East coast of Florida in mid-March?
February 21, 2018 7:03 AM   Subscribe

Expanding on this question , we decided to head down to Florida in mid-March. We'll be flying into Jacksonville, renting a car, and driving South. What can we see and what should we avoid?

Jacksonville is cheap and easy to fly into but we don't plan on staying there, other than to maybe have lunch with some friends. We'll be getting a car and driving down the East coast. We're there from Saturday until Saturday and we don't mind driving several hours in a day.

Unfortunately this is also Spring Break. We'd like to avoid partying frat boys if we can. Is this even still a thing? Where should we avoid?

We already plan to check out the Space Center on the way South.

Things we want:
  • Beaches. Lovely, sandy, not-too-crowded beaches.
  • Outdoorsy places to walk or maybe kayak.
  • Wildlife.
  • We'd like to get to the Everglades. AIRBOAT RIDE! Where's a good place to ride an airboat? AIRBOAT! WOOHOO!
  • Good food. Anything from amazing gourmet meals to hole-in-the wall barbecue shacks.
  • My wife wants to take surfing lessons. Where can she do that?
  • Is parasailing a thing still? Is it worth it? Where can we do it?
  • We're not really interested in Disney but if there's another theme park on the East coast that's worth checking out, let us know.
  • Anything at all interesting, but not "interesting because it's super-tacky."
Someone in my other thread mentioned Bimini. That sounds interesting but only if we can do it easily without spending too much money. A quick, cheap flight or a ferry ride and an overnight on the island might work.

Ideally we'd like to drive as far as the Everglades and/or the Keys, if possible.

We don't yet know where we'll be staying and for how long so any suggestions for cool hotels would be helpful. Either in cities (Miami?) or wherever.
posted by bondcliff to Travel & Transportation around Florida (19 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Check out the St. Augustine Wild Reserve (www.staugustinewildreserve.org)
a rescue center for big cats. Only has tours Monday, Wednesday & Saturday at 2:00 p. I believe. Well worth it
posted by Pressed Rat at 7:17 AM on February 21, 2018


Weirdly, I haven’t been to as many of the Florida beaches as I should have. I will say that Cocoa Beach is pretty nice, but I was there on spring break. It’s a better beach than Key West, where you need shoes. You might check out Daytona while you’re still on the north side.

Go to the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral. Also, go to a spring training baseball game.

Spring Break for the University of Florida (Gainesville) is March 3-10. Florida State (Tallahassee) and Central Florida (Orlando) are the next week.

Finally: Florida is a really really long state. Jacksonville to Miami farther than Boston to Philadelphia.
posted by Huffy Puffy at 7:39 AM on February 21, 2018

There's a lot to do here in St. Augustine, and it'll be right on your path. I've written a bit about your options here in the past, but to the specific points on your list:

- St. Augustine's beaches are some of the best on the East Coast, and basically never crowded. I can recommend specific stretches of beach depending on what you're interested in (surfing, surf fishing, seashell/shark tooth collecting, etc.).
- We've got tons of state parks and the like in the area. See previous thread for suggestions, but I'd also add Paynes Prairie (they have real bison there!) to that list, and reemphasize how cool and unique the springs are and how much everyone should check them out.
- Tied in to the previous two questions, our beaches are full of fish and dolphins, and our state parks are full of deer and snakes and turkeys and eagles and gopher tortoises and the occasional bobcat or bear. Also, the Alligator Farm in town is part of the Florida Birding Trail, with amazing nesting sites for all manner of wading birds.
- Everglades is the Everglades, we can't compete, but there are plenty of fanboat opportunities here too, including a place about 20 minutes west of town on Trout Creek that leads fanboat tours out on the St. Johns River. Gators aplenty.
- St. Augustine has a few great restaurants, most notably The Floridian, which deservedly gets written up in listicles from time to time.
- We've got surfing lessons, but you may be better off somewhere with more consistent surf, like Melbourne.
- We've got parasailing! They run boats through the inlet and bayfront, sometimes all the way out to the beach.
- Nah. Just go to KSC like you're already planning.
- See my previous list, I guess?

I (clearly) live here and would be happy to answer any specific questions you've got about the area. Email's in my profile. Have fun!
posted by saladin at 7:40 AM on February 21, 2018 [1 favorite]

I grew up in Vero Beach and you won't find much spring breakers there and our South Beach is really just lovely.

For nature, I love Sebastian Inlet and the Environmental Learning Center. There are also a number of great new parks to walk if you are in the area. I really love the Florida Hikes site.
posted by advicepig at 8:14 AM on February 21, 2018

Strong recommend for the springs in the Ocala National Park + Blue Springs
posted by JPD at 8:36 AM on February 21, 2018

Do visit the beaches, generally speaking. Don't visit the beaches in the Palm Beach area (including north and south a ways along the coast), because agricultural run-off from Okeechobee has playing merry hell with the bacteria levels for the past couple of years. It might be fine when you go! But it might not! I wouldn't risk it.

Avoid: Busch Wildlife Sanctuary, which is an unethical shithole.

Don't Avoid: Gumbo Limbo Nature Center in Boca Raton, which has a lovely little boardwalk trail going on in the middle of a preserve. (There's something similar-but-larger further south in Ft. Lauderdale called the Ann Kolb Nature Center, but I can't vouch for it from personal experience.)
posted by tobascodagama at 8:43 AM on February 21, 2018

I love the Keys, but they are a long way down (on one road no less) so it would be best to allow for traffic. If you do go down that far, you might want to consider the Middle Keys, which are quieter than Key West and will give you more of the beachy feel you're looking for. Key West is not really beachy at all in the way we commonly think of huge sandy beaches for laying out. Islamorada is lovely and though I haven't been since the hurricane, I've heard many places have recovered well and are back in action.
posted by superfluousm at 8:59 AM on February 21, 2018 [1 favorite]

If you've got time, Butterfly World near Fort Lauderdale is really neat.
posted by wierdo at 9:11 AM on February 21, 2018 [1 favorite]

Just came back from South Florida myself. Alas, spring break and drunken idiots still a thing. Parasailing is wonderful but so weather/wind contingent so hard to plan on. From other trips:

St. Augustine:
walk around old town to stretch your legs if you don't make this an over night. The castle, Flagler museums. We didn't climb the ligthhouse as it was too hot, but the grounds were amazing. We spent two days here and could have done more. I loved the Fountain of Youth in all its kitsch, especially if you're of the age to have read Tuck Everlasting. Also, Saladin's list which I think I used for my trip.

Space Coast:
Space Center was surprisingly worth it. I liked it more than Houston. If you're into manatees and turtles, this was a fun, quick stop. Cocoa Beach pier for dinner/ice cream.

Melbourne/Vero Beach: spring training

West Palm: The Breakers for lunch

Fort Lauderdale: my home away from home. Delray for a fun, walkable downtown. Also Las Olas and the Riverwalk in Lauderdalr proper. I've parasailed here often. Easy to get to Everglades from here as well
posted by TravellingCari at 10:03 AM on February 21, 2018 [1 favorite]

+1 on St. Augustine and Ocala. Also Silver Springs in Ocala.

Do a B&B in St Agustine if you can; really nice to stay in the old town area.

Along the coast, stay on A1A as much as you can. Yes, they'll be some traffice but you'll see a ton more than either US-1 or I-95.

Also if you're doing any mid-state travel, check out Winter Park.

Enjoy the trip, you're in the `lower bug count` season... LOL

posted by sandpine at 10:18 AM on February 21, 2018 [3 favorites]

If I were flying in to JAX, I'd drive immediately to the ocean and have a drink and some fried shrimp at Lemon Bar in Neptune Beach, and maybe get some lumpia and BBQ sticks across the street. But that's just me. (I want some shrimp and some rum, you see.)

You can take A1A all the way to St. Augustine, and then to Daytona, but then you'll have to divert inland to Hwy 1. New Symrna is an optional stop.

Merritt Island Wildlife Refuge has a nice driving loop where you can see lots of birds.

You can do an airboat ride at Lone Cabbage Fish Camp, about 30 minutes west of Cocoa Beach toward Orlando. Bonus: Bovines. If you visit Cocoa Beach and stay somewhere south of Minuteman Causeway you can avoid most of the spring breakers, but the crowds aren't nearly as bad as some other places in FL.

You can definitely learn to surf, kayak, and paraglide all in Cocoa Beach. I've kayaked in the Banana River with Wild Life Watersports across from Ron Jon's, who does surfing lessons or can just rent you a board. (Also: You might see a rocket launch.)

The drive to Miami from there is not really great, because it's mostly I-95 and the Turnpike unless you want to get caught up in city traffic. The Keys are cool, but that's maybe best saved for another trip unless you want to fly out of Miami or Key West. (Also, spring breakers.)
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 1:56 PM on February 21, 2018

St. Augustine is pretty great; equal parts touristy and historic, and even the touristy bits are heavy on the old, old Spanish/pirate history. Highlights for me were the St. Augustine Pirate and Treasure Museum, Wolf's Museum of Mystery (warning: autoplay music entirely befitting the establishment), and St. Augustine Textiles. We had a really good meal at Catch 27, and excellent expensive artisinal ice pops at The Hyppo. The Corazon Cinema and Café is a nice funky little indie cinema should you need to kill a couple hours one evening.
posted by Funeral march of an old jawbone at 3:01 PM on February 21, 2018 [1 favorite]

If you get to the Keys, and like bbq, be sure to go to Porky's, it's about as old-school Keys as you get. And if you like birds, go to the Laura Quinn Bird Sanctuary, it's lovely
posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 4:16 PM on February 21, 2018

Totally second the Kennedy Space Center. If you can arrange to spend a day there, do it. And take the tour to go look at the launch pad and the big NASA building that you always see in movies. There is *so* much to look at that you could spend 8 straight hours at a walking pace and still not see it all. It’s just so fucking cool.
posted by Autumnheart at 5:16 PM on February 21, 2018 [1 favorite]

Kennedy was definitely worth the visit.

Everglades: Take a hike at Shark Valley! And go to the Clive Butcher Museum if you like large format black and white photography. This takes you away from the coast, but my family and friends from out of town really loved both.

Butterfly World in Broward County is a nice lowkey downtime (I'm a member). Lots of tropical foliage, piped in classical music, and drifty butterflies.

YES to Gumbo Limbo, mentioned above. I love Anne Kolb, too, but I'm biased: I used to help with kayaking classes there, and kayaked there almost weekly to enjoy the mangroves.

My favorite Broward County beach is the former John U LLoyd Beach State Park, because it is largely undeveloped. Drive until you find a less occupied parking lot; be sure to pack in your food and drinks. Go early, because they observe their max capacity closely. Wow! A beach without hotels looming? Yes, indeed.
posted by Nancy_LockIsLit_Palmer at 5:28 PM on February 21, 2018

As someone who grew up along the Indian River across from the Space Center, I can attest that yes, it is not to be missed if you have the least interest in space. What no one's mentioned yet though, is that the Canaveral National Seashore and Playalinda Beach are part of it. Two birds, one stone, as it were, though Titusville itself has little of interest to offer outside of access to both.

The biggest bonus to Playalinda Beach is the pristine nature of it, with the only sign of modern man being the launch gantries and VAB to the South. Otherwise it's unmarred nature, and the contrast between the two is just marvelous.

It's been ages since I lived down there though, so I'm not much use for things more ephemeral than major parks.
posted by los pantalones del muerte at 2:03 AM on February 22, 2018 [1 favorite]

Seconding the rec for Playalinda Beach. It is beautiful, and during the week almost completely deserted. If you're trying to avoid spring breakers, avoid Daytona like the plague. New Smyrna Beach is a more low-key alternative, or at least it was several years ago.

Further south, Flamingo Gardens near Fort Lauderdale would be a great stop--lots of beautiful plants, interesting animals (only rescued/injured animals, they're not a zoo), a flock of free-roaming peacocks and peahens.
posted by Owlcat at 11:03 AM on February 24, 2018

Thanks everyone. We just returned from a great week in Florida. We flew into JAX and worked our way South, staying two nights each in St. Augustine, Cocoa Beach, and Parkland.

St. Augustine was amazing. I want to go back and just walk around the town. We didn't see too much, just the fort and my wife and I walked around the old town on St. Patrick's Day evening, which was kind of weird since I'm from Boston and it basically looked the same only with palm trees and maybe fewer fights. Lots of drunk white people though, very few of whom looked Irish. We ate well both nights and ate at a really great diner for breakfast one morning.

Using St. Augustine as a bass, we drove to Alexander Springs, where we snorkeled and watched some SCUBA divers and then paddled a canoe with the gators.

Cocoa beach itself was nice, but the town itself wasn't all that pretty. Plus, we had some weather to deal with. We were mostly there so we could go to Kennedy Space Center. It was my second time there, but the first time was 21 years ago and I didn't get to see a shuttle. This time I did, and I cried when the film ended and they revealed the actual Atlantis. The display was amazing, and combined with the Saturn V display (which I had seen previously) it's just a really amazing place. To see the actual space suit that Alan Shepard wore when he hit a couple golf balls on the moon is... well... kind of overwhelming for this space nerd.

The last place we stayed was Parkland, which we didn't really plan on but the AirBNB we liked just happened to be there. It was our base for a day trip to Shark Valley, down in the Everglades, which was absolutely amazing. We did a 15 mile bike ride where we could stop at any time and be within five feet of a Great Blue Heron or a seven foot alligator. I got some great photos. We also took an airboat ride (AIRBOAT!) in a native reservation, got to see their island camp, and watched our guide basically tickle an alligator and teach us a lot about those amazing creatures.

In Parkland we ate at a great ice cream parlor (Cherry Smash) and a pretty good, though new, Argentinian steakhouse. We drove by the high school on our way to the Everglades, which was kind of sobering.

Five hours back to an airport hotel in JAX, 7:00 AM flight this morning and we're home.

Thanks to everyone, especially those who recommended St. Augustine. I literally knew nothing at all about the place but it's probably the only thing in Florida I've ever said "I need to go back there" about.
posted by bondcliff at 2:29 PM on March 24, 2018 [2 favorites]

Oh yeah, we also went to Gumbo Limbo, where I got a great shot of a Pileated woodpecker, and then went to the beach right across from it (Red Reef?) which was really nice. We never really had good waves anywhere so surfing didn't happen.
posted by bondcliff at 3:08 PM on March 24, 2018

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