There’s never been a better time to get down to Florida. Everything you need to recharge is there—sunny sands, blues skies, subtropical wilderness, and affordable luxury. Book ahead and find deals; that trip-of-a-lifetime could become an annual tradition.
Get Down to the Glades
Across the tip of the Florida peninsula, vast plains of saw grass are dotted with tree islands like ships in a verdant sea known as the Everglades. On a visit to Everglades National Park, you will be entering the largest subtropical wilderness in the United States. That means a million and a half acres of dank mystery and wonder, from mirror-water haunts of rare and endangered species to swamp trails that invite exploration. Wood storks, American crocodile, and panthers have homes here among ghost orchids and old-growth cypress that live on, deep in the Everglades’ watery mazes.
Take a tram tour for sightings of wading birds and alligators. Get even closer to nature on a bicycle or paddling trail. Or simply cruise through on a scenic drive, stopping for the overlooks and leg-stretcher trails.
Sarasota: Perfect City
One of Florida’s finest cities, Sarasota pleases the eye in more ways than one. Its world-class art museum, clean downtown, attractive landscaping, and pristine beaches add up to a trip-worthy destination.
The family who created America’s most famous circus happened to love art. The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art holds the world’s largest collection of Rubens’ paintings and many other treasures, including old circus costumes, wagons, and the world’s largest miniature circus.
In town, shop the chic boutiques, savor a meal at one of many fine restaurants, and then head over to the shore for a day of Gulf Coast fun.
Tour the Edison-Ford Estates
When America’s great inventors needed to get away, they came to Florida. But they didn’t just lie out in the sun. Thomas Edison and Henry Ford were good friends who had winter homes next to each other, and they stayed busy tinkering. Visit their homes in Fort Myers to see what genius does on vacation.
Tour Edison’s 1920s research laboratory and watch demonstrations that use his old equipment. Wander the 25-acre botanical garden that began as an experiment. It has more than 1,000 plant varieties from around the world, including a banyan tree Edison and friends imported for rubber experiments; it’s now an acre wide.
The sunny state’s Gulf coast beaches have variety to suit every taste. Do you crave powdery white shoreline and seashells galore? In the mood for Gulf sunsets and gentle waves? Looking for seclusion, or a place to party? Fishing or snorkeling? The Gulf shore has it all, so it’s no wonder that these beaches are consistently ranked among the best in the world.
Lido Key near Sarasota is a mecca for eco-tourism and sunset cruises; dolphin watching, sailing, and deep sea fishing also get top billing here. And the seafood is Gulf fresh. Go to St. Armands Circle for the best shopping around, and to Mote Marine Aquarium for nose-to-nose encounters with underwater life. Not far south, take a walk on lovely Venice Beach and find fossilized shark’s teeth.
Explore Florida’s Diverse History
Who are the Floridians? They are the descendants of Timucuan, Miccosukee, and Seminole, European explorers and freed slaves, Cuban and Haitian refugees. Their art and architecture, language and food have mixed through the centuries to present a place like no other. They welcome you to their museums, parks, and communities, where you can delve into the fascinating story of Florida.
Earthen temple mounds and shell mounds dot the Florida peninsula; archaeological parks show evidence of Native American occupation dating back to 200 B.C. Spanish missions, settled in the late 17th century, are even older than those in California.
To see a living Native American community, visit the Big Cypress Seminole Indian Reservation in South Florida. An impressive modern theater and museum tell the story of the Seminole, and a mile-long boardwalk weaves through a 60-acre cypress dome to an area where demonstrators exhibit traditional craftmaking. Try such local delicacies as frybread, frog legs, and gator tail nuggets.
St. Petersburg for the Love of Art
Not to be overlooked, St. Petersburg has a number of wonderful surprises. Glimmering between the Gulf of Mexico and Tampa Bay, the town holds title to “most consecutive days with sunshine” at 768 days.
The Salvador Dali Museum has the largest collection of Dali’s work outside Spain. Bold colors work well in waterfront Florida. Come for a visit and prepare to be awed by the depth of this flamboyant surrealist, who had far more than dripping clocks in his oeuvre.
Elsewhere in town, check out the charming array of shops, restaurants, and bars. Among other great museums, the Chihuly Collection dazzles with colorful glasswork, and the Museum of Fine Arts showcases an impressive range of world masterpieces.
Paddling into the Wild
With so much of Florida about water, it would be a shame not to see it at water level. Get intimate with natural Florida in a kayak or canoe and experience the place the way the early explorers did.
Weedon Island Preserve shelters 3,190 acres of protected coastal wilderness in St. Petersburg. Take a leisurely two- or four-mile trail to discover the natural world flourishing on the edge of a city. South of Sarasota, Charlotte Harbor is the state’s second-largest estuary at 270 square miles. Its 830 miles of shoreline embrace a network of barrier islands, river passages, tropical hammock, pine flatwoods, freshwater marsh, and mangrove forests. Paddlers delight in finding new scenes worthy of camera, notebook, and memory.
Soothe Your Soul at Sanibel and Captiva
It’s hard to find a better strand of peaceful beauty than Sanibel and Captiva Islands. The sun-blessed coastline makes a graceful, 50-mile curve into the Gulf of Mexico. Developed just enough to provide a range of resorts from family to luxury, this double hit of barrier island life add to a pretty perfect vacation destination.
Most people head immediately to the beach, kick off their shoes, and squeak through soft white sand. In no time, they’re doing the Sanibel shuffle—walking slowly, head down, looking for the likes of sand dollars, whelks, and calico scallops. The shelling here is world famous. Take a tour with scientists from the Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum, and see the museum’s hundreds of shells from around the globe.
Just north, Captiva has its own magical rhythm. Try sailing, biking, birding, and any number of water activities.
Visit Other Great Parks
The Everglades isn’t the only great park in Florida. With 200 state and national parks, forests, and wildlife refuges to choose from, you can design your own roster of activities and sights, and then find a park to match.
Big Cypress National Preserve protects more than 729,000 acres of swamp. Its tropical and temperate plant communities harbor a rich tapestry of wildlife, including the elusive Florida panther. The preserve also serves as a vital buffer for the neighboring Everglades. Explore its hidden nature by kayak or foot. Over on Sanibel Island, the Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge supports a staggering number of wild creatures in its bogs, canals, inlets, mangrove swamps, and upland forests. Look for roseate spoonbills and snowy egrets. Inland from Sarasota, Myakka River State Park is one of Florida’s oldest and largest state parks. A 40-mile trail winds through the wilderness, home to thousands of birds, gators, and deer.
Peaceful Naples and Marco Island
For a taste of both sophistication and wild Florida, head down along the Gulf of Mexico to Naples, a cocktail of resort and remote. Families, romantic vacationers, and everybody in-between will find a welcoming harbor. Nature lovers fall for the 15-acre Naples Nature Center, and beach aficionados take naturally to Delnor-Wiggins Pass State Recreation Area. Shoppers should head to the swank galleries and boutiques of Third Street South and Fifth Avenue South.
Marco Island spoils visitors with luxury resorts, to-die-for beaches, and lush parks. The only developed of the Ten Thousand Islands, Marco features a tropical climate and a laidback lifestyle. Take a walk into the wild on the Briggs Nature Center’s half-mile boardwalk. Nearby Collier-Seminole State Park offers more than 6,000 acres of wild Florida; a boat tour is a must.