After toasting to our successful completion of the PADI Cavern Diver course, it was time for the second part of our week of Florida diving to commence — an independent road trip around some of the state’s best dive sites in a snazzy little camper.
Now time for a confession: for the first official day of our #SunshineStateScuba road trip, we didn’t go scuba diving. Oops!
Why? After three intense, long days of our course, we needed to chill out and dry out a bit before hopping back into the deep end. Plus, there just so happened to be some classic Old Florida attractions on the way to our first dive that I was dying to either check out for the first time or share with Heather. And of course, every dive trip needs to have one “dry day” before flying anyway, so for anyone planning to replicate this road trip I’d simply recommend them to reverse our route and have this be their decompression day.
Yet I’m actually backing up further and starting this post with day zero, the day we set aside to pick up our rental truck, fetch our rental trailer, get all the supplies we needed for our four days of camping, and sneak in a little fun along the way.
I’ve long been obsessed with all things Old Florida — a term for those kitschy, vintage attractions and destinations left over from a previous era of Florida tourism, when things were a little less shiny and the attractions a little more homegrown.
St. Pete, my new favorite Florida destination and, conveniently, where we’d be picking up our cute little road trip trailer, happens to be chock full of them. After picking up our super sized rental truck in Tampa — for those hip to the monster truck scene, it was a Dodge Ram 2500, the smallest we could rent and legally hitch a trailer to — we thought it best Heather get some practice driving around such a tank before we hitched on the added challenge of a trailer, so we set off to do some sightseeing, starting with the charmingly classic Sunken Gardens.
Sunken Gardens is one of the most quintessential Old Florida attractions I’ve ever visited. Founded in 1903 by a horticultural enthusiast who opened the gardens commercially in 1935, the gardens are as lush as you’d expect for ones that have had over a hundred years to flourish.
They’re also relatively compact — you can easily cruise through and see the entirety of the gardens in under an hour. And at $10, it’s a well priced stop. Check their events calendar for all kinds of gardening and floral arts workshops, plus weekly yoga classes we were gutted to miss.
This is the perfect Old Florida attraction for anyone looking for a nice stroll in nature or a place to practice photography. Just note that there are several birds in relatively small cages, so heads up if you’re sensitive to that kind of thing. The famous flamingos, however, had plenty of room to roam.
Next up, we hopped over to the Saint Petersburg Museum of History.
Saint Petersburg Museum of History
I put this museum on my list after reading about the temporary Alligators & Oddities Exhibit, which was as weird and bizarre as I’d hoped. From vintage photos of private solariums for nude sunbathing in the 1930’s to wooden “swamp shoes” made for horses to trudge through the Everglades, the gallery was a monument to all of Florida’s great eccentricities. If you’re in the area on November 3rd, don’t miss the amazing-sounding party sending off the exhibit!
Permanent exhibits inside the museum include Flight One Gallery, which celebrates St. Pete’s history as the site of the world’s first ever commercial flight, between St. Pete and Tampa — there’s an original check for the world’s first airline ticket on display, a pretty cool for any traveler to see! There’s also Piering Into The Past, a series of beautiful old photos of past St. Petersburg piers, and Life, Death and the After, which features an authentic Egyptian mummy (you’ll just have to visit to learn how he ended up in St. Pete!) There’s also an exhibit highlighting local artists, one celebrating the city’s passion for baseball and history as a spring training site, and one chronicling the history of The Sunshine City.
The $15 admission may seem on the higher end for a small museum that you’re likely to do the rounds on in well under an hour, but it always feels good to support an institution like this one.
After our sightseeing break, we set off on a series of errands — stocking up on camping goods at Wal-Mart — I spent more time in Wal Mart over the next five days than I have in the previous twenty-seven years of my life — grabbing organic groceries at Earth Origins Market, stocking up on a few bottles of celebratory local Florida wine from my favorite area wineries, and eventually, picking up and hitching the cute little T@B trailer that we’d call home for the next five days. (Or so we thought — the trailer actually turned out to be my biggest travel disaster of the year, but more on that later.)
On our way back to Tampa for the night, we made one final stop at The Getaway, one of my new favorite spots in the entire Tampa Bay area. Tucked right before the Gandy Bridge in St. Pete, The Getaway feels like it was plucked straight from Key West. With a vintage airstream parked out front, wild dolphins splashing in front of the row of colorful chairs facing the bay, boats tied up to the wooden pier and a simple menu of tiki drinks and seafood tacos, it fit right into our Old Florida theme for the day. And it was the perfect place to toast to a stressful if successful day of errands, and an amazing adventure ahead.
The next morning, we had ambitious plans to hit the road bright and early… the reality was a little more, um, realistic. But eventually we did wave goodbye to my aunt and giddily set off with our sights set on Chassahowitzka River Campground that evening — and plenty of fun inbetween.
This quick stop in Safety Harbor was a colorful one. A local landmark for more than twenty years, Whimzeyland didn’t disappoint. We arrived expecting one house but found practically an entire street decked out in technicolor, found materials. The best part? We had them entirely to ourselves, lending to the feel we’d stumbled on a magical portal to another world.
I couldn’t help but think of Magic Gardens in Philadelphia and Treetanic Bar in Utila, two other fantastic, mosaic-ed destinations created by other like-minded artists not content to confine their work to a canvas.
Our next stop, as we reached the northern edges of Pinellas County, were the old sponging docks of Tarpon Springs.
Greek immigrants flocked to Tarpon Springs in the early 1900s after the discovery of natural sponge beds, transforming the city into the sponge capital of the world. Once upon a time, sponges plucked from the Gulf of Mexico were Florida’s top export, beating out even oranges.
Eventually, the development of synthetic sponges nearly killed off the industry, though a chatty local shopkeeper told me there’s still a small demand for natural sponges in the luxury spa industry, for decoration, and, believe it or not, among equestrian enthusiasts who find they are a healthier choice for bathing horses.
While the waterfront stretch was clearly set up to accommodate literal busloads of tourists, we had this offbeat little detour more or less to ourselves.
Somewhere like Tarpon Springs could very easily feel like a silly tourist trap, but it just doesn’t — in fact, it was perhaps my favorite discovery in this entire post. Wandering through gift shops peddling natural sponges and homemade olive oil soaps, overhearing locals chatting in Greek, salivating over baklava in local bakeries (we bought wedges of local fudge instead), taking pictures with kitschy old sponging signs, sampling Greek wine and regaling the shop owner with stories of our Santorini wine tour, it all felt like a very real little taste of the city with a higher percentage of Greek-Americans than any other American city.
With more time, we’d have happily sat down for a meal at one of the many Greek restaurants, or went on one of the cheap boat tours, one of which tempted us with a sponging demonstration by an ex-sponger in a classic full-head metal dive helmet.
For those looking to add some salt water diving to their road trips, we did spot a dive shop in the historic district, as well! It was hard to peel ourselves away from the silly fun to be had at Tarpon Springs, but we had one last stop for the day as we moved further north.
Weeki Wachee State Park
And it was one I knew well! There was just no way I was bringing Heather through Florida without a stop at Weeki Wachee State Park. This might just be one of the most unique state parks in the country, and it epitomizes Old Florida charm.
I’ve written extensively about the Weeki Wachee mermaids before — and in fact, borrowed some of the mermaid photos from my last post, since the theater was so crowded we could barely get a seat this time. While both my visits have been on weekends, I guess there’s a pretty intense difference between visiting in August and in January! But the show, enjoyed from a theater built directly into a natural Florida spring, was just as magical as I remembered, with the whole theater breaking out in giggles when a wild turtle swam up and danced in front of the glass as if begging us to blow off the mermaids and let him be the star of the show!
Started in 1947 by an enterprising underwater enthusiast who saw the untapped entertainment potential of the beautiful natural springs off US-19, Weeki Wachee was later purchased by ABC and hit its peak as a roadside tourist attraction in the Florida’s heyday of the 1960’s. Today, Weeki Wachee Springs are part of the Florida State Park system, and the mermaids who swim its waters are state employees. Read more here.
After the show, we hopped on the included thirty minute boat tour, where we spotted no manatees this time but did take in several very cool fish and birds, and enjoy our second trip down the Weeki Wachee River for the week (we also considered renting paddle boards, but as usual had more things we wanted to do than time to do them in!)
Finally, we got to take in a portion of the park that had been closed for the winter for my previous trip — Buccaneer Bay Water Park!
Believe it or not, the same $13 ticket that buys you entrance to two mermaid shows, a wildlife show, and a river boat ride also buys you admission to this small and charming water park built right onto the natural Weeki Wachee Springs.
We had a blast trying the three out of four waterslides that were open that hot August day, and briefly considered renting tubes to float down the natural lazy river, but couldn’t justify the cost for the one quick trip we’d have time to take. The place was packed and it made me happy to see so many families enjoying this humble, built-around-nature-instead-of-atop-it little park. And dang, were they prepared. Families had beach chairs, pop-up tents, arsenals of river floats, and coolers to feed a small village. I can imagine that at such an affordable price, this is a regular summer weekend routine for many in the region.
If you’re planning a visit of your own, keep in mind the slides are generally open on weekends from April to early June, daily from June-August, and again on weekends through September, while the beach and swimming area are open year-round.
And with that, our days of exploring Old Florida’s simple charms were over and we were off to set up camp for the night and get a good night’s sleep before diving back into diving the next day.
But already, I’d checked off a big box on our trip: showing Heather the slow and simple, wild and wacky side of Florida that’s charmed me for years.
Next up: cuddling with manatees and diving the Rainbow River. Stay tuned!
Many thanks to Sunken Gardens and Saint Petersburg Museum of History for hosting us, and to Heather for all photos in this post that have me in them!