Summertime in Florida. It may be hot, it may be sticky, the rains could come at any moment – but it’s ours. The tourists have gone home, and it’s time for the locals to have our state to ourselves. So, where to go to take advantage of all this elbow room?
1. Jackie Robinson Ballpark Daytona Beach
Summer means baseball, and for up-close fun in an intimate ballpark, you can’t beat minor league baseball. The Daytona Tortugas, Florida State League affiliates of the Cincinnati Reds, play at one of the best minor-league ballparks around, Jackie Robinson Ballpark.
The technical name these days is Radiology Associates Field at Jackie Robinson Ballpark, but locals know it by the name of the man who broke baseball’s color barrier. The ballpark has seen plenty of changes, but it has existed in some form since 1914. (Robinson’s history with the ballpark stems to the day in 1946 when he played there in Florida’s first integrated game after Jacksonville and Sanford refused to host his Montreal Royals.) Most Florida State League ballparks are also spring training facilities, meaning they’re modern complexes that have been built in the last few years. But the Reds don’t train in Daytona, so this is simply an old-school, old-fashioned minor league ballpark. Its location on an island in the Halifax River adds to the charm.
And of course while you’re there, Daytona’s a fun beach spot that serves as a perfect jumping-off point for all the Space Coast has to offer.
*More information: daytonatortugas.com
Getting there: It’s called I-95 north. If a sign welcomes you to Georgia, turn around and head back.
Staying there: There are, to put it mildly, no shortage of hotels in Daytona Beach. For a quieter stay just down the road, New Smyrna offers good lodging options as well.
2. National Key Deer Refuge Big Pine Key
Big Pine Key is one of those places that offers just the right amount of the entire Keys experience. If you want to experience the Keys version of civilization, it’s just down from Marathon and an easy drive to Key West. And yet it’s far enough north that you’re not paying Key West prices while getting some proper Keys wilderness experiences. Big Pine is a jumping off point for some of the best diving, fishing and snorkeling in the Keys – and you’ll find businesses there ready to take you out fishing, rent you a kayak or get you set up with any other ocean-based activity you need. But the on-land nature experience is great to, thanks to the area’s ubiquitous presence – the short, squat Key Deer. The Key Deer National Wildlife Refuge makes up the entire northern end of Big Pine Key and offers excellent walking trails and opportunities to get into an often unseen part of the Keys.
*For more information: fws.gov/refuge/National_Key_Deer_Refuge
Getting there: There’s only one road! Stay on the Overseas Highway long enough and you’ll hit Big Pine Key – just beyond the Seven Mile Bridge.
Staying there: Several camping and hotel/bed-and-breakfast options exist on Big Pine Key, from basic to high-end.
3. Myakka River State Park Sarasota
“Prairie” is a word you might think of more in relation to the plains of Kansas. But Florida has its own kind of prairie, and a great place to experience one is in this state park near Sarasota.
The park features a walking trail, not much more than a mile, that leads you to a suspended walkway and tower that offer spectacular views. (For more ambitious hikers, miles of trails extend deep into the park.) If that sounds like a lot of work, there are also tram tours. And for water-borne nature excursions, check out the paddling and boating on Upper Myakka Lake. Canoes and kayaks are available to rent.
*For more information: floridastateparks.org/park/Myakka-River or myakkariver.org.
Getting there: From Fort Lauderdale, it’s an easy drive on I-75 to just north of Port Charlotte, where you exit onto Kings Highway and then west into the park on State Road 72.
If you want to take the scenic route through the Lake Okeechobee area, you can also cut across the state on U.S. 27.
Staying there: The park offers tent and RV camping as well as a handful of cabins. (Cabins need to be booked early, however; with just a few, they fill up quickly.) Go to floridastateparks.reserveamerica.com.
And of course, the park’s not far from all the hotel options of the beach and the Sarasota area.
4. Bradfordville Blues Club Bradfordville
The Bradfordville Blues Club is on the outskirts of Bradfordville, which is on the outskirts of Tallahassee, which is a fair old drive from here. But if you love the blues or know someone who does, it’s worth a journey to see the only Florida stop on the Mississippi Blues Commission’s Blues Trail.
You get to this blues club the way you ought to get to a great rural blues club – which is to say, you turn off the paved road. Up a hill you come to a low-slung cinderblock building looking small under mossy trees. Inside, the mismatched, rough-and-ready décor lets you know that you’re in the best kind of place to hear the blues. The club opens up on Friday and Saturday nights and tends to draw national touring blues acts.
Getting there: Bradfordville is north of Tallahassee on U.S. 319. From the town head east on Bradfordville Road. Then take a right onto Sams Lane and a left onto Moses Lane.
Staying there: Bradfordville is not what you’d call an accommodation hotbed, but plenty of lodging is available in Tallahassee.
5. Weeki Wachee Springs Weeki Wachee
If people haven’t heard of Weeki Wachee, they might think you’re making it up: A roadside tourist attraction dating to the postwar years that features “mermaids” who put on underwater shows on the other side of the glass from a 500-seat theater built into the side of a spring. And there’s more.
If you’ve got a steady supply of spring water, you might as well use it – and Weeki Wachee pumps some of its into Buccaneer Bay water park. The park features a pool and play area for smaller children, big slides for the older kids and a place to sit and cool down for mom and dad. There’s a small river cruise, animal shows, kayaking and canoeing. Is it a bit cheesy? Maybe. A quirky slice of Old Florida? No doubt. It’s also worth remembering that the admission fee is $13 for adults and $8 for kids, with kids 5 and younger getting in for free. Good luck finding those prices down in the Orlando area.
*Getting there: Weeki Wachee Springs is about an hour north of Tampa, and the distance is roughly the same using the Florida Turnpike or I-75. Weeki Wachee is on U.S. 19, just inland from Hernando Beach.
Staying there: There is no lodging on the Weeki Wachee grounds, but several hotels are nearby, including a Motel 6 directly across the road.