Note from 10Best: Check with individual businesses and attractions before going, because of sporadic closures due to COVID-19.
Do you want to visit a secret side of Florida? Then you’ll definitely want to drive this road trip loop along two historic roads. Along the way you’ll learn about the oldest herd of cattle in North America, have a chance to see a colony of one of the most endangered birds in North America, and stay at a hotel owned by Gloria Estefan.
And since this is a loop, you can hop on at any point on the itinerary, but we’re starting and stopping on Anna Maria Island.
Day 1: Anna Maria Island to Lake June-in-Winter
Two hours, 96 miles via SR 64 and SR 70
The tropical colors – flashes of fuchsia bougainvillea and sunshine-yellow giant birds of paradise – make you want to sip rumrunners at sunset from an Anna Maria Island beach cottage. This mostly residential island, nestled against the blue waters of the Gulf of Mexico, offers you the perfect start to a leisurely road trip.
Walk the water’s edge and scan for dolphins frolicking in the surf, but don’t forget to look down – you can find plenty of seashells and sand dollars in the sugary sand.
The next morning, get ready for your road trip with donuts from The Donut Experiment. We’re partial to their key lime donut, but they make traditional chocolate-iced cake donuts – perfect for dunking – in-house every morning.
If you plan to leave later, grab a taco or two from Poppo’s Taqueria. This casual taco joint uses local and organic produce and, on occasion, they offer wild Florida hog tacos. If you’re lucky enough to be there with this on the menu, it’s a must-try.
As you leave the island and head across State Road 70, modern Florida slips away with every mile. The farther inland you drive, the more Florida’s natural beauty replaces suburbs and shopping plazas. Grand, magnificent live oaks stretch their enormous, rough arms across ranchlands. Florida ranks 10th in the US for beef cows, and you’ll see no shortage of ranches along this part of the road as you approach Arcadia.
Known for its cattle history, Arcadia draws antique hunters seeking a find. After a stop at Wheeler’s for down-home cooking and a slice of strawberry pie or banana pudding, browse the antique shops. Arcadia’s a stop on the Florida Mural Trail, so take time to find the murals that hint at this town’s cattle history. If you visit in March, don’t miss the historic Arcadia Rodeo that draws cattlemen from all over Florida.
If you have extra time to spend around Arcadia, dip your paddle into the Peace River, where you can find fossilized shark’s teeth and other relics of ancient Florida. People have even found mammoth bones in the river! Why is there a river with shark’s teeth in the middle of the state? Because two million years ago, the seas covered most of present-day Florida and the Peace River marks that primeval shoreline. Rent a kayak or canoe at Canoe Outpost Peace River.
Say “good night” at a lakeside cabin at Lake June-in-Winter, but before you do, stop at Lake June-in-Winter Scrub Preserve State Park to stroll down through the pines to the cypress-draped lake. On your way in and out of the park, keep a sharp eye peeled for the Florida scrub jay.
This sweet-natured bird only exists in a few places in Florida, and the Florida scrub (think of it as a Florida desert) near the park offers this family-minded bird (chicks stay with the parents to help raise the next generation) the only place in North America where this bird can survive.
Cabins and cottages ring the lake, so you’ll have no shortage of places to stay and hang out waterside.
Day 2: Lake June-in-Winter to Vero Beach
Two hours, 93 miles via SR 70 and A1A
As you head east along SR 70, you’ll pass the northern edge of Lake Okeechobee, the second largest freshwater lake wholly inside the United States. The city of Okeechobee, like Arcadia, marks another stop on the Florida Mural Trail.
Murals in Okeechobee’s historic downtown pay homage to Florida’s farming heritage and Henry Flagler’s East Coast Railroad, which once stretched all the way to Key West.
At Fort Pierce, the road meets the edge of the Atlantic and the Indian River Lagoon. Taste local foodstuffs and browse handcrafted items at the Downtown Fort Pierce Farmers Market every Saturday morning, but you’ll find plenty to explore any day of the week.
Take a tour of the Indian River Lagoon, one of the most diverse estuaries in North America, see photographs of the city’s early history at the St. Lucie Historical Society, or feast on a grilled grouper sandwich as you dine over the water at Crabby’s.
If a picnic lunch is more your thing – or if you want to hit the waves – don’t drive past Fort Pierce Inlet State Park. Surfers and families flock to this popular park, so arrive early to stake out a spot under a shelter or on the sand.
End the day at Costa d’Estes, Gloria Estefan’s boutique hotel on Vero Beach. Unwind with a hot shower in your room or suite’s luxurious bathroom, then head to The Wave to feast on whatever your heart – and stomach – desires; from a seafood tower stacked with local clams, PEI mussels, and other ocean delicacies to a steak cooked just right, they have it all (and the ambience makes the experience even better).
Day 3: Vero Beach to Tampa
Three hours, 140 miles via SR 60
The next day takes you back across Florida. Along the drive, you’ll see more cattle – but if you really want to understand Florida ranching and see the descendants of the first herd of cattle ever brought to the United States, stop at Lake Kissimmee State Park, where re-enactors work with Andalusian cattle and bring a touch of the Old West to the Old South.
Take time to hike along some of the park’s trails – they’re mostly level and give visitors a glimpse of the Florida wilderness.
Farmers set up roadside stands to sell anything from hot peppers and tangy tomatoes in the summer to sweet, red strawberries and juicy honeybell oranges in the winter – don’t be afraid to stop and have a sample!
Explore the history of Tampa Bay, from piracy to Cuban cigars, at interactive exhibits at the Tampa Bay History Center. The historic Tampa Theatre movie palace has vintage and indie films, and from there you can walk to Water Works Park along the Hillsborough River. Kids and adults love to play in the park every bit as much as they love playing at the Glazer Children’s Museum.
Make this night an experience to remember: Book a night at the Epicurean Hotel, where you can treat yourself at Spa Evangeline and indulge in gastronomic perfection at the in-house restaurant, Elevage. If you plan far enough ahead, you might be lucky enough to score dinner reservations at the exquisite old-school steakhouse, Bern’s. Make sure your reservation includes the kitchen tour and the dessert room.
Day 4: Tampa to Anna Maria Island
90 minutes, 100 miles via SR 60, US 19, I-275 and SR 64
For the final leg of the journey, cross Tampa Bay (watch for dolphins out your window!) and head straight to Pier 60, the end of State Road 60 and the best place to watch the sunsets in Clearwater Beach. Sunsets at Pier 60 include local artists and buskers on the pier.
The Clearwater Beach Municipal Marina, across from Pier 60, caters to every interest with dolphin watch boat tours, speedboat rides and fishing trips. If you decide to spend the night, Opal Sands has the best views of sunsets.
Whether you do it the next morning or after a day playing on a boat, make time for Sunken Gardens in St. Petersburg, a sinkhole filled from the ground up with subtropical flowers blooming in vibrant colors and, at the bottom, a flamboyance of flamingos.
No visit to St. Petersburg is complete without a stop at the iconic St. Pete Pier, where you can immerse yourself in almost 30 different experiences, including touch tanks in the wet classroom and public art from world-famous artists.
Don’t leave before you feast on the Yucatan shrimp at Doc Ford’s. Author Randy Wayne White named his restaurant after his leading man and White, a former fishing guide turned novelist, is no slouch in the kitchen. Grab a collection of his hot sauces and his first Doc Ford book, “Sanibel Flats,” before you leave.
You have one final stop before you return to Anna Maria Island. Just over the Sunshine Skyway bridge, stop at The Citrus Place for fresh-squeezed OJ, orange ice cream, and a true taste of Old Florida. Bring a half-gallon of this orange gold back to Anna Maria Island, and splash it into that margarita you’re sipping as the sun sets on another glorious Florida road trip.
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