Monday, March 8, 2010

Five Florida Escapes from Spring Break(ers)

I live out West, so writing about the East Coast is stepping outside the zone for me. But hey, I drove 2850 miles around the Sunshine State last November, so let's put all that exploring to good use: escaping the madness of spring break. Even in March, you can have an amazing time getting back to nature or finding your own private island (well, what feels like it anyway) in Florida. Here are 5 alternative spots:

1. Everglades National Park On the water (yes, Florida Bay counts, and so do all of those swamps), this park is surprisingly bewitching, even for outdoors fanatics who think they've seen it all before. Let me tell you: If you haven't been to the Everglades, then you really haven't done it all yet. Rivers of grass, kayaking with manatees, abundant bird life, a safari-style tram loop open to mountain bikers...and that's just off the main park roads.

2. Orlando Now, before you go casting stones at Mickey Mouse, I'm definitely not recommending a Disneyified spring break. But Orlando is where you can go to see major-league baseball teams the Atlanta Braves and the Houston Astros play for peanuts during spring training. Check out Florida's Grapefruit League for other teams (e.g., NY Yankees, LA Dodgers) also warming up in the Sunshine State this month.

3. Cedar Key Float away on the Old Florida vibes of this boondocks island, about a 90-minute drive southwest of Gainesville. Zip around town in a little electric 'gulf' (i.e., golf) cart, or hop aboard a boat tour of the nearby national wildlife refuge. Shame on you if you miss out on eating the fresh Gulf clams, shrimp and fish (apologetic nod to my vegetarian and vegan readers, though).

4. Canaveral National Seashore Happily stranded between the Kennedy Space Center and Cocoa Beach to the south, and Daytona Beach to the north, this pristine stretch of beach is an antidote to spring break partying. Quiet, windswept dunes, family-friendly beaches, lagoons for kayaking, and offshore islands (empty!) where you can boat in to primitive campsites. Got manatees? Yup, right next door at Merritt Island NWR.

5. Fort George Island This spookily jungle-like cultural park outside Jacksonville lets you loose on a self-guided driving tour along a bumpy, swampy dirt road. Imagine scenes from The Great Gatsby at the Ribault Club, a restored Gilded Age mansion, then visit the 19th-century cotton, citrus and sugarcane plantation of Zephaniah Kingsley and his wife Anna Jai, a former slave.

What's your favorite place to escape the crowds in Florida? Or any other beachy destination, like Hawaii? Share your top picks by leaving a comment below.

Photo credit: Everglades National Park (Michael Connolly, Jr.)

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