Florida’s special places all involve waterways — coastlines, springs, lakes, rivers, swamps — so it makes sense that to truly experience Florida, you need a boat.
Fortunately, you don’t have to own one.
You can just buy a ticket and join one of the hundreds of boat trips and tours offered around the state.
On these floating getaways, you can reach places where there are no roads and glimpse views you can’t see any other way. Some of the boats themselves are one-of-a-kind attractions. Others are classic Florida experiences that have been carrying visitors on these routes for more than 100 years.
Almost anyplace you go in Florida, you can find a way to see the sights from the water. Here are 10 favorites around the state that illustrate the variety of boat tours.
Silver Springs: the oldest glass-bottom boat tour in Florida. People have been gazing into the clear water of Silver Springs through glass-bottom boats for almost 150 years, making the Ocala spring the oldest tourist attraction in Florida. It started in the 1870s when an entrepreneur fixed a piece of glass in the bottom of a rowboat. Tourists flocked here to see what was then the largest artesian spring in the world, and Silver Springs became a big money-making attraction.
By 2013, however, Silver Springs’ success as a tourist attraction had faded. The state took it over and opened the new Silver Springs State Park. Fortunately, the traditional glass-bottom boat tours continue. While the spring no longer pumps enough water to be first in the world, it is still a stunning sight. You can still see the bottom through 20 or 30 feet of water the color of a swimming pool. Visitors often see wildlife — alligators, turtles, anhingas, herons plus large fish in the clear water.• Details: 5656 E. Silver Springs Blvd., Silver Springs; 352-236-7148; www.floridastateparks.org/silversprings. $9.99 per person.
Tarpon Springs: A cruise to a dazzling island. As early as 1890, Greeks came to Tarpon Springs to dive for sponges. The sponges are long gone, but the Greek heritage lives on. One of the best things to do from the Tarpon Springs Sponge Docks is take a boat tour that offers several delights: You tour the Anclote River and hear a little Tarpon Springs history; you gaze on the Gulf waters and spot dolphins; you get a short stop on Anclote Key, a pristine white-sand barrier island reachable only by boat.
Anclote Key is a state park with an 1887 lighthouse. The tours give visitors a half hour to enjoy Anclote’s perfect sandy beaches — you’ll wish you could stay. Visiting the lighthouse is not part of the tour. Two boat companies make cruises to Anclote from the Sponge Docks.• Details: SunLine Cruises, 18 Dodecanese Blvd., Tarpon Springs; 727-944-4468; www.sunlinecruises.net. Adults $20; children $10.
• Spongeorama Cruiselines, 510 Dodecanese Blvd., Tarpon Springs; 727-943-2164; http://spongeoramacruiselines.com. Adults $18.95; children $9.95.
Hobe Sound: Discover the Wild Man of the Loxahatchee. This boat tour takes you to a fascinating destination you can’t reach by land. Located inside Jonathan Dickinson State Park in Hobe Sound, the narrated tour on the 25-passenger Loxahatchee Queen II takes you down the jungly Loxahatchee River, which is worth the trip by itself.
The highlight is a visit to the home of Trapper Nelson, one of those fabulous characters who have helped make Florida funky from its early days. Nelson started out living off the land as a trapper and fur trader in the 1930s, but soon turned himself and his home into one of the area’s first tourist attractions, Trapper’s Zoo and Jungle Gardens. His story includes his mysterious death in 1968 and a treasure of 5,000 coins found on the site years later. No public roads lead to Trapper Nelson’s site.• Details: 16450 SE Federal Hwy., Hobe Sound; 561-746-1466; www.jdstatepark.com. $20 for adults, $12.25 for children 6 to 12 and free for children under 6.
Key West: See sunset from the water. Key West has turned the daily sunset into a celebration and seeing the sun go down from a boat cruising off-shore is a classic Key West memory. There are many from which to choose: Some are “all you can drink” party boats with DJs and dancing. The pirate-themed Jolly II Rover schooner with its jaunty red sails is $35 and is BYOB.
A true historic option is Florida’s official flagship, the Schooner Western Union, a 130-foot tall ship built in Key West in 1939 to tend Western Union’s cable lines. The schooner trip lets you enjoy the view of Key West and nearby islands under golden end-of-day light. The $59 sunset cruise includes champagne, beer, wine, soft drinks, conch chowder and key lime pie.
You can compare sunset cruise options during a scenic stroll through the Historic Key West Seaport. Watch for promotions and discounts. Many other Florida port cities offer sunset cruises too, so explore options near where you’re staying.• Details: Schooner Western Union, 201 William St., Key West; 305-290-2045; http://schoonerwesternunion.org/. Adults: $59; Children (4-12): $29.
Blue Spring State Park: Manatees and more on the St. Johns. One of the best spots to to see an endangered manatee in the wild is Blue Spring State Park in Orange City. When the weather is cold, the clear spring can attract hundreds of manatees; most leave by early spring when waters elsewhere warm up.
The St. Johns River Cruise, which leaves from the park, specializes in helping you spot wildlife — not just manatees, but also alligators, bald eagles, osprey, herons, egrets, sandhill cranes, limpkin, ibis, purple gallinules and more. The two-hour cruise winds through shallow areas of the unspoiled river and even when wildlife is scarce, the guide offers lots of history and information about the area.• Details: 2100 W. French Ave., Orange City; 407-330-1612 or 386-917-0724; http://sjrivercruises.com/. $22 adults; $16 children 3-12.
Key Largo: Be like Bogie on the African Queen. The African Queen, the actual steamboat used in the 1951 movie starring Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn, has been beautifully restored to take visitors on Key Largo cruises. You can’t do this anywhere else.
Cruises are pricey — best for true fans yearning to sit exactly where Hepburn and Bogart did — but intimate. The boat is licensed to take just six passengers at a time and the canal cruise is about 90 minutes long. On Friday and Saturday nights, there is a two-hour canal cruise that includes a three-course dinner at the Pilot House Restaurant and Marina. The dinner cruise is $89.• Details: U.S. 1 at mile marker 100, Holiday Inn Docks, Key Largo; 305-451-8080; http://africanqueenflkeys.com/. $49 adults.
Fort Pierce: See dolphins on Indian River Lagoon. The Indian River Lagoon is a long, thin waterway that parallels Florida’s Atlantic Coast for 150 miles. It’s saltwater and is home to an array of birds as well as dolphins, manatees and sea turtles.
Fort Pierce makes the most of its location on the lagoon, with a downtown built around the city marina and the adjoining Manatee Observation and Education Center. You can take a 90-minute boat tour from the city marina that offers an excellent chance to see dolphins with a story-telling narrator who is steeped in local history and lore.
Details: Indian River Lagoon Boat Tours, 1 Avenue A, Fort Pierce; 772-464-4445; http://indianriverlagoonandswamplandboattours.com/. $23 for adults, $15 kids under 15.
Wakulla Springs: Make like Tarzan and explore “The Black Lagoon.” One of the largest springs in the world and the deepest in Florida, Wakulla Springs near Tallahassee has a rich history. There are mastodon bones in the bottom of the river and archeological sites along its shores. It was also the setting for several early Tarzan movies starring Johnny Weissmuller, as well as The Creature from the Black Lagoon.
The guide on the boat tour in Edward Ball Wakulla Spring State Park tells you stories of the mysterious spring (its source has never been located) while pointing out wildlife, which is plentiful. Ancient bald cypress trees line the river.
The boat tour is a three-mile loop that takes 45 minutes to an hour and it’s a bargain — $8 for adults and $5 for children. The water rarely achieves the aquamarine clarity it once had, but when it does — usually in late winter or early spring — Wakulla Spring brings out its glass bottom boat for special tours.
Details: 465 Wakulla Park Drive, Wakulla Springs; 850-561-7276; www.floridastateparks.org/wakullasprings/activities.cfm#6.
Winter Park: Find serenity in Central Florida. Long before Mickey Mouse came to Orlando, folks were enjoying “jungle cruises” in this Orlando suburb. The Winter Park Scenic Boat Tours started taking visitors through the lakes and canals of the Winter Park chain in 1938.
On the tour, you see lushly landscaped lakefront estates and ride through narrow canals. You’ll see boaters, wading birds and the occasional alligator. Tour guides offer lots of stories about local history and the people who lived in the mansions plus a few corny jokes. The boats provide a friendly, intimate tour — they are 18-passenger open-air pontoon boats. (Be sure to bring hats and sunscreen.)
Details: 312 E. Morse Blvd., Winter Park; 407-644-4056; www.scenicboattours.com. $12 adults; $6 children; cash only.
St. Augustine: Sail past a historic Spanish fort. A hundred years ago, Henry Flagler was bringing Florida’s first tourists to St. Augustine on his train and hosting them at his grand Ponce De Leon Hotel, which is now Flagler College. To amuse his guests, Flagler arranged for some locals, Captain Frank Usina and his wife, to offer oyster roasts. Pretty soon, Usina was transporting visitors by boat around St. Augustine’s waters.
A century later, his descendants are still doing that. The hour-and-15-minute scenic cruise, operated by the fourth generation of the Usina family, sails under St. Augustine’s much photographed Bridge of Lions and in front of the Castillo De San Marcos, past salt marshes with wading birds and out to the lighthouse. Sightings of dolphins are common.
Details: St. Augustine Municipal Marina, 111 Avenida Menendez, St Augustine; 904-824-1806; www.scenic-cruise.com. Adults, $16.75; children (4-12) $7.75.
Bonnie Gross is a co-founder of FloridaRambler.com, a guide to the natural and authentic Florida.