Destination: Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park
The scoop: Homosassa is manatee heaven! And it's pretty cushy for one big African water horse, and a plethora of other animals, as well. Once a roadside petting zoo in the 1920s, Homosassa Springs has emerged as a premier state park featuring a 45-foot deep natural spring at the heart of 210 beautiful acres of natural Florida. A floating underwater observatory known as the "fishbowl" allows guests to get a 360 degree underwater view of manatees and fish right inside the spring.
Why go? It's probably the most soothing place in Florida, from the boat ride into the park to the descent into the fishbowl. You can also enter the park by tram or on foot, hiking along a comfortably paved path that's part of the Great Florida Birding Trail. The park showcases native Florida wildlife, some in varying stages of rehabilitation, in a spectacular setting anchored always by the crisp clear blue waters of Pepper Creek and Homosassa Springs. Manatee education and wildlife encounter programs are offered daily, and there's plenty of space to just kick back and picnic, bird and wildlife watch, or just take in the view.
Field report: Like most people, our visit to Homosassa kicked off at Lu's pen. Lu(cifer) is a 6,000-lb., 49-year-old African hippopotamus who has lived at the park since 1964. He's a celebrity of sorts, having starred in the Ivan Tors Animal Actors troupe, and lumbered about in the 1960s films Daktari and Cowboy in Africa. (You remember those, don't you?) In 1989, when the park relocated all its exotic animals from its heyday as a roadside petting zoo, public outcry, especially from local school children, led to Lu being declared an "honorary Florida citizen" and promised a permanent home in the park.
After gazing fondly at Lu's back and twitching ears, the only things visible as he lay submerged in his pond, we wandered along the boardwalk to take in the rest of the sights, which consist mostly of native Florida animals perched, pacing, floating, swimming, dozing or playing in attractively maintained habitats. Views of the alligators, manatees, bobcats, cougars, otters, bears and hundreds of birds are among the best and accessible I've seen anywhere. (It's definitely the best view I've ever had of a bobcat hacking up a hairball.)
We finished our walk at the fishbowl, a remarkable 180-ton floating underwater observatory built in the 1960s, which offers some of the best views not only of manatees, but of crevalle jack, snook, mangrove snappers, and sheepshead you'll ever see.
Do it again? Sure, and with an annual pass just $22 and the whole place barely an hour from Tampa, there's no reason not to go and take friends and family with you. There are art exhibits (Homer Winslow, currently), youth programs and other events throughout the year as well.