Beyond Disney: Exploring Florida

Summary:

When folks travel to Florida from the midwest, the top three reasons seem to be: 1. Leave the cold behind; 2. Get to a beach; 3. Disney. While all three of these reasons are valid, neglecting the Everglades, St. Augustine, and the Kennedy Space Center, along with some exploration of the other nooks and crannies around the state, does visitors a disservice. In this post, we’ll cover our experiences of a week long trip around the state.

Itinerary:

Day 1: Fly into Orlando, overnight in Orlando, rent car in the morning

Day 2: Drive to Tampa for a brief visit, stay the night in Fort Meyers

Day 3: Drive to and explore the western side of the Everglades from Everglades City,  brief sunset visit to Naples Beach, stay in Bonita Springs

Day 4: Drive to eastern side of Everglades (with stops along the way), stay north of Fort Lauderdale

Day 5: Drive to and visit Kennedy Space Center, stay in St. Augustine

Day 6: Tour and stay another night in St. Augustine

Day 7: Fly out of Orlando

This trip took place in December, 2015

To the Everglades:

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As with most of our trips, hitting up a National Park was a primary focus.  National Parks never disappoint, and though we took a little time to get to Everglades National Park (ENP), that payoff was well worth it.

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Bonita Springs, located a tad north of Naples, was a little hike from the Everglades, but the drive of about 1.5 hours to Everglades City let the excitement sink in. Once we passed by Naples, the drive became rural, in a wetlands sort of way. 24157149365_7b2746d015_zSparsely populated, Everglades City was the launchpad for expoing the western side of the park. There are a few bar/ restaurants, the visitor center, and supply stores.

Outside of a few trails right at the visitor center, digging into the western Everglades meant getting in a boat and touring from water, which is exactly what we did. We paid for the service, which we reserved through the ENP visitor center upon arrival to the park. In short, the experience was one that would be nearly impossible to replicate at any of the other national parks we have been to.

We spent 2 or so hours on the boat, first making our way through larger waterways, where we spied large birds making their way through the skies and reflected in the waters below.  About 40 minutes into the trip, our boat, with a few other passengers and “captain”, started creeping down one of the tighter waterways veining off larger body of water.

24134849425_67c67b0377_bThe trees and brush seemed to grow tighter around us, giving an almost claustrophobic feel as we made our way through mangroves.

Along the way, we had several opportunities to see a few smaller gators basking in the small area of sun which broke through the dense plant-life. Drifting along at a snails pace, we were also attacked by bugs on a regular basis – bug spray seemed to provide little assistance.

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The experience of the boat tour was unbeatable and, after returning and grabbing lunch, we both hoped that our trip had not peaked in the first real day of exploration. We made our way out of the park, hitting another trail to our north along HGWY. 41, before taking a brief excursion to Naples.

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Naples, for what isn’t a particularly large city, was overwhelmingly congested at this time of the year. We chose to hightail to the beach to catch sunset, which was a worthwhile diversion.

 

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On our next day in the south of Florida, we moved eastward along 41, stopping at Shark Valley area of the Everglades. Though a bit more crowded than our experience in western ENP, we found the planked paths, hovering above the wetlands. to be quite a unique experience. We spent the better part of an hour in the preserve throughout the portions immediately accessible to us.

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As we continued our way east along 41, there were a few additional pull-outs along the way, one of which was a residence of several larger alligators, actually located within the Big Cypress National Preserve, sort of a sister area to ENP.

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We carried on, intent on seeing the east-side of ENP, with entrances near the towns of Homestead and Florida City. Though the east and west side entrances are 3-4 hours apart, we found it necessary to see both side of the park. The east side offered more paths to walk than the west side, giving us more of an on-the-ground experience. The Ahinga Trail, located very close to the Royal Palm Visitor center was a a short stroll, which offered us to see plenty of wildlife, including a number of gators. Additionally, we spent a number of hours walking/ hiking through some of the other varied wetland environments, seeing quite a variety of wildlife. Being much closer to the heavily populated Miami area, the crowds were more intense, but this was a minor distraction.

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Kennedy Space Center

 

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Every trip benefits from a pleasant surprise – something unplanned that not only helps to shape the trip, but truly enhances it. Kennedy Space Center (KSC), located due east of Orlando along the Atlantic Coast, was our pleasant surprise for this trip.

Let me get the bad out of the way first. It’s expensive. Adult ticket prices hover a little below $60 and that is without the tour to the historic launch sites. Additionally, being this close to Disney, the park gets congested during peak seasons. This means you can wait an exceptional amount of time to engage with some of the experiences. Even with those two negatives, I would enthusiastically recommend going to KSC – we’ve never been to something quite like it.

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Essentially, KSC is almost a theme park museum dedicated to space exploration and travel. Upon entering KSC, we beelined to the “Rocket Garden,” where we stood dwarfed by authentic Gemini and Juno rockets. We even had the opportunity to sit within the cramped quarter of one of the space capsules.

From the garden, we made our way to the lengthy wait for the bus tour to the legendary KSC lunch site. The wait was so long we almost gave up multiple time – thank goodness we did not. Having the opportunity to get within a stones of the launch pads we had seen countless times on the news or in documentaries left us in awe. With the bus tour (an added expense), we had the chance to spend time with the Apollo/ Saturn V exhibit. We may have assumed this was only a museum, but upon wandering through our excitement levels just continually grew, even reliving a “firing room” experience for the Apollo 8 launch. Touching a moon rock was a capstone experience.

We ended our day spending a few hours in the Atlantic Space Shuttle exhibit. We watched a short film before wandering around the enormous, authentic, shuttle hanging from the ceiling. Words cannot do the experience justice. 24193934175_9264d4513a_zThough I have always had an affinity and appreciation for space exploration/ history, the KSC left me feeling like a kid who just witnessed their first space launch. Though expensive and occasionally frustrating due to the crowds, the experience was worth every penny and every moment of waiting. Do NOT miss!

St. Augustine

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If the Everglades provided a near perfect nature experience, and the KSC was an amazing surprise, then historic St. Augustine provided exactly what we were looking for in a city. 23898315160_52b5a8d18a_zWalkable, beautiful, on the ocean, and plenty to do. We spent two full days just wandering the historic areas, with some of the highlights including the Cathedral Basilica and the historic fort, Castillo de San Marcos, located on the shores of the Atlantic.

 

 

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Castillo de San Marcos

St. Augustine’s main east-west thoroughfares, King Street and Cathedral Pl., brought us right into the historic center of the town. Beautifully lit up for the winter holidays, the town was a splendid and a relatively inexpensive getaway. We had no need to leave the historic area on our first day in town.

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For our second day we made our way to the town of St. Augustine Beach, which is home to the St. Augustine lighthouse and museum.

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Beautiful enough to visit both day and night (we did both), the top of the lighthouse provided extraordinary views of the the oceanfront and nearby areas. The museum, as expected provided some of the historical context for the site within a beautiful setting.

From the lighthouse we continued our way to the beachfront Anastasia State Park. We spent a number of hours wandering through small sand dunes and along the ocean. Remarkably calm and free of crowds, our time at this beach was a provided a perfect ending to a busy yet amazing week-long experience along the coasts of Florida.

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Anastasia State Park
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Anastasia State Park
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St. Augustine Lighthouse
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Castillo de San Marcos
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Sunset on Naples Beach

 

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