Florida's Nature Coast

'Florida manatee, Trichechus manatus latirostris, Homosassa Springs, Florida, USA'
••• Wolfgang Poelzer/Getty Images

Welcome to Florida's Nature Coast, where you'll discover the "real" Florida. You won't find animated or mechanical critters here. Florida's Nature Coast boasts the real thing, from alligators to black bears, flamingos to pelicans, manatees to sea turtles. And, if you're into thrill rides, you've come to the right place. Aquatic adventures will immerse you in everything from deep cave diving and deep sea fishing to sightseeing excursions and swimming with manatees.

Follow the major north-south route of U. S. Highways 19 and 98 along Florida's West Coast to access most of the attractions of the Nature Coast. Florida's Nature Coast is located west of Interstate I-75 via Highway 50 and is accessible by the north-south corridor of U. S. Highway 19. After you leave the heavy traffic areas of Pinellas and Pasco counties and enter Hernando and Citrus counties, you are likely to see black bear and deer crossing signs along the way. A major north-south route before the construction of Interstate 75, the highway is situated just a short distance from the actual coast and is the perfect habitat for wildlife and environmentally conscious tourists alike.

Weeki Wachee Springs State Park

Talk about thrills. How about live mermaids? The underwater show featuring live mermaids at Weeki Wachee Springs has been around since 1947, but this little park keeps the spirit of the offbeat roadside attraction alive. In 2008, the attraction became the 160th Florida State Park.

Worth the price of admission is the Wilderness River Cruise that traverses one of Florida's most interesting ecosystems. You can also immerse yourself in real splish-splashing thrills at the adjoining Buccaneer Bay which is included in your daily admission, but is open only seasonally. Add the picnic area and nearby playground to make this a great break-the-boredom stop for a morning or afternoon break from travel.

Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park

These springs are famous for the manatees that frequent them. After the boat ride from the Visitor's Center, guests may tour the underwater floating observatory that provides the perfect viewing area to watch these gentle giants. However, they are not the only wildlife you'll see. Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park offers a glimpse of alligators and birds.

Cedar Key

This fishing village could be taken from the sketch pad of Norman Rockwell. Along the Gulf, the waterfront is a unique shopping area and wonderful seafood restaurants. Situated a bit off the beaten-path and some 65 miles north and west of Homosassa Springs is Cedar Key. While getting there is a rather desolate ride from Otter Creek on Highway 98 westward on Highway 24, the drive is definitely worth it.