WELCOME TO FLORIDA: Brighter than ever!
The Sunshine State has attracted visitors to its sandy shores for the past 500 years, however, people first reached Florida at least 12,000 years ago. The coastline was very different then because the sea level was much lower than it is today. As a result, the Florida peninsula was more than twice its current size.
Written records about life in Florida began with the arrival of the Spanish explorer and adventurer Juan Ponce de León in 1513, marking the beginning of the American Frontier. He 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 Botanic Garden in Coral Gables and the Central Florida Zoo and Botanical Gardens in Sanford.
A BOUNTIFUL LAND
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 fresh blueberries 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.
WILD ABOUT FLORIDA
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 boating and fishing to biking and hiking, 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.
WATER, WATER EVERYWHERE
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.
BREAK OUT THE SUNSCREEN
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, particularly 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 thousand-yearold 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 glass- bottom 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 cafe 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: Sunset sail on the Gulf coast. ABOVE: A beautiful beach on Amelia Island. RIGHT: Golfing on the Space Coast.
OPPOSITE TOP: Kayaking off Amelia Island. OPPOSITE CENTER: Fort Jefferson Beach in Dry Tortugas National Park in the Florida Keys. BELOW: American alligator in Everglades National Park. RIGHT: The Museum of Arts & Sciences in Daytona Beach. BOTTOM LEFT: The Sarasota Chalk Festival. BOTTOM RIGHT: The historic Florida Theatre in downtown Jacksonville.
LEFT: Checking in at the pet-friendly Hilton Melbourne Rialto Place.