Best Kept Secret
By Stephanie Bonilla
A mere three and a half hours from Miami, concealed from maps and travel lists, lie two hidden paradises that have become the Sunshine State’s best kept secrets. Both locations operate on a different kind of adventure frequency; yet equally serve as glorious reminders that fresh tropical escapes can be found right in our own backyard.
Anna Maria Island, FL
Sometimes warm, cottage-studded gems are hidden below Florida’s surface. While self-proclaimed weekenders flock to familiar beaches, an unmapped islet reveals itself. Tucked along the Gulf of Mexico, Anna Maria Island (AMI) is located approximately 40 miles south of Tampa. A bridge is the only thing connecting this subtropical nirvana to the mainland, with an old, historical fishing village sprinkled just outside the bridge’s entrance, as if reminding incoming visitors that remnants of old Florida still remain.
Should AMI ever be a contender for a mini getaway, gear up to work on your tan and tap out of the real world.
Ditch your cottage and explore the landscape
A mix of colorful cottages and shady palm trees dominate this island’s landscape. The most challenging part of the day will be
deciding on transportation. Visitors can hop on a free trolley, rent a bike or scooter, or use their own two feet to explore the island. Whatever the choice, there are plenty of sights that will awaken the senses. Two things that are not seen on the island: industrial eyesores and high-rises. This modest beach community has been successful at maintaining its old Florida beach feel by keeping developers and chainy hotels OFF of the island. It’s every old Florida aficionado’s dream come true.
But don’t let this description confuse you–not everything on the island is kitschy and old. Although no higher than three stories tall, jaw-dropping cottages have been built around the island, serving as both residences and lodging for visitors. Albeit beautiful, these new and improved bungalows still fit the “quiet money” mold exhibited throughout the island. AMI got the memo: Upscale just doesn’t jibe with beachy.
Overload on island grub
Like most islands, seafood is the prominent food of choice on AMI. Local eateries take pride in serving domestic meals to seafood lovers, delivering shrimp and an array of fish and oysters fished directly out of Florida’s waters.
But AMI doesn’t only do seafood right. A popular local treasure can be found on the north end of the island. The Donut Experiment allows mad scientists of all ages to create their own cake-based donuts. From key lime glazes to Sriracha toppings to choose from, the world really is your oyster at this local island shop.
Drink like a local
Bars can be found all over the island ranging from rustic waterside tiki bars, to laid back establishments nestled in-between eclectic art shops. With a Key West feel sans the rowdy crowds, you can never go wrong while exploring AMI’s nightlife. When deciding what to wear, think: “What Would Jack Johnson Do.” Flip-flops and shorts are always the perfect choice for overloading on piña coladas.
While bar hopping, be prepared to nurse your beer as you sway to live renditions of “Brown-Eyed Girl” and “Free Bird.” Local
musicians don’t just croon Jimmy Buffet’s “Margaritaville” for a buck here — they truly get to know their audience. You’ll go from nervously shouting out requests, to taking multiple shots with your entertainment.
Experience a golden hour— west coast style
Florida’s west coast is infamous for its spectacular sunsets. You can pretty much catch nature painting the sky “magic” from anywhere on the west side of the island. Waterfront establishments crowd up just as the sun is about to set. If there was ever a photo opportunity, this would be it. After all, there is no better lighting than that of the sun kissing the horizon.
Soak up the rays
The “wake up slow” mentality is alive and well on Anna Maria. Switched over to island time, you won’t catch many beachgoers catching early rays here. Swooping pelicans can be spotted plunging into the pristine water while bottle-nosed dolphins grace observant beach bums with impromptu cameos. With seven miles of sugary white sand, visitors typically spend most of their time at the beach, usually alternating between catnaps, day dreaming, and cooling their feet in the ebbing tides.
Blue Spring State Park
If you’re looking for lusher scenery minus the island feel, look thirty minutes north of the greater Orlando-area. Wedged between your typical Central Florida neighborhood — and more live oak trees than you can count — lies Blue Spring State Park. Covering over 2,600 acres, this state park serves as a Manatee Refuge to a growing population of buoyant sea cows. The park’s biggest attraction, respectively called Blue Springs, is one of Central Florida’s most valuable treasures. Whether you prefer cannon balling into one of nature’s swimming pools, hiking miles of unspoiled wilderness, or casting your fishing line near the shore, this park’s got you covered.
Take a Dip
Excited families with multicolored floats can be spotted disappearing behind oak trees, eagerly making their way toward the spring. A windy boardwalk leads guests to the awe-inspiring turquoise waters. At 73 degrees, the crystalline water automatically triggers your explorer vibes to resurface. Swimmers who bravely take the chilly plunge soon realize that there’s a lot to discover in this swimming hole for the adventurous.
Visitors have the option of swimming, tubing, snorkeling or scuba diving down the spring. For those feeling a little more energetic, kayaks and canoes are available for rent at the ground’s concession. Bathers tend to congregate around the spring’s boil, watching adrenaline junkies leap off of sandy banks into the clear blue water. This particular area — which houses an underwater cave and an abundance of marine life — is a magnet for scuba divers. Divers and snorkelers alike delve into the depth of this mysterious hole, seeking to inflate their sense of adventure; and if they’re lucky enough, experience a manatee sighting.
Enjoy a Picnic
The park’s grounds have a variety of places visitors can use to kick back and dry off. Pavilions, BBQ pits, and grassy areas can be found just outside the spring’s boardwalk, with families migrating here to get their grub on. Though the park offers both food and drinks for purchase, visitors can opt to bring their own food and beverages. Beer drinkers beware: Alcohol is not permitted on park grounds.
Take a Hike
After lunch, walk some calories off on one of the park’s nature trails. Begin your voyage at Pine Island Trail, a lesser-known, less-used
terrain. 4.5 miles each way, the trail offers dense forests, shady resting areas, casual scrub-jay sightings and plenty of photo opps. This scenic route allows passersby to get a true taste of nature’s magic. Delve into the oak tree forest and spot cardinals, deer, turtles, snakes and a variety of insects that call this trail home. Love bugs are prevalent in this area, making it a common occurrence for a couple of intertwined honeymoon flies to casually land on hikers.
Regardless of whether you prefer paradise or paradise-lite, these two hidden gems offer exclusive experiences to those lucky visitors who find them.