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Best of the Southeast: Explore Florida like a local

You don’t want to travel like a tourist. You’re looking for hidden gems. In the AJC’s annual Best of the Southeast travel special section, we give you the lowdown on where locals eat, drink, play, relax, shop and discover.

Go to the Sunshine State to swim with manatees, relax in the casual elegance of Old Florida and eat fresh fish in an open-air restaurant.

»RELATED: 3 ways for families to enjoy Florida together

Play: Swim with the manatees in Crystal River, Fla.

The Crystal River area along Florida’s western Nature Coast is a spring-fed, constant 72 degrees, which makes it an ideal winter home for about 400 manatees. The oversized creatures flock to the area when the waters of the Gulf of Mexico get too cool for their comfort. Along with being the manatees’ second home, the area is the only place where it’s legal to jump in the water and frolic alongside the ungainly but gentle sea cows.

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The Plantation on Crystal River (9301 W. Fort Island Trail, Crystal River, Fla. 352-795-4211) is an eco-friendly resort surrounded by the natural springs of the area, features an adventure center and dive shop that offers swim-with-the-manatees outings year-round, though October through March is prime time. Guests also can opt to just watch the animals swim, eat and play in the refreshing waters.

Packages make planning simple: Guests receive an overnight stay, plus a manatee snorkeling tour, breakfast and a goodie bag stuffed with plush manatee toys and guides. Tours are conducted on enclosed boats. There are golf and scalloping packages too. Guided sunset or sunrise kayak tours are great fun. The property also features a marina, 18-hole golf course, a spa and restaurants.

H.M. Cauley, for the AJC

Relax: Taste of old Florida in the Keys

Note: As of mid-October 2017, Moorings Village is currently closed due to the aftermath of Hurricane Irma. They hope to reopen soon, keep an eye on their Facebook page: facebook.com/mooringsvillage.

If you’ve ever yearned to go back in time and take refuge in what was once the casual elegance of old Florida, which, in truth, was probably as elusive as Shangri-la, wander about 90 miles south of Miami’s neon glare to Islamorada in the Florida Keys.

Make your way to the Moorings Village (123 Beach Road, Islamorada, Fla., 305-664-4708). This former coconut plantation now is home to 18 blissful acres that include bright, sugary sands scattered with 19 self-sufficient island-style cottages and villas on a lanky stretch of private beach.

The Moorings easily combines luxury accommodations with a casual flair. The homes range from one to three bedrooms, with amenities that include flat-screen televisions, Wi-Fi, fine linens and bedding, and fully equipped kitchens.

No worries allowed on the property. The Moorings has little in common with corporate resorts. Rather, it was thoughtfully designed with serenity and relaxation in mind. Without leaving sight of your cottage, you can take advantage of the heated lap pool, indulge in a few tennis matches or get your zen on with beachfront yoga. Don’t forget, it’s a spa too. Consider booking the Duo-Isla Sol massage, a signature treatment that uses hot polished gemstones.

The property also offers pier and private fishing, but, should you feel the need to venture away from the seclusion of the Moorings — and its many hammocks — you can leisurely explore the island by hopping on one of the Mooring’s beach cruisers and cycling your cares away.

A five-minute bike ride away, you’ll find Bitton Bistro Cafe (82245 Overseas Highway, Islamorada, Fla., 305-396-7481), where you can pop in for a scoop of gelato and snap up a freshly made baguette for a surfside picnic at sunset.

However, if you’re feeling adventurous, grab a kayak and paddle over to the Lilliputian island that makes up Indian Key Historic State Park (U.S. 1, Florida Keys. 305-664-2540). There are plenty of diving opportunities nearby. Comprising a mere 11 acres, this deserted island — bring your own water and sunscreen — boasts sweet acacia trees and sea grapes along with the rubble of what once was a town that was home to those who made their living salvaging boats that ran aground on the many area reefs.

Sabine Morrow, for the AJC

»RELATED: Go to Florida for the sun, stay for the music at these 5 places

Eat: B.O.’s Fish Wagon in Key West

You can make like Jimmy Buffett and blow out your flip-flop and still be dressing well enough for many nosheries in Key West, Fla. B.O.’s Fish Wagon (801 Caroline St., Key West, Fla. 305-294-9272) would certainly be one of them. With its island-time sensibilities and beer o’clock philosophies, B.O.’s keeps laid-back grub as the name of its relaxed-yet-conscious culinary game.

The initials stand for Buddy Owen, the wagon’s wielder, whose open-air restaurant lures tourists with its decidedly regional flair and locals with its stressless creed. If it’s good enough for Food Network’s Bobby Flay, Owen’s dive must have the right ingredients.

Take a header straight for the fried grouper sandwich. Those concerned about hardening the arteries can opt for grilled. Iron tummies brave the Scuzzy B.O., a pile of french fries with a covering of hot peppers, chili, onions and cheese. Teetotalers tip back Key Limeade, sodas and other low-octane belly washers, while drinkers soak up beer and wine. A Corona with lime may ring cliche, but it’s almost required.

Live musical strains waft out of the wagon on Friday nights. Consider paying a visit to the nearby Flagler Station Over-Sea Railway Historeum (901 Caroline St., Key West. 305-293-8716), the result of Henry Flagler connecting Key West to the rest of America by rail in the early 1900s. The station originally opened in 1912. Flagler called his 130-mile extension the “railway over the sea.” Chug along with the historical facts and artifacts found at this museum.

Jon Waterhouse, for the AJC

Drink: Cocktails and more in Tampa, Fla.

With stunning bay views, historic Ybor City, and a surprisingly sophisticated culinary scene, Tampa is a destination with a lot to like — and a whole lot to drink.

Visit Tampa Bay touts the city’s “craft beer renaissance” headlined by tours and tastings at beloved Cigar City Brewing (3924 W. Spruce St., Tampa. 813-348-6363). 

One of the finest steakhouses in the U.S., Bern’s (1208 S. Howard Ave., Tampa. 813-251–2421) is a perennial recipient of the Wine Spectator Grand Award that boasts a wine cellar with some 6,800 different selections and more than half-a-million bottles. 

But beyond beer and wine, cocktails are an exciting part of Tampa’s drink culture. And the owners of Bern’s have had a hand in that with a pair of newer endeavors.

Across the street, the Epicurean Hotel (1207 S. Howard Ave., Tampa. 813-999-8700) offers an immersive culinary experience, with a chef-driven restaurant, Bern’s wine shop and main floor and rooftop cocktail bars. Each room even features a minibar and pantry set up with all the fixings for craft cocktails, wine and snacks. 

Steps away, Haven (2208 W. Morrison Ave., Tampa. 813-258-2233) features an inviting bar with classic and house cocktails, draft craft beer, more than 300 varieties of bourbon, whiskey and rye and 40 different wines by the glass, plus charcuterie and more than 60 types of cheese.

Nearby, Ciro’s Speakeasy (2109 Bayshore Blvd., Tampa. 813-251-0022) epitomizes the young and fun side of the cocktail scene. Call ahead for the password, then find the secret Prohibition-style entrance. It’s dark and romantic, the drinks are strong, and happy hour runs both early and late. 

Other hot spots include Fodder & Shine (5910 N. Florida Ave., Tampa. 813-234-3710) in the heart of hipster Seminole Heights featuring Florida craft beers, small vineyard wines and a serious spirits collection. 

The Refinery (5137 N. Florida Ave., Tampa. 813-237-2000) from James Beard-nominated chef/owner Greg Baker has a bar that echoes the restaurant with affordable quality offerings of beer, wine and cocktails. 

Ulele (1810 N. Highland Ave., Tampa. 813-999-4952) is a newish brewery and chef-driven restaurant in a historic space on the banks of the Hillsborough River with a lively outdoor bar scene.

Bob Townsend, for the AJC

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