The Lee Country CVB
By Graham Templeton
Think South Florida and you think Miami, of course. Red-hot nightlife, world-class performing arts, superb shopping – the city is hot, hot, hot.
But there is much more to discover. Like the Fort Myers Film Festival, or Bradenton’s Village of the Arts. How about Naples Swamp Buggy Parade or the Gay Key West Trolley Tour? Cruisers know all about the charms of Fort Lauderdale, anglers in the know talk about Port Charlotte and old time visitors know all about the special sunsets in the Keys. Check it out.
Fort Myers’ slogan is “Do tomorrow what you can’t fit in today,” and they have clearly taken the theme to heart. From leisurely canoe rides down Sanibel’s many gentle rivers to a visit to the Norman Love Chocolate Salon, this is a place to slow down and unwind.
In particular Fort Myers is renowned for its impressive arts and culture scene, with several large-scale arts exhibitions bringing entrants and enthusiasts from all over the country. Its live music venues attract big-name stars but also middleweight performers with unique and experimental sensibilities. While some other areas of Florida focus on squeezing every instant of excitement from the day, Fort Myers offers a selection of more tranquil options.
The Fort Myers Film Festival is a growing attraction now in its third year of operation that is attracting progressively larger and more sophisticated crowds each year and is quickly becoming one of the South’s most sought-after venues for filmmakers of all levels. Those attracted to Sanibel by the festival find no shortage of other pastimes, however; in particular be sure to check out Theatre Conspiracy, a renowned theatre troupe that stages plays both modern and classic. From top to bottom, Fort Myers-Sanibel is a destination for anyone with a yearning to inject some culture into their travelling experience.
For more information visit www.FortMyers-Sanibel.com
Bradenton Area CVB
With only a bit of coastline and a relatively large population, most people expect Bradenton to be a business centre or a residential hub – and it is both of these things. With a population greater than the city of Tampa, it has created for itself a cultural legacy and reputation as distinct as anywhere else in Florida.
Most notably, the Village of the Arts stands out as Florida’s largest art colony and the centre of the arts community in Bradenton county. With more than 200 of its specially zoned homes, which also double as designated studio space, the Village of the Arts is a stimulating stop for arts-loving travellers. The artist in residence system has been taken to an extreme, with literally hundreds of artists and their families closely cohabitating in an open and artistically expressive way. Shows, shops and street performances are just the beginning of what you’ll find lining the streets of Bradenton’s Village of the Arts. Some of the houses in this area are over 100 years old, and many of the city’s best examples of architecture can be found within its borders.
Bradenton is bordered by the Manatee River, which has influenced much of the city’s development. With abundant riverfront property, the estuary has inspired such cultural features as the Manatee Players, a national award-winning theatrical group. With stagings of everything from Legally Blonde to A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum, the Players have a reputation for delivering high-quality productions that delight the whole family. And at about US $26 for a front-row ticket, it’s an easy choice for a fun and affordable night out in Florida.
That’s just the beginning of Bradenton’s thriving arts scene, however. In fact, there are so many small venues and easily overlooked gems that the city has started a series of guided art walks. With various themes focusing on areas of the city or types of art, these walks give locals and visitors alike a look at one of the most renowned and productive arts scenes in the state. Bookending the clusters of independent arts experiences are the larger museums and galleries, of which Bradenton as many.
For more information visit www.bradentongulfislands.com
Head to Naples at just about any time of the year, and you’ll run into either the lead-up to or wind-down from the famous Swamp Buggy Races. Held three times annually, these classic battles take a traditional Florida mode of transport and soup them up. In the period before airboats, swamp buggies were the only way to navigate the thousands of miles of untamed swampland, torqued-up beasts with the power to push off against muddy swamp bottom and through thick bog water. Today the design has progressed to make the buggies into oddball technological marvels with oversized tires and over-powered engines. For just US $20 admission each January, March and November, you can attend this wonderful show of competition and progress.
All the advanced engineering hasn’t diminished their cultural significance, however. There’s even a Swamp Buggy Parade, with a Swamp Buggy Queen and vintage models dating back to when the vehicles were called Dirt Dobbers and TumbleBugs. The Swamp Buggy Races at Florida Sports Park still attract enormous crowds. The grounds feature authentic Floridian cuisine like banana fritters, guava pie and, of course, a good spicy jambalaya. Combined with one of several local food festivals, like the Stone Crab Festival, Naples is a great place to get a taste of authentic Floridian culture.
If just watching the buggies isn’t enough, there are swamp buggy tours of the bayous, a high-powered look around Florida’s famous flooded fields.
For more information visit www.paradisecoast.com
Bob Krist/Florida Keys News Bureau
The Florida Keys/Key West
The famously gay-friendly municipality of Key West has gone straight in recent years, at least partially, with an increasing number of previously exclusive clubs and venues, like Lighthouse Court, becoming “all welcome” establishments – meaning that they are open to heterosexuals as well. While this is good news for straight travellers looking for new venues, Key West remains one of America’s premiere destinations for LGBT culture. Gay travellers, along with for anyone looking to immerse themselves in an active, effervescent city culture, should head to Key West
From the bluntly named Gay Key West Trolley Tour to the even-more-bluntly named Gay Spring Break, Key West is overflowing with events geared at, or run by, the local LGBT community. Key West’s summer Pride parade is one of the largest and most elaborate in North America. Make sure to visit the Gay Key West Visitors Center, which will furnish travellers with maps and guides to the city focusing on the needs of LGBT travellers.
With whole streets dedicated to gay bars and other LGBT businesses, Key West has to make a special effort to present a welcoming face to straight or uninterested travellers. Now, more and more city features are encouraging “allies” to join in the fun by making Key West their next destination. An initiative to make the city less exclusive has already resulted in a number of events and straight-only drink specials. Key West has restyled itself as the fun, flamboyant destination for everybody.
For more information visit www.GayKeyWestFl.com.
Whether they know it as “Fork” Lauderdale or Lauderlicious dining, most travelling foodies know that Southern Florida is a necessary food stop in the city of Fort Lauderdale. With over 500 eateries ranging from trendy independent cafés to luxurious local steakhouses, Fort Lauderdale is one of the premiere culinary destinations in the Eastern United States.
“America’s Best” hamburger, as voted by GQ Magazine, resides exclusively in Fort Lauderdale at the LeTub Saloon. The secret? Fresh everything.
Maintaining the reputation for quality is the renowned steakhouse Council Oak and luxury restaurant Da Campo Osteria, both of which have garnered praise for being both authentically Floridian and highly approachable.
The Blue Moon Fish Company combines this with an unbeatable view of the canals, most famously on its water-level candlelit dining patio. If that’s not enough, try their “dock and dine” experience from the deck of a small water taxi or private craft. Enjoy a romantic dinner as gondolas and ferries slide past the dancing nighttime skyline of Fort Lauderdale’s downtown core. And for those who have a taste for boat watching, there’s also the Pelican Landing, one of Fort Lauderdale’s “best kept secrets” and a place from which to watch the yachts, cruise ships and cargo vehicles move throughout day.
Fort Lauderdale also has a unique twist on fine dining in the form of the Galleria Mall dining area, which combines the selection of a food court with the quality of a dining quarter. The Blue Martini, Piazza di Giorgio Market, The Eatery and specialties like Godiva Chocolates are just a few of the major attractions in this old-meets-new culinary attraction.
For more information visit www.sunny.org.
Vibran Image Studio
Miami’s multicultural landscape is the backdrop for an equally varied shopping experience. The Bayside Mall lures many a traveller south of the adventure parks, offering a mall-like shopping experience without the interior design; the Bayside Mall is an open-air shopping destination with over 150 shops, restaurants and lounges from The Disney Store to the Hard Rock Café.
Bayside isn’t the only mall that can make use of Miami’s naturally gorgeous scenery, however; The Falls takes the concept of an outdoor mall even further. The central outdoor area features an enormous artificial waterfall, along with several other distractions for spouses and children alike and allow some real shopping to get done.
Closer to the east coast lies the Mall of the Americas focusing less on Western luxury items than Cuban and Mexican stores and restaurants. The food and retail options at the Mall of the Americas are noted for being unique, and attract visitors from close by and around the world.
One increasingly popular shopping destination is Miami’s design district. This neighbourhood, which promotes itself as “dedicated to innovative fashion, design, architecture and dining experiences” has recently expanded its retail operation to let shoppers buy some of what the district creates.
Miami is of course world famous for what’s possible once the shops close up; the nightlife, particularly along Miami Beach, is not to be missed. Celebrity locations like Mynt Lounge provide the area’s famous star-power, but it’s the raucous all-night clubs that attract the most people. Favourites like Cameo and Mansion are great events, but the beauty of Miami Beach nightlife is the quality of the more humble experiences. Even smaller clubs are generally packed with enthusiastic travellers who have come solely to have a good time in Miami Beach.
For more information visit www.miamiandthebeaches.com
The Port Charlotte area has a few claims to fame, but probably the most eccentric is its status as the Shark Tooth Capital Of The World. Walk the beaches of Charlotte County and keep your eyes peeled for dark specks in the sand – they could be shark teeth! Their tourism guide says you are “guaranteed” to find a shark’s tooth, and almost certainly several.
Once you’re done collecting teeth, head over to the Fisherman’s Village near Charlotte Harbour to use some teeth of your own, and bite into local seafood. The village also features maritime shops and more conventional retail, but the real wonder is a regular live entertainment performed from the tip of the pier.
Of course, commercial fishing is also a major attraction in such an historic fish-town, and several fishing events draw enthusiasts from around the region, every year. A great place to catch grouper, tarpon, redfish and snook, the Charlotte Habor is Florida’s second-largest open water estuary. As a result, it’s known as a gold mine for fishermen with both abundant fish stocks and open enough regulations to allow just about every angler ample time to cast a line.
Keeping with the theme of fish, the MLB Tampa Bay Rays (despite their home city being to the north) train and practice in the Port Charlotte area, at the newly renovated Charlotte Sports Park. The Rays attract baseball fans from around the world, as do the major league feeder team the Charlotte Stone Crabs.
For more information visit www.charlotteharbourtravel.com
The varied and accessible attractions in South Florida are perfect for bringing the kids along. Just saying “animal park” doesn’t do justice to attractions like the Everglades Alligator Farm, which hosts alligator wrestling shows and even a baby alligator petting area. Likewise, the term “kids water park” is likely to conjure images of toddlers in arm-balloons, while the reality of Palm Beach’s Rapids Water Park runs from the kid-friendly lazy river to the epic Big Thunder slide. The Miami Seaquarium has its own performing Killer Whale named Lolita.
South Florida has a varied stock of solutions for those itching to get out on the links. Jacaranda golf club near Fort Lauderdale is one particularly high-quality and affordable option, an open 36-hole property that is divided into a West half for long drives and an East for working on the short game. Together, these two courses were named Club of the Year by the South Florida PGA.
The Key West Golf Club brings the city’s typical charm to the greens, featuring meticulously designed courses studded with all variety of local plant life. Recently renovated and redesigned by designer Rees Jones, this beautiful course is also a premiere golf destination in its own right, with challenging fairways and a variety of tough putting greens.
Naples also has a long history with golf, apparently beginning its notoriety among fans of the sport when a single-engine airplane began using local fairways as landing strips. Such eagerness to get on the course is understandable given what Naples has to offer.
For the 500th anniversary of Florida’s first exploration by Europeans, as well as the introduction of its name by the crew of Ponce de Leon, South Florida will be celebrating along with the rest of the state. Tall ships will sail from Cuba to Miami, paying tribute to the Spanish explorers and providing a historical spectacle for onlookers at the shore. Several other historical events are planning, with heritage trips recreating some of the trials of early North American explorers.
South Florida will also give a long and wide-spread salute to the North American tribes who were displaced in the years following the initial arrival of Europeans. Cultural and other events will help to remember the society that existed in the state all those centuries ago. For travellers, there’s no better time to head to Florida to soak up not just its modern culture, but its history as well.