Like many Canadians, I had visited different areas of Florida over the years. However I never truly appreciated its diversity until my husband and I embarked on a 35-day road trip through the Sunshine State.
We started in Monticello and Tallahassee, the state capital, then headed west over to Pensacola on the Gulf coast and drove south all the way to Key West along the west coast, then north again up the Atlantic Coast to Fernandina Beach on Amelia Island, with a few forays into the interior along the way. It is a trip I highly recommend.
There is a saying in Florida: “The farther north you go, the more south you are.” Laced with moss-draped live oak trees, warm hospitality smothered in southern charm and miles of beach with sand soft as silk, northern Florida is the Old South as you imagine it to be.
Referred to as the Nature Coast of Florida, the Gulf coast communities in North Central Florida feature wonderful enclaves where you can really get away from it all. The coastal area stretches across the little-known counties of Levy, Dixie, Taylor, Jefferson and Wakulla. This is where you’ll find real-life critters including 19 endangered or threatened species in their natural habitat, the unpredictable and pristine beauty of nature, quaint villages and Native American sites, lower prices, no lineups and fresh seafood served with spectacular sunsets. Meanwhile, on the Atlantic Coast, the sparsely populated counties of Martin, St. Lucie, Indian River, Brevard, Flagler and Nassau will surely win your heart. We drove for miles along the A1A between Flagler Beach and St. Augustine admiring uninterrupted views of the Atlantic coastline. No brazen high-rises in sight!
Beach lovers head to Pensacola Beach, the beaches of South Walton, Clearwater Beach (often voted among the best beaches by Dr. Beach), Anna Maria Island, Siesta Key (another Dr. Beach favourite), Sanibel, Captiva and Marco Island along the Gulf of Mexico as well as Delray, Flagler and Fernandina beaches on the Atlantic.
And while coastal communities may draw you to the Sunshine State, you mustn’t neglect the charms and attractions of the central regions where less commercial and more authentic experiences await anyone willing to make the effort to explore these parts. Tallahassee and Gainesville in North Central Florida are the epicentre of college sports and lifestyle while fishermen and outdoorsmen focus on the lakes, state parks, forests and campgrounds in the interior.
We shopped for bargains at the Vero Beach and St. Augustine outlets and picked up artistic treasures from boutiques and art galleries in Naples, Key West, Delray Beach, Stuart, DeLand, Winter Park, New Smyrna Beach, St. Augustine and Fernandina Beach.
And who can overlook spring training, the amazing array of golf courses, the professional sports teams, the scuba diving and snorkelling opportunities on offshore reefs and sunken ships, the fishing tournaments … the list goes on and on. There are so many reasons to visit Florida.
Our lodgings ran the gamut from well-known hotels, such as the centrally located Aloft Tallahassee Downtown, the hip Margaritaville Beach Hotel on Pensacola Beach, the Best Western Wakulla Inn & Suites in Crawfordville, the Pier House 60 in Clearwater Beach, the Grand Hyatt Tampa Bay, the Trianon Bonita Bay, the Mayfair at Coconut Grove, the Sandhurst Fort Pierce, the celebrity-owned Costa d’Este Vero Beach Resort, the family-friendly CoCo Key and Water Resort in Orlando, the Shores Resort & Spa in Daytona Beach and the elegant Hilton St. Augustine Historic Bayfront, to out-of-the-way bed and breakfasts and inns, such as the Harrington House in Holmes Beach, the quaint Lemon Tree Inn in Naples, Captain Pip’s Marina and Hideaway on Marathon Key, the historic, adults-only Cypress House Hotel in Key West, the Old Colorado Inn in historic downtown Stuart, the Night Swan Intracoastal B&B in the artistic community of New Smyrna Beach, and the elegant Fairbanks House in in the Historic District of Fernandina Beach.
I can honestly say Florida’s hospitality and variety of choices are hard to beat .