I'm from what you might call "real Florida," being several generations native to a wooded little town called Yulee along the Georgia border. My family has been in the area since the 1780s, when it was Spanish territory.
So you can imagine that my favorite parts of the state are those beyond Disney World and beyond even the beaches we all know and love. My favorites are the pockets of wild ripe for exploration, like the ones outdoors editor Terry Tomalin brings you every week in the Take It Outside Planner.
The best are the ones that come as a surprise.
On a recent spring break, when students from around the country invaded beaches from Miami to Panama City, you could find me and my sister sweating nights out in a Miccosukee chickee — a raised-floor, thatch-roof hut similar at least in theory to the ones Terry describes in this week's planner. We weren't paddling the Wilderness Waterway (I'm a much less experienced kayaker/hiker/alligator wrangler), but we were in the 'Glades. On the Big Cypress Seminole Indian Reservation in particular at a little spot called Billie Swamp Safari, a former hunting ground turned animal preserve with the ordinary (alligators, hogs) and the extraordinary (a very curious ostrich, water buffalo).
Speaking of surprises, we had to fend off an assault on our chickee from a particularly determined raccoon. It was an adventurous spring break I'll never forget.
Here are a few more of my favorite surprising Florida experiences:
Florida Caverns State Park: Fun fact: Florida has caverns! This state park in the Panhandle town of Marianna looks ordinary enough from above, but underneath lurks a series of amazing limestone structures.
Also something you wouldn't expect to find: waterfalls. About 30 minutes from the Marianna caverns, don't miss Florida's tallest waterfall at Falling Waters State Park. The topography is mottled with sinkholes, including one 20 feet wide and 100 feet deep that water tumbles into. Yes, the state's tallest waterfall is a sinkhole. That's so Florida.
River tubing: Any true Floridian knows floating down the Ichetucknee or Rainbow rivers is hands-down better than going to a water park. And if you've been, you know the biggest surprise is jumping into the chilly, spring-fed water. Once you get over the shock, all there is to do is kick back, relax and enjoy the ride through nature.
That's one of my favorite things about Florida's wild surprises: You don't always have to be super adventurous to enjoy them. Billie Swamp Safari is about 20 miles off Alligator Alley, so stop off sometime en route to Miami. Florida Caverns and Falling Waters state parks are each less than 10 miles from I-10. Sometimes, you just have to know where to look.