I recently returned to Florida to lead another comprehensive tour of the Sunshine State. As a mountain person, flat Florida is slightly out of my regular environment, yet I enjoy my time there immensely.
In Florida I swim, jog, eat, listen to music, speak Spanish, tan, watch wildlife, laugh and play. Service is excellent and almost everyone who lives there appears to love their choice.
As one of the most touristed places on earth, the peninsula-state is well known, yet so often visitors pick their destination and stay a week or two.
I think there is so much merit in touring around Florida.
The region offers three major bodies of water – the Atlantic, the Caribbean and the Gulf – each with its own character and beaches. Inland is dotted with lakes (watch for crocodiles) and of course the everglades
The Keys are coral and really special.
It is incredible to think that Florida of 120 years ago was a sparsely populated backwater of the United States. Now it is the third most populous state and continues to grow and grow (hence all the road construction).
The really early history sounds quite pleasant. Native Americans enjoyed an abundant environment and an easy climate. As always, contact with Europeans was not particularly pleasant for the indigenous inhabitants.
Saint Augustine & Henry Flagler
Any tour to Florida must include Saint Augustine. Located in the north east of the state, this charming city claims status as the oldest continuously inhabited European settlement in the United States.
The city’s architecture represents a mix of Spanish, British and French colonial with some Southern US thrown in. When Henry Flagler connected Florida by train and built the state’s first great hotels he unleashed a future few could imagine.
Yet Saint Augustine has a much more sinister past. In as few words as possible, here’s the story:
It was founded on the fringe of the Spanish empire as a post to protect riches looted from South America. Conquistador Pedro Menéndez de Avilés was given a Spanish charter to establish the fort and bring enslaved people to wipeout the small settlement of French Huguenots nearby. That they did.
This was the only community where Martin Luther King was actually arrested while advocating non-violence.
Through the centuries, all this conflict and colonization was accented by yellow fever and malaria.
Life is now far better in Saint Augustine. If you are into cars and racing, Daytona’s famous speedway is just down the road!
Miami (and area)
I have long owed Miami a blog. The largest city in the world in the direct line of hurricanes, Miami is big and growing. The urban area is a mix of municipalities, each with its own character, but Miami itself may sometimes be seen as the capital of Latin America.
Over 1 million Cubans have migrated to Miami, and are therefore the largest cultural group. But Miami is much more than simply a ‘Cuban Resistance’ settlement. In addition to communities from all over Latin America (including many Brazilians), Canadians (English and French) are ubiquitous.
There is a large Jewish community, a growing Russian community and a steady stream of people from the North East USA.
As the most important cruise ship port on Earth, Miami is both a gateway and a destination.
South Beach is the place to see and be seen. It is one of the great modelling destinations with beautiful people, wearing all sorts of skimpy beach wear. Plastic surgeons make good money here. So do agencies which rent luxury cars.
Just north of Miami is Fort Lauderdale. The exclusive waterways of Lauderdale boast ridiculously large mansions and even bigger yachts with foreign registrations. It is beautiful, if not excessive.
Miami can be toured for days, but make sure to visit the City of Coral Gables (where ‘for sale’ signs on houses are the size of business cards). The previously rough district of Wynward is now a mural and art destination.
Little Havana is understated (as the Cubans arrived with almost nothing), but must be visited. Come early and drink Cuban coffee – this delicious sludge will keep you awake long into the evening. Also contemplate the role of Cubans in American politics. In the most important swing state, this Republican-leaning Latino population holds remarkable sway over American politics, while continuing to disrupt relations with Cuba that should have normalized years ago.
“…We’ll get there fast, and then we’ll take it slow …” The Florida Keys
From Miami it takes about an hour to drive to Key Largo and into the Caribbean. The Keys are more boat launches and mangroves than islands. They have long been a centre of counter-culture and fun. The people of the Keys are water oriented and strong. After each hurricane they rebuild and party on.
Read here for my full piece on Key West.
Central, Southern Florida is a marshy ecosystem of alligators, birds and lizards. Floridians fish all through the area and visitors enjoy airboat tours. I love birds, and therefore love the everglades, but more importantly I want as much of the nature to be protected as possible.
Florida needs the everglades to soak up hurricanes, protect the watershed and preserve biodiversity. Driving from Miami on the Atlantic to Naples on the gulf, one quickly notes urban encroachment on this important ecosystem.
The Gulf Coast
Perfect white beaches, calm waters and beautiful homes. Florida’s east coast is well worth exploring. It is less lively than Miami, but equally friendly and extremely popular. From Naples (one of the wealthiest cities in the US), north through Fort Myers (where Edison and Ford had their winter homes), to Sarasota and on to mighty Tampa and its fun beach areas (Treasure Island north to Clearwater), there is so much to explore.
Sprawling in the center of Florida, Orlando is both the gateway and destination for millions, upon millions of visitors. Most famous for the many Theme Parks, Orlando is a holiday destination for families, golfers, shoppers (note the thousands of Brazilians) and those who like to laze by a pool in the sun!
One hour east – back on the Atlantic coast – is the Kennedy Space Center. This is a must visit for anyone with the faintest interest in science, the sky and even hope. The Space Center really does remind us of hope and the power of knowledge.
Florida is young, hot, fun and beautiful. It is indeed a sunny beach destination, yet so much more.