For many of us, a trip to Florida is an annual tradition. For some, it is a winter home. For others, it’s the ideal winter escape, where theme parks, beaches and attractions cater to all ages and interests. In short, Florida seems to have the uncanny knack of morphing into whatever it is we want or imagine it to be. But there’s so much more to Florida than sunshine, surf and sand. Each year introduces a bounty of new, bigger or better attractions, hotels, restaurants and events geared to keep guests entertained and hollering for more.
And while we’re forever researching what’s new and exciting, we should never ignore the culture and traditions of Florida’s native inhabitants, its history and the natural beauty of its wilderness. While much of this is preserved in museums and wildlife attractions and research programs in or near the larger cities, for truly authentic experiences, one has to venture beyond city limits to small communities that still embody the charm and heritage of Old Florida.
In Southeast Florida, head south from Miami along the Overseas Highway through the Florida Keys, and you may think you’ve passed through the looking glass into another world. Drive west into the Everglades to find adventures and a lifestyle you never imagined existed. Aim north to reach Lake Okeechobee, the largest freshwater lake in the state and a haven for anglers, campers, birders and stargazers.
In Southwest Florida, Naples, Fort Myers, Sarasota and Bradenton feature a laid-back, yet elegant and sophisticated lifestyle, where culture, fishing excursions, shelling and golf reign. But don’t miss out on what the smaller communities and offshore islands, such as Pine Island, Matlacha, Cabbage Key, Boca Grande and Venice, have to offer.
Drive north along the Gulf of Mexico to cross the four-mile-long Sunshine Skyway Bridge into Central East Florida where award-winning beaches in Clearwater, St. Petersburg and Dunedin vie for attention with Tampa’s Dalí Museum and its historic Latin Quarter, Ybor City. A few more miles north and you could be swimming with manatees in crystal-clear waters.
Swing eastward along the I-4, through Central Florida past some of the most unpopulated, rural landscapes in Florida. Venture off-road to tour the Bok Tower in Lake Wales and the Safari Wilderness Ranch in Lakeland before continuing on to Kissimmee and Orlando, where theme parks welcome millions of visitors annually.
While Central East Florida on the Atlantic coast is home to the world-famous Daytona Beach and its DAYTONA 500, the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex and a surfer’s paradise in Cocoa Beach, don’t overlook charming Stuart and Jensen Beach in Martin County; Port St. Lucie and Fort Pierce in St. Lucie County; New Smyrna Beach and DeLand in Volusia County; or Vero Beach in Indian River County.
Hug the shoreline northward on A1A toward St. Augustine and Ponte Vedra on Florida’s Historic Coast in Northeast Florida, a region anchored in history and tradition. Farther north, there’s Jacksonville, a young vibrant city, and quaint Fernandina Beach and Amelia Island, also steeped in history and a seafaring culture.
Aim west along I-10 through North Central Florida, where old-world towns, oozing Southern charm, reputedly host lingering spirits from a distant past. This is also where you’ll find Tallahassee, the state capital, and Gainesville, a vibrant university town, all surrounded by state parks, forests and preserves.
Before long, you reach Northwest Florida—the Panhandle—with its dazzling white-sand beaches and emerald waters, artistic communities and historic sites. Drive along US Route 98 from Pensacola to Alligator Point to take in the full splendor and richness of this majestic coastline.
Wherever you go, indulge in the freshest seafood imaginable; attend basketball, football, hockey or baseball games; enjoy local festivals, juried art shows and events; book a spa treatment; observe dolphins, manatees and other wildlife; hunt for treasures at discount outlets, flea markets, mammoth shopping malls and along legendary avenues; visit theme parks; stroll beautiful beaches as you admire sunrises and sunsets; party well into the night; engage in activities you never dreamed of; or just relax.