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Florida: The Under-Discovered State

by Travelbag on 05 February 2020, 09:02AM

Florida

Florida has long been a popular holiday destination for those seeking some fun in the sun. As the theme park capital of the world, it draws visitors from around the globe, keen to experience the fantasy realms of Walt Disney World, Universal Studios and Busch Gardens. But at almost one and a half times the size of England – and with over 4,500 islands – there’s so much more to the Sunshine State than roller coasters and water parks. While the theme parks are certainly worth a visit, there are further thrills to be had elsewhere. Venture away from Orlando and you’ll soon uncover another side to this under-discovered state.

Beautiful Beaches

Florida’s beaches are one of its top attractions – after theme parks, they’re what the state’s best known for. And with more than 825 miles of beach to choose from, there’s one to suit every kind of sun-soaked adventure. Whether you’re looking for a secluded bay for a romantic getaway, a family-friendly spot with loads of activities, or somewhere where you can tan by day and party at night, Florida’s got it all.

For the third time in four years, TripAdvisor has named Clearwater Beach the number one beach in America. Sitting on the Gulf Coast, just half an hour from Tampa, this coastal gem is the quintessential Floridian beach town. Besides wide stretches of soft white sand and impossibly clear water that rarely gets below 20 degrees, it offers a wealth of activities for both kids and grown-ups – from parasailing and dolphin-spotting to paddle boating and even a pirate-themed cruise. What’s more, the area averages 361 days of sun a year, and holds the record for the longest consecutive run of sunshine, at 768 days. Clearwater’s not the only Florida beach gaining recognition though – six of TripAdvisor’s top 10 U.S. beaches are dotted across the Sunshine State.

Clearwater Beach 

Scenic Highways

If a great American road trip’s long been on your bucket list, Florida’s got you covered. While it’s not widely regarded as a fly-drive destination, Highway A1A puts it up there with the very best of them. Stretching almost the entire length of Florida’s Atlantic Coast, from the Georgia border all the way to Key West, it runs through countless coastal cities and beach towns. The 72 miles from Ponte Vedra Beach to the end of Flagler Beach is designated the A1A Scenic and Historic Coastal Byway – a National Scenic Byway – on account of its beauty and historical relevance. As well as connecting State Parks, National Monuments and stunning beaches, the mostly two-lane road passes through St. Augustine – America’s oldest city, famed for its Spanish colonial architecture.

But the roughly 100-mile stretch from Miami to Key West is arguably the most spectacular. Just south of the Magic City, Highway A1A merges with U.S. Route 1 to form the Overseas Highway – sometimes dubbed ‘the Highway that Goes to Sea.’ After skirting the eastern edge of the Southern Glades, it heads out across the sparkling waters of Florida Bay. Originally built as a railway, this feat of engineering passes over waterside mangroves and swaying palm trees as it vaults from one coral and limestone island to the next. There are 42 bridges in total – the astonishing Seven Mile Bridge, which joins the Middle and Lower Keys, is the largest span in the Keys and the longest continuous bridge in the United States. First-time visitors may be tempted to head straight to Key West, but it’s worth taking some time to explore the rest of the Keys. Stop off along the way and you’ll find rare flora and fauna, independent art galleries, historic shipwrecks and unrivalled fishing spots.

Overseas Highway 

Natural Wonderland

With a whopping 11 National Parks and 175 State Parks – plus various other forests and wildlife refuges – Florida isn’t short on green spaces. The most famous is undoubtedly the Everglades. Spread across 1.5 million acres, this untouched swampland just south of Miami is the largest subtropical wilderness in the United States – and the biggest mangrove forest in the western hemisphere. Called the ‘River of Grass’ by Native Americans, its centrepiece is indeed a vast, shallow river that meanders through the expanses of sawgrass. Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979, the Everglades was the first National Park established to protect a fragile ecosystem. Besides harbouring 120 different types of trees and more than 1,000 species of plant, the Park is teeming with wildlife. It’s home to 27 kinds of snake, countless fresh and saltwater fish, bottlenose dolphins, manatees, and the rare Florida panther. It’s also the only place on earth where alligators and crocodiles coexist. While the most popular way to explore the Everglades is by airboat, there are also trails for hiking, biking, horse riding and kayaking.

Head further south, to Key Largo, and you'll discover America’s first underwater State Park. Covering approximately 70 nautical square miles, John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park protects the only living coral reef in the U.S. Glass-bottom boat trips offer a glimpse into the kaleidoscopic undersea world, but you can get closer to the marine life by snorkelling or scuba diving.

While you’re down in the Keys, be sure to check out the Dry Tortugas – a small group of islands about 70 miles from Key West, accessible only by boat or plane. Besides offering further opportunities for snorkelling and diving, it’s one of the best places in the state for bird watching. Some of the most common birds here include the hummingbird, the peregrine falcon and the yellow-billed cuckoo, and it’s the only place in the continental United States where the endangered sooty tern nests.

Dry Tortugas 

Fabulous Food

Florida might not be the first place that springs to mind when you think of foodie destinations. But away from the theme park fodder of burgers and chips, it has an exciting culinary scene that ranges from food trucks to fine dining. The hot and humid weather is perfect for growing a vast array of vegetables and fruit – particularly citrus. In fact, Florida produces more than 70 percent of the United States' supply of citrus fruit and is second only to Brazil in global orange juice production. In recent years, a flourishing farm-to-table movement has swept across the state, as chefs and farmers look to celebrate its abundant seasonal produce.

But with the longest coastline in the contiguous United States, Florida’s best local offerings come from the sea. Head to almost any town on the coast and you’ll find no-frills beach shacks serving just-caught fish. While grouper and shrimp are among the most popular, there are plenty of other types of seafood on offer – if it can be shelled, scaled or battered, you’ll likely find it in Florida. Far and away the best place to get your seafood fix is the northwest’s Big Bend Shellfish Trail – the longest shellfish trail in America and the first in the Sunshine State. And if it’s oysters you’re after, head to Apalachicola. This tiny fishing town on the Florida panhandle supplies over 90 percent of the state’s oysters, making it the perfect place to sample straight-off-the-boat delicacies.

Florida’s large immigrant population means that much of its food has a distinctive ethnic twist. The south of the state, in particular, draws influence from Cuba, the Caribbean and Puerto Rico to create what has come to be known as Floribbean cuisine. The iconic Cuban sandwich is the cheap eat of choice in both Miami and Tampa, with restaurants in both cities competing to make the definitive version. Head north, though, and you’ll find more of the Creole and Cajun flavours associated with mainstream Southern cooking.

One dish popular throughout Florida is Key lime pie – it’s the official state dessert, so you can’t holiday here without indulging in a slice. Variations of the tart confection have emerged over the years, but one rule still holds true: an authentic Key lime pie must be made using real Key limes. Smaller, seedier and more aromatic than Persian limes, they’re hard to come by these days on account of a deadly hurricane in 1926 which wiped out a lot of the crop. But if you want that characteristic tanginess, it’s worth the hunt!

Apalachicola Oysters

To book a trip to the Sunshine State, get in touch with our experts on 020 3468 7316.

And if thinking of combining America and Canada on a multi-centre holiday, these are the top 10 things to do in Vancouver.


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