By Michelle Marin
As the world opens to the endless possibility of travel, exotic international destinations are surely making their way onto your bucket list. But, before you pack your passport, dare to discover what is right in front of you, stateside.
It would be easy to dismiss Florida as a cliché travel destination. To do so would be missing a remarkable journey through the often-overlooked gems that make the Sunshine State what it is. Beyond obvious theme parks and tourist attractions lie off the beaten path adventures, rich history, and avant-garde glam that will leave even the most seasoned traveler returning for more. So, I would be remiss not to share what locals know and love about this enthralling state.
It only makes sense to begin your sojourn at the inception of our country, St. Augustine. A short forty miles from Jacksonville Airport takes you to our Nation's Oldest City. Founded by Spanish admiral Pedro Menéndez de Avilés over four hundred years ago, St. Augustine is a paradox of European flavor and good ole Southern charm. To truly immerse yourself in the romance and history of the quaint city, stay at The Collector. Time seems to stand still amid leisurely strolls along brick-paved streets, horse-drawn carriage rides, and sunset sails along the peaceful Intracoastal. History comes alive around every corner – quite literally. Visit Castillo de San Marcos Fortress for historical reenactments and daily cannon firings. Even gourmands of the group will be pleasantly surprised by St. Augustine’s ever evolving foodie scene. For a taste of innovative Southern fare sourced from local growers check out The Floridian.
When you are ready to trade nostalgia for nature, head just two hours south to the Space Coast. This is the ‘real’ Florida. It does not take an ecologist to fall in love with Mother Nature's ineffable display of natural beauty, from the C anaveral National Seashore to the St. Johns River. Ranked eleventh in the world for Eco-tourism destinations, the Space Coast is home to an abundance of rare and endangered wildlife and plants. You will be able to take part in adventures as unique as the coastal wetlands. For an indescribable experience, book a night paddle or kayaking trip along the Indian River Lagoon. The lagoon is one of the only places in the world that you will find bioluminescent waters. Spot bottlenose dolphins, manatees, and fish as planktons cast a magical glow in the waters. For an exhilarating look into the marshes and swamps along the St. Johns River, venture out on an airboat ride. Get an up-close look at gators, birds, and the vast flora that call these waters their home. If you want to stay and play along the Space Coast for a few days, The Casa Coquina Del Mar is a hidden gem. If you are looking for a little more action, Orlando is just an hour away.
You can make the next destination an extension of this vacation or use it as another reason to come back to the Sunshine State. Either way, Little Torch Key is one of by far one of the most breathtaking places you will ever visit. It is quite a drive from Central Florida, but you will not regret making the road trip.
For those who are more about the destination than the journey, take a short flight from Orlando to Miami. From there, rent a car and drive the beautiful panoramic Overseas Highway. Just past the twenty-eight-mile marker of the Overseas Highway, or U.S. Route 1, lies a dream-worthy escape rivaling
any exotic island locale. The Florida Keys are aptly called America's Caribbean for a reason, but the real gem of the Conch Republic is a secluded slice of heaven only accessible by private yacht or seaplane. Little Palm Island Resort & Spa is America's only exclusive island resort.
A place where the lines between crystal blue waters seamlessly blur onto your private deck and outdoor soaking tub. Stay under thatched roofs amid swaying palms and ocean breezes that leave you wondering if you are in French Polynesia rather than Florida. Try, however, to pull yourself away from the resort’s Balinese-style beauty, because there is an alluring archipelago just waiting to be discovered. And do try not to miss Dry Tortugas, one of America's most remote national parks, a bucket-list destination in and of itself.
As much as I am highlighting low-key destinations, a visit to Key West is An undeniable rite of passage. Dare I say, Key West is much more than The sand in your toes, drink in your hand island, five o’clock somewhere adage. Don’t believe me? Visit Key West Tropical Forest and Botanical Garden, the only frost-free, subtropical, natural conservation habitat, native Plant botanical garden in the continental United States.
Within the Gardens lies a lesser-known secret – an ode to Cuban's long-standing relationship with the Florida Keys – The Chug Exhibit. A collection of preserved migrant boats used by Cubans during the crossings, The Chug exhibit is the only known collection of this size anywhere. It is humbling to think of the vast waters crossed in these humble vessels. Waters that hold a world of opportunity. Take for instance The Florida Reef – the only living coral barrier reef in the United States. And, for anglers that means stumbling upon one of the most unique fishing environments in the world. Edible catches are possible at any time of the year. To balance recreation and preservation, so many anglers catch and release. Regardless of your preference, with the depths of the Atlantic on one side and the Gulf of Mexico on the other, the options are endless. Not just in the Florida Keys or for fishing but for vibrant culture, deep roots into our country, and a diverse natural wonderland.
That is what makes Florida anything but a cliche tourist destination. Hidden among towering Live Oaks or tucked along a remote stretch of beach, you will find your own magic. You just need to look a little closer at what is right there.