The state you're in is pretty amazing. People by the millions come every year from around the world to Florida for a slice of sunshine and a theme park thrill. There are lots of sights and activities that deserve your attention, too. Imagine all the places you haven't seen yet. Vow to get to know Florida in 2010. Today, we start with 10 places and events that we think make Florida the eclectic place it is. They show the diversity of the Sunshine State and are plenty interesting for a long weekend. We'll keep our scrapbook going for the rest of the year, pinpointing places you ought to have on your Florida bucket list. In the meantime, get out the map and plot your excursion.
Janet K. Keeler, Times lifestyles editor
Relaxing at Wakulla Springs Lodge
Would you drive more than four hours for biscuits and gravy, especially if they come with a side of Old Florida? The restaurant at the historic lodge at Wakulla Springs State Park, about 20 miles south of Old Joe, the stuffed 11-foot alligator in the lobby that was pulled from the springs way back when. The adults will love sitting in the comfy chairs, soaking in the atmosphere that seems little changed from when the lodge was built in 1937. There's even an old-fashioned soda counter for ice cream cones. In the summer, cool off in the springs, where the water temperature is about 70 even in August. Hike nature trails and go on the Jungle Cruise, a boat trip along the Wakulla River where you'll see alligators, deer, osprey, turtles and sun-basking anhingas with their wings spread wide. The Creature From the Black Lagoon was filmed here and Johnny Weissmuller swung from the trees in his Tarzan movies. Lodging is about $100 a night and there's a $6 entry fee to the park. For more information and directions, call (850)926-0700 or go to floridastateparks.org. The Wakulla Wildlife Festival is March 19-20.
Mango-mania at Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden
Who knew there were 2,500 varieties of mango? They know it at Fairchild, where some popular mangoes have been developed and where they employ some of the world's leading experts on tropical fruit. Coral Gables becomes ground zero for mango madness each July as hungry hordes descend on the botanical gardens to sample many of the varieties at the annual International Mango Festival. Seminars on growing and cooking also draw people to the three-day festival, July 9-11 this year. There are even small mango trees for sale, and when the gates open on the first day, the race is on to get the coveted Nam Doc Mai, Mallika and, our favorite, the ice cream mango. This is the 18th year the festival has been held. Tickets are $20 for adults, $15 for seniors, $10 for children 6-17. For more information, go to fairchildgarden.org or call (305) 667-1651. The facility is at 10901 Old Cutler Road in Coral Gables.
Antiquing in Mount Dora
If you've not tramped through the acres and acres of someone else's junk at Renninger's antiques and collectibles extravaganzas in Mount Dora, put Feb. 19-21 on your calendar. The antique-paloozas on U.S. 441, east of Mount Dora, are held several times a year and are a fun way to find stuff you didn't even know you needed. Some 1,000 dealers sell old iron gates, ceramic roosters, wagon wheels and all manner of glass and pottery. Mount Dora is Florida's center of antique stores and is worth a trip even when Renninger's isn't open. In fact, it's pretty crowded in the Central Florida town on those weekends. The antiques market opens each day at 8 a.m. and tickets are $10 on Friday, $6 Saturday and $4 Sunday. Parking is free. For more information, go to Mountdora.com. There you'll find suggestions for B&Bs, too.
Shopping in Palm Beach
Okay, so maybe you can't afford to buy anything, but you can still put on some decent clothes and stroll through the shops on Palm Beach's swanky Worth Avenue. You know the names well: Tiffany, Chanel and Cartier. Another popular concentration of high-priced glitz is Royal Poinciana Way, where you'll find sidewalk restaurants, trendy boutiques and home furnishings stores. If you really want to glam it up, book a room at the Ritz-Carlton (100 S Ocean Blvd.). The Ritz-Carlton Palm Beach is having a series of special culinary events this year, where for $1,800, a couple can stay two nights, do some cooking with the executive chef, visit the farm where the Ritz-Carlton gets some of its ingredients, enjoy the spa and drink lots of champagne. Dates and topics for this year's culinary events are the Heart Healthy for American Heart Month, Feb. 18-20; Summer Barbecue, May 6-8; Middle East & the Mediterranean, Aug. 5-7; and Holiday Party, Nov. 4-6. For more information on the Ritz-Carlton packages, call (561) 533-6000 or go to ritzcarlton.com. For information about Palm Beach shopping and other accommodations, go to palmbeachfl.com.
Beach party at Honeymoon Island
One of the world's most beautiful beaches is close to home, and part of the reason Caladesi Island has remained so lovely is that it is only accessible by water. Start your excursion by taking the causeway from Dunedin to Honeymoon Island State Park in north Pinellas County. In 2008-09, some 1.2 million people visited Honeymoon, making it Florida's most-visited state park. You can skimboard, bird watch, fish, snorkel, picnic or just catch some rays. Bring your pup, too, because there's a dog park on the south beach. Animals are also allowed on the marked trails and in the picnic area. Cost is $4 for one person in one car, $8 for two to eight people, and $2 for each additional passenger. Pedestrians and bicyclists pay $2. More information is at floridastateparks.org/honeymoonisland or (727) 469-5942. From Honeymoon, catch the ferry to Caladesi. Service starts daily at 10 a.m. and runs every 30 minutes. The last ferry leaves Caladesi at 4:30 p.m. (it may go later on a busy day) Tickets are $14 for adults and $7 for children 6 to 12.
Tubing Rainbow River
Float along glass-clear water on the Rainbow River, two hours north of Tampa, with your legs dangling over an inner tube and your rear end in the water. It's sweet relief in the sticky summer, for sure, and a taste of Florida without billboards and condos. Bring your own tube or rent one at K.P. Hole Park in Dunnellon in Marion County. For about $12 you get entry to the park, a tube and four hours of floating. (Park entry alone is $3.) A shuttle brings you back to your car. Contact K.P. Hole at (352) 489-3055 or go to www.kphole.com.
Seats at the big game
Forget the Bucs, Dolphins and Jaguars. The Biggest Show in Florida football is the annual Florida-Florida State game. You've got to go at least once to understand the pageantry and pathos that have full-grown adults doing the tomahawk chop or gator chomp. This year, Florida State hosts its rival Nov. 27 at Doak Campbell Stadium on the FSU campus in Tallahassee. Beg for tickets by calling FSU toll-free at 1-888-378-6653 or go to the FSU online ticket office. If you will only give your money to Florida folks, call them at (352) 375-4683, ext. 6800, or click on www.gatorzone.com/tickets. Season tickets are on sale now; single tickets might be available later. Best bet is to cozy up to an alumnus or find students who want to sell tickets.
Tarpon fishing in Boca Grande
People from up North pay thousands of dollars to come to Florida to bag a big one during tarpon fishing season, which usually starts in late April. Gasparilla Island is ground zero for the bony sport fish that can test your patience and your biceps. Many fishing tournaments celebrate the tarpon, including multiweek events and women's and children's competitions. If you're a novice, consider hiring a guide to take you out on a daylong excursion. It gets crowded in the waters of Charlotte Harbor and Boca Grande Pass, where about 5,000 tarpon are caught (and released) annually. A Google search will result in many fishing guides, but you might start your search at the Boca Grande Chamber of Commerce, which can give you ideas about accommodations and tournament information if you're feeling brave. Find them at bocagrandechamber.com or (941) 964-0568.
Climbing St. Augustine Lighthouse
Climb the 219 steps to the observation deck of the St. Augustine Lighthouse for a 360-degree view of the historic city and the Atlantic Ocean. An active navigational aid, the lighthouse was built in the early 1870s and may be the most picturesque of the state's 30 beacons, not all of which are operational. (The reef lighthouses of the Keys are impressive too, but you can't climb those.) An active community group has raised money to restore the keeper's quarters. Tickets are $3 to $7.50, depending on your age and whether you'll make the vertical assault. For more information, directions and list of special activities, call (904) 829-0745 or go to www.staugustinelighthouse.com.