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En español | Had enough of the crowds in Miami and Orlando? Florida is full of wonderful spots that haven't been overexposed or overbuilt. Here are five fun, low-key destinations in the Sunshine State.
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Crystal River and Homosassa Springs
The main attraction in this area a couple hours north of Tampa is the fresh spring water that bubbles up from the Florida limestone, creating crystal-clear creeks and rivers. The Plantation on Crystal River, a hotel, has an outfit that can take you swimming with the manatees — gentle, curious creatures that gather near the springs to stay warm. Lovers of the outdoors should try a kayak ride on the pretty Chassahowitzka River with Hunter Springs Kayaks, which also offers guided manatee snorkeling tours, or you can get your motor running with a Wild Bill's Airboat Tours trip on the Withlacoochee River.
Just south of Crystal River, Homosassa Springs is home to the Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park, with a huge array of animals and birds to admire (including, yes, manatees). Be sure to stop at the Biscuit Barn for a Southern-style breakfast and fresh, fluffy biscuits.
There are plenty of affordable chain hotels to choose from, as well as the high-end Plantation on Crystal River, mentioned above.
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St. Andrews State Park
This is a marvelous place in the northern part of the state with peaceful bays, islands sculpted with pure white sand dunes, and a heaping helping of quiet. You can snorkel, fish, walk the trails or just unwind by the Gulf of Mexico. The park is only a 10-minute boat ride from Panama City Beach, which is easily reached by flights from around the U.S. There's plenty to do in Panama City Beach, too, including renting a pontoon boat or taking a guided dolphin tour through Lagoon Pontoons.
The area is also a great spot for food lovers. Andy's Flour Power Cafe & Bakery is a delightful spot where they make killer french toast and a stunning breakfast martini with gin and citrus. Recover from the morning martini with a trip to Finns Barista Bar and Snack Shack for a coffee mocha topped with black salt (or try a few tasty fish tacos). And in March you can catch the UNwineD food and drinks festival in Panama City Beach, where you'll find items from octopus and Cajun cuisine to ribs and pecan tarts, as well as wine, craft beer, cocktails and live music.
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There aren't many towns in the U.S. that have both a welcome sign featuring a Scotsman in a kilt and a downtown bar with regular drag queen bingo nights (at Blur Nightclub). But that's one of the reasons I love this little town north of Clearwater on the Gulf Coast. Dunedin has a small, delightful downtown that's filled with browsable shops, as well as the state's oldest microbrewery, Dunedin Brewery. Take a short ferry ride from Honeymoon Island State Park to Caladesi Island for one of the state's best beaches — and no crowds.
For tasty Mexican food at a fair price, try the family-owned Casa Tina on Main Street, or go for a water view and the daily catch at Olde Bay Cafe. The town also has a wonderful new Marriott Autograph Collection hotel, the Fenway. The building dates back to 1924 and housed the first radio station in Pinellas County. Rooms are done up in a music theme, and they often have live jazz in the lobby. The open-air, third-floor bar has some of the best sunset views around.
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New Smyrna Beach
This small city, just south of bustling Daytona Beach, is one of the most laid-back Florida towns I've found. The main street, Flagler Avenue, features everything from T-shirt and flip flop shops to hip home décor stores. Rent a fat bike from the folks at Salty Rentals (they also run a small motel on the beach, the Salty Mermaid Oceanfront Hotel) and go for a spin on the hard-packed sand. Across the intracoastal waterway is a small downtown area with a terrific gallery and community space called The Hub on Canal, with a huge variety of local art on display. The New Smyrna Museum of History is a delight; Guide Barbara Zafuto sometimes dresses up as the town's first female mayor, Hannah Detwiler Bonnet, and gives tours of the city.
The Hampton Inn is a fine lodging option with a small pool a few blocks from the beach, while SpringHill Suites has rooms right by the water. Head to Riverpark Terrace for terrific food, including fresh seafood and tasty salads, and a lovely outdoor patio. The Breakers restaurant is a great spot for casual dining right on the beach.
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Located in Palm Beach County, this down-home town feels worlds away from its neighbor, tony Palm Beach. The Jupiter Inlet Lighthouse offers outstanding views of the Loxahatchee River and the Atlantic Ocean, if you're willing to climb the 105 stairs to the top (tickets are $12; $10 for visitors 60-plus). There's a great little (wheelchair-accessible) museum next door, with displays on the history of Native Americans and white settlers in the area.
The folks at Blueline Surf and Paddle can take you out for a stand-up paddle boarding lesson on the river, or a kayak tour; you may be joined by turtles and manatees. Just down the road is the Juno Beach Pier, where you watch surfers roll past on blue-green waves, and the Loggerhead Marinelife Center, which focuses on sea turtle research, education, conservation and rehabilitation. You can join a guided tour of its outdoor sea turtle hospital.
For lunch or dinner, try Guanabanas, a chilled-out waterfront restaurant with simple food, including steamed clams and coconut fried shrimp, and background music heavy on Jimmy Buffett and Bob Marley. The Jupiter Beach Resort and Spa is an upscale, oceanfront lodging option, or consider one of the many affordable chain hotels in the area.