Florida: 10 Hidden gems

Reader's Digest Editors

The beaches and amusement parks of Florida are well known. But the state is also full of surprises, some even dating from prehistoric times.

1. Indian Temple Mound Museum

Indian Temple Mound Museum
Image via Wiki Commons

Beginning with a Smithsonian dig in 1888, excavations of the Fort Walton Temple Mound, a monumental earthen structure that was constructed sometime between AD 800 and 1400 have yielded thousands of relics of the pre-Columbian peoples who once inhabited this coastal area.

Today the ceremonial mound—18 feet high with an expanse of more than 200 feet—is the highlight of the Fort Walton Heritage Park and Cultural Centre.

The extensive collection of prehistoric items, including superb ceramic, is housed in the museum, along with artefacts from the eras of European exploration, settlement, and the Civil War. The interactive educational exhibits are especially popular with young visitors.

The Heritage Park complex, which also includes the Camp Walton Schoolhouse and Garnier Post Office museums, gathers up to 12,000 years of Florida prehistory and history all in one place.

 

2. Amelia Island

Amelia Island

Graced with 13 miles of beautiful beaches, lush forests, and a unique, colourful history, Amelia Island is the perfect spot for collecting seashells, riding mountain bikes, or taking a quick trip back in time.

In spite of its turbulent past and the waves of industrialisation and modernisation surrounding it, the island remains a quaint and authentic Victorian seaport village. It’s also productive: Nearly 80 per cent of Florida’s Atlantic white shrimp are harvested here.

Discovered by a Frenchman in 1562, the island was soon claimed by the Spaniards. Its only town, Fernandina Beach, was named for King Ferdinand VII. Later, when Spain swapped Florida for Havana with England, British loyalists took control and christened the island Amelia.

In the mid-1930s the founders of Afro-American Life Insurance bought 200 acres on the island’s southern end. Known as American Beach, this property became an oceanfront haven for African Americans during the Jim Crow era. Today American Beach is the first stop on Florida’s Black Heritage Trail.

While basking in the island’s distinctive past and character, visitors can swim, sail, kayak, or even go horseback riding on the beach—one of only a handful of places in the United States where this exhilarating activity is permitted. Kelly Seahorse Ranch provides horses and expert guidance. Sightseers can also take a river cruise through the Intracoastal Waterway past Cumberland Island, where wild horses play. Along the way, amid the salty marshes, guests just might get to meet an Atlantic bottlenose dolphin

 

3. Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Historic State Park

the home of Marjorie Rawlings

Readers familiar with author Marjorie Rawlings will recognise this setting as having pervaded much of her work. An unknown writer when she moved here in 1928, Mrs Rawlings committed herself to this small, remote community. Three years passed before she sold her first story. But as the people and environs of Cross Creek fueled her creative fire, she eventually penned her most famous work, The Yearling, which won her a Pulitzer Prize.

A typical Cracker homestead, designed for optimum cross-ventilation, the house consists of three board-and-batten units connected by porches and shaded by wide overhangs and the surrounding orange and magnolia trees. A 45-minute tour takes you through the farmyard and into the house. The park has two loop walking trails through the woods and farmyard.

 

4. Florida Lighthouse Tower

Jupiter Inlet Lighthouse, Florida at sunset
Jupiter Inlet Lighthouse, Florida

With more than 1,200 miles of coastline, Florida has long been a natural beacon for lighthouses. The state’s impressive collection—30 still standing proud—includes some of the nation’s oldest and tallest. Many invite visitors to step inside and climb their spiralling staircases to the top for the reward of a dazzling panoramic view. Others, conveniently located in public parks, encourage appreciation from a short distance.

The best way to see all of Florida’s lighthouses is to hit the road. Spanning the coastal highway from St Augustine to Pensacola, the complete tour takes about five days. The first stop is the famous St Augustine Lighthouse. Built in 1874, this 165-foot lighthouse is the state’s oldest and most recognisable, recently restored to its early glory.

Next, near Daytona Beach, comes the 175-foot Ponce de Leon Inlet Lighthouse, the second-tallest lighthouse in the nation and one of the few still busily working.

Farther on down, just south of downtown Miami on Key Biscayne, stands the Cape Florida lighthouse. This cheerful lighthouse is famous for surviving a slew of assaults, from hostile Seminoles to a fierce hurricane. Near the end of the trail, on Florida’s West Coast, St Mark’s Lighthouse beckons from a 65,000-acre national wildlife sanctuary for alligators, birds, and deer.

Last but certainly not least is the Pensacola Lighthouse. Built in 1858 on the grounds of the Pensacola Naval Air Station, this structure has braved lightning strikes, a tornado, and an earthquake but continues to operate.

 

5. Big Cat Rescue

A tiger at Big Cat Rescue

What happens to a magnificent tiger or leopard that has been abused or abandoned or even retired from a career in showbiz? If it is very lucky, it will find a home at Tampa’s Big Cat Rescue, the largest accredited sanctuary of its kind in the world.

The 45-acre site provides safe shelter for almost 150 lions, tigers, cougars, bobcats, lynx, snow leopards, ocelots, and other varieties of exotic cats to recover and heal in a natural environment.

A nonprofit organisation, Big Cat Rescue makes it clear that it’s not a zoo; the welfare of the animals is paramount, so visits are by guided tour only (no pets allowed). On the tour, you can watch tigers swimming in the lake and bobcats draped in the trees overhead.

Short of going on an African safari, there’s no better way to see, photograph, and learn about these endangered animals, now living out their lives as nature intended.

 

6. Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary

Corkscrew swamp sanctuary

Extending over an 11,000-acre wilderness of pine flatwoods, wet prairie, swampland, and typical hardwood hammocks, this haven for wildlife and native plants may be enjoyed on foot by means of an incredibly beautiful 21/4- mile-long boardwalk overhung by Spanish moss.

Among the many sights to be savoured are lettuce lakes, cypress knees, floating tussocks, water hemlock, strangler fig, ferns and lilies, brilliant hibiscus, royal palms, and various epiphytes (plants such as the tree-growing butterfly, cigar, and clamshell orchids that grow on other plants).

Cardinals, red-shouldered hawks, and rare birds known as limpkins make their homes here, and the country’s largest colony of wood storks also take up residence. In addition, there are the familiar alligators, Florida water snakes, mosquito fish, and turtles.

 

7. Flamingo Area, Everglades Natural Park

bright pink flamingos in the Everglades

Flamingo, on the shore of Florida Bay, is the centre for sightseeing in the southern sector of the primaeval Everglades. Visitors have their choice of foot trails, canoe trails, and privately operated cruises to take in the beauty of this area.

Of the trails suitable for families and children, Snake Bight Trail (four miles round-trip) is the most popular. You can walk it or bike it. The trail unwinds beneath the umbrella of a hardwood forest inhabited by hundreds of species of birds and butterflies, from white-crowned pigeons to zebra longwings.

The park is host to a diverse array of wildlife, including manatees and turtles. It is the only place in the world where alligators and crocodiles exist side by side. On the Rowdy Bend, Bear Lake, and Christian Point trails, you can see other facets of this unique ecological system.

In winter two cruises ply the local waterways, one of them into scenic Florida Bay, where at low tide you can expect to see brown pelicans, egrets, herons, and other large birds scouting the shoreline for food. (The flamingo, however, is rarely seen.) For those more intrigued by the inland waterways and plant life, a pontoon boat makes sorties into the Everglades wilderness.

Canoeists can take any of five different trails. If time is no problem, you can tackle the 100-mile Wilderness Waterway, which takes you through the backcountry between Everglades City and Flamingo. Canoes, skiffs, kayaks, bicycles, and fishing gear may all be rented. Ranger-guided canoe tours are available during the winter.

 

8. Biscayne National Park

Biscayne National Park

This oceanic expanse of 173,000 acres encompasses most of Biscayne Bay, the Keys, and living coral reefs south of Miami. It’s one of the largest marine preserves in the United States. The waters are turquoise and crystal clear, making it ideal for fishing, boating, snorkelling, scuba diving, and marine gazing in general.

The most obvious way to explore this watery paradise is by boat. Visitors can launch their own at one of the adjacent county marinas or take one of the tours available from the visitors' centre. A three-hour excursion in a glass-bottomed boat gives you a marvellously colourful view of the reefs and grassy meadows, as well as lobsters, turtles, sponges, and exotic tropical fish lurking there. For an even better view, you may wish to try snorkelling.

manatee in Biscayne Bay

To savour the special appeal of a subtropical island, you can take an excursion boat to one of the park’s islands seven miles offshore. Elliott Key offers an opportunity to stroll through a tropical hardwood forest and along the rocky shoreline, while Boca Chita Key harkens back to a time when the area was millionaire Mark Honeywell’s personal retreat. His private lighthouse affords one of the park’s best views.

At the Dante Fascell Visitor Center, several videos and exhibits familiarize visitors with local wildlife and history. Picnic tables with grills are located along the shore beside sea grape and mahogany trees. Here you can watch brown pelicans, double-crested cormorants, herons, terns, and gulls seeking food offshore.

 

9. American Orchid Society Visitor Centre and Botanical Garden

american orchid society

What do you associate with the word “orchid”? If “purple” and “prom night” are about all that come to mind, then you’re in for something amazing at the national headquarters of the American Orchid Society.

Wander through 31⁄2 acres of outdoor gardens filled with orchids growing as they do in the wild. Explore every corner of a 4,000-square-foot exhibit greenhouse that has its own waterfall.

No one knows exactly how many orchid species grow worldwide (estimates range up to 35,000), but there are thousands of unexpected variations in size, shape, fragrance, and colour included in the Society’s lush collection and special displays. Just one visit and you’ll see these exotic beauties with new eyes.

Read more: How to grow orchids

 

10. Loggerhead Marinelife Centre

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

A post shared by Loggerhead Marinelife Center (@loggerheadmarinelifecenter) on

The loggerhead sea turtle, the most common nesting turtle on the Florida coast, is the namesake of this nonprofit venture in the West Palm Beach area. Loggerhead Center is housed in a new state-of-the-art certified “green” facility on the beach. Its busy marine veterinary hospital is devoted to the rescue, treatment, and rehabilitation of wounded and ill sea turtles—loggerheads, leatherbacks, greens, as well as even rarer types.

Exhibits, including saltwater aquaria and the Sea Turtle Yard (habitat for the centre’s recovering “patients”)—focus on the lives of sea turtles and other sea creatures, their role in the ecosystem, and the natural and man-made dangers they face. Here lies an altogether fun and fascinating learning experience for every age!

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