MYAKKA RIVER STATE PARK
Whenever my Yankee family comes to town, I drag them south to Sarasota County to ogle the alligators.
There are several big ones that hang around the bridge that crosses the Myakka River south of Lake Myakka. The reptiles are so large that a snowbird from Canada swore the beast below us must be a world record.
"The state record is actually 14 feet, 3½ inches," I said, impressing the crowd with my mastery of the state's trivia. "That gator isn't an inch longer than 10 feet."
But to tourists from Ohio here for the holidays, seeing a big alligator in the wild is akin to a Floridian coming across a grizzly at Yellowstone National Park. That's why I try to keep an open mind when entertaining guests.
Tampa Bay and the surrounding areas have many outdoor treasures. Here are a few south of the bay to check out:
Take a canopy trail: After you're done alligator watching, follow the Myakka State Park Road north and you'll see a trailhead on the right. While most nature hikes follow the forest floor, this one takes you through the treetops.
The Myakka Canopy Walkway, an 85-foot-long boardwalk suspended 25 feet above the ground, is the highlight of any trip to this state park.
Make sure you climb the tower at the end of the suspension bridge. It takes about 10 minutes to get to the top, but it's well worth the effort. Standing 80 feet above the forest floor, you will see everything from red-shouldered hawks to wild hogs rooting through the swamplands.
Afterward, head for the concession stand and book a ride on one of the world's two largest airboats, the Myakka Maiden or the Gator Gal. It might seem hokey, but there's no better way to see the lake.
For more adventurous souls, the river that runs through the heart of the park is one the best canoeing/kayaking experiences in southwest Florida. Bird watchers, backpackers and day hikers will enjoy the 39 miles of nature trails that wind through the pine forests and prairies.
Myakka River State Park is located at 13208 State Road 72, Sarasota. Call (941) 361-6511 or go to floridastate parks.org.
Paddle Little Manatee River: If you're looking for a great day trip, this river is ideal. One of the best-kept secrets in Central Florida, this sleepy little waterway north of Bradenton is perfect for novices.
The tannin-stained river has plenty of sandbars to pull over and rest on, and many access points. Look for turtles and otters in the water, and birds of prey soaring overhead.
The paddling trail ends on the south bank at Little Manatee River State Park, which has full-facility camping. Nothing beats a night under the stars. Bring plenty of firewood and don't forget the marshmallows.
The Canoe Outpost in Wimauma is full-service outfitter. Call (813) 634-2228 or go to canoeoutpost.com. Little Manatee River State Park is located at 215 Lightfoot Road, Wimauma. Call (813) 671-5005 or go to floridastateparks.org.
Explore mangrove tunnels: The Lido Key Canoe/Kayak Trail in Sarasota is a great introduction to sea kayaking. This well-marked waterway can be as short or as long as you like. Paddling through these tree-covered corridors it is easy to imagine yourself in another time and place.
Five minutes from the boat ramp, you turn and follow the signs into what looks like an enchanted mangrove forest. The trees have grown over the water and formed a canopy just large enough for a canoe or kayak to navigate.
Inside the darkened tunnels, you will see raccoons hunting among the "walking trees" as mangrove crabs scurry for cover. Wading birds prowl the dimly lit corridor, feeding on fingerlings illuminated by the shafts of sunlight filtering through the treetops.
The water here is exceptionally clear, so pristine, in fact, that you can see sponges in some of the deeper areas. Don't be alarmed if you surprise a silver-sided snook resting in the shallows.
To get there, head south to Sarasota and follow the signs to St. Armands Circle on Lido Key. Go around the circle, exiting south on the Boulevard of the Presidents to Taft Drive and South Lido County Park (Lido Key has three county parks; all with amenities).
If you don't want to go it alone, Sarasota Bay Explorers offers guided kayak tours. Paddling experience is not necessary. Call (941) 388-4200 or go to sarasotabay explorers.com.
Oscar Scherer State Park: Just down the coast in Osprey, this state park is one of the one of the best places in the state to see the elusive Florida scrub jay. Hike 15 miles of trails through the pine flatwoods or rent a canoe or kayak and paddle South Creek, a tannic stream that flows into the Gulf of Mexico.
Fish the creek or Lake Osprey, which is also open to swimming. Like most state parks, the full-service campground is clean and well-maintained.
The park's nature center is a great place to introduce youngsters to the ecology of this unique area. Call (941) 483-5956 or go to floridastateparks.org.
Part I, with adventures north of Tampa Bay, ran in Thursday's paper.