When I think of Florida, I think of the beach…and oranges. Pasco County changed that for me on a recent visit. I still thought of the beach, but never missed it! I was too busy enjoying a completely different kind of Florida vacation. One filled with adventure, history, excellent food, friendly locals and interactions with exotic animals.
I spent a full week in Pasco County and experienced a lot. Following is a suggested itinerary if you are planning to go, but be prepared to find plenty of reasons to come back again..and again.
Arrive the night before so you can be up early to begin your adventure. I found the beds at Homewood Suites in Port Richey to be too good to get out of, but the free breakfast was calling and allowed me to get out the door early. Contact Florida Backwater Charters and get out on the water in New Port Richey for fishing and exploring. If fishing is your thing, you'll delight in catching Spanish mackerel, spotted trout and red fish from the well equipped boat. Have the captain take you by the Stilt Houses out in the Gulf. They're privately owned, so unless you make friends with an occupant, you'll be just fine enjoying these reminders of a lazier time, from the comfort of the boat. These waters are brimming with life. Inside of an hour I saw a loggerhead turtle, plenty of dolphin and a variety of water fowl. I've never been much of a fisherman, but I quickly gathered that actual fishing is only a part of the experience. The emerald green and blue water encourages relaxation. If you don't get enough of it fishing, find an outfitter and rent a kayak and head back into the Werner-Boyce Salt Springs State Park. You'll be a little more challenged since you'll have to paddle your boat, but you'll have even greater opportunities to see wildlife. Lonzalo's Pizzeria and Ristorante is an excellent choice for dinner. You'll find a great meal and a hospitable environment.
Make arrangements prior to your trip for a sunrise ride in one of Big Red Balloon Sightseeing Adventure's hot air balloons. As they say, the early bird gets the worm, or in this case a stellar bird's eye view of swamps with old growth bald cypresses, white ibises skimming the surface of the water and if you're lucky, an alligator tucked away in a remote area of the landscape. Now that you've tackled some early morning fun, you have so much of the day left to make the most of. I suggest heading over to J.B. Starkey Wilderness Park in New Port Richey. You'll find an 8,000 acre playground for animal watching, biking, in-line skating, camping or just a relaxing stroll. You could never spend enough time in this beautiful, historic park, so I've left the day open for you to make the most of. For a nice off-the-beaten-path trip, drive to Florida Estates Winery in Land O' Lakes to taste a nice assortment of locally made wines, including an exceptional Port! Depending on what time of year that you're visiting (they close at 6pm) stick around and catch the sunset framed by beautiful oak trees. The drive between Land O' Lakes and New Port Richey will take about 40 minutes.
Have a leisurely start to your morning because you'll head to Dade City today to be fully immersed in nature at the Giraffe Ranch. Prepare to feel like you've teleported to Asia or Africa, on a safari in canopied vehicles complete with stadium seating. To be seen here are lemurs, giraffes, zebra, ostriches and a host of other animals. You'll get to feed many of them. The Giraffe Ranch is family-owned and operated and after a little exploring you'll discover that these animals are a part of the family. A couple of options for the night, depending on your interests. Option 1, go back to New Port Richey and catch the sunset cruise with Miss Daisy Boat Tours. Learn how New Port Richey allegedly nearly ended up as the movie capital of the country as famed actors and actresses purchased houses here in the 1920s. There was news of a new theater possibly being built by Thomas Meighan, one of the silent film stars of the that era. There aren't any records that fully support this, however you will find that a good number of homes were bought or built by the likes of Gloria Swansen, Charlie Chaplin, Johnny Cash and many others. None the less, the boat ride is relaxing and entertaining. You might even catch a glimpse of a manatee or dolphin. Option 2 would be to head to the very luxurious and wonderful Saddlebrook Resort in Wesley Chapel. This place oozes quality and exceptional service. An example of the level of service one can expect at the Saddlebrook Resort...having overheard me saying that I wanted to see an alligator, David Hamilton, an employee of the resort, insisted on setting out together in a golf cart. With impressive persistence and an awesome attitude he drove me around to every pond on the campus until we found our gator. The food at Dempsey's Too is in a class of its own. Don't stuff yourself, because if you aren't taking up a round of golf, you will surely want to take a dip in the gigantic Superpool or relax in one of the two hot tubs (one covered, one not) near the pool. Prepare for another dreamy night in a deliciously comfortable bed.
Okay, now to end the week on a high note…literally (13,500 ft high), we head to Zephyrhills to Sky Dive City. That's right! It's time to jump out of a perfectly good plane, all for the sake of a good shot of adrenaline. This is one of the most exhilarating things that I've done…and will do again. On my visit, my tandem dive instructor, Aaron Stocum, and our videographer/photographer, Paul Meagher, helped make this experience unforgettable. Aaron had logged over 9,000 dives giving me almost total peace of mind. As I floated down to a safe landing, I thought, "what a perfect end to a fun filled week." I can only hope that you will be thinking the same thing.
I returned from Pasco County, FL with that feeling of having stumbled upon something special. I packed so many fantastic things into just a few days, but never felt rushed because of the inherent slow pace that seems to have its hold on the area. Wonderful scenery, food, activities and people. A final thought: I'm happy to have made friends in Pasco County…ensuring that I will definitely have to go back!