Florida - It's Not All About Disney!
Ok, maybe it’s a little bit about Disney, but there is so much more to the Sunshine State of Florida than the playgrounds for little and big kids alike. In five weeks time, I will be heading back to the land famous for its orange juice once again, this time to Tampa for my best friend’s wedding. In 2009, the last time I was in Florida, she treated me to an American style road trip around the entire state and it was easy to see how much there is to offer tourists outside of its world renowned theme parks.
That said, I must confess, I am a massive fan of Disney and of theme parks in general and so of course, this was on the to do list during my time in Florida. It would be amiss of me to consider writing about Florida and not talk about the wonders that await everyone in Orlando and particularly at Disney World. But there is so much to say about that one little place in the United States that it really deserves a whole article of its own, which it will get, believe me! However, no matter your age, if you are in Florida and have time to peel yourself away from the magic of Orlando, read on to find out what other treats the Sunshine State has in store for you!
Our road trip around Florida began in Tampa as that’s where I flew into before we headed to Orlando for a week of magic and rollercoasters. But I really do have to start in Tampa anyway while I am on the subject of the great theme parks that Florida has to offer the world. Yes, Orlando may be home to greatest theme park franchise in the world and it’s close second, Universal Studios, but Tampa has a theme park of its own to offer and it’s only an hour and a half’s drive from Orlando. Owned by the same company that runs SeaWorld and its affiliate parks, Busch Gardens is 335 acres of Africa on American soil. This theme park is one of America’s largest zoological institutions and home to more almost 3,000 animals. The theme is wild and so are its rides.
Essentially, Busch Gardens is a safari park with amazing rollercoasters. If you are travelling with kids, there is plenty for them to do here if they are too young to enjoy the rides. The animals here are a key theme. The Cheetah Run, the abandoned fishing village on the Edge of Africa, wild animal encounters at Jungala and the Serengeti Railway will keep the entertained and there are also a few child friendly rides to enjoy such as the Skyride, the junior coasters, Air Grover and SandSerpent. But if you’re a big kid like me, it’s the thrill spilling, jaw dropping, adrenaline pumping rides you will want to head for.
SheiKra takes you 200 feet into the air and drops you at a 90 degree angle. Kumba, voted one of the world’s best rollercoasters will drop you 135 feet before racing you into one of the world’s largest vertical loops leaving you to experience absolute weightlessness for 3 seconds. Montu was the first coaster in the world to incorporate a simultaneous loop and roll and has seven inversions to enjoy. Of course there are water rides such as the Congo River Rapids to enjoy too!
Day tickets are currently $79 but combination tickets are available if you wish to visit any affiliate parks as well.
What else does Tampa have to offer those who have wandered from Orlando? The TECO Tampa Electric Manatee Viewing Centre has an interesting backstory. The Big Bend Power Station in Apollo Beach delivers electric to Tampa and in 1986 people began to spot manatees in large numbers in the power station’s discharge canal where saltwater taken from Tampa Bay flows clean and warm back into the bay after cooling one of their units. Manatees would seek out this water to keep warm in colder weather. Today, the discharge canal is a state and federally designated manatee sanctuary that provides the manatees with protection from the cold. Inside you can learn about how the Big Bend Power Station works and you can learn all about manatees before taking the half mile hike to the viewing tower to try and spot them yourselves.
Lettuce Lake Park situated just outside Tampa features several boardwalks that wind through a variety of Florida ecosystems from a fresh water wetland to a hardwood forest. You can also enjoy the Audubon Resource Centre there for their natural history and wildlife exhibits. Big Cat Rescue is one of the world's largest accredited sanctuaries for exotic cats, fighting to end the abuse of captive big cats and to end extinction. You can visit the cats and all of the tours are guided and educational, you can take a day tour at a cost of $36, the kids tour for under 10s is $19, but there are other experiences on offer such as the feeding tour and the keeper tour. If you are travelling with children, the Florida Aquarium is in Tampa and if you need to cool off, Adventure Island makes for a good water park day out, though I’m not sure it would rival what you can get in Orlando.
The weather wasn’t great for us when we were in Tampa and we ended up visiting Busch Gardens at the end of our road trip instead (hence the sun in the photos), so we actually headed to MOSI, the Museum of Science and Industry, which was a fantastic half day out. MOSI has more than 450 interactive exhibits on space, astronomy, technology, robotics, gaming and more. As science evolves, so does MOSI, but exhibitions on show at the moment include Dinosaurs in Motion, 3D Printing the Future and Space Programs. General admission is $26.95 or $20.95 for children.
This city in northeastern Florida is about an hour and 45 minutes from Orlando and is the oldest continuously occupied European-established settlement in the United States. It was founded in 1565 by Spanish admiral and Florida’s first governor, Pedro Menéndez de Avilés and he named the settlement “San Agustin”. The city was the capital of Spanish Florida for over 200 years and was later the capital of the Florida territory until Tallahassee was made the capital in 1824. As the New World, we know that America cannot compare historically to the many European destinations we have access to today, but by US standards, St Augustine has a distinct historical character and has as a result, become a major tourist attraction in Florida.
There are many points of interest in St Augustine to enjoy if you have a few days to explore, such as the Spanish Military Hospital Museum, the St Francis Barracks, the Oldest Wooden Schoolhouse in the US and the Colonial Quarter from the Spanish era. We were just stopping through and headed straight for the structure that dominates the coast line of the city, the Castillo de San Marcos. It’s the oldest masonry fort in the continental United States and sits on the western shore of Matanzas Bay. Construction began in 1672 but wasn’t completed until 1795. Possession of the fort has changed peacefully six times, twice by Spain, twice by the US and once each by the UK, Spain and the Confederate States of America. Under the control of the United States, the fort was used as a military prison to incarcerate members of various Native American tribes starting with the Seminole and members of various western tribes including Geronimo’s band of Chiricahua Apache.
It was an interesting visit and quite informative. It certainly teaches you a lot about the relationships between the US and the Native Americans. We also got a fun cannon introduction and firing from a man wearing a colonial costume and wig too, which was very in keeping with British type of fun days out. But we soon moved on to one of the other popular tourist attractions in St Augustine, the Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park, which has been labelled the 1513 Florida landing point of Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon, who was an explorer on the search for the infamous Fountain of Youth. St Augustine’s Fountain of Youth Archeological Park contains an artesian well which Ponce de Leon believed contained water that would supposedly restore the youth of anyone who drank or bathed in the water.
I can firmly attest that this is, as suspected, just a legend. We both drank from it and youth was sadly not restored, though I only speak for myself of course! The gardens here are beautiful though and we were lucky enough to encounter a stunning white peacock.
A mecca for motorsports, Daytona Beach is the headquarters for NASCAR, the ultimate business for auto-racing sports events. This part of Florida is not called the ‘Fun Coast’ for nothing! Daytona Beach is historically known for its hard-packed sand which allows motorised vehicles to drive on the beach in restricted areas. Replaced in 1959 by the Daytona International Speedway, the old Daytona Beach Road Course hosted races for over 50 years. The most prolific time to visit Daytona Beach is early February, when over 200,000 NASCAR fans descend upon the city for the season opening of the Daytona 500. Other races worth a visit include the NASCAR Coke Zero 500 race in July, Bike Week in March and Biketoberfest in October.
Daytona Beach is also a cultural hub though, with many interesting museums to enjoy. The Museum of Arts and Sciences is a collection of museums including the Klancke Environmental Complex and the Cuban Museum. The Southeast Museum of Photography and the Halifax Historical Museum are also worth a mention. The non-profit Daytona Beach Symphony Society also hosts sponsored performances by US and international orchestras, opera and dance companies each season at the Peabody Auditorium.
We actually only drove through the city past the beach. We stayed in New Smyrna Beach at a friend’s beach house which sat right on the beach looking out over the Atlantic Ocean. We spent the evening sat on the veranda, star gazing and looking for crabs on the beach. New Smyrna Beach is well known for water sports, including swimming, scuba diving, kitesurfing and surfing. Water enthusiasts should beware though, New Smyrna Beach is known as the “shark bite capital of the world”!
The Kennedy Space Centre
The next stop on our road trip was the infamous Kennedy Space Centre. It really doesn’t need much of an introduction. My American friend was very gracious in agreeing to visit the space centre. There is clearly some controversy amongst the American people, not only about the conspiracy theories surrounding the moon landing, but about whether the space program is worth the tens of billions of US dollars spent on it each year. However, space and space travel is a fascinating subject and the Kennedy Space Centre is an incredibly fascinating place, full of memorabilia, history and education.
I was particularly excited as we had timed our visit impeccably to coincide with the landing of a space shuttle. Even as we drove up to the space centre, people were lining up at the side of the road ready to watch it come in and to hear the sonic boom as it broke the earth’s atmosphere. Sadly, due to poor weather and too much cloud, the landing was diverted to California while we were walking around the space centre. But, I for one, still had a wonderful time exploring space shuttles, the walk around the Launch Complex and experiencing a simulated space launch.
A day ticket to the Space Centre costs $50 for adults and $40 for children.
We spent the night in Fort Lauderdale before heading further south to Miami and the Florida Keys. It was where my good friend did her law degree, so it was a city she knew well. Being only 23 miles from Miami, it is a good budget choice for somewhere to stay if you want to experience Miami without its price tag. We stayed at the Riverside Hotel which had great views over the city, even if they were stormy views! (We really didn’t luck out with the weather during this trip around Florida!) The Riverside Hotel is an art deco style hotel with a variety of room choices and well located on Las Olas Boulevard.
Being so close to Miami, Fort Lauderdale is popular tourist destination and welcomes around 12 million visitors a year. The city is sometimes referred to as “Fort Liquordale” because of its beaches, bars, nightclubs and history as a spring break location, though less so since the 80s after strict laws were passed to prevent the mayhem that occurred each year. The Riverwalk Arts and Entertainment District runs east to west along Las Olas Boulevard which is the place you need to be for dining and shopping. Despite it’s reputation, it’s a beautifully kept road, full of interesting art deco buildings and decoration and it runs right down to the beach. It’s also the cultural hub of the city with its cinemas, boutiques and art galleries.
Even if like us, you are passing through on your way to Miami or the Keys, after strolling down Las Olas Boulevard, find time to check out the Bonnet House Museum and Gardens, a typical Floridian plantation home and the Everglades Port.
It was a quick stop for us in Miami, but really interesting non the less. I cannot account for the nightlife that the city has to offer, but we all know of its reputation for glamour and glitz. Miami has many claims to fame. 2012 it was classified as an Alpha-World City, in 2010 it ranked 7th in the US in terms of finance, commerce, culture, entertainment, fashion and education. Forbes magazine ranked it America’s Cleanest City in 2008 and in 2009 it was named the richest city in the US. Miami is also nicknamed the “Capital of Latin America” being the second largest US city with a Spanish speaking majority.
As you drive into Miami, you are immediately treated to vibrant colours and art deco buildings of Ocean Drive, proudly standing at the sides of the roads. We headed straight for South Beach, a huge expanse of sand which clearly attracts all of the beautiful people. In reality, it is exactly how you imagine it to be from films and TV shows. Lots of buff, young, tanned men and lots of very beautiful, young, tanned women in bikinis.
The volleyball courts are there, the water is clear and blue and the expensive yachts pass you by around the coastline. Sadly, for us, we found Miami to be the kind of city that makes you feel very out of place if you’re not rich and glamourous, but it was a wonderful place to enjoy a lunch by the ocean in glorious sunshine (at last) and watch the rich and famous pass you by without a glance!
The Florida Keys
The drive into the Keys from Miami is amazing in itself. From leaving the sky scraping condo towers of Miami, through the harbours of multi-million pound yachts, to the windy road that crosses over a myriad of sandy islands as you watch the sun set over the vista, everywhere you look is a treat for the eyes. We were headed for Key West, 166 miles from Miami. If you drive down, you pass over most of the Keys that Florida has to offer. I could name all of them, but I will just stick with my favourites. You start on Key Largo (a good one for a musician), Long Key (speaks for itself), Duck Key (quack quack), Fat Deer Key (no idea where that name came from), over the seven mile bridge from Boot Key to Big Pine Key, over the coral cay archipelago to Boca Chica Key and finally into Key West.
It isn’t necessary to tell you that the Keys are one of the most popular tourist destinations in the US. Even Florida residents travel down to Key West to escape the rain as the weather is notoriously always beautiful, sunny and hot in Key West. It is almost as though you are visiting another country, the “Conch Republic”! Of course this is not really the case, but it is certainly an interesting draw to the Keys.
In 1982, the United States Border patrol set up a roadblock and inspection point on the road which joins the Florida Keys with the mainland. It caused so much disruption to local life and tourism, that the Keys decided (tongue in cheek) to declare themselves an independent state on the 23rd of April 1982. In the eyes of the council, since the US government had set up the equivalent of a border station as if they were a foreign nation, they might as well become one. As many of the local citizens were referred to as Conchs, the nation took the name of the Conch Republic. As part of the protest, Mayor Wardlow was proclaimed Prime Minister of the Republic and immediately declared war against the US, but quickly surrendered after one minute and applied for one billion dollars in foreign aid. It certainly got the message across and the roadblock was soon removed.
We stayed at the Orchid Key Inn which was lovely, well located at the end of the main strip, close enough to all the action but far enough away for a quiet stay, with a beautiful outdoor pool to boot. Apart from enjoying the many bars and restaurants that Key West has to offer as well as its world famous sunsets, there are a whole array of things worth doing during your stay there. Key West is home to Key Lime Pie and there are many places to enjoy this tart dessert. Try the Key Lime Pie Factory for a new twist on the pie, or Pepe’s Café which boasts itself as the oldest eating house in Key West, but for the best Key Lime Pie, head to Kermit’s Key West Key Lime Shoppe which has two shops in Key West.
You may have heard of “Margaritaville”, the American casual dining and cocktail chain? Well, the Original Margaritaville is in Key West so if you’re a fan of margaritas, or indeed any kind of cocktail, this bar would be worth a visit. Other establishments worth frequenting are Sloppy Joe’s Bar and Willie T’s. Sloppy Joe’s is a historic American bar in Key West and you can thank their patron Ernest Hemingway for the name! Willie T’s has a real backpacker feel to it, as well as serving great food and cocktails, the entire bar is covered in bank notes from around the world with messages from the people who left them. It makes you wonder how much that bar is worth these days!
Key West has a really cute wheeled train which circles Key West and tours you all around the island to see the highlights which I highly recommend. Check out the Shipwreck Treasures Museum and step upon South Beach, the southernmost beach in the USA, next to the Southernmost Hotel in the USA and the famous buoy which tells you that you are stood at the southernmost point in the Continental United States of America, just 90 miles from Cuba.
Key West is incredibly LGBT friendly and you are never far away from some tongue in cheek fun. We very much enjoyed one of the many cabaret shows on offer in Key West, it was a good night out, despite getting picked on firstly for having a couple of ample assets (they were jealous) and then for being British. It was all in good humour though, and incredibly entertaining.
If you happen to find yourselves in Key West, make sure you visit the El Simony Restaurant, known to be one of the best places in the US to get Cuban food. It’s an experience in itself as you feel like you have been invited into somebody’s home, but the food is traditional and delicious and the closest you can get to Cuban food without being in Cuba! It’s difficult to find a bit of a walk from the main part of the town, but well worth the journey!
The Everglades are a natural region of tropical wetlands in the southern portion of Florida. Human habitation here dates back 15,000 years, and long before European colonisation, the region was dominated by the native Calusa and Tequesta tribes and later the Seminole settled here after being forced from the north during the Seminole Wars of the early 19th century. Seminole towns still exist today, there are six reservations in southern Florida and due to their differences in laws and tax, they have made huge profits from gaming and gambling. Since 2007, the Tribe has owned the Hard Rock Cafe franchise and have established it in their hotels and casinos and the profits made have greatly funded many areas of Seminole life, including education.
If you venture into the Everglades, you are sure to pass through at least one Seminole settlement on your way to explore the wetlands or search for alligators, we even managed to stop in at the Seminole Hard Rock Cafe ourselves. But the Everglades attracts tourists thanks to it’s very different landscape and nature reserves, airboat rides and gator parks. Alligators are no joke in Florida. Even as you drive through the Everglades, you find watch towers by the sides of the roads overlooking the rivers and swamps where, at your own risk, you can stop and search for the snappy fiends. But as my good friend pointed out, they can run fast and if you get caught off guard by one, you will lose!
However, you can observe these creatures in safety by visiting controlled environments such as Gatorland, where you can watch them feeding and wrestling these vicious animals. How close you get is up to you, but Gatorland offers a number of experiences for you to choose exactly how you get to know the gators. You can choose from a zip lining adventure from above the alligator pools to ‘Rookie Wrestling’ which allows you to sit atop one and wrestle its jaw, all at your own discretion mind!
We headed to the Billie Swamp Safari, a Seminole Tribe attraction, in the hope of experiencing an airboat ride in the swamps. Sadly, we also arrived with a bucket load of rain, (no wait, ten thousand bucket loads of rain) and so it was not to be. We did enjoy a walk around the animal exhibits though, seeing everything from ducks to snakes. Attractions include a Swamp Buggy Eco Tour which spends an hour taking you through the lush wilderness of the Everglades teaching you about the natural habitat, a Bird and Reptile exhibit, a venomous snake show and a swamp critter show in addition to the much sought after airboat ride. You can even stay at Billie’s in their rustic camping village which includes traditional, native-style chickees (thatched roof dwellings) which have no electricity or running water!
Their day package costs $50 for adults, $36 for children and includes an airboat ride, a swamp buggy tour and the swamp critter and venomous snake shows.
Sadly for us though, we were sent off into the rain and headed for the sunnier shores of Fort Myers.
The “City of Palms” is no joke when you come to describe Fort Myers, with its main highways lined with tall billowing palm trees, brought to the city by inventor, Thomas Edison. Fort Myers is the gateway to the southwest Florida region, a major tourist destination, winter homes to Thomas Edison and Henry Ford and most importantly, the birthplace of my good friend who had just spent two weeks driving me around Florida!
Apart from its beautiful stretch of sandy beach which faces the San Carlos Bay which itself opens up to the Gulf of Mexico, and the historic Downtown Commercial District, Fort Myers is well known for its famous residents, inventor Thomas Edison and automobile mogul Henry Ford, who both worked together on rubber production for car tyres among other things and owned winter estates next door to each other, which you can visit, and that is exactly what we did.
Beside the Caloosahatchee River, set on 21 acres of botanical gardens, the Edison and Ford Winter Estates are full of memorabilia, scientific equipment, of their time inventions and beautiful vintage cars. The site dates back to 1885 when Edison first visited Florida and purchased the property to build a vacation home. It was completed in 1886 and named “Seminole Lodge”. Edison’s good friend Henry Ford purchased the adjoining property, “The Mangoes” in 1916. The botanical garden is an attraction in itself, set in 21 acres of land and home to more than a thousand varieties of plants from around the world, including African Sausage Trees and a 400-foot Banyan Tree.
Visitors are treated to a step back in time with tours around both houses which have been decorated as they would have been lived in by the business pioneers. The museum and workshop of Thomas Edison holds many of his inventions which are incredibly interesting, and being a Ford owner myself the vintage cars were a great addition to the collection. Open sine 1947, the Edison Ford Winter Estates is one of the most visited historic home sites in America.
Admission is $20 for adults and $11 for children.
While in Fort Myers we also visited Norman Love Confections. Originally a pastry chef who trained in France and later worked at luxury resorts such as The Beverley Hills Hotel and the Ritz-Carlton, Norman Love went on to open pastry kitchens all over the world, and then in 2001 he opened his chocolate shop in Fort Myers to critical acclaim. No visit to Fort Myers is complete without a visit to the confectionary where you can buy beautifully packaged chocolates, truffles and cakes as gifts or as a treat for yourself. Just don’t leave them in the boot of your car in the tropical Florida heat like I did!
There was only one thing left to do after our stay in Fort Myers and that was to head back to Tampa for my flight home. I had always been aware of what Florida had to offer. But as tourists, our association with Florida immediately takes your attention to Orlando and Disney World. The truth is, there is so much that the Sunshine State has to offer, even without the sunshine! Florida is a place of historical significance, from native Indian American Tribes and the earliest European settlements to the place that launches humans into space and natural phenomenons like the Everglades and the creatures that live in the swamps. No matter what your budget is, there is something for everyone in Florida.
At the end of April, I will heading back to the United States for my 4th visit to Florida, though this time, for very different reasons. My best friend is getting married and there was no way I was going to miss it. We have been planning to be at each others weddings since we were teenagers. Not only will I get to experience a very American wedding (and be a bridesmaid!), but I will get to explore the city of Tampa in a very different way! Watch this space to find out what I get up to.
Don’t rely on Disney World when you consider visiting Florida, put your explorer’s hat on and find your own unique experiences!
Immediately after my week in Tampa, I am headed to Dalyan in Turkey for my first media trip to promote tourism in a place that is unfairly suffering at the hands of the Syrian War and terrorism. Read my story here. "I'm in the Midst of a Love Affair... With Turkey!"
The Dalyan exposé will run for 3 weeks in May and will include a lot of exciting articles every day and videos on our YouTube channel with interesting interviews with business owners and those who work in tourism in Turkey. We'll also be tackling safety issues and what terrorism means for Turkey and the beautiful riverside town of Dalyan.
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