The best thing about Florida is the theme parks. Isn’t it? Apparently not, based on the invitation I got from Titan Travel. They asked me to go on their ‘Best of Florida’ escorted tour, which had no mention of – nor visit to – any.
Instead the ten days promised to take me on an adventure through “The Sunshine State” to see another side to the region. It would explore oldest town in the United States, visit the site where every USA space launch has (and will) leave from and even take me to the scenic end of the country itself. It would show, by visiting their gorgeous homes, that a significant President, major literary figure, genius inventor and the man who made automobiles accessible to the average person so loved the state that they all lived here. And finally it promised to let me see dangerous wildlife up close, absorb the beauty of a unique preserved Art Deco district, while still leaving me time to lie about on some of the world’s most gorgeous beaches. It sounded like an invitation I could not refuse.
During the tour I experienced seven remarkable things about Florida. They seemed, to me at least, the best things about Florida (other than the theme parks which make it eight great things in my book!)
#1 St Augustine
Before this trip I had not known that the oldest inhabited town in the United States was in Florida. The town is St Augustine and it’s officially the longest permanently human settled centre, dating back to the 1570s. It’s a gorgeous place with grand buildings built by wealthy pioneers like Henry M Flagler, co-founder of Standard Oil. Some are now museums, like the Lightner Museum that used to be the Alcazar Hotel, and a college, like the Hotel Ponce de Leon that is now Flagler College. The highlight for me was Castillo de San Marcos fortress built in the 17th Century by the Spanish that settled and controlled the town.
#2 Kennedy Space Center
During the tour of the “Rocket Garden” of American space rockets, the guide gleefully pointed out that the early trips into space were really just ballistic missiles with tiny cramped capsules for astronauts perched on top. The Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral is a fascinating place. Although it is a working facility, the well-developed visitor complex includes getting up close to the “Atlantis” Space Shuttle that did 33 trips into space and walking under a vast Saturn V Rocket of the type used to power the Apollo missions to the moon.
I got to tour to the launch pads where every manned space flight by the USA takes off from, met a real Astronaut and heard how NASA is preparing to take man to Mars and back. All while spotting alligators lolling around the canals throughout the complex, as it is situated within a national park and wildlife preserve.
#3 Miami South Beach
Strolling around the stylish and beautifully preserved Art Deco district along Ocean Drive Miami South Beach, it is remarkable that before the 1980s this trendy and much-loved area was a shabby, unloved and deteriorating area at threat from developers. It was mostly inhabited by poor fixed-income pensioners, drug dealers and displaced Cubans. It was so bad that the “Miami Vice” TV shows regularly used it as the loaction and inspiration for many of its crime story lines, focused on drug dealers and thugs.
Things started to change after Barbara Capitman and her supporters lobbied and succeeded in getting almost a square mile of South Beach on the National Register of Historic Places. It developed from there to what it is today. A mecca for achingly hip bars and restaurants and a magnet for the beautiful people of the city to congregate and preen. I love the beauty and energy of the area.
#4 Key West
Both Ernest Hemingway and ex-USA President Harry Truman fell in love with Key West and had homes there that you can now tour. Both provide fascinating insights to the stories and lives of these influential men. Key West also has the iconic marker for the southernmost point of the USA that every visitor lines up to take his or her picture with. Cuba is just 90 miles away from there.
Eclectic, vibrant and sometimes eccentric the Old Town is full of distinctive wooden buildings, busy bars and diverse restaurants along with some unusual museums too – such as the Shipwreck Museum that tells the story of how residents of the town became wealthy from the many ships that floundered on the coral reef surrounding the area. Driving down to Key West is a memorable and beautiful experience. The simple two-lane road runs on bridges between the various scenic keys, with the old damaged railway bridge running parallel to it.
#5 Everglades Safari Park
Alligators and Snakes. There is nothing like meeting a few scary creatures to make for a thrilling and exciting day. I came across them up close, and even got to touch and handle them, at the Everglades Safari Park. First we zoomed through the Everglades on a thrilling Air Boat looking for Alligators in the wild, before watching a show featuring three massive alligators, a baby one and a fearsome snake. I saw a lot, learnt more and had a great time. This location deep within the Everglades felt remote, authentic and was a delightful adventure.
#6 Thomas Edison and Henry Ford Winter Estates
The prolific inventor Thomas Edison and car magnate Henry Ford became great friends when Ford, then an employee of Edison Light Company, shared his combustion engine car idea to Edison who encouraged him to pursue it. Despite their 16-year age gap, they became close and eventually owned magnificent winter houses next to each other close to Fort Myers.
At the time Edison bought the land the place was remote and difficult to reach. Edison set up laboratories and worked out of here on many of his inventions, including how to make the United States self-sufficient in rubber. Ford, meanwhile, used his house to be with his close friend at his birthday and to enjoy time relaxing with the man. The estate and houses are beautifully maintained and offer a fascinating insight into these two American business icons.
#7 Clearwater Beaches
On the west coast of Florida is Clearwater. Long stretches of remarkable sparkling white sand and warm welcoming ocean have made it popular with snow birds fleeing the harsher winters further north, young people heading there for Spring Break parties and families looking for a sunny and affordable vacation. Rows of condominiums and hotels follow the line of the beaches, while set back behind them are bars and restaurants offering a diverse range of food for all budgets. There are people surfing, sailing and swimming creating a warm and welcoming area for beach lovers.