Spectacular Florida Road Trips Every Traveler Should Take

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Laid-back beachy living coupled with a flamboyant arts scene lends a one-of-a-kind appeal to the lowland island Key West, a must-see on one of our fave Florida road trips.

Fresh seafood! Perfect sunsets! Astronauts! Some of the Sunshine State’s finest scenic drives take you not only to beach but way beyond, with treats every member of the family will love.

ROAD TRIP #1: GULF COAST SEAFOOD

Tarpon Springs to Pine Island

Begin your morning in Tarpon Springs, a fishing village that boasts America’s largest percentage of Greek-Americans and was once called the sponge-diving capital of the world. You can still head out on a vintage vessel to watch a diver in a traditional suit harvest sponges from the seabed, but an even better option is grabbing a baklava and strong coffee from Hellas

Restaurant and Bakery (785 Dodecanese Blvd., hellasbakery.com), as Greek fishermen have done for decades. Apropos of this trip, Tarpon Springs takes its name from a popular local game fish, though it’s unfortunately too bony to make good eats.

Drive south along Route 19 and stop into the gulfside village of Dunedin. First opened in the 1930s, the Olde Bay Café & Dunedin Fish Market (51 Main St., oldebaycafe.com), located right on the marina, sells locally caught fish like cobia and mangrove snapper, available for lunch in tacos and sandwiches. Keep an eye out for grouper cheeks, the most tender part of the Gulf’s massive (and massively popular) fish.

In bustling Clearwater, visit the Clearwater Marine Aquarium (249 Windward Passage, seewinter.com), a rescue, rehab, and research center that’s home to Winter, the bottlenose dolphin outfitted with a prosthetic tail who inspired—and starred in—the blockbuster film Dolphin

Tale. Next, stroll along Clearwater’s Pier 60 (pier60fishing.com), a great place to watch sport fishermen in action or to rent a rod and cast yourself.

 

For dinner, follow your nose to South Pasadena’s Ted Peters Famous Smoked Fish (1350 Pasadena Ave. S., tedpetersfish.com), which opened in 1951 and has become a bit of a foodie holy grail in these parts. Here, mullet, salmon, mahimahi, and mackerel are hotsmoked over red oak in a cabin out back, resulting in a flaky and intensely smoky fish, which tastes much more like good barbecue than like the cold-smoked salmon you’d eat on a bagel. Order the fish in a platter with German potato salad and coleslaw or in the famous smoked fish spread.

Full and freshly perfumed with smoke, make your way to the hippest stay in St. Pete Beach, Postcard Inn on the Beach (6300 Gulf Blvd., postcardinn.com), a modish boutique hotel in a converted 1950s motel that calls to mind the surfer haunts of Montauk, NY.

After a quick breakfast at the inn, head out for a day of more sun, sand, and seafood. Driving south along Route 19, you’ll cross Tampa Bay over the Sunshine Skyway Bridge, with its iconic double-triangular cables, reminiscent of a sailboat. Running parallel are portions of an older bridge, which now stands as the Skyway Fishing Pier State Park (floridastateparks.org/skyway), the world’s longest fishing pier and a great spot to commune with endearingly awkward pelicans.

Just west of the city of Bradenton, overlooking Sarasota Bay, you’ll find the charming fishing village of Cortez, which was settled in the 1880s by North Carolina families escaping the hurricanes that frequently targeted their Outer Banks homes. Be sure to stop into the Florida Maritime Museum (4415 119th St. West, floridamaritimemuseum.org) for exhibits on ship models and seashells, and then visit The Sea Hagg (12304 Cortez Rd. West, theseahagg.wordpress.com) for nautical antiques. For lunch, order the Florida stone crab claws at the dockside Star Fish Company Market & Restaurant (12306 46th Ave. West, starfishcompany.com, crab market price), which has been a wholesale fish market since the 1920s. Harvested from live crabs, they’re a major delicacy in these parts—most swear their firm, sweet meat is even better than lobster.

Continue south along Longboat Key, and stop into the Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium (1600 Ken Thompson Parkway, mote.org) to view rescued manatees and sea turtles. Off-site, Mote researchers are working on aquaculture and farm-raised caviar programs that could reshape the future of sustainable Florida seafood.

As night falls, drive into Sarasota, which has turned in recent years into a hub of artsy sophistication on the otherwise lovably scruffy Gulf Coast. Owen’s Fish Camp (516 Burns Lane, owensfishcamp.com), which occupies a 1923 cottage under a giant banyan tree given to the town developer by Thomas Edison, is a reminder of the Old South, with a menu of comfort classics like shrimp and grits. Equally homey is Sarasota’s elegant bed and breakfast The Cypress (621 Gulfstream Ave. South, cypressbb.com).

Start the next day with a stroll on Siesta Key’s sugary white beaches, which have often been called the finest sand in the world. Made up of 99 percent pure quartz, it’s powdery and remains cool to the touch even on blazing-hot Florida days. Drive south along the Gulf, and grab an early lunch in Venice at the Crow’s Nest Restaurant (1968 Tarpon Center Dr., crowsnest-venice.com), which overlooks the marina. Be sure to order raw Gulf of Mexico oysters and a grouper sandwich, which is to coastal Florida as lobster rolls are to Maine or po’boys are to New Orleans.

Continue south and stop into historic Placida, a quirky little fishing village filled with Caribbean-hued cottages housing boutiques and galleries. Take a detour around the wildlife-rich estuary known as Charlotte Harbor and keep an eye out for wading birds.

Just before Fort Myers, turn right onto Pine Island Road and head through the time-capsule village of Matlacha (pronounced mat-la-shay), which boasts what many lovingly refer to as “the world’s most fishingest bridge.” In fact, this tiny town is little more than a collection of old fishing cottages on either side of the drawbridge out to Pine Island. Be sure to stop at Bert’s Bar & Grill (4271 Pine Island Road, bertsbar.us) for live music out on the dock, from where you’ll often be able to spot ospreys on the hunt—these birds of prey are just as keen on the catch of the day as we humans are! Covered with mango orchards, mangrove forests, and vast swaths of palm trees, the largest island off of Southwestern Florida’s coast feels a bit out of place—and wonderfully so—in a part of the state that is increasingly being turned over to luxury condo developments and resorts. End the night at the 1926 Tarpon Lodge (13771 Waterfront Dr., tarponlodge.com), a favorite among nearly a century of sport fishermen. And, because this trip wouldn’t be complete without a seafood-filled meal to cap off a seaside journey well done, be sure to hit the lodge’s on-site restaurant for a bowl of blue crab and roasted corn chowder and local littleneck clams.

ROAD TRIP #2: THE SPACE COAST

Orlando to Melbourne

The Space Coast, a scenic, 72-mile stretch roughly between Titusville and Melbourne, is in transition. Back in the 1960s, it was at the white-hot center of an ambitious national space program—the area is so rocket-crazy that the locals even had the area code changed to 321. The beachside towns along the Atlantic coast became a powerful draw for big-domed rocket scientists and future-minded tourists who lined up to gawk at the frequent liftoffs.

Visitors today are discovering the area's terrestrial pleasures: hiking, surfing, scuba diving, and swimming. On your way from Orlando to the coast, explore Titusville's historic downtown—a few sleepy blocks of late-19th-century brick buildings along the Indian River. Then head to Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge (fws.gov/merrittisland).

The 140,000-acre preserve consists of brackish estuaries and marshes, home to egrets, herons, manatees, feral hogs, tortoises, and American alligators. Sample a few hiking trails, from a quarter-mile to five miles, that are perfect for family members, especially the ones with short legs. Less physical, but no less rewarding, is the Black Point Wildlife Drive, a seven-mile road that allows you to steer straight into the habitats of bald eagles, osprey, and cartoonish-looking roseate spoonbills.

Spend the rest of the afternoon at pristine Playalinda Beach, part of Canaveral National Seashore, across the water from the Space Center (where you must spend several hours seeing the impressive array of spacecraft, equipment, space suits, and a family-friendly hands-on presentation of America’s exploration of space, kennedyspacecenter.com). The beach is a great place to observe—but not disturb!—nests of giant loggerhead turtles. At sunset, head to the five-room Casa Coquina Bed and Breakfast (4010 Coquina Ave., Titusville, casacoquina.com) for the evening. A tall suit of armor greets you in the lobby, and local legend has it that Al Capone, who wintered in Titusville in the 1930s, rested his head and his guns here.

You've got to love Cocoa Beach, a place that's home to the Mai Tiki Bar (401 Meade Ave., Cocoa Beach, cocoabeachpier.com), the Mai Tiki art gallery (251 Minuteman Causeway, Cocoa Beach, maitiki.com), and a "Welcome to Cocoa Beach" sign flanked by—what else?—a tiki torch. What all that tiki really means is that the beach is never far away. Even the cheapest hotels have, if not a view of the ocean, then at least the sound of lapping waves floating through your open window. Cocoa Beach's six-mile stretch of white sand plays host to world-famous surf competitions and was the stomping ground for surf legend Kelly Slater. It's also home port to the two retail monoliths that have grown up in his shadow: Ron Jon Surf Shop (4151 N. Atlantic Ave., Cocoa Beach, ronjonsurfshop.com) and Cocoa Beach Surf Company (4001 N. Atlantic Ave., Cocoa Beach, cocoabeachsurf.com). Both stores sell plenty of tchotchkes—fake plastic leis, bamboo back-scratchers—as well as more serious surfer garb like rash guards and board shorts. Both also rent gear and offer surf lessons. Bonus: Cocoa Beach Surf Company has a massive, 5,600-gallon tank with blacktip sharks and exotic fish, which kids love.

Down the street, check into the oceanfront South Beach Inn (1701 S. Atlantic Ave., Cocoa Beach, southbeachinn.com), where the basic room boasts a pull-out couch and is comfortably big enough for a family of four, before heading to dinner. On the north edge of town, chow down at Roberto's Little Havana (26 N. Orlando Ave., Cocoa Beach, robertoslittlehavana.com), a cozy, family-run spot specializing in seafood and Cuban fare like the savory Cuban sandwich, served with an ample side of black beans topped with freshly cut onion.

From Cocoa Beach, Highway A1A winds south past a series of appealing, well-maintained public beaches. At the beach across the street from Patrick Air Force Base, you’ll find gentle waves and a foot-friendly, sandy bottom. You can always see pelicans bobbing on breaks, and if you arrive early enough you can spot what the natives boast about, too—regular visits from families of dolphins.

Next door, locals also favor family-run Sun on the Beach (1753 Highway A1A, Satellite Beach, sunonthebeach.co), where the owners import their own brand of Lowcountry cooking to Florida. At lunch, fried chicken dipped in buffalo spices is served on top of buttermilk waffles. But, with the beach and scuba-diving outfits like Hatts Diving Shop in Melbourne (2006 Front St., Melbourne, hattsdiving.com), even food this good won’t keep you indoors for long.

ROAD TRIP #3: THE FLORIDA KEYS

Key West to Key Largo

Lined with Victorian mansions and late-19th-century commercial buildings, Key West's main road, Duval Street, is a picturesque thoroughfare pocked with rocking-loud bars. A quieter side of Key West is immediately apparent when you turn onto Petronia Street, heading into the Bahama Village neighborhood.

At Blue Heaven restaurant (305/296-8666), in a courtyard that was the scene of boxing matches during the Depression, tables sit under a canopy of trees, a balmy breeze stirring their leaves, and at least a half dozen of Key West's free-roaming chickens scratch around for crumbs. The special is a lobster melt—like a fancy tuna melt—and it's as good as it sounds.

Catch the tour at the Little White House (305/294-9911), an 1890 house on Key West's former naval base. Harry Truman vacationed there 11 times during his presidency.

Don't miss Sunset Celebration at Mallory Square, a daily event since the sixties. Grab a margarita from a stand and wander among the crowds and street performers before turning in at the Chelsea House (chelseahousekw.com), in a converted Victorian house surrounded by a garden that makes it feel private and tranquil, though it's just a stone's throw from Duval Street.

Before hitting the road the next day, stop by the Hemingway Home and Museum (hemingwayhome.com), where Ernest Hemingway lived with his second wife, Pauline, and their two sons from 1931 to 1940. It's said that Hemingway was given a six-toed cat—often called "mitten cats"—by a friend who was a ship captain; many cats, most of which are its descendants, live on the grounds today. As the writer quipped, "One cat just leads to another." And speaking of animals, don't miss the Key West Butterfly & Nature Conservatory (keywestbutterfly.com), where you'll be amazed at the sight of so many elusive, fluttering beauties.

When it's time to head north, Route 1, the Overseas Highway, is a sight in itself. In the 1880s, Henry Flagler, an original partner in Standard Oil, began developing resorts along Florida's east coast. He also started buying up and connecting the state's railroad lines. St. Augustine, Palm Beach, and Miami all owe their development to Flagler's efforts. Between 1905 and 1912, Flagler constructed the Over-Sea Railroad, 156 miles of track—much of it on trestles over open water—that linked Miami and Key West. When the first train rolled into town in 1912, it was greeted by 15,000 townspeople. Unfortunately, a fierce hurricane ripped through the Keys in 1935; an 18-foot tidal wave and 200-mile-per-hour winds washed out the embankment and mangled tracks, but the bridges and trestles stood. In 1938, the federal government took over the route and built the Overseas Highway. Route 1 is the main (and often only) road on the narrow strips of land that are the various keys. Mile-marker signs, which start from zero in Key West, are used as locators for addresses along the highway.

The marvelous Seven Mile Bridge runs between mile markers 40 and 47. Until 1982, the bridge ran on the piers originally built for Flagler; those remains stand alongside the new bridge. In Marathon, the White Sands Inn (whitesandsinn.com) has rooms decorated with sunny primary colors and Caribbean-inspired fabrics.

An hour's drive north brings you to Key Largo, where a bungalow at the Coconut Bay Resort (coconutbaykeylargo.com) and a slice of, yes, key lime pie, more than live up to the hype.

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