Why Florida is a Best Bet for 2020
Travelzoo’s list of Best Bets for Canadian travellers is live, and of the places on it, Florida needs the least introduction. An estimated 3.5 million of us visited last year alone – that’s nearly 10% of Canada’s entire population. Which begs the question, if Florida was a “best bet” long before it made it on our list, why did we add it now?
For one, there’s the Florida you know and the Florida you don’t know. This may be the state that gave us Walt Disney World and South Beach, but Canadian travellers are increasingly seeking out the parts that offer fewer crowds, authentic experiences and lower prices – there are many such places if you know where to look.
Secondly, for many Canadians, Florida is even easier to get to than previously. New nonstop flight routes and increased airline competition mean that travellers from cities such as Edmonton, Hamilton, London, Moncton and Vancouver have faster and cheaper ways to get to the Sunshine State.
So whether you’re a long-time fan or have been waiting for the right moment, 2020 is the year to give the state another look. Seeking inspiration? Here are five off-the-beaten-path ways to experience some of Florida’s favourite pastimes.
Hit the beach
Florida’s beautiful coastline is no secret; visitors come from the world over just to feel the sand between their toes. Fortunately, the state has more than 2000 kilometres of coastline, which means there’s lots of beach to go around. Visit the right area at the right time, and you may even find yourself wondering where everyone went.
Case in point -- the 30 kilometres of cinnamon-coloured sand stretching along Palm Coast and the Flagler Beaches, which offer a more laid-back experience than the tourism hot spots. Some parts are dog-friendly; others are prime spots for board sports and the occasional surfing competition. Many stretches have sparse traffic and easy parking, so you can drive along the water until you find your preferred place in the sun.
Even the best-known Floridian beach destinations provide some pockets of seclusion. Take St. Pete and Clearwater – the neighbouring cities both have beaches that rank among the top five in the U.S. according to Tripadvisor, but are right next to hidden gems such as Belleair Beach and Sand Key Park.
Chart the state’s history
To understand the Florida of today, it helps to look back at the past. Historic Pensacola is a good place to start – it’s said to be the oldest European settlement in the United States, though St. Augustine has also laid claim to that accolade. What’s certain is the city was ruled by the British, the Spanish, the French, the Confederacy, and the United States over the course of its history, earning it the nickname "The City of Five Flags."
Other remnants of Floridian history are slightly hidden from sight but no less fascinating. Take the many shipwrecks of the Treasure Coast, which owes its very name to the many galleons that were spilled offshore. At Pepper Park, all you need is a pair of fins and a mask to observe the Urca de Lima, a Spanish cargo vessel which sank in 1715 and rests around 180 metres from the beach.
Cool off with a cold one
Move over Kentucky bourbon trail, see you later Okanagan valley. Florida gives you … the Gulp Coast. It’s fitting that the St. Pete and Clearwater region has so many craft beers – few beverages are more refreshing on a warm day than a crisp pilsner or a mango hefeweizen. Order a craft brewery passport before you hit the circuit and you can even win prizes for drinking beer (not that you really needed the extra motivation). Don’t have a designated driver? There are several guided tour options that can take care of the transportation for you.
Get hooked on fishing
Fish doesn’t get fresher than when it’s plucked from Floridian coastal waters, which is why you’re bound to see many an angler trying their luck along piers across the state.
A good place to get in on the action is Panama City Beach, where it’s easy to book a charter excursion. Boats usually take first-timers and families out to the calm waters of St. Andrew Bay, but for those with more experience, excursions to the gulf increase the chances of a larger catch. Back on shore, various seafood markets are available to help prepare, store or ship your haul.
If this sounds too much like hard work, head to one of Florida’s many fish shacks and let someone else do the cooking.
Dine al fresco
As Canadians, it’s fair to say we treasure being on a patio at any given opportunity – it’s a fleeting pastime for most of us. Floridians, on the other hand, can partake pretty much any day of the year, and there are entire areas built around the prospect of eating and drinking outdoors.
On Pensacola Beach the motto may be "No shoes? No shirt? No problem" but that doesn’t mean you’ll be limited to pina coladas and grilled shrimp – the food options range all the way from smoked brisket to seared tuna tataki. Every October it hosts the Taste of the Beach Festival, which features cooking demos, live entertainment and US$5 eats from some of the city’s most noteworthy restaurants.
In Panama City Beach, Sharky’s brings tiki bars to a whole new level. Home to the largest open air palapa (open-sided thatched roof structure) in the United States, it’s essentially 15,000 square feet of dining, drinking and dancing. If you’re lucky you may even catch a concert. Meatloaf, Lynard Skynard and Rick Springfield are some of the big names to have performed there over the years.
Experience a different kind of nightlife
As you may have noticed, there’s no shortage of dining, bar-hopping and other fun to be had once the Sunshine State transformed into the moonlit state. But away from the big cities, you can do “nightlife” in a totally different way.
Florida is home to more than 100,000 threatened and endangered sea turtles, and the best time to see them is after dark. Attempting to seek turtles out on your own is discouraged, but with the right timing you can book a turtle walk. Sebastien Inlet State Park hosts ranger-guided nighttime walks every June and July, and reservations open in May. There is no guarantee you’ll see a turtle, and you may have to explore a fair bit before discovering a nest, but should good luck prevail it’s an unforgettable experience.
Further up the coast, in Flagler, there’s a different kind of nocturnal activity – camping on the beach. In some areas you can pitch a tent directly on the sand and even build a bonfire (a permit is required for the latter, but there’s nothing quite like roasting smores while overlooking the Atlantic). Some campgrounds are basic, allowing you to connect with nature, while others have modern amenities such as kayak rentals, barbecues and electrical hook ups for RVs. Just remember to plan ahead, as reservations are often required.
Ride a horse on the beach
Horseplay may be banned at your local pool, but on a handful of Florida beaches it’s actively encouraged. Fort Pierce is one such location -- riders can saddle up and spend an hour (or several) exploring sandy shores, wetlands, clusters of giant oaks and other natural landscapes. Feeling the sea breeze as you ride along the water is a great way to stay cool, and the photo ops are endless.