3 unusual Florida vacation spots, 4 hours or less from Tampa Bay

From a houseboat to a ranch, the search is on for safe fun in driving distance.
The view from a houseboat in Fleming Island on March 15.
The view from a houseboat in Fleming Island on March 15. [ STEPHANIE HAYES | Times ]
Published March 26, 2021|Updated March 26, 2021

Our kid has been in virtual school all year. So when vacation weeks rolled around, staying in the house did not seem like a fun option. Weird!

Of course, safe travels are limited in a pandemic. We created a COVID vacation protocol: Find a house rental in a town fewer than four hours from Tampa Bay. The short drives reduced stopping time and also preserved some sanity. (You feel cooped up in a house? Try a car.) We’d stock up on groceries, stay inside, watch movies and play games, maybe venture to some nature. A change of scenery, as good as vacation gets in a pandemic.

Since we didn’t plan on going out much, our focus was on the homes more than the towns. We ended up in a round house on the beach, a cabin in the woods and, lastly, a houseboat. I am happy to report no one got seasick or floated away, but I do have a great idea for a horror novel now.

It’s easy to find unusual stays using the filters on any vacation rental site. On Airbnb, the “unique stays” category features everything from caves to castles. On VRBO, you can sort farmhouses and mills (okay!). If you like the vibe of camping but don’t love to sleep on the ground and walk a half-mile to the bathroom in the dark, try Glamping Hub for RV and cabin options.

Once we picked a destination based on the house, we explored the outdoor offerings nearby. It was a great reminder to throw a dart at a map, because adventure is all around. Cue the John Williams soundtrack.

Here are three towns we might not have visited if not for the homebound energy this year. Thanks, I guess?

Related: Florida spring breakers, may your Airbnb checkout be satisfying

Little Gasparilla Island

The sunset at Little Gasparilla Island, on a July day last summer.
The sunset at Little Gasparilla Island, on a July day last summer. [ STEPHANIE HAYES | Times ]

This island in Charlotte County, west of Placida between Sarasota and Fort Myers, is accessed only via boat. You can walk the whole island in a quarter mile. There are no real roads, only dirt paths for golf carts, and no stores or restaurants. This is the ultimate isolation, perfect at the height of the pandemic. But if you just hate people, consider this a solid destination.

Drive time from Tampa Bay: Two hours

Where to stay: Plenty of rentals are available via the usual websites. But for one-stop information and house listings, check It answers every question, from how to catch the water taxi to how to get groceries delivered, so they’re sitting in your home when you get there. You can pack your own food, but I definitely suggest the delivery service. Who wants to lug a box of wine on a boat?

What to do: Relax! That’s it. Nothing much else to do. But you may encounter wildlife, from nesting turtles (leave them alone) to shorebirds. Plus, the sand is full of shark teeth and sand dollars for collectors.

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Pro tip: Stay on the beach. Inland, the mosquitoes can be very swarmy.

Fort McCoy

A horse at Griffin Ranch in Fort McCoy last December.
A horse at Griffin Ranch in Fort McCoy last December. [ STEPHANIE HAYES | Times ]

Find this tiny spot in Marion County, northeast of Ocala between Sparr and Eureka. There’s one corner grocery store and a lot of rural charm. It’s all about RVs, farm and lake houses and country cottages here.

Drive time from Tampa Bay: Two hours

Where to stay: We chose the Griffin Ranch, a working horse ranch with onsite cottages. It’s rustic and quiet, and the friendly owners present a refreshing beverage as soon as you stop the car. (Enjoy, parents!) The ranch is home to horses, peacocks and places to sit around a fire and chill. Bring some DVDs to watch, as there’s no cable or streaming.

What to do: Take a short drive out of Fort McCoy and the options are plentiful. We walked the Yearling Trail in the Ocala National Forest, a 5.5-mile loop where Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings once stayed and gleaned literary inspiration. Consider a bike ride on the serene and surprisingly hilly Gainesville-Hawthorne State Park Trail, which leads right into the heart of the University of Florida and Gator country.

Pro tip: Prepare yourself for the sight and smell of well water, if you’re not used to it.

Fleming Island

This Clay County community southwest of Jacksonville is polished, residential and surrounded by scenic water views. It’s bordered by St. Johns River, Doctors Lake, Black Creek and Swimming Pen Creek.

Drive time from Tampa Bay: Four hours

Where to stay: We bunked on a houseboat in Doctors Lake Marina. Really, it was more of a floating house tied to a dock. Search “HomeAWave” on VRBO and Airbnb for the exact spot, but more traditional houseboats are available for rent, too. The marina has daily boat rentals, a convenience store and the Sunset Tiki Bar for drinks, cornhole and giant Connect Four.

What to do: A walking and bike trail runs along Fleming Island for about 8 miles and ends up in Black Creek Park. Use caution on the mountain bike trails, or you’ll end up like me, sideways on the ground. Jacksonville and all it has to offer is just a short drive away. Check out Kathryn Abbey Hanna Park for a dog-friendly beach day.

Pro tip: We didn’t get seasick, but pack some Dramamine if you’re prone to motion sickness. It’s wild to see the scenery swaying in the distance.

Related: Read more columns from Stephanie Hayes

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