Florida possesses an embarrassment of riches in luxury accommodations at resorts and hotels, a huge draw for almost everyone vacationing in the state, whether residents or out-of-staters. But the state also has a wealth of more primitive accommodations: national, state and county parks looking out on scenery uniquely Floridian and unquestionably gorgeous.
True, sleeping outdoors in Florida during summer can be more sauna than slumber, but curl up in the shade next to an ocean and it's not half bad. The rest of the year, it's heaven. Just remember bug repellent and sunscreen.
I polled some of Florida's inveterate campers for their picks across the state, but first I'll offer one of my favorites from years of camping in Florida. My tastes run to the more rustic. To my wife, camping is a hotel without room service. Luckily, there's something for everyone.
For those who prefer to rough it, few places are as idyllically old Florida as the deserted beaches and fragrant pines of Cayo Costa State Park. The barrier island off the southwest coast is accessible only by private boat or public passenger ferry.
With no electricity, night skies are a riot of stars.
For those who believe storm clouds begin to form the moment they start setting up a tent, the park has primitive cabins.
(For information on state parks, go to floridastateparks.org/staythenight/camping.cfm.)
Anastasia State Park, a barrier island off the northeast coast, "has probably one of the prettiest campgrounds in the state," said camping guru Terry Tomalin, longtime Tampa outdoors writer and editor. The beach is a favorite of surfers. Plus, the park is next door to St. Augustine's brick-lined streets and three-centuries-old Castillo De San Marcos fort.
Another favorite of Tomalin's is Fort De Soto Park, a Pinellas County park (tinyurl.com/pinellaspark). It's the Swiss Army knife of campgrounds, with something for everyone. We're talking washers, dryers, modern restrooms and showers, plus loads of oak tree-shaded nature trails, a couple of fishing piers, paved bike paths and a lovely beach. Because of this, Fort De Soto also is incredibly popular; its 238 sites for tent and RV campers often are booked months in advance.
Like many campers, I also fish. Few campgrounds are as pretty and well suited for piscatorial pursuits as Long Key State Park, midway down the Florida Keys. Campsites there are a long cast from renowned game fish such as permit and bonefish.
About a 45-minute drive farther south is another Keys gem: Bahia Honda State Park, at Big Pine Key. A tropical paradise, Bahia Honda's natural wonders remain blessedly free of development yet chock-full of camping amenities, including hookups for RVs, a couple of boat ramps and air-conditioned seaside cabins on stilts. This also is an excellent place to snorkel and swim the Keys' world-famous coral reefs.
Even with more coastline than any other state in the Lower 48, Florida has fantastic camping away from the beach.
One of the best can be found in Blackwater River State Park, among the largest in the state. Located in the often-overlooked Panhandle, this inland oasis offers two of the top ways to beat the heat: lots of shade and natural springs that remain delightfully cool year-round.
"The water is gin clear, the riverbanks are sugar sand, and you can swim and snorkel and tube for miles," said Jack Sanborn, who grew up playing in these woods and waters and today runs the guide outfit Adventures Unlimited in Milton, Fla. "It's just amazing."
Though he lives in Hull, Mass., Steve Silberberg is a veteran camping and hiking guide who leads regular trips to Florida. For him, Juniper Springs Campground in the Ocala National Forest "is perfect for RV campers and backpackers alike." Campers are united in their love of the 7-mile kayak or canoe trip down Juniper Run's 70-degree spring-fed waters. "Even if you capsize in your canoe, the water's so nice," he said.
RV and trailer campers have their favorites. For Don Reilly, an avid trailer camper who recently moved from Florida to Texas, Jonathan Dickinson State Park is hard to beat.
Located on a former military base on the state's southeast coast, this sprawling park is a nifty mix of extensive and modern amenities along with loads of wildlife. A kayak or canoe trip on the Loxahatchee River, which meanders through the park, is a "trip back in time," Reilly said. He added that even his wife, whom he "could never get into a tent," loves the park's natural wonders.
All in all, many of the most popular parks, such as Bahia Honda, stay booked year-round, but often for different reasons.
"Being in the Keys, it's the warmest place in the country in winter," said Martha Robinson, communications manager with Florida's Department of Environmental Protection. "And in the hot summer, the weather there is pleasant, and there are lots of outdoor water activities. … If you can get a (camping) space any season, you're very lucky."
Same goes for inland hot spots such as Blue Spring State Park in Volusia County. Winter chill draws hundreds of manatees from the nearby St. Johns River up into the relatively warmer waters of Blue Spring, Robinson said. And in the summer, the spring offers a refreshing place to tube and swim.
For those seeking something more on the mild side, there is Disney's Fort Wilderness Resort and Campground at Walt Disney World near Orlando (tinyurl.com/disneycamp), with amenities as only the Magic Kingdom can do them for tent, cabin and RV campers: pools with water slides, horseback riding and canoeing, just to name a few. Plus, it's a fine venue to watch the resort's nightly fireworks display.
"Camping at Fort Wilderness is over-the-top nice," Reilly said.
Those in search of still plusher camping can spring for the In-Room Camping experience at the Ritz-Carlton Orlando, Grande Lakes. In addition to your room rate (must be an executive suite; starting at about $600; tinyurl.com/ritzcamp), $75 buys nightly delivery and setup of a luxury tent in your room, along with a double featherbed, battery-powered lantern, children's book, stuffed animal and s'mores sans campfire. It's meant for kids, but my wife would love it.
If you go
Family campsite prices vary from $16 to $42 a night, depending on the park. Cabin prices vary from $30 to $160 a night. For information on state park camping, visit floridastateparks.org/staythenight/camping.cfm. Phones for parks listed here: Cayo Costa, 941-964-0375; Anastasia, 904-461-2033; Long Key, 305-664-4815; Bahia Honda, 305-872-2353; Blackwater River, 850-983-5363; Jonathan Dickinson, 772-546-2771; Blue Springs, 386-775-3663.
Fort De Soto Park, 727-552-1862, tinyurl.com/pinellaspark. Camping rates start at $33.60.
Juniper Springs Campground, 877-444-6777, tinyurl.com/junipercamp (website can be slow). Camping rates start at $21 per night.
Fort Wilderness Resort and Campground, 407-824-2900, tinyurl.com/disneycamp. Rates start at $49 a night.
Ritz-Carlton Orlando, Grande Lakes, 407-393-4060, tinyurl.com/ritzcamp Executive suites at midweek in August start at about $600.