Visiting Florida’s Other Magic Kingdom
Redefine vacation on a trip to Pasco County, Florida, where outdoor recreation, natural scenery and eco-conscious living happily collide for a trip guaranteed to make you forget the hustle and bustle of everyday life. Just a 30-minute drive from Tampa, Pasco County seems far removed from big city living and offers a plethora of recreation opportunities: boating, fishing, kayaking, hiking, cycling and much more.
Make your first stop in Pasco the Port Richey/New Port Richey area, which sits on the gulf and is set in lush forestlands. The beautiful Pithlachascotee River (nicknamed Cotee) flows right through town. In the 1930s, this area was set to become America’s movie production capital, and many stars of the time (Johnny Cash, Charlie Chaplin and Shirley Temple) owned luxury mansions along the river. But air conditioning had yet to be invented, and Florida’s hot, humid summers ruined stage makeup, causing movie makers to abandon Florida for Southern California with its moderate climate to establish Hollywood.
You can still see Port Richey’s film roots on a Miss Daisy Boat Tour of the Cotee River. The covered pontoon boat ride takes you past former celebrity homes and Captain Ray Kelly shares stories about the Port Richey area. The cost is $16 to $19 per rider and reservations can be made at 727-819-1754 or online.
For anglers, or angler-wannabees, a private boat trip with Florida Backwater Charter is the best way to see the gulf and have a chance to catch a much-desired redfish. The area near Anclote Key, a river park with a historic lighthouse, bird watching and picnic spots, is a prime fishing spot with gorgeous blue-green water.
Randy is a patient teacher and helped me land not one, but two fish: a 13-inch Spanish mackerel and a trout. Fishing gear and bait is provided by the charter. But fish aren’t the only wildlife you’ll see in this part of the Gulf of Mexico. In under an hour we saw an assortment of birds, fish, dolphins and a loggerhead turtle. To book a chartered tour, contact Randy Schoneman at 727-863-4642 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
To get in more water time, rent kayaks and visit the nearby Werner-Boyce Salt Springs State Park. Fun for all ages, they call this park the “Real Florida” for good reason. The lush trees, narrow waterways and wildlife make for fantastic exploration. Animals like gators, gray foxes, gopher tortoises and West Indian manatees can be seen…if you’re quiet.
Enjoy authentic Florida scenery at the Starkey Wilderness Preserve. J.B. Starkey purchased this land in 1937 for a cattle ranch and has preserved 18,000 acres for the public to enjoy. During your visit, you’ll see long-leaf pines, unique wildlife, lakes and enjoy endless recreation. Located in the city of New Port Richey, this park is Pasco’s best destination for camping, hiking, horseback riding, cycling and bird watching. The park’s wildlife, unique vegetation and remote spots are best enjoyed by bike or horse. Road bikers will enjoy newly paved trails within and directly outside Starkey Park.
If you can’t get enough of the park, spend the night at the Starkey Park Cabin or tent sites. Cabins come equipped with power and bunk beds and access to a nearby shower house is included. During the night, a wealth of wildlife, like deer, frogs and more will make appearances for your viewing pleasure. Click here to make a reservation.
For a bird’s eye view of Starkey Park and surrounding Pasco County, take a scenic float on a Big Red Balloon Hot Air Balloon Tour. Sunrise launches take you high above Pasco County for scenic gulf, park and city views. You’ll soar 1000 feet high over lakes, cattle herds and forests of cypress trees. The hour float wasn’t remotely scary, even for someone as afraid of heights as I am. Up to 10 passengers can ride inside each balloon and prices start at $185 per person, which includes full breakfast and champagne toast. Email email@example.com or call 813-969-1518 to book.
DADE CITY: A NATURE LOVER’S PARADISE
Dade City, just a 30 minute drive from Port Richey, offers family-friendly, green adventures in a gorgeous setting. Make your first stop the Little Everglades Ranch, a 2050-acre working ranch with an fantastic landscape of hills, lakes, forest and a wealth of native wildlife and livestock, like the exotic Belted Galloway Cattle. Nicknamed the “Oreo Cookie Cow” these black or dun animals have a white middle and are long-lived for cattle. Upon seeing these adorable creatures, I briefly considered raising one in my backyard. You must see them for yourself! We also tracked down two huge (about 12-foot long) alligators basking in the sun near one of the Ranch’s lakes. An amazing site, but don’t get too close to them!
Little Everglades Ranch also plays host to many events: steeplechase (horse race obstacle course), horse driving events, high school cross country events and for the first time this year, Tough Mudder (an insanely difficult obstacle course endurance race).
After leaving Little Everglades, drive a few miles down the road to Giraffe Ranch. You and your family will be delighted by this facility, which allows you to see exotic animals up close. However, reservations are required as only two small group tours happen each day at 11:00 a.m. and 2:00 p.m. Giraffe Ranch isn’t a zoo, but is a family-owned, working game farm that strives to conserve endangered species and preserve them for small public groups to see. To experience the Ranch, you’ll ride on a 4WD safari tour that takes you to see zebras, ostriches, warthogs and even animals extinct in the wild in large, natural environments. But the tour’s highlight is hand feeding giraffes and lemurs; the giraffes get very close. and may even lick you with their giant blue tongue. The lemurs seem like they’ll mob you, but they gently take grapes out of your outstretched hand.
In addition to the 4WD safari tour, there’s a new way to see Giraffe Ranch as of Memorial Day. New camel caravan tours let you saddle up high on a camel and ride through the park in a camel train. It’s a great way to get even closer to all the amazing animals, and you can check camel riding off your bucket list! In addition to preserving wildlife, Giraffe Ranch strives to preserve Earth’s resources by using solar-powered golf carts and gates. Make a reservation by calling 813-482-3400.
Ever tasted a kumquat? Try one at Kumquat Growers, the world’s leading grower of this unique fruit. A kumquat is an orange-like fruit that is eaten peel and all. It’s also commonly used for decorating during the holidays. Their store is open November to April and samples and sells many tasty kumquat products, like kumquat pie or kumquat peach preserves. For more old-time fun, visit the Kumquat Festival in Dade City on Saturday, January 28, which features a 5K race, beauty pageant, live music and a wealth of yummy kumquat treats.
ACCOMMODATIONS AND DINING
Enjoy luxurious accommodations at Port Richey’s Homewood Inn and Suites. Rooms start at just $90 a night and include amenities like a free hot breakfast, dinner four nights a week, a beautiful pool, hot tub and business center with free Internet access and printing.
For delicious Italian and a pleasant atmosphere in New Port Richey, visit Lonzalos Pizza and order the flavorful thin crust pizza or a pasta. Consider sharing because portions are huge! Another Pasco County favorite is Pappas Ranch This barbecue joint has tasty sandwiches and a full bar with unique mixed drinks. But don’t go to Pappas without ordering their Famous Greek Salad. The large salad can serve two as an entree and has traditional Greek toppings like peppers, feta cheese and tomatoes, but a hidden clump of homemade potato salad and delicious dressing is what makes this salad so special.
For green eating, visit Dade City’s Kafe Kokopelli, which uses sustainable practices like using biodegradable to-go containers, cooking with organic ingredients and donating funds to wildlife conservation efforts. Try the She-Crab Bisque and Fried Green Tomato Salad. Many vegetarian options are also available.
Discover Florida’s other side in beautiful Pasco County. You’ll find you don’t even need to visit the Magic Kingdom to entertain your family, and yourself, on your next Florida vacation.