of pie. Available on Hulu and Amazon Prime.
  4. “Bloodline.” Focusing on family drama, “Bloodline” features Sissy Spacek, Kyle Chandler, and other great actors managing the Rayburn family empire when their brother, the black sheep of the family, returns to town. The series is set in the Florida Keys and has tons of beautiful scenery to almost make you feel like you’re there. Available on Netflix, “Bloodline” stopped filming when it became too pricey to film in Florida.
  5. “Miami Vice.” Pastel suits, anyone? If you were alive in the 80s, you know the ubiquitous theme song to “Miami Vice,” is like Pavlov’s dog, calling you to the TV set. Miami police officers Crockett and Tubbs had fashion sense for their times, and Sonny Crockett even kept a pet alligator on his houseboat (don’t try that at home, kids). “Miami Vice” was shot in South Beach, Broward County, and Palm Beach County. It’s available on various streaming services.
  6. Burn Notice.” This USA Network comedic series focused on a spy who was made to leave his job, or “burned.” The show was actually shot all around Miami, including the Opa-locka/Hialeah Flea Market and the Biltmore Hotel, according to a Miami New Times article. It’s available on various streaming services. It’d be a good show to binge if you need comedy mixed with action and Hawaiian shirts.
  7. Floribama Shore” and “Siesta Key.” If you need something that’s completely mindless, check out these two MTV reality shows. You’ll see plenty of good-looking people cavorting together on the beach (remember the days when people gathered on the beach in groups?) with the requisite Sunshine State scenery. “Floribama Shore” is set in Panama Beach, and “Siesta Key” is set in, well, Siesta Key—named this year the best beach in the U.S.

We know there are dozens more shows set in Florida, not to mention many movies. Feel free to share other faves you have in the comments or on social media to help out others looking for something to watch!

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