There is the Florida in the travel brochures – beach resorts and theme parks – and then there is this one: a wilder wonderland of crystal-clear springs and fertile Gulf waters.
I’m floating, although it feels more like soaring, as the Weeki Wachee River tugs my kayak downstream through waters so clear it’s like hovering over an aquarium. A natural spring just upstream is pumping out 80,000 gallons of fresh water every minute, nudging me through a canopy of drooping cypress and over schools of darting sheepshead.
In deeper areas, the water glows a spectacular neon blue, an irresistible temptation for our group of six kayakers. We tumble out of our sit-on-tops and into the world’s most perfect swimming hole. “This,” says fellow paddler and Florida native Kevin Mims, “is what Floridians do on their weekends.”
Most visitors overlook the central Gulf Coast just 90 minutes from both Tampa and Orlando. Here, shady back roads lead to a tropical tangle of spring-fed rivers, bird-filled mangroves, end-of-the-road fish camps, and saltwater flats.