Your Guide to WOW Experiences on a South Central Florida Road Trip

Sponsored by Visit Florida

The more we explore Florida, the more we love it. And the more we love sharing our new Florida vacation ideas for you.

We recently spent eight days (in partnership with Visit Florida), exploring the South Central Florida region, which encompasses the Atlantic Coast across to the Florida Gulf Coast.

Jensen Beach, Martin County, Florida
Jensen Beach, Martin County

On this Florida road trip, you’ll discover enchanting ancient hammocks where Florida panthers still roam, thrilling air boat rides through spectacular scenery (and alongside alligators), barrier islands you feel are yours alone to enjoy, the serenity of tucked away rivers, and plenty of fresh and delicious farm to table dining (land and water).

Where are we going on this South Central Florida road trip?

Highlands Hammock State Park, one of the best things to do in Sebring, Florida
Highlands Hammock State Park, Sebring

We’re visiting three regions:

Martin County on the Treasure Coast region on the Atlantic Coast. It’s halfway between Miami and Orlando and about 45-minutes north of West Palm Beach.

Sebring County is in Central Florida and includes the surrounding lake communities (of which there are many lakes!) It is between Martin County and Englewood.

Manasota Key in the Punta Gorda region of the Florida Gulf Coast. It’s located just south of Sarasota and north of Fort Meyers.

How long should we spend on this road trip through South Florida?

Sunset in Manasota Key

The beauty of this Florida road trip is that all three destinations are within an easy two-hour drive from each other.

We had three nights in Martin County, two nights in Sebring, and three nights in Manasota Key. And we could have easily extended that time as we loved all regions.

I would have loved an extra 2 nights at least in Martin County (our houseboat was amazing) and an extra night or so soaking up the quiet serenity of Manasota Key would have been ideal. 

The weather was windy, rainy, and overcast when we first arrived in Manasota Key (just bad luck). The day we left was when the sun came out and BOY did it SPARKLE.

Getting there and around

Stuart, Martin County
Stuart, Martin County

For most direct flight options (and possibly cheaper), we recommend flying into Orlando. It’s easy to do a loop drive for this Florida road trip and you’ll save on one-way rental car fees.

Alternatively, you can fly in and out of West Palm Beach, Fort Lauderdale, Fort Meyers or even Tampa. The accessibility to this region is incredible.

From Orlando, it is two hours to Martin County, two hours to Sebring, and two and a half hours to Manasota Key.

Manasota Key is two hours from Sebring (pass through Punta Gorda on the way) and Sebring is two hours from Martin County.

Check your rental car options here. (RentalCars.com is where we find our best deals.)

We donate a percentage of our campaign fee to those local businesses and organizations that support community, the environment, and humanitarian causes. On this South Florida road trip, we supported The Fish and Wildlife Foundation of Florida for their Florida conservation efforts and the Hobe Sound Mural project for their work supporting local artists and bringing community together.

Martin County on the Treasure Coast

Stuart, Martin County
Stuart, Martin County

Martin County on the Treasure Coast quickly became one of our favorite places in Florida for its buzzing, happy atmosphere with plenty of outdoor attractions.

You’ll find sophistication and Old Florida charm as well as the all-embracing kick off your flip flops and slip on your Key West persona.

Nature is the center of attention in Martin County, with the St Lucie River and Intra-coastal Waterway and the 22 miles of undiscovered and untouched beaches on the Florida Atlantic Coast.

Stuart, Martin County, Florida
Exploring Stuart

You can balance your nature activities with local art festivals, live music, and beautiful murals.

You’ll find incredible dining experiences from delicious breakfast smoothie bowls and outstanding coffee to local hole in the wall taco places and classier seafood restaurants with water views.

Wow moments in Martin County not to miss

Night Paddle Board, Port Salerno

Sunset paddle board
Sunset paddle board

For a unique family adventure, that packs plenty of WOW join a paddle boarding tour with Zekes Surf and Paddleboarding in the pretty Port Salerno area of Martin County.

What makes this paddle-board experience different, is you’ll be paddling under the cover of darkness!

Our tour started with a quick instruction, before heading out as a group across the channel to nearby Disappearing Island in the middle of St Lucie River Inlet.

The wake was pumping, and we had to sprint paddle, timing our run in between boats, and catching their wake behind us. Once we arrived, we turned our boards to watch the sun set over the inlet.

Sunset paddle board
Great view of sunset

We parked ourselves on this short strip of white sand scattered with a few red mangroves for about an hour searching for hermit crabs and jellyfish and enjoyed the abundance of bird life soaring across the pink skies.

Then we sat down to watch the huge round orange orb of the full moon rise creating a staircase below it. It was by far one of the best moon rises I’ve ever seen.

The final part to the adventure was paddling back across as a group in darkness (with safety lights). This time there weren’t many boats to navigate around. It was spooky and thrilling at the same time.

Sunset Sail on the Schooner Lily, Stuart

Sunset Sail on Schooner Lily, Stuart
Sunset Sail on Schooner Lily

For a gentler adventure, pack your snacks and drinks and take a seat onboard the Schooner Lily in Stuart Florida.

You’ll sail on the St Lucie River for about 2-hours under the guidance of Captain Fred, owner of Treasure Coast Sailing Adventures.

There’s not much for you to do except watch as they hoist the sales, learn more about the biodiversity of the estuary (the most diverse in the Northern Hemisphere), soak up the scenery and sailboat silence, look for wildlife, and marvel at the bright orange sunset sky.

Even better, time it with a full moon, so you can see that rising on your way back to port!

Stay: Houseboat on the St Lucie River

Our houseboat rental in Florida
Our houseboat

Taking your accommodation wows to the next level is staying on a houseboat on the St Lucie River. We’re talking secluded property, open air decks, a hot tub, kayaks and paddle-boards for sunrise paddles!

See all our recommended things to do in Martin County from our trip, including places to eat.

Video: Adventures in Martin County, Florida

Sebring County in Central Florida

Lake Jackson, Sebring
Lake Jackson, Sebring

Sebring is a slice of Old Florida where ranchers and citrus growers meet with farm to table restaurants, and locals play (alongside, but far away) with alligators, turtles and birds in ancient forests, plentiful lakes, and cypress swamps.

With its slow pace, access to natural beauty and outdoor adventure, Sebring in Central Florida is a great addition to this diverse Florida road trip.

Sebring Florida
Beautiful tree in the Circle

Sebring is known as the City on the Circle for its downtown stores that are located on the edge of the roundabout in the middle of town.

It is surrounded by other Old-Style Florida towns just a 20-minute drive in either direction like the charming Avon Park and the “Interesting” Lake Placid.

Wow moments in Sebring Not to Miss

Arbuckle Creek Airboat ride, Sebring

Strap yourself in for the roller coaster version of this air-boat ride along the private lands of Arbuckle Creek and Lake Istokpoga with Captain John from Airboat Wild Adventures.

He is not wrong about the WILD part – in both nature and crazy air-boat antics.

Who knew air-boats could go on land?

We really don’t want to spoil the surprise for you, because that “Is he really going to do that? “was a complete WOW moment we don’t want to rob you of.

Just be sure to choose the Spring Break Roller Coaster version.

You’ll glide over acres of lily pads, hydrilla and tall grass and past cypress and live oaks dripping with Spanish Moss.

It’s stunning, pristine, and abundant with alligators and bird life. At one stage I looked up to a sky filled with circling buzzards, flocks of ibis, pink roseate spoonbills, and scores of tiny dragon flies. Then somewhere along the journey, an eagle soared past.

It’s the best air-boat ride we have done in Florida so far.

Cycle the Highlands Hammock State Park Bike Loop

Highlands Hammock State Park, Sebring

Head deep into a dry, shady land full of towering cypress and oak trees, marauding black bears and Florida panthers, and steely gazing alligators.

Highlands Hammock State Park is Florida’s first state park and is the perfect ancient lush escape from the crowds.  

Its small size makes it an easy state park to explore. The best way is on a bike, cycling the 3.1-mile loop road. Stop along the way at any of the eight short trails that showcase what makes Florida’s first state park a standout attraction.

Don’t miss the Cypress Swamp Trail.

A half mile loop boardwalk goes above the swampy ground – in the wet season, filled with water and perhaps a few alligators – and close to the giant cypress offering that hammock shade and grandeur ambiance.

This is an easy adventure that combines ancient beauty with wildlife and effortless exercise.

Stay: Downtown Historic Sebring Rental

Sebring vacation rental
Our vacation rental

You will love the porch with slight sunset views and the cute morning coffee sun-room of our Sebring vacation rental just a ten-minute walk to the downtown Circle.

It’s spacious, comfortable, and beautifully decorated with three bedrooms, all the amenities you want, and stocked with filtered water, a coffee bar, orange juice, fruit, and muffin snacks.

Gorgeous sunroom

Click here for more things to do in Sebring, Fl.

On the way to Manasota Key, stop in at Punta Gorda for a riverside walk and the most authentic Thai food we’ve eaten in the USA at Peace River Beer Company. One taste of my Panang Curry and I was back on the sidewalk cafes near my Bangkok apartment. 

Video: Our 2 Day trip to Sebring

Check out the family fun we had in Sebring. Be sure to subscribe to our YouTube Channel.

Manasota Key and Englewood

Cool things to do in Manasota Key, Florida

Time to slow down the pace on the idyllic island haven of Manasota Key on the Florida Gulf Coast.

It’s in the Punta Gorda region, about halfway between Tampa and Fort Myers and just south of its busier neighbors, Sarasota, and Venice.

This 11-mile barrier island is slow-paced, pristine, and unknown – the kind of Florida island vacation of your dreams, especially traveling in COVID times. There is no shortage of personal space and fresh salty air.

Beach walk in Manasota Key, Florida
Beach walk

On one side are the calm aquamarine waters of Lemon Bay, and the other are the Gulf Beaches of Manasota, Englewood, Blinds Pass and Stumps Pass – with plenty of space in between for your own private stretch.

Englewood Beach is the most popular beach, where you can find beach rentals, volleyball courts and parasailing fun. It’s also near a few restaurants and bars.

Englewood Beach, Florida
Englewood Beach

Blinds Pass Beach is known as Middle Beach and is popular for shark tooth hunting, kayaking, or exploring the trails going in and out of the mangrove forest.

Manasota Beach is meant to be the least crowded beach in Sarasota County.

And then there is unmissable, more remote Stumps Pass. You can only get there by boat or feet. Crowds at a minimum.

Wow moments in Manasota Key Not to Miss

Play at Stumps Pass Beach State Park, Manasota Key

Stumps Pass Beach State Park is one of the four barrier islands that comprise the Barrier Islands Geopark in this area. The other three are Cayo Costa, Don Pedro, Gasparilla. 

It consists of 245 acres of the Southern tip of Manasota Key and has access to pristine beaches on Lemon Bay and the Gulf Coast.

A 1.3-mile sandy nature trail takes you through the low-lying forest with pockets in the trees giving you glimpses of the wild Gulf Coast on one side and the calmer luminescent aqua waters on the other.

The trail ends at Stump Pass, the end of the island where the Gulf meets the bay. You will be wowed by the view.

Stumps Pass Beach State Park
Amazing view

As soon as we got to where the white sand met that beautiful water, two dolphins rose out of the water, right near the edge of the shore.

While we could not experience this activity due to the weather, we have no doubt that a kayak or paddle along the waters of Lemon Bay to the Stumps Pass would be a highlight of any Florida road trip.

Read more in our post on Stumps Pass Beach State Park

Gulf Coast Sunset

Perfect way to end your day

A Florida Gulf Coast sunset is always a wow experience and the MAIN event on the Gulf Coast of Florida.

Plan your evenings around it, whether it’s enjoying it from a restaurant or bar, or just from sitting on the front row sand seats.

In keeping with Manasota Key pace, the sunset is another reminder to stop and smell the salty sea breeze and appreciate the grandeur of an orange sky and slow conversations with loved ones.

Click here to learn more fun things to do in Manasota Key, Fl.

Stay: Manasota Key Rental

Manasota Key vacation rental
Our vacation rental

You cannot go wrong with any beach rental on Manasota Key.

Just a few strides will take you to the beach – possibly your own private stretch of it. The closer you stay to Englewood Beach, the easier it will be to walk to restaurants and happy hour drinks!

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