When you think of Florida, chances are you think of beaches packed with sunbathers and tourist-filled amusement parks. But the Sunshine State has a laid-back side if you know where to look. From deserted beaches to sites of historic significance, there are many unknown places to be discovered. Some are strange and intriguing, others are breathtaking and wondrous. These are not your typical tourist stops. They’re a little off the beaten path. So, if you’re up for an adventure, you may very well want to seek these places out. We’ve compiled the top 10 secret destinations in Florida.
1) Christ of the Abyss, Key Largo
To see the first stop on our list, you’ll have to make a splash! It’s located underwater, deep down in the Florida Keys. Christ of the Abyss is an 8-foot tall bronze statue of Jesus Christ that was sunk off the coast of Key Largo in 1965. Since then, the statue and the reef surrounding it have become home to numerous species of colorful coral, fish and other sea life. A short boat ride will take you out to the site of the statue, which can be viewed while snorkeling or SCUBA diving. You’ll be awed at the aquatic world that lies beneath the surface.
2) Coral Castle, Homestead
This curious coral structure was erected by one man, Edward Leedskalnin, between 1923 and 1951. For years, under cover of nightfall, Leedskalnin secretly carved and transported more than 1,100 tons of coral rock he used to build his own personal castle. With no help from modern construction equipment, to this day no one’s quite sure how he did it. Leedskalnin used to invite visitors to the site, telling them he harnessed the same power used to build the pyramids in Egypt. Some even believe he had supernatural powers, or that some otherworldly force was involved in building the coral castle! Today the site is a public museum, open every day for tours beginning at 8 a.m. Maybe you’ll be able to figure out how one man single-handedly built the coral castle over the course of nearly 30 years.
3) Ponce de Leon Park, Punta Gorda
Juan Ponce de Leon was a Spanish explorer and conquistador who led the first European expedition to Florida. It was at this site that he and his fleet came ashore in 1513. Today, the park consists of raised boardwalks looping through untouched mangroves and opening onto Charlotte Harbor, where you can catch dramatic sunsets in the evenings. During the day, visit the on-site bird rehabilitation center to get an up-close-and-personal look at some wild birds of prey.
4) Santa Rosa Island
If you think all of Florida’s beaches are filled with people, think again. Santa Rosa Island is a largely deserted 40-mile barrier island along Florida’s panhandle where it’s not uncommon to have an entire stretch of beach entirely to yourself. Part of the island is completely protected from development as part of the Gulf Islands National Seashore. Santa Rosa Island is the perfect destination for kayaking, snorkeling, light surfing and, most of all, tranquil relaxation. Getting here is a bit of a drive from the nearest city, Pensacola, but the wide open swaths of white sugar sand make it well worth the trek.
5) Devil’s Millhopper
Located at the heart of the Geological Park by the same name, Devil’s Millhopper is a 120 foot limestone sinkhole opening deep into the earth. Visitors can climb down the 200 steps to the sinkhole’s bottom, which looks more like a tropical rainforest than the characteristic sandy beaches Florida is known for. Researchers have learned a lot about the state’s geological history by studying the fossils, shells and shark teeth found in the cavernous bowl. After checking out the sinkhole, hike several miles of nature trails in the surrounding Geological Park, or take your bike for a spin along the adjacent Millhopper Road.
6) Blowing Rocks Preserve, Hobe Sound
Named for its rocky shoreline and intense sea breaks, Blowing Rocks Preserve looks more like the West Coast beaches than something you’d find on the Atlantic. The preserve is a peaceful sanctuary that has set the standard for conservation and habitat restoration projects nationwide. Here you’ll spy lazy sea turtles sunning themselves on the beach, birds like the brown pelican diving to make a catch, and fiddler crabs skittering across the sand. Be sure to bring your camera; it’s not uncommon to see 50-foot plumes of saltwater shooting into the sky as the waves crash against the jagged rocks.
7) Weeki Wachee Springs
Call it enchanting, call it bizarre—Weeki Wachee Springs, Florida is certainly a sight to see. Home to dozens of “mermaids” that swim and perform in the clear blue water, Weeki Wachee is a favorite family destination from a simpler time. The site first opened in 1947, when a man named Newton Perry trained pretty girls in bathing suits to perform underwater ballet while breathing from air hoses hidden in the scenery. The mermaids have been captivating visitors ever since. Now, guests view the show in a 500-seat underwater theater embedded 16 feet below the water’s surface. After enjoying the performance, stroll through the park to get a fascinating glimpse back through time at the Florida of days gone by.
8) Cabbage Key Bar, Cabbage Key
This watering hole is one in a million—dollars, that is. Thousands and thousands of dollar bills line the Cabbage Key Bar’s walls, pinned up by patrons through the years. The bar and the tiny island it sits on are accessible only by boat from Pine Island Sound off Florida’s Gulf Coast. No cars, no paved roads—only dirt pathways link the Cabbage Key Inn with a few small cottages that dot the island, surrounded by about 100 acres of natural vegetation. To get here, pilot a boat or take a water taxi from nearby Pine Island, Captiva Island or Boca Grande.
9) Ginnie Springs, High Springs
Situated deep in the heart of Florida along the High Springs, Ginnie Springs is a network of clear, cool blue waterways that wind lazily from pool to pool under a green canopy above. Active visitors can kayak or canoe downstream, while those who prefer to take it easy can lounge in an inner tube and let the river do the work. The park is home to an extensive underwater cave system, which divers can explore with SCUBA gear and proper certification. You can visit in the winter if you don’t mind a chilly dip, but we recommend hitting the Springs in the summer months for a refreshing break from the intense Florida heat.
10) Square Grouper, Jupiter
Don’t tell the locals we sent you! This hidden waterfront gem sits directly on Jupiter Inlet, which opens to the Atlantic Ocean. Flip flops and tank tops are the dress code of choice at this open-air bar, suitable for sipping cold brews while you watch the sailboats pass and enjoy the view of the adjacent Jupiter Lighthouse. Square Grouper has a pretty big claim to fame; it’s the filming site of the music video for Alan Jackson’s ‘It’s Five O’clock Somewhere’ featuring Jimmy Buffett, and it’s not hard to see why. What’s a square grouper, you ask? It’s a nickname that was given to bales of marijuana that were thrown overboard by smugglers near Miami back in the 60’s and 70’s.