Your Ad­ven­ture Starts Here

Travel Guide to Florida - - TABLE OF CONTENTS - BY JEN KARETNICK

Florida has ex­erted a mag­netic pull on visi­tors for the past 500 years— be­gin­ning with Juan Ponce de León. St. Au­gus­tine, where he landed in 1513, ed­u­cates visi­tors and res­i­dents alike through at­trac­tions, mu­se­ums and fes­ti­vals where re-en­ac­tors dress in his­toric garb and tell tales. In this charm­ing town, it’s not un­usual to have break­fast in a café seated next to a “pi­rate.”

Ponce de León named what he saw “La Florida,” or “place of flow­ers,” be­cause of the lush land­scape. In­deed, Florida has 300 na­tive plants, rang­ing from the thorny sweet aca­cia to the wild aza­lea.

The state lists an ad­di­tional 1,300-plus in­tro­duced ex­otics, many of them con­sid­ered in­va­sive. Oth­ers are housed in botan­i­cal gar­dens, such as the renowned Fairchild Trop­i­cal Botan­i­cal Gar­den and the Cen­tral Florida Zoo and Botan­i­cal Gar­dens.


Iron­i­cally, the state flower, the or­ange blos­som, is con­sid­ered an ex­otic, al­beit one that be­came extremely im­por­tant to the re­gion’s econ­omy. Na­tive to South­east Asia, the or­ange tree is an ev­er­green shrub brought to the colony of St. Au­gus­tine in 1565. The or­ange and its aro­matic blos­som, which con­notes fer­til­ity and good for­tune, quickly be­came rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the area. Many towns such as Davie have Or­ange Blos­som Fes­ti­vals. To­day, Florida is the largest pro­ducer of or­anges in the US, as well as the honey made by the bees that sip pollen from the fra­grant blos­soms.

In fact, Florida de­pends on ex­port crops as di­verse as sugar cane and toma­toes to sur­vive, while still leav­ing plenty of sweet corn and green beans avail­able for passersby to pur­chase. Visi­tors are of­ten amazed to find farm stands and U-pick farms of­fer­ing ev­ery­thing from boiled peanuts and blue­ber-

ries in Gainesville to man­goes and ly­chees in the south­ern ar­eas of Red­land and Home­stead. Through­out the year, fes­ti­vals, such as Plant City’s Florida Straw­berry Fes­ti­val in late win­ter and the mid-sum­mer In­ter­na­tional Mango Fes­ti­val at Fairchild Trop­i­cal Botanic Gar­den in Coral Gables, are hugely en­joy­able, multi-day at­trac­tions.

If you pre­fer bot­tled fruit, winer­ies are pop­ping up ev­ery­where, with many of­fer­ing both grape va­ri­etals as well as trop­i­cal fruit vin­tages.


Florida is home to more than 500 bird species, which ama­teur or­nithol­o­gists can track along The Great Florida Bird­ing Trail. Com­pleted in 2006 by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Con­ser­va­tion Com­mis­sion, the 2,000-mile trail com­prises four sec­tions— the Pan­han­dle, East, West and South—and lists what species can be found where.

Florida also has more than 170 na­tive but­ter­flies. In ad­di­tion to find­ing them in the parks and in the wild, visi­tors can ob­serve them in con­ser­va­to­ries such as But­ter­fly World in Co­conut Creek and the But­ter­fly Rain­for­est in Gainesville.

The 142 na­tive species of am­phib­ians and rep­tiles, in­clud­ing 50 kinds of snakes—of which only six are poi­sonous—are equally fas­ci­nat­ing. You can view these and the 50 ad­di­tional non-na­tive species at many zoos and sa­faris, rang­ing from Zoo Mi­ami to Lion Coun­try Sa­fari in Lox­a­hatchee and Tampa’s Lowry Park Zoo. At Jungle Is­land in Mi­ami, brave guests hold gi­ant pythons.

Visi­tors who pre­fer to check out nat­u­ral habi­tats where wild things re­side can hit any sec­tion of the sprawl­ing Ever­glades. There, a range of ac­tiv­i­ties, from fish­ing and bik­ing to hik­ing and boat­ing, puts one in close touch with na­ture’s big­gest beasts and smallest in­sects. The cu­ri­ous can also ar­range pri­vate tours with ex­otic an­i­mal res­cue and re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion op­er­a­tions such as the Zoo­log­i­cal Wildlife Foun­da­tion and McCarthy’s Wildlife Sanc­tu­ary, both lo­cated in South Florida.

For con­ser­vancy on a smaller but no less im­por­tant scale, many pro­grams all over the state, such as the Mu­seum of Sci­ence & Dis­cov­ery in Fort Laud­erdale, help pro­tect sea tur­tle nests, and if visi­tors are in the area at the right time, they may be able to watch a hatch­ing.


Florida is made up of 1,200 miles of coast­line, of which 663 are foot-friendly sand. It isn’t all salty water and fruity cock­tail cul­ture, how­ever. The in­te­rior of the state is far dif­fer­ent than many ex­pect, with nearly 8,000 lakes and al­most 1,700 rivers. Lake Okee­chobee—in the cen­ter of the state—is the sec­ond-largest fresh­wa­ter lake in the con­tigu­ous United States. It not only pro­vides drink­ing water for many sur­round­ing and south­ern coun­ties, but it’s also an agri­cul­tural re­source for the state’s abun­dant pro­duce. It of­fers some of the best large­mouth bass fish­ing in Florida, and the pro­tec­tive dike that en­cir­cles the lake is part of the Na­tional Scenic Trail, a 110-mile route, pop­u­lar with hik­ers, nat­u­ral­ists, cy­clists and horse­back rid­ers. (Horse en­thu­si­asts should also head to Ocala and the Davie/Plan­ta­tion re­gion, where there are horse farms, schools, trails and com­pe­ti­tions ga­lore.)

In ad­di­tion, the state has more than 30 first-mag­ni­tude fresh­wa­ter springs—the most of any state or na­tion in the world. Most of these wa­ter­ing holes, in­clud­ing Wakulla Springs, one of the deep­est, and Sil­ver Springs, one of the largest, are clus­tered in Cen­tral West and North Cen­tral Florida.

Fi­nally, Florida claims quite a river cul­ture, not­with­stand­ing the famed River of Grass, a.k.a. the Ever­glades, where na­tive and non-na­tive wildlife is the most di­verse. If you’re lucky, you’ll spot the elu­sive and en­dan­gered Florida panther, the only big cat that lives in the wild in the state.

From air­boat rides and al­li­ga­tor spot­ting in the swamps to kayak­ing along the im­mor­tal Suwan­nee River, framed by cool, green wood­lands, and crab­bing in the trib­u­taries of the Apalachicola River, wa­ter­way ad­ven­tures are end­less. Here is also where you’ll find wild boar, which ac­cli­mated af­ter the Span­ish brought over their na­tive pigs 500 years ago.

Be­yond the rivers and lakes, bod­ies of water on ei­ther shore of the Florida penin­sula of­fer deep-sea fish­ing and div­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties ga­lore.


Blessed with cli­mates rang­ing from sub­trop­i­cal in the north to trop­i­cal in the coastal and south­ern re­gions, Florida is known as the “Sun­shine State.” Tem­per­a­tures av­er­age a balmy 70 F daily, with highs usu­ally peak­ing in the low 90s in July and Au­gust. And while the low­est tem­per­a­ture ever recorded in the win­ter of 1899 was –2 F in Tal­la­has­see, the nor­mal lows, which last only a cou­ple of days, hover around the 40s or 50s dur­ing Jan­uary or Fe­bru­ary. Al­though Florida has its share of in­clement weather, it’s renowned for be­ing the warm­est state in the US main­land.

The cur­rents of Key Bis­cayne and the coastal ar­eas around Fort My­ers, par­ticu-

larly Sani­bel and Cap­tiva is­lands, are per­fect for learn­ing the rudi­ments of pad­dle­board­ing, ocean kayak­ing and other water sports. If you’re shell hunters, the Gulf coast, from Fort My­ers to Sara­sota, is where to go. And if you’re lucky, you may find thou­sandyear-old sharks’ teeth.


Re­sorts and at­trac­tions are an in­escapable part of Florida’s iden­tity and some are des­ti­na­tions in their own right.

Head south to the 173,000-acre, mostly un­der­wa­ter Bis­cayne Na­tional Park, where all sorts of out­door ac­tiv­i­ties are avail­able to­gether with snor­kel­ing, div­ing and glass­bot­tom boat tours. It’s cer­tainly worth rent­ing a wa­ter­craft to search the is­lands for ev­i­dence of na­tive tribe in­hab­i­tants, to ex­plore ship­wrecks and to drift above the coral reef sys­tem, where more than 200 species of fish thrive.

Pop­u­lar water parks in South­east Florida in­clude Rapids Water Park in Palm Beach County and Broward County’s col­lec­tion of child-pleas­ing soak­ers: C.B. Smith’s Par­adise Cove, Splash Ad­ven­tures at Quiet Wa­ters Park, Cast­away Is­land at T.Y. Park, and Trop­i­cal Splash Water Park.

Water parks, such as Ship­wreck Is­land Water­park in Panama City Beach, Ad­ven­ture Is­land in Tampa and Ad­ven­ture Land­ing in Jack­sonville, of­fer thrilling ex­pe­ri­ences for the whole fam­ily, and are es­pe­cially re­fresh­ing in the sum­mer­time when the air can be quite hu­mid.


Pets are part of the fam­ily. Keep them happy by stop­ping fre­quently at the nu­mer­ous dog parks and beaches dot­ting the state.

In South­east Florida, visit Higgs Beach Dog Park in Key West, where small and large an­i­mals have sep­a­rate play­grounds. Stroll down Du­val Street in Key West, then lope around Mal­lory Square for two hours be­fore sun­set to take in the rit­u­al­is­tic Key West Sun­set Cel­e­bra­tion. Lin­coln Road in Mi­ami Beach is an­other place to linger with your pooch, as is North Fort Laud­erdale Beach Boule­vard or East Las Olas Boule­vard in Fort Laud­erdale, where many pro­pri­etors tol­er­ate “purse-car­ried” pups, and nearly ev­ery out­door café wel­comes a well-be­haved ca­nine curled up un­der your ta­ble.

In South­west Florida, con­sider Lee County’s Bark­ing­ham Park in Fort My­ers, Dog Beach Park in Bonita Beach and Happy Tails Ca­nine Park in Braden­ton.

In Cen­tral West Florida, Tampa Bay boasts more than a dozen off-leash parks, in­clud­ing Mango Dog Park, a shady, fiveacre tract with swim ar­eas and pav­il­ions; Cur­tis Hixon Waterfront Dog Park and Davis Is­lands Dog Park, both of which are feted for their water fea­tures; and a few Paw Play­grounds in Anderson, Boca Ciega and Fort De Soto, which are fully fenced and even of­fer show­ers.

The Space Coast in Cen­tral East Florida is home to Lori Wil­son Park (Co­coa Beach), Wick­ham Park (Mel­bourne) and Port St. John Dog Park in Fay Lake Wilder­ness Park (Port St. John). Or take your pet shop­ping in the quaint vil­lages of Mel­bourne, Ti­tusville and Co­coa Vil­lage, all of which fea­ture pet-friendly boule­vards.

Far­ther north, pet-friendly Smyrna Dunes Park rises above a wide ex­panse of dunes with two miles of el­e­vated board­walk, and New Smyrna Beach’s Dog Park is di­vided into large and small dog are­nas.

With dozens of pet-friendly busi­ness list­ings, Or­lando is among the friendli­est dog towns in Florida. Paw Park of His­toric San­ford, the old­est off-leash dog site in Cen­tral Florida, fea­tures a sep­a­rate play area for small breeds, self-wa­ter­ing bowls, plenty of live oak shade trees and even show­ers to cool down your crit­ters on swel­ter­ing days.

For more water re­cre­ation in­clud­ing dock div­ing and jump ses­sions, as well as raised bathing tubs and an agility course, visit Jack­sonville’s off-leash, fenced, mul­ti­acre Dog Wood Park fa­cil­ity.

In the Pen­sacola Bay Area in Northwest Florida, three dog parks are avail­able for both sand- and grass-based play: Bayview Park, Roger Scott Com­plex Dog Park, and Shore­line Bark Park. Scott Com­plex Dog Park in Pen­sacola fea­tures fa­cil­i­ties that in­clude hu­man and hound water foun­tains and pooper-scooper sta­tions.

OP­PO­SITE TOP: Bot­tlenose dol­phins near Sani­bel Is­land. OP­PO­SITE BOT­TOM: Build­ing sand­cas­tles. BE­LOW: Amer­i­can al­li­ga­tor in Ever­glades Na­tional Park. RIGHT: Sun­set over Mi­ami and the MacArthur Cause­way Bridge. BOT­TOM LEFT: Mem­ber of the Mic­co­su­kee tribe...

OP­PO­SITE: Fam­ily va­ca­tion­ing on Florida’s Gulf coast. ABOVE: Pho­tograph­ing an Amer­i­can an­hinga in the Ever­glades. RIGHT: Feed­ing fish and pel­i­cans in Is­lam­orada in the Florida Keys.

LEFT: Check­ing in at the pet-friendly Hil­ton Rialto Place in Mel­bourne.

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