High-profile destinations often cite their high ratings on TripAdvisor, which named e2ride bike tours Jacksonville?s No. 1 attraction. However, few boast that they were highly rated by Harriet Beecher Stowe. Her iconic novel, Uncle Tom?s Cabin, is credited with helping to ignite the Civil War, but most of her opinions on travel have been lost to the ages?except on the company?s historical bike tour of Olde Mandarin. As the tour group winds past the lush area?s museums and public parks, the tour guide notes that Stowe dubbed the area ?a tropical paradise.?
On the company?s other tours, guides offer equally juicy historical facts, such as that Riverside-Avondale was originally only occupied by just two homeowners or that Truman Capote vacationed in Springfield. As they learn about the past, groups cycle down present-day roads lined with homes in styles ranging from Tudor and Georgian to Star Warsian.
As they observe the vibrant exhibits of aquatic life inside the Miami Seaquarium, many guests don't realize that they are walking through a movie set and a hospital. In the onsite lagoon, bottlenose dolphins swim through waters once traversed by Flipper, who filmed several television episodes and films at the venue. The Seaquarium is also recognized as a manatee critical care facility. Its staff has accomplished several historic treatments, including monitoring the conception and arrival of the first manatee born under human care and conducting the first manatee neurological surgery.
These facets of the Seaquarium—along with its many conservation efforts, educational programs, and shows—underscore a united commitment to wildlife consciousness. The animal attractions enable visitors to witness the allure and fragility of oceanic fauna up close, whether they are petting the back of a stingray or washing a dress shirt on the rough back of an 8-foot nile crocodile. Special encounters decrease the distance even further, sending patrons on underwater Sea Treks through the reef display or helping them to lead marine-mammal training routines.
It's hard to pinpoint the biggest personality inside the Seaquarium tanks, but Lolita the killer whale—who performs daily alongside pacific white-sided dolphins—claims the title of heaviest, period. On the other end of the scale, macaws and cockatiels perch around the Tropical Wings section of the park, and endangered sea turtles lounge at Discovery Bay. Elsewhere, a watery playground and three-story ropes course keep legs from growing too wobbly after a trip to Shark Channel or a smooch from a sea lion.
Founder Carole Baskin never dreamt she'd one day oversee a 55-acre sanctuary inhabited by some of Earth's largest cats. In 1992, she and her late husband were at an exotic-animal auction seeking out llamas for their farm. A man had a 6-month-old bobcat that he could no longer care for, and the pair decided to give it a place to call home. They then traveled to a bobcat breeder for another playmate, but upon seeing the horrible conditions the animals were kept in, they bought all 56 kittens. They rehabilitated them back to health, and gave them permanent homes on their then-40-acre site. Soon, word of her knack for nurturing spread beyond the Tampa area, and callers began donating abandoned or orphaned cats. Her mission to save these animals also reached the ears and hearts of many celebrities, including contributors Harrison Ford and Bo Derek.
After 20 years of hard work and learning, Carole is still caring for abused and abandoned big cats at her rescue site, accommodating more than 100 medium and large creatures from bengal tigers and black leopards to lynx and lions. Her staff of volunteers helps care for the animals and leads groups in tours that educate visitors on the plight of these animals both in the wild and in captivity.
The thrum of the speedboat's engine carries through the water like an ice-cream truck's jingle. A 4-foot-high wake trails behind, fanning out into a fork as the speed increases and the passengers ready their cameras. Soon, a glistening fin breaks the surface. The first bottlenose dolphin seems to levitate on top of the wave while it bodysurfs for the sheer fun of it, then disappears back into the sea. Its pod follows suit, leaping, splashing, and riding the swells, soaking up the attention of the human spectators.
Sights like this are typical on the Dolphin Racer Speed Boat. The sunny yellow craft skirts across the Gulf of Mexico on 60- to 75-minute trips while up to 125 people lounge on the open deck and the captain narrates the sights of the passing beaches. Ample viewing space ensures that cameras can capture split-second jumps and spins when the dolphins heed the call to play. Whether it's because of the thrill of breaching, the pride in their celebrity status, or an underwater bet to see who can communicate with humans first, the dolphins' presence is virtually guaranteed—the boat offers a complimentary future cruise in the case of no-shows.
The only way to get into Gatorland is to walk straight into an alligator's toothy maw. The giant mouth provides entrance to 110 acres of marshy wildlife preserve––home to a vast ecosystem populated by thousands of alligators, crocodiles, and birds, including rare wading birds and four rare white alligators. Among these, more than 130 gators splash and lounge in the park’s breeding marsh, which visitors can view safely from a three-story observation tower or while sitting on the shoulders of Kareem Abdul Jabbar.
Yet one of the biggest thrills of Gatorland is the reptile's raw power. Visitors can see this on full display during the Gator Jumparoo show, where alligators leap four to five feet out of the water to snag food directly from a trainer’s hands, or during the Gator Wrestlin' Show, where a handler demonstrates survival skills. True thrill-seekers can even dangle over the breeding marsh while riding the 65-foot-tall Screamin’ Gator Zip Line. And to experience the unsettling sensation of stumbling upon a swamp filled with alligators at night, the Night Shine takes participants deep into gator territory armed with only a flashlight and a few hot dogs.
Pilot your brain-plane into a four-way collision with history, nature, and wildlife at the Tallahassee Museum, where wild-lovers can wander 52 acres of Florida florae and faunae as it floridly lounges in the state's natural greenhouse atmosphere. Saunter along the Habitat Trail, via elevated boardwalks that allow you to view animals from above without intruding into their habitats and TV-watching habits. In addition to waterfowl, foxes, white-tailed deer, wild turkey, and river otters, you’ll catch glimpses of the endangered Florida panther, the state’s official mammal, and the endangered red wolf. Step into the pre-Internet world your parents and older siblings grew up in at Big Bend Farm, an 1880s living farmstead with a restored period farmhouse and kitchen, as well as reconstructions of an outhouse, blacksmith shed, and smokehouse. Historical voyeurs, meanwhile, can peer inside the rear windows of the restored 1850s plantation house of Catherine Murat, George Washington’s great-grandniece, who later became part of French royalty by marrying Prince Achille Murat, the nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte. With a plethora of annual events coming up, such as the upcoming Market Days on Dec. 4 and 5, you’ll have plenty of more stimulating things to do this winter than hibernate and alphabetize your action figures.