There is another side to Florida — beyond the towering hotels that line Miami’s famous beaches, away from the entertainment mecca of Orlando, and a far cry from the retirement communities and condos. For those with deep roots in the “sunshine state,” this other side exists in sharp contrast to today’s most common perceptions of Florida.

Pine groves in northern Florida
Pine groves in northern Florida

We’ve made our way to America’s most southeastern state a number of times over the years, and through family ties, have had the opportunity to discover the beauty beneath the surface. From the lush and dreamy shores of the Suwannee River in the north, to the wildlife and wonder that make up the Everglades in the south, Florida is so much more than most people imagine.

suwannee
The lush banks of the Suwannee River

Lush Landscape, Laid-Back Lifestyle

My father-in-law grew up on a farm not far from the banks of the Suwannee River. This legendary waterway is known for — among other things — its serpentine twists and turns, which uniquely define the boundaries of Suwannee County on three sides. The old white farmhouse is well off the beaten track and still stands as a reminder of times past, when families lived off the land, growing crops and raising livestock.

The farm today remains in the center of miles of undeveloped acreage and is inhabited by small congregations of cattle and hogs, stately pine groves and the pecan trees that my father-in-law, now 88, planted as a boy. On my first visit to the farm many years ago — and first time meeting my husband’s Florida family, I was surprised by the strong southern accents I encountered. One does not often associate Florida with southern charm, yet the Floridians I’ve come to know are not only the most charming, but also the most polite people I’ve ever met.

A painting of my father-in-law's family farm in northern Florida.
A painting of the farm that my father-in-law grew up on in northern Florida.

Covering a lot of ground on any trip to Florida is easy with the state’s turnpike system. It allows you to zoom past the small towns that represent the heartland of Florida. They are populated by many who have lived here for generations — people such as my father-in-law’s family. Ask them what they like best about Florida and they may tell you “its peacefulness.”

Even in the suburbs of Miami there is an unexpected quiet that you’d never think you’d find a few short miles from a city that never sleeps. Just south of Miami in Homestead, for example, where houses have been leveled by the fury of nature for many years, including by Hurricane Andrew in 1992, you’ll see large but subtly designed residential properties with neatly manicured lawns and gardens that give you a sense that suburban life is definitely something to aspire to.

Everglades Without the Crowds

A stone’s throw from Homestead is Everglades National Park, spanning over 1.5 million acres and designed to protect a fragile ecosystem of wetlands, forests and wilderness. No visit to southern Florida is complete without a tour of this phenomenal region, which is home to more than 350 species of birds along with panthers, alligators, the American crocodile, the caiman (a type of crocodilian) and other captivating creatures.

Caiman are relatively small crocodilians and are not as common as their relative, the alligator, in southern Florida.
Caiman are relatively small crocodilians and are not as common as their relative, the alligator, in southern Florida.

And while the park is one of the most visited in the U.S., few people take the time to go out on foot and fully explore all that it has to offer. On a recent trip, we ventured out on the Gumbo Limbo foot trail (named for the Gumbo Limbo trees that dominate the jungle-like landscape). We were thrilled to spot a caiman and lost track of the number of alligators quietly lurking alongside us on this shaded loop path. More surprisingly, we didn’t see a single soul on the entire track.

We can go on and on about the contrasts between the Florida that most people see or hear about and the Florida that you’ll find if you dig a little deeper. Clearly, there is so much more to the sunshine state than meets the eye. On your next visit, we hope you’ll look beyond the everyday tourist destinations and find the other side to this beautiful state — the quiet side off the beaten path. For more insight, see our gallery of images below.

 

The alligator blends in well to its habitat -- ready to snap at any moment.
The alligator blends in well to its habitat — ready to snap at any moment.
The Anhinga, pictured above, is a water bird that is sometimes called a snake bird. When swimming, only its narrow neck appears above the water, making it look like a snake.
The Anhinga, pictured above, is a water bird that is sometimes called a snake bird. When swimming, only its narrow neck appears above the water, making it look like a snake.
A common sight in the Everglades: a congregation of not-so-friendly alligators.
A common sight in the Everglades: a congregation of not-so-friendly alligators.
Turtles roam the Everglades, too.
Turtles roam the Everglades, too.
Creatures are abundant in the Everglades.
Creatures of every size are abundant in the Everglades.

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