Chances are that when you think of Florida, your mind turns to theme parks and tourists. Fair enough, because The Sunshine State is famous for both. But there is another Florida – the Florida of forests and swamps, rivers and wildlife, cities and culture. And, as a plus for the foody traveller a number of speciality dishes waiting to be sampled. ‘Flat and boring’ are two words often linked together. With a mean elevation in Florida of a mere 900′ above sea level Florida is certainly on the flat side, but boring it most definitely is not.
In the beginning
Long before Europeans first set eyes on what we call Florida it was home to several tribes – the original tribes were the Apalachee in the Panhandle, Timucua in the north, Calusa in the south-west and Tequesta on the south-east coast. These original tribes were virtually wiped out with the arrival of European diseases and warfare. Today’s Native Americans in Florida are chiefly the Seminoles who migrated to Florida in the 18th century.
It was Juan Ponce de Leon, a Spanish explorer, who in 1513 during his country’s Easter celebrations – ‘Pascua Florida’, spotted land and called it La Florida, Land of Flowers. He returned a few years later in search of gold and riches. He failed in his quest and La Florida was left alone until 1565 when a conquistador, Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, founded a small settlement on the south-east coast – St Augustine. Today St Augustine proudly boasts the claim of North America’s longest continual European habitation. The British had their eyes on this new territory and led by Sir Francis Drake St Augustine came under heavy naval bombardment. Over the years Spain and Britain were in conflict over the possession of Florida and it was not until after American independence that Spain gained control of Florida. However, in 1819 Spain ceded Florida to the US. In 1845 it became the 27th state.
The development of the railroads began to bring prosperity to the state and along with them as well as Florida’s ideal winter climate tourism developed. Railroad tycoon Henry Plant created his luxurious hotel/estate on the west coast in 1891 whilst at the same time oil and railroad tycoon Henry Flagler was building hotels on the east coast. The state’s reputation as a tourist destination was finally made in the 1960s with the arrival of the world’s largest theme park – Walt Disney World.
Where to go and what to see
So long as you have a car it is easy to explore Florida. It takes little more than a couple of hours to drive between the west and east coasts and for the driver in a hurry just a day to drive from the Panhandle to Miami. Allow extra time if you want to make it down to Key West however.
The Panhandle, the narrow strip of land at the top of Florida that borders Alabama and Georgia, has much in common with the Deep South states. Wealthy plantation owners from the Deep South moved to this area attracted by the fertile soil that was great for growing cotton. And it is here, in the Panhandle that Tallahassee, the State Capital is located. The city grew up on the site of a prehistoric meeting place, possibly taking its name from two Apalachee Indian words: talwa – town and ahassee – old.
Downtown Tallahasse has fallen under the influence of modern town planning and is home to one of the tallest State Capitol buildings in the country. However, there are some attractive old buildings and certainly the Museum of Florida History should not be missed for anybody keen to learn about the history of Florida.
The Pensacola Bay area offers some 450 years of history – the Spanish settled there in 1559 – as well as many recreational opportunities and excellent beaches. Pensacola itself has a famous naval aviation academy and port, many fine buildings and some interesting museums – amongst them the Museum of Naval Aviation and the Historic Pensacola Village with its furnished period houses.
Don’t miss the miles of white sandy beaches or the vast Apalachicola Nation Forest.
The East Coast
Running south from Ferdinand Beach to the beaches of Miami, Florida’s East Coast runs for over 300 miles.
Ferdinand Beach on Amelia Island claims to have had eight flags flying over it during its varied 450 years of history – amongst them French, Spanish and British. It is also famous for its annual shrimp (prawns) festival held annually in early May when these tasty crustaceans are served in a variety of ways – one of the most popular is Cajun-style.
Further along the coast is Jacksonville lying in an embrace of a meander of the mighty St Johns River. It uses its water front well – with plenty of recreational opportunities and green open spaces. One of its claims to fame is that it is the largest city (it covers about 850 square miles) in the US. Another claim to fame is that Elvis Presley performed for the first time on an indoor stage here.
It is also home of the famous Jacksonville Jaguars football team.
St Augustine is the US’s oldest permanent settlement. It was so named by Pedro Menéndez de Avilés when he stepped ashore here on St Augustine’s Day in 1565. It is a charming small town with cobbled streets at its heart and glimpses of its Spanish past – such as the sturdy fortress of Castillo de San Marcos; the reconstructed Colonial Spanish Quarter; and Plaza de la Constitución. Don’t miss the amazing Lightner Museum – O C Lightner bought what had been the Alcazar Hotel (built by Henry Flagler) in order to house his collection of Victoriana. Also included in the museum are magnificent decorative arts from America’s Gilded Age.
It is the superb beach at Daytona that lures many visitors – 23 miles of it. In the early 20th century the beach drew racing aficionados keen to race their vehicles on the firm sands. Britain’s Malcolm Campbell beat the world land speed record five times here. Racing is now confined to the city’s International Speedway stadium, though it is still possible to drive beside the ocean on designated parts of the beach.
Nobody should miss the Kennedy Space Centre – where 21st century technology sits side by side with the alligators, armadillos and birds who call the Meritt Island National Wildlife Refuge on which the Centre is built home. Allow a full day to explore this fascinating wonder of modern history.
Palm Beach has been synonymous with the rich and famous since the days when Henry Flagler extended his railroad to it and built a couple of grand hotels to attract the new tourists. With its boutiques, restaurants, hotels, shows and sports facilities it is still the place to go to see and be seen. It is also home to the Flagler museum (Henry Flagler had this ostentatious building built as a wedding present home for his third wife).
Famous for its arts and culture Fort Lauderdale also offers a fabulous water front complete with extensive yacht and cruise ship facilities. With its network of canals (plus gondolas) it also goes by the title of Venice of America.
With the stunning Art Deco buildings of South Beach, its diverse districts, palm trees, temperate climate, lively, convivial atmosphere and Hispanic influences Miami is certainly one of Florida’s most glamorous resorts. It is also one of the major financial centres of the US and boasts the largest cruise ship terminal in the world. The city specialises in Cuban food – hardly surprising as there was a mass migration of Cubans who fled their native land following Castro’s rise to power in 1959 – and sea food straight from the ocean.
From Miami follow Highway 1 south to the Florida Keys a chain of 100 islands just perfect for anybody interested in fishing, diving, snorkelling and water sports. You can’t get lost – there is only one main route through the Keys.
The Florida Reef, a protected stretch of living coral is a paradise for divers and snorkelers, but not all the Keys are coral islands. In marked contrast the Lower Keys have a limestone base which has resulted in completely different vegetation and animals – including the endearing and endangered Key deer (National Key Deer Refuge, Big Pine Key). Arguably the most popular and famous of the Keys is Key West noted for its fabulous sunsets, wrecker museums with their hauls of treasure from sunken ships, Cuban influences (Cuba is a mere 90 miles away), key lime pie and Ernest Hemmingway. Hemmingway lived in Key West for about 10 years and it was here that he wrote some of his most famous books.
Back on the mainland head west to the fascinating Everglades National Park where dense sawgrass is punctuated by clumps of trees and pockets of water; and in the water alligators and turtles.
Thomas Edison, inventor of the light bulb, wintered in Fort Myers. Whilst the house in the Winter Estate is not open to the public the garden, planted with many exotic plant species, is. The tour also includes a museum stuffed with examples of his many achievements.
Further along the coast is Sarasota one of Florida’s cultural gems. It is noted for its opera and ballet productions as well as its selection of lively shops, bars and restaurants, and they don’t come much livelier than those in St Armands Circle. One of its most famous residents was John Ringling, the circus impresario. Ringling made a massive fortune and spent vast sums building up his collection of superb Old Masters and sculptures. Allow a day to do full justice to the Ringling Museum Complex. Allow enough time too to visit the superb Mote Aquarium and relax on the sparkling white sand beaches.
St Petersburg is another cultural gem with its array of excellent museums and art galleries. Best by far, however, is the Salvador Dali Museum. Located in a stunning new Dali-inspired building the museum houses the world’s most comprehensive collection of the artist’s works. The collection began in the 1940s when Ohio industrialist A Reynolds Morse and his wife bought a Dali painting and subsequently became friends with the artist.
Tampa is the west coast’s largest city and well worth a stop-over. Apart from being a business centre and port it is also a fun place for visitors.
Busch Gardens is an African-styled theme park complete with rollercoaster rides; not far away is the fascinating Museum of Science and Industry. In the same neighbourhood canoes can be hired providing a magical way to discover the creatures living in or beside the Hillsborough river.
Don’t miss Ybor City, the suburb that helped style Tampa the Cigar Capital of the World. Thousands of migrants, mostly from Cuba, settled there at the end of the 19th century and produced high-quality cigars from the supply of Havana tobacco brought in on Henry Plant’s ships. The Ybor City state museum offers an interesting glimpse of those early days. Lively by day Ybor City positively pulsates by night, especially at the weekend.
Henry B Plant was a wealthy steamship and railroad magnate who set out to build one of the most luxurious of hotels. Sadly it was to fall into decline. Eventually the city bought it and leased it to its university. Luckily one wing has been turned into the Henry B Plant museum which gives an idea of just opulent it must have been.
The city also has a superb Museum of Art and an equally impressive Aquarium.
Central Florida is home of Orlando and amazing theme parks. Even visitors who claim they do not like amusement parks have been bowled over by some of the themes of the Florida parks. Along with Walt Disney World Florida also boasts Universal Studios Orlando and Sea World Orlando. Since the days when the Disney Corporation bought up great swathes of Florida farmland and the opening of Walt Disney World in 1971 Florida now boasts more theme parks than any other destination in the world. Themes are still being added, the latest at Universal Studios Orlando – The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, which opened in 2010.
Whilst the parks have brought pleasure to millions and employment to the area, unfortunately the jungle of advertising boards, eateries, highway signs and hotels have done nothing for the charm of the area.
Nevertheless just a short drive takes visitors deeper into the region of citrus groves, lakes and ponds, pockets of woodland and interesting small towns.