Sunday, February 19, 2012


Florida vacation?  Here's my virtual guided tour, as a regular visitor, to the best places to vacation in Florida.

Florida is big, beautiful and bewildering.  Of all the States, surely Florida is the sandiest, sunniest, most humid, most waterlogged, most visited, most alligatered and maniteed, most hurricane swept, most weirdly shaped, most orange state in America?  (Yes or no?  See the bottom of this post). 
Orange Florida hibiscus - the plants of Florida are, with the beaches and the ocean, awesome.
Let’s start our tour at the very, very bottom (otherwise know as the most southern!) and work our way up the 447 miles of Florida.


Fort Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas National Park
Never heard of the Dry Tortugas?  Don’t worry too much, it's an island or two, about 70 miles (2hrs 15 mins by boat) west of Key West so pretty remote. Having said that it's an amazing place to visit and the snorkeling is great.  It's a day trip by boat from Key West, trips every day.

Key West.  Essential.  We’ll deal with how I recommend you combine Key West into a Florida vacation in another post.

Florida Keys
Not counting Key West, there are 822 islands spread out over 120 miles and it’s a Wonder of the World (ok, not officially, but you know what I mean) to drive.
Typical view on miles of the drive up and down the Florida Keys.  Looking out to the low lying island chain off the coast.  Narrow strip of road and then miles of ocean.
For large parts of the drive, its like a narrow ribbon with only the width of the road between you and the blue Gulf of Mexico on one side and the blue Atlantic on the other.  And of course, the 7 Mile Bridge – yes, it really is 7 miles!
The 7 Mile Bridge - view from the northern end looking south.
If you have a little time then my stopping off recommendations along the Florida Keys are:
Bahia Honda State Park, Curry Hammock state park, Turtle rescue center, Theater of the Sea.

      Everglades National Park
This place is an awesome jewel - a World Heritage site and the US's largest subtropical wilderness.  The landscape (waterscape?) is so different.  Nothing to see but miles and miles of grass, water and the odd hammock peeking up a few feet from the sea level.  It’s amazing.  Go on a tour, go to the alligator farms, even better just take a drive and stop and stop in the peace and take it all in.  See also Alligator Alley, below.

Miami is a crazy city but there’s not a whole lot to do and downtown is, well, boring.  It's not relaxing and it's not particularly friendly.  It's a party city, of course.  Here’s what my day time schedule would be if I had a few days just in Miami: 
  • shopping for a day or two (Aventura Mall is too big for me, I prefer Sawgrass Mills and it's more outlet oriented) 
  • Miami zoo is great - here's me feeding a hungry giraffe (which is totally cool, btw!).
Feeding the very hungry giraffes in Miami zoo
  • Vizcaya mansion is worth a visit
  • Then South Beach, Ocean Drive and the art deco district there
The art deco hotels in South Beach - the Delano and others

If you’ve only got 1 day then it’s got to be the last one of these – head for South Beach and Ocean Drive.
The view of South Beach, a lovely September day, from my 7th floor room at the Tides Hotel on Ocean Drive. 
The iconic lifeguard stations on South Beach.  This one is a shocking pink!
On South Beach, stay at the Tides hotel, and hang out on the cocktails bars along Ocean Drive at sunset to see all the crazy people and the parade of cars.

East Coast from Miami to West Palm Beach
Don’t bother. Ugly, tall condos all the way.  Think Golden Girls opening credits and you’ve seen all there is to see.  See one condo, seen them all.  Apart from Lauderdale....

Fort Lauderdale
The Venice of Florida – yep, really, 165 miles of waterways, 7 miles of beaches - in just 1 city.    Pretty friendly and pretty gay in pockets.  Easier to get around, a user friendly city, easy to hang out and some great sea side hotels on the main beach strip.  This is a great place for a visit, fantastic hotels make a perfect vacation base (much better than Miami) and central to do some touring around the rest of south Florida.  Easy sun bathing! Recommended.
Fort Lauderdale Beaches Only sign.  Lots of water, lots of sea, lots of breach and pretty laid back - that's Lauderdale.
View of Fort Lauderdale beach from my room in the Hilton.  It's a good beach.
The view north up to Pompano and the lighthouse, 6 miles away.
Fort Lauderdale beach has other visitors.
West Palm Beach
It’s a vibrant community of very rich, and also very old, people.  Yes, they sure do spend money in this place - very well maintained streets and sidewalks and the houses are amazing.  Not much is happening for the causal vacation visitor.  The Flagler mansion (great guided tours) is the most interesting thing in town.
A 'typical' mansion (one of many) in the very rich West Palm Beach.  Looking at yet another mansion hidden behind locked gates gets very boring, very quickly!

Alligator Alley (highway 75) across the Everglades and Big Cypress National Preserve
84 mile stretch of highway, most of it dead straight, and all of it cutting right through the Everglades, taking you from east to west, right across southern Florida.  This is an awesome drive and Big Cypress park (which is along the route) is great.

Sanibel Island
So, now we flip onto the west coast.  Sanibel's main beach is really interesting because it's got washed up shells - thousands of different types, millions of them - that have come on tides from the Caribbean.  Hours of fun hunting on the shoreline.
Sanibel beach
Sanibel beach - see the sea shells!
Bit like West Palm Beach.  Good for a visit but don’t go out of your way.  The Columbia restaurant (Florida’s oldest restaurant, opened in 1905) is worth the drive out there. Siesta beach here was named #1 beach in the US by ‘Dr Beach’ in 2011.

The thrilling threesome: Tampa, Clearwater and St.Pete’s (St Petersburg)
I really like it around here.  And there is soooooooo much to do!  Tampa has great shopping, lots to do and Busch Gardens theme park.  Clearwater beach and its pier is a great beach and not too crowded - lots of very good hotels.  And St Pete’s has a long shoreline with some fun seaside places to visit, including the historic (and brilliantly named) town, Pass-A-Grille.  This is a fantastic base for a vacation.
Non profit Clearwater Aquarium, where Winter, from the movie A Dolphin's Tale, lives.  Excellent place to visit, devoted staff.
The pier at Clearwater beach, see the market on the pier, at sunset - check out the amazing wave cloud formation.
Dunedin and Tarpon Springs
A few miles north of Clearwater, they are both pretty towns, very historic and well worth visiting – even though they are tourism based, you do feel more homely here than the bigger tourist traps in Miami.  Real locals live here!  

Well if you have kids, then the decision is made.  I'd prefer to steer clear but 47 million people disagree with me and flock there every year.  No more needs to be said!

Cape Canaveral and the Kennedy Space Center
It's out of the way but well worth the visit - there are so many exhibits and cool things to do (and touch, and sit in, and experience - including a simulation of a shuttle launch!).
Me and Space Shuttle Explorer in Kennedy Space Centre in Florida
Anywhere and everywhere further north than this…. Sorry, in all my trips and visits to Florida, I ain’t made it that far yet!

Amazing Florida facts

To finish, let’s get back to my first paragraph: 

Of all the States, surely Florida is the sandiest, sunniest, most humid, most waterlogged, most visited, most alligatered and maniteed, most hurricane swept, most weirdly shaped, most orange state in America? 

Is Florida the sandiest State? Yes. Florida has the second longest coastline – 1,350 glorious miles compared to the 3rd biggest, California, with a mere 840 miles.  The hands down winner is Alaska but not much of it is sand, I reckon!

Sand and more fantastic sand.  Beach at Bahia Honda park - one of the best beaches in the entire USA.
Is Florida the sunniest state? No.  The Sunshine State, isn’t! A town in Arizona is sunny 90% of the time (that is, from sunrise to sunset) and only 1 Florida town makes it into the top 10 in the US – Key West, which is sunny 76% of the time. 

Is Florida the most humid state?  Not sure, no records exist at the State level.  But I reckon you're hard to beat Key West in August.

Has Florida the most water?  No.  This is Rhode Island (17% water) and then D.C. (11%). Florida’s in 4th place (8.7%).

Most visited?  If you add domestic plus international visitors it's pretty close between Flordia and NY State.  Let's call it a draw.  Put it this way, if you visit, you won't be alone!

Has Florida the most alligators? Maybe.  It’s close but probably Louisiana edges it.  But there are at least 1 million alligators in Florida alone (and 19 million people).
A Florida alligator.  Actually taken in the middle Keys.
Has Florida the most matinees?  Yes, most of the remaining 3,200 are in Florida.  They have been officially declared endangered since 1967.  Aren't they cool?

A beautiful and curious manatee. 
Is Florida the most hurricane swept state? – Yes.  From 1851-2004, 110 hurricanes for Florida vs 59 for Texas – easy win. (Source: NOAA)

Is Florida the most weirdly shaped state?  I reckon.

Is Florida the most orange state?  Yep.   Visit a fruit farm and squeeze some oranges!

Mixon Fruit farm in Florida in Bradenton.  I bought a bag just like this and they were juicy and refreshing!

To see my Key West vacation directory - click here.

If you disagree or I've missed out a favorite place of yours then please leave a comment!