A Travelers come to the Florida Everglades to see its famous residents—the alligators. Recommend they go to the source and visit the Everglades Alligator Farm near the main entrance of Everglades National Park. The oldest alligator farm in South Florida, the farm contains over 2,000 alligators and offers airboat tours, daily wildlife shows and has a walking trail around the farm so guests can see the wildlife up-close. Farther north in St. Augustine, travelers can zipline across alligators and crocodiles at the St. Augustine Alligator Farm Zoological Park. Travelers can choose between two courses: the lower and shorter Sepik River Course or the Nile River Course if they’re looking for more of a challenge. Either way, they’ll be surrounded by tropical birds and lemurs while flying through the treetops. The park also features all of the currently recognized species of crocodiles in its Land of Crocodiles exhibit, in addition to wildlife shows with reptiles and rainforest animals, and alligator feedings.
B The famed Blue Monster golf course at the Trump National Doral (trumphotelcollection.com/miami) in Miami just underwent a complete enhancement and redesign by Gil Hanse, who is also designing the Olympic course in Rio de Janeiro. In fact, the property is in the process of a resort-wide $250 million renovation. The resort’s 693 guestrooms will debut their new look later this year. Designed in part by Ivanka Trump with vintage Florida as the inspiration, the rooms will feature golf-inspired patterns, artwork featuring golf legends, and a neutral color palette.
C Circle B Ranch in Chiefland has opened just outside Manatee Springs State Park as part of the Suwannee River Tours product lineup. Travelers can go horseback riding on Suwannee River Tours’ private trail system through the woods, home to a 60-ft. natural sinkhole. For first-timers, the ranch’s training ring gets riders set up with lessons before hitting the trails. NorthStar Acres also takes travelers on guided trail rides through the Goethe State Forest, which range from 1.5- to 3-, 5- or 6-hour rides. The main portion of the forest is in Levy County and it is one of the top spots to go trail riding in the state.
D Cave divers and swimmers will love diving into Madison Blue Spring’s crystal-clear spring pool on the banks of the Withlacoochee River. Located in Madison Blue Spring State Park in Madison County, the 25-ft.-deep basin features an underwater cave and a wooden access platform. For guests who would rather remain above water, the spring is also great for canoeing and kayaking, as well as wildlife watching. Divers can also visit Ginnie Springs, on the Santa Fe River in Gilchrist County, which features seven springs with underwater caves and caverns. While the springs are prime for scuba diving—and visitors can take dive training or get PADI-certified—other activities include swimming, snorkeling, paddling and river tubing.
E On Everglades Area Tours, travelers explore the Wilderness Waterway section of Everglades National Park and Ten Thousand Islands by kayak. These ecotours take paddlers around white-sand beaches, next to manatees and dolphins and into the heart of the park. For those interested in longer trips, the company also offers multi-day kayak camping and fishing trips from November to April.
F Travelers interested in a fishing vacation need look no further than Charlotte Harbor & the Gulf Islands, also known as the “Tarpon Capital of the World,” where Charlotte Harbor and Boca Grande Pass are the top places to catch this game fish. The area features more than 25 professional fishing guides that can direct travelers right to the spots where the fish are biting. The best time to reel in a tarpon is between April and October, and the area hosts tarpon tournaments in the spring. What makes this region one of the top sportfishing destinations in the world is that Charlotte Harbor, which is Florida’s second largest open-water estuary, is a mixture of saltwater from the Gulf of Mexico and freshwater from the Peace and Myakka rivers, making it the perfect breeding ground for fish such as redfish, cobia and grouper.
G Golf courses abound in Hernando County. In fact, it’s home to 17 in all, including the 36-hole World Woods Golf Club, which features Tom Fazio’s Pine Barrens course. The course is lined with pine trees and ranked one of America’s “100 Greatest Public Access Golf Courses” and “Best in the State of Florida” by Golf Digest. World Woods’ Rolling Oaks Course, meanwhile, is dotted with oak trees and Spanish moss, like its name suggests. While the courses are built next to each other, they have completely different designs; Rolling Oaks, for example, features TifEagle while Pine Barrens has dwarf grass. It’s no surprise that they are ranked among the world’s most beautiful courses by PGA.
H Gainesville is filled with state parks, preserves and even caves, making it a prime place for hiking. The San Felasco Hammock Preserve State Park, for instance, is a 7,350-acre park with hammock woodland ideal for this activity. Four trails in particular are perfect for nature viewing and hiking, ranging from one to a little over five miles in length. Travelers can also experience Gainesville’s geology with a hike through Devil’s Millhopper Geological State Park. A half-mile nature trail leads travelers on an easy path around the edge of the sinkhole that dips down 120 ft. with a rainforest at the bottom. Visitors can walk down a wooden boardwalk into the sinkhole. Visitors in Clay County, meanwhile, can hike through rolling sand hills and pine, poplar and cypress forests on the 3.5-mile Ravine Trail. The trail, part of the Florida Trail, is located in Gold Head Branch State Park and takes hikers past Rice Creek and a ravine with dirt and wooden boardwalk paths.
I In Islamorada at the new outpost of Islamorada Boat Tours, travelers can take a snorkel trip in the Florida Keys at Holiday Isle. The new excursions include a 2.5-hour afternoon Snorkel and Sandbar Eco Tour visiting two reefs on a 45-ft. catamaran, and a 1.5-hour sunset cruise, running from October to May, with Caribbean music and complimentary rum punch and champagne. For clients interested in discovering more about diving, Islamorada’s The Florida Keys History of Diving Museum has launched a 3-day quarterly series of family events, activities and film screenings. Topics for 2014 include the 60th anniversary of Disney’s “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea,” and an event focusing on military divers.
J In Jacksonville, travelers can experience state parks and historic sites via kayak. One unique activity, the Yoga and Kayaking Eco Experience with Kayak Amelia, visits historic sites in Jacksonville, such as the Ribault Club, Fort George Inlet and the 19th century Kingsley Plantation. The tour begins with beach yoga and ends with a paddle trip through the 46,000-acre Timucuan Preserve on the St. Johns River, with its salt marshes, coastal dunes and hardwood hammocks. Experienced mountain bikers will enjoy three appropriately titled trails in Jacksonville’s Kathryn Abbey Hanna Park—Grunt, Misery and Tornado Alley. The oceanfront park offers over 15 miles of wooded paths with two off-road trails for less experienced bikers.
K In Kissimmee, just a short drive from attractions like Walt Disney World and SeaWorld, Wild Florida (wildfloridairboats.com) is the ultimate ecotourism park, showcasing the wildlife and wetlands that make up the Central Florida Everglades. The natural theme park underwent a large expansion last year adding a kayak tour, full-service BBQ restaurant (complete with specialties such as gator tail and frog legs), animal exhibits and nature trails. In addition to airboat rides through the park where guests can see zebra, deer, water buffalo and alligators, the park now offers the Dead River Kayak Adventure Tour through swamps, marshes and rivers. On the new trails, guests can see the gators up-close on a bridge across the gator pond, where they can watch them get fed. In addition, 10 new animal exhibits allow guests to experience animals native to the state, such as raccoons, possums, foxes and bobcats, as well as tropical birds, African hoofstock and lemurs.
L Lake County is home to more than 200 species of birds and features 18 locations to go birdwatching. One of the hotspots that travelers shouldn’t miss is the 7,089-acre Emeralda Marsh Conservation Area. The preserve is part of the Great Florida Birding Trail—a 2,000-mile trail with 515 sites throughout Florida—and attracts both beginning and more experienced birdwatchers with miles of trails for hiking.
M One of the top places in the state for mountain biking is the Santos Mountain Bike Trails in Marion County. It features over 80 off-road trails ranging from family-friendly to advanced. The trails can be accessed from the Santos Trailhead, which is located between Ocala and Belleview. Riders can head to Santos Bike Shop in Ocala for bike rentals or group rides, and can hop right on a trail behind the shop. The trails are also marked with their level of difficulty thanks to the Ocala Mountain Bike Association, so riders can easily identify the trails.
N Part of the National Park System in Collier County, the 729,000-acre Big Cypress National Preserve, with its cypress swamps, prairies, pinelands, hardwood hammocks and mangroves, offers plenty for travelers to do in the Everglades. The swamp is home to a variety of wildlife, including the Florida panther, and offers visitors activities from birding, cycling, hunting and kayaking to swamp walks and camping.
O Travelers can take sightseeing to the sky with Overseas Aero Tours in Marathon in the Florida Keys. Travelers will explore the Keys via a vintage WWII biplane on 2-person rides over Marathon, Pigeon Key, Sombrero Lighthouse and the historic Seven Mile Bridge. They offer 8-, 10- and 60-minute flights that interweave the history of the Keys and its nature, with the chance to spot marine life such as sharks, rays and dolphins. Travelers can also explore by land on small group Historic Upper Keys Walking Tours with author and historian Brad Bertelli. On the hour-long Historic Downtown Tavernier Tour, guests learn about the neighborhoods developed by pineapple farmers and workers on Henry Flagler’s Florida Keys Over-Sea Railroad. Or, on the 40-minute Islamorada Hurricane Tour, guests can learn about the island’s history and effect of the 1935 Labor Day Hurricane.
P Paddling enthusiasts who are looking for a challenge can head out on the Aucilla River Paddling Trail in Taylor County. Only a third of the river is navigable, but it offers rapids and shoals for more advanced paddlers, as well as incredible scenery, with high limestone banks, and live oak and cypress trees. The Chipola River in Calhoun County, meanwhile, features a 51-mile canoe trail that is also scenic, surrounded by hardwood forests, swamps and caves. Experienced paddlers will get a rush from the shoals on this river, especially one known as “Look and Tremble.” In West Volusia County, the Hontoon Dead River Paddling Trail takes paddlers along the St. Johns River and around Hontoon Island with the option of going on Hontoon Dead River or Snake Creek. The trail currently has two launch points and is completing a third in the new park at Lake Beresford.
Q In Quincy, Lake Talquin’s southern and southwestern shores border the Lake Talquin State Forest and the area is known for its black crappie fishing. Anglers should visit in the winter months to take advantage of the best crappie fishing, but the lake also offers largemouth bass, bluegill, redear, white bass and striped bass fishing.
R History and hiking buffs can head to the rails in Wakulla County near Tallahassee, home to the St. Marks Historic Railroad State Trail that is built along the abandoned rail bed of the Tallahassee-St. Marks Railroad. The historic trail dates back to 1837 when it was the first railroad under construction in the state and the longest operating line in Florida, running for 147 years transporting cotton. Converted into a trail in the 1980s, the 20.5-mile paved trail runs through part of the Apalachicola State Forest and into the village of St. Marks and is perfect for nature-lovers interested in cycling, walking, jogging or horseback riding. For travelers looking to see wildlife in Wakulla, St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge is a natural habitat for American alligators, Suwannee cooters (a type of turtle) and the West Indian manatee, not to mention butterflies that migrate to the refuge in September and October. The refuge is also a birdwatcher’s paradise since it is home to birds such as the little blue heron, the snowy egret and the limpkin.
S Your clients can enter Seminole territory with a tour through the Big Cypress Seminole Indian Reservation in Hendry County. Billie Swamp Safari offers rides via airboat or swamp buggy on a trail through cypress dunes where guests can spot alligators, water buffalo, wild pig and other animals in the swamp. Swamp buggies take guests on safari-like rides on land past animals such as the Florida panther and black bear, and visits the Florida Seminole’s Indian Camp so that travelers can learn more about the tribe’s culture.
T A new website, Trailahassee.com, launched by Visit Tallahassee, will make it easier to navigate the destination’s nearly 600 miles of trails. The site allows users to search for trails based on activity type (walking, hiking, equestrian, biking and more) and skill level. Tallahassee will be home to Cascades Park Amphitheater, the largest outdoor amphitheater, opening this summer. The $40 million project will be located downtown and will feature a main stage canopy for music and performances, as
well as multi-use trail and bike paths, transforming the look of downtown Tallahassee.
U For travelers who want to observe underwater life without getting wet, the Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park in Citrus County—a rehabilitation center for injured and orphaned endangered West Indian manatee—features an underwater observatory for visitors. Guests can view manatees in the main spring from this fishbowl-like setting. While more manatees can be seen in colder months, travelers can still spot up to 230 manatees (in one day!) in Citrus County in the summer. With a tour guide or tour company, travelers can snorkel and see these creatures up-close in the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge, where 25 percent of the nation’s population of manatees live. The Plantation Golf Resort & Spa’s (plantationoncrystalriver.com) dive shop offers manatee tours for snorkelers, as well as scuba diving trips in Crystal River and in the caves and grottoes
of King’s Bay.
V For an authentic Native American village, tell clients to head to the Florida Everglades to visit the Miccosukee Indian Village in Miami, which showcases the customs and culture of the tribe. Guests can watch the Miccosukee Indians creating traditional crafts such as beadwork, patchwork, basket weaving and woodwork, and explore the tribe’s history at the Miccosukee Museum, which features paintings, photographs, clothing and cooking utensils. While at the village, guests can also see alligator demonstrations in a pit full of gators, or take an airboat ride through the Everglades to an authentic Miccosukee Indian Camp that dates back over 100 years.
W According to Heather Lopez, the director of the Washington County Tourism Development Council, a must-do activity in northern Florida’s Washington County is the Seacrest Wolf Preserve. Located on a 400-acre farm, the preserve is home to displaced gray wolves and offers Wolf Encounter Tours, taking guests on walking tours where they can interact and howl with the wolves and play with the pups. If your clients want to test out their shooting skills (don’t worry, they’ll just be shooting targets), Hard Labor Creek Shooting Sports on Hard Labor Creek Plantation in Chipley offers everything from a regulation skeet range to a trap range, 50-yard archery range, pistol range and a 3-D archery course with 20 stations.
X For travelers who want to do a little eXcavating, the Shired Island Boat Ramp & Trail in the Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuge in Dixie County in Northwest Florida, offers a glimpse into local ancient cultures dating back 7,000 years. While travelers have access to the Gulf and shoreline fishing, the trail also leads to an archaeology site. Visitors can also grab a canoe or kayak and explore the surrounding creeks and estuaries.
Y Hiking along the Yellow Blaze trail, travelers can view the Big Shoals rapids on the Suwanee River in White Springs in Columbia County; it offers a class III rapid, the only one in Florida. Located in the Big Shoals State Park, it’s the largest whitewater rapids in the state and ideal for whitewater paddling enthusiasts. If your clients want to experience the rapids, American Canoe Adventures (aca1.com) offers canoeing, kayaking and rafting trips on the rapids. In fact, the whole area is prime for outdoor enthusiasts, because according to Bryan Thomas, director of Visit Natural North Florida, the state park where the rapids is located is only a short distance from one of his favorite places in Florida. “If I could only visit one park, I’d recommend Stephen Foster Folk Culture Center State Park in White Springs, on the banks of the Suwannee River,” he says.
Z The new ZOOm Air Adventures aerial adventure course at the Central Florida Zoo and Botanical Gardens, located in Seminole County, allows visitors to explore the scene from the treetops. The course features a variety of ziplines, including a 500-ft.-long zipline 50 ft. above the ground, as well as rope courses, advanced and extreme obstacle courses, and two treetop obstacle challenges for children. Additionally, while in Seminole County, outdoor enthusiasts looking to explore the area can do so via the 60 miles of trails. The Florida Scenic Trail, which stretches from the Panhandle to the Everglades, runs across the county and crosses two paved Seminole County Showcase Trails: the 14-mile Seminole Wekiva Trail, built on the former Orange Belt Railway and the Cross Seminole Trail, perfect for horseback riding and running.
Five Top Hotels for Nature & Golf Lovers
1 Opening in early spring on 16,000 acres in Streamsong in Central Florida, Streamsong Resort (streamsongresort.com) will transform the area into the ultimate golf getaway. “Streamsong Resort made a huge splash a year ago with its opening of two acclaimed 18-hole layouts (one designed by Tom Doak, the other by Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw), earning ‘best new course’ awards from every major golf magazine,” says John Schwarb, the former golf insider at VISIT FLORIDA. “Many call it a Bandon Dunes-like experience in the middle of Florida. In 2014 its hotel will open, allowing Streamsong to become a full-service destination.” In addition to golf, the 216-room lodge will also feature nature-driven activities, such as guided bass fishing excursions, sporting clays and a nature trail.
2 Guy Harvey Outpost Resorts has expanded to Islamorada in the Florida Keys, also known as the “Sportfishing Capital of America.” The 139-room Islander Resort has been renovated and transformed into The Islander, a Guy Harvey Outpost Resort (guyharveyoutpost.com). At the oceanfront resort, guests can learn more about marine science and the Florida Keys and its history at the Florida Keys Discovery Center and Theater.
3 Set along three miles of beach on Florida’s Paradise Coast, the five-star The Ritz-Carlton, Naples (ritzcarlton.com) completed a redesign last year updating its 450 guestrooms and suites. Rooms feature Gulf of Mexico-inspired colors and a look that resembles a beach home…with The Ritz’s upscale touch. While the new rooms are a beauty, the Greg Norman-designed Tiburon Golf Course is also a don’t miss, and the home of the PGA Tour’s Franklin Templeton Shootout.
4 Westgate River Ranch (westgatedestinations.com/florida) offers a different type of getaway—a guest ranch experience in the heart of Central Florida. Just an hour south of Orlando, this resort is nestled on 1,700 acres and is the largest dude ranch east of the Mississippi. The ranch completed a multimillion dollar renovation last year redoing its guestrooms, cabins, camping and glamping sites, and added an outdoor dance hall, cowboy-themed mini golf, a zipline, a ropes course, a mechanical bull and other fun attractions. Make sure your clients hit the Saturday night championship rodeo for an authentic experience.
5 The Marco Island Marriott Resort & Spa (marcoislandmarriott.com) in southwest Florida is a Balinese-style resort fresh from a $250 million renovation. The 727-room resort offers captivating views of Marco Island and the Gulf of Mexico, with private balconies to take in those vistas. While its 24,000-sq.-ft., award-winning spa is one draw for travelers, its redesigned golf course—The Rookery at Marco—is top-notch. This course, redesigned by Robert Cupp, Jr., is set in shallow wetlands that, of course, draws birds as well.