Greater Gainesville’s location at the center of the State and its proximity to a kaleidoscope of unique destinations and activities prime for a day trip is one huge advantage of living here. A short car drive could have you swimming with dolphins or face-to-face with the prehistoric alligator and endangered manatee. A taste of the quaint village life in a beloved fishing community is no further away than the grandeur of crumbling castles steeped in Colonial history and national pride. If a day at the beach with sunbathing, surfing, parasailing, and just plain relaxing strikes your fancy, we’ve got you covered with a variety of beach sojourns to suit any taste. The magic of the “Happiest Place on Earth” is less than two hours away with its dizzying amalgam of theme parks, amusement rides, golfing and robust nightlife. Cross the line into Georgia to discover the most charming city in the South with a walk along cobblestone streets and through picturesque parks shaded by majestic Spanish moss-adorned oaks. Or, find seclusion at its finest on an island accessible only by ferry, where wild horses roam freely, scant a person is to be seen, and arguably the best stargazing for the taking at your personal beachside camping spot. So, grab the family, or just yourself, and head out from Greater Gainesville to discover new worlds just a short drive away.
1 JACKSONVILLE BEACH
The largest city by landmass in the U.S., Jacksonville’s beaches attract the most attention and offer no shortage of alluring activities. Rent a surfboard and take a lesson to ride a summer swell or cast your fishing line from the 1/4-mile pier that defines the iconic beachscape. If man-curated water activities are more to your liking, head on over to Shipwreck Island Waterpark and enjoy a variety of heart-pounding slides, rollercoasters or go-karts tracks, or slow it down in their massive wave pool and lazy river. Castaway Island Preserve, situated in a salt marsh ecosystem teeming with diverse wildlife, offers another adventure with its elevated boardwalks, educational center, variety of hiking trails, and kayak launching points for a water point of view. If you haven’t gotten enough of the wildlife in the Castaway Island or Cradle Creek Preserves, why not spend a few hours at the Jacksonville Zoo or Catty Shack Ranch, a sanctuary for inhumanely treated tigers that features nightly feedings open to the public. If cultural art is more your scene, consider the North Florida Seaside Sculpture Park, comprised of an array of UNF students’ creations that are free to the public, or perhaps a night at the Players by the Sea community theater for a dose of drama and comedy.
2 ST. AUGUSTINE
With over 42 miles of white sandy beaches, it’s no wonder the oldest city in North America is consistently voted a top travel destination. It
s rich Spanish history and architecture are showcased in the Colonial Quarter and towering Castillo de San Marcos, all of which can be explored via the Old Town Trolley or Ripley’s Sightseeing Train. Not only does a ticket gain you access to the Old Jail and world-famous Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Museum, but the conveyance offers 20 convenient stops to attractions, restaurants, shopping, and galleries that you can explore at your own pace and leisure. Like to golf? You’re in luck. Boasting a myriad of courses for all skill levels and budgets, including the Players Championship course at Sawgrass, the city is sure to satisfy all your golfing desires. If coming face to face with prehistoric reptiles or swashbucklers is more your thing, enjoy an excursion to the St. Augustine Alligator Farm or Pirate and Treasure Museum. Delve further into history at the Fountain of Youth and drink from the same springs that inspired explorers of all creeds to traverse the High Seas in hopes of eternal life. Or simply round out your fun-filled day with a majestic sunset cruise or haunted ghost tour. Depending on the kind of sleep you want to get, it’s choose-your-own adventure in St. Augustine!
3 CEDAR KEY
An island village in the Gulf of Mexico with less than 800 full-time residents, Cedar Key is named for the eastern red cedar trees that once inundated the landscape. Although this conifer is not as omnipresent these days, the charming small town still boasts a kaleidoscope of wildlife, including the ever-elusive white pelican and bald eagle. Take to the waters in your rented kayak, as the noticeably calm waters are ideal for such tranquil exploration. Be on the lookout for pods of dolphins as they are known to grace these shallow shores. For a dose of adrenaline, take an airboat ride through the tidal marshlands. Fishing isn’t just confined to the many docks and beach shores; feel free to charter a boat and head out into the Gulf to test your skills and patience. Bring back your catch to be cooked up to your liking at one of the many charming seafood restaurants that are the staple of the Cedar Key community. Steamers Clam Bar and Grill and Duncan’s on the Gulf will certainly satisfy all your seafood hankerings. The seaside community is the #1 producer of farm-raised clams in the U.S., so make sure to indulge in a bowl or two of the namesake chowders. And, don’t forget, the best, most unique and convenient way to explore Cedar Key by land is via golf carts. These rentable 2 to 6 passenger rides will give you a surreal journey
4 ST. PETERSBURG
Named the #2 beach in America in 2020 by Trip Advisor, St. Petersburg’s relaxed and fun vibe is both accent
uated and induced by its consistent 361 days of sunshine each year. It’s no wonder residents and visitors alike flock to the alluring beaches to enjoy parasailing, windsurfing, kiteboarding, and of course, sunbathing. If a dose of adrenaline is calling, head on over to JetLev at TradeWinds Island Resorts and strap into your own water powered jet pack for a once in a lifetime expe
rience, quite literally flying 30 feet high above the water at a dizzying 30 mph. If speed and heights aren’t exactly your thing, the calm waters provided by this unique location are a kayak paddler’s dreams. From freshwater lakes, to the intercoastal waterway, to the Gulf of Mexico, a kayak or paddleboard will afford you days of fun at the most leisurely of paces. If the consistent sunshine becomes a bit too much, don’t worry, Salvador Dali is to the rescue. Offering the most expansive catalog of his art outside of his home country of Spain, the Dali Museum is a fascinating exploration of the surrealist mastermind. Get lost in his dream worlds as you wander in air-conditioned comfort. After mind expansion with Dali, you might want to consider exploring your internal horizons further on an epic craft beer trail that extends from Tarpon Springs to St. Petersburg, graced by more than 30 craft breweries. And, don’t forget about Fort De Soto Park, covering more than 1,336 acres on the Gulf of Mexico and Tampa Bay, these five interconnected islands offer an array of activities to once again soak up more of that sunshine.
Known as “Horse Country” for its ties to Triple Crown winners and thoroughbred pedigrees, the rolling hills of lush green grass and ancient oaks have also served as the backdrop for several Hollywood productions. The city is the gateway to the woods and lakes that comprise the Ocala National Forest, which includes the largest sand pine forest in the world. Sand pines, live oaks, and limestone canyon cliffs join forces at The Canyons Zip Line and Adventure Park, where 2 to 3 hours can be spent gliding high up among the trees, taking in the sights from a bird’s eye view on more than a mile of interconnected zip lines. Your adrenaline will be pumping, and your courage tested, as you take to surreal heights to conquer your fears and embrace your inner adventurer. Prefer things a little closer to sea level? How about below sea level? Silver Springs, a nature theme park residing on 350 acres, and its world-famous glass-bottom boats are waiting. Guided and affordable journeys embarking every 30 minutes will have you face-to-face with manatees, turtles, alligators, and a kaleidoscope of colorful fish. This angle of both above and below the water offers unique insight into the habitat and wildlife that define Florida. The park also offers up swimming, kayaking, canoeing and snorkeling opportunities. Feeling a bit hungry afterwards and want to get your hands dirty? Head on out to U-Pick Farms and give agritourism a try as you pluck fresh blueberries from the bush or oranges from a fertile tree at this organic farm. Eat it right there or take your bounty home and learn a bit more about the process of farm-to-table. If you’re still wanting more, enjoy a horseback tour with one of these fabled steeds or simply slow things down and catch a double feature at Ocala’s Drive in Theater, one of the few remaining drive-in theaters in the country and an affordable option for a unique date night.
6 AMELIA ISLAND
Travel and Leisure voted Amelia Island into its Top 10 Islands in the U.S., and it’s easy to see why with its 13 miles of uncrowded beaches, rich history, and vibrant food scene consisting of over 90 restaurants fit for all budgets and palettes. Make a reservation at España for an authentic culinary journey to Spain and Portugal. Enjoy the Iberian lifestyle with an array of mouthwatering tapas that are meant to be shared and adored by locals and tourists alike. If you’re looking for something a bit lighter and healthier, head on over to the revamped Surf Restaurant with its waterfront views and healthy organic mixed bowls. All fueled up on tasty grub, you’re ready to head out to Ft. Clinch State Park with its live Civil War reenactments. Musket fire and cannon thunder punctuate this journey back in time. Talbot Island and Fernandina Beach offer up other pleasures with boutique shopping, galleries galore, and a chance to grab your favorite cocktail from the oldest bar in Florida, the Palace Saloon. For a truly unforgettable experience, take to the skies with Florida Adventure Sports in a motor-powered hang glider that will provide you with the most stunning views and perspectives of this barrier island. You can also mount up for a guided horseback ride along the sandy beach or enjoy a romantic sunset sail with that special someone.
The only downside to visiting Orlando is trying to narrow down what you’d actually like to do in a limited amount of time. The options are boundless, the possibilities magnetic, and you’re guaranteed to not be disappointed with an array of activities for adults and families alike. Home to more than 12 theme parks, there’s something for everyone. Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom is home to Mickey Mouse and the crew with a great number of rides, shows, and parades, while Epcot Center allows you to traverse the globe, sampling cuisines and absorbing cultures from around the world without ever getting on a plane. For the wildlife lovers, consider a day among the creatures at the Anim
al Kingdom or Sea World. For the film enthusiasts, Universal Studios and Hollywood Studios offer unique dives into some of cinema’s most iconic moments and films, all explored through interactive rides, live performances and stunt spectaculars. New to the scene is the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Shake off your daily Muggle, grab your wand, and enter a world of
sorcery, enchantment and wonder. Or if a galaxy, far, far away… is more your thing, Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge is right up your universe. Take to the cockpit of the Millennium Falcon, fight alongside Chewbacca with your own lightsaber, or head to the Space Cantina for a glass of blue milk with your adorable bar buddy Yoda. If you prefer to cool off and sport a bathing suit, the waterpark fun at Blizzard Beach and Typhoon Lagoon offer cleverly curated landscapes mimicking alpine ski slopes and tropical islands. Orlando also has a variety of stunning golf courses, a Madame Tussauds, Science Center, and the 400-foot Orlando Eye observation wheel at Icon Park in case you want to take in the city from above. If you prefer adrenaline to theme parks, Spirit of the Swamp airboat rides, Tree Tek Adventure Park and Ifly indoor skydiving have you all covered. Don’t forget about the robust adult nightlife, with ICEBAR Orlando, House of Blues, and Universal City Walk being popular choices for a night of cocktails, dancing, comedy clubs and live music.
8 CUMBERLAND ISLAND, GEORGIA
Only accessible by ferry, this barrier island off the coast of Georgia affords the seclusion and outdoor adventure of a lifetime. 17 miles of undeveloped beach, wild horses roaming freely, and 50 miles of hiking trails conspire to create an off-the-beaten path experience like no other. Wild salt marshes mingle with maritime forests, tidal creeks, and pristine beaches in a distinct ecosystem that you won’t find anywhere else. Rent a bike for only $16 a day and traverse the island at a leisurely pace. This bike ride is not for the faint of heart as there are no paved roads, and a sense of wonder and adventure are required. Curious about the island’s rich history? Take the Footsteps Tour with a knowledgeable park ranger leading the way or the Land and Legacies Tour from the comfort of an air-conditioned passenger van. Journey back into time and explore the Dungeness Ruins, Plum Orchard Mansion, and the famous First African Baptist Church. After this cultural exploration, consider camping on this island and enjoying the uniqueness of watching both the sunrise and sunset from a beachfront vantage point. Pitch a tent or string up your hammock from the sprawling branches of a massive live oak and prepare yourself for a celestial wonderland at night, as the unobstructed views and lack of ambient light make Cumberland Island ideal for some of the most epic stargazing in the state.
9 SAVANNAH, GEORGIA
As a Christmas gift to President Lincoln, General Sherman was so astounded by Savannah’s beauty that he spared it on his famous march South. Exquisite medieval inspired cathedrals and Colonial architecture join forces with Spanish moss-draped oaks and cobblestone streets to create a unique atmosphere that attracts visitors from around the globe. Fans of the book and movie adaptation of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil will be hard pressed to not spend an entire day wandering the 22 parks and squares that define the landscape of this pedestrian friendly city. Forsyth Park and Bonaventure Cemetery are a must see, the latter being a fine place for a picnic. As strange as this dining concept might seem on the surface, this picturesque cemetery is more than welcoming and accustomed to such afternoon sojourns. Don’t feel like packing your own, allow the Savannah Picnic Company to take care of all arrangements with a variety of options to suit any budget or occasion. Make sure to check out the Teflair Museum, the oldest public art museum in the Southeast, and don’t forget to bring your camera to the Gothic-Revival Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, with its glinting spires and 81 ornately stained-glass windows. The Old Town Trolley is a great way to see the city without breaking a sweat, and the Savannah Riverboat Cruise offers a paddle wheel-propelled river experience like no other. With a robust food scene and libation options aplenty, make sure to take advantage of Historic District’s lax drinking laws and take your cocktail to go; wander the cobblestone streets and take in the wonder, hospitality and charm that make Savannah the smiling gem of the South.
10 SPACE COAST
Cape Canaveral and the Kennedy Space Center on Merritt Island showcase America’s ambition and determination to get to the moon and beyond. The place where we launch and build satellites and constructed the infrastructure that has made the International Space Station a celestial reality is open for exploration. At the hub of the human Space Program, visitors can enjoy launch and training simulators, the Hubble Space Telescope theater, the U.S. astronauts Hall of Fame, and the revered Rocket Garden that pays homage through relics and tours to the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo space programs that put America on the galactic map. Don’t forget to pay your respects at the Space Mirror Memorial, the towering national monument honoring the fallen astronauts who reached for the stars in hopes of giving those of us down below dreams of the heavens. After a day in space, get grounded again at the Manatee Sanctuary Park and encounter this endangered species in its natural habitat. More keen to press your luck? Victory Casino Cruises offer 5-6 hour sails twice a day, 7 days a week, where you can enjoy an authentic Las Vegas-style casino experience, replete with slots, table games, the State’s only sports book, 5 fully stocked bars, ample food and an ocean backdrop to create your own surreal and earthly reality.
For a additional destinations to visit near Greater Gainesville visit guidetogreatergainesville.com/directory.
Author- Brandon Duff