Stop 1: Crystal River
King’s Bay sits just off the Gulf of Mexico, but this is a freshwater bay. Crystal River – both the town and the river it takes its name from – sit in Florida’s most prolific natural springs region, and that means plenty of opportunity for fun on the water and manatee spotting.
The town of Crystal River is located on the east bank of King’s Bay; from there you can get out to several small, uninhabited islands and any number of springs. Or follow Crystal River (the river) out to the Gulf – heading towards the ocean, you leave the town behind quickly as you get out into the sprawling Crystal River Preserve State Park. It’s a paradise for kayakers and other paddlers, while if you want to let somebody else do the work, for part of the year Friends of the Crystal River State Park also runs boat tours through part of the park. On land, hikes include a seven-mile loop trail that’s also good for cyclists.
Plenty of hotels, motels and campgrounds at all price points can be found around the town of Crystal River. Some, such as the King’s Bay Lodge, sit right on the water. You can check out the area’s most famous residents – that would be the manatees – without even leaving your lodgings.
Stop 2: Sebring
This inland town, northwest of Lake Okeechobee and on about the same latitude as Fort Pierce, is best known for the international speedway bearing its name. But when the town isn’t packed for race weekends, it offers a much quieter escape.
Like so many towns in this part of Florida, Sebring sits on the bank of a lake. The town wraps around Lake Jackson with the charming, walkable downtown on the east bank. Sebring is surrounded by great nature options, with Highlands Hammock State Park to the west and Lake Wales Ridge National Wildlife Refuge to the east.
There are a number of excellent accommodation options. The Inn by the Lakes sits near the southwestern corner of Lake Jackson, sandwiched between it and Little Lake Jackson. For travelers who’ve brought their clubs, it’s also next door to Sebring’s municipal golf course. The Mediterranean-style resort also features the onsite Chicanes Restaurant, which offers lakeside seating.
If you want a true taste of Old Florida, you can stay just up the road in Avon Park at the Hotel Jacaranda. Built during Prohibition, former guests include Babe Ruth as well as George Burns and Gracie Allen.
Stop 3: White Springs
This town on the banks of the Suwannee River drips Southern charm and bills itself as “Florida’s first tourist attraction.” The main entrance to Stephen Foster Folk Culture Center State Park is in the town, and the park, which offers cabins in addition to tent and RV camping, is worth taking some time to explore. As the name suggests, the park offers more than just nature.
(Although the nature is stunning.) In Craft Square, artisans engage in traditional maker activities such as quilting, stained glass making and blacksmithing. (If anything catches your eye, there is, needless to say, a gift shop.) Add to that miles of hilly trails winding around the Suwannee and you’ve got a trip that involves both interesting history and beautiful nature.
White Springs’ “first tourist attraction” designation comes from the town’s sulphur springs; there are records of people visiting the town to bathe in them as early as the 1830s. The long-disused Spring House is now a ruin, but you can still visit the structure, a once-grand 19th-century edifice in the spring that was the popular spot for bathing. The town’s place as a popular and prosperous 19th-century destination is evidenced by the many historic homes and buildings, particularly in the town’s historic district.
Stop 4: Eatonville
In what today are Orlando’s northern suburbs sits one of Florida’s most fascinating places. Eatonville holds an important place in African-American history, both as the United States’ first incorporated all-black city and as the home of the Harlem Renaissance writer Zora Neale Hurston. Eatonville, which was a small country town north of Orlando when Hurston was growing up there, takes seriously its role as the home of one of America’s most important writers, and it’s home to the Zora Neal Hurston National Museum of Fine Arts, which specializes in work by artists from Africa or the African diaspora.
While the developed, suburban nature of the place would be completely unfamiliar to a young Hurston, there’s also still some interesting nature to be found near Eatonville as well. On the nearby banks of Lake Sybelia, the Audubon Center for Birds of Prey works to rehabilitate and release injured birds of prey that are native to Florida including bald eagles. The center’s several acres include walking areas that take you back to a different kind of greater Orlando area.
If you visit Eatonville in late January, you can experience the annual Zora! Festival of the Arts and Humanities. But this historic town is worth a visit any time.