Road Trip Through Wild Wild Florida. Part I.

Florida is a long and skinny state, a true peninsula. From head to toe (Pensacola to Key West) it's 832-mile long, and can be done in about 15-18 hours, on a good day.
09/18/2013 01:15 pm ET Updated Nov 18, 2013

Florida is a long and skinny state, a true peninsula. From head to toe (Pensacola to Key West) it's 832-mile long, and can be done in about 15-18 hours, on a good day. Many bad days will have you stuck behind a towed boat between Florida City and the Southernmost Point (90 miles from Cuba), at snake pace for many hours. Or the Florida Turnpike, the back bone of the state, could be clogged by traffic, and you could also spend hours wondering why you took the trip in the first place.

I know some of you will swear they did it in 12 hours, but I won't entertain here the concept of speeding on interstates, or on local highways, something I never find fun to do. If you are in a hurry, better fly then.

But there are secret roads and back ways to really discover Florida while slowly heading south. The ideal would be to have a week to traverse the entire body plus islands. It implies hotel nights of course, but the charm of a road trip is to discover out-of-the-way inns and tourist-free locales.

Starting in Pensacola, almost at the Alabama border, in what is called the Panhandle, avoid I-10 and take instead Highway 90 to Navarre Beach, a most beautiful and wild white sand secret shore, located on Eglin Air Force base, but open to the public, to a certain point, they let you know when it becomes forbidden to enter. The Gulf of Mexico clear waters have now bounced back to their normal beauty since the 2010 Deep Water Horizon disaster. No oil in the sand, and wildlife is back.

Continue on with Highway 98 to Surfside, where the movie the Truman Show (with Jim Carrey) was filmed. The food trucks, the architecture, the white beach, the lack of ugliness make this town a true gem for the eyes. Built only about 30 years ago, where nothing was there, the zoning enforcement keeps the pastel village unique and sweetly anchored in time reminiscent of simpler days, with only one supermarket, almost no chain stores, and great boutiques.

After you have passed Panama City Beach, still on 98, an invisible line between Apalachicola (best oysters) and Port St. Joe divides two time zones, where the Central Time Zone bumps into the Eastern Time Zone, yes, Florida has two time zones! I know, it's mind boggling and inconvenient at times, but it's real. Ask the inhabitants of tiny Beacon Hill who are divided smack in the middle, and have to run their lives with an added complication.

You have now reached the body of Florida. Since you started, the drive was west to east, now we turn towards the south. You can stay on 98, it will also be called 19 or 27 (don't ask), as you drive down. Hop on 26 to reach I-75 in Gainesville. That is the turnpike (pay toll). Stay for a little while, a short 16 miles, until you reach Ocala, and get out.

Ocala has amazing fresh water springs located in the Ocala National Forrest, the southernmost national forest in the continental United States. It's a conifer and sand pines forest, with slow moving waters and wet prairies. Lakes, ponds, bears, alligators, deer, boars, coyotes, bats, squirrels, raccoon, otters, bobcats, skunks, and armadillos make the forest a land of adventures and discoveries. Kids love it here.

Alexander spring is where we swam one day and went diving deep into the cone-shape pond to drink the incredibly green and blue water from the source of the spring, at it was bubbling to the surface. Cold and fresh, the best drink we had all day. This was slightly tempered for me after I saw the tiny wooden sign by the shore that stated "Do not feed the alligators."

From Ocala, better go back to 98 close to the coast line, in order to visit Homosassa and the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge, over 31,000 acres of saltwater bays, estuaries and brackish marshes at the mouth of the Chassahowitzka River. A waterfowl habitat home to 250 species of birds, 50 species of reptiles and amphibians, 25 different species of mammals, including the endangered West Indian Manatee. Do I sound like National Geographic yet?

The true Florida is made of water, sun, sand, and wildlife aplenty. It is not yet a domesticated state for that reason, besides a few pocket of civilization, the peninsula under the sun is still wild at heart in most of its parts. Florida has a wild native panther, hard to spot, but also a giant pythons (10-17 feet) problem: those are not originally from here, but are so numerous that an open hunt takes place each year to try to capture some to reduce its population.

Drive now on Route 19 to Saint Petersburg and get a dose of sophisticated culture, a change from skunks and bats. The Dali Museum, the largest one outside of Spain, Dali's native country, the Museum of Fine Art, and the Museum of History are all well worthy of a visit. Besides, you want to cross the magnificent four-mile long Sunshine Skyway Tampa Bay bridge suspended over the emerald-green Gulf waters.

Catch I-75 again, heading south towards Venice, baptized the "Shark's Tooth Capital of the World", due to the vast amount of fossilized shark's teeth found on its coastal shores. Go ahead and pick some up, great conversation pieces. From Venice use Road 41 and continue south to Fort Myers, where you need to find your way to the islands of Captiva and Sanibel, via 867, a toll road to enter the protected twin islands. The shores beaches here contain the most sea shells I have ever seen in my life. Huge conch shells, complete sand dollars, tiny starfish, junonia, lightning whelk, and cockle shells in incredible amounts. Cute bungalows on the beach and a few sandwich places are perfecting the island life.

Before you drive to Naples, right off of Route 41, there is a truly weird place to visit, in Estero, called the Koreshan State Historic Site. Named after a strange man, Cyrus Reed Teed, who anchored here a colony for his new faith, Koreshanity; known as the Koreshan Unity, its members believed that the entire universe existed inside a giant hollow sphere, meaning that we were actually standing inside the Earth, I know. The faith did not really survive his death in 1908, and in 1961 the last four members deeded the land to the state.

After this little slice of odd, join Route 41 again, direction Naples, where retirees and wealthy people sip high tea at exposed terraces, and shop at high end boutiques for the perfect Bermuda short. Good ice creams everywhere.

This is where you now enter the Everglades and the Big Cypress Reservation, and start heading west to the other side of Florida. The road is now called Tamiami Trail. Before you head towards Miami you might want to detour via the Ten Thousand Islands Park, where hundreds (they lied) of mangrove islets offer seasoned canoeists and sea kayakers a prime destination.

In the Big Cypress, orchids and snakes are everywhere, do not attempt to enter the waters at any point. Scenic trails and camping grounds are available to visitors, I highly recommend wearing boots. Several outfits offer swamps rides on flat boats with plane engines, loud and disturbing to the animals, so much so that they give you ear plugs before the ride. When my daughter was younger, they used to give small cotton balls, and the first time we went, she ate them.

It's a fun thing to do, as the driver will skid over the waters on purpose to get you wet, warning you in advance. Hide your cameras! Only a few feet deep, the waters are full of alligators. Once we saw an odd couple, a crane with legs full of bite marks and a senior alligator with beak scars on top of its head. The ranger said they were at it for years and none ever won. This is Miccosukee and Seminole Indians territory, and the tribes still have a few villages hidden in the vegetation, some admit visitors and let you pet baby alligators, smoke a peace pipe, or will pierce your ears to lodge tiny turtle-shaped silver studs they sell. Yeah, we did all that.

This is where you can cross the narrowest part of the state in about two hours, as the Tamiami Trail runs 165 miles from Tampa to Miami, where it becomes the famous Calle Ocho (Eighth Street) in the Little Havana Cuban section of the city.

This is only a visit to one side of Florida, in the coming days, we'll travel to the East coast and the middle of the Sunshine State. Happy trails.
To be continued.