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Florida’s Hidden Gems

Photo courtesy of Blue Planet Archive/Alamy.

When we found the first fossilized shark tooth on the beach, it felt like a victory. When we found the 30th, it just confirmed that we had landed someplace really special. The teeth were very old, we reminded ourselves—only a few still had their serrated edges—and the currents had simply deposited them at our feet on Don Pedro Island. It wasn’t like all those sharks were swimming just offshore, right?!
 

This wonderful secluded island and its pristine beaches, just two hours from Tampa and reached via car ferry across a narrow channel, was the last stop on our whirlwind trip along the coast of Southwest Florida. It was a spring break for the ages.
 

Our first destination had been the low-key towns of Crystal River and Homosassa Springs, about an hour north of the Tampa airport. We had barely checked into Plantation on Crystal River when we were up the next morning at 6 a.m., braving chilly morning temps to put on wetsuits and swim with manatees while they were most active (prime manatee season runs from November 15 to March 31). Compared to the air, the 72-degree water felt downright balmy! And our 5-year-old and 11-year-old kids loved floating in the water, watching the gentle giants swim up to them and spin slowly around. Totally worth our early wake-up call. 

 San Pedro Island        
Beach on Don Pedro Island        
 






















 

For the next few days, we explored this laid-back area with its Old Florida vibe. After our manatee adventure, we kept the animal theme going with a trip to the Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park, dedicated to rehabilitating indigenous animals back into the wild whenever possible. We saw alligators, more manatees, vibrant roseate spoonbills and a pair of Florida panthers—one of whom seemed to be eyeing our youngest as his next potential meal. Our most adventurous day wrapped up on an airboat with River Safaris & Gulf Charters. Our guide, “Irish Dave,” took us on a very fast, very loud ride winding through the salt marshes along the Gulf as we kept our eyes peeled for dolphins and other marine wildlife. Needless to say, the kids loved it. And a quiet, refined meal of shrimp and grits at Crystal River’s Vintage on 5th was the perfect ending to the busy day.
 

The next morning, my daughter and I met a guide from Hunter Springs Kayaks who hooked us up with a supercool see-through kayak and took us on a tour of the waterways around Crystal River, where we stopped to watch a pair of manatees snuggle up against a pier and each other (not a very common occurrence, apparently). That afternoon, we had an alternative view—from the shore—of where we had floated with manatees the day before, Three Sisters Springs, where you can walk around the boardwalk and nature trails to take in the otherworldly atmosphere of the aquamarine springs.
 

Like rolling stones, it was time to move on. We headed south to Anna Maria Island along with throngs of spring breakers who had come for the vacation rentals, shops and restaurants lining the narrow island and its glorious beach. Our home base was the next island over, Longboat Key—just across from Sarasota—at the Zota Beach Resort. We checked into our suite and grabbed a drink on the balcony, which offered perfect views of the ocean and pool—as did the hotel’s first-floor restaurant, Viento Kitchen and Bar, at dinner later that night. This area is beach heaven, and we spent much of our time playing in the ocean, relaxing by the pool and eating seafood with a view of the Gulf of Mexico. Our favorite spot for that was the bustling, delicious Beach House Restaurant.

We did venture north to the city of Anna Maria one morning for finger-licking gourmet doughnuts at The Donut Experiment followed by a paint-your-own sand dollar session at the Shiny Fish Emporium. While you’re in the area, don’t miss a lunch of (what else?) oysters or fresh fish at Anna Maria Oyster Bar on the Pier, offering a view of the harbor. You can even take a boat tour in search of area dolphins from the same pier.

 Shiny Fish Emporium        
Painted sand dollars at Shiny Fish Emporium        
 






















 

Our last stop was Don Pedro Island, one of a trio of fused islands that also includes Knight and Little Gasparilla. We settled in at our townhouse perched steps from the ocean, where we made our own meals and fell asleep to the sounds of the waves just outside our windows. The area is mostly residential other than Palm Island Resort with its rental properties, Rum Bay Restaurant, ice cream shop and golf carts that you can rent to take you all over the narrow, 7-mile-long land mass. And if you have kids, you won’t want to miss the weekly show or story time by Red Beard the Pirate. Despite all of his swashbuckling bluster, Red Beard was surprisingly kind after our son knocked down his plaster skull prop, shattering it to bits. The life of a pirate is a rough one, indeed!

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