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.
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.
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.
- 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 one of our previous articles.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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).
- 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.
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 canoeing or kayaking
–Use the mountain bike trail
–Bring a picnic
–Enjoy the playground
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
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).
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
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)
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.
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:
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.
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.
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:
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”)
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:
- 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.
- It’s popular for nature photography. Visitors with fancy cameras and even tripods are commonplace at Circle B Bar Reserve.
- 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.
- You’ll help educate the kiddos on nature. There’s a Discovery Center to help everyone in your crew learn more about the reserve.
- Circle B Bar Reserve is a peaceful place to take a walk and get away from the digital world. Need we say more?
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.
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.
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.
- “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.
- “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.
- “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.
- “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.
- “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.
- “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.
- “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!
Looking for the playbook for a visit to St. Augustine, Florida? Florida Culture’s got you covered. This year marks our seventh (or eighth?) visit to the oldest town in the U.S., with our annual pilgrimage taking place on a recent blazing hot weekend. Despite the heat, we always enjoy our time in St. Augustine. Our collective experience has led us to share some insider tips to help guide you on your next visit to St. Augustine.
1. Ghost hunting. If you’re walking around downtown St. Augustine, you’re essentially walking over dead bodies. The city has had its massive share of strife and bloodshed since its founding in 1513, and all of that violent history makes for some popular ghost hunting. Even if you’re a skeptic, you still may get some amusement out of the city’s many ghost tours tours.
Insider’s tip: Know what kind of tour you want. For family-friendly, we recommend any of the nighttime trolley tours, but especially the Ripley’s Ghost Train Adventure that allows you to enter the Haunted Ripley Castle. If you want history mixed with a workout, sign up for the St. Augustine Lighthouse’s Dark of the Moon Tour, which takes you up and down a vertigo-inducing staircase (219 steps each way) for an ultimately awesome view of the area. Do wear comfy shoes and bring water if you choose the latter. The former lighthouse keeper and his family members are said to haunt the lighthouse. There also are tours where guides dress in period costumes and tours geared more toward adults such as the Haunted Pub Tour.
2. Go beyond downtown. Downtown St. Augustine and the main pedestrian walkway of St. George Street is where many tourists will congregate, but there’s so much to see beyond there.
Insider’s tip: Consider the following additional destinations for fun beyond the shopping around St. George Street: St. Augustine Lighthouse and Maritime Museum (a real workout going up the lighthouse stairs but worth it for the view), St. Augustine Alligator Farm (nature lovers, don’t miss the bird rookery), Adventure Landing (great if you’re with kids and need an arcade-type experience), Potter’s Wax Museum, St. Augustine Premium Outlets, the Fountain of Youth, Ripley’s Believe It or Not, and beautiful Flagler College. One of our favorite personal destinations is free, but you’ve got to get up early: It’s a sunrise walk along St. Augustine Beach, near the pier.
3. Where to stay. There’s no shortage of lodging choices in St. Augustine, from older or newer hotels to bed and breakfasts. Like many people, you’ll probably use Trip Advisor along with the amount of dinero in your wallet to make your choice, but consider our suggestions below as well.
Insider’s tip: There are some new hotels right on the beach in St. Augustine Beach, including Embassy Suites. Beachfront and barely used? Sounds enticing. That said, there’s the charm of places like La Fiesta Ocean Inn and Suites, with friendly staff who deliver scones to your room every morning. Downtown, we hear great things about the Peace and Plenty Inn. Our fave non-downtown place to stay is the St. Augustine Beach KOA, which has RV, tent, and “kamping kabin” sites. Use the pool, rent a a banana bike, or simply take in the calm of its pond….and you’re just five minutes from the beach.
4. Eating. Much like the lodging situation, there’s no shortage of great food in America’s Oldest City.
Insider’s tip: Although there is a food tour in St. Augustine, someone suggested to us a DIY food tour. Pick out a handful of restaurants or bars that you think look yummy, and plan with your travel companions to visit each one and try an appetizer or two. Some possible to include that we like: Harry’s Restaurant (oreo beignets? OK!!), the Tiny Martini Bar at the said-to-be-haunted Casablanca Inn, San Sebastian Winery (its upstairs restaurant is The Cellar Upstairs), St. Augustine Distillery, and The Floridian.
Some final insider’s tips:
- Make use of Groupon or those tourist guides you’ll find scattered throughout the city. Whether you like the online option or low-tech paper options, there are savings to be had. Although some of the coupons may save only a couple of bucks, it adds up over time.
- Most people make it to Castillo de San Marcos, a 1600s fort in downtown that’s run by the National Park Service. It’s definitely worth a visit and has some great angles for picture-taking. In addition to your standard visit, find out when they do re-enactments of a cannon launch, complete with costumed re-enactors speaking Spanglish. San Marco also is said to be haunted, so another option is walking around the perimeter at night (the inside will be closed) and take pictures to try and capture spirits or orbs. The same recommendation holds if you’re walking the interior of San Marco during the day—if you’re into ghosts, take a few shots, and you never know what spooky images you’ll find…
- St. Augustine has two trolley tours—Old Town Trolleys and Red Train Tours. We’re a big fan of Old Town as we’ve also used it in other cities, but take whichever trolley line is convenient for you. They both are great and often offer discounts when visiting other area attractions.
- Find some of our previous St. Augustine stories here, here (the latter two stories for the Canadian publication Dreamscapes), and here, from our blog.
If you’re in the Sarasota, Florida, area, and you haven’t visited The Ringling lately, you’re missing out.
This cultural gem–once home to circus magnate John Ringling and his wife Mable–features an art museum with European baroque art, a grand home right on Sarasota Bay, and a circus museum.
Yet that’s just half the story.
The museum and the home (called Ca’D’Zan, which means House of John) are very worthy of their admission fees--generally $25 per person for the museums and $20 extra for the home tour. (By the way, admission is free on Mondays everywhere except the Circus Museum and the Ca’D’Zan). However, we recently relished in the fact that walking on the grounds of The Ringling is free. As in gratis, no money. Next time you need a break and some fresh air, stop by. We think everyone in Sarasota should be taking advantage of this.
Here’s our guide on 11 things to do at The Ringling Museum Estate, aside from the museums–and here’s a link to a Ringling Estate map to help guide you. If you’ve ever visited the grounds, some of these ideas may be familiar. However, we hope that some will lead you on a treasure hunt.
Revel among the roses. Mable Ringling had a rose garden built at her home, and it’s full of a variety of roses with names like Popcorn, Love Song, and Barbra Streisand. The garden has stone-carved cherubs and benches for quiet pondering. Get your telephoto lens ready for closeups of these floral beauties. Volunteers maintain this Italian-inspired garden.
- Be among the banyans. Banyan trees are special because they form a huge canopy over the ground with its roots and secondary trunks, creating a tangled but lovely mess (see a picture at the end of this article). Find 14 banyan trees at The Ringling. It’s the largest collection of banyan trees in Florida.
- Play. The David F. Bolger Playspace at The Ringling is located near the banyan trees and seems to stay pretty busy. It features a slide, hand-powered fountains, and basket swings.
- Find where this is located (see picture to the right). Let us know when and where you find it!
- Bring a sketchbook and drawing pencils or painting. You’re likely to spot several artists on the grounds. Perhaps it’s a nod to Sarasota’s appreciation for the arts, or perhaps it’s because New College of Florida and the Ringling College of Art and Design are so close. And we know you’ll already have your phone out for Insta-ready pics.
- Find out about native Florida trees. If you’re at Ca’D’Zan facing the bay and look to the left, walk just a few short minutes to find the Millennium Tree Trail, which gives background info on trees that are native to Florida. If you’ve been in the sun all day, the trail provides some welcome shade. Which tree is your favorite?
7. Thought-provoking art–discuss. Although we’re sure some of the art on display at The Ringling changes occasionally, we found this, er, interesting statue during our visit. From afar and from only the back, we assumed it was The Tin Man from “The Wizard of Oz.” Then we saw the face. The Cuban-American artist Coco Fusco created this in 2018 in response to divisive politics in the U.S. Love it? Hate it? Discuss!
8. Take in the horizon. The Ringling has so much beauty to see, but you can put that aside for a moment and just focus on the Sarasota Bay. Check out the water, and you may see fish or even the occasional sting ray. With the right lighting, you may snap a memorable pic of boats on the water. Imagine what it’s like to live at some of those houses with bay views.
9. Pay your respects. Somewhat hidden but near Ca’D’Zan you’ll find the Secret Garden and Ringling Burial Site. The feel of this small area is a little more somber than the rest of the grounds, but it’s beautiful nonetheless. Pay your respects to the cultural gift that John and Mable left Sarasota.
10. Get a “free” tour of the museums. Can’t make it to the museums? Then the gift shop is a plausible alternative until you have time or money to visit. Get a sense of the European, Asian, abstract, and circus art at the museums from the gift shop souvenirs.Get some gift ideas for the holidays or for the art appreciators among your friends.
11. Eat. As you walk in to the Visitor’s Pavilion, you’ll find The Muse Restaurant, which pleasantly surprised us with its gourmet vegetarian dishes such as squash gouda dumplings and fried green tomato ALT (avocado/lettuce/tomato). The Muse is operated by The Tableseide Group, which also owns Libby’s and Louies Modern. Later on, find the Banyan Cafe for a snack.
Let us know if you have other fave things you like to do at The Ringling!
As you head on your road trip or vacation this summer, you’ll have some idle time where you’re waiting in line at an amusement park, sitting in traffic, or simply chilling at the beach. Make that idle time fun for your family or yourself by taking this pop quiz of Florida knowledge! All of these are true or false. Answers appear at the bottom of the page. Good luck.
- Florida has 67 counties.
- Explorer Christopher Columbus named Florida.
- The movie “Scarface” was filmed in Florida.
- Florida ranks number three among U.S. states for its population.
- More than 90% of the oranges grown in Florida are used as whole fruit (not for orange juice).
- Lake Okeechobee is the state’s largest lake.
- The capital of Florida is Orlando.
- More than a million alligators live in Florida.
- The fabled and famed creature Bigfoot has been seen regularly in Florida.
- Florida’s famous love bugs were created in a lab at the University of Florida.
- More than 70 million people visited Orlando in 2017.
- Florida has more than 1,300 miles of coastline.
- Plant City, Florida, is called the Winter Strawberry Capital of the World.
- Florida has produced two U.S. presidents.
Gatorade was named for the University of Florida Gators.
Florida Fun Facts Pop Quiz–Answers
- True! Palm Beach County is the largest county in terms of land mass.
- False. Explorer Ponce de Leon named the state “la Florida,” which means “flowery place” in Spanish.
- False. Although this famous movie with Al Pacino focuses on Miami and the Cuban exiles, most of the film was shot in Los Angeles.
- True. The only states that rank higher are California and New York.
- False. Actually, 90% or more of the oranges grown in the Sunshine State are used for orange juice.
- True. You can see Lake Okeechobee from space.
- False. It’s Tallahassee!
True. There are about 1.25 million alligators in Florida and a total of 5 million spread across the Southeast U.S. There are also crocodiles in south Florida.
- False. However, the Skunk Ape is Florida’s own legendary Bigfoot-like creature.
- False. That’s a myth. This report on Snopes.com explains why this isn’t true and quotes a UF professor who says, “If we created them, they would be orange and blue.”
- True. Orlando, America’s most visited destination, attracted 72 million people in 2017, according to Visit Orlando.
- True. It ranks second only to Alaska for its amount of coastline.
- True. This town in the Tampa Bay area produces an abundance of yummy strawberries in the winter. It even hosts an annual Strawberry Festival that attracts national music acts.
- False. It is one of the most populous states in the U.S. but surprisingly has not been the birthplace for a president.
- True. The drink was developed at UF.
So how’d ya do? If you need to brush up on your Florida knowledge, make sure to read other articles on Florida Culture Travel. We have more than 60 Florida-focused articles where you can have fun learning about the Sunshine State. Got a place in mind for us to visit in Florida? Then leave a comment!
There’s no shortage of things to do in Bradenton, Florida. After all, the Bradenton/Sarasota area garners worldwide praise for its beaches, natural beauty, and arts and culture. Most of the time, it’s simply a matter of choosing what you’re in the mood for on a given day.
Here are 5 things to do in the Bradenton area that Florida Culture recommends.
1. Beach it out. OK—a recommendation to go to the beach in our area is low-hanging fruit, as that’s probably what drew you here in the first place. Still, try the beach at various times of the day for different vibes. Early morning is great for a walk and shelling, midday is ideal for swimming and people-watching, and the evening draws sunset lovers and picture-snappers from across the globe.
Venture out to try the various beaches around Bradenton and Bradenton Beach. Coquina Beach and the Manatee public beach have lifeguards (and some shade at Coquina), so they’re ideal if you have kids. However, there are other beach enclaves that have their own feel. Bean Point on Anna Maria Island and Beer Can Island (popular with boaters) are also great. Tip: As our beaches become more well-known, the traffic to reach them has gotten more congested year-round—not just in season. Plan your trip to reach earlier in the day, if you can. Or, stay near the beach so you only have a short walk.
2. Stroll down downtown Bradenton’s Riverwalk. Riverwalk offers a scenic 1.5-mile view along the Manatee River in downtown Bradenton. Check out boats, a playground, public art, and the downtown Bradenton library, or South Florida Museum, among other sights. Once that walking tires you out, mosey on over to Main Street for a bite at O’Bricks or any of the restaurants or bars in this growing downtown area. Tip: From October to May on Saturdays, downtown Bradenton hosts its farmers’ market.
3. Find a beach alternative at De Soto National Memorial. Everyone has a favorite local park, and this is ours. De Soto National Memorial in West Bradenton is part of the National Park Service and offers history, spectacular views, and even something for Fido. The park is named for Spanish conquistador Hernando de Soto, who landed in the Tampa Bay area in 1539. You can discover more about the area’s history at the visitors’ center or via the historic demonstrations that take place there. However, if you’re hankering more for sun and views, take advantage of the park’s several trails, many of them offering peaceful views of Tampa Bay. Some visitors to De Soto visit as an alternative to the popular beaches and make a day of it as the park has a few sandy areas. De Soto is a big hit with dog lovers, so Fido can be part of your beach day.
4. Get an arts education at Village of the Arts. Located near downtown Bradenton, this funky, colorful area features unique art galleries, stores, and eateries. It was created in 1999 by a nonprofit group as a community where artists could live and set up shop. If you’re looking for an interactive arts experience, this is the place to check out. On the first Friday and Saturday of each month, the Village of the Arts hosts an Artwalk event, where residents and store owners plan special activities for visitors. Don’t miss Bird Rock Taco Shack for tacos of all kinds (including vegan and vegetarian options) and nearby Motorworks Brewery, which is adjacent to Village of the Arts.
5. Dine out. In the mood for seafood? Italian? Farm to table? Yup, Bradenton’s got it. There are too many great places to eat in town to name here, but we’ll share a small sampling. Near the beach, you’ve got the Beach House Restaurant in Bradenton Beach and The Sandbar, both of which offer Florida-caught seafood and farm-to-table dishes (the same company owns Mar Vista in Longboat Key). EnRich Bistro in West Bradenton is owned by a local family and serves gourmet and locally-sourced meals. Ortygia in the Village of the Arts serves delicious Italian dishes.
Have a favorite activity in Bradenton, Florida? Tell us in the comments. Who knows?! We may have a part 2 article to share other ideas!