“There was nowhere to go but everywhere, so just keep on rolling under the stars.”
Jack Kerouac, On the Road
Road trips are an affordable, totally customizable, and super fun way to take a quick vacay with the family. With many people opposed to sitting in the close quarters of an airplane, a minimal-contact road trip is just the ticket. Not to mention, roadtrippers will benefit from the lowest gas prices in 17 years, according to AAA. Now might be the perfect time to take a quick trip and get out of the house. We’ve compiled a list of 20 excellent One Tank Trips here in Central Florida that are easily made on one tank of gas. We’re lucky to live in Polk County because we’re in the middle of everything! There’s a great place to visit in literally every direction.
The CDC advises people not to travel if they’re sick, are in a higher-risk group for COVID, or live with someone who is. As social distancing guidelines remain in place, travelers may be required to wear a face mask when they stop for gas, groceries or other supplies. Hotels and restaurants are not filling to capacity, please reserve ahead of time or bring your own food. Plan ahead & be safe out there!
Anna Maria Island
Distance from Polk County – 81 miles
A barrier island on Florida’s shimmering Gulf Coast, Anna Maria Island is a popular beach destination for much of Central Florida. It has an island life vibe and a favorable selection of public beaches on which to sun and swim. Popular beaches include Manatee Public Beach, Anna Maria Public Beach, Bean Point Beach, Coquina Beach, and Bayfront Park.
If a beach day is what you’re after, pack a cooler, a towel, SPF and you’ll be good – or take out the boat (or rent one) for saltwater fishing and sealife spotting. A weekend stay in one of the many cheery, beachy-hued condos on the island is preferable to get in all that AMI has to offer. Take the Island Trolly up and down all 7 miles of the island for free. Something to do, eat, or buy will be within walking distance of one of the trolly’s 80 stops.
Expect a getaway packed with swimming, seafood, and shopping. Bridge Street is one of the island’s hot shopping spots lined with boutiques and bistros. Make your way down the historic Bridge Street Pier to Anna Maria Oyster Bar (AMOB on the Pier) where you can enjoy oysters and other seafood fare as you watch the shades of orange and pink sun sink beneath the drink. If you haven’t yet dropped from said shopping, roam Pine Avenue for more craft shops, food, and the like.
Another must-dine Anna Maria pier restaurant is a beach-casual spot on the far north end of the island, Rod and Reel Pier. Not only does this oft called “hidden gem” serve Gulf favorites, but guests can also bring a fishing pole and cast from the restaurant’s dock and walkways for a small fee.
Additional views and vendors can be found each week on Sunday and Wednesday from 10 am to 4 pm (check their Facebook, @BeachMarketAtCoquinaBeach for updates on COVID closures) at the Beach Market at Coquina Beach. Stroll the market for “fresh produce, arts and crafts, jewelry, local artists, scarves, apparel, pottery, purses, health and beauty items, music and more,” according to their Facebook page.
If you’re imbibing during your trip, the island has plenty to choose from. For a Hurricane that won’t make you panic-buy supplies and Sex on the Beach that won’t get you arrested (maybe), stop into Hurricane Hank’s for a beer-battered fish sandwich and tropical cocktails. A trendy stop to get your medicine is The Doctor’s Office, a craft bar located in a real former doctor’s office. The good doc offers craft cocktails, beer, wine, and small plates to sober up. I believe the saying goes, “A stiff drink a day keeps the doctor away.” This is just scratching the surface of the adult beverage offerings on the island.
After you’ve dumped the sand from your swimsuit and assessed the sunburn you swore you wouldn’t get, don’t forget to get your photo in the clink at the old Anna Maria City Jail. This is a frequented photo-op on the island with “no roof, no doors, no windows, no bars, no guests for yrs and yrs.”
Brunch & Beach Views in Clearwater
Distance from Polk County – 83 Miles
Clearwater is a great visit for more reasons than one – the powder sugar sands of Clearwater Beach, shelling at Honeymoon Island State Park, the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, shopping at the Pelican Walk Plaza. But the food scene is really where it’s at!
First on the brunch docket is Clear Sky Beachside Cafe. They technically call it breakfast with “an upscale twist,” not brunch. Nonetheless, we’re talking bennies and Bloody Marys within view of the cobalt Gulf. This elevated breakfast menu also includes the likes of quiche, Belgian-style waffles, beignets and berries, bellinis, and mimosas – pinkies and bottoms up!
For seafood and hush puppies to rave about according to one top-secret source (his name’s Steven), check out Crabby’s Dockside. For unmatched sunset views and drinks, Jimmy’s On The Edge is it.
Another open-air Clearwater bar, known for dreamy views and their famous super grouper sandwich, check out Frenchy’s Rockaway Grill. Soak in the coastal vibe, play a little pool, and sip on a Dirty Banana or Frenchy’s Famous Frozen Rum Runner (also a Steven two thumbs up recommendation). Bonus tip: retro digs are only a ten-minute walk away from the bar – a trés chic 60s throwback boutique motel, Frenchy’s Oasis Motel.
Manatee Watch at Crystal River
Distance from Polk County – 125 Miles
A place as notable as Steinhatchee for scalloping in the Sunshine State is Crystal River. Check the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission website for information on the scalloping season and limits for the area at myfwc.com. Another reason for visiting Crystal River is the potential for sea cow spotting. In the colder months of the year, mid-November through late March, manatees flock to the warmth of the springs.
Three Sisters Springs, a part of the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge has a boardwalk with viewing platforms for ample view of its turquoise waters and manatees that gather there. For a full list of admission prices to Three Sisters Springs which differs by age and time of year, visit www.threesistersspringsvisitor.org. To get chummy with these sea creatures, book a swim or snorkel with one of the many close-encounter tours in the area. Maybe you’ll get a manatee hug or flipper-five!
De Leon Springs State Park & The Old Spanish Sugar Mill
Distance from Polk County – 112 miles
Have you ever been sitting at a restaurant and thought, ‘I sure wish I could make some fluffy pancakes at this very moment, at this very table... And after that, I want to go camping and take a boat tour and go swimming and maybe birdwatching,’? Have we got the place for you!
According to floridastateparks.org, De Leon Springs was once called Acuera or “Healing Waters” by the Native American Mayaca who lived on the land for at least 6,000 years. The website also notes, “The spring run was once used to turn a sugar cane mill followed by a grist mill to turn corn into flour during the Civil War.”
The Old Spanish Sugar Mill rests beside the spring, another attractant to the park. “Originally constructed in the 1830s to crush sugar cane utilizing the power of the 16 – 18 million gallons of water flowing from the spring daily, the mill features a 30-foot undershot waterwheel. The mill was rebuilt around 1900. A chimney, which remains on the site, was part of the original sugar mill operation…,” according to oldspanishsugarmill.com. After being destroyed twice, once during the Second Seminole War and then again during the Civil War, the mill was saved by fifth-generation grist miller, Peter Schwarze in 1961 from a final scheduled deconstruction. He leased and restored the mill, “once again grinding flour in the mill building,” and eventually started The Old Spanish Sugar Mill Grill and Griddle House which is still family-operated to this day.
The experience is a very hands-on breakfast with guests served two types of the Mill’s homemade batter, “one containing stone-ground corn, wheat, rye, whole wheat, and buckwheat flours and the other made from unbleached white flour,” according to their website. Guests are the masters of their breakfast destiny as they flip their flapjacks tableside with the electric griddle at the center of the table. The restaurant does have other breakfast and lunch offerings that aren’t made tableside.
Today the spring is part of the Florida State Park system and is well-known and loved for its camping, swimming, birding, hiking, and other aquatic activities from boat tours to scuba diving, snorkeling, and paddling.
The shimmering waters of the spring are perfect for a dip at a constant 72 degrees. The roughly 500 feet circumference of the swimming hole is surrounded by grassy areas, tables and grills (first come, first serve), as well as four picnic pavilions available for rent.
Once you’ve had your fill of fluffy pancakes and cooled off in the spring, hop aboard the M/V Acuera with Captain Frank for the Eco/ Heritage Boat Tour. The 50-minute tours depart four times daily and explore De Leon Springs State Park and Lake Woodruff National Wildlife Refuge. According to the park’s website, “As we explore nature, we will also talk about the area’s 6,000 years of history and some myths. Was Ponce de Leon really here? Whatever your interest, you are sure to enjoy your time with us.”
Day adventurers can enjoy the park from 8 am - sunset, 365 days a year with a fee of $6 per vehicle to enter. For overnight campers, cabin and campsite reservations can be made from one day to 11 months.
Fort De Soto Dog Beach Park
Distance from Polk County – 93 Miles
Hey, your best friend deserves a trip this summer too – life can be ruff when you’re stuck at home all day. Fort De Soto Dog Beach Park southwest of St. Pete has 4.4 out of 5 dog bones on bringfido.com, so you know it’s legit.
Fort De Soto Park itself is over 1,100 acres spanning five interconnected keys. Fort De Soto Dog Beach Park is actually the only place in the park where dogs are allowed on the beach and not required to wear a leash so you and Fluffy can frolic freely. Leashed pets are welcome anywhere in the park other than public beaches, piers, and buildings. Don’t forget to bring plenty of fresh drinking water for your bark buddy beach day!
Here’s a dog/ human beach activity checklist:
- Play – frisbee, fetch, swimming, digging, you know the deal
- Meet new friends, say hello – sniff all the butts (the last part is exclusively for dogs only)
- Slow-motion Baywatch run together (buy dog sunglasses for full effect)
- Instagram photo montage (use #lkldhaven and #kindachill and you might make it in the next issue!)
- Wash up at the park’s dog wash station and hang your heads out the window all the way home
We hope you and your pet babe have a great day of sand, sun, barks, and belly rubs!
Devil’s Den Prehistoric Spring
Distance from Polk County – 138 Miles
Are you brave enough to enter the Devil’s Den? It’s not as dramatic or evil as it sounds, promise. Devil’s Den Prehistoric Spring located in Levy County, is a subterranean spring within a dry cave. The year-round 72 degree waters plunge to a maximum depth of 54 feet covering 120 feet of surface diameter.
According to devilsden.com, the cave “has been home to many extinct animal fossils dating back to the Pleistocene Age, which are on display at The University of Florida’s Museum of Natural History.”
For decades, the spring has attracted divers and snorkelers from near and far. The privately-owned scuba diving training center offers scuba diving 7 days a week. Open Water Certification or above and a dive “buddy” are required for admission. Admission is $38 per diver and $8 for air-fills with full and individual equipment rentals available. Night dives are available by reservation.
If diving isn’t your thing, perhaps you’ll enjoy snorkeling which does not require any certifications to participate. Children under 6 are not permitted access to Devil’s Den and due to COVID-19, parties must make reservations to snorkel. Admission prices are $15 per person Monday through Friday and $22 per person on Saturday, Sunday, and holidays. These prices do not include a mask, snorkel, and fins that are required for admission. But have no fear if you leave yours at home, you can rent them there.
Make a weekend out of it at the tent campgrounds, R.V. park, or cabins available for rent. Downtown Williston is less than ten minutes from the Prehistoric Spring. You can grab a bite at The Ivy House Restaurant, BubbaQue’s BBQ, Sister’s Place, and more local haunts.
Once you’ve taken a dip at the Devil’s Den, check out their website for a list of other springs as close as two miles away like Blue Grotto to the south, or Silver Springs 30 minutes to the east which offers glass-bottom boat tours!
West Palm Beach
Distance from Polk county – 155 Miles
Foodies and culture cognoscente will love this South Florida slice of paradise. This is a coastal city dripping in fine cuisine, arts, and culture (oh, and shopping).
Described as a “foodie paradise,” West Palm has an offering of eclectic eats. Enjoy Asian small plates, gyoza tacos, dim sum, noodle dishes (duh), and craft cocktails at Kapow! Noodle Bar. Slurp your noodles amidst their sidewalk seating to take in the pulse of West Palm. For some of the best pho and other Vietnamese street food, check out Inch & Ounces – and snap an Instagram photo with their “Crazy Pho You” neon sign in the background for extra social media cred.
Buccan gives a fresh perspective on an upscale casual dining experience. The dining space is unbuttoned, juxtaposed with exceptional seasonal small plates and craft drinks. Other recommendations include Eccho for their “mouthwatering” Peking Duck and sushi as well as the Avocado Grill. E. R. Bradley’s Saloon, an open-air waterfront favorite of locals and visitors, boasts beachy cocktails and bites including Baja local fish tacos and Aloha classic cocktails.
Bring your credit card because the shopping at Rosemary Square is killer. Rosemary Square has a stunning water pavilion fixture to admire from a distance or dance in if you please. Stop and make a wish at The Wishing Tree while on your shopping excursion. At night, the 26-foot-tall installment flaunts a breathtaking display of 100,000 full-color-spectrum LED lights across its 10,000 leaves. “The lighting algorithm is inspired by the fluid behavior of South Florida’s inherent weather systems,” according to www.rosemarysquarewpb.com. Another high-end shopping experience can be had just over the Flagler Memorial Bridge in the botanical backdrop of Palm Beach’s The Royal Poinciana Plaza with 50 hand-selected brands to shop.
Once your belly is full and your wallet hopefully not too empty, check out the city’s arts and culture offerings. The exhibition, George Cohen: Artist of the Chicago Avant-Garde is up now through September 6, 2020, at the Norton Museum of Art. Or you can snag tickets to a performance at the Kravis Center for the Performing Arts downtown. Across the bridge to Palm Beach is the Henry Morrison Flagler Museum, a 75-room Gilded Age estate and museum.
If you’re more of an animal than arts person, head back into West Palm to the Palm Beach Zoo. Guests can admire over 190 species of animals – everything from tamarins to toucans, ocelots to otters, and koalas to Komodo dragons. Fun fact, the Palm Beach Zoo & Conservation Society sponsors conservation efforts throughout the world.
During your visit, you’ll likely notice the blue bikes around town. These are a part of the SkyBike Bike Share, a pay-as-you-go bike share available through the nextbike app. You can rent a bike to suit your needs from 30 minutes, the whole day, or even monthly if you’re planning an extended stay. The bike share is a great way to burn off all the calories from your West Palm foodie adventures!
Kennedy Space Center
Distance from Polk County – 106 Miles
What would a Florida One Tank Trip list even be without rockets? You could say this trip is out of this world – the atmosphere is great. You will need to make space in your calendar to shuttle your kids here.
Your galactic adventure to The Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex will dive into history and soar towards the future of space exploration with the many exhibits, historic spacecraft and memorabilia, IMAX theaters, and bus tours of the spaceport. Though there’s plenty of fun for adults, this is one trip that could inspire our smallest future astronauts and shuttle engineers.
According to www.kennedyspacecenter.com, “Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex is organized into Mission Zones — allowing you to weave your way through the U.S. Space Program in chronological order: Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, Shuttle and beyond!”
During your visit, check out the Rocket Garden displaying gargantuan rockets from NASA’s Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs. Walk the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame, take a peek at the Hubble Space Telescope Theater, and captain a mission at the Astronaut Training Simulators.
If all that space exploration works up an appetite, land at the Orbit Cafe or Rocket Fuel Food Truck and moonwalk your way to get some Space Dots for dessert.
Little Gasparilla Island
Distance from Polk County – 102 Miles
Little Gasparilla Island is an easy-paced coastal getaway. Fishing, lounging, swimming, and sunning should be at the top of your to-do list for this One Tank Trip. This barrier island is about two and a half hours southwest of us hugging the Gulf. There are no paved roads on Little Gasparilla which mean personal boat, rental, or water taxi are the only way to and from the mainland.
Beach houses and island bungalows can be rented for your secluded coastal retreat. There are three choices of transportation around the island – walking, bicycle (if you bring yours across to the island), or golf carts available at Little Gasparilla Island Carts. There are no restaurants or grocery stores on LGI. Stock up and bring over your trips-worth of groceries when you take your boat or water taxi.
Exploring the island, swimming, snorkeling, shelling, wildlife watching, boating, fishing, and stargazing are well-loved pastimes on LGI. If you’re looking for something else to pass the unhurried island time, search out Little Gasparilla’s hidden-away doorless, unattended lending library known as Hoot’s Library.
Antiquing & Minimalism in Mount Dora
Distance from Polk County – 84 Miles
The best treasures await in Mount Dora. Antique shops, markets, and eclectic dining options abound in this sweet Central Florida town.
A Mount Dora shopping must is Renninger’s Twin Markets. This sprawling collection of flea and farmers markets, and antiques and consignment shops sits on 117 acres of land. Up for the taking at Renninger’s Flea and Farmer’s Market every Saturday and Sunday from 8 am to 4 pm are everything from clothing and crafts to fresh produce, meats, foliage, and beyond. Their Indoor Antique Center, open every Friday from 10 am to 4 pm and every Saturday and Sunday from 9 am to 5 pm, is a 40,000 square-foot air-conditioned antiquer’s haven with over 180 booths as well as a consignment area within. Following the same operation hours as the Antique Center are Renninger’s Street of Shops. This alley of antiques is an open-air trail of walkways through a series of small buildings. According to their website, renningers.net, their Mt. Dora Markets, “are also home to a large number of special events including antique fairs and extravaganzas, Cars and Guitars shows and swap meets, vintage garden shows, and much, much more.” There’s another Renninger’s on the east coast in Melbourne, FL, and two in Pennsylvania.
Mount Dora’s The Village Antique Mall has more than 60 vendors in its 12,000-square-foot air-conditioned mall. In business for over 20 years, The Village Antique Mall is open seven days a week, offering “a huge and ever-changing collection of antique furniture, jewelry, lighting, garden iron and decor, shabby chic, glassware, American art pottery, fine fishing collectibles, pocket watches, knives, books, Asian antiques, nostalgia, and retro items,” according to villageantiquemall.com.
There is no shortage of dining options in Mount Dora. Treat yourself to traditional Cuban dishes at Copacabana Cuban Cafe or enjoy Fine Bone English China and High Tea at The Windsor Rose Restaurant and British Tea Room. A highly recommended gastro-go-to is the bookish dining hideaway The Goblin Market Restaurant & Lounge. Head to historic downtown to enjoy cocktails and around the world cuisine amidst cozy book-lined shelves or in the lush Goblin Market courtyard.
Round out your trip in the spirit of “ingenuity, resourcefulness and innovation” at the Modernism Museum. Reflect on the functional figures of the museum’s collections Ettore Sottsass and Memphis (including pieces from the estate of David Bowie), Wendell Castle, Wharton Esherick, and George Nakashima. Finish at the Modernism Museum Shoppe for a minimalist memento or two.
This may be a trip best saved for late Fall, November 28 from 4:30 to 9 pm, to be specific. With new-to-you treasures in tow, you’ll want to visit Donnelly Park and downtown Mount Dora for their 39th Annual Light Up Mount Dora which will boast over 2 million gleaming lights.
Distance from Polk County – 54 miles
Nostalgic music, classic cars, shops, and rides transplanted from the Main Street USA of yesterday, Old Town is the epitome of Florida roadside attraction kitsch. The park opened in 1986, located on US 192 in Kissimmee just up the road from what would later be Celebration.
The park, open daily from 12 p.m. to 9 p.m. has its share of rides like bumper cars, a classic carousel, an arcade, a haunted house, and a five-story roller coaster aptly named the Hurricane. The Ferris wheel will give you a birds-eye-view of Old Town, and all the surrounding neon rides, mini-golf, larger than life tourist gift shops and magic that dot the 192 strip.
Old Town’s weekly classic car shows draw crowds to their brick-lined streets to enjoy cruising classics and hot rods. Friday night is the Muscle Car Show followed up by Saturday night’s Classic Car Show. Guests can grab a bite or beverage at the numerous restaurants, bars, and grab-and-go options within the park from burgers and sushi to pub fare and pizza. Top it off with some Sweet Dreams Ice Cream!
Just about anything kitsch, camp, and beyond can be found in the row of shops up and down its main street – all things leather, sunglasses, Tiki, retro memorabilia, gemstones, crystals, magnets, soap and more – even beef jerky. It is an embarrassing right of passage to remember your trip with either a Caricatures by Characters or an old-timey portrait at Old Town Portrait Gallery.
If you haven’t yet had your fill of fun, walk directly next door to Fun Spot for even more rides and attractions!
Weedon Island Preserve
Distance from Polk County – 74 Miles
This One Tank Trip comes to us courtesy of someone we profiled this month – Joe Simonds with Salt Strong!
“Weedon Island is a cool place for the whole family. It’s essentially a park that has both a kayak launch [...] and on the other side you have the boat launch,” said Joe. “It’s right in between Tampa and St. Pete so you have all the restaurants of St. Pete and everything in Tampa.” Joe says there are tons of fish to be caught at Weedon Island Preserve. According to www.weedonislandpreserve.org, “Located at the end of Weedon Drive NE, the fishing pier stands in nearly the same location as the historical bridge that once connected Weedon Island with neighboring Snell Island to the south.”
In addition to fishing, boating, and kayaking, many nature enthusiasts enjoy the preserve for hiking its boardwalks and trails (which are handicap accessible) and bird watching. A 45-foot observation tower is situated along the west boardwalk loop overlooking the preserve with views of Tampa and St. Pete beyond.
Joe-Tip-Pro-Tip: Go mid-week and try to get there earlier in the day, especially during the summertime. This once-hidden gem has gained popularity and can get a bit crowded.
Distance from Polk County – 167 Miles
With a history steeped in settlers, soldiers, and restless spirits, St. Augustine is the place in the Sunshine State for history appreciators, ghost aficionados, and seekers of everlasting youth. Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon landed near what would eventually become St. Augustine in 1513. He claimed the newly discovered territory which he dubbed La Florida or “place of flowers” for the Spanish Crown. In September of 1565, Spanish admiral and explorer Pedro Menéndez de Avilés founded the city of St. Augustine, securing it’s spot as “the oldest permanent European settlement on the North American continent,” according to OldCity.com.
Predating the establishment of the Jamestown, Virginia colony by 42 years, the city’s history has its share of siege, pirates, ghost stories, and magic. One such tale notes Ponce de Leon in search of an elusive Foundation of Youth. Those interested in the city’s history can visit Ponce de Leon’s Fountain of Youth Archeological Park. The Park features numerous history-centric exhibits including blacksmithing, the Spanish Lookout Tower, and the Spring House feeding up water from the Florida aquifer and proverbial Fountain. Guests can even buy a keepsake bottle to fill with water from the Fountain of Youth for agelessness on-the-go.
The bones of the Old City are as impressive as its spirit. Cobblestone streets dissect stunning Spanish architecture. Admirers of architecture will enjoy the Villa Zorayda Museum. This historic Gilded Age museum was built in 1883 for Franklin Webster Smith. According to the museum’s website, Smith, “replicated architectural details of the Alhambra Palace in Granada, Spain.” Now patrons can take 45-60 minute self-guided audio tours of the grand space with the price of admission. Old City visitors can get another good dose of history and Spanish Renaissance architecture with historic tours of Flagler College.
Perhaps the most impressive structure in St. Augustine is the massive coquina fort and national monument, Castillo de San Marcos. Virtual tours are available online, and in-person visitors can pay admission to explore the grounds themselves. At certain times on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, spectators can watch soldier re-enactors in period garb, fire cannons from the fort’s gundeck.
An assortment of walking, trolley, and horse and carriage tours of the city are available. Some dive into the depths of St. Augustine’s history while others focus on Old City specters. Some of St. Augustine’s most notorious haunts are said to linger around St. Augustine’s Old Jail, Castillo de San Marcos, The Spanish Military Hospital, and the Casablanca Inn – just to name a few. Book a room at the Casablanca or the St. Francis Inn Bed & Breakfast for a potential night of frights… if you dare! (Other than the alleged hauntings they are charming inns, so you’ll have a nice stay regardless. Or there’s a Hilton if you’re a chicken.)
If all that ghost hunting and history works up your appetite, the Old City has quite the selection of eateries. Fan favorites include Harry’s Seafood, the historic district’s Collage Restaurant along with The Floridian Restaurant, or the Columbia Restaurant founded in 1905 serving traditional Spanish fare.
Connecting mainland St. Augustine to Anastasia Island is another historical landmark, the Bridge of Lions, completed in 1927. A few miles over the double-leaf bascule bridge on Anastasia Island, frothed Atlantic waves lap at the sun-bleached brown sugar shores of St. Augustine Beach. Accommodations to stay on the island include a few chains and independent hotels, resorts, and inns. A selection of restaurants dots the island as well.
Head back over the bridge into St. Augustine and take a stroll from the historic Old City Gate down St. George Street for some of the city’s best shopping!
Scalloping in Steinhatchee
Distance from Polk County – 202 Miles
If sitting on the boat waiting for a bite isn’t the kind of fishing you like, grab your snorkel and flippers for some scalloping in Steinhatchee. One of the furthest trips on our list up in Big Bend territory, the seagrass beds of Steinhatchee are a treasure trove.
You’re in luck, the Gulf Coast scalloping season is in full swing from June 15 through Labor Day. You can captain your own boat, rent or charter from one of the many local companies like Sea Hag Marina and Florida Saltwater Flats Fishing Charters.
Scalloping requires a valid Florida fishing license which can be purchased online through the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission or at a number of retail and sporting goods stores. From July 1 through Labor Day in Steinhatchee, the limit is 2 gallons of whole bay scallops in the shell or 1 pint of bay scallop meat with a maximum of 10 gallons of whole bay scallops in the shell (½ gallon of bay scallop meat) per vessel, according to the FWC guidelines.
After a day of pluckin’ and shuckin’, we’ve been told the perfect end to a scalloping excursion is to drink in the sunset overlooking the Steinhatchee River with the Gulf just beyond over a bite to eat at Roy’s Restaurant.
Distance from Polk County – 90 Miles
Vero Beach is an artsy and affluent community on Florida’s Treasure Coast. Shopping, dining, and mini-mansions line the breezy stretch of Atlantic road called Ocean Drive. An opulent Ocean Drive Beach Resort & Spa is Costa d’Este, owned by singer Gloria Estefan and her husband Emilio.
This type of retreat leaves little need to flit the resort’s accommodations to spoil yourself with its ocean views, spa, beach access, high-end Cuban-fusion restaurant, and Cabana Bar. For an upscale dinner on the town, The Tides restaurant serving dishes from Conch Fritters to Cedar Planked Cold Water Salmon is just a four-minute walk from the resort.
For a dose of greenery, education, and exhibitions, visit the 18-acre tropical hammock at the McKee Botanical Gardens. After roaming the botanical wonderlands at Mckee, visit the Vero Beach Museum of Art (VBMA) to admire the current exhibition. This summer is Avery to Warhol: Summer Salon at VBMA followed in the Fall by Christo and Jeanne-Claude.
Wat Mongkolratanaram of Florida
Distance from Polk County – 57 Miles
Wat Mongkolratanaram of Florida (or Wat Tampa as most people call it) is a Theravada Buddhist Temple for religious ceremonies, meditation, and Dhamma (teachings of Buddha) study. It was established in 1981 and moved to its current location in 1983. The Sunday Market started in 1987 with only two tables and has since grown into a food paradise for thousands of people every Sunday. Volunteers serve authentic Thai food prepared by Temple volunteers from 8:30 a.m. until about 1 p.m. with all proceeds going back to Wat Tampa.
Most menu items are $6 or less, and they can include grilled pork or chicken on a stick (my favorite of the day), Pad Thai, various chicken curry dishes with vegetables, egg rolls, Guiteow (beef or pork noodle soup), Som Dom (Thai Papaya salad), and a wide variety of Thai desserts, Thai tea and Thai coffee made with sweet cream.
You can get your food packed to-go, or stay and eat right there. Just steps away underneath the shade of mature trees are plenty of picnic tables where you can sit and hang out. Each menu item is more than enough for one person, so there’s always plenty for later. This is a family-friendly environment and a fun way to try all kinds of food without spending a lot of money.
While you’re there, you can shop for Thai fruit trees, herbs, orchids, and hanging plants in the delightful outdoor Plant Market next to the picnic tables. Visitors can also go inside Wat Tampa if they’d like, to see inside of a Buddhist Temple. Please remove your shoes and leave them outside.
The Sunday Market accepts CASH ONLY, so come prepared. The Wat Tampa is a very beautiful place with traditional Thai architecture and even a dragon or two. Restrooms are clean and easily accessible. My best advice is to arrive early and don’t let the lines fool you, they go quick. Check their website, wattampainenglish.com for updates on potential closures in response to COVID-19.
Wekiwa Springs State Park
Distance from Polk County – 79 Miles
When was the last time you took a camping trip with friends? Wekiwa Springs State Park with its year-round 72-degree spring waters, boasts trails, canoes, kayaks, swimming, rafting, and more – the right addends for the sum of a memorable nature retreat.
The park has 60 campsites with water, electrical hook-up, a fire ring with a grill, and a picnic table along with two restrooms with showers in the camp area. For a more sequestered experience, try the primitive campgrounds of Camp Cozy or Big Fork. Ten people are comfortably accommodated at each site with a fire pit, grill, benches, and picnic table.
Otter Camp and Big Buck Camp on Rock Springs Run are only reachable by water with no vehicle access. If you don’t have your own, canoes and kayaks can be rented within the park. For these sites, reservations are required 60 days in advance.
Camping arrangements for groups and equestrians are also available. For more info visit www.floridastateparks.org/parks-and-trails/wekiwa-springs-state-park.
A Wekiwa Springs State Park primitive camping veteran described the campsite he stayed at as “overlooking the spring with a large tree you can walk along that overhangs the spring.” He and his group of friends rafted upstream to the site for a four-night trip. “Everything was brought in with us and taken out. Some of the best campfire cooking I have ever had. Each person took a turn cooking a meal,” he remembered.
Their choice of activity included chilling out, swimming, and hiking. He said, “So many funny stories… all leading to the end with four people paddling in a semi-deflated raft, two paddling with their sandals, one with her hands and the other steering with a broken oar held loosely together with duct tape. Reaching ground with the canoe rental employees laughing their asses off.”
Gather up your friends, best spooky stories, s’mores ingredients, and camping gear for a memorable trip to Wekiwa Springs that will doubtless leave you with some funny camping tales of your own.
Weeki Wachee Springs State Park
Distance from Polk County – 102 Miles
Over 70 years ago, on October 13, 1947, guests gathered in an 18-seat theater to watch the first Weeki Wachee mermaid show. In the decades following, the park has grown and continued its magical mermaid tradition.
Weeki Wachee was named by the Seminoles, meaning “little spring” or “winding river.” A seemingly bottomless natural spring, its final depths have yet to be reached. One hundred and seventeen million gallons of 74-degree, crystal clear spring water flows every day from the spring into the Weeki Wachee River before making its way another 12 miles into the Gulf of Mexico.
By the 1950s, Weeki Wachee was one of the nation’s most popular tourist attractions. In 1959, the American Broadcasting Company purchased Weeki Wachee and started promoting the mermaid shows across America. They updated the theater to sit 16-feet below the surface of the spring. The three-inch glass walls across the front allow everyone in the 400-seat theater to see the show. By the 1960s there were 35 mermaids, eight shows a day, and a half-million visitors a year. Limestone makes up the side of the spring’s 100-feet wide basin where the mermaids swim.
In 1982, Buccaneer Bay water park opened. The park is Florida’s only spring-fed water park. It is built around the springs with four water slides, three of which drop riders into the springs. In addition to a natural lazy river, Buccaneer Bay has a water play area and wading pool for children six and under called Lil’ Mates Caribbean Cove. Covered pavilions are available for picnicking as well as concessions for snacks and drinks and a seasonal restaurant.
Kayak rentals, paddling adventures, and riverboat cruises are also available at the 538-acre Weeki Wachee Springs State Park which became a Florida State Park in 2008. Currently, the park and water park are closed for remodeling. Expect the mermaid shows and the park to reopen in the fall. Watch their FB page for updates @WeekiWacheeSprings
Distance from Polk County –89 Miles
Sponges aren’t the only thing that will absorb your attention during this One Tank Trip. This coastal Gulf town drips with Greek heritage, culture, shopping, and food. Tarpon Springs has plenty of scenic parks, an aquarium, the Leepa-Rattner Museum of Art, and the stunning Saint Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral – all the trappings of an interesting trip.
Most memorable perhaps are the Sponge Docks which are of historic industrial importance to the town – it is after all the Sponge Capital of the World. Boat tours and sponge diving demonstrations with divers in full vintage diving gear, complete with the hard-hat helmet are a great way to learn about the town’s former leading export. Pick up a memento at many of the local shops, some of which specialize in sponge wares like The Sponge Factory, The Sponge Exchange Shopping Village, and Spongeorama Sponge Factory.
There is an abundance of shops in Tarpon Springs to buy handmade items like soap, jewelry, Greek gifts, and more (including sponges and sponge accessories, of course). Many of the most beloved spots to gorge on Greek goodies hem Dodecanese Boulevard. Hellas Restaurant and Bakery is one such eatery serving traditional Greek meals and authentic Greek pastries since 1970 (they’re known to have some of the best baklava in Tarpon Springs). Other highly regarded Greek cuisine worth a stop along Dodecanese Boulevard include Mykonos, Mama’s Greek Cuisine, Mr. Souvlaki, and Dimitri’s on the Water.
Morikami Museum and Japanese Gardens
Distance from Polk County –174 Miles
Fifteen hours and eleven minutes. That’s how long it takes to fly from Florida to Japan. It’s a trip I one day hope to make, but in the meantime, we Polk County residents (Polk-Countians?) are fortunate enough to have a Japanese museum and gardens celebrating their rich and elaborate history mere hours away in Delray Beach.
The Morikami Museum and Japanese Gardens underscore Japanese culture through exhibitions of Japanese art and artifacts. Roji-en, the name of their Japanese gardens means ‘Garden of the Drops of Dew.’ According to their website morikami.org, these gardens were, “designed to be a living exhibit as an extension of the museum. Its six distinct gardens are inspired by, but are not replicas of, significant gardens of Japan. Designer Hoichi Kurisu has created a unique garden conceived and constructed in the spirit of the masters.”
Their premier collection of bonsai is worth the visit alone. The Dr. Ron and Arlene Kessler Walk explore the bonsai exhibit and the art which inspired it including the technique of training and sculpting. Check their website for information on upcoming bonsai classes.
Among the peaceful gardens is the Yamato-kan, the original museum which is the home to two permanent exhibits. Before you part, overlook the gardens while savoring Pan-Asian inspired fare at the museum’s Cornell Cafe.