Lapped by the Atlantic Ocean on one side and the Gulf of Mexico on the other, the southeastern US state of Florida is best known for its Disney parks and glittering cities. But go beyond the big hitters and you’ll find a world of natural attractions — from wetland-filled parks stitched with boardwalk trails to bays shining with nighttime bioluminescence that beg to be explored by kayak. Discover the best of them on this four-part round trip.
Part 1: Miami to New Smyrna
No Floridian adventure would be complete without a stint in Miami. The city may be best known for its urban offerings — such as the art deco buildings of South Beach, the mural-covered Wynwood Walls and the colourful streets of Little Havana — but it’s also a jumping-off point for the Everglades. This patchwork of subtropical wetlands makes up much of southern Florida, with its mangrove-lined waterways best explored on an airboat tour.
From here, head north to the city of Cocoa Beach, which unfolds along Florida’s ‘Space Coast’ — so named because of its proximity to Kennedy Space Center. Best known for its superb surfing, Cocoa Beach has a unique nocturnal secret. From June to October, bioluminescent organisms such as comb jellies turn nearby Banana River and Indian River Lagoon electric blue. Take a kayak tour to get up close to this natural phenomenon before hopping back behind the wheel.
An hour up the coast and you’ll reach New Smyrna Beach, known for its creative coastal community. Tap into your artistic side with a class at the Hub on Canal art centre or take a trip to the nearby Canaveral National Seashore, for the chance to spot right whales and sea turtles.
Part 2: Central Florida to Clearwater
Leave Florida’s Atlantic shores behind as you strike west into central Florida. Away from the lights of Orlando, you’ll find lush forests, wildlife reserves and glistening bodies of water such as Lakes Harris and Denham. As you enter the western reaches of the state, you'll come to Crystal River, a pint-sized town touted as the manatee capital of the world. It’s hemmed by Kings Bay, a 600-acre, spring-fed expanse that serves as a critical habitat for manatees, which can often be spotted gathering in protected areas like Three Sisters Springs.
Next, follow Route 19 south to Clearwater where the beaches really start to sing. Stop at Honeymoon Island State Park, where the sands reach into rare pine forests, home to wildlife such as gopher tortoises and armadillos.
Part 3: Sarasota to Naples
Travel two hours further south and you’ll reach the vibrant city of Sarasota, where Florida’s mainland is connected to a necklace of idyllic keys. The most famous is Siesta Key, a white-sand-fringed barrier island that juts into the glassy waters of the Gulf of Mexico and is known for its brightly coloured lifeguard stands. Make a quick detour to Myakka River State Park, which protects Florida’s first designated Wild and Scenic River and is a habitat for alligators and birdlife, best spotted from the water on a boat or on a guided canoe trip.
Continue south to the Gulf Coast city of Naples, famed for its historic fishing pier and colourful botanical gardens. Don’t miss the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge, which provides a critical habitat for the endangered big cats and has a pair of hiking trails that strike out into the wilderness.
Part 4: Key Largo to Key West
The final leg of this route heads east across Florida’s mainland, before swooping south to the Florida Keys, the picture-perfect island chain that curls out at the southernmost tip of the continental US. Make for Key Largo, where the John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park protects mangrove-lined waterways and the only living barrier reef in the continental US.
An epic drive on the Overseas Highway (taking in the famous Seven Mile Bridge) will lead you on to Key West. If you can tear yourself away from the bars and quirky gift shops along colourful Duval Street, book onto a catamaran cruise. Here you can snorkel amid bright marine life, from coral to stingrays, en route. From Key West, it’s a four-hour drive back to Miami.
There are regular direct flights from London to the Florida hubs of Miami, Orlando and Tampa. Trailfinders offers a range of tailor-made itineraries across the state, from nature-focused fly-drive trips to city and theme park breaks. With over 50 years of experience, Trailfinders’ travel experts can tailormake your perfect trip. For more information, visit trailfinders.com