Known as the Sunshine State, snowbirds and holidaymakers have been flocking to Florida for a hit of winter sun for many decades. But there is so much more to Floridian culture than sand, sea and sun. Katie Thomson found out more about this amazingly diverse area and got up close and personal with some of its famous residents…
It’s little wonder that Florida is such an enduringly popular holiday destination – so few places have that instant impact of ‘vacation time’ as this vast southern State. After disembarking from the flight, cloudless skies and a bone-warming heat told us immediately we were in Miami – helping us to leave a cold British February far behind.
Miami is a bustling metropolis with its own wonderful attractions and qualities, but our first taste of Florida was to be a little further up the coast. With a little trepidation we headed to our rental car and hit the road, muttering ‘drive on the right’ to ourselves for the first few tense minutes, heading to the East coast’s own Hollywood.
Sandwiched between Miami and Fort Lauderdale, the city of Hollywood is the best of both worlds – it has stunning coastal stretches, wide and buzzing boardwalks and a cosmopolitan feel. Our home for the night was the beautiful Margaritaville Hollywood Beach Resort (www.margaritavillehollywoodbeachresort.com), a fairly new addition to this glittering sweep of coastline. Themed around the songs and work of famous country singer Jimmy Buffett, this resort has the ultimate beach-luxe style, with every conceivable amenity and an enviable plot ensconced between the sea and Fort Lauderdale’s network of waterways. From our room we enjoyed glittering views of water from each side – indeed, it’s not many hotels that offer water views no matter which room you are in!
The Margaritaville is a place to come and truly unwind – the rooms are luxurious and comfortable, the beach only steps away and the food so good that it attracts visitors from other resorts. We dined in the eponymous JWB Prime Steak and Seafood restaurant, enjoying excellent beef alongside their speciality – locally spear-caught fish – a special treat and the perfect way to make the most of their wonderful location. Great food, washed down with speciality cocktails (you’re not far from the Caribbean after all) were the sure way to get into holiday mode quickly.
The Greater Fort Lauderdale area has so many attractions – from trips into the Everglades, explorations of the waterways, fishing, dolphin watching and family fun like the butterfly farm and adventure parks, that it is somewhere one could easily spend a month exploring. The area surrounding the hotel is wonderful too with its famous ‘broadwalk’ – wider than a typical boardwalk and teaming with people enjoying the sun and sea air.
It was hard to pull ourselves out of the trance of relaxation, but the next step of our adventure was calling, so we packed up the car and headed over to the other side of the coast to the famous Fort Myers Beach.
This wonderful area is a magnet for families and partygoers alike – its sheltered and shallow beaches are some of the most beautiful in the world, with powdered-sugar sand and warm, crystalline waters. Alongside stunning coastlines, Fort Myers has that feeling of Old Florida charm – the town bustles with life and the warm weather means that most of the dining is al fresco, with local performers providing the soundtrack to the evening’s festivities. The atmosphere reminded me of the halcyon days of my childhood on holiday in Europe – the ambience is utterly relaxed and magically alive – you can see just why this area tempts visitors to return time and again.
Our hotel during our stay in Fort Myers was the Pink Shell Resort (www.pinkshell.com), which must have one of the best tag lines I’ve come across – ‘the only thing we overlook is the sea’. This motto was absolutely right – the hotel prides itself on impeccable service and excellent amenities, all with a magical, unobstructed view of the sea. Sunset is a particularly enchanting time here – the gentle patter of steel drums from beach weddings peal out through the resort and the sky becomes ablaze with colour, with silhouettes of pelicans picked out in black against the golden glow.
The resort makes the most of its waterside location too, offering guests the chance to try out a whole host of water sports just steps from their room. We opted to try our hand (and arms and abs!) at stand-up paddle boarding. It was as misleading a name as I’ve ever heard as I’m not sure I managed to get off my knees for more than about thirty seconds, but it was a wonderful opportunity to get out on the water and is something the hotel offers with its compliments to all guests.
There is something about this area that makes you yearn to get out and spend time on the water. It is the very essence of life here and forms such a huge part of the culture; not to mention, its an amazing way to see some local flora and fauna. We were keen to explore more of this diverse ecosystem, and there is no better place than in one of the state’s wildlife refuges – they are the perfect places to see the profusion of native and migratory birds, alongside glimpses of water mammals and reptiles. We visited the Ding Darling Wildlife Refuge on Sanibel, famed for its mangrove waterways which provide homes for herons, flamingoes, osprey and even a pair of bald eagles. Our water excursion was with our experienced guide from Tarpon Bay Explorers (tarponbayexplorers.com) who lead the way through the labyrinthian passages of mangrove forest. There is something magical about seeing wildlife when you are at its level and from our kayak we watched tricoloured heron poking delicately through the shallows and spotted sandpipers picking swiftly at the mud. Lucky kayakers even saw dolphins out in the bay – that’s the beauty of completely wild encounters – you are never quite sure of what you might see.
Whilst on Sanibel, going to see its iconic shell-strewn beach is a must. Instead of sandy banks like its neighbouring Fort Myers and Captiva, Sanibel beach is covered with a blanket of glittering shells as far as the eye can see. If all things gastropod and bivalve are your thing (different shelled creatures to you and me), the Bailey Matthews Shell Museum (www.shellmuseum.org) is an absolute delight and full of some of the most astonishing examples from across the globe. It also hosts hourly talks in front of live tanks – wonderful for getting children to understand the diverse ecosystem thriving beneath the surf.
After a few days of soaking up this sun and sea atmosphere, we were to leave beach life behind to head to the big city – Tampa Bay – a few hours up the coast. Tampa is an amazingly diverse city with pretty much every conceivable attraction within a really manageable footprint. Sports fans have three local teams to cheer for, thrill-seekers a whole range of theme-park attractions, history buffs can get a dose of culture and foodies can soak it all in whilst sampling amazing food.
You get the sense very quickly that Tampa is a fun city; its diverse communities, from the bustling Downtown to the historic Ybor city combined with a packed schedule of city events, all help to form this rich fabric that make it truly unique. If you can, time your visit with the Gasparilla festival, usually late January, which celebrates apocryphal legend of José Gaspar (also known as Gasparilla), a mythical Spanish pirate. Gasparilla sees the city come alive with music events, family fun and a full-on flotilla. It is madness, but the best kind.
For the duration of our time in Tampa we stayed at the Aloft Downtown (www.alofttampadowntown.com), a modern and stylish hotel, which was the perfect base to explore pretty much every site we could wish for – it’s minutes from the trolley to take you toward Ybor and only a few minutes walk from the beautiful Tampa Museum of Art. It just happens to also be perched on top of Tampa’s famous riverwalk, 1.8 miles of water-side track that runs along Hillsborough River, connecting some of the most lovely destinations in the city and leading all the way to the conference centre.
As well as being known for its vibrant arts scene, Tampa is really getting a reputation for great food and drink. The historic Ybor city is a buzzing hub of culinary innovation, with independent producers popping up and making this once-forgotten district an enchanting place to spend an evening. The whole area is worth proper exploration, as this is where Tampa really started. Named after the cigar magnate Vicente Martinez Ybor, this city built up around his factory and became a vibrant and growing community which came to house his many workers, most of whom immigrated from South America, Europe and Cuba, creating an incredibly diverse community. You can learn all about Ybor’s fascinating history at the City Museum and follow that with a walking tour. Many parts of the city have been restored and protected, so you can get a wonderful sense of late nineteenth century life – just don’t go messing with the resident chickens – they have a similar status to cows in India and share ancestral routes with the early settlers here.
As well as dining out in Ybor, serious foodies should make a beeline for the Élevage Restaurant at the Epicurean Hotel (www.elevagerestaurant.com), a destination where clever cooking and superb wine choices marry to make for an unforgettable experience. There you will find American classics elevated with a gourmet edge – takes on classic hamburgers and mac and cheese made decadent with the addition of white truffle. The hotel also has a wonderful rooftop bar – the perfect place to enjoy a drink after a day spent exploring.
We were lucky enough to be in Tampa for the Superbowl, surely the greatest sporting spectacle of them all. We wandered down to the Amalie Arena via the now-illuminated Riverwalk and soaked in the atmosphere before idling back along the same beautiful pathways. It was an early night though, as the next day featured an early start to head upstate.
The last day of our trip was to contain something very special indeed – a trip to Crystal River to swim with the aquatic poster-star of Florida, the docile and undeniably cute manatee. About an hour and a half north of Tampa, Crystal River is an ideal place to come looking for them, as over a fifth of South Florida’s population gather here.
It is clear that sailors must have been away from home for a long while if they were confusing the form of the manatee for that of a lovely mermaid; indeed, their other epithet ‘a sea cow’ is certainly closer to the mark. Bobbing through the water, perfectly disguised in their cloak of algae and barnacles, these gentle giants move their vast masses through the tidal estuaries of this area of Florida causing minimal disturbance to the surface above them. Indeed, we initially found it very difficult to spot them were it not for the help of our knowledgeable guide Captain Cindi of Majestic Manatee Tours (www.majesticmanateetours.com). The bulky masses under the water that we were mistaking for boulders and banks of vegetation were in fact resting manatees who had come in from grazing in the sea to snooze in these warmer waters.
It was a magical sight to see them from the boat, but even more so to be allowed to enter their world and snorkel with them in the beautiful Three Sisters Spring Refuge. Their size was even more impressive up-close, but their docile and inquisitive nature was what really struck me – it is very hard not to just fall in love with them.
It was an incredibly special end to a wonderful trip, one that really changed my views on this corner of America. Nature lovers, foodies, sun worshippers, sport fanatics and culture buffs will all find something to savour and cherish in Florida, and I for one can’t wait to return to continue the exploration.
The US is the land of the car and this is keenly felt in Florida owing to its size and scale. If you want to visit a few different areas or even to take in a couple of cities, a car is essential. We hired ours through www.floridacarhire.com – a UK-based site which makes the whole hiring process easy and all the charges clear – a godsend when the last thing you want is an argument at the rental desk about hidden extras!
British Airways has responded to holiday demands and opened up a whole host of flight options to different Floridian Airports. As well as flying directly to Miami, Orlando and Tampa daily, from July they are offering flights from Gatwick to Fort Lauderdale. Just make sure you sort the ESTA Visa before you fly – it only takes a few minutes and costs in the region of $14.
Florida is temperate year-round, with the peak season in South Florida occurring from mid-December to mid-April and in North Florida from April to September. In essence, you can visit anytime of year, just be sure to check the weather of the area you intend to visit.
Tempted to plan your trip?
America As You Like It offers a ten night holiday travelling September 2017 from £1,624 per person, based on two people sharing. Staying three nights at The Margaritaville Hollywood Beach Resort, three nights at The Pink Shell Resort, Fort Myers and three nights at the Aloft Downtown, Tampa, all on room only basis. This offer includes return flights with British Airways departing from London Heathrow to Miami International, returning Tampa to London Gatwick. For further information or to book, visit www.americaasyoulikeit.com or call 020 8742 8299. For more information on Florida visit: www.visitflorida.com