Zipline Above Bears and Kayak With Gators in Florida’s Best Secret Getaway

This is the latest in our twice-a-month series on underrated destinations, It’s Still a Big World.

When planning a trip through Florida, chances are that Tallahassee doesn’t even enter the conversation.

At first glance, unless you’re a dork like me who collects stamps from state capitol buildings, or a bright-eyed highschooler curious about Florida State University (one of the country’s top party schools), it doesn’t seem like Tallahassee has much to offer. My younger sister, a recent FSU grad, certainly had me convinced as much after years of visits filled with football games, cheap brunches, and lunchboxes—a heinously large pitcher with some ungodly combination of different alcohols.

But after many months of staying home in South Florida, itching for a drivable getaway, I made my way north to Tallahassee at the invitation of the state’s tourism board and with the promise of some socially distanced fun. What I found and will forever preach to any willing listener is a capital city that’s underestimated in every way possible, from its outdoor adventures to its fine dining.

I should have known politicians and college students wouldn’t make for the most accurate or flattering representation of a city, but alas, it took returning to Tallahassee with fresh eyes (and more adult supervision than my little sister) to really see that. My first indication started with checking into the new Hotel Indigo Tallahassee. Playing into the city’s role as a former railroad hub, the train motif of this boutique hotel takes the typical “industrial chic” look and makes it even more stylish with its colorful modern touches and the added significance of Tallahassee’s railroad history. It’s only a small part of the growing hotel landscape that’s bringing non-cookie cutter properties to the area and hopefully more tourists as well.

While I can certainly appreciate a cozy place to lay my head at night, I was there for an adventure, so they promptly sent me to the Tallahassee Museum—a place whose name does not do it justice. Set on 52 acres of natural wonders, this museum features hiking trails, historic farmstead buildings that recreate what North Florida life was like two centuries ago, and elevated boardwalks that allow you to safely admire the native animal exhibits below with freely roaming black bears, red foxes, wild turkeys, and more. But for my favorite, and perhaps most unique, part of the museum, you have to look up.

The Tree-to-Tree Adventure took the tree climbing of my childhood and basically turned it into an extreme sport that’s part zipline, part obstacle course, and, luckily for me, entirely beginner-friendly. Floating anywhere from eight to 60 feet off the ground, the Tree-to-Tree Adventure takes you throughout the grounds of the museum, above the buildings and trails as you move from one tree platform to the next, maneuvering through aerial obstacles while safely harnessed to the course.

I walked a tightrope, hopped across shaking bridges, zoomed from one tree to the next while balancing on a skateboard-like platform, and more. Along the way, I took in the gorgeous forest scenery, including a few animal sightings, right before the grand finale: soaring on a zipline above a marshy, tree-filled lake just as the sun was setting and at the same time, my friend was speeding by on the zipline above my head.

The Tree-to-Tree Adventure is also available for private groups to try at night with nothing but the moonlight and their headlamps leading the way. I didn’t get to try this after-dark experience, but between that, and the fact that the obstacle/zipline course changes every few years, it’s definitely something worth revisiting. There’s even a kid-friendly version of the course that’s not as high off the ground.

As exhilarating and fun as it was, the Tallahassee Museum represents just a sliver of the city’s outdoorsy experiences. The next day, I explored more and finally got some rebuttal to my biggest complaint when I moved from California to Florida. Turns out that the Sunshine State isn’t as flat as I thought, at least not in Tallahassee. The city didn’t give me mountains, but there were enough rolling hills to make for a challenging yet exciting mountain bike ride. The trailhead we went to gave us two options: embark on the 16-mile St. Marks Trail that follows a converted railway path straight to the Gulf of Mexico, or stick to the eight-mile loop on the Munson Hills Trail that would take us through Apalachicola National Forest. We took the latter, and it was just enough for me and my out-of-shape legs. Though I had to pay special attention to the slightly narrow trail, I still managed to appreciate the towering longleaf pines that filled this forest, plus all the other flora and fauna.

Munson Trail also gave me the first glimpse at what earned the capital its nickname as Trailahassee. Throughout the city, there are 700 miles of trails for hiking, biking, or paddling your way through Mother Nature. With the first two already under my belt, I knew I had to get the complete Tally experience and find my way to the water. Toting kayaks rented from Harry Smith Outdoors, and with the help of their guides, we paddled down the Wacissa River past cypress swamps, coastal marshes, and plenty of wildlife. We didn’t get lucky enough to spot a gator, but the guides assured us that they were lurking in the area. Nothing to worry about, according to them. And though my slightly chilly autumn visit didn’t inspire me to jump in the water, Wacissa River is fed by natural springs that you can paddle to for a quick dip (and a safe one, because there are no gators in that area).

Because you have to refuel at some point with all of these outdoorsy excursions, it’s also worth noting that Tallahassee has a surprisingly robust and progressive foodie scene, where—in an age of Instagram and Yelp—the dishes tend to be as beautiful as they are tasty. Sure, there’s the typical combo of fast food, casual dining, and pub fare you’d expect in a college town, but a more elaborate meal or some delectable fine dining options are never too far either.

Nestled under the canopy of moss-covered oak trees, I settled in one night for some porchfront dining at Table 23. Serving up elevated takes on Southern classics, the dinner menu didn’t disappoint with appetizers like pecan-crusted okra and fried green tomatoes, followed by main dishes like the prosciutto-wrapped filet or the blackened redfish served over cheesy grits and topped with a tomato creole sauce. As a sweet finish, there were several tempting treats, but when in Florida, the key lime pie is always a good idea. And for a true fine dining experience, Il Lusso’s Italian menu will spoil you with its divine steaks, chops, and pastas. It’s all a part of the growing food, beverage, and hospitality landscape that perfectly complements Tallahassee’s natural beauty.

I have my doubts that this city will ever reach that international level of fame and fortune enjoyed by Miami and Orlando, but for those who know about it, Tallahassee is an underrated gem of outdoorsy adventures, deliciously satisfying cuisine, and much more that I have to go back to discover.

Either way, I’m happy to finally be in on the secret.

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