TRAVEL TALK

Florida a great place to vacation


Published: Sunday, April 7, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, April 5, 2013 at 12:16 p.m.

Want to avoid the costs and hassles of flying and still have a vacation? A Florida staycation is ideal. There are 161 state and 11 national parks offering recreational, educational and natural beauty opportunities.

At floridastateparks.org, choose from the five districts, depending on where you live and how long you want to stay. You also can download the free Pocket Ranger App.

One place to visit in the northwest is Edward Ball Wakulla Springs State Park, with its clear blue water and Tarzan-like boat cruise (several Tarzan films were made here, as well as "Creature from the Black Lagoon"). If you drive along U.S. 98 there's access to the pristine white sand dunes and beaches along the Panhandle.

Possible stops are Appalachicola, St. George Island, St. Joseph Peninsula, St. Andrews and Perdido Key.

Northeast Florida features Ichetucknee, Peacock, Madison Blue, Troy and Manatee springs — all great for cooling off during summer, with water temperatures around 72 degrees.

Near Gainesville, check out the sinkhole at Devil's Millhopper Geological State Park or select the Silver, Rainbow, Crystal, Homosassa or Weeki Wachee rivers to explore.

Many parks have canoes/kayaks/tubes for rent. I really enjoy Juniper Springs in the Ocala National Forest (the three- to five-hour canoe/kayak trip is a fantastic opportunity to see untamed Florida).

The beaches at Honeymoon State Park, and its neighbor across the pass, Caledesi Island, are very popular (over 1 million people visited Honeymoon Island in 2010).

Further south are Sanibel, Captiva and Gasparilla islands, Stump Pass Beach and Cayo Costa State Park (accessible only by boat).

If you're not a beach person, there's Hillsborough, Alafia and Myakka River state parks. Fakahatchee Strand State Park (the "Amazon of North America") and Everglades National Park may be on your list, but plan to go in fall/winter for maximum comfort.

Want a Caribbean-style vacation? Head to the Keys and visit Bahia Honda, John Pennekamp Coral Reef or San Pedro Underwater Archaeological Preserve (where you can snorkel/dive a 1733 shipwreck).

On the Atlantic coast is Bill Baggs Cape Florida, along with Oleta River (Florida's largest urban park).

Further north is John U. Lloyd Beach, with one of the easiest and most interesting shore dives.

Continuing up the east coast are more springs to discover (Wekiwa, Rock, Blue and Deleon), plus the pristine beach at Anastasia State Park.

But enough about the beaches, springs and rivers! There are 30 sites encompassing plantations, forts, historic houses, battlefields, monuments, cemeteries, archaeological areas, caverns, museums and gardens. Research Exploresouthernhistory.com for "historic sites, points of interest, ghost stories, monsters and more."

And talk about affordable! State park entrance fees are usually less than $10 (and that's per carload). For accommodations you can stay in a park or find lodging nearby. Enjoy the Gulf of Mexico, the Atlantic Ocean, the rivers, springs, beaches, forests and swamps. View the wildlife, birds and diverse flora. Commemorate Florida's 500 years of history and its natural resources through the parks and sites. I don't think you'll be disappointed.

Claudine Dervaes' travel column is published the first Sunday of every month.

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