Hidden Gems of Florida: Discovering the Beauty of the Sunshine State

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You’ve heard this comment before: There is buried treasure in Florida. Gems certainly can be found but they’re not under the ocean or in the sands lying prey to metal detectors. They are the cities, towns and counties up and down Florida’s long narrow topography waiting to be explored, discovered and enjoyed.

These hidden locales are open for unearthing every day, yet most travelers head straight to the crowded popular beaches and theme parks. I love those teeming sights too, occasionally, but I invite you to explore some of Florida’s extraordinary uncrowded jewels for relaxation, exhilaration and great beauty with the bonus being they are kinder on your hard-earned travel budget.

Cedar Key
Cedar Key is one example. This small, weather-beaten town boasts great sunsets and seafood. The sunsets rival Key West, but without the crowds and with only one tiki bar. If you’re traveling with young kids, Cedar may be a bit too tame; but for adult travel and antiquity lovers, it is a must-see.

Located in North Central Florida on the Gulf of Mexico, not far from Gainesville, this tiny key has been the setting for much of the state’s history. David Yulee, president of the Florida Railroad in the 1800s, put this town on the map of growth. Yulee is credited with connecting the state of Florida’s east and west coasts, an industrious achievement, certainly, but one that would inevitably make this key a favorite target for the Union forces in their fight against the Confederate Army.

Arrowheads dating back thousands of years and a large prehistoric shell mound are just shy of six miles outside of Cedar Key. Shell Mound of Cedar Key is part of the Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuge and it is believed to date back to 2500 BCE. The shell mound is thought to have been the site of special gatherings for Native American tribes. In addition to historic specimens showcasing the shell mound, you can find nature and hiking trails, kayaking, bird watching, fishing and, of course, vistas and unique inspiration to delight and photograph.

The food, like Cedar Key as a whole, is not fussy yet superb. One example is Tony’s Seafood Restaurant. The enigma that is Chef Eric, Tony’s founder and owner, became the iconic international champion of clam chowder. Tony’s chowder is a must-have and a must-take-home! The restaurant and its kitchen are so tiny that it is hard to believe that the world-class chowder could have been developed and is reproduced every day in it.

People are always trying to get their hands on this famous chowder recipe. In 2007, Bon Appétit magazine tried in vain to wrestle it from Chef Eric to appease the many reader requests. Chef Eric politely declined the request, thus turning down the prestige and publicity that an appearance in Bon Appétit would certainly bring.

Tarpon Springs
Tarpon may be a bit more known to some because of their sponges. Sponging no doubt built the Greek community of Tarpon Springs, located in Pinellas County in Central Florida’s Gulf Coast. Recognized for the world’s finest sponges, now it’s also noted for some awesome Greek restaurants, markets and Greek bakeries; don’t even get me going on the coffee!

Tarpon, also rich in the arts with museums and performing arts, has a bustling night life and so much to offer all ages. Stunningly positioned between the Gulf of Mexico and Lake Tarpon, there are beaches and waterfront parks to enjoy. If you like to fish, kayak or boat, rentals are available. It is notably great for shell hunting as well, so toting some big bags for shells and sponges is a must.

While authentic Greek food eateries flank the waterfront of Dodecanese Boulevard, the waterfront also showcases the sponge docks, with daily excursions netting (pardon the pun) natural sponges through the time-honored profession of sponge diving. Tours and sightseeing cruises leave the dock regularly so you can see the harvesting of the sponge, up close and personal. When you bring some back in your suitcase, you will certainly appreciate your daily shower that much more.

With so many settings in Florida that are off the proverbial beaten path, a little homework and research can go a long way. Check out festivals and build your trip around them. Take note of your family’s interests and follow that path toward your own personal hidden gem. Who knows where it will lead you? The world is finally opening up and you need to get back out there. I may see you wandering through some of Sunshine State’s buried treasure, such as the beautiful streets of DeLand, Florida, viewing the manatees in Blue Springs State Park or maybe even meditating during a spiritual retreat in Cassadaga. You name it, Florida has it, and its arms are wide open to you. ■

Sources: cedarkey.org and www.ctsfl.us.