Two Sweet Spots
Look, Florida has an abundance of nature and beaches just about wherever you go. The thing is finding the "sweet spots" close to home so you do not have to travel far and long to enjoy it. As for beaches, Florida beaches are created equal in most aspects, yes, some ARE a little more tropical looking or have that "white" sand, but is it worth travelling more than an hour to get it when maybe there a beach within 15 minutes with "beige" sand? It's a judgement call.
Just north of Tampa, within one hour, is this renowned area known for its crystal clear spring waters. The State Park (with the same name) is right there off the main road complete with a mini-like swim park in the spring water. You can go there or if you are more adventurous, rent a canoe or kayak and enter an area what "Old Florida" once looked like. You will be transported into a scene where you will see manatees nearby or an alligator or turtles. All in crystal clear water. In some spots, you can take a quick dip to cool off. The river goes on for several miles and can be a bit swift, which will make returning back upstream a tougher row. While it is simply beautiful, it is popular with locals also. What this means is that you need to be there by 10 a.m. to get parking and a kayak\canoe rented, if you do not own one.
I suggest you do the river trip first and then relax at the swim area. The river can be a bit crowded due to its popularity, so it is best if you also have a kayak, SUP, or canoe. The entrance fee to the Weeki Wachee Springs SP is $13 pp, renting a kayak\SUP for 2 hrs. is $32. In that amount of time, you can go about 3 miles. You can reserve your time online.
Silver Springs State Park
Not much farther away is another stunner in Ocala, FL. This is even more like how "Old Florida" was back before 1950. Like Weeki Wachee, its crystal clear water is mirror-like in a clear bottom boat or kayak. This SP has movie history. It was the main set or the original 1930s Tarzan movies and to make it even more like Africa, the director brought in a large amount of monkeys. After the Tarzan movies faded and were stopped being made, the studio just left and left the monkeys in the wild. Now, there are over 300 of them in the trees and along the banks of the Silver Springs River. Of course, you will see plenty of friendly manatees swimming right next to you and alligators, too. The park is also a haven for many more exotic cranes and birds.
This park does not allow swimming but you can rent kayaks, SUP, canoes, online to reserve them. Unlike Weeki Wachee, there is just a $2 pp fee to enter! If you are canoeing or kayaking, you can just go a few miles to see just everything in a short time or paddle some five miles to another launch site. It takes about 3 hrs. to do this. The park offers a glass bottom boat to take a ride on but I would go with the clear bottom kayaks. It is quite shocking to see a manatee, alligator or turtle, swimming under you. The monkeys really, really, make the park special because where else will you encounter them living in the wild in the USA? Just know, they are accustomed to humans now, quite brave, cute, and they CAN swim! They also jump far. Just keep your distance because they can also bite. Of course, the park offers some walking trails These are not much more than a mile or so in the 5,000 acre park. One will see some very large fish in the water.
The park is actually in Silver Springs, which is right next to Ocala.
Which is Better?
These are the top two spots for those in central Florida. The Miami area has their stunning parks, just like the Keys at Bahia Honda SP, but not within two hours of Tampa, Orlando, Sarasota, Gainesville.
I think the Silver Springs SP is better because it is much cheaper and the monkeys. In all other respects, they are equal.