The stretch of coast that runs north of the Tampa area to the Panhandle is often ignored by travelers. This happens, in part, because the views from the road are only intermittently scenic. Those who take the time to get off the main highways, however, will find some interesting and often uncrowded attractions that showcase the state's natural beauty.
Be aware that, unless you're camping, you'll need to do some advance planning to tour this stretch: Hotels can be difficult to locate between Cedar Key and Apalachicola.
Leaving the Tampa area, the first stop is Weeki Wachee, which has a famous tourist attraction, Weeki Wachee Springs, where mermaids (young women wearing spangled flipper-sheaths) perform an underwater show.
Just 20 mi/32 km north is Homosassa Springs State Wildlife Park, home to some less svelte sea creatures—manatees. The springs at Homosassa run at a constant 72 F/22 C, which makes it a haven not only for the endangered manatee but also many other sea creatures. An underwater observatory lets you peek beneath the surface. Because Citrus County, where the park is located, has one of the highest concentrations of manatees in Florida, there are boat and snorkel tours available that can take you close to the pudgy gray creatures. Some even allow you to pet the manatees (who seem to like getting their bellies rubbed), though this type of contact is prohibited in the state park.
Keep going north, and you'll reach one of the more interesting sites in Florida: the Crystal River State Archaeological Site. Some aspects of the temple ruins resemble those found in Mexico and Central America.
Cedar Key is a great place to clear your head after several hours on the road. The small community and neighboring National Wildlife Refuge (pelicans galore) is at the southwest end of Highway 24 (intersecting with Highway 19/98 at Otter Creek). It's one of the places you visit just to do nothing for a while. There are a few restaurants and shops on the island as well as Cedar Key Museum State Park, but visitors go mainly for the atmosphere and beaches.
From Cedar Key, join Highway 98 as it moves north into the Panhandle. This part of the coast, west to Apalachicola, is known as the Big Bend. The most interesting attraction on this leg of your trip is Manatee Springs State Park, where you can swim in a spring-fed pool and, occasionally, see a few manatees. Continue on Highway 98 as far as Newport, which is near the St. Mark's National Wildlife Refuge, home to plenty of birds and alligators.
From Newport, head north on Highway 363 to Wakulla Springs State Park. Site of one of the world's largest and deepest freshwater springs, this junglelike park was the setting for many of the early Johnny Weissmuller Tarzan movies and The Creature From the Black Lagoon. The best way to see the park is by glass-bottomed boat. Alligators are everywhere, and they are big (not quite as huge, however, as the stuffed one in the lobby of the park's lodge).
Built in 1937, the lodge is a wonderful Old Florida building with painted ceiling panels that depict the history of the area, from pre-Columbian times through the Spanish conquest. Even if you can't spend the night (it only has 27 rooms), have lunch in the dining area that overlooks the springs.
The Apalachicola National Forest begins just west of Wakulla Springs, where you can linger to hike, fish, swim, camp or investigate the Fort Gadsden State Historic Site. The fort was built by the British to recruit African Americans during the War of 1812 and was later taken and held by a black military leader until it was recaptured in a bloody battle in 1816.
Note: Florida sustained widespread damage during Hurricane Irma in September 2017. Travelers should investigate current conditions prior to planning a visit.
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