Editor’s Note — Forrest Brown is an editor at CNN.com and a former resident of Florida in the 1980s for a grand total of 13 months.
(CNN) — Does the idea of spending time in the Magic Kingdom with the Mickey Mouse gang leave you thinking “Oh, rats!”? Does the idea of spending time with the hot people of Miami’s trendy South Beach leave you cold?
Its towns are smaller, quiet and friendly. Many of its attractions emphasize the natural environment. It’s a place for hiking, biking, kayaking, snorkeling, tubing and fishing. And you can enjoy it all without devastating your wallet and facing large or pretentious crowds.
I made two visits down there in the summer and fall of 2014, but “Old Florida” can be enjoyed any time of year. Here are nine spots worthy of a visit:
1. Cedar Key
What you will find here: An unassuming town of modest and funky tin-roofed homes, a few ’50s-style motels and quaint shops. Lots of folks get around via golf carts and bicycles, which they don’t seem to ever lock up. Art is a big part of the town, with all manner of public displays popping up. Charter boats at the marina offer fishing excursions and exploration rides, including sunset cruises.
With such a relaxed atmosphere, Cedar Key has a bit of a Key West vibe — minus the all-night party atmosphere. This is a town that goes mostly silent by 10 p.m.
If you seek a traditional, white-sand beach with aqua Gulf of Mexico waters right at your doorstep, you need to go elsewhere. But if you want to escape to another time where simple pleasures rule, Cedar Key is the place.
2. Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park
One word: Manatees. They got ’em, and you can see these gentle giants feeding on heads of lettuce from an underwater observation deck.
Do not skip the 15-minute-or-so boat ride from the parking area to the animal displays, where they take you down a narrow, blackwater creek. You feel like you’re in a jungle. And you kind of are.
At $13 for one adult, the admission is more than is typical for Florida state parks, but it’s worth it.
3. Alexander Springs, Ocala National Forest
This is no ordinary swimming hole, unless you’ve been dipping in a pool of chilly gin before. The water is that clear and that cool. Honestly.
If you get tired of swimming in the brisk, limpid waters, you can explore the lush surrounding forest on a boardwalk and trail. Be sure to arrive early if you come on a hot summer weekend. There’s limited parking.
4. Stephen Foster Folk Culture Center State Park
Way down upon the Suwannee River, far, far away from Florida’s more crowded tourist sites, lies a pretty little state park not so far from Georgia and an easy jump off Interstate 75.
You can also enjoy Foster exhibits, including old pianos and desks he used. Check the park’s calendar — they have various programs throughout the year. No need to bring your iPod; the park’s 97-bell carillon housed in an impressively tall brick tower provides the musical backdrop.
The nearby town of White Springs has some pretty old homes, too.
5. Apalachicola and Eastpoint
Apalachicola is beloved for its oysters. Up the Creek Raw Bar offers a fantastic view to go along with oysters on the half shell.
Be sure to venture out from the little business district. Apalachicola has some lovely, meticulously maintained homes over which you’ll drool.
I stayed across the bay in nearby Eastpoint, which is even smaller, more blue collar and boutique-free.
6. St. George Island State Park
It’s often cited in Top 10 Florida beach lists, and with good reason.
If you’re not a fan of crowds, this is the place to be. This is a big place with miles and miles of beach unadulterated by condos, high-rises and general seashore tackiness. Camping sites are available for folks who like to do that.
7. St. Joseph Peninsula State Park
As impressive as the beach is here at St. Joseph, the bayside view might be even more spectacular.
What really sold me on St. Joseph were the bayside trails; they were nothing less than outstanding. I heard a symphony of birds and insects on my hike, and every turn of the trail revealed another splendid mix of green pines, brown marsh grasses, white sand, dark blue water and pale blue sky.
This little slice of paradise costs gas money to drive there and 4 bucks for a single adult. A carload of folks gets in for $2 more.
8. Wakulla Springs State Park
Not too far from Tallahassee, it’s hard to find, but worth the trouble. The park has trails for hiking, but the big attractions are the swimming area and the one-hour riverboat rides, which are well worth the $8 for an adult.
You get up close and personal with all manner of exotic birds, big fat alligators (and I do mean big and fat) and, if you’re lucky, a few manatees. We were striking it so rich with wildlife on our ride that our generous flat-boat captain let us stay out an extra 15 minutes.
I had the cool swimming area to myself on a weekday in October, but I imagine it’s filled up with splashy, happy children in northern Florida’s hot summer weekends.
9. Amelia Island and Fernandina Beach
I’m an Atlantic Ocean kind of fellow, so I had to end with a nod to the salty waters I know best.
Downtown Fernandina is definitely the most upscale of the places on this list, but it still had a down-to-earth charm. If you enjoy gawking at homes as much as I do, you’ll be in heaven here. 6th Street in particular seemed to be replete with Southern classics.
This article was originally published in November 2014.