Hippo© 2013 Universal Orlando Resort
 

By Graham Templeton

 

Sure there are beaches in Central Florida. Lots of them, with miles of white sand and perfect blue waters. But there are also theme parks galore with rides that will get your heart pumping and artistic endeavours that will touch your soul. There is fine dining, cosmic adventure and off-road drama. Read on.

 

EggsSalvador Dali Museum

 

St Petersburg/Clearwater

Known to residents as “St. Pete”, St. Petersburg is such a powerful destination in Florida that it houses its county’s official offices – despite the fact that the actual county seat is the neighbouring town of Clearwater. St. Pete has such clout in part because it’s been so successful in attracting business and tourism, with more than its fair share of beach and luxury real estate. Much is also due to the vibrant art scene, though, which earned the city top spot in American Style’s list of the best mid-sized cities in America.

Painters, glass blowers, movie directors and most other artists will find refuge in the two newly expanded arts hubs: the Morean Arts Center and the Museum of Fine Arts. The Florida Craftsmen Gallery is also in St. Petersburg, where travellers can wonder at the quality and precision possible using just bare human hands. The first Friday of every month is an official event that features free live jazz throughout the downtown area.

When you’re done, head to neighbouring Clearwater for dinner at the Brown Boxer, a pub known for its live music and dogs-welcome policy. Its namesake, Hoot the Dog, still visits from time to time.

Or, if you’re in the mood for something a little quieter, try The Moon Under Water, a renowned pub that emphasizes atmosphere and top-quality cuisine. Featuring a large, gardened patio and impressive heritage architecture, The Moon Under Water is perfect for couples looking for a romantic site or anyone searching for one of the best pub experiences in St. Petersburg.

For more information, visit www.visitstpeteclearwater.com

 

Tampa

Make reference to ‘Tampa’, and most people think of surfers and beach resorts. The sun-drenched city has become a frontman for Florida’s sunny reputation. However, while Tampa may naturally lend itself to sunbathing, there’s a whole industry dedicated to getting you beyond the beach.

Canoe Escape is a popular option for those looking to do some ‘eco-travel’, as it lets you set out into the vast area of preserved wilderness surrounding the Hillsborough River. Monster gators, along with snakes, turtles, otters and birds of prey, are common sightings on most river trips. The choice of a two, four- or six-hour trip lets you decide just how into the experience you really want to be.

The world-famous Florida Aquarium is also the launching point for daily Wild Dolphin Ecotours, which cruise through Tampa Bay, with its host of resident bottlenose dolphins. The tour is also the best way to find and view the Bay’s endangered manatee population.

Big Cat Rescue is another no-brainer for wildlife fans, home to more than 150 exotic cats from lynx to lions. Real feline fanatics will want to stay the night in one of the three rustic cabins available for rent.

Not every outdoor activity in Tampa has to do with wildlife, however, and one good way to see the human world, as well as Florida’s beautiful landscape, is with a hot air balloon ride. North Tampa has several balloon tour operators, including American Balloon Rides.

For more information, visit www.visittampabay.com

 

Orlando

Orlando has its nickname, “The City Beautiful”, on its official seal. That’s really saying something, but some large proportion of those who visit the city never end up seeing all that much of it. They spend their entire vacations in the city’s world-leading theme parks like Walt Disney World and Universal Studios.

One little-known fact about Orlando is that it is one of the more bustling shopping hubs in Florida. Its shopping district (basically the whole downtown area) features dozens of local stores alongside major outlets from department stores like Neiman Marcus, Saks Fifth Avenue and Bloomingdales.

The real shopping destination, however, is Winter Park. A small, centrally planned suburb of Orlando, Winter Park features a single main street lined with everything from civic buildings to country clubs. And peppered between these buildings? Stores galore. This is the up-scale shopping district, reflecting the posh lifestyle of the magnates who founded Winter Park as a resort town before slowly turning it into a cultural centre.

Best of all, Orlando has a number of deals specifically for Canadians. Proof of Canadian citizenship is required, but your passport will earn you up to 15 per cent off at businesses from Boggy Creek Airboat Rides to Arnold Palmer’s Bayhill Club & Lodge. Even adventure tours such as Bob’s Balloon Flights offer major discounts – and Bob’s includes a free video and glass of champagne!

Speaking of champagne, Canadian shoppers in Orlando will earn a complimentary champagne makeover at Neiman Marcus, and complimentary coupon books at a number of commercial and outlet malls. Orlando Premium Outlets is one of the biggest and most diverse outlet malls in Florida, and now there’s two of them in the Orlando area! Both offer the same discounts for Canadians, and between them they cover just about every mainstream shopping need a Canadian traveller might have.

Not everyone is looking for major names, or even the most modern styles, and for those shoppers Orlando has an assortment of smaller and more unique shops. The Etoile Boutique specializes in hand-made fashion, home décor and accessories. You’ll never find anything quite like it again, a theme you’ll find common to many shops in Orlando’s up-and-coming Milk District. Peppered with shops, food carts, and independent cafés, the Milk district is sure to satisfy any shopper looking outside the malls and outlets.

Meanwhile, the downtown area is home to numerous other shopping attractions, including the posh Zou Zou Boutique, while delivers high fashion in a luxury setting.

Check out all the Canadian discounts at www.visitorlando.com/en-ca

 

Kissimmee

Just a quick drive south of Orlando is Kissimmee, a mid-sized city that has styled itself as the ultimate launching point for any Florida vacation. With a central location and a focus on transit and general accessibility, Kissimmee is an attractive option for just about any kind of trip. The city shares Orlando’s Canada-specific deals, and is a great place from which to stage a park-hopping vacation or an outdoor adventure through mainland Florida’s underappreciated wilderness. After all, not every inch of Florida is coastal, and Kissimmee is a great place to explore some of the state’s inland wonders.

The Disney Wilderness Preserve is one popular hiking destination, and houses hundreds of threatened species, from birds to fish to large mammals. The nature trail can be hiked on foot or a park employee can drive a tour in an off road buggy. Either way, the park offers an up-close look at some of the North America’s rarest and most elusive species.

Not all hiking is about wildlife spotting, however, and another solution for outdoorsy travellers is the emerging pastime of geocaching. The Kissimmee area has hundreds of these treasures, these hidden rewards in a globally distributed game of hide and seek. Online maps show the location of bundles left in hard-to-reach areas, the endpoints of hiking trails, or truly off the beaten path. Different caches offer different levels of difficulty, and Kissimmee has made sure there are ample prizes for everyone.

 

AirboatKissimmee CVB

 

For a less strenuous afternoon, try a Boggy Creek Airboat ride. This quintessentially Floridian activity lets you cruise peacefully by flocks of watering birds, or crocodiles lazing in the sun. Kissimmee also has the largest balloon ride operator in the United States, Orlando Balloon Rides, with the largest fleet of balloons. One featured package sees passengers take flight for a three-to-four-hour sunrise adventure featuring Champagne and a full breakfast upon landing. And, kids fly free.

Don’t let the adventure stop once the sun goes down, though; for dinner, you can head over to Medieval Times to watch a jousting competition with a period-accurate dinner of pheasant and roast potato. Just the other side of Kissimmee, travellers find a similar dinner experience in the Arabian Nights Dinner Attraction, which features a full-scale production of the Arabian Nights play. One amazing feature of this performance is the use of live animals – more than 60 horses of 14 different breeds use the world’s largest permanent equestrian arena. They share the stage with acrobats, actors, daredevils and the storytellers who move your traditional meal along.

If, however, you prefer a dinner experience that draws from more recent history, there’s always Capone’s Dinner and Show, which recreates an authentic prohibition era speakeasy cabaret. Live music and dance, as well as whole-room sing-alongs are just the beginning, and a fitting end to a day of adventure in Kissimmee.

For more information, visit www.visitkissimmee.com.

 

Polk County

Polk County is a central Florida region that is close enough to the major attractions to serve as a launching point for most Florida vacations, but far enough away that it has cultivated tourism attractions all its own.

There is a thriving collection of museums, particularly with regard to aviation. The Florida Air Museum hosts more than 50 vintage, sport and military aircraft, and is home to the Howard Hughes Aviation collection and the Florida Aviation History wall. For about US $10, aviation enthusiasts can see the museum’s whole array of planes including Second World War fighter planes. One major attraction has been the experimental Lockheed XFV-1 “Vertical Riser,” a vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) aircraft that has come to dominate the museum’s plaza.

Near the Air Museum is the Fantasy of Flight, a far-reaching project to showcase both the reality and history of aviation. Multiple simulators put you in the cockpit an array of classic planes while real aircraft provide shows each and every day – the Fantasy of Flight is the only attraction in the world to offer daily flight displays. With one of the world’s largest collections of vintage aircraft, including gems like a P-51C Mustang used by the Tuskegee Airmen, and a B-26 Marauder.

Not all of Polk County’s museums are focused on aviation, however. The Polk Museum of Art offers a wide variety of exhibitions, on everything from classical paintings to vintage celebrity portraits, to ancient pottery. Their February exhibition of Florida artists promises to bring together some of the region’s most culturally significant pieces, of both Spanish and Native American origin.

For more information, visit www.visitcentralflorida.org

 

ShuttleKennedy Space Center Visitor Complex

 

Space Coast

Florida’s Space Coast is the destination for anyone interested in space, engineering, or the great achievements of mankind. With both the John F. Kennedy Space Center and the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station within its coastal borders, Space Coast has been the launching point for the majority of all human work off our planet’s surface.

In 2011, the Kennedy Space Center ended its run as the first and only pad from which NASA launched its shuttle missions. In fact, it has been used for every manned space flight in NASA’s history. While NASA has not ruled out a return of the shuttle program, or some other similar manned program, for now the legendary space centre functions mostly as a managerial hub and an explosive destination for inquisitive travellers. Want to get up close and personal with the struts that helped land the first humans on the moon? Or see the control room that has guided satellites to all eight planets? Kennedy Space Center is your destination.

Guided tours take travellers right into the control rooms where America’s greatest scientific achievements and defeats were written. More than that, many of the labs, workshops, and factory floors are open, where you can watch real equipment being manufactured, and real history being made.

Once you’re done looking through the space centre, head over to the US Space Walk of Fame, an historic tribute to the scientists and astronauts who worked on missions such as NASA’s Gemini and Mercury projects. The Walk is also one of the most popular viewing areas for new launches, featuring wide green patches, a riverwalk and a clear view all the way to Cape Canaveral. The Space Walk of Fame Museum has a world-leading collection of NASA memorabilia, featuring large scale models of the Apollo landers, actual space-suits taken into space, and even moon rocks retrieved by NASA astronauts.

Not all machines with wings fly all the way into space, however, and aeronautics enthusiasts shouldn’t miss the Valiant Air Command’s Warbird Museum and Tico Airshow. This tribute to the aviation industry’s last 50 years, with several preserved aircraft from the Vietnam War and the Second World War, capitalizes on the interest generated by NASA’s nearby launch pad. Regular Fly-In Breakfasts give a chance for local aircraft enthusiasts to meet one another over a plate of steaming hotcakes. The Tico airshow is just the icing on the cake, but with everything from modern fighter formations to an appearance from the last flying B-29 bomber, it is delicious icing, indeed.

For more information, visit www.visitspacecoast.com

 

Daytona Beach

Daytona Beach is a year-round family friendly resort town. It is built largely around the tourism industry, and not just thanks to the more than 200,000 NASCAR fans who flood the city every year for the Daytona 500. Daytona Beach has a thriving economy bringing the thriving motorsports tourism industry to an even wider audience, and making even the most intimidating machinery fun and inviting for the whole family.

First and foremost, of course, there are the races. Daytona is host to dozens of major regional, national and international motorsports races, from the mighty Daytona 500 to the 24 Hours of Daytona endurance race, to the Bike Week event for two-wheeled riders. Across the board, these events offer family friendly activities, from caricatures and temporary tattoos to clothing stalls and driving equipment. Small rides and fairs also dot the beachfront landscape, enticing passers-by with cotton candy and the promise of huge stuffed mammals.

Professional racers aren’t the only ones who can have fun on the track, however. Several speedways, including Speed Park Motorsports, allow adventurous travellers to take owned and even rented vehicles out on professional-level tracks. Many of the speedways are used by real motorsports events, and for a true NASCAR fan nothing can compare to racing the same tracks as the greats.

Alternatively, the Richard Petty Driving Experience lets travellers actually get on the tarmac at the great track, the Daytona International Speedway. For just US $135, you can ride shotgun in a real NASCAR vehicle while it whips around one of the world’s most famous tracks and professional speeds. For a greater fee, you can actually take the wheel yourself for eight, 16 or 24 laps. Students receive safety and basic driving training, as well as tips from professional drivers with years of experience on the track. At the end, there’s even a certificate and a breakdown of your performance on every lap.

Once you’re done living the NASCAR experience, though, there are still tours of the Daytona International Speedway, one of the United States’ most important locations in racing. After viewing the track itself, head to the attached Daytona 500 Museum to see the race’s long and storied history. The museum features gloves and helmets from famous drivers, photo-essays about racing’s greatest moments, even whole-car cross sections that lay bare the vehicle’s innards.

Nearby is the Living Legends Auto Racing Museum, which is less focused on the Daytona 500 than on racing history in general. With a wide variety of vintage racing vehicles from all over the world, the Living Legends museum offers a distinctly different experience, with boxcar racers and memorabilia from the birth of automotive racing as we know it today. It’s just another facet of motorsports covered in Daytona, making it one of the world’s premiere auto-racing destinations.

For more information, visit www.daytonabeach.com

 

New Smyrna

Set amid bustling tourism hubs and resort towns, new Smyrna is often overlooked due to its size. However, this small coastal city of just 22,000 residents has been named one of America’s best small cities for the Arts, and has a well-cultivated reputation as a metropolitan cultural hub.

In that spirit, The Hub on Canal Street is a newly opened cultural attraction that has already made waves despite just nine months in operation. With 22 studio spaces leased to 36 artists working in a variety of media and styles, The Hub is a feast for arts-lovers. It’s got creative writers and dancers, potters and painters, indie filmmakers and musicians. Any artistically inclined traveller will find something interesting here.

And Canal Street has a wide appeal for any artsy tourist. The street is known as New Smyrna’s up and coming cultural drag, with a number of studios and small theatres. The Canal Street Historic District hosts a monthly First Saturday Art Stroll and Gallery Walk, along with several annual festivals. And parking is free.

Flagler Avenue also has a cluster of interesting cultural spots, however, like Palms Up Pottery and Galleria Di Vetro – A Unique Experience in Glass. One local favourite on Flagler Beach is Jonah’s Cat’s Art Gallery. Billed as “a place where smiles appear as soon as folks walk through the door”, this gallery features the works of Samuel Ruder and John Hostetter, in particular their bright and colourful drawings of cats.

The Atlantic Center for the Arts offers classes in both creation and understanding of art, as well as several galleries and temporary exhibits of its own.

For more information, visit www.nsbfla.com

 

500th Anniversary

The first European settlement in the modern United States was in Florida. Specifically, Spanish explorers first made ground and named the place La Florida in 1513, more than 200 years before the formation of the union. With 2013 just around the corner, Central Florida is planning to take the anniversary very seriously.

Expedition Florida 500 retraces the route of the pioneer Spaniard Juan Ponce de León, whose first steps on North America laid the foundation for the travels of some of America’s most influential explorers. As you move along the trail you may witness the firing of Spanish cannons in Ponce de Leon’s Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park, or you might help to bury one of the hundreds of time capsules distributed by the Florida government to commemorate the event. In fact, Florida has set up a number of heritage trails to tell the many stories of early east-coast settlement. There is a heritage trail focusing on the experiences of the Native American, Spanish, French, Black, Jewish and Cuban communities. These trails originate all over the state, but are centralized along the coast near Tampa, with a few running further inland, nearer to Kissimmee and Polk County.

 

Golf Courses

Whether golf is a midday time-filler or an all-consuming passion, Central Florida has the answer. On one extreme are the casual courses like Eaglewood Golf Club and Boggy Creek golf, with walk-in schedules and quick, nine-hole courses. On the other side, there are reservation-only courses like Marriott’s Grande Pines Golf Club, which cater to the true golf fanatic.

Central Florida has an array of golf resorts, which go so far as to integrate golf into the vacation experience. When the greens are just a quick stroll from the hotel’s front door, you find yourself spend significantly more time on the links. And if all that practice isn’t enough to keep the score down, Florida boasts some of the world’s premiere golf tutors and schools, including the famous Ben Sutton Golf School, which has been running since 1968.

 

 

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