Florida Springs. Rainbow River

We thought we’d road trip Florida for maybe three weeks…it turned into nearly six! And we didn’t lollygag anywhere either; we explored 36 different regions, and unique they were…from white sand beaches to swamps, springs, islands, savanna, hardwood hammocks, villages, and various “capitals” of the world. This is a bit of a Florida phenomenon; it’s home to the world capital of…manatees, sponges, shark bites, springs, cigars, horses, lightning–you name it. There are numbers to back up these claims, but you’ve also gotta credit the gusto of Floridians. They are proud of the wonders they have and, as semi-resident explorers for Visit Florida this winter, we feel that pride too.

North Florida Road Trip Route

Florida is a huge vacation destination, but follow this off-the-beaten path, along with the stops in ourSouth Florida road tripblog, and you’ll find friendly locals, incredible landscapes, abundant wildlife, and hardly any tourists. The Route: Ybor City -> Honeymoon Island -> Tarpon Springs -> Crystal River -> Rainbow River -> Cedar Key -> Wakulla Springs -> Apalachicola National Forest -> Carrabelle -> St. George Island -> Gulf Islands National Seashore

Ybor City & the Spunk of Tampa

Ybor City: Cigar Capital of the World

Tampa…not gonna lie, never had any interest in visiting. Then a local told us about the Ybor City neighborhood, an international district since the late 1800s, where Italians, Cubans, Germans, and more came together to work in what became the Cigar Capital of the World. While they aren’t cranking out 700 million cigars a year like they used to, the heritage from each culture still thrives and blends into a unique little city. And as luck would have it, we caught the annual Fiesta Day, where their diverse cuisine, music, and dance take to the streets. We quickly realized Tampa’s got spunk, and now we want to come back for the annual Gasparilla festival…a 100+year old tradition of storming the town like a merry band of pirates.

Honeymoon Island State Park

North Florida Road Trip to Honeymoon Island

Of course, we stopped here! Honeymoon Island got its name in the 1940s when families would buy their newlyweds a week on this tropical isle to relax in a thatch cabana, swim, fish, and love (the original honeymoon registry!). We popped into the state park museum and got such a kick out of the original brochures and photos of honeymooners with the looks of Esther Williams and Gene Kelly. Plus, we enjoyed their four miles of untouched beach, a lovely lagoon, and a variety of nature trails, where we saw baby owls and osprey feeding their young!

Tarpon Springs: Spanakopita & Sponges

Sponge Tour Tarpon Springs Florida

A Floridian city where the majority of the population descends from Greek sponge divers…intriguing. In the 1800s the Americans that settled in Tarpon Springs didn’t realize they were sitting on a jackpot of sponges or really know how to harvest them. The Greeks, on the other hand, had been doing this for millennia and flocked to this town 3o miles north of Tampa to start what would become the “Sponge Capital of the World” and the highest concentration of Greek-Americans in the country. We hit the water with St. Nicholas Boat Line, a family-run company leading sponge tours since 1924. With the great-grandson at the helm, a crew of cousins (including a modern-day Andonis in a vintage dive suit), we got a historical narrative and dive demo. This glimpse into the boom days of sponging was both charming and fascinating (not to mention, a steal at $10 for a sunset cruise). Afterward we walked the streets, trying baklava at the Greek bakeries, buying more sponges than we’d ever need, and hanging out in the square listening to a rock star violinist.

Crystal River: The Manatee Capital of the World

Crystal River is the only place on this 1,500-mile road trip we had been to before…but it was so cool, we had to come back. Each winter when the Gulf of Mexico cools down, hundreds of manatees flock to the warmth of the river’s 72-degree springs. For perspective, we went to the Amazon jungle on a boat called the “Manatee Explorer” and didn’t see a single one. Here, we did a snorkel trip with Fun2Dive and saw 20 manatees in under two hours…including a baby that got so close, it nibbled on our GoPro (watch the video, above)! Even before the tour, we had sea cow encounters. When checking into the utterly charming Crystal Blue Lagoon B&B, with floors painted with beach scenes and walls tiled with seashells, we saw a splash from the living room window. We had a feeling it was a manatee, so we hopped in their kayaks and found a mama and baby hanging out just a hundred yards away! Manatees, of course, make Crystal River special, but there is a magic to this little town where canoes are more common than cars, sunsets are a daily holiday, and everyone is an animal lover.

Rainbow River: The Shangri-La of Springs

Kayaking Rainbow River Florida

Continuing our journey through Florida’s springs (the whole state literally sits on an aquifer, with 700 of them bubbling up), we reached Rainbow River State Park. We saw this clear turquoise lagoon, framed by hot pink azaleas and palm trees, and thought we died and gone to Thailand. The headwaters pump out 493 million gallons per day and it’s so clear, the underwater visibility exceeds 250 feet. You’d think this Shangri-La would be overrun but it was just a handful of couples sunning, a few kids swimming, and a lone kayaker. To us, everything is more beautiful in a kayak, so we put in. It was like paddling through liquid glass, with reflections of the sunshine and flowers shimmering beneath us.

Cedar Key: Old Florida Fabulous

Cedar Key Vacations

This might be the secret gem of Florida beach towns. No big-box stores, no chain hotels, not even a traffic light, Cedar Key has kept up its 19th-century architecture and stayed on island-time. We roamed town, popping into the general store, admiring street art, and sipping beers on the wooden boardwalk. We didn’t want to leave so we camped at the awesome Shell Mound County Park, right on the beach and adjacent to an archaeological treasure. Over the course of 3,500 years, the Native Americans stacked the scallop, oyster, and turtle shells from countless meals and literally built a 28-foot tall mountain sprawling across five acres. Walking up to the handmade lookout point, it was amazing to think about the people that once lived off the land and feel that connection beneath our feet.

Wakulla Springs: The World’s Largest Spring

The Lodge at Wakulla Springs

Then for the largest and deepest freshwater spring of them all…Wakulla Springs. In the 1930s financier Edward Ball saw the unique beauty of Wakulla Springs and wanted to preserve it. He bought thousands of acres and built a lavish lodge for guests to enjoy the wild surrounds. We spent the night at the historic Lodge at Wakulla Springs in the center of what’s now a state park, then hopped on a boat tour through this natural wonderland. Not only did we see manatees before we even left the dock, we saw dozens of alligators, ibis, wood ducks, osprey, and maybe even a glimpse of The Creature from the Black Lagoon and Tarzan. (Both movies were shot here, so you never know.)

Carrabelle & Crooked River

North Florida Road Trip

Cruising our way northwest to the Forgotten Coast, the cute beach town of Carrabelle had us pulling over. Little did we realize, it had a “very” important landmark: The World’s Smallest Police Station. When their population was around a thousand well-behaved people, one officer, a squad car and a telephone booth were all they needed to run the department. We, of course, played cops and robbers in the booth, then carried on to their second greatest landmark, the Crooked River Lighthouse. We pulled up to this skeletal tower from 1895 and a spunky old lighthouse keeper explained that the hollow design let strong winds pass through and kept it from rocking off its sandy foundation. Clever!

Panama City Spring Break

Tootsie's Orchid Lounge

So when you are in Panama City at the height of Spring Break, do you A) Head for the hills or B) Join the party. We naturally choose “B” with a night out at Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge, Panama City’s premier live music bar. Not just for 19-year olds, everyone was rocking out to Anthony Orio, one of the best cover bands we’ve ever seen since…propbably college.

Camping Gulf Islands National Seashore

Beach destinations like Pensacola and Destin are great for resort-goers, but the real secret to finding that pristine white sand and serene soundtrack of crashing waves is in the Panhandle’s state and national parks. We love that Florida could’ve packed the coast with condos, but they saved the best for nature lovers. We adored St. George Island State Park, Topsail Hill Preserve, and the grand finale….Gulf Islands National Seashore. If you’re a beach-lover and a history buff, this is your national park. Caribbean blue water and miles of sugar-white sand (with barely any tourists) surround one of the oldest US-built forts. We camped inside the park and enjoyed sunset atop the early 19th-century Fort Pickens, watched the stars from the roof of the camper, and walked the quartz-sand beaches at dawn…a perfect end to our five-plus weeks in Florida. See more pics from our Panhandle adventures.

Top 10 Florida Experiences

We’ve road tripped to 40 states over the last 11 months, and Florida has carved a deep spot in our hearts. To share that passion and the experiences we’ll never forget, watch this Facebook Live with our top 10 moments from our 36-day road trip. Let us know in the comments which ones are up your alley and if you need any tips for planning your own Florida adventure!

Spread the Sunshine: Pinterest Pins to Share

florida road trip

Note: Visit Florida invited us to explore their great state; however, we chose each featured destination and you can be sure that all opinions are our own.

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  1. Six weeks must’ve just flown past because it looks and sounds like an awesome trip! Also, that first picture had me confused for a second. Never would I have thought that that was in Florida!!! I’ve only ever been to Miami a few years ago for a music festival, but I’m definitely tempted to make a revisit now!

    1. Haha, it’s hard to believe Rainbow River isn’t some far-flung Pacific island. Miami is awesome but hope you get the chance to come back and explore more of the state!

      1. Bob Gleeson (Gator) says:

        Hey guys , I’m really enjoying reading what you write, and I’m watching your video as I write this….what a fabulous time you are having and at the same time creating a whole new world for others to enjoy…..being from Florida myself I know how beautiful North Florida can be, it’s my favorite of all with those springs and rivers to explore….take care and keep on “trekkin”

        Your pal, Gator

  2. Never thought that North Florida has such terrific locations. I am not sure when I would make it to the US, but these look like a road I should add to my bucket list.

  3. Florida is indeed a wonderful place to explore. I would love to do kayaking and shoot photographs in that beautiful river!

    1. Everyone thinks of Florida for the beaches but people have no idea how beautiful the springs and rivers are! Did you see our first Florida post? We did a fossil dig in Peace River and found dozens of ancient sharks teeth! You never know what you’ll find around here!

  4. I am hoping to visit Florida soon. Your road trip experience was amazing. I never realized Florida was such a beautiful place with so many things to do. Thanks for the travel inspiration.

  5. You made me laugh about Florida being the world capital for lots of things as we were in Siesta Key recently which is the world capital of shark’s teeth! We haven’t been to North Florida yet, but the snorkel trip to see the manatees sounds amazing. Love the look of the clear water at Rainbow River too!

  6. Loved the manatee video. Thanks for sharing this wonderful trip. Otys recently adopted a manatee named Whiskers from this very same area! He loved seeing them too!

  7. The first photograph in your blog had already won me over for this road trip. I would love to do some kayaking in that beautiful river. Is the water really that color?

  8. I never had Florida on my USA list, but after reading your post and all those amazing places and experiences…I think it should definitely be part of my bucket list. Every place seems so vibrant, alive, and wild!

  9. Denny George says:

    While I’ve never been to Florida, I always thought it was all about beaches and theme parks. You’ve really opened up a relatively unknown basket of goodies here. I particularly enjoyed the photo and description of Rainbow River.

  10. That’s quite a road trip. I’ve heard before there are quite a few amazing things to do in Florida and your post certainly proves that. And your pictures, especially the one of the lagoon, are absolutely beautiful!

  11. dotti cahill says:

    Nice summary on North Florida! Did you guys make it to Jacksonville, Amelia Island and any of the jax beaches?

  12. I loved following all of your IG stories on your Florida trip! Especially your kayak trip! I have always wanted to do that! It made me really miss Florida! Booking my ticket soon!

  13. Bruce Robinson says:

    Great post! Rainbow River looks unreal! Thanks for sharing.

    1. And thanks for the comment Bruce. Rainbow River was out of this world….such a unique spot. And having our Kayak there (they also rent them) made it extra special!

  14. I never knew there were places like this in North Florida.

    1. I know…we said the SAME exact thing. You hear so much about the southern and central parts of Florida, we were so excited to explore the North and find these gems!

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