Most visitors to Florida’s coasts plop down on the beach, soak up some sun and call it a day. And hey, there's nothing wrong with taking a load off.
If there’s a US state for that sort of relaxation, Florida is it. But if you’d rather get a little more adventurous, there are plenty of ways to spice up waterfront activities in the Sunshine State. Diving, windsurfing and epic paddles are all on the menu on both of Florida's coasts, from the choppy Atlantic to the relatively serene Gulf of Mexico.
Diving at Biscayne National Park
The thing about Biscayne National Park, located near Florida's southern tip on the Atlantic Coast, is that you can drive to it and not know you’re there. Sure, there’s the Dante Fascell Visitor Center and a parking lot, but the national park itself? All you can see is water. But that's exactly the point. Biscayne National Park is 95% underwater, meaning you need to get out on a boat – or beneath one – to truly appreciate what this place is all about.
The most unique activity at Biscayne National Park is the Maritime Heritage Trail, a diving trail that connects six famous shipwrecks, all marked with mooring buoys. Park staff can provide brochures with detailed descriptions and plans of each wreck, but you need a boat to get there (and pretty much anywhere else in the park). The National Park Service keeps a list of authorized outfitters that can help you access Biscayne. Note that some wrecks are for divers, but a few, especially the Mandalay, can be appreciated by snorkelers.
There are two islands off the mainland, Boca Chita and Elliott Key, where visitors can camp. Beyond the appeal of waking up on a subtropical island, there’s excellent snorkeling to be had among the mangroves (trees and shrubs that grow in brackish and saline water).
Introducing Florida's national parks
Snorkeling at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park
John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park in Key Largo is the largest reef in the continental USA. As with Biscayne National Park, the real draw at this state park isn’t the land (170 dry acres): it’s the water (48,000 wet acres). But there is plenty to do in the "dry" section of the park, including a mangrove trail and a visitor center with a small aquarium.
Kayaking and stand-up paddleboarding are popular around Key Largo, which, like the other Florida Keys, is a coral cay cut through with countless channels. If you want to get under the water, John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park does not disappoint. There are tons of snorkeling and scuba diving adventures to be had, as well as a glass-bottom boat tour. Contact the state park for information about local tour operators, which can easily be found in Key Largo proper.
14 best places to visit in Florida
Windsurfing at Key Biscayne
Just offshore from Miami (and not to be confused with Biscayne National Park), Key Biscayne is an island with a small-town, residential feel just minutes from the frenetic pulse of south Florida. For all the tranquility to be had on Key Biscayne, the road that connects the island to the mainland, the Rickenbacker Causeway, is subject to high winds, and it's the jumping off point for some truly legendary windsurfing. If you’re looking to rent equipment, head to Hobie Beach, otherwise known as Windsurfer Beach.
Sailing the Panhandle and Florida's "Forgotten Coast"
The Florida Panhandle, and particularly the "Forgotten Coast," which encompasses Gulf, Franklin and Wakulla counties, is an off-the-beaten path place largely ignored by tourists. Out in these stretches you’ll find miles of windswept, sugary beaches and strands of piney woods. While you can find a ton of beach rentals and condos, this coastline is one of the less developed parts of the state. You can indulge a real feeling of discovery and adventure by sailing between some of the more beautiful spots on the Forgotten Coast, including severely beautiful T.H. Stone Memorial St. Joseph Peninsula State Park, St. George Island State Park and Grayton Beach State Park, located farther west in the more developed South Walton/30A section of the state.
The best time to go to Florida
Paddling at Ten Thousand Islands
Most people hear "Everglades" and think "swamps and alligators," but the western edge of the park is taken up by the Ten Thousand Islands, a fringe of coral cays and mangrove islands off of Florida’s southern Gulf Coast. In the quiet, so-laid-back-it’s-comatose town of Everglades City, find the Gulf Coast Visitor Center for Everglades National Park. Rangers can give you tips on outfitters and travel advice for paddling Ten Thousand Islands. If you want a truly epic adventure, head out on one of the world’s great kayaking trips and paddle the Wilderness Waterway: a 99-mile aquatic trek from Everglades City down the Gulf Coast to the Flaming Marina at the southern (mainland) tip of the state. Along the way you can camp in chickees (raised platforms on the water), say good morning to dancing dolphins and watch sunsets that will sear themselves into your memory forever.
This article was originally published in May 2018.
You might also like:
First-time Florida Keys: island hopping along the Overseas Highway
Florida's 7 best natural springs for year-round adventure
Orlando North is Florida's capital for offbeat eco adventures