independent

Wednesday 16 April 2014

Florida freewheeling

There's more to the Sunshine State than just roller-coasters

View of Colorful Lifeguard Tower in South Beach

Starting out

For some, Florida is nothing more than a giant theme park; a brash world of superlatives – the biggest, the fastest, the tallest – which is exhausting and exhilarating in equal measure.

By all means, enjoy the ride, but make sure to take a few days to explore life beyond the roller-coasters and turkey drumsticks.

We kicked off our road trip in Orlando, zig-zagging west across country to the gorgeous beaches and national parks south of Tampa, then east through the marshy Everglades before pitching up in glamorous Miami.

Florida is impossible without a car, but the gas is cheap, the highways are a dream and there's no end of bizarre roadside attractions to keep you laughing along the way.

Easy Orlando

The secret to tackling Orlando is to pace yourself and check into a quiet suburb away from the Disney masses. Our base was a quaint little town called Celebration, a five-minute drive from the main theme parks with sprawling white mansions, outdoor pools and ice-cream parlours.

It was built by Walt himself as the model American small town, imbued with a strong sense of community spirit. There's a beautiful lake and some fun bars, but don't give it more than three nights – before long, you'll feel as if you're on the set of 'Stepford Wives'.

We stayed at the Bohemian (marriott.com; doubles from about €100 per night) at the end of Main Street, with great staff, comfy rooms and a waterside restaurant.

If time is short and you've already done Disney, the pick of the parks is Universal. Laid out in an easy circle, which is best walked anti-clockwise, its top rides are the Incredible Hulk – over in seconds but, oh, the fear – Men in Black, Spiderman and the Simpsons, while Hogwart Fans won't want to miss Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey.

Tickets are pricey at $128 (€98) for a one-day visit, but buy online for cheaper deals (universalorlando.com).

A short drive north of the screams is Winter Park, a laid-back village with quirky shopping and buzzy cafés. The railway track that cuts through the park goes all the way to New York. Don't miss breakfast at Briarpatch on Park Avenue, a local hotspot that serves up the finest blueberry-stuffed pancakes.

Hit the sand

An hour and a half west of Orlando, the fabulous beaches of Tampa Bay stretch into the Gulf of Mexico. There's no shortage of mass tourism here, but we veered for Indian Rocks, the best of the beach towns with a fine stretch of sand and very few people. Across the road, the Laughing Lizard was a fun place to stay – a tin-roofed, three-storey guesthouse with spotless (albeit pricey) rooms, homemade breakfasts and afternoon wine tastings.

For lunch, don't miss the French bakery two minutes away, and up the street, there were some great retro diners for after dark (laughinglizardbandb.com; doubles from €160 per night).

Heading south, we made our way to Fort de Soto, one of Florida's finest national parks with a beach that is frequently named America's best. A boomerang-shaped island, which was used as a bombing range during the Second World War, it's made up of five keys spanning 1,000 acres of nature paths, warm lagoons and sandy walks.

We hired kayaks and paddled our way down a watery trail in total solitude, spotting manatee, egrets and pelicans.

Island life

The Sunshine Skyway is Florida's favourite bridge, a triumph of engineering spanning four miles over Tampa Bay. Take your time crossing over. Even locals who use it every day can't help taking their feet off the pedal to soak up the views. When you've reached the other side, take the spur to the fishing pier for a great picture of one of America's finest structures.

Our next stop was our favourite, the dreamy shores of Sanibel Island with its romantic old lighthouse, white-sand beaches and sublime food.

We stayed at a condo a few steps from the strand, owned by one of the island's most devoted beachcombers (sanibelislandvacations.com; from €200 a night; sleeps six).

This 12-mile barrier island is one of the best places in the world for shelling, with the shallow waves and currents of the water carrying more than 300 species of shells on to the beach. Some days, the layers of shell are four-foot deep and locals head for the shore to examine fresh finds, hunching in a position known as the 'Sanibel stoop'.

A great place to start the day is the Lighthouse Café, which boldly claims to serve 'the world's best breakfast'. It's certainly up there, and dishes such as 'chorizo scramble' and 'cinnamon raisin French toast', with first-class service, bring foodies from far and near. Next door, there's a great store if you get bored waiting for a table.

The pace of life is so easy here you can happily while away your days cycling up and down the island, stopping for coffee and exploring leafy avenues that lead to seaside villas and secret coves. The local tourist office (sanibelisland.com), just at the gateway to the island, is a mine of information, with top-notch staff doling out great tips.

The Darling Wildlife Park is another must-see on Sanibel, a peaceful nature sanctuary that's home to more than 200 bird species, 50 types of reptile and 32 kinds of mammal. Visit at low tide when the birds come to feed and hire a bike to take you through the scenic paths that slice through the greenery.

Swampy sensations

Put all of Orlando's dizzying rides together and they still wouldn't come close to the thrill of a visit to the Everglades, which spans over 1.5 million acres of land. Despite all of the environmental hardship facing this watery wonderland, it is still an unmissable part of any Floridian road trip.

You can get a good taste of it in just a day, and the Shark Valley Visitor Centre is the best starting point for beginners. Within a few seconds of landing, you'll be literally stepping over the alligators and wondering what all the fuss was about. Leave them alone and they'll reciprocate. In fact, you'll soon be smitten, especially when you find a mother and her chicks.

These reptilian giants are the attention-grabbers, but take time to look out for turtles, grazing deer, otters and the magnificent birdlife.

There's a helpful interpretative centre and an excellent guided trolley tour along a 15-mile loop road that leads to a 65ft tower. Climb to the top and gaze over the sea of grass that stretches for miles and miles. It's hard to believe the roller-coasters are only a short drive away.

Neon jungle

Our final stop was Miami, a city that fancies itself as the best in the world, though it's far from that. After a day or two, all the pouting and posing, and honey this and honey that starts to grate. Even the South Beach dogs, invariably dressed up in degrading polka-dot frocks, have egos to match Simon Cowell's.

But these were our best bits: Dinner in an Italian gem called Escopazzo on Washington Avenue, which serves organic joys in a charming Tuscan-style courtyard.

A Sunday drive to Key Biscayne, a dazzling stretch of land where Richard Nixon kept a house on Bay Lane – now razed – and where he went into hiding during the Watergate scandal.

A night in the Cuban quarter meeting migrants over dinner in Versailles restaurant and hearing stories of their life under Fidel Castro. Walking through the Art Deco streets along Ocean Drive.

People-watching by the pool at The James (jameshotels.com; 001 305 604 5700; €200pn per double), an uber-cool hotel with slick rooms, polished clientele and a gate straight to the beach. But if you fancy a swim, mind those sharks.

Florida: Need to know

Getting there

Aer Lingus (0818 365 000; aerlingus.com) flies direct from Dublin to Orlando with return fares from about €600. Hertz (hertz.com) has cars from about €20 a day.

See visitflorida.com for the ultimate need-to-know guide to the sunshine state.

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