3 quirky Florida vacation spots 4 hours or less from Tampa Bay

Our child has been in the virtual school all year. So when the vacation weeks rolled around, staying in the house didn’t seem like a fun option. Weird!

Of course, safe travel is limited during a pandemic. We created COVID Vacation Protocol: Find a rental home in a city less than four hours from Tampa Bay. Short journeys reduced downtime and also preserved some reason. (Do you feel locked in a house? Try a car). A change of scenery as good as a vacation during a pandemic.

Since we hadn’t planned to go out much, we focused on houses more than cities. We ended up in a round house on the beach, a cabin in the woods and, finally, a houseboat. I’m happy to report that no one got seasick or swept away, but now I have a great idea for a horror novel.

It’s easy to find quirky vacations using the filters on any vacation rental site. On Airbnb, the “unique stays” category offers everything from caves to castles. On VRBO, you can sort farms and mills (okay!). If you like the camping vibe but hate sleeping on the floor and walking half a mile to the bathroom in the dark, try Glamping Hub for RV and cabin options.

Once we chose a destination based on the home, we explored the outdoor offerings nearby. It was a great reminder to throw a dart at a map because adventure is everywhere. Listen to the John Williams soundtrack.

Here are three cities we might not have visited without home energy this year. Thanks I guess?

Related: Spring Breakers in Florida, may your Airbnb checkout be satisfactory

Little Gasparilla Island

The sunset at Little Gasparilla Island on a July day last summer. [ STEPHANIE HAYES | Times ]

This Charlotte County island, west of Placida between Sarasota and Fort Myers, is accessible only by boat. You can travel the whole island in a quarter of a mile. There are no real roads, only dirt roads for golf carts, and no shops or restaurants. It is the ultimate isolation, perfect at the height of the pandemic. But if you hate people, consider this a solid destination.

Travel time from Tampa Bay: Two o’clock

Where to stay: Many rentals are available through the usual websites. But for unique information and house listings, check littlegasparilla.com. It answers everything from how to take the water taxi to how to get groceries delivered, so they’ll be seated in your house when you get there. You can pack your own food, but I definitely suggest the delivery service. Who wants to lug a case of wine on a boat?

What to do: Relax! That’s it. Nothing else to do. But you can meet wildlife, from nesting turtles (leave them alone) to shorebirds. Plus, the sand is full of shark teeth and sand dollars for collectors.

Pro tip: Stay on the beach. Inland, mosquitoes can be very swarming.

Fort McCoy

A horse at Griffin Ranch in Fort McCoy last December.
A horse at Griffin Ranch in Fort McCoy last December. [ STEPHANIE HAYES | Times ]

Find this little place in Marion County, northeast of Ocala, between Sparr and Eureka. There is a local grocery store and a lot of rural charm. Everything here revolves around motorhomes, farms, lakeside houses and cabins.

Travel time from Tampa Bay: Two o’clock

Where to stay: We chose the Griffin Ranch, a working horse ranch with cabins on site. It’s rustic and quiet, and the friendly owners present a refreshing drink as soon as you stop the car. (Have fun, parents!) The ranch is home to horses, peacocks and places to sit around a fire and relax. Bring DVDs to watch, as there is no cable or streaming. thegriffinranch.com.

What to do: Take a short drive to Fort McCoy and the options are plentiful. We hiked the Yearling Trail in the Ocala National Forest, a 5.5 mile loop where Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings stayed and gleaned literary inspiration. Consider a bike ride on the serene and surprisingly hilly Gainesville-Hawthorne State Park Trail, which leads into the heart of the University of Florida and Gator Country.

Pro tip: Be prepared for the sight and smell of well water, if you are not used to it.

Fleming Island

This Clay County community southwest of Jacksonville is stylish, residential, and surrounded by scenic water views. It is bordered by the St. Johns River, Doctors Lake, Black Creek and Swimming Pen Creek.

Travel time from Tampa Bay: Four hours

Where to stay: We slept on a houseboat at Doctors Lake Marina. Really, it was more of a houseboat attached to a dock. To look for “HomeAWave” on VRBO and Airbnb for the exact location, but more traditional houseboats are also available for hire. The marina offers day boat rentals, a mini market, and the Sunset Tiki Bar for drinks, the cornhole, and the giant Connect Four.

What to do: A walking and biking trail runs along Fleming Island for approximately 8 miles and ends at Black Creek Park. Be careful on the ATV trails, or you will end up like me, sideways on the ground. Jacksonville and all it has to offer is a short drive away. Check out Kathryn Abbey Hanna Park for a day at the beach with the dogs.

Pro tip: We didn’t get seasick, but pack Dramamine if you’re prone to motion sickness. It’s crazy to see the landscape swaying in the distance.

Related: Read more columns from Stephanie Hayes

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