America’s Sunshine State
With year-round rays and some of America’s best beaches, there’s little wonder Mickey Mouse and his mates set up home here. Florida brings new meaning to fun in the sun and the only variable is where you find yours.
Orlando is the undisputed theme park capital of the world. As the rightful home of escapism, it is here that thrill seekers and day dreamers will find Universal Studios Florida and the Islands of Adventure, plus The Wizarding World of Harry Potter which spans them both. And then of course, there is Walt Disney World, where the grown-ups slip on their mouse ears for the sake of the kids, only to find themselves equally enamoured by the characters, parades and firework displays; Disney’s spell reaches far beyond the Magic Kingdom.
Of course, there’s more to the destination than high-maintenance mice and movie sets. Orlando is home to a slew of world-class golf courses, over 170 in fact, and you never know which PGA pro you might run into on the eighth hole. The motorsports mecca of Daytona International Speedway is just over an hour’s drive away too, and is an absolute must for motoring fans. The iconic track plays host to the legendary Daytona 500, the most important race on the NASCAR calendar, and those who aren’t lucky enough to be in town to witness the February event itself can take advantage of the empty track on a Richard Petty driving experience.
In terms of speed, rockets take some beating. The Kennedy Space Centre is one of Orlando’s top attractions and you’ll find many excursions offered by cruise lines visiting Florida’s Port Canaveral. It’s worth checking the rocket launch schedule too; your trip may just coincide with the launch of a rocket from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. For the views minus the entry fee, head to Cocoa Beach; this sandy stretch located just a few miles from Port Canaveral has become famous as the perfect vantage point for space shuttle launches over the ocean.
As the starting point for countless cruises to the Bahamas, the Caribbean and the Panama Canal, Fort Lauderdale’s port is one the busiest in the world. It’s also home to some seriously good beaches, thanks to its position on Florida’s Gold Coast.
Fort Lauderdale’s labyrinth of 300 inland waterways has seen it nicknamed the ‘Venice of America’, but gondolas aren’t the only way to explore these canals; duck boats, sightseeing yachts and the famous Jungle Queen riverboat are all on hand to get you within stalking distance of the extravagant mansions in the canal-side neighbourhood of Millionaire’s Row, where little more than palm fronds sit between you and some of the grandest houses you’ve probably ever seen. Luxury also abounds at the palm tree-lined Las Olas Boulevard, where you’ll find countless spots in which to sip a bottomless mimosa and watch the beautiful people of the Gold Coast come and go.
Head 30 minutes inland and the attention turns from glitz and glamour, to down and dirty. Even in the land of theme parks, nothing stimulates the adrenaline quite like tearing through the alligator infested waters of the Everglades National Park at 40mph. This is the really wild show, where crocodiles, snakes and manatees play a starring role, and all eyes are kept peeled for an appearance by the elusive and endangered Florida panther. After the glitz and glamour of the Gold Coast, the swampy two-million-acre wilderness of the Everglades is a stark and enthralling contrast.
For those who prefer the pizazz, Miami is everything you have heard about and more. The pastel properties of the Art Deco Historic District are brighter than they look on the photos, the beaches are longer – the sands whiter and the water bluer – and the ladies who lunch at its exclusive eateries are even more gorgeous than they look in the movies. If flitting between sunbathing, shopping and sipping Piña Coladas is your idea of the ultimate holiday fix, Miami will quickly become your enabler.
High style meets history in sexy South Beach, where you’ll find yourself in the middle of Miami’s emblematic Art Deco Historic District. Hotels and bars along the district’s Ocean Drive and Collins Avenue were once frequented by stars including Clark Gable and Rita Hayworth, and whilst Park Central and the Clevelander remain Miami icons, it is the ultra-opulent Casa Casuarina that scoops the title of South Beach’s most glamorous address. This lavish 1930s villa is famed as the one-time home of Gianni Versace, its notoriety only increasing when the fashion designer was assassinated on its steps. Today, Casa Casuarina has been reincarnated as one of the world’s most exclusive hotels, with suites inside its storied surrounds setting guests back at least £750 a night.
Of course, the Magic City has much to offer aside from South Beach. The Wynwood Arts District is one of the world’s largest open-air street art installations and promises something completely different to your usual art gallery experience. The former warehouse district is filled with quirky boutiques, antique shops and eclectic bars, but it is the murals of Wynwood Walls which make it a must visit.
As beguiling as Florida is when the sun shines, Miami in particular comes alive as the sun starts to set. The neon lights of Ocean Drive illuminate, sunset paints the sky purple and the sidewalks are awash with tanned skin, red parasols and colourful characters. If there’s one place in the whole state that is deserving of an overnight stay, this is it.
Little Havana is another of Miami’s hottest districts, and for those who are patiently waiting for Cuban cruise itineraries to arrive on the agenda of mainstream operators, the neighbourhood should certainly appease in the meantime. Cubans have migrated to Florida since the 1950s and the Miami population is estimated to be 60% Hispanic, according to the United Nations. Because of this, Little Havana embodies an authentic Cuban spirit that is second only to the real Havana, rather than serving as little more than a tourist-friendly tribute act. The Cuban Quarter begins at Calle Ocho and whilst this is the commercial heart of the neighbourhood, you must make time to spread your wings and explore between its rainbow bright buildings too, preferably by tucking into chorizo hamburgers and plantain chips, or by nursing a Cuban coffee on route to Maximo Gomez Park; if your preconceptions of Cuba centre upon shirted old men squabbling over frantic rounds of dominos, you’ll have them confirmed entirely here.