If you still are uneasy about getting on an airplane or a cruise ship (or paying the high prices), it may be time for a Florida staycation.
Two recently updated travel books — Visiting Small-Town Florida and 100 Things to Do in Tampa Bay Before You Die — offer good ideas for staycations and day trips, so you can take advantage of living in a place that tourists flock to. Most of their suggestions avoid the big, well-known attractions, offering local gems that are off the beaten path.
Travel guides can have a short shelf life, so it helps that both books revisited and updated their tips and trips. Tampa native Bruce Hunt recently released his fourth edition of Small-Town Florida, offering bite-sized profiles and restaurant and shopping recommendations for “79 of Florida’s most interesting small towns.”
Kristen Hare, a journalist with the Poynter Institute and contributor to the Tampa Bay Times, just released the third edition of her guide to living like a tourist in the Tampa Bay area. The premise is a bucket list idea that took on a greater resonance for her during the pandemic.
“While that wink at the bucket list felt cute with the first and second editions, during the pandemic it has taken on a new sense of urgency for me,” Hare said. “Life is short. Nothing is guaranteed. How we spend our time — and the people we spend it with — is up to us.”
Some suggestions from the authors coincide. Consider Small-Town Florida’s suggestion to find tiny Ozona.
“Palm Harbor has grown up around Ozona, but the little village still manages to hang on to its quiet, quirky charm,” Hunt writes. You’ll find a scenic section of the Pinellas Trail bike overpass and some good food at Ozona Pig and Molly Goodhead’s Raw Bar, housed in a circa 1919 house. For shopping, Antiques and Uniques next door to Ozona Pig “has a treasure trove of vintage collectibles.”
As with many of the small towns in Hunt’s book, it only takes an afternoon to see its sights. But Ozona is close to some of Hare’s day trip suggestions. In nearby Tarpon Springs, the influence of its Greek immigrants and sponge divers make a visit “feel more like an international adventure,” Hare writes. Don’t miss the Spongeorama Sponge Factory for shopping and its setting for historical movies, take a tour by water on the St. Nicholas Boat Line and get great Greek food at Mykonos restaurant.
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100 Things to Do in Tampa Bay
Other suggestions from Hare’s book that can be turned into a staycation for a couple of days include:
Lakeland: Get to the Polk County town for lunch at the Joinery food hall with a range of vendors and sit on the patio overlooking a beautiful lake. Take a tour of Florida Southern College, the only campus architect Frank Lloyd Wright designed. Nearby shopping on Kentucky Avenue has fun shops like Scout and Tag and the Lloyds of Lakeland antique shop. There are also great restaurants all along Kentucky.
Williston: Located about 30 miles northwest of Ocala, it is horse country with rolling hills. “It should be on anybody’s bucket list to snorkel or scuba dive at Devil’s Den, a natural spring inside a cave,” Hare said. Reservations in advance are required to swim in the 72-degree blue water. Make reservations at 352-528-3344 or devilsden.com. Cedar Lake Woods and Gardens, on the same street as Devil’s Den, is a gorgeous botanical garden with waterfalls, swans and various levels to walk around ancient live oaks and lush gardens.
North Port: Soak in the Warm Mineral Springs, 12200 San Servando Ave., in this spot about an hour south of Tampa. “It’s a hoot. This is Old Florida at its oldest,” Hare said. At 85 degrees, the water smells a little funky because of the sulfur, and Hare recommends bringing a pool noodle to float in the deeper sections — it’s supposed to be great for the skin. “It’s like a Florida spa day.”
Visiting Small-Town Florida
Hunt is now on his fourth edition of Visiting Small-Town Florida, which he first produced in 1997 as “the antithesis of the Disney guide.”
From North Florida to the Florida Keys, he focuses on towns that have fewer than 15,000 people. He likes to find mom-and-pop diners, historic general stores and old hotels still in business that offer a window into Florida history.
A good example is Evinston. Take a road trip to visit Cross Creek, about 22 miles south of Gainesville, that today is still as rural and scenic as when author Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings immortalized it in The Yearling and Cross Creek. Reread the classic books and tour the Rawlings house that remains as she left it. Then do some antique shopping in nearby Micanopy, where there are historic houses and a cemetery worth seeing.
Hunt then suggests you drive around Orange Lake to the other side of Cross Creek to find the little village of Evinston. “There is nothing there except the Wood and Swink general store. But it has been there since 1882, and it’s really cool and still a functioning general store,” Hunt said.
Apalachicola: He is partial to the Panhandle and suggests Apalachicola, long known as the oyster capital of Florida (although oyster harvesting in Apalachicola Bay is currently suspended until 2025).Maybe spend a few days renting a house on nearby St. George Island with its pretty beaches. “It’s very laid back with some good food and antique shops. And they’ve done a pretty nice job of keeping the historic feel of Apalachicola’s downtown.”
Dade City: The east Pasco County town is becoming a foodie destination. Besides the famous Lunch on Limoges — Florida Cracker Kitchen, there is the local staple Olga’s Bakery and Deli, as well as Green Door on 8th and Steph’s Southern Soul Restaurant. In addition to its well-known antique shopping, Dade City has many food gems worth exploring, Hunt said.
Cedar Key: About a two-hour drive north of Tampa Bay, there are great galleries, restaurants like Tony’s Seafood and Steamers Clam Bar, and rustic settings to relax and go fishing or kayaking. The historic Island Hotel has been restored to its former glory, and its dining room is known for its native Florida seafood dishes.
Visiting Small-Town Florida
By Bruce Hunt
Pineapple Press, 283 pages, $19.95
100 Things to Do in Tampa Bay Before You Die
By Kristen Hare
Reedy Press, 142 pages, $17
Kristen Hare: The Tampa Bay Times contributor will join radio show host Ernest Hooper about the new third edition of her travel book 100 Things to Do In Tampa Bay Before You Die at 7 p.m. April 22 at Tombolo Books, 2153 First Ave. S, St. Petersburg. Free; RSVP at tombolobooks.com/events.
Hare will also be in conversation with Times columnist Stephanie Hayes at 3:30 p.m. April 24 at Oxford Exchange, 420 W Kennedy Blvd., Tampa. Tickets are $5 at oxfordexchange.com/pages/calendar.
Correction: An earlier version of this report had an incorrect location for a picture of Devil’s Den, a natural spring in Williston.