As US road trips go, one that includes dazzling white sandy beaches, beautiful views of the Gulf of Mexico, and singing mermaids pretty much screams “spectacular adventure”. So for our latest mini road trip, we take a drive along the Florida coast from Tampa to Panama City.
The route takes around six hours to drive, but we can’t resist the temptation to take in some of the amazing sights and scenery along the way, from state parks to wild waterways.
Start your journey at the TECO Manatee Viewing Centre, just 25 minutes south of Downtown Tampa. The manatees at this Florida must-see are a local treasure (in fact, they’re now protected by state law).
The Viewing Centre is close to Apollo Beach, where the lovable manatees enjoy the warm waters and you can enjoy the wonderful views – you can even get up close and personal with these giant herbivores at one of the viewing platforms. There’s an on-site museum if you want find out more about these increasingly rare mammals, or head over to the adjoining butterfly garden for some alternative, and perhaps more visually appealing, wildlife.
Drive north up the Tamiami Trail to experience the best of Downtown Tampa with a quick stroll down by the riverfront. From free weekly Yoga classes (perfect to limber you up for the drive ahead) to charming markets (like the Tampa Downtown Market, every third Sunday of the month), there are plenty of things to do here. And with the Tampa Museum of Art just a stone’s throw from the fun, family-friendly Curtis Hixon Park, there are lots of attractions on offer for young ones as well as more mature travellers. But whatever you decide on, don’t miss the excellent gelato and delicious Italian food at Sono Café.
So, sated and limber, leave the city behind you and drive north, passing the Jay B. Starkey Wilderness Park (perfect for a quick picnic). Follow the I-275N and the FL-589 from Tampa for an hour and before you know it, you’ll be on the doorstep of Weeki Wachee Springs State Park.
Weeki Wachee Springs State Park
A truly eclectic (and somewhat bizarre) attraction, Weeki Wachee Springs is a tiny town, a 538-acre state park, and also the home of the famous performing mermaids (the mayor herself is a former mermaid). If you fancy a short break on your journey, catch their popular live “Little Mermaid” show at the Newton Perry Underwater Theater before hitting the road.
After bidding Ariel adieu, drive along the US-19 N along the border of the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge. Take this part of the journey slow and enjoy the sight of tens of thousands of acres of protected wildlife. You’ll also pass the Chassahowitzka River and Coastal Swamps, where you can set up camp or just head up the hiking trails for some fresh air.
A little further along the US-19 and you’ll come to Homosassa Springs (about 30 minutes from Weeki Wachee Springs). Here you can spot a whole host of Florida wildlife in their natural habitat, from alligators and crocodiles to the odd black bear and bobcat. You can catch the tram or the boat from the visitor centre on US-19 to the entrance, or just see what you can spot from the car.
Apalachicola National Forest
So you’ve had some fun with mermaids and hiking through state parks; now settle in for a couple of hours on the open road. Head out of Homosassa Spring and join Route 98. Turn the music up, roll the window down and enjoy the stunning Florida scenery rolling past.
After your three and a half hour drive, you won’t need an excuse to get out and stretch your legs, but make sure to take a proper look around when you arrive at the Apalachicola National Forest. Known for its outstanding beauty, it’s the biggest forest in Florida and home to rivers, creeks and natural springs – a great place to go hiking, biking, bird watching and fishing.
You can get to Panama City from Apalachicola National Forest in a little under two hours, but for some extra bang for your buck, take the scenic route. Take the FL-30W and follow it through the forest and along the Gulf of Mexico. You’ll only add about 40 minutes to your drive, but every minute will be worth it with beautiful views out over the water.
Now you’ve arrived in Panama City, grab your beach gear and take your pick of the amazing beaches on offer. St. Andrews State Park is famous for its blindingly white beaches, turquoise water and watersports. But for a more restful, relaxing beach experience, just jump on the Shell Island Shuttle to enjoy some of the quietest beaches in the area. Who knows, you might even see some dolphins.
Header image © Neta Negany/Thinkstock/iStock
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Have you driven from Tampa to Panama City? Which route did you take? Let us know in the comments section below.