Essentially America

DISCOVER FIVE FABULOUS STATE PARKS

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Florida actually has 175 of them (www.floridasta­teparks.org) – here are five of our favourites, all filled with wildlife:

MELIA ISLAND STATE PARK

Imagine going horseback riding on a firm sandy beach as waves lap the shore. That’s what you can do in this seaside preserve, north-east of Jacksonvil­le. While you clip-clop along, watch for birds – black skimmers, piping plovers and maybe even bald eagles in winter and early spring.

JONATHAN DICKINSON STATE PARK

Only 25 miles north of Palm Beach, this expansive park is home to deer, raccoons and foxes. Special species include prehistori­c-looking gopher tortoises, the Florida scrub jay (only found in the Sunshine State) and the hard-to-spot bobcat.

PAYNES PRAIRIE PRESERVE STATE PARK

Wild horses and bison – in Florida? Yup, they roam free on this vast savannah, along with sandhill and whooping cranes that are among hundreds of bird species that live and spend winters there. This 22,000-acre reserve lies south of Gainesvill­e; the visitor centre is near Micanopy. Climb the 50fthigh observatio­n tower for fabulous views!

BLUE SPRING STATE PARK

One of the largest winter gathering sites for manatees in Florida is Blue Spring, an hour north of Orlando. In winter, its constant 22C/72F spring water is like a spa for hundreds of manatees. See them on a river cruise or guided kayak tour.

JOHN PENNEKAMP CORAL REEF STATE PARK

Near Key Largo, this was America’s first underwater preserve. Look down to coral formations and glamorous tropical fish on a glass-bottom boat ride. Even better, go on a snorkellin­g trip; many boats have time to motor out to the underwater Christ of the Deep statue, a must-see since 1965.

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