By Jessica Kelly
Florida is well-known for its beautiful beaches along the Gulf Coast and Atlantic Ocean and of course, for being the home of Disney World. When you really take the time to discover places along the coast, central Florida, and Northern Florida, you’ll discover natural scenery, animals, and experiences that make you feel like you’re in Costa Rica, not the US.
Within the World Equestrian Center is a luxury hotel, The Equestrian Hotel, featuring 248 beautiful rooms (8601 SR 40, Ocala, Florida 34482). Some even overlook the complex where you can see the horses leaping over hurdles. The room was absolutely stunning, with a deep soaking tub, comfortable bed, living room area and windows overlooking the arena. You can have breakfast right on site at Stirrups where you can enjoy Greek yogurt parfaits, croissants, sweet treats, and omelettes. If you love baked goods, you’ll have to visit Emma‘s right in the hotel. The French patisserie makes everything from scratch from donuts and croissants to cakes and pastries. You can rent a golf cart when staying on the property to get around the community and check out some of the shops and restaurants throughout the grounds. They even have a sizable outdoor swimming pool for guests to enjoy.
Kayaking down the Rainbow River (9435 SW 190th Avenue Rd, Dunnellon, FL 34432) was absolutely beautiful. The water, kept at 72°, is perfect for flourishing plant life and animals. The river is crystal clear making it easy to spot fish, turtles, otters, and more in addition to a range of birds above water. If you’re not looking to kayak, some of the natural springs like Silver Springs offer glass bottom boat tours (5656 E Silver Springs Blvd, Silver Springs, FL 34488) which is essentially getting the views you’d get snorkeling the spring while staying dry on the boat. Silver Springs is also known for having monkeys. Some people think the monkeys appeared on the island due to it being the filming location of Tarzan, but the monkeys were actually released in the park nearly a century ago by a boat captain and since then their numbers have soared.
After checking out Rainbow River and Silver Springs, explore downtown Ocala. The area has some great boutique shops and a little gazebo to relax in the shade. The street is lined with eateries in town and a variety of street art that you can take photos in front of. Some murals even involve actual plant life.
Take flight at the Canyon Zip Line and Adventure Park (8045 NW Gainesville Road (CR 25A), Ocala, FL). The Canyon Zipline and Adventure Park is something you can’t miss. The guides were spectacular, going at my comfort level and pace, but encouraging me to push myself and be brave. You will be out there for a couple of hours if you choose the canyon zip line, which I highly recommend. It provides you with incredible views of the water and gorges. There are Indiana Jones style rope bridges and even a rappel to end the experience. They’ll go over safety measures with you before starting, so that you feel confident about the experience and what you’re responsible for.
Harry’s Seafood Bar & Grille (24 SE 1st Ave, Ocala, FL 34471) has a casual vibe, but the food is absolutely exquisite, serving some of the best shrimp and grits you’ll ever have. Definitely save room for the bananas foster and check out the mosaic tiling as you first step up to the restaurant that says “Drug Co.” The building was once a drug store and the restaurant wanted to keep some of the original flooring and special vintage touches to reflect the history. Horse & Hounds Restaurant (6998 US-27, Ocala, FL 34482) is great if you’re looking for a giant piece of prime rib, perfectly cooked, or a slab of Guinness Baby Back Ribs. They have some good old American classics, in addition to some English sprinkled in there like fish and chips. Their Beer Cheese Dip & Pretzels are a can’t miss appetizer. Swampy’s Bar & Grille (19773 E Pennsylvania Ave, Dunnellon, FL 34432) on the Rainbow River is the perfect place to take in the scenery while you indulge in some Southern cuisine. Their smokey Seafood Gumbo or Cajun Grilled Shrimp is the perfect meal while trying to spot gators in the river.
Hotel Eleo (1514 SW 14th St, Gainesville, FL 32608), attached to University of Florida, has comfortable rooms with a view of the school’s fountain and a great location, close to other things to do in Gainesville and the downtown area. The floor to ceiling windows let in a ton of natural light and they have a great restaurant right on the property, Covey Kitchen + Cocktails at Hotel ELEO. They have nice light options for breakfast like a fruit plate or avocado toast, and delicious entrées for dinner. Covey has delicious craft cocktails with color changing butterfly pea flower infused gin and lavender simple syrup with frothy egg whites and citrus. Their deviled scotch egg and pork schnitzel with hot peppers was incredible and you definitely have to start with the Bao Buns.
You’ll definitely want to take your camera with you to La Chua Trail (4801 Camp Ranch Rd. 32641), a great place to spot alligators. You have to be looking pretty carefully within the waters to find them, but I saw a lot of babies and smaller alligators from the elevated Boardwalk over the water. After the trail, explore the downtown shops and antique stores.
The Kanapaha Botanical Gardens are known for their record-breaking huge Victoria water lilies that span to about 4 to 6 feet and are pretty spectacular to see in person. In addition to the water lilies, Kanapaha has collections of plants and gardens to stroll through on the property and observe at your leisure. The Florida Museum of Natural History Butterfly Rainforest (3215 Hull Rd., 32611) you can see up to 50 species of vividly colored butterflies from black with pink spots to bright royal blue. They’ll land right in front of you or even on you, especially if you’re wearing white or bright colors. If you haven’t had enough time outdoors, head to the Depot Park Area (874 SE 4 St, Gainesville, FL 32601) to walk around and get some exercise. There are different restaurants and bars nearby, a playground for the kids, and motorized scooters to rent if you want to roll around the property, or head down the street near the roundabout to view street murals hidden behind trees. It’s a fun place to observe and explore. When you visit Devil’s Den Prehistoric Spring (5390 NE 180th Ave, Williston, FL 32696) you won’t believe something like this even exists in Florida, let alone the US in general. This natural wonder is a great spot to scuba dive and snorkel. The prehistoric spring is filled with bright blue water in the dry cave, perfect for cooling down in those high Florida temperatures.
Dragonfly Sushi & Sake Company (201 SE 2nd Ave., #104, 32601) has exquisite dishes and delicious options like Uni Shooters with quail egg yolk, caviar, and wasabi aïoli served in a lemon. Fresh sushi with some unusual options like conch and Bao Buns stuffed with beef and pork. Make sure you go over to The Hyppo Gainesville (214 SE 2nd Ave, Gainesville, FL 32601) across the street for a gourmet popsicle after dinner. Stop at 4th Ave Food Park (409 SW 4th Ave., 32601) full of a variety of store fronts and the Opus Coffee Airstream van serving a variety of food and drinks. I highly recommend going for the pizza at Satch Squared. The crust on the outside was caramelized like Detroit style pizza, piled high with toppings and sweet sauce. The Pink Flamingo Diner (18587 High Springs Main St., High Springs, FL 32643) has a huge selection from Blackened Grouper to Spaghetti & Meatballs. Their Blackened Chicken Caesar is perfect for lunch, nice and light, while also being flavorful and filling. They have a stage where they will often have live music to enjoy while you have some cocktails from the bar and apps.
Carlisle Inn and Conference Center (3727 Bahia Vista St, Sarasota, FL 34232) has all the modern amenities you need, including a refreshing outdoor swimming pool. They even have some Amish traditional touches like fresh baked goods, spreads, chocolates, and more. They have complimentary breakfast included in your stay, comfortable beds, and the pool is perfect for a morning swim with a hot cup of coffee to start the day in the hot Florida weather.
The Sarasota Jungle Gardens (3701 Bay Shore Rd, Sarasota, FL 34234) is truly incredible. Not only were there exhibits with tropical birds, tortoises, and other animals, but there were interactive experiences with animals that you can have just walking around the facility. At The Sarasota Jungle Gardens you can actually buy flamingo food and find them hanging out at the ponds in the back. They’ll come around you and interact with you as you feed them out of your hand. For some marine life, visit the Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium (1600 Ken Thompson Pkwy, Sarasota, FL 34236). At Mote, visitors can view manatee‘s, otters, alligators, sharks and so much more. They have a variety of exhibits and two full buildings in addition to a separate bird sanctuary where you can see a variety of different bird species. Afterwards, discover Myakka River State Park (13208 State Rd 72, Sarasota, FL 34241) by foot, by car, or even higher up in the air above the treetops on the canopy walk. While in town, be sure to head to Siesta Key Beach (948 Beach Rd, Sarasota, FL 34242) for a full beach day or the sunset. They have some of the most beautiful sunsets. The sand feels soft and warm like flour and the water is crystal clear. There’s a reason that TripAdvisor Travelers Choice Awards called them the number one beach in the United States. Be sure to grab a daiquiri at the Daiquiri Deck (5250 Ocean Blvd, Sarasota, FL 34242)
before or after your beach sunset. See what the birds see High in the sky with Parasail Siesta (1250 Stickney Point Rd, Siesta Key, FL 34242). After taking a short boat ride from the marina, you’ll fly through the air for a serene and peaceful experience, where you can see the shoreline and animals in the water like dolphins, sharks, and manatees.
Bavaro’s Pizza Napoletana & Pastaria (27 Fletcher Ave, Sarasota, FL 34237) has some delicious Italian cuisine like Neapolitan style pizzas, Burrata Caprese with crunchy pink peppercorns, and some of the best meatballs you’ll ever have with fresh spaghetti, perfectly cooked with a little drizzle of basil oil and Parmesan Reggiano. Be sure to grab one of their Nutella pizzas for dessert or the tiramisu. Another favorite in Sarasota is Phillippi Creek Oyster Bar (5353 S Tamiami Trail, Sarasota, FL 34231). It’s a casual spot on the water where they just hand you a roll of paper towels before you dive into a bunch of raw clams, oysters, king crab legs, grouper sandwiches, and any seafood you could possibly imagine. The prices are reasonable and the seafood is fresh.
While in Jupiter Florida, definitely look into the Wyndham Grand Jupiter At Harbourside Place (122 Soundings Ave, Jupiter, FL 33477). It is the prime location, close to a bunch of shops and the harbor overlooking the boats passing by, kayakers, and stand up paddle boarders. The views were absolutely stunning and they have a beautiful pool with its own bar overlooking the water, as well, filled with fun boy floats and a flowing fountain at the end.
The team at Florida Shark Diving (1095 Florida A1A, Jupiter, FL 33477) really knows how to create a memorable experience that you’ll have for life. The photographers and Captain John are knowledgeable and so gentle with these animals. They teach you not to be afraid of them, give you the knowledge that you need to have to interact with the sharks before swimming with these animals, and then let you free dive, floating at the top with the snorkels while observing these sharks in their natural habitat. They get all different species in Florida including the occasional hammerhead, but you’ll mostly see bull sharks and silky sharks. The experience is one you won’t forget.
After working up an appetite shark diving, enjoy a nice meal at 1000 NORTH (1000 US-1, Jupiter, FL 33477). They have some delicious options like crab soup with sherry. The Street Corn Caesar was really unique and delicious, coated in cornbread crumbles and Cotija cheese. Their specials are definitely worth checking out like their Jumbo Prawn dish with peanut sauce. Their Waffle Sundae is absolutely incredible covered in hot fudge, whip cream, mascarpone, almond brittle, caramel sauce, toasted marshmallow, pretzel crunches, and more.
(Go Magazine Online Exclusive October 2021)
(Photos courtesy of Jessica Kelly)