Wildlife, Water Adventures & Wineries — Plan your ‘Staycation’ in South or Central Florida


By Craig Handel

Biscayne National Park

Biscayne National Park


Hurricane Ian combined with a potential recession and rising food and airplane costs has put a crimp on summer travel for some Southwest Florida residents. Fortunately, the region not only offers multiple things to do in Lee and Collier counties but also within a two- or three-hour drive.

No, we’re not talking about Disneyland, Universal Studios, Busch Gardens, Miami Beach and Key West. We’re talking about some gems in the St. Petersburg/Clearwater area, Miami-Dade, Pasco County, Charlotte County and Captiva-Sanibel islands.

But let’s start with a novel idea of using a week’s vacation to visit state and national parks.

Everglades National Park: Did you know there are three different ways to enter the park – Everglades City, Miami and Homestead, which is the main entrance? Once in, among the 1.5 million miles of wetlands, you’ll see a World Heritage Site, International Biosphere Reserve, a Wetland of International Importance and a specially protected area under the Cartagena Treaty. It’s also protected habitat for numerous rare and endangered species like the manatee and American crocodile.

Big Cypress National Preserve: Big Cypress swamp’s freshwaters are key to the health of the neighboring Everglades. Conserving over 729,000 acres of this vast swamp, Big Cypress National Preserve contains a mixture of tropical and temperate plant communities that are home to diverse wildlife, including the endangered Florida panther.

Biscayne National Park: Biscayne has a rare combination of aquamarine waters, emerald islands and fish-bejeweled coral reefs. Learn about its connection to prehistoric tribes, shipwrecks, pineapple farmers and even presidents. For many, the park is a boating, fishing and diving destination, while others enjoy a warm breeze and peaceful scenery.

Dry Tortugas National Park: If you’re willing to make a five-hour trip by land and water, it’ll be worth your time. This 100-square mile park is mostly open water with seven small islands.  Accessible only by boat or seaplane, the park is the home of magnificent Fort Jefferson, picturesque blue waters, superlative coral reefs and marine and bird life.

State Parks: On a smaller scale, Gasparilla State Island Park in Boca Grande and Myakka River State Park in Sarasota have their charms. Swimming, snorkeling, fishing and nature study are popular at Gasparilla Park. If the water is deep enough, boating, fishing, canoeing and kayaking are popular activities on the water at Myakka; hikers and bicyclists can explore miles of trails and backroads.



Hurricane Ian caused millions of dollars in destruction after tearing through this picturesque area. On Sanibel Island, Bowman’s Beach Park didn’t suffer the damages of other island beaches. Other beach areas may be open for shelling. A fun option is taking either a dolphin or sunset cruise.

Many local businesses have reopened, including Cantina Captiva and RC Otters. Captiva Island Inn, owned by Sandy Stilwell Younquist, includes two cottages. Stilwell said Mucky Duck, Tween Waters Resort and The Shipyard also are open. People interested in renting cottages and or exquisite large homes should do so through Royal Shell, American Realty and San Cap Vacation Rentals.


SKYDIVE CITY Zephyrhills Pasco County

SKYDIVE CITY Zephyrhills Pasco County

Pasco County — Florida’s Sports Coast

Adventurers may like the many attractions of Pasco County.

Sky Dive City: If you don’t want to fly out of state, why not fly (and fall) in state? Sky Dive City in Zephyrhills offers the chance to jump out of a plane. Experienced instructors who have collectively completed more than 1,000 jumps are there to help you feel like a bird – sort of.

Treehoppers Aerial Adventure Park: Staying with the in-the-air theme, Treehoppers Aerial Adventure Park in Dade City offers ziplines as well as 10 different, color-coded obstacle courses that children and adults can walk through. The park is set in a forest, and there’s a safety and equipment orientation before your climb.

Giraffe Ranch: Families have the option of driving their own cars, taking a safari drive in a custom vehicle or a Segway tour in this Dade City wildlife park and farm. There also are chances to see camels, otters and lemurs.

Lift Adventure Park: For water adventures, Lift Adventure Park in Hudson offers wakeboarding, an inflatable playground with Union Aqua Park and a floating jungle ropes course called Aqua Chimp. Kayaks and paddleboards also are available.

Scalloping season: Running from July 1 through Aug. 6, groups leave from a Newport Richey fishing dock. Guides take guests out at low tide when they can get their scallops in four-to-five feet of water. Each boat is allowed to catch and keep 10 gallons. The scallops can then be taken to Gildawgs Tiki Bar & Grill, where the staff will cook your catch!


Charlotte County

Gilded Grape Winery & Wine Bar: For nearly 15 years, Gilded Grape Winery & Wine Bar on Tamiami Trail in Charlotte Harbor has been making, manufacturing and serving some of the finest wines in Florida. Not only will you learn about wine and the fermenting process, but you can make your own wine over the course of six-to-eight weeks. Also check for weekly events.

Fishermen’s Village: An idyllic, waterfront spot with restaurants, resorts shops and a marina. Daytime activities include a harbor tour and boat, kayak or paddleboard rentals. In the evening, there’s seven eating spots to choose from. 

Fishermen's Village - Charlotte County

Fishermen’s Village – Charlotte County

Peace River Wildlife Center: Located in Punta Gorda, this nonprofit wildlife rescue, rehabilitation and education center is tucked neatly into the mangroves.

Peace River Botanical and Sculpture Garden: This 30-acre waterfront oasis encompasses the diversity of five ecosystems including marshlands, wetlands, mangroves, uplands and tidal basin. Flowering trees and plants bloom throughout the year. There’s more than 15,000 square feet of boardwalks and docks.

Military Heritage Museum: With a 17,000-square-foot facility and 20,000 artifacts, this museum in Punta Gorda is quite extensive. There also are veteran museum guides, flight simulators, graphics, live performances and audiovisual displays.

Historical Mural Walking Tour: There are 31 murals throughout Punta Gorda depicting a significant location or event. If you look hard enough, there are objects hidden in some of the murals.


St. Petersburg/Clearwater

The Sound: This brand new venue in Clearwater is a 19-acre renovated area which includes 4,000 covered seats plus an additional 5,000 lawn seats for outdoor, waterfront concerts. Initial acts include Cheap Trick, Goo Goo Dolls and John Fogarty in the first month.

St. Pete Pier: Opened in 2020 and spread over 26 acres, this venue is great for families as well as couples. There’s ample space to stroll, bike, dine, drink, shop, swim, take in a concert and more.

Tierra Verde: If your dog is joining the trip, Fort DeSoto Park is perfect. There’s a dog beach along with waterfront campgrounds and miles of pedestrian and kayak trails. It’s also where you can catch a ferry to undeveloped Egmont Key for a day of snorkeling, tortoise-spotting and bird-watching.

Salvador Dali Museum (Courtesy of Visit StPeteClearwater.com)

Salvador Dali Museum (Courtesy of Visit StPeteClearwater.com)

Salvador Dali Museum: This St. Petersburg museum has an eclectic selection along with new exhibitions. Dali’s works vary from iconic melting clocks to imaginative visual illusions and avant-garde symbols.

Sunken Gardens: Now 100 years old, this botanical garden has thousands of plant species, tropical plants and flowers with lush demonstration gardens, cascading waterfalls and a flock of flamingos. It’s also a great wedding venue.

Captain Memo’s Pirate Cruise: Aye mates, these two-hour cruises include complimentary lemonade, punch, beer and wine, water gun battles, treasure hunts, face-painting, pirate stories, fire-the-cannon and Captain Memo’s Dance Party.

Wineries: Murielle and Aspirations are Clearwater wineries that offer free tastings, tours and other offerings such as Swamp Juice. There’s also a build-your-own charcuterie board.



Miami offers several destinations that are good for families.

Miami Seaquarium: One of the oldest marine parks in the United States, it is an oceanarium that hosts world-class exhibits for penguins, whales, manatees, rays, sea turtles and more. Riding dolphins also is possible.

Jai-Alai: Called by some the fastest sport in the world, Miami Jai-Alai is played in front of 6,500 fans. Wagering is available.

Frost Science Museum, Aquarium & Planetarium: This is one of the only institutions worldwide boasting both a state-of-the-art planetarium and cutting-edge aquarium. The 250,000-square-foot facility sits on four acres overlooking Biscayne Bay.

Penguin Isle Exhibit, Miami Seaquarium

Penguin Isle Exhibit, Miami Seaquarium

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.