I recently visited the very popular Fort Myers/Sanibel tourist area on the west coast of Florida. My parents spend their winters there and over the years they and other relatives have lived there, I've seen that part of Florida change drastically. My first visit more than 20 years ago took me past miles of gladioli farms, now as I ride down San Carlos Blvd each year, I pass miles of condos, Walgreen's and Walmart's. I've also spent a fair amount of time on the east coast and central Florida. I've enjoyed Walt Disney World, visiting nearly every few years for most of my life. I appreciate the incredible imagination that created a magical world where there was once "nothing". But I always wonder what was there when there was "nothing"? What happened to the "real" Florida, the natural place that existed before developers and Imagineers found it?
Florida is not only a top travel destination in the US, it's one of the top destinations in the world! According to the Jacksonville Business Journal 94.7 million people visited Florida in 2013. Whenever I give advice to international visitors in online forums, I always encourage them to spend at least part of their holiday seeing "real" Florida. Of course Sea World and Walgreens are "real" and are in Florida, but what I mean by this is experiencing what Florida was (and in some places still IS) when "nothing" was there. I feel that it's important to experience natural Florida. It's the inverse of my belief that when I am visiting an area known for it's natural beauty (like an African safari or Galapagos islands) I like to sample the culture of the local people. I've found ways to enjoy natural Florida (even as part of a trip doing some "unreal" things like resort beach vacations and Disney trips) and I've really enjoyed experiencing what Florida must have been like before all the development.
How To Find a Natural Area in Florida
I've since learned that The Florida State University has made an interactive map of Florida Natural Areas Inventory you can use to find natural areas anywhere in Florida. I like it because it lists everything in any given area, National Parks, County Parks, Local parks, parks owned and operated by non governmental agencies or even for profit. Once you know where you will be in Florida, I'd encourage every visitor to locate at least one of these areas and visit the next time you visit Florida.
link to Florida Natural Areas Inventory
I usually try to find a time where I can fit in some natural outdoor activities, but sometimes, my trips to natural areas happen by accident like my visit to the Anne Kolb Nature Center in Hollywood FL. After a cruise from Fort Lauderdale, we had a lot of time to kill before a late flight and we took a cruise line provided bus to Hollywood Beach. The weather was a bit overcast for hanging on the beach, so we rented bikes on the Broadwalk (that's not a typo- that's what they call it, I don't know why, but my theory is someone sent the wrong spelling to the printer and no one had the budget to change it!!) On the local map we were handed, we noticed the Anne Kolb Nature Center, and decided to ride over there. Amazingly, this natural gem was tucked away about a mile from the beach and shops of Hollywood Beach.
Anne Kolb Nature Center
link to Anne Kolb Nature Center
Everglades National Park
link to Everglades National Park
I am often asked by foreign visitors on user content forums about what to do in addition to a cruise out of South Florida or a trip to the imaginative attractions in Orlando. I always recommend a trip to the Florida Everglades. This National Park is very accessible to the major cities and attractions of both the east and west coasts. One of the major attractions is a huge population of alligators. They are easily and safely viewed at the Everglades National Park and although they don't move often or much, they are fascinating to see! For foreign visitors it may be their first visit to our National Park System and might excite them to return to visit more of our amazing National Parks.
Most of our west coast natural area visits have come about because my parents live there and have taken us to their favorite places. Some are county parks, others Audubon parks and even some privately owned parks. In every part of Florida, right around the corner from the pizza joints and beach stores on the beach or the condo developments built on pro designed golf courses, there are quiet, natural places to enjoy what Florida might have been like thousands of years ago!
Audubon Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary
link to: Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary
Audubon maintains a 2.25 mile curving boardwalk (the corkscrew!) through acres of cypress trees. The "knees" of these trees provide habitat for many animals and they are easily and safely viewed from the boardwalk. Also, many of the natural areas we've visited are staffed with volunteers or guides who are helpful in pointing out wildlife, answering questions and setting up spotting scopes to help guests see more distant animals.
Great Calusa Blueway
link to Great Calusa Blueway
Not every nature trail is on land in Florida...in a state with so much water and so close to sea level, many "trails" are actually boardwalks over swamps or mangroves making them easier to manage for people with limited mobility. Some trails are actually on the water! The Great Calusa Blueway I paddled on the west coast, is just one of many water trails designed for small craft. It's also an accessible way to see "real Florida". During my paddle I met a US vet who lost a leg in combat, who hopped into his kayak and headed out on the water trail! Most natural areas feature vendors who rent kayaks, bikes, and paddle boards for use in the parks. I rented a kayak for $35 for a 1/2 day and explored the mangroves of the Carlos Bay Bunche Beach Preserve and a short paddle along the Great Calusa Blueway.
San Carlos Bay Preserve
link to San Carlos Bay Perserve
I've added a video below of a small crab I encountered during my paddle. These little crabs live in the mud and climb the mangrove trees. The outfitter who provided the kayak warned me that I'd see them in the "mangrove tunnel". They could be unsettling if you weren't aware of them because they scuttle out of the way when you get near them, but they aren't dangerous. They are very shy, as you can see I had to encourage this one to scoot in front of the camera by waving my paddle behind the branch (no crabs were injured in the making of this video!) It's not a great quality video; I was trying to paddle a kayak in a mangrove channel only inches wider than the boat, while operating an iphone video one handed, through the OverBoard waterproof case (which was a bit fogged) and without my glasses to see anything on the screen!
None of these photos were taken in a zoo!
Certainly, we've seen a lot of beautiful natural areas over years of visits to Florida. And yet, I have only visited a tiny fraction of the natural areas on the FNAI map As I look over these photos, none were taken in a zoo, nor were we stationed at a park for hours at dawn like National Geographic wildlife photographers; all of these places and animals are easily viewed during a simple hour long walk, bike ride or paddle! They were all found within an hour or so (sometimes just a 5 minute walk around the corner) from the most developed parts of Florida. "Real" Florida is everywhere and easy (and rewarding) to find! I hope you'll find your real, natural Florida on your next trip, and please share your favorite places with us!