The Sunshine State's abundant natural attractions go far beyond beaches, palm trees and the Everglades. Take a four-day spin on roads less traveled to view Northwest Florida's “Forgotten Coast,” south of Panama City, to find inland springs, waterfalls, migrating monarch butterflies and stalactite-crowned caverns. You can even pet a wolf. Stay in affordable lodgings with that fast-disappearing Old Florida feel.
Day 1: Tallahassee to Wakulla Springs (43 miles)
Cruise from the state capital south to St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge via Route 61 or 363. It's so nature-focused that there are no food concessions (pack a picnic or try locally popular fried mullet at nearby Posey's Steam Room & Oyster Bar). Established as a sanctuary for migrating birds in 1931, St. Marks’ more than 70,000 acres are home to 200-plus species, as well as an October celebration of monarch butterflies that stop here en route to Mexico.
You can walk on trails, fish or try the GPS Adventure Trail, a scavenger hunt (grandkids will love it). Up the road, take a plunge or a boat ride at Wakulla Springs. North America's largest freshwater spring, surrounded by a cypress swamp, is a cool 68-70 degrees year-round. Swim in designated areas to steer clear of gators (a big-tire wheelchair is available, as are wheelchair-accessible tour craft), or scuba dive in sinkholes. Keep eyes peeled for curious manatees.
For a late lunch or sweet treat, snag a stool in the old-fashioned soda fountain with 70-foot marble counter, billed as the world's longest, at The Lodge at Wakulla Springs.
Where to Stay: The Spanish Mission-style Lodge at Wakulla Springs, dating to the ‘30s, is a Florida landmark. It's embellished with ceiling paintings of local wildlife, cypress panels and an art deco elevator. Comfortable rooms with vintage furnishings have no TVs. Senior rates during slow times start at about $100, double, for bed and breakfast. Dine in the restaurant on old-timey Country Captain curried chicken and rice, topped off with chocolate-covered key lime pie.