A hundred worlds – from magic kingdoms and Latin American and Caribbean capitals to mangrove islands, wild wetlands and artist colonies – are all contained within this flat peninsula.
Maybe there’s no mystery to what makes the Florida peninsula so intoxicating. Beaches as fine and sweet as powdered sugar, warm waters, rustling mangroves: all conspire to melt our workaday selves. We come to Florida to let go – of worries and winter, of inhibitions and reality. Some desire a beachy getaway of swimming, seafood and sunsets. Others seek the hedonism of South Beach, spring break and Key West. Still more hope to lose themselves within the phantasmagorical realms of Walt Disney World® and Orlando’s theme parks.
Within Florida’s semitropical wilderness, alligators prowl the waterways, herons strut through ponds, manatees winter in springs and sea turtles nest in summer. Osprey and eagles, dolphins and tarpon, coral-reef forests, oceans of saw grass: despite the best efforts of 21st-century humans, overwhelming portions of Florida remain untamed. In a nation where natural beauty is often measured by topography, flat Florida is underappreciated by outdoors fanatics, but here you can paddle a kayak over the back of a sleeping Jurassic-era alligator, and meet loggerheads and manatees underwater, eye to eye.
While many know Florida for beaches and theme parks, few understand that this is one of the most populous states in the country, a bellwether for the American experiment. And that experiment – and this state – is more diverse than ever. From rural hunters and trappers in the geographically northern, culturally Southern climes, to Jewish transplants sitting side by side with Latin arrivals from every Spanish-speaking nation in the world, it’s hard to beat Florida when it comes to experiencing the human tapestry at its most colorful and vibrant.
Culture By the Coast
Tan, tropical Florida is smarter and more culturally savvy than its appearance suggests. This state, particularly South Florida, has a reputation for attracting eccentrics and idiosyncratic types from across the US, Latin America and Europe. Many of these folks, and their descendants, have gone on to create or provide patronage for the arts, as evidenced by enormous concert spaces in Miami, a glut of museums on the Gulf Coast, and a long, literary tradition – Florida has produced more than its fair share of great American authors.
Central Florida is like a matryoshka, the Russian doll that encases similar dolls of diminishing size. The region features pretty state parks, gardens and rivers, all ideal for leisurely exploration. One layer down, Central Florida then embraces Kissimmee, Celebration and the vast, sprawling area of Greater Orlando. Greater Orlando’s network of multi-lane highways and overpasses leads to a huge number of theme parks, including Walt Disney World®, Universal Orlando Resort, SeaWorld and Legoland. Judging from the crowds, these parks are the reason most people visit.
But at Central Florida’s core is a city: pretty, leafy downtown Orlando, whose great field-to-fork eating scene and world-class museums get overlooked by the hype, sparkle and colors of the theme parks. Many visitors never reach this kernel, the final ‘doll,’ and the city of Orlando tends to lie in the shadow of Cinderella and Hogwarts School of Witchcraft & Wizardry.
Walt Disney World
Cinderella’s Castle of Magic Kingdom. Space Ship Earth of Epcot. The Tree of Life of Animal Kingdom. The Chinese Theatre of Hollywood Studios. These are the symbols of magical lands that together make up Walt Disney World®. The world designed by Walt Disney, and opened in 1951, to be the Happiest Place on Earth.
Walt Disney World® itself is like a child. One minute, you think you can’t take another long line. Or cafeteria-style restaurant serving fried food. Or overstuffed shuttle bus. And the next, it does something right – maybe it’s the fireworks, maybe it’s a particular ride, maybe it’s the corny joke of the guy who drives the horse-drawn carriage down Main Street. Or maybe it’s seeing the speck of glitter on your kiddies’ content faces as they finally fall asleep after a huge day.
All is forgiven. Disney works its magic.
Universal Orlando Resort
Pedestrian-friendly Universal Orlando Resort has got spunk, spirit and attitude. With fantastic rides, excellent children’s attractions and entertaining shows, it’s comparable to Walt Disney World®. But Universal does everything just a bit smarter, funnier, and more smoothly, as well as being smaller and easier to navigate. Universal offers pure, unabashed, adrenaline-pumped, full-speed-ahead fun for the entire family.
The Universal Orlando Resort consists of two (three by the time you read this) theme parks – Islands of Adventure, with the bulk of the thrill rides, and Universal Studios, with movie-based attractions and shows (including the Wizarding World of Harry Potter). Volcano Bay will open in 2017 as a water park of thrills and splashes and state-of-the-art rides through a 200ft volcano.
Universal’s dining/entertainment district is CityWalk and it has five resort hotels (a sixth, Universal’s Aventura Hotel, will open in 2018). Water taxis and pleasant walking paths connect the entire resort.
To drive southwest Florida’s Gulf Coast is to enter an impressionistic watercolor painting: first, there is the dazzling white quartz sand of its barrier-island beaches, whose turquoise waters darken to silver-mantled indigo as the fiery sun lowers to the horizon. Later, seen from the causeways, those same islands become a phosphorescent smear beneath the inky black night sky.
The Gulf Coast’s beauty is its main attraction, but variety is a close second: from Tampa to St Petersburg to Sarasota to Naples, there is urban sophistication and exquisite cuisine. There are secluded islands, family-friendly resorts and spring-break-style parties.
Here Salvador Dalí’s melting canvases, Ringling’s Venetian Gothic palace and Chihuly’s tentacled glass sculptures fit perfectly – all are bright, bold, surreal entertainments to match wintering manatees, roseate spoonbills, open-mouthed alligators and the peacock-colored, sequined costumes of twirling trapeze artists.
Clearwater Beach is an upscale if somewhat bland wisp of a barrier island, while its neighbor to the east is one wacky and decidedly low-class municipality. Clearwater Beach might make for a better vacation, but Clearwater makes for more lively dinner conversation, as the indefatigable Hooters restaurant chain was invented here in 1983, and its burgers-and-babes dining concept encapsulates the spring break party scene.
Surrounding the gorgeous deep-water Tampa Bay are two major cities and a seemingly endless expanse of urban-suburban sprawl – forming the state’s second-largest metropolitan area – which along the Gulf Coast is edged by some 35 miles of barrier-island beaches. Not many places in the country offer as much big-city sophistication mere minutes from so much dazzling sand. Yet since Miami is one of those that does, the bay area is rarely given its due. Both Tampa and St Petersburg burble with cultural and culinary excitement as they spruce up their historic districts and polish their arts institutions. The range of adventures on offer – from fine arts to world-class aquariums to hot nightclubs and dolphin cruises – make this a compelling region to explore.
Just 20 minutes from downtown St Petersburg, the legendary barrier-island beaches are the sandy soul of the peninsula. This 30-mile-long stretch of sun-faded towns and sun-kissed azure waters is the perfect antidote to city life and the primary destination of most vacationers. Winter and spring are the high seasons, particularly January through March. During these months, readiness is all: book rooms far in advance, and get up early to beat the traffic and to snag sometimes-elusive parking spaces.
While St Pete Beach is the biggest town, the string of beach communities each has something unique to offer.
Southwest Gulf Coast
People who prefer Florida’s Gulf side over its Atlantic one generally fall in love with this stretch of sun-kissed coastline from Sarasota to Naples. These two affluent, cultured towns set the tone for the whole region, where visits sway between soporific beach days and art-museum meanders, fine dining and designer cocktails. With their rowdy bars and casual fun, Siesta Key and Fort Myers Beach are slight exceptions, but even they don’t reach the same pitch of spring break hysteria just north. No, in this region you’ll remember hunting prehistoric shark’s teeth in Venice and jewel-like tulip shells in Sanibel, a night at the circus in Sarasota and buying art in Matlacha.
For sun-worshippers and salty dogs alike, Sarasota’s Keys offer an irresistible combination of fabulous beaches, laid-back living and endless watery pursuits. Geographically the Keys are a series of barrier islands that stretch 35 miles from south of Sarasota north to Anna Maria Island, across the causeway from Bradenton. Each has its own distinct identity, but all offer access to miles of glorious beach.
About the only resemblance Venice has to its Italian namesake is that it’s an island in the sea. Venice has scenic, tan-sand beaches but is otherwise a quiet seaside town that’s most popular with retirees and families with young kids, who enjoy hunting for sharks’ teeth. It also appeals to budget-minded travelers looking for a low-key getaway – far from the condos and hard-drinking beach bars elsewhere. Here entertainment pretty much begins and ends with saluting the tangerine sun’s nightly descent into the shimmering ocean.
Nestled inland along the Caloosahatchee River, and separated from Fort Myers Beach by several miles of urban sprawl, the city of Fort Myers is often defined by what it’s not: it’s not an upscale, arty beach town like Sarasota or Naples, and it’s not as urbanely sophisticated as Tampa or St Petersburg. While it isn’t a city to base a trip around, it’s worth a trip to browse its brick-lined main street and visit Thomas Edison’s winter home and laboratory.
For upscale romance and the prettiest, most serene city beach in southwest Florida, come to Naples, the Gulf Coast’s answer to Palm Beach. Development along the shoreline has been kept residential. The soft white sand is backed only by narrow dunes and half-hidden mansions. More than that, though, Naples is a cultured, sophisticated town, unabashedly stylish and privileged but also welcoming and fun-loving. Families, teens, couture-wearing matrons, middle-aged executives and smartly dressed young couples all mix and mingle as they stroll downtown’s 5th Ave on a balmy evening. Travelers sometimes complain that Naples is expensive, but you can spend just as much elsewhere on a less impressive vacation.
Welcome to America’s Greek-est city. Tarpon Springs began to earn this distinction back in the late 1800s, after somebody realized there were abundant sea sponges in the Gulf, and a bunch of Greek divers came with wet suits and diving helmets to build the industry. In the 1900s scuba gear only got more advanced, allowing the divers to go deeper and stay down longer. The sponge industry boomed, and Tarpon Springs became known as the ‘Sponge Capital of the World.’
The industry faltered in the 1940s when sponges were tougher to come by, but was revived in the 1980s, and today Tarpon Springs remains a leader in the natural sponge market. All aspects of the unique industry are on display for visitors, from sponge docks to sponge museums to the town’s heavy Greek influence, which is most apparent in the delicious restaurants and at the lively festivals.
The largest and northernmost of the Ten Thousand Islands, Marco Island also offers the highest point of elevation – 58ft above sea level – in all of southwestern Florida. It was the Calusa Indians who long ago made this vantage point possible with the construction of an enormous shell mound over hundreds of years, which now stands in a residential neighborhood dubbed Indian Hill.
Modern development of the island only began in the 1960s, and draws today include miles upon miles of white-sand beach, boating and fishing among the mangroves islands and a more relaxed, natural vibe than many of the coastal communities to the north. Shelling is also a big thing, with the best specimens often turning up at Tigertail Beach or on the nearby shores of Keewaydin Island, which remains largely pristine and inaccessible by car.
The northeast corner of Florida is a jumble of farmland, forests and pasture, urban sprawl and college towns, built-up beaches and bucolic sea islands. You’ll find spots like Amelia Island – a natural escape for the country-club crowd – a mere hour’s drive north from Jacksonville, one of the most spread out, sprawling cities in the country. Hit the road for a little more and you’re in Gainesville, peppered with fair-trade coffee shops and craft cocktail bars (and, to be fair, a raucous fraternity-friendly party scene).
St Augustine, the oldest continuously occupied city in the US, has something for everyone – history, architecture, culture, a gamut of excellent dining and plenty of kid-friendly tourist schmaltz. Further south, you’ll find odd-duck antique-laden small towns and (hey, it’s Florida) more miles of soft, sandy beach.
At a whopping 840 sq miles, Jacksonville is the largest city by area in the contiguous United States and the most populous in Florida. The city sprawls along three meandering rivers, with sweeping bridges and twinkling city lights reflected in the water. A glut of high-rises, corporate HQs and chain hotels can make ‘Jax’ feel a little soulless, but patient exploration yields some interesting streets, curious characters and a Southern-fried, friendly heart.
The city’s museums and restored historic districts are worth a wander if you have the time, and the Five Points and San Marco neighborhoods are charming, walkable areas lined with bistros, boutiques and bars.
The Jacksonville area beaches – a world unto themselves – are 30 to 50 minutes’ drive from the city, depending on traffic and where you’re coming from.
Jacksonville’s beaches are her prime tourism draw, and with good reason: besides the usual appeal of sun, sand and salt water, there’s a nice, chilled vibe here. Locals are mellow compared to the folks in south Florida, or even the rest of north Florida, for that matter.
Moving from south to north, Ponte Vedra Beach is the posh home of the ATP and PGA golf tours: golf courses, resorts and mansions are here. Urban Jacksonville Beach is where to eat, drink and party, while cozy Neptune Beach is more subdued, as is Atlantic Beach.
The oldest continuously occupied European settlement in the US, St Augustine was founded by the Spanish in 1565. Today, its 144-block National Historic Landmark District is a major tourist destination. For the most part, St Augustine exudes charm and maintains its integrity, although there’s no denying the presence of some tacky tourist traps: miniature theme parks, tour operators at almost every turn and horse-drawn carriages clip-clopping past townsfolk dressed in period costume.
What makes St Augustine so genuinely endearing is the accessibility of its rich history via countless top-notch museums and the authenticity of its centuries-old architecture, monuments and narrow cobbled lanes. Unlike Florida’s numerous historical theme parks, St Augustine is the real deal.
You’ll find a diverse array of wonderful B&Bs, cozy cafes and lamp-lit pubs, and while fine dining might not be the first thing that comes to mind at Florida’s mention, it is certainly synonymous with St Augustine.
Long the vacation destination of choice for leather-clad bikers, rev heads and spring breakers, Daytona Beach is most famous as the birthplace of NASCAR racing and the home of the Daytona 500.
The area’s population quintuples during Speed weeks; as many as half a million bikers roar into town for Bike Week in March and Bike to berfest in October. If Confederate flags, loud motorcycles, jacked-up pick-up trucks and the folks who love all of the above are your thing, you might have found your heaven on earth. If not, move on.
If you can see past the garish beachside barricade of ’70s high-rise blocks, nightclubs and tourist traps (if not quite literally), you might witness the phenomena of nesting sea turtles (in season) or explore a handful of interesting and worthwhile cultural attractions.