Miami South Beach after a few cocktails, Florida.
Why visit Florida?
The ‘Sunshine State’ offers tourists one of the best climates in the country for year round activities, though the summer’s hot and sticky and storms arrive just when you started to relax.
Many of the best white sand beaches in the US are to be found along Florida’s extensive coastlines, though not many south of Miami with the exception of Key West.
Northwest Florida’s Panhandle embaces some of the biggest white sand beaches in the USA. Watersports are well catered for on warm surrounding seas while increasingly limited wildlife can be found in the Everglades wetlands.
Where nature has not provided for the tourist, man has done so, with a selection of hi-tech entertainment and the world’s most attractive theme parks in the Orlando region.
• Developers are doing their best to cement over everything green. Read Carl Hiaasen’s novels for a satirical look at the rape of the state by Big Money.
• Florida did have a problem with crime aimed at tourists, though this has improved recently. But you’d still be well-advised to conceal your just visiting status in Florida’s cities and don’t flash the cash too overtly.
Best: December-March, warm, dry and very busy but the sea water is a bit chilly for swimming.
Worst : August-October, hot, humid and hurricanes. OK, maybe just the occasional storm, but they do stuff up beach holidays! n.b. the northern parts of the state get chilly during winter.
Florida Everglades via an eco-unfriendly but very exciting (and brutally noisy) air boat.
The southern part of the peninsula is dominated by Miami and the wetlands of the Everglades. It all terminates with the Florida Keys chain of islands leading to Key West at the end.
• Everglades National Park (south – centre): is a massive swampy wilderness reserve, America’s largest subtropical area and a World Heritage Site offering a well-organised wetland experience. The Everglades is terrific for bird watching though there isn’t massive amounts of wildlife apart from ‘gators and rare manatees – an endangered ‘sea cow’.
Getting around by noisy air boat is a thrilling experience but canoeing/kayaking is the best way to explore the place in a tranquil, eco-friendly manner, allowing travellers to creep up on wild things instead of blowing them away with a V-8 driven propeller.
• Miami (south – east): this cultural melting pot blends Art Deco buildings, a vibrant atmosphere, a little vice, a lot of nightlife, wacky, swanky, fashionable people, dramatic ethnic cuisine and white beaches to make a truly great city, open all hours. And it’s the gateway to the Florida Keys, not to mention the popular and colorful cruises from Miami port. More on Miami travel.
• Fort Lauderdale (south-east): known as the ‘Venice of America’ for its extensive canal network, the city’s star attraction is Fort Lauderdale Beach, known as ‘the Strip’, especially the section between Las Olas Blvd and Sunrise Blvd, where lively bars, restaurants and casinos compete for trade alongside the beach road.
For more action downtown, head to East Las Olas Blvd for up-market shops while West Las Olas Blvd attracts younger crowds with hip clubs and restaurants.
Florida Keys (far south)
A superb destination for fishing, sailing and diving but not so good for beaches, this chain of 1,700 islands, stretches for over 100 miles south of the southern tip of the Florida peninsula. The Keys are home to Florida Keys Reef Tract, North America’s only living coral barrier, the world’s third largest.
The islands (keys) are connected by a series of bridges (the Overseas Highway) along route US 1, allowing tourists to drive all the way to the most southerly island, Key West.
The keys’ prime attraction is marine activities, especially for fishing and scuba diving among the shoals of fish using the channel between the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico.
• Key Largo, the northernmost island, is a 90 minute drive from Miami and a excellent place for diving/snorkeling, especially at John Pennekamp Coral Reef Park (undersea park), known for its Coral Reef Theater with 30, 000 gallon saltwater aquarium and reconstruction of a living reef.
• Islamorada is composed of six islands – Plantation Key, Windley Key, Upper Matecumbe Key, Lower Matecumbe Key and the offshore islands of Indian Key and Lignumvitae Key.
Regarded by many as the world’s Sport Fishing capital, most visitors come for fishing, but there’s also diving and snorkeling. The Theater of the Sea, a marine mammal park, where you can swim with dolphins, sea lions and stingrays, is great fun for families.
Marathon a friendly community on Vaca island, home to the Dolphin Research Centre and the Turtle Hospital, offers wildlife, eco-tourism and facetime with dolphins.
• Big Pine Key and the lower keys are home to one of America’s best white sand beaches in Bahia Honda State Park. The area also offers land based wildlife, albeit slightly dull National Key Deer Refuge.
• Key West is the southernmost city in the continental USA as well as the last island of the Keys. It is Ernest Hemingway territory, so it’s an artsy environment, with an Historic District of ‘Old Town’ particularly Mallory Square and Duval Street, the place to cruise for bars and restaurants in the evenings.
Key West has no shortage of daytime activities ranging from water sports to eco-tours throughout year, followed by magnificent sunsets.
Aquatica beach in SeaWorld, Orlando.
One of world’s major tourist destinations and best known as the home of amusement parks such as Disney World and Universal Orlando Resort, though they are actually located outside the city in Greater Orlando or Metro Orlando. A few attractions can be found in the city, such as the Orlando Museum of Art, the Science Centre, Planetarium and American Folk Museum, but the really big attractions are outside the city limits.
A marine life park specialising in stadium shows featuring killer-whales, shark tanks and penguin encounters, as well as wide range of rides like the flying ‘Manta’ coaster, spectacular ‘Journey to Atlantis’ and the Aquatica beach area [photo above] for those who think Florida doesn’t have enough beaches.
• Discovery Cove
This popular water park offers an all-inclusive, artificial tropical marine environment in which tourists may participate, including swimming with dolphins and around a coral reef. There are a mass of shows and entertainments as well, for all ages including adults.
• Universal Orlando
Encompassing movie-oriented theme experiences under the ‘Universal Studios Florida’ umbrella as well as rides under Universal Islands of Adventure and movie thrillers. The easy way to beat the crowds is the stay at one of Universal’s hotels which entitles you to priority treatment, early access and more, but at a rather large price.
Disney’s evening entertainment is a big whizz.
• Walt Disney World Resort, Orlando
The world’s largest and most visited amusement park. ‘The World’ contains four theme parks; Magic Kingdom, Animal Kingdom, Epcot, MGM Studios, as well as two water parks, Typhoon Lagoon and Blizzard Beach, along with resort hotels, a shopping centre, sport and entertainment complex in 25,000 acres.
It’s 35 km southwest of Orlando. Although they are mainly kid oriented, adults can have a fun, too, for instance try ‘Cirque du Soleil’, a mystic and theatrical acrobatic circus.
It is essential to plan in advance how to make most of Walt Disney World without hassle as there are all sort of offers, package deals and information online – you will be exhausted before you go!
Summer (July-August) is not the best season as it’s VERY hot and sticky in Florida at that time, especially crowded and particularly expensive. The best season is January-March when the weather is warm and dry.
If you can afford it the best deals come from Disney, with good value packages including flights, hotel, dining and discounted theme park tickets.
The Disney Fastpass is free and a major time saver:
• Look for the ‘Disney’s FASTPASS Distribution’ sign near the entrance of an attraction.
• Check the ‘Return Time’ displayed on the sign.
• The sign will indicate the time you would return to enjoy the attraction using a FASTPASS ticket.
• For attractions, the return time is a one-hour window (e.g., 1:10 p.m. to 2:10 p.m.), so you don’t have to be there exactly at a given minute. For shows, your return will be for a specific performance.
• If the return time is one that works for you, just insert your admission ticket into the Disney’s FASTPASS Service machine. (You may use your Walt Disney World Resort admission ticket, readmission ticket, Disney Resort Hotel keycard or Annual Passport.)
• A FASTPASS ticket will emerge with your return time printed on it. Now you’re free to go and enjoy the rest of the theme park!
• Go back to the FASTPASS ticketholder entrance when your return time rolls around, show your ticket to the Cast Member and enjoy the attraction with a minimal wait.
• Holy Land Experience: a biblical theme park in which visitors can experience the time of Jesus Christ, life-size biblical scenes with musical, a kind of ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ mated with a Sunday Mass.
• Kennedy Space Center (NASA), Cape Canaveral: With its superb exhibitions, space vehicles, media presentations and all things for all space cadets, this is a must-see, especially for children. It’s well worth watching a Space Shuttle launch if its schedule meet your itinerary, or why not have lunch with an astronaut?
• Clearwater is one of the state’s most celebrated beach communities with iconic ‘Pier 60’ and a couple of America’s best beaches – Clearwater, offering sophisticated city beaches and Caladesi Island State Park’s natural beauty.
Daytona beach, rideable by cars, choppers or what have you…
• Daytona Beach: hard partying and fast racing in the city of speed. Explore the huge, hard beach and see the top action at the Daytona International Speedway during the Indy 500 race or wait for the Harleys to turn up during Bike Week (end of February).
• Cocoa Beach: a lively surfing beach along the Space Coast, close to Orlando and Kennedy Space center so an ideal destination for a break from visiting amusement parks. Look for lively sunset events at Pier 60 daily.
• Tampa: although a large and uninspiring city, Tampa is a lively place and hosts some excellent tourist attractions. For example the Florida Aquarium, the animal-packed African-theme park rides of Busch Gardens, Adventure Island Water Park with exhilarating water rides, and MOSI (Museum of Science and Industry). The Gasparilla Pirate Festival, known as the ‘Mardi Gras of Tampa’ on the last Saturday of January is a fun time to be there.
• St. Petersburg: a lively and cultured city housing the University of South Florida as well as many fine museums and galleries: Surrealists love the Salvador Dali Museum, home to the largest collection of artist’s works outside of Europe.
The city is also famed for its superb city beach as well as others nearby such as North Beach in Fort De Soto Park.
• Citrus County: based around the Crystal and Homosassa rivers are protected areas rich in wildlife such as manatees.
Visit Florida official web site