Are you adamant that Florida is just one theme park? You might be wrong. With secret islands and sweeping expanses of wilderness, it’s a place where you can really get back to nature, and where you’re more likely to see a pelican or heron than a cartoon duck.
The Sunshine State also has many historical towns and cultural cities. It also has miles of sandy beaches. The perfect spot for winter sun is because UK tourists are permitted to return starting next month.
Miami is great for stargazing
Deco delights: Ocean Drive in Miami Beach is known for its colorful architecture
Miami is much more that your typical fly-andflop holiday.
The first stage, a seven-mile long underwater public sculpture park and artificial coral reef, will open off Miami Beach in December. Superblue, an interactive art experience, is available back on land.
Follow Britney Spears, the Beckhams and more at The Setai Hotel. It’s a great place to kick back, with a private section of beach and three infinity pools oriented to best appreciate sunrise and sunset. For a less expensive option, try Solé Miami in North Miami.
Book: Seven nights’ B&B at The Setai with flights costs from £2,040pp (elegantresorts.co.uk). Seven nights’ room-only at Solé Miami with flights is from £1,023pp (virginholidays.co.uk).
Get ready for a ranch rideo
You’ll see alligators in the wild on the hiking trail along Alligator Alley, pictured above
Do you want to live on the range as a cowboy/cowgirl? Then mosey on over to the ‘dude ranch’ at Westgate River Ranch Resort and Rodeo, set on 1,700 acres in central Florida.
Campfire nights feature rides on haywagons and singing cowboys, as well as cookouts and a rodeo. You can also try your hand at archery, horse-riding or rock-climbing, or, for something more extreme, there’s bungee jumping and zip wiring.
Stay in a luxury wagon with rocking chairs on deck, a teepee equipped with a rock hearth fireplace, clawfoot bathtub, or one of the lodge rooms.
An hour’s drive takes you to the Circle B Bar Reserve, a nature reserve on a former cattle farm with a wide variety of hiking trails, including Alligator Alley, where you’ll see the reptiles in the wild.
Book: Seven nights’ room-only in November costs from £799pp based on a family of four, with flights and car hire included (premierholidays.co.uk). Book direct for luxury glamping in teepees and wagons (westgateresorts.com).
Bear hunt in Tarzan’s jungle
You’ll find springs and lakes in the Ocala National forest, as shown in the image.
Ocala National Forest’s lushness and unspoiled nature is comparable to Tarzan’s African jungle.
Not far north of Orlando, it’s another world entirely, with springs and lakes among the oaks and pines. A 116-mile stretch of roads that runs through the heart and soul of the forest has been called the Black Bear Scenic Byway. There is a good chance of seeing them, and even getting close to them. Take a walk or bike along the trails or go kayaking to explore the rivers and lakes. There are many local companies that can arrange activities.
Book: Ten nights’ room-only in January staying in Ocala, Palatka and Ormond Beach, with flights and car hire, costs from £1,449pp (purelytravel.co.uk).
Drive to the End of America
Film star: Seven Mile Bridge might be recognizable from action films like True Lies and Licence To Kill.
Perhaps America’s most scenic road trip, the Overseas Highway links evocatively named islands such as Conch Key and Duck Key with a series of 42 bridges.
It’s only 113 miles long, from Key Largo to Key West, but it’s worth taking your time and stopping off along the way.
You can snorkel around the Christ of the Abyss statue at 25ft under the John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park. Also, you can go fishing and visit a local restaurant to prepare your catch. Finally, cruise along the historic Seven Mile Bridge which you may recognize from blockbuster action films like True Lies and Licence To Kill.
Mile 0 in Key West is the end of the road, which is the most southern part of the mainland USA. Here, visit Ernest Hemingway’s house, which has about 60 six-toed cats, some descended from the author’s own pet, and celebrate the end of your drive with a key lime cocktail and delicious key lime pie.
Book: Eight nights’ B&B costs from £1,635pp including flights and car hire (abercrombiekent.co.uk).
Glimpse the gators in our glades
Explore the Everglades as shown in this photo. You’ll find alligator-infested Cypress swamps and grasslands.
Most tourists zip through the Everglades on an airboat, which is well worth doing, but to really experience this subtropical wilderness, stay overnight in a chickee – a traditional indigenous dwelling on a raised wooden platform with palm thatching.
Everglades Camping’s huts were built by local Seminole Native Americans. Although they do not have electricity or water, there are toilets and showers nearby. There are also rustic cabins with electricity. Day tours are conducted in boats similar to the ones used by tribes to navigate through the shallow marshes filled with alligator-infested cypress swamps. You can return to the deck at night to see the sun set.
You can book a hike with an Everglades naturalist to spot the Florida panthers and Everglades mink, as well as photography and bird safaris. Night expeditions are also possible.
Book: Huts from about £165 for two, cabins £130 for two per night (evergladescamping.net). Flights and car rental extra
Swim with giants
Pictured is Florida’s Crystal River, which has earned a reputation as the manatee capital of the world
Crystal River, Florida’s manatee capital, is the only place where you can swim with the gentle giants.
The spring system, which provides warm-water refuge, draws up to 1,000 manatees to the region each winter. The rivers and springs provide a great place to swim, kayak, or paddle-board. This area is home to numerous state parks, forests, wildlife refuges, and other outdoor activities. Combine your Tampa city break with a visit to the area.
Book: Four nights in Tampa at The Godfrey Hotel followed by three nights at the Plantation Inn at Crystal River, with flights and car hire, from £1,695pp (bon-voyage.co.uk),
There are no malls… or large macs!
The Anna Maria Island Pier, where the palms are often taller that the island’s structures.
Anna Maria Island is the island that combines the Caribbean vibe with the Ile de Re. Planning restrictions mean the palm trees are often taller than the buildings, and there’s a seven-mile strip of sand with a wooden pier. You won’t find malls or McDonald’s – go instead to The Sandbar to feast on stuffed shrimp, oysters or a fish sandwich as the sun goes down.
Or paddle-board or kayak through the mangroves to look for dolphins and manatees. After that, return to one of the toes -in-the sand restaurants.
Book: A week’s self-catering on Anna Maria Island in January costs from £1,744pp with flights and car hire included (americaasyoulikeit.com).
Why Tampa is so smokin’ HOT
Above, Ybor City, Tampa, is a haven to cigar lovers – there are still several historic cigar factories.
Cigar-lovers can head to Tampa’s Ybor City to see the last remaining 150 cigar factories. You can take a tour of JC Newman Cigar Factory to learn about the history of a secret staircase that links to the mafia, and also learn how to make cigars.
Stay in the new Hotel Haya as a base to explore Tampa’s food offerings. Start with a Cuban sandwich. It’s a combination pork, salami and mustard. And don’t leave without checking out Bern’s Steak House.
Book: A night at Hotel Haya costs from £145 for a double room (hotelhaya.com).
Discover a Secret Island
St Augustine, pictured, is known as the ‘Nation’s Oldest City’ – it was founded in 1565 by Pedro Menendez de Aviles of Spain
It’s easy to understand why Amelia Island is kept largely to itself. It is one of the Sea Islands between South Carolina, Florida. It boasts 13 miles of sandy beaches that are backed by tall dunes and Spanish-moss-draped trees instead of palms. You can spend your days horse riding on the sand or surfing fishing at one of the five courses.
Combine with a stay at St Augustine further down the coast, and soak in the history of the ‘Nation’s Oldest City’, founded in 1565 by Pedro Menendez de Aviles of Spain.
Book: Four nights on Amelia Island, two in St Augustine and two in Jacksonville, with flights and car hire included, costs from £2,169pp, room-only (bon-voyage.co.uk).
The coast with the most
Take a self-drive tour of the state to see stylish Naples and its chic boutiques.
Take in Florida’s coastal highlights on this ultimate self-drive tour from Miami.
You can also cross the 42 bridges on the Overseas Highway to visit stylish Naples, which has swanky boutiques, the Everglades, and historic St Augustine. And, if you really can’t keep away from Orlando’s theme parks, you can go to see Mickey on this trip too – although if you’d rather not, you can swap that part of the trip for a stay in Daytona Beach instead.
Book: 12 nights’ room-only costs from £1,899pp in January including flights and car hire (americansky.co.uk). Tickets to the theme parks are extra.
A tale of two towns
Audley Travel has arranged for a twin-city trip that includes a three-night stay at Sarasota (pictured).
You can enjoy a cultural break in two cities if you arrive in the first week.
Fly to Miami to visit Art Basel. Stay at the Kimpton Angler’s Hotel on South Beach, with its rooftop pool, rooms in coastal colours and geometric-designed bar. You will then head west to Sarasota along the Gulf of Mexico shores. Stay three nights in the Ritz Carlton Sarasota where you can see 16-time Grammy winner, songwriter David Foster live at the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall.
Book: Seven nights leaving December 1 costs from £2,400pp with flights (audleytravel.com). Tickets cost extra – book at artbasel.com and vanwezel.org.
You can just get away from it all
You can learn to sail from Captiva Island, a five-mile-long island (pictured)
Captiva Island is a small island off the coast of the south-west coast. It offers the ultimate escape from it all. It is only five miles long and has no through traffic or high-rise buildings.
It does have the nature reserve at South Seas Island Resort with a long stretch on the sand. You can learn how to sail or take a vessel to the small islands along the coast like North Captiva, Cayo Coco, Cayo Grande and Cabbage Key.
After four nights, drive down to the more popular Naples Bay Resort along the coast. Here, you can take a boat excursion to the Everglades national Park saltwater mangrove estuary, where you can spot bottlenose dolphins, ospreys, herons, and egrets.
Book: Seven nights’ room-only in November costs from £1,570pp, with flights to Fort Myers and car hire included (americaasyoulikeit.com).