Manatee spotting is a thrilling adventure and one of many available in Ponce Inlet Florida. This list of hotspots for fun and food are vacation ‘must do’s’.
For the last few summers our vacation ‘planning’ has been haphazard at best. Dodging last minute job-related obligations, summer swim team for the kids and early back-to-school needs has left us getting deeper and deeper into the summer without a confirmed plan.
This year was down to the wire with nothing on the books by mid July. Sometimes I will say letting things go to the last minute produces unexpected, surprising ideas. This year was just that.
We rolled into the third week of July in full vacation panic mode. That might sound dramatic as related to summer vacation but for me I not only like to travel, I NEED to travel. It’s Life Priority #2 after my family.
I’m a consummate explorer, lover of learning and revive by going somewhere new. It’s mandatory before I dive into another school year to keep my sanity and to refresh my creativity and enthusiasm.
As we floundered, my Sister-in-Law suggested we visit her vacation home in Ponce Inlet Florida, a sleepy little hamlet delicately straddling the Intercoastal Waterway on the west and three blocks to the east the Atlantic Ocean.
It was a perfect idea.
For years I’ve wanted to go rent a cottage somewhere and to allow enough time to really embed locally to get to know a place and this idea provided exactly that.
Manatee spotting in Ponce Inlet
What I imagined the trip would focus on abruptly changed the first night. The house backs up onto an inlet from the Intercoastal Waterway where residents park their boats.
We heard there can be manatees that are occasionally seen from the dock behind our house.
The novel nature of these endangered creatures made it a very exciting prospect to possibly see one up close.
Our first night we must have taken 20 trips to the dock, hoping to catch some glimpse of a manatee.
Much to our delight as the dusk set in, a mother and baby manatee surfaced underneath our dock.
They were directly below us, about 3 feet away, so we could see every detail of them; their algae covered backs, sadly scarred from boat propellers on the mother (not uncommon), their whiskers, sleepy eyes and their snort of exhaled water when they’d surface from grazing every 5 minutes.
Over the first days we realized there is some plant matter directly below the dock, actually it seems under half of the dock that attracts the manatees.
Day two brought one solo adult male in the evening. Day three delivered 10 at once during a lower tide so they were very easy to watch.
My entire family sat quietly just watching for over an hour.
Ironically when speaking with some locals who work at the Ponce Inlet Marine Science Center no one has spotted any manatees since the beginning of the year and they have just begun to reappear in the waterways. Lucky us!
Tropical Mango Salsa
Our hours of dock-sitting leave everyone wishing they had something to snack on which dovetails perfectly into a favorite travel activity of mine; discovering local food.
A quick nosh with tropical flavors seemed a great partner to our dips in the house pool and popping out for wildlife watching on the dock, all set to the loudly vibrating insects and steamy humid temperatures.
Tropical Mango Salsa captured the our setting with sweet, juicy mangoes, local Hungarian Wax Peppers for heat, fresh Key Lime juice to add tartness.
It was a definite hit and the recipe will follow us home without a doubt.
Find the Mango Salsa recipe here.
Things to do in Ponce Inlet, Florida
Ponce Inlet Florida lies on a narrow land mass ending in a waterway opening from the Halifax River into the Atlantic without through traffic to the mainland hence allowing a more quiet existence.
A hop away from more touristed Port Orange and South Daytona Beach, Ponce Inlet enjoys the same expansive beach with far fewer visitors and some local color and points of interest of its own.
There are restrictions on dwelling rental frequency encouraging longer stays, further keeping the local scene authentic and exempt from a dense tourist-focused feel. If in the area don’t miss:
Completed in 1887, the lighthouse is a National Historic Landmark and still in operation.
The immaculate grounds include several original keeper homes, a museum and buildings illustrating all aspects of the lighthouse history including the original restored lighthouse lens and the life of the three families who managed the lighthouse manually.
The two hundred and three steps up the spiral staircase inside the lighthouse are worth it for the expansive view of the entire area as far as the eye can see!
Fun and funky this marina-side grill across from the Ponce Inlet Lighthouse is colorful with a surprising dedication to homemade, fresh food.
We were too early for their ‘catch of the day’ but enjoyed fresh salads, Sweet Garlic Chicken made with garlic, citrus and chili sauce, the seasonal beer sampler (4 4-ounce tasters for $16) and nachos made with their homemade potato chips.
And of course a Rum Runner cocktail. Gluten-free knowledgeable with several GF dining options.
Another authentic local eatery also on a marina, this place defines a local ‘joint’.
Patrons flock to the airy open restaurant with local fish as well as burgers and more.
The bar was hopping and the portions abundant. An added attraction was the throwing of unfinished French Fries into a school of marina catfish that school in the water outside the backdoor of the restaurant and compete with sea gulls for the scraps.
Gluten-free knowledgeable with several GF dining options.
The discreet exterior of the Marine Science Center unveils a huge surprise when entering the facility.
Beachy and casual from the outside, this small center wields a big impact. The Marine Science Center functions to teach about local animal species through a working public classroom, a boardwalk nature trail, interactive displays, a stingray petting tank and several fish tanks of local freshwater, saltwater and poisonous marine species.
The highlights are most certainly the sea bird, raptor and sea turtle rehabilitation programs.
Visitors can view animals in process of recovery with helpful docents to educate on all aspects of the center and the inhabitants.
Our visit coincided with the release back into the wild of three sea turtles which had been at the center for a number of months.
We joined the local masses at the beach entry for a joyous celebration to watch the recovered turtles waddle to the shoreline and depart for a swim home.
A definite trip high point.
‘Ice cream’ by any other name, a visit to O Daddy Ho’s for some ‘Gator Tracks’ surf cream is a must stop.
Also pop next door to the gift shop which features 80% local crafters and artisans.
Originally published: August 9, 2013