Explore America’s Sunshine State
Florida is one of the USA’s most eclectic melting pots, combining the numerous different cultures that call the state home. With electric Cuba just 90 miles away from the most southern point and the grand ol’ladies of the Deep South sashaying along the state line, Florida is a vibrant, exciting and intoxicating place to visit.
Much more than magical kingdoms and performing dolphins, the state is as much for gappers as kids, as I’ll prove to you after my recent two weeks road tripping the state and exploring the Florida Keys.
What to see
St Petersburg on Florida’s Gulf Coast was known for its dichotomy of raucous, spring break parties and vast swathes of retired people but, in recent years, it’s emerged as a most-wanted destination.
The Salvador Dalí Museum is a must-see for admirers of surrealism and houses the most extensive Dali collection outside Europe. And St Petersburg is the Sunshine State’s Sunshine City, holding the record for the longest spell of sunshine ever – 768 days!
If, like me, you’ve always wanted to Grease it up and go to a drive-in movie, Fort Lauderdale is one of the few places in the world you can still do it. This all-American pastime is just as awesome as you hoped – you even get to flash your lights at the popcorn dude zipping round on his golf cart to come and give you snacks. I sat on the back of our Mustang convertible watching the Hunger Games and eating peanut butter M&Ms. Could life get any better?
If you love style or speed (or both) visit Daytona Beach on Florida’s ‘Surf Coast’. Home to one of the most iconic beaches in the world, bejewelled with beautiful people and boasting swanky bars and clubs, this is a place for donning your shades and channelling your inner-celeb.
Daytona became famous in the 1900s when its hard-packed sand was found to be ideal for racing cars on. It was used as a racetrack for over 50 years until the Daytona Speedway opened in the 60s. These days the 23-mile long beach is a mecca for sun worshippers, surfers and families and, of course, there’s a Daytona-themed bar opened up so you can get your motoring fix.
Miami is great fun if you’re into the party scene and just want to drink cocktails on the beach, though maybe you could take a break from the sun for a tour round the art deco buildings.
The Florida Keys, right in the south of the state, are more Caribbean-like than American. They offer another great place to party, and the chance to go jet skiing, go to a turtle sanctuary, eat loads of seafood and stuff your face with key lime pie. Well, that’s what I did, anyway.
Finally, no trip to Florida would be complete without a visit to the unique natural habitat that makes this state famous. Seeing the Everglades is a proper bucket-list experience so make sure it’s on the old itinerary. This enormous mangrove wetland covers 1.5 million acres and stretches from Lake Okeechobee in the north to Florida Bay in the south. It’s home to a vast array of flora and fauna and can be explored in a number of ways: camping, hiking, biking and hovercraft.
Miami’s Gator Park offers 20-minute airboat tours costing around $20 (£14) while Sawgrass Recreation Park in Weston offers a 30-minute Everglades airboat tour for around $25 (£17). The price includes admission to the animal park, where you can see everything from gators to big cats. When I went there was a lemur who kept poking his willy through the bars at me; life highlight.
Florida gets really sticky during the summer months; humid days (averaging low 20°Cs to mid 30°Cs depending where you are) are punctuated by sudden, heavy downpours. I think any time between September and October – the end of Florida’s tourist season and the end of the rainy season – is a good time to go. It’s cheaper, quieter and drier than the summer months.
If you want to party, head out for Spring Break (like the UK’s not-so-excitingly-named half term) at the end of February / beginning of March to join the masses as they hit Miami hard.
Hiring a car is the easiest way to travel around Florida, but you need to be 21. And if you’re under 25 you’ll have to pay a premium – around $30 extra per day.
If you’re too young for those kind of shenanigans you’re going to have to become acquainted with the LYNX bus network very quickly.
LYNX calls at all major towns and cities across the state and can actually work out at a fraction of the cost of hiring a car. Returns typically cost $2 (about £1.40) and a weekly pass is a bargain at $16 (£11)!
Staying in Florida
Accommodation in Florida might not be as expensive as you think. If you have a friend buddying up for a hotel room can work out at just a few dollars more than a hostel. Florida’s a big place, obviously, but I’ve got a few suggestions for you based on my time there.
Step back in time to Prohibition America when the drink was hot and the jazz was hotter at the Freehand Miami Hostel. This isn’t just a hostel, it’s an historic art-deco gem just a block from Miami’s famous beach. Cool additions are the Broken Shaker cocktail bar and restuarant ‘27’; with bags of vintage style and a cool, boho vibe the Freehand Miami is a place to see and be seen. Prices start from £27 ($38) for an en-suite private room sleeping four.
The Florida Keys are both beautiful and unforgettable but staying waterside can bereally expensive. I found the Seashell Motel & Key West Hostel in laid-back Key West for just £34 ($48) a night. Simply appointed in a kitsch Caribbean theme, rooms have air conditioning and Wi-Fi but the real selling point is the location. Just a few blocks from the shopping, eating and drinking of Duval Street, Key West’s main drag, this place is a awesome!
Eating in Florida
Breakfast is the most important meal of the day, obviously, and Floridians take this old adage very seriously. With branches right across Florida, Keke’s Breakfast Café has delicious delicacies like Portabella Omelette or Granola Crunch Waffle, all served in huge portions at dirt cheap prices.
Buffet restaurants can be found everywhere and, while quality can vary, they’re a great way of refuelling, especially if funds are tight. With breakfast buffets at just a few dollars, all you can eat pizza and pasta for $5 (£3.50) and steak buffets from less than $10 (£7) they are a great way of eating well, and loads.
Florida’s culinary scene is not all about mountains of fast food though. To get a real taste of the Sunshine State’s foodie heritage, check out Little Havana in Miami. Home to many of Miami’s Latino residents this vibrant neighbourhood is Cuba’s capital in microcosm. Stroll down Calle Ocho, soak up the atmosphere and sample traditional Cuban street food. Try Cuban comfort flavours, mamey (a tropical fruit) or mantecado (vanilla infused with nutmeg and cinnamon), at the award-winning Azucar Ice Cream Company or linger over a café cubano and guava pastry watching the world go by at La Ventanita. Prices are low here, and the food is amazing.
My top 5 things to do in Florida
1. Try some local craft beers on Duval Street, Key West. Grab a seat at a street café and set your sunnies for a spot of people watching – you’ll see the bold, the beautiful and the boozed-up!
2. Visit the Dali Museum in St Petersburg and hunt out ‘Lincoln in Dalivision’, what’s your take? Think it over with cava and tapas at the museum’s excellent Spanish restaurant.
3. Eat mantecado ice cream on Calle Ocho, Little Havana, then wander to Maximo Gomez Park and watch the local chess masters at play.
4. Go see a drive-in movie at Swap Shop in Fort Lauderdale.
5. Join a tour to see and learn about the art deco buildings of Miami. Stunning!