Undiscovered Florida: 3 Chillaxed Destinations filled with Adventure, Natural Beauty, & Small Crowds

Sponsored by VISIT FLORIDA

If you traveled anywhere in 2023, then you probably noticed how it seemed like everyone in the world was traveling at the same time. Yep. More than a little overwhelming and overbearing.

In 2024, it’s time to seek out the more undiscovered places for more of a quieter retreat where we can escape the crowds, reconnect with the unspoiled wonders of nature, and indulge in outdoor adventures.

mother and child on beach smiling
Creating memories in Cedar Key, Florida

In this post, we’ll take you to three lesser-known gems of Florida, which we discovered when exploring Natural North Florida in 2020 (you know that challenging year!) in partnership with VISIT FLORIDA.

From the pristine landscapes of Taylor County to the meandering waterways of Suwannee County, and the coastal treasures of Levy County, each region promises a unique escape from the hustle and bustle.

Family of four wearing snorkels on a boat.
Scalloping in Steinhatchee, Florida

We fell in love with this area’s untamed beauty and opportunity to retreat into an experience that gave us adventure and precious family bonding time, without the overwhelm that comes with busy and popular destinations. This is what our souls crave most.

Where are these undiscovered Florida destinations?

map of taylor, steinhatchee and suwannee county
 Click here to access the above map

Taylor, Suwannee, and Levy County are part of an area of Florida known as Natural North Florida. This region lies between Gainesville to the east, Sopchoppy to the west, Cedar Key to the South, and the Florida-Georgia state line.

You can easily visit all three destinations in one trip. We recommend at least a week (3 nights in each destination), so you have time to merge with the unhurried pace of the region.

Cedar Key (Levy County)

aerial view of cedar key
Serene fishing village of Cedar Key

Slip into your flip flops, let go of your wound-up tensions, and surrender to a more leisurely rhythm.

We’re heading back to the days of Old Florida, reminiscent of the Key West you yearned to experience during Hemingway’s era. It’s raw and authentic, devoid of glamor or artificial tourist attractions. 

The serene fishing village of Cedar Key, nestled amidst the Cedar Islands, sits 4 miles out into the Gulf of Mexico, and exudes a raw, warm, and unhurried charm.

kayaks on beach under palm tree
Discover unhurried charm

Your arrival across a series of bridges and picturesque salt marshes will bring you into a diverse community, where artisans, nature enthusiasts, and those in search of a more unhurried pace coexist harmoniously. 

Unmissable Experiences in Cedar Key

Apart from the obvious lazy beach days, here are a few unmissable things to do in Cedar Key.

Kayak to Atsena Otie

Aerial view of a fishing village and island called Cedar Key.
Atsena Otie Island

Cedar Key is just one island of 13 in the Cedar Key National Refuge. One of the best ways to explore them is via kayak which you can rent from Cedar Key Adventures.

A half-mile paddle will take you to Atsena Otie, the closest and most accessible of the refuge islands. There’s not a lot to do apart from walking along the beach to see the crumbling remains of an old pencil factory.

Girl kayaking with a yellow life vest on.
Best way to get around Cedar Key

You can hike to the middle of the island under the canopy of live oaks to reach an old cemetery, but it’s highly likely the mosquitos will carry you out of there! With more time, you can paddle 1/5 miles around the island and explore the unique interior of the salt marshes.

Ambitious paddlers can go on to other nearby islands of the Cedar Key National Refuge, which are said to have beautiful beaches. (You can also explore these islands by boat.)

Mom and two daughters on an island having a photo on a tree log.
Exploring Atsena Otie

You get lovely views of Cedar Key on the return paddle, and if lucky, may see a dolphin or two!

Easy Hiking

Lady walking a trail on an island.
Shell Mound Archaeological Trail

Go easy on the inclines – that’s not how we do things at Cedar Key. If you get bored of all that chillaxing on the beach, there are a few trails on the island for you to stretch your legs.

  • A short 0.3 mile trail will take you through the jungle to the Shell Mound, which was developed over a 1,000 year period up to 1,800 years ago by Woodland Native cultures discarding their oyster and clam shells.
  • The Dennis Creek Trail is another 1-mile loop with a boardwalk that takes you over a salt barren to a coastal island.
  • The 1,200-foot-long Cemetery Point Park Boardwalk takes you through marsh land adjacent to one of the back bays and channels of the keys. It’s a 3.5-acre property with a sandy shore for you to swim or kayak.

Eat Clams with a View

Two girls eating dinner on the deck of a restaurant overlooking the water.
View from Steamers Clam Bar & Grill

Since Cedar Key is a major producer of clams nationwide, raking in more than $34 million annually, you can’t visit this Florida island without eating clams!

Steamers Clam Bar and Grill on the Big Dock offers prime position for Gulf Views over Atsena Otie, and some of the best clams – and clam chowder – on the island.

We can highly recommend the clam bowl steamed in white wine and garlic and the seafood broil, washed down with a glass of wine or craft beer.

On the narrow deck, there are several private nooks to feel the balmy breeze on your skin and enjoy dolphins frolicking in front of you.

Surrender to Sunrise and Sunset

Sunrise over an ocean.
Sunrise from the deck at Harbour Masters

The magic of a Cedar Key vacation is you get to witness sunrise and sunset over the water.

Sunrise is easy – just watch that from the deck of your accommodation (mentioned below) – coffee in hand, or mimosas if you please.

You’re on the Florida Gulf Coast so sunset is the main event! Locals say you cannot beat the sunset and quirky vibes from the Tiki Bar located just outside the bridge into town.

Young girl watching a sunset.
Sunset in front of the pink Beach Front Motel

Sadly, for us it’s an adult only bar, so we traded in the best place for sunset in Cedar Key to the next best, which is just in front of the pink Beach Front Motel.

The sky lights up in pretty oranges and pinks as it sets behind the lands and water of the Cedar Key National Refuge. 

Where to stay in Cedar Key

Hotel on stilts over the water.
Harbour Master Suites

There’s no better place to stay in Cedar Key than on stilts over the water with 270-degree expansive views over nearby islands.

We loved our spacious, two-bedroom Sea Pearl Suite at Harbour Masters with a living area and full kitchen. And within easy walking distance to everywhere – the Cedar Key Way!

Woman looking out over the water from a deck.
View from our wrap around deck

The best feature was its huge wrap-around porch, perfect for morning coffee and sunrise, and a spot for afternoon drinks. We had another hidden screened-in porch that overlooked D street for later at night when the ocean views were gone and the people watching just started.

You may also like: Manatee Springs State Park

manatee under water
Image credit: FloridaStateParks.org

About 45-minutes northeast from Cedar Key is Manatee Springs State Park, another highlight of Levy County. 

It’s a popular place to cool off with a swim or do some open water or cavern diving. There are 8.5 miles of nature trails winding through the cypress swamps, sinkhole ponds and uplands. And of course there are manatees – usually seen in the colder months.

There is a 800-foot boardwalk that runs through a cypress forest and overlooks the stunning first-magnitude spring. This would be a good stopover point on your way to the next Undiscovered Florida place to visit, Steinhatchee….

Cedar Key Video

Don’t miss seeing the fun we had in Cedar Key in the video below:

Steinhatchee (Taylor County)

Boats on a river.
Steinhatchee River

You may not have heard of Steinhatchee. We didn’t either until we visited and we soon discovered a delightful fishing village on the edge of the undeveloped Steinhatchee River in the Big Bend region of Florida.

Like Cedar Key, I could have easily spent several days enjoying the slow pace of life and recreational activities on the water. That slow pace is encouraged, with signs warning you,

“Slow movement. Manatees around“.

Family of four posing for a photo on a deck with a tree behind them.
Photo before dinner in Steinhatchee

Imagine sitting in your hotel’s riverside garden and seeing one of Florida’s favorite wildlife species swim by. If you’re lucky, you may see an alligator or two! It is Natural North Florida, after all! 

Known for its laid-back atmosphere, natural beauty, and outdoor recreational opportunities, Steinhatchee is a popular destination for those seeking a tranquil escape and a taste of Old Florida charm.

Unmissable things to do in Steinhatchee

If you can pull yourself away from relaxing by the river, here are a few fun things to do in the Steinhatchee area.

Go Diving for Wild Scallops

woman holding up sea scallop
Catching dinner!

Taylor County is known as the scallop capital of the USA, and every year from June to August people can free dive for scallops in the grassy shallows.

Our girls are happy to tell you that scalloping in the Gulf of Mexico with Captain Mike was “the most fun ever!”

For a total of four hours, we snorkeled through the turtle grass to locate and capture hidden scallops with our bare hands. After a short while, we were able to identify their camouflaged presence through their rhythmic opening and closing movements.

Captain Mike, with his easy-going and friendly demeanor, was excellent on our scalloping adventure.

Once we arrived at the marina, he arranged for our collected sea scallops to be shucked. Then the chefs at Fiddler’s Restaurant, located at our resort, prepared, and cooked them to perfection. We savored our scallop feast accompanied by wine and live music on the deck overlooking the river.

Recreational scalloping is permitted from June 15th until Labor Day, making it undoubtedly one of the top family-friendly activities to enjoy while visiting Florida. Ask for Captain Mike at Sea Hag Marina or find him at Reel Song Charters. 

Explore Steinhatchee River

aerial view of steinhatchee river
The Steinhatchee River

The Steinhatchee River, a picturesque waterway winding through the heart of Steinhatchee, Florida, is a serene and inviting destination for exploration.

 Boasting clear, tea-colored waters, this river provides a scenic backdrop for a variety of outdoor activities. 

Kayaking and canoeing enthusiasts can embark on leisurely paddles along the river’s gentle currents, immersing themselves in the lush, natural surroundings. It’s appropriate for beginning paddlers and canoes although windy conditions and tidal effects may be encountered when the river meets the Gulf.

Young girl walking along a jetty.
Picturesque Steinhatchee River

The Steinhatchee River is also a haven for anglers, offering opportunities for freshwater and saltwater fishing. Along its banks, nature lovers can observe diverse wildlife, including birds and marine creatures.

For those seeking a more leisurely experience, a boat tour or sunset cruise along the river provides a tranquil and informative journey, allowing visitors to appreciate the beauty of the Gulf Coast’s estuarine ecosystems.

Houses and a boat by a river.
Gorgeous riverside homes

One of the best times to cruise down the Steinhatchee River is at sunset. Head to the mouth of the river and see the red and orange orb sink below the Gulf of Mexico horizon. Pack a picnic and some bubbly (not for the driver) and enjoy it. We saw plenty of boats cruising up and down during sunset. The colors along the river are just as pretty. 

Two girls on a boat.
Boating paradise

Paddlers may also like the 6-mile, Aucilla River Canoe Trail, on the eastern edge of Taylor County. It’s a little more challenging with swift currents, scattered shoals and rapids dropping several feet. Less intense is the 4-mile stretch at the Ecofina River State Park outside of Perry, the seat of the county. 

Breakfast and donuts at McDavid’s Café

Cafe under a tree,
McDavid’s Cafe

Of course, you need donuts as a snack for your wild scallop diving adventure! Our girls were thrilled to hop aboard the boat with a box filled with warm cinnamon donuts from McDavid’s Café. We stopped in there for a hearty breakfast before the tour, so we’d have plenty of energy for diving.

McDavid’s Cafe is all about serving generous portions of Southern cuisine with Southern hospitality to match. And we may have picked up another box for the drive after leaving Steinhatchee for our next destination.

Where to Stay in Steinhatchee: Fiddler’s Resort

Aerial photo of a resort by a river.
Fiddler’s Resort

For a laid-back serene accommodation experience, check into Fiddler’s Resort nestled along the scenic Steinhatchee River.

Accommodations feature screened-in porches and adjacent grassy areas adorned with oversized Jenga, cornhole, inviting swinging chairs, and comforting fire pits.

The staff at Fiddler’s Resort exemplify warmth and hospitality, offering valuable insights into the surrounding area.

Aerial photo of a resort by a river.
Our resort on the river

A not-to-be-missed highlight in Steinhatchee is the nightly live music on the expansive deck overlooking the water. Both artists we had the pleasure of hearing were extraordinary, providing the perfect conclusion to a splendid day in North Florida, basking in the sunshine and the allure of the natural landscape.

The resort also has a restaurant with delicious southern comfort style seafood. Don’t forget they can cook up whatever your day’s catch is! 

You may like: The Annual Florida Forest Festival

Held every year in October, this festival is all about promoting the benefits of state forests and celebrating all those who work in them and protect them. 

It began in 1955 by Taylor County citizens to educate and help reduce forest fires. By 1965, Taylor County had the lowest fire record in the nation, and it was given the moniker Tree Capital of the South. Why not center a Florida vacation around honoring trees?

Live Oak (Suwannee County)

gardens with blooming flowers
Town of Live Oak. Image credit: cityofliveoak.org

Suwannee County, with its mix of natural attractions and community-oriented lifestyle, provides a distinctive Florida experience for those seeking a break from more bustling urban areas. 

It’s a place where the Suwannee River weaves through the landscape, creating a backdrop for outdoor adventures and a sense of connection to Florida’s natural heritage.

Live Oak, the seat of Suwannee County is shaded by the canopies of ancient oaks, dripping with Spanish moss. It has a small historic downtown center with local shops and restaurants.

As with all the destinations mentioned in this Undiscovered Florida post, Suwanee invites you to replace busy and structured with ebb and flow (and they have fun music festivals, when you want to amp up the energy).

Unmissable things to do in Suwannee County

If you can tear yourself away from festivals and firepit gatherings at the campsite, you will enjoy the following things to do in Suwannee County. 

Swim in the Springs of Suwannee County

overlooking emerald water of little river springs
Little River Springs | Credit: Suwannee County

One of the best things to do in Suwannee County is to swim in any of the natural springs that can be found along the river valley. 

The constant temperatures and pure water of the Springs offer a refreshing escape from the sweltering heat, surrounded by lush greenery and an abundance of wildlife. 

Floating gently downstream or diving into the cool depths, is the perfect activity to leave behind modern day stresses and feel tranquility wash over you.

  • Royal Springs is one of the prettiest with a platform you can run and jump from into the 52′ basin.
  • Little River Springs is a broad and shallow spring basin perfect for swimming with picturesque views. 
  • Ichetucknee Springs State Park is a popular place to go tubing, as well as swimming. Follow the boardwalk next to the Headspring Trail, which will lead you to a larger and deeper first-magnitude spring – the Blue Hole. 

Swim at Madison Blue Springs

Mom and daughter entering s spring swimming hole.
Madison Blue Springs

Want to swim at what’s been called “the best swimming hole in the US” by USA Today? Only 20 minutes from Live Oak is Madison Blue Springs State Park, a top-notch gem among North Florida attractions!

Okay, so maybe we missed the full glory of the typical luminous blue hues because of higher river levels and darker water, but it did not put a damper on our love for this spot as the perfect escape from a scorching Florida day.

mom and child hugging in water
Refreshing 68-degrees

Brace yourself for that initial shock – the water maintains a refreshing 68-degree temperature year-round. Trust me, once your lymphatic system adjusts, it’s downright divine! Grab your float, kick back, and just let the world drift away.

People floating on tubes in a natural spring.
Relax in paradise!

Picnic tables are scattered around, so if you’re feeling it, turn this into an all-day affair. Guaranteed stunning views and serenity all round.

Hike and Play in Suwannee River State Park

Mom and daughters by a river.
Suwannee River State Park

The Suwannee River State Park , near Live Oak, provides exceptional opportunities for backcountry canoeing along the Suwannee River.

This Florida State Park boasts picturesque hiking trails winding through wooded areas along the river, encompassing historical ghost towns, Civil War battlements, and remnants of a 19th Century steamboat.

An easy trail is the 1-mile Suwannee River Trail with views of the swiftly flowing waters and live oaks dressed in Spanish moss dripping over the banks.

girl on trail looking at suwannee river
1-mile Suwannee River Trail

For a unique experience, continue your hike to Balanced Rock, a formation that plunged into the water years ago and is visible when the water levels are low. 

Should you encounter high waters, retrace your steps via the Lime Sink Run trail past a Florida freshwater spring through a hardwood forest teeming with diverse plants and wildlife.

Woman walking across a bridge on a trail.
Nice and shady, too!

A friendly reminder: Be sure to bring your mosquito repellent along for a more comfortable outdoor experience!

Eat Finger-licking BBQ at Big Wood BBQ & Grill

BBQ ribs on a plate.
Great ribs!

Head into Live Oak for dinner at the family-run Big Wood BBQ & Grill. As you can imagine, it’s all about the BBQ meat here: spareribs, baby back ribs, pulled pork, sliced pork, beef, turkey, and sausage. They prepare their own blends of dry rub seasoning and BBQ sauces.

Ribeye steak on a plate.
Delicious ribeye!

We were impressed by the size and quality of the food. We all chose something different: blackened shrimp, baby back ribs, ribeye steak, and sliders – all were fantastic. The seasoning on the grilled vegetables and baked potato was perfect.

Where to Stay in Live Oak

Entrance to a campground.
Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park

The Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park is a destination as much as it is a place to stay. This campground sits on 800 acres of peaceful, wooded land on the banks of the Suwannee River. 

It’s not just a place to unwind and reconnect with nature, but it’s also rated as one of the USA’s top outdoor music venues. It hosts several outdoor music festivals each year, plus regular concerts, and campfire pickin’ sessions.

Mom and daughter on a deck overlooking a pond.
Lovely spot by the pond

Having so much fun here, you really don’t want to leave? You don’t have to, the park also has miles of hiking and horseback riding trails, disc golf course, and canoeing and kayaking on the river.

We loved our little self-driving tour of the massive property and finding things like outdoor amphitheater and stages, beautiful fishing lakes, hidden campgrounds, and river.

giant troll sculpture holding onto tree
So cool.

You never know what cool things you may discover at the music park. When we visited, they had these giant trolls in the forest. They are no longer there, but who knows what you may find.

Natural amphitheater in a forest.
Outdoor amphitheater

You can pitch a tent, park your RV, or stay in cabins like we did in a comfortable 2-bedroom cottage. 

You may like: Paddle the Suwannee River Wilderness Trail

Woman standing by a river.
Suwannee River

A multi-day adventure for those who love exploring the wilderness with few people around, camping in the backcountry, and exploring the charm of small towns dotted along the way, then a paddle along the Suwannee River Wilderness Trail is for you.

The Trail starts at White Springs, Florida’s first tourist town, and continues for 171 miles through towering pines, stately cypress lining the riverbanks, high limestone outcroppings, salt marshes and gently slowing banks as it widens on its approach to the Gulf of Mexico.

Lady standing at a rivers edge.
Oaks along the river

Along the way are eight hubs, or stopping points, mostly state parks and small towns offering activities and services for the trail blazers.

While it’s mostly for paddlers, other explorers can venture along on bike, horseback, or foot. 

In Summary: Embrace the Natural Tranquility

Mom and daughter looking over a beach.
Cedar Key

As we return to rest and rejuvenation in 2024, we hope you venture away from the popular tourist spots. To explore a different side of Florida spots and immerse yourself in the tranquility of Levy, Taylor and Suwannee Counties. 

Here, discover the joy of gliding along meandering rivers in a kayak, indulging in the crystal-clear allure of radiant blue natural springs, and embarking on memorable scallop-catching adventures along the Gulf coastline.

These vast open spaces will allow you to experience an unrivaled sense of peace and calm and give you memories to last a lifetime! 

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