I have fond childhood memories of my family piling into the motor home and traveling south from New York to Florida. As unpleasant as the drive along I-95 often was, I knew that as soon as we reached the Florida-Georgia state line, there would be a fresh-squeezed sample of Florida orange juice waiting for us at the visitor center. We would also load up on brochures that featured everything from alligators and white sandy beaches to Walt Disney World® and dinosaurs.
My father was not one to stick to the main drag. If something caught his eye or piqued his curiosity, off the beaten path we would go in search of something amazing. Florida has a host of interesting, sometimes odd, but always memorable attractions and roadside photo ops.
Here are 9 unique places you should visit next time you find yourself in this neck of the woods.
Viewfinder Tip: Be sure to pick up brochures from your hotel or the visitors center as they often contain discounts and coupons for many attractions.
1. Coral Castle, Homestead. Edward Leedskalnin, a slight fellow at just over 5 feet tall and 100 pounds, settled in Florida in 1918 and began constructing a two-story castle from over 1,100 tons of coral rock that he quarried, hauled, and carved himself. Taking him 28 years to complete, Edward built the entire castle alone, including a working sundial, a solar-heated bathtub, and three-ton table. He was very secretive about how he did it single-handedly, and while there are many theories, nobody knows for sure.
2. Skunk Ape Research Headquarters, Ochopee. The “skunk ape,” Florida’s version of Sasquatch, is a very pungent, large, hairy, two-legged mammal that calls the Florida Everglades home. There’s no better place to house the Skunk Ape Research Headquarters than in the skunk ape’s own backyard. While you may never see the illusive skunk ape in the wild, you can take home its likeness in a souvenir from the gift shop, which offers an array of skunk ape merchandise from T-shirts to shot glasses.
3. Presidents Hall of Fame, Clermont. The Presidents Hall of Fame is an homage to the U.S. commanders in chief. Among its extraordinary amassment is a detailed White House one-twelfth scale replica, a first ladies gown collection, White House ornaments, and Christmas card collections. It houses one of the largest athenaeums of presidential memorabilia in the United States. A miniature Mount Rushmore and a lifelike wax figure of our 44th president make for great photo ops.
Sponge docks in Greek town of Tarpon Springs
4. The Sponge Docks, Tarpon Springs. The first Greeks arrived in Tarpon Springs in 1905 and brought with them their expertise in sponge diving. Throughout the years that followed, they opened Greek restaurants, cafés, and shops creating this charming Greek town on the west coast of Florida. From moussaka at Mykonos Authentic Greek Cookery to the famous Spongeorama museum, this quaint slice of Greece is a jewel on the waterfront.
5. Warm Mineral Springs, North Port. Warm Mineral Springs is the only warm-water mineral spring in the state of Florida, and is the largest water mineral spring in the world. It has the highest mineral content in the United States and the third highest in the world, with over 50 minerals that are beneficial for conditions like arthritis, joint problems, skin conditions, and inflammation. With a year-round temperature of 87 degrees, it is no wonder why visitors come from around the world to soak their weary bones. Open daily from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., it has a US$20.00 admission charge for adults per day.
6. Winter Strawberry Capital of the United States, Plant City. Plant City, Florida, is called the Winter Strawberry Capital for a reason, producing over three-quarters of U.S. strawberries in midwinter. The Florida Strawberry Growers Association alone harvests over 11,000 acres of berries, producing 20 million flats. Now that’s a lot of strawberries! You can find sweet, juicy, red strawberries at markets throughout the region, but Parkesdale Farms is my personal favorite, as you can get everything from strawberry milkshakes and shortcakes to jams and jellies. Since the mid-1900s, Plant City has celebrated the strawberry annually at the end of February through early March at the Florida Strawberry Festival, one of the top 40 festivals in the United States.
7. Jules’ Undersea Lodge, Key Largo. Jules’ Undersea Lodge is the world’s first underwater hotel, built in the 1970s as an underwater research facility before settling in its current location in the lagoon at Key Largo Undersea Park. The lodge has a well-stocked kitchen, showers, two bedrooms, and a large round window to watch the fish. You can stay for three hours for about US$150.00 per person, with a two-person minimum, or you can stay 24 hours for US$675.00 for a single person. You have to be a certified scuba diver to get there (it is 21 feet beneath the surface of the sea) or you can take the lodge’s Discover SCUBA Diving certification.
8. Swimming with manatees, Crystal River. The coastal waters of Crystal River have the largest population of manatees on Florida’s west coast. Manatees can weigh upwards of 1,200 pounds, but are known as gentle giants, and pose no threat or danger. There are a number of professionally guided tours on the river that outfit you with a wet suit, mask, and snorkel. After a short briefing, you’ll be swimming with the manatees!
9. Morikami Museum and Japanese Gardens, Delray Beach. Located halfway between Delray Beach and Boca Raton is Yamato, which was once a small community of Japanese farmers that began in the early 1900s as a way to introduce new crops and farming techniques to the state. Today, it is a museum and garden devoted to showcasing the traditional and contemporary culture of Japan and telling the story of the Yamato Colony. On select Saturdays, you can experience sado (a tea ceremony), koto (a traditional stringed instrument,) and kitsuke (a kimono culture). This is an authentic Japanese cultural experience that will entertain, enlighten, and inspire you.
While many of the iconic Florida adventures of my childhood no longer exist, my fond memories linger. And there are still dozens of things to see and do in the Sunshine State that you may not even know exist. With a little research, you can unearth some of the most unique Florida attractions that will leave you awed and, sometimes, even scratching your head.
Where is the most memorable place in Florida you have visited?