Florida beyond the theme parks: manatees, rocket launches & better beaches than Hawaii

02 Jan 2020

Florida is one of the most easily accessible regions of the USA, with return flights starting from around £250 per person from airports across the UK.

Its legendary theme parks need no introduction, and while we all love a certain mouse with big red shorts and even bigger shoes, venturing off the beaten path away from the parks will let you discover some truly unique destinations, without the crowds. There are all kinds of experiences for solo travellers, couples and families that can't be found anywhere else in the world.

What's more, the plentiful cheap flights and car-hire deals mean you'll find some of the best value for money across the whole of the USA.

Here are the biggest surprises in the Sunshine State -- all within 90 minutes' drive of a major international airport. 

Within 90 minutes' drive of Miami:

Spot the rare Florida panther in Everglades National Park

Encompassing towering cypresses, mangrove islands, tropical swamps and the largest living mahogany tree in the United States, Everglades National Park is a haven for nature lovers. The park is also packed with wildlife, including pelicans, otters, bobcats and sea turtles. If you're very lucky, you might even spot a Florida panther -- they can measure seven foot from nose to tail, and weigh over 11 stone.

Visit Art Basel, the world's biggest contemporary art fair

Art Basel Miami Beach, currently set for December, 2020, is one of the biggest events of the year for jet-set art collectors. But it also offers plenty to do for those of us who can't afford a priceless masterpiece (yet) -- open-air installations flood the city, and local galleries host top works from worldwide collections. Outside the festival, Miami remains one of the most important art hubs in the US -- be sure to visit Wynwood Walls, a true museum of the streets, featuring huge murals from artists from across the globe.

Dive among sunken Spanish galleons on the Treasure Coast

Situated north of Miami's Gold Coast, the romantically named Treasure Coast stretches from Sebastian Inlet in the north to south of Hobe Sound in the south. There are some hugely impressive Spanish galleons hidden beneath its shallow waters; it is believed the ships were lost to a hurricane on a voyage to the New World in the early 1700s. Several diving spots are within protected reserves, and there are plenty of local tour companies who can guide you round the wreckage and get you a certificate to dive if necessary. It isn't unheard of to stumble upon lost treasure -- as recently as 2010, a diver near the town of Jupiter found a gold coin minted in the mid-1600s.

Within 90 minutes' drive of Orlando:

Whizz over rugged canyons on a zipline flight in Ocala Forest National Park

Florida has more roller coasters than you can shake a stick at, but if you fancy a more natural high, head north of Orlando to Ocala Forest National Park. Book an entire course and you can try up to nine ziplines in one loop, starting low and slow, then reaching heights of over 150 feet. You'll soar over the most scenic canyons, clifftops and canopies in the state; intrepid travellers can even zip over lakes filled with wild alligators (but don't worry, an experienced guide will make sure you stay off the menu).

Escape the crowds on the deserted sands of Palm Coast

Florida has more than 2000 kilometres of coastline, so there's no need to fight for the perfect spot to set down your towel. Palm Coast, and more specifically Flagler Beach, is a well-kept local secret. The sands are often completely free from tourists, and there are plenty of kitschy cafés and friendly bars where you can mingle with residents. Do as the locals do and enjoy the sunset while sitting with friends around a crackling fire -- the state permits beach bonfires between May and October if you apply for a free permit in advance.

Go beyond the scenes at NASA and watch a rocket launch at Cape Canaveral

The Kennedy Space Center is on Florida's Atlantic Coast, around 40 minutes' drive from Orlando. No trip would be complete without a look behind the scenes, during which you may even get the opportunity to see the live launch of a space rocket (it happens more often than you think -- there are already four scheduled for 2020), as well as all kinds of space memorabilia. Brand-new experiences include an astronaut-training session and a realistic shuttle-launch simulator -- astronauts say that it's the next best thing to flying aboard the shuttle itself.

Within 90 minutes' drive of Tampa: 

Swim with wild manatees (without breaking the law) in Crystal River

Hundreds of manatees head to Florida in the winter months to bask in the year-round sunshine. You can swim with them legally in the warm waters of Crystal River, around 90 minutes north of Tampa, but only after being briefed on the do's and don'ts by a professional guide. The manatees are naturally inquisitive and often initiate contact with humans, but the importance of passive interaction is stressed so as not to disturb the gentle giants.

Explore 30 local craft breweries on the legendary "Gulp Coast"

Also known as the "Gulp Coast", the St Petersburg/Clearwater area is Florida's answer to California's Wine Country, and sits right at the forefront of the craft beer revolution. Follow its Craft Beer Trail to find 30 independent breweries, specialising in everything from porters to IPAs. The local signature beer is the Florida weisse, a tart low-alcohol brew that each brewery has a unique take on. Many add fresh local fruits, such as key lime, pineapple and mango. We'd encourage finding a designated driver if you're planning on driving the whole circuit!

Relax on the sands of Clearwater Beach, recently voted #1 in the USA 

TripAdvisor users have rated Clearwater Beach the very best in the USA two years running. It consistently outranks even the top beaches in Hawaii, and boasts over two miles of powder-white sand and brilliant blue water that is perfect for snorkelling. The sunshine never lets up, either -- there's more than 10 hours of sunshine every day of the year, and highs of 20°C even in the middle of winter, meaning you can pack light in complete confidence. 

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