Our List of hidden Florida gems to help you avoid the crowds

Florida is a popular spot for Capital Region families. It’s less expensive than the Caribbean Islands and certainly easier to reach. Too often, though, people think of the oft-traveled Keys, amusement parks, and major cities like Miami or Tampa as the only places worth visiting in the Sunshine State. Here are some lesser-known hidden gems to consider for a serene and lovely respite from the cold.


Located in southwest Florida and along the Gulf Coast, Bonita Springs has been unfairly referred to as Naples’ stepsister. Bonita stands well on its own, though. The sea beckons with Gulf Coast beaches and parks, including gems like Little Hickory Island Beach Park and Bonita Beach Park. Sand dunes dot the beaches and water sports offer a true warm-weather escape. 

Things to do:

    • Blue Spring State Park Manatee RefugeExplore Lovers Key State Park (8700 Estero Blvd., Fort Myers Beach), a popular swimming and kayaking spot. Comprising four barrier islands, the park is home to manatees and dolphins with consistent viewing opportunities not found in other parks.
    • Everglades Wonder Gardens (27180 Old 41 Road) is a wildlife sanctuary offering three acres of botanical plants. Flora and fauna options include a butterfly garden for butterfly lovers, alligators under a swing bridge for adventure seekers and gorgeous tropical birds and botanicals.
    • Get Up and Go Kayaking (Estero Boulevard) offers a 2.5-hour clear-bottom kayak tour that enables kayakers to see everything in the water right under them. The tour guides take plenty of pictures and provide unique facts about the area and the mangrove tunnels. The breathtaking coastal beach views are one-of-a-kind.

Places to stay:

This apartment hotel along a dock with direct bay access features a hot tub and plunge pool, as well as loaner kayaks, bikes and paddleboards.

This one-stop stay includes a 1,000-foot river pool, several luxurious hot tubs and four pools. Sunset cruises, sailing, fishing excursions, party vessels and boat rentals are also available to guests.

Places to eat and drink:

(located in Promenade at Bonita Bay mall) 

Casual fine Italian dining is the focus at this award-winning restaurant known for excellent seafood and Italian food. 

Consistently voted one of the top Bonita restaurants each year by the locals, Coconut Jacks has great waterfront views, exotic tropical cocktails and super-fresh seafood.  

European classics, seafood, and a fabulous wine selection make this a special spot. 


Daytona Beach, DeLand & New Smyrna Beach

The Dunes at Daytona BeachVolusia County is as varied as Florida itself. While it’s close to the Kennedy Space Center and Orlando attractions, it’s worlds away from most of the crowds. A day can include a visit to the Daytona International Speedway or a visit to the breathtaking drive-on beaches where you can park and lounge about, a cold beverage close at hand. Volusia County is family and pet friendly. 

Things to do:

    • Daytona Beach is having a bit of a renaissance. Previously known as a spring break haven, the city has worked hard at making this community family-friendly. Drive one of the most magical beaches in the world. Wander some outstanding museums like the Smithsonian-affiliated Museum of Arts & Sciences (352 S. Nova Road) the Cici and Hyatt Brown Museum of Art (same address), the Southeast Museum of Photography (1200 W. International Speedway Blvd.), and of course, experience the “World Center of Racing” at Daytona International Speedway. (1801 W. International Speedway Blvd.). Sign up for daily tours online.
    • #DeLandWings Selfie SpotDeLand is authentic Florida with the coveted “America’s Best Main Street” distinction. Main Street strolling includes boutiques, fabulous restaurants, nine museums, candy and ice cream shops, and no shortage of distinctly DeLand-style bars and brewery stops. Take a selfie at #DeLandWings stops throughout the city. The unique Wings of the West murals by artist Erica Group each feature a set of wings representing something about the location in which they are found. Be sure to take in a show at the historic Athens Theatre (124 N. Florida Ave.). Expect DeLand Broadway-style entertainment in a completely restored gem of a theatre.
    • New Smyrna Beach has a vibrant arts community on Canal Street. The Hub on Canal (132 Canal Street) is just one of the many galleries featuring local and very talented artists. Canal Street is also popular for its weekly events and vintage car shows. The town’s water is notorious for being the “Shark Bite Capital of the World” (small nibbles), but instead of avoiding this nickname, the town celebrates it. Grab lunch or cocktails on Flagler Street and watch the NSB world pass by.

Places to Stay:

Recently featured on the Travel Channel’s Hotel Showdown Impossible, this B&B sits in one of the most beautiful locations in New Smyrna Beach. The breathtaking views and cozy atmosphere offer a welcome sanctuary after a fun-filled day.

Panoramic ocean views, legendary Hard Rock amenities, and modern luxury are the calling here. You will have a front-row to one of America’s most famous beaches. This Hard Rock even has a VIP Pet Program where your pet can enjoy treats such as custom pet playlists, special amenities, and designated places just for them. 

The Artisan is situated near gourmet restaurants, trendsetting bars, and a nightlife that includes monthly festivals and live music. The Lounge Martini and Tapas restaurant at this boutique property are perfect for sipping a craft cocktail and people watching.

Places to eat and drink:

I defy you not to eat a burger here! Awesome creations are on tap until evening but escaping the beach sun and skipping in to grab a bite and drink is part of the fun of this beachy bar that offers iconic and great views.

The best Cuban cuisine I have had outside of Ybor City! Wash down all the fab food with a true Cuban coffee.

This well-known restaurant is located in the historic home of President Warren G. Harding and is widely recognized for excellent upscale Italian food and wines. 

Port St. Joe

Port St. Joe MarinaNo matter where you stand at any point on land in Gulf County, a body of water is less than five minutes away. The Gulf of Mexico draws many people for its waves, but the rivers, lakes, lagoons, and creeks offer variety for all who can’t get enough of the waters. With 44 miles of shoreline throughout the county, paddling or fishing, shelling or scalloping, snorkeling or diving are the amusements of choice.

Things to do:

    • Visit Port St. Joe to get the local flavor of the Gulf Coast of Florida. Known by its residents as a “small town with a big heart,” Port St. Joe has postcard-perfect surroundings that invite lounging on a soft, white-sand dune beach, snorkeling in the Gulf of Mexico, as well as fishing or dining at a rustic fish shake. The walkable downtown has gift and antique shops, bistros, vest-pocket parks, wide greenways, and an inviting waterfront marina. Rent a boat or charter a fishing trip at the Port St. Joe Marina (340 Marina Drive) to net this perfect tranquility.

Places to stay:

Recently renovated, this charming spot is across the street from the waterfront while within walking distance from the lighthouse, cute shops, and wonderful dining in town.

 This Gulf-front bed and breakfast with cottages is located on the panhandle of Florida on Indian Pass Beach. To stay at The Turtle is to experience the charm and beauty of the “Forgotten Coast.” 

Where to Eat and Drink:

Perfect for a southern-style breakfast and lunch. The Charleston Shrimp & Grits is killer. 

Known for delicious American Southern favorites, home-cooked desserts and daily specials with great family prices.