Florida: a tale of two coasts
When you think about Florida, is Disney World the first place that comes to mind? Look closer. Think sparkling oceans edged with endless beaches, cosmopolitan cities along side charming small towns and a variety of outdoor activities to please any sports enthusiast. The state is also home to unique natural preserves, and some of its historic spots date back more than four centuries.
Whether you’re looking to settle in for a week or take a grand tour, you’ll find many tempting destinations along Florida’s Atlantic and Gulf coasts. Here are some top spots to inspire your planning.
If you’re looking for some city life with your sunny escape, Florida’s largest city offers a wide variety of attractions, events and outdoor fun in addition to its beaches and waterways. Head to Jacksonville Landing for some shopping and dining, or take in one of the many events hosted onsite. Learn about local history and culture including the Timucua Indians through to the Plantation Era at the Timucuan Ecological & Historic Preserve. Explore the bustling downtown core or stroll the riverside streets to take in local boutiques and pause for a refresher at its outdoor cafes.
For lovebirds, try side-by-side treatments at one of the city’s spas followed by a romantic meal for two overlooking the ocean — then go dancing with Jacksonville’s nightlife.
For more information, see VisitJacksonville.com.
With its cobblestone streets and historic sites, the “Nation’s Oldest City” may make you feel like you’ve ventured into an old world European city. When you aren’t relaxing on the beach or trying your hand at deep-sea fishing, explore sites such as the Mission of Nombre de Dios and the Dow Museum of Historic Houses — an entire city block of beautiful historic homes. The Castillo de San Marcos National Monument harkens back to the days of the Spanish Empire, and the area’s many museums capture local history and some curious artifacts too.
The city will be celebrating its 450th birthday in 2015, but festivities are also planned for the years leading up to the big event.
St. Lucie County
Want to enjoy the beach without the crowds? Less travelled than the usual spring break destinations like Fort Lauderdale and Daytona Beach, this area offers small town charm and a laid-back atmosphere. Soak up the sun on the pristine beaches of Hutchinson Island or tour the “Treasure Coast” of the City of Fort Pierce where a Spanish galleon sank nearly three hundred years ago. If you’re looking for a unique place to head for the day, try the National Navy UDT- SEAL Museum.
Golf enthusiasts can try their skill on the courses at PGA Village in Port St. Lucie — yes, they’re open to the public — and visit the PGA History Museum. Is baseball more your style? Catch the New York Mets during spring training.
For more information, see VisitStLucieFla.com.
If it’s excitement you’re after, you can’t beat the energy and diversity that is Miami. Indulge in arts and culture, and bask in the luxury of the Vizcaya Museum — former estate of agricultural industrialist James Deering — and its vast formal gardens. If you’re travelling with kids in tow, go wild at the Miami Zoo and visit the Everglades Alligator Farm to see its scaly inhabitants.
If you and your travelling companions are pro sports fans, you’ve come to the right place. With the Miami Dolphins, Florida Marlins, Miami Heat, Florida Panthers and professional soccer team Miami FC all calling the city home, there’s bound to be a game to catch.
For more ideas, visit MiamiandBeaches.com.
Everglades National Park
Nature lovers won’t want to miss this “largest designated sub-tropical wilderness reserve” in North America. Its delicate and diverse system of habitats — including one of the largest mangrove ecosystems in the world — have earned it place on UNESCO’s World Heritage in Danger list.
Plan carefully: the “River of Grass” covers over 2350 square miles, so you won’t be able to see it all in one day. Ranger-guided hikes and boat tours are popular activities, but you can rent a bike to hit the trails or kayak to get up close and personal with nature. Try a photography tour to sharpen your skills and capture a shot of a crocodile alligator.
Some say the Florida Keys are a must-see for people who love nature, not just sunny beaches. A good entry point to the sweeping archipelago is Key Largo, one of the northern islands accessible from the mainland via bridges. Famed for being “the Diving Capital of the World”, Key Largo has the only living coral barrier reef in the continental U.S.
Of course, diving and snorkeling aren’t the only draws. The area is also known for its eco-tour offerings, fishing, boating and — of course — beaches. Feel truly relaxed with a hot stone massage at one of the area’s spas, or try yoga on the beach.
For more information, see Fla-Keys.com.
One of the city’s claims to fame is the home of the Ringling Brothers Circus, and experts say the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art and opulent Ca’ d’Zan mansion are must-see activities. The area is also a performing arts hub with renowned performances at the Sarasota Opera House, Sarasota Ballet and Sarasota Orchestra — all within walking distance of each other.
Of course, no visit would be complete without a sojourn to the islands. Siesta Key boasts one of the best beaches in the country, and you’ll enjoy a more secluded getaway on Longboat Key.
See VisitSarasota.org for more information about Sarasota and surrounding areas.
Sanibel and Captiva Islands
Could a Florida destination beat out the likes of Paris and Bali? Yes, according to Frommer’s, which named the sister islands its top destination for 2011. No stoplights, no big resorts and no crowds — just miles of trails and beachfront condos available for rent. Hunt for seashells on the beach, and make sure your trip includes a spectacular sunrise or sunset.
One of the highlights of the area: the J.N. Ding Darling Natural Preserve which is famous for bird watching. Part of the largest undeveloped mangrove ecosystem in the U.S., the preserve draws numerous species of migratory birds — especially during the winter months. Tour the park by bike or take the Wildlife Drive. (You can even take your pooch!)
If it’s sun your after, “St. Pete” boasts 360 days of it each year. Along with Clearwater and a handful of other beautiful communities, you’ll find the city on a peninsula between the west coast of Florida and the Gulf of Mexico. The area is best known for its beaches and water sports, but there are plenty of opportunities to hit the links. Try a water front stroll or tour three miles of hiking trails through five unique ecosystems at Boyd Hill Nature Preserve. If you can’t get enough of palm trees, stop by the Gizelle Kopsick Palm Tree Arboretum where you can spy over 150 species from around the world.
Art enthusiasts will want to hit the Dali Museum for an impressive collection of the artist’s works spanning his lengthy career.
For more information, see VisitStPeteClearwater.com.
Naturally, this list is just a small selection of the many great places to visit in Florida. Whether you’re travelling with friends, your spouse or your entire family, there’s a little something for everyone in this diverse state during the winter months. Admittedly, it may be hard to return to the snow and cold after sampling Florida’s sunny locales!
For more destinations and ideas, see VisitFlorida.com.
Additional sources: Frommer’s, Florida.co.uk, Lonely Planet, the New York Times