11 Major Mistakes to Avoid on a Florida Vacation, According to a Longtime Floridian
If there's any state whose reputation precedes it, perhaps it's Florida. And while you might think you know our beaches, theme parks and all the family fun that awaits around every corner here, there's always another surprise in store in this state known for outdoor adventures, watery escapades and cool little beach towns you can enjoy all year long.
As a longtime Floridian, I'm here to tell you, too, that you might not know the Sunshine State as well as you think. Do you know why we keep our lights out on the beach for several months of the year? Or where to go to paddle a kayak through a lagoon that glows blue in the night? And have you tried our sustainable crustacean that's tastiest plunged into creamy mustard sauce?
Read on for Florida vacation mistakes to avoid on your next Florida vacation–they come with some ideas, too, for places to go and cool activities you probably didn't even know you could get up to here.
Bypassing the Border Towns
Travelers driving down I-95 to Florida from the north are often so focused on getting to South Florida and the theme parks in Orlando that they bypass one of the state's prettiest stretches in North Florida, just south of the Georgia border.
Pedal a bike along the miles of oak-lined pathways in Amelia Island, camp behind the dunes on an undeveloped barrier island at Little Talbot Island State Park, and soak up the surf culture and quintessential Florida beach town vibes in Atlantic Beach, the most quaint of the Jacksonville Beaches. North Florida is most definitely worth the detour.
Thinking the Best Food in Orlando is at the Theme Parks
There's theme park Orlando, then there's the actual city itself, some 15 miles north. Here, neighborhoods like Thornton Park, Winter Park, College Park and the Mills 50 district, known for its abundant Asian fare, are just a few of the destinations for eating exceedingly well in this city of diverse culinary influences ranging from Laotian and Indian to Ethiopian and Moroccan.
MICHELIN Guide Florida recently awarded several Orlando restaurants their first Michelin stars, among them Japanese omakase spot Soseki and seafood and steak hot spot, Knife & Spoon. But you can eat just as well at other Orlando favorites, too, like gastropub The Ravenous Pig and Prato, which specializes in Italian wood-fired fare.
Not Turning Off the Lights for Sea Turtles
In Florida, we love our sea turtles. And nesting season for green, loggerhead, and leatherback sea turtles runs from March through October. In season, you can head out on guided sea turtle nesting night walks in Brevard, Martin, and Palm Beach Counties—you might even get lucky enough to see fresh-from-their-shells hatchlings hurrying toward the ocean on your morning beach walk.
If you're staying on the beach during this time, it's imperative to make sure your outdoor lights are kept off after dark and your curtains drawn tight. Lights from inside can disorient mama sea turtles into thinking they're the moonlight, leading them astray from their important breeding business.
Planning to Zip Between Orlando and Tampa
It's a straight shot southwest from Orlando on Interstate-4 to reach Tampa, where theme park travelers often have a visit to Busch Gardens Tampa Bay on their hit list. But anyone who regularly travels between the two cities will tell you this is one of the most dreaded highways in the state due to perpetual traffic around the theme parks, ongoing road construction, and accidents that seem to pop up like poppies.
The drive of just 85 miles can–and regularly does–take two hours or longer. So be sure to plan accordingly if you're hoping to get to either of the two cities on time for whatever you have planned. Bring patience in spades, and considering breaking up the trip with a strawberry milkshake at Parkesdale Market in Plant City, the state's strawberry capital.
Overlooking the Interior
With 1,350 miles of coastline, Florida makes a strong case for people who love the beach–everywhere from the powdery sands of the Panhandle to the coral cays of the Florida Keys. But there's tons to see inland here, too.
In the surprisingly hilly town of Ocala, a global hot bed for breeding thoroughbreds and Arabian horses just north of Orlando, you can stay at The Equestrian Hotel and watch weekend jumping competitions at a huge arena overlooked by the rooms.
Come to Central Florida to dip or float down a tube run in the state's many spectacular freshwater springs at spots like Rainbow Springs State Park and Itchetuckneee Springs State Park, too. There's no ocean or Gulf of Mexico here, but plenty of other ways to keep cool and entertained.
Missing our Bioluminescence
Newsflash: You don't need to travel to Vieques in Puerto Rico or other well known spots around the Caribbean to see a bioluminescent bay. The phenomenon exists right here in Florida. During the summer months in the Indian River Lagoon, near Titusville on Florida's east coast, the presence of single-celled organisms called dinoflagellates in the waters causes them to glow blueish when you paddle a kayak during after-dark tours with A Day Away Kayak Tours. It's nothing short of magical, as streaking mullets look like underwater rockets in the bioluminescent waters that shimmer with sparkles all around you.
Forgetting You Can Snorkel and Scuba Dive Beyond the Florida Keys
The island chain stretching south of Miami all the way to Key West has excellent snorkeling and diving along the only living coral barrier reef in the continental United States. But visitors often miss the many other spots to scuba dive and snorkel beyond the reefs of the Florida Keys–many with underwater sights that are just as beautiful, too.
In West Palm Beach at Phil Foster Park (sometimes called the Blue Heron Bridge), there's an underwater snorkeling trail in the Intracoastal River where you might spot octopus, flying gurnards, spade fish ,and other oddities in crystal clear waters. And scuba divers rave about the wrecks and reefs off of Jupiter Inlet, where enormous grouper aggregate by the scores in August and September to spawn. Florida's inland springs draw experienced cave divers to explore miles of watery subterranean passages known for being one of the best places in the world to pursue this extreme sport.
Forgetting Hurricane Season
Florida's official hurricane season runs from June to the end of November. And while I'm not saying you shouldn't visit during this time–after all, we live here year round and manage the weather ups and downs just fine–you should probably be aware that vacation chaos might ensue.
Luckily, hurricanes give plenty of time to anticipate them and get out of dodge. A good rule? Don't panic until the locals start looking harried. As soon as you see them going into buying over drive–clearing grocery store and home improvement store shelves–that's your queue to head back home until the storm has passed over.
Skipping Stone Crabs on the Menu
Grouper sandwiches and Key lime pie tend to steal the culinary spotlight in Florida. But seafood connoisseurs know to time their visits from October 15 to May 1, when stone crabs can be legally harvested and are served fresh at seafood restaurants (Joe's Stone Crab is the most famous) around the state.
The crustaceans are considered a sustainable and renewable seafood resource, since oftentimes only one claw is harvested at a time (the animal is then thrown back into the water to regenerate its missing limb). The juicy claw meat has a sweet, clean flavor and is usually served with a classic mustard dipping sauce.
Thinking You Can Wear Your Bathing Suit Everywhere
Sure, vacation rules apply most places in the Sunshine State, where flip flops pass for proper footwear most any day of the year. But if you wouldn't stroll into a store or restaurant in your bathing suit back home, why would you do it here?
It's as simple as throwing on a coverup or a t-shirt and you're good. And whatever you do, slather on the sunscreen–getting sunburned happens in a (very) hot minute here. They don't call it the Sunshine State for nothing.
Ignoring Tampa's Cuban Culture
Miami might be home to the country's largest Cuban diaspora and the most famous Cuban restaurant in the land, Versailles. But you can find lots of Cuban culture–not to mention great Cuban sandwiches at spots like Florida Bakery–north in Tampa, too. Head to the historic streets of Ybor City in downtown Tampa to see a famous statue of José Martí, one of the island's most important revolutionary leaders. And visit Columbia Drive in West Tampa, a shabby street with all kinds of Cuban treasures in the form of bakeries, sandwich shops and restaurants selling specialties like tamales and ropa vieja. Whatever you do, don't leave Tampa without picking up a loaf of fresh-from-the-oven Cuban bread, baked daily at the famous La Segunda Bakery.