Emerald Coast CVB
By Lindor Reynolds
Postcards from Florida inevitably feature long, smooth beaches, groves of perfect orange trees, a grinning cartoon sun or stretches of pastel-hued hotels. The clichés are true, of course, because Florida is filled with natural attractions and manmade wonders to lure visitors.
But Florida is much more than ever-expanding theme parks and souvenir stands. It has a 500-year history that began when explorer Juan Ponce de Leon arrived on the state’s east coast. In 2013, the state will feature all sorts of attractions and celebrations to mark the anniversary. They’re calling it Viva 500 and it’s the perfect time to explore the state.
Florida’s documented history didn’t begin when Walt Disney decided to build a theme park in Orlando, or when the Weeki Wachee mermaids first flipped their tails in giant tanks. More than 12,000 years ago, the American Indians were the region’s pioneers. Spain claimed Florida in 1513 and their explorers helped develop the area. Add the French and the English to the mix and Florida became (and remains) a multi-cultural mix.
This guide will lead you through Florida’s past and its bright future. There’s something for everyone in the Sunshine State. Want history? Go straight to the splendour of state capital Tallahassee, a lovely southern city on the Forgotten Coast, boasting both a Spanish Mission and the legacy of prohibitionist Luella Knott. The Museum of Florida History is a 21-hectare comples blending nature, wildlife and culture. The 150,000 annual visitors now span all age groups interested in what Florida looked like before they paved the swamps and caused the indigenous people to disappear.
Combine your visit to the capital with a drive to Panama City Beach for a field trip to the Florida mythology of eternal sunshine and good old boys. It’s a casual and fun spot, filled with gorgeous stretches of beach, fresh crab in the restaurants and a laid-back feeling. A civic official says the town motto is “real, real fun beach.” And it is, as are so many spots along the 2,880 kilometres of coastline.
You’ll learn all about those beaches in this guide, from spots where families love to gather, to the amusing Daytona Beach, once the Spring Break capital of America and still a site where cars drive right along the flattened sand. If you want to collect shells, head to Sanibel Island. You’ll soon be doing the “Sanibel stoop” and bending over to gather the sea’s treasures. If you want the see-and-be-seen beach, Miami Beach is the place to be. Destin, Clearwater, and Fort Lauderdale are just a handful of the family-friendly spots.
Walt Disney World Resort
Canadians love Florida not just for the terrific weather and superlative beaches, but also because of its theme parks. You can start with the majors – Walt Disney World, Universal Studio’s Orlando Resort and SeaWorld – and move on to slightly less famous but still fantastic parks. Astronaut for a half day, any one? How about the chance to play with lots and lots of Lego at Legoland?
Florida has its big cities, with their attractions and excitements, but there are countless smaller places to visit. Visitors should try to combine two or three destinations. If you’re in Miami, make the drive to funky Key West, stopping for fresh key lime pie at Mangrove Mama’s on Sugarloaf Key along the way. A trip to Tampa could include a visit to the top-ranked beaches in small town Dunedin. If you find yourself in Pensacola or Tallahassee, travel the Emerald Coast and visit Seaside, the picture perfect town featured in Jim Carrey’s movie The Truman Show. Orlando and its thrills should be accompanied by the down home feel of New Smyrna Beach. You can fish, surf or just lay back and enjoy the sun. A trip to northern Florida can incorporate a visit to St. Augustine with its centuries-old buildings that include the mammoth Castillo de San Marcos, a 17th-century Spanish fortress. If you want it, Florida has it.