So you went away for the holidays. And now it's time to hit the long road home. Or maybe your home is a wintry wonderland and you're driving down for some fun in the Magic City sun.
Either way, we know how it is. The race to get here can be a real drag. The last thing you want is to make the long road longer by searching for places to fill up fast on food, fuel, and maybe even a little fun.
No worries. We've found some convenient, interesting stops right by Florida's interstates that can get you fed and fueled in no time flat.
Here are a few to get you started:
1. Cheap Eats, Billion-Dollar View: Dairy Queen, Pensacola, I-10E Exit 6
Not only does this DQ offer the Blizzards, Blitz Burgers, and onion rings we know and love, but also it overlooks Escambia Bay. That's right. We're talking waterfront, baby. The gorgeous, panoramic water view rivals that of even the best restaurants in this town, but without the long waits or high prices. Because it's fast food, it's, well, fast. And cheap.
A burger, rings, and Blizzard will set you back well under ten bucks. And the billion-dollar view? Free. Wait, it gets even better. This DQ is not only next to the interstate but also adjacent to a gas station. You can continue your Zen-like gaze at the water while filling your car's hungry tank with all the fuel it can hold.
So go ahead. Ogle, slurp, burp, and enjoy. And do it without wasting one precious minute or mile of your trip.
2. Keep On Truckin... With One-Stop Food, Fuel & 'Feine: TA Travel Center, Marianna, I-10E Exit 142
Before your mind goes wandering into the gutter, we'll tell you up front: In this instance, TA is short for Trucks & Automobiles. Uh-huh. Just what you were thinking, right? Us too.
The name is not only appropriate because the traditional truck stop has become so passe, but also because the TA Travel Center does indeed host an ample amount of both trucks and cars, along with their drivers and passengers. And what an interesting crowd it is. If you like to people-watch, this is the place to do it.
That said, if you also like to fill up on fuel and food all in one stop, this is the place to do those things as well. While this particular TA is home to four fast-food outlets, anyone wanting to chow down on an equally quick, homestyle meal can do so at its Country Pride Restaurant.
Country Pride offers a serve-yourself bounty brimming with the kind of eats your mama would make. If your mama were Southern, that is. Think fried chicken, roasted meats swimming in gravy, mashed 'taters, beans, and veggies. And don't forget the desserts, for land's sake. We counted four of them, all of the mysterious cakey variety slathered in syrupy fruits, pudding, or something that ends in "whip." (Is it Dream or Cool? Who cares! it's pretty dang good.)
This all-you-can-eat, rib-stickin' fare is fast and cheap: $8.99 for lunch, $10.99 for dinner, and $4.99 for kids anytime.
But if all you really want is a cup of joe, skip across the hall to TA's jam-packed convenience store -- which stocks just about everything under the sun -- where you'll find a snazzy coffee bar offering several types of brews, creamers, and sweeteners. It isn't exactly Starbucks, but for a truck stop -- uh, we mean travel center -- it's rather impressive. We think a large java runs around two bucks, but we're not sure. And neither are the employees. We asked two of them, and both confessed they were clueless about the price.
Oh well, just one more reason to love this convenient and quirky place.
3. You Can Get Anything You Want at Alice's Restaurant... and Here: Williston Road Plaza, Gainesville, I-75S Exit 382
Congratulations! You've made it to I-75. You can relax, just a little. But not for long, because you still have many miles to go.
And that's why we like this plaza, located a few hundred yards from the interstate. Whatever a weary traveler needs can be found right here, whether it's food, fuel, or even a sugar-free treat.
First, there's an über-hip McDonald's sporting a clean, sophisticated interior in cool, relaxing neutrals -- obviously, this is not your kids' Micky D's. But even more important, the service here is quick and courteous and the coffee is downright delightful. Two thumbs up for Gatorville's Golden Arches.
Second, there's a strip mall here with more fast-food choices -- including Subway -- and a bevy of shops and stores. Most notably, there's a Publix, where you can pick up some quick snacks or traveling commodities like tissues, antacids, aspirin, and whatnot. There's even a D'lites Emporium for the sugar-free junkie on your passenger list.
And it's all surrounded with a choice of gas stations, where you can fill up and be on your way in a jiffy.
Granted, there's nothing unusual about the stores in the Williston Plaza. But that's why we like it: familiar = fast. And fast is good when you're racing to get home sweet home.
4. See You Later, Alligator... On My Plate: Skipper's Smokehouse, Tampa, I-75S to I-275 S, Exit 53 (Bearss Rd.)
Located at 910 Skipper Rd., Tampa, less than ten miles from I-75 via I-275, this funky eatery/bar/entertainment venue isn't as convenient as the other stops. But if you can spare the time, it's not to be missed.
As well known for its mishmash, hippie-esqe architecture as for serving smoked gator ribs and conch fritters, Skipper's is unequivocally unique.
If ribs or fritters aren't tempting enough to lure you away from the monotony of the road, maybe ahi, wahoo, smoked mullet, or gator tail -- with or without cheese -- is. The sides are just as appealing, especially the smoked fish dip, calamari rings, popcorn crawfish tails, and sesame seaweed salad. So are the prices, with entrées starting at a mere $7.99 and sandwiches at $4.99.
And yes, we know, Skipper's smoked gator ribs and blackened grouper reuben were featured on the Travel Channel's Man V. Food Nation. But thank you, Skipper's, for pointing it out a million times anyway.
5. Chill With Italian Ice In -- Where Else? -- Naples: Amalfi's Italian Ice, Naples, I-75S Exit 105
Truth be told, by the time we get as far south as Naples, all we're up for is a quick pit stop at the local Chevron for some gas and maybe an icy bottle of water. But if you need to chill from the stress of the road or the impending steam of Alligator Alley, check out Amalfi's Italian Ice.
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Located at 51 Ninth St., it'll take you a few miles away from the interstate, but it's worth it. There is something irresistibly cool (pun intended) and inappropriately appropriate about enjoying Italian ice in Naples. Florida, not Italy.
But you'd never know it by the creamy fare served here, as bona fide New Yorkers swear it's just like the real deal. And who would know better about authentic Italian food than a New Yorker? Besides an Italian, of course.
Bursting with a variety of fruity flavors that include our beloved mango, this creamy stuff makes for a decadent yet light treat. As a bonus, we hear that the proprietor, Lenny, is a personable and colorful fellow who might strike up a random convo with customers at any given moment -- if time allows.