Most visitors to Florida’s coasts plop down on the beach, soak up some sun, and call it a day. And hey – nothing wrong with taking a load off. If there’s a state for that sort of relaxation, Florida is basically it. But if you’re keen to get a little more adventurous, there are plenty of ways to spice up Sunshine State waterfront activities. Diving, windsurfing, and epic paddles are all on the menu on both of the state’s coasts, from the choppy Atlantic to the relatively serene Gulf.
Diving and snorkeling in Biscayne National Park
The thing about Biscayne National Park, located near the southern tip of the state on the Atlantic Coast, is you can drive right there and not know you’re, well, there. Sure, there’s the Dante Fascell visitor center and a parking lot, but the park itself? All you can see is water...which is kind of the point. Biscayne National Park is a full 95 percent 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 this park is the Maritime Heritage Trail. This is 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 do need a boat to get out here (and pretty much anywhere else in the park). Check out this list of outfits 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 of 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).
Snorkeling in Key Largo © Image Source / Getty
John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park
If you have a thing for coral reefs, John Pennekamp State Park in Key Largo is the largest reef in the continental US. As with Biscayne National Park, the real draw here isn’t the land (170 dry acres), it’s the water (48,000 wet acres).
There’s a fair bit to do in the ‘dry’ section of this park, including a mangrove trail and a visitor center complete with a small aquarium. Kayaking and SUP are also popular around Key Largo, which, like the other Florida Keys, is a coral cay cut through with countless channels. If you want to get on or under the water, Pennekamp does not disappoint. There are tons of snorkeling and SCUBA adventures here, as well as a popular glass bottom boat tour. Contact the park for information on local concessions, which can easily be found in Key Largo proper.
Windsurfing in Florida © Robert Young / Getty
Windsurfing at Key Biscayne
Located 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 is 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 the Forgotten Coast
Most of the activities we list here are based in South Florida, but there’s adventure to be had in the northern half of the state as well. 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 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 St. Joseph Peninsula State Park, nearby St. George Island State Park, and Grayton Beach State Park, located further west in the more developed South Walton/30A section of the state.
Canoes awaiting an adventure in 10,000 Islands © Boogich / Getty
Paddling 10,000 Islands
Most people hear ‘Everglades’ and think ‘swamps and alligators,’ but the western edge of the park is taken up by the 10,000 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 concessions and travel advice for paddling the 10,000 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.