Beyond Florida’s Beaches: Take a Drive to Inland DestinationsNov 21, 2021 08:25PM ● By GINA BIRCH
Florida is famous for its miles and miles of coastline, home to some of the world’s most beautiful and popular beaches.
While the lion’s share of attention, from both tourists and locals, is on the shoreline, inland destinations full of charming towns and adventure are waiting to be discovered. Quite often the only drives taken inland involve traveling to the opposite coast or theme parks in Orlando.
Those drives rarely involve pulling over for anything other than refueling and relieving. Not only are the following spots worth a stop, but they are also destinations of their own.
On the route of travelers headed into Georgia and Alabama, the state capital and home to Florida State University is more than politics and college sports. It exudes southern charm and puts to bed the theory that all of Florida is flat. With rolling hills and miles of canopy drives, it also has an emerging arts and culinary scene. Divided into districts such as Collegetown, Market, Midtown, and Art, each area has something unique to offer from shopping and dining to history and culture. It’s also the first Florida stop on the Mississippi Blues Trail. Nicknamed “Trailahassee” for its hundreds of miles of hiking, running, and horseback riding trails, it’s a city that embraces outdoor enthusiasts. Numerous parks and lakes are open for exploration, whether it be for recreation or relaxation.
Flights are typically less than $200, but at press time, all connected through Atlanta. The drive via I-75 is approximately six hours.
Where to Stay
AC Hotel Tallahassee is a new property overlooking Capital City Amphitheater in Cascades Park, a popular downtown spot for concerts and events. Home to one of the city’s hottest new rooftop bars, Charlie Park, the hotel is also within walking distance to the capitol. marriott.com
Where to Eat
Il Lusso is a sophisticated Italian steakhouse downtown, with a big-city feel. The food looks and tastes exquisite, and the cocktails are true craft. illussotlh.com
The Edison is located in a former 1920’s-era power plant along Cascades Park. Serving regional fare, and bathed in light, it also pays homage to one of Southwest Florida’s most famous winter residents, Thomas Edison. edisontally.com
Table 23 is a southern vision, surrounded by a porch, under a canopy of moss-draped oak trees. Serving big portions with Southern flair, Sunday brunch is outstanding. table23tally.com
What to Do
Railroad Square Art District is a funky find in an old lumber yard. Its warehouses have been converted into an eclectic community of left-brain thinkers opening everything from galleries and vintage shops to pinball studios and video lounges. railroadsquare.com
Florida Historic Capitol Museum is part of the state’s original 1902 capitol building and is full of fascinating facts and memorabilia. Exit through the back into the current capitol building and take the express elevator to the 22nd floor for a panoramic view of the city. flhistoriccapitol.gov
Mountain bike the more than 700 miles of trails, one of which runs along Cascades Park. The biking community is an active one and can assist in rentals and guides through the Apalachicola National Forest and other spots. biketallahassee.com
A classic example of a town motorists breeze right through, along US 17 in DeSoto County, Arcadia is a little southern, a little western, and has a lot of history. You’ll still find real cowboys and rodeos here, as well as cattle ranches, citrus groves, and the annual Watermelon Festival. People drive from all over the state to explore the wealth of shops in the downtown antiques district. The arts community has embarked on a massive revitalization project bringing live performances back to the 1906 Heard Opera House. The city along the Peace River is popular for outdoor adventures and has several well-equipped spots for camping and RV enthusiasts. Myakka River State Park and Morgan Park are popular spots for walking and exploring.
About one hour from RSW, travel I-75 to Palm Beach Blvd. and pick up FL 31. Or stay on I-75 a little longer to the US 17 exit in Punta Gorda.
Where to Stay
Oak Park Inn Bed & Breakfast is housed in a 120-year-old building, one of only three downtown structures that survived the historic fire of 1902. Restored in 2019 and keeping the original floors, each room has a different theme; one even has a bed shaped like a ship. oakparkinnarcadiaflorida.com
Where to Eat
Oak Street Deli is known for large sandwiches, including a noteworthy Cuban. Regulars also rave about the macaroni salad. m.facebook.com/OakStreetDeli/
Magnolia Street Seafood & Grill is a casual, old-school seafood restaurant serving fresh, mostly local fare. magnoliaseafood.com
Rosé Café serves breakfast and lunch classics with a modern twist. This is the place to splurge on baked goods. Made fresh daily, you’ll want to eat them in house and take a bag for later. rosecafeandbakery.com
What to Do
Canoe along the beautiful Peace River with Canoe Outpost. The organization claims to be Florida’s oldest and largest canoe outfitter. canoeoutpost.com
Airboat and swamp buggy tours are among the most sought-after activities found at Upriver Adventures. Horseback riding along the Peace River is another option for outdoor enthusiasts. upriveradventures.com
The Arcadia Rodeo began in 1928 and has grown to be the largest in the state, with riders from all over the country competing for a win and a spot in the national finals held in Las Vegas. Arcadiarodeo.com; peacerivercharters.com
Along the I-4 corridor, Lakeland has long lived in the shadows of the larger cities to its east and west: Orlando and Tampa. With a population of about 120,000, Lakeland is not a small town, but it does have some of that charm, especially in the downtown square surrounding Munn Park. On Saturdays some of the roads close and the park bustles with a farmers market featuring a plethora of locally made goods. Lakeland is home to Publix Super Market Headquarters, Florida Southern College, Detroit Tigers spring training, and as one might guess by its name, lots of lakes—38 to be exact. It also hosts one of the largest aviation events in the country, Sun ‘n Fun Aerospace Expo. The event is held once a year in the spring, but the museum is open year-round.
Just over two hours from RSW, drive through Arcadia on US 17. Fans of interstate travel can also take I-75 to I-4.
Where to Stay
The Terrace Hotel Lakeland, Tapestry Collection by Hilton, is a recently renovated 1920’s-era Art Deco hotel in the heart of downtown, walking distance to the Amtrak train station, and across the street from Lake Mirror and its historic promenade. hilton.com
Where to Eat
Nineteen61 is a modern, Latin-fusion restaurant on the downtown square. It’s known for flavorful, artful fare, wood-fire grill cooking, and craft cocktails. Sunday brunch is exceptional. nineteen61.com
The Joinery is a gourmet food hall and craft brewery on Lake Mirror where you’ll find almost every type of cuisine: sushi, ramen, tacos, pizza, burgers, plant based, and cocktails. thejoinerylkld.com
Mister Fish is a Lakeland landmark of sorts. Since 1968 the walk-up fish shack on Lake Morton has been famous for its giant cornmeal-breaded fish sandwich and sides such as hush puppies, coleslaw, lima beans, collard greens, and more. www.misterfish.org
What to Do
The architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright attracts design enthusiasts in droves. Florida Southern College sits along Lake Hollingsworth and is home to the largest collection of Wright’s buildings in the world.
Polk Theater is a beautiful, ornate, restored 1920’s-era vaudeville/movie palace. Films are still shown here along with a full roster of performing arts, including concerts, ballets, and more. polktheater.org
Walk the lakes that this town is named for. Lake Morton is famous worldwide among birders. Its shoreline is home to hundreds of birds, including swans that were sent to the city by Queen Elizabeth in the 1950s. She sent two; now the lake is overpopulated with four species, including white and black swans.
Covering 16,000 acres in a region of Polk County known as Bone Valley, Streamsong Resort is an outdoor enthusiast’s dream destination. The land, once mined for phosphate by the Mosaic Company, is now covered in native vegetation surrounding lakes teeming with big fish. Tall dunes create a landscape that feels more like the southwestern U.S. than central Florida. It’s home to a minimalistic yet luxurious lakeside lodge with a rooftop bar and museum featuring the giant jaws of a megalodon uncovered on the property. Enjoy nature trails, fishing, world-class sporting clays, archery, tennis, and three golf courses designed by the best architects in the world. It’s considered a bucket-list stop for anyone who loves the links. You don’t have to be a guest to golf or dine here, but once you arrive, you’ll want to settle in and stay awhile.
The route is a circuitous one along multiple county and state roads that wind through orange groves and farms between Port Charlotte and Lakeland. From RSW, the drive is just shy of two hours.
Rooms are well appointed and spacious, ranging from 530 to 1,167 square feet. In addition to the main lodge, there are 12 guest rooms above the Red and Blue Clubhouse for larger parties wanting their own space. streamsongresort.com
Where to Eat
Restaurant Fifty-Nine is an elegant steakhouse found in the Red & Blue Clubhouse, offering a plethora of prime-aged meats. You’ll also find a humidor full of cigars, a large selection of scotch, and a Maker’s Mark Private Selection.
Bone Valley Tavern, in the Black Clubhouse, is modern yet casual with a large bar and outdoor seating. The tuna nachos are a towering favorite. Try Little Payne Creek Lager, crafted for Streamsong by Motorworks Brewing in Bradenton.
Fin & Feather is the resort’s newest restaurant serving higher-end Southern comfort food and Florida-inspired cuisine. Think crispy whole fish, pheasant pate, short ribs with black truffle grits, wagyu meatloaf, and more.
What to Do
Golf one of the three world-class courses. Streamsong Red is designed by Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw; Blue is designed by Tom Doak; and Black by Gil Hanse. Bonus: food shacks on the courses, including one that smokes meat every day so golfers can enjoy mouthwatering brisket and a cold beer.
Bass fishing here is said to be some of the best in the state, and the fish are big. With the help of expert guides, anyone who hooks a bass that weighs eight pounds or more is inducted into the resort’s Bass Fishing Hall of Fame.
The AcquaPietra Spa is designed to resemble a European grotto and feels like a natural oasis. It features multiple treatment rooms and six therapeutic pools, each heated to different temperatures.
*All drive times reference Southwest Florida International Airport (RSW) as a starting point.
Gina Birch is a regular contributor, a Florida native who loves exploring the state to uncover hidden gems, beautiful beaches, good food, good drinks, and a good time.