Photos: Visit Florida
By Donna Carter
Jerry is feeling much better today. It has only been hours since the 200-lb loggerhead sea turtle underwent a procedure at the Ponce Inlet Marine Science Center to remove a fishhook he had mistaken for food. As soon as he is fully recovered he will be returned to the sea. The Center (south of Daytona Beach) is a facility that rehabilitates injured turtles, sea birds and snakes. Public viewing areas allow visitors to observe rehabilitation procedures and there’s also an on-property nature trail and bird sanctuary. This, and hundreds of other wide-ranging attractions relate to Florida’s great outdoors: bird watching, kayaking, paddleboarding, canoeing, fishing, hiking and even attending a professional sports game.
Florida is an angler’s heaven. The state is promoted as “the fishing capital of the world” for its abundance of fishing opportunities, diversity of species and great year-round weather. There are 7,700 lakes, more than 17,600 kilometres of rivers and more than 3,520 kilometres of tidal shoreline. The catch of the day can be anything from a trophy fish such as a feisty blue marlin to a freshwater bass and everything in between. There’s deep-sea fishing, shore fishing, fly fishing and lake and river fishing. In addition, the state is home to the International Game Fish Association and its Fishing Hall of Fame.
Birders love the 3,200-kilometre Great Florida Birding and Wildlife Trail, a self-guided route that incorporates 515 statewide sites specially selected for their excellent bird watching and wildlife viewing. The GFBWT is divided into four sections: east, west, the Panhandle and South Florida. Each section has two or three gateway sites and each gateway has a staffed visitor centre that dispenses bird watching tips and other relevant information. The state overall is a perfect combination of protected wetlands, subtropical climate and a deep commitment to wildlife preservation. One of the most famous sites is South Florida’s massive Everglades National Park.
With a sub-tropical climate, endless sunshine and lovely natural surroundings, Florida is a Mecca for hikers. There is more botanical diversity here than in any other state along the East Coast of the United States where there are thousands of miles of hiking trails. From the southern Keys north to the pine forests of the Panhandle, trails vary significantly depending on landscape. There are Everglades trails and a multitude of others including marshland, wilderness, sandhills, old growth forests and trails developed around strings of ponds and caverns. There are botanical hikes, scenic hikes and even dog-friendly hikes. With a relatively flat terrain and a remarkably diverse eco-system, the Sunshine State ranks among the most interesting places to hike in the country.
Kayaking & Canoeing
Water, water everywhere! Florida is a paddling paradise and what better way to appreciate the state’s natural beauty than in a kayak or canoe. The Sunshine State lists 45 paddling trails but many more exist. Trails include freshwater, saltwater, quiet streams and rushing waters with some of the routes meandering through Florida’s state parks system. With an extensive system of rivers, streams and creeks, plus coastal waters, it’s hard to imagine anyplace better suited for paddling. There are oodles of outfitters that offer guided tours and equipment. Alternatively, paddlers can elect to do a trip on their own. The best times to paddle are spring and fall when temperatures are pleasant, flowers are blooming and bird watching opportunities are at their peak. For extended trips, many of the trails have excellent overnight camping sites.
The Sporting Life
Car racing fans around the globe descend on Daytona Beach every February for the famous Daytona 500 race at the city’s world-renowned International Speedway. Several other high-profile races such as the Rolex 24-hour race and the Coke Zero 400 race are also held there. Moreover, there are year-round opportunities for fans to book a track tour.
And don’t forget Grapefruit League action every spring. Major League Baseball teams tune up for the coming season with a full schedule of games in several cities around the state.
There is always golf. A gazillion courses, and a full slate of tournaments – both amateur and professional – attract players of all levels of skill and interest.
Florida’s Big 5
When adventurers go on safari in Africa, they hope to see the Big 5 – lion, elephant, Cape buffalo, leopard and rhinoceros, however, Florida has its own Big 5:
Alligators: There are about one million alligators and they live in freshwater environments such as swamps, marshes and rivers. Visitors are guaranteed to see them in an alligator farm or park.
Florida panthers: A sighting is rare since only about 100 of them are left in the state. Most likely places to see one are the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge, Big Cypress National Preserve or Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park.
Manatee: An aquatic relative of the elephant, they are found in the warm waters of shallow rivers, bays and coastal waters.
Turtles: 90 per cent of all U.S. loggerhead nesting takes place in Florida between April and September. It’s a thrill to observe one of their nesting sites.
Dolphins: Discovery Cove Orlando offers one-on-one dolphin encounters where visitors can learn about dolphin behaviour, wade into the dolphin lagoon and actually “ride” a dolphin. Miami’s Seaquarium also has a swim-along Dolphin Encounter.