Travel 101: The Best of Florida
Florida is a big, beautiful place with something for every style of traveler. Here, we've narrowed the list a bit, with options that will please everyone in your family.
THE SPACE COAST
Just about an hour’s drive from Orlando, the Cape Canaveral area is one of Florida’s jewels. Cruising the “Space Coast” between Titusville and Melbourne is a thrilling way to delve into America’s past (this was, after all, the center of the national space program in the 1960s) and enjoy some of the state’s finest natural wonders, too. The Kennedy Space Center is the must-see here for its great displays devoted to the space program. But you may find yourself just as drawn to beaches and wildlife refuges, and that’s just fine. Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge is home to egrets, herons, manatees, and even feral hogs. Canaveral National Seashore is a cool place to see loggerhead turtles in their natural habitat. Cocoa Beach is a surfer's paradise—where else can you shop 24/7 at Ron Jon's Surf Shop? You can also pick up the perfect Cuban sandwich in Cocoa. In Melbourne, you can sign up for open-water scuba lessons if you’re feeling adventurous, or just relax at a local eatery with a plate of fried chicken atop buttermilk pancakes.
ORLANDO’S FOOD SCENE
Sure, we all know that Miami is a mecca for foodies. But Orlando has its own food scene that even some of its biggest fans are surprised to learn about. Devotees of the “big three” theme parks (Universal, Disney, and SeaWorld) may know that the fish & chips at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter are magical, and that Walt Disney World and Epcot offer fine dining choices, but when it comes to culinary arts, Orlando is not such a small world after all. The Rusty Spoon has garnered much praise for its creative use of fresh local ingredients sourced from Florida farmers, including butter-poached wild clams and slow-braised Jamison farm lamb collar. International Drive has an array of choices like Ethiopian, Indian, and Japanese fare, and a new Shake Shack (the chain that started as a NYC hot dog cart) has arrived, too. And we enjoy partaking of food trucks like Arepas El Cacao.
THE WILD SIDE
You’ve no doubt heard that Everglades National Park is a famous Florida park, with miles of fascinating and beautiful waterways and wildlife like alligators. But Florida is also home to lesser known parks and preserves such as Honeymoon Island, a state park with four miles of white beaches and two miles of nature trails where you may spot osprey, bald eagles, and terns. Once known as Hog Island, the decidedly romantic park got a lift when beach cottages were built in the 1930s and the name was changed to more accurately describe its allure. The cottages are gone, but more than a million visitors enjoy the day trip to swim, surf, kayak, and search for seashells along the shore. (You can stay in the nearby towns of Dunedin and Clearwater Beach.)
Sunset Celebration at Key West’s Mallory Square is one of those bucket-list items every visitor must experience, preferably with a margarita from one of the nearby stands in hand. Key West is known for its party scene, but just around the corner from raucous Duval Street you’ll find the quieter Bahama Village neighborhood. Tour the “Little White House,” where Harry Truman stayed on vacation when he was president, and the Hemingway Home and Museum and check out the many cats said to have descended directly from Papa’s semi-famous six-toed cat. Just up Route 1, you’ll marvel at Seven Mile Bridge, which runs between mile markers 40 and 47, and Key Largo, where you can rent a bungalow and enjoy a slice of, what else, key lime pie.
THE GULF COAST
Though Florida is justly renowned for its Atlantic beaches, the western shores of the state are beautiful in their own right and are home to one of North America’s finest seafood scenes, deserving equal footing with Maine’s lobsters, Maryland’s crabs, and Baja’s fish tacos. The marina in the village of Dunedin, for instance, offers locally caught cobia and mangrove snapper that are prepared and turned into tasty fish tacos. In Clearwater Beach, you can watch fishermen on the Pier (and try it yourself) and grab yourself some smoked mullet, salmon, mahi mahi, and mackerel at Ted Peters Famous Smoked Fish in nearby South Pasadena. Just across the Sunshine Skyway Bridge (which looks like a giant sailboat), check out Skyway Fishing Pier State Park, the world’s longest fishing pier, where the pelicans will entertain you with their antics.
A BEACH FOR EVERY PERSONALITY
It’s no secret that we’re fans of Siesta Key, just off the coast of Sarasota. The white sands of Crescent Beach are dazzlingly bright, composed of pure quartz that has made its way from the Appalachian Mountains down Florida’s rivers to settle here along the coast. (The Guinness Book of World Records says Hyams Beach in Australia has whiter sand, but we’re not entirely convinced.) Say “Florida” to most travelers and not only Siesta Key but an array of other white-sand beaches spring to mind. We’ve sometimes wondered if the state has a beach for every type of beachgoer. Turns out we were onto something: VISIT FLORIDA has published a Beach Finder app that allows you to adjust your interests and preferences to find the perfect Florida beach for you!
ALL THAT HISTORY
Along with beaches, fun in the sun, seafood, and America’s space program, Florida also boasts heaps of history. The city of St. Augustine, for instance, celebrated its 450th anniversary in 2015. (Yes, the city was founded more than 50 years before the Pilgrims landed on Plymouth Rock.) A trip to St. Augustine lets you travel back to the days of the Colonial Quarter and scenic Castillo de San Marcos, get your pirate on at Pat Croce’s St. Augustine Pirate and Treasure Museum, and take a “Frightseeing” ghost tour of America’s oldest city.
Discover Florida. With 825 miles of beaches and the world’s best theme parks, there are endless ways find fun every day in Florida. Starting planning your vacation today at VISITFLORIDA.com.
6 Places to See Endangered Species in Florida
With miles of coast calling to beach lovers, theme parks in Orlando and surrounding areas for thrill seekers, and nightlife in Miami for people who like to party, there's plenty to do in the Sunshine State. But where do animal lovers go? Here are six places where you can spot endangered animals both in captivity and in nature. Orlando: Gatorland Ask any Floridian and they'll tell you the American Alligator is nowhere near endangered—they'll probably point you toward the nearest golf course to find one. In fact, this animal is labeled "least concern" under the IUCN Red List. However, Gatorland (gatorland.com) is a great place to learn about these ancient animals and meet other endangered species native to Florida. A few years ago, two new faces, Neiko and Lucy, brother-sister Florida panthers, arrived at Gatorland. They were raised by a conservationist and needed a bigger habitat, so they moved to Gatorland where they're able to educate visitors on the plight of the Florida panther. There are fewer than 200 panthers left in Florida, and the number keeps decreasing as their habitat keeps shrinking. While there are many things to do in the Orlando area, it's worth paying a visit to Gatorland to learn about what makes Florida's animals special. Tampa: Busch Gardens Employees joke that Busch Gardens is a brewery tour that got out of hand. It started as a tour of the Anheuser-Busch brewery and beer gardens, and quickly became a park with botanical gardens, birds, animals, and—finally—thrill rides. Today, Busch Gardens Tampa Bay has seven roller coasters and is home to 250 species, 20 of which are endangered. Depending on what part of the park you're in, you'll be able to learn about animals from all over the world. There's the Myombe Reserve with Gorillas and Chimpanzees, Jungala with tigers and orangutans, and Walkabout Way, where visitors can feed their favorite Australian animals—kangaroos and wallabies. If you're staying in Orlando to visit Disney and the other theme parks, you can take a shuttle from the city to Busch Gardens and back. There are many things to do in the Tampa area, but Busch Gardens is a fun trip for thrill seekers and animal lovers alike. Bradenton: The South Florida Museum There are many places to see manatees in Florida—SeaWorld Orlando and Crystal River are just two—but if you want to see the oldest manatee in captivity, you need to visit Bradenton. Snooty is the beloved resident of the South Florida Museum and is celebrating his 66th birthday this year. At 1,100 pounds, this 9-foot 8-inch long manatee has greeted more than a million visitors in his lifetime.On top of Snooty, the South Florida Museum has a planetarium, fossil collection, and a wealth of history about Native American tribes in the area. Whether you're a history buff, animal lover, or future astronaut, you'll enjoy the museum and city of Bradenton. Miami: Gator Park If you're staying in the Miami area, it's worth leaving the beach to explore the Everglades. One of the best ways to do that is by airboat. Gator Park Airboat Tours show visitors more than their namesake reptile; they also spot soft-shelled turtles and several species of birds only found in Florida. Plus, the experience of high-tailing it across the Everglades on an airboat is something your family won't forget. When you get back to dry land, check out some of the shows at Gator Park to learn about endangered Florida wildlife and meet some of their resident peacocks, snakes, and macaws. Melbourne: Sea Turtle Preservation Society If you're looking to spot endangered sea turtles in Florida, there's no better way to see them than by taking a sea turtle walk on the coast. You'll arrive around 8:30 p.m., follow the guides to learn about these elegant animals, and watch the Loggerhead sea turtles nest. Floridians take extra precautions to keep sea turtles and their babies safe during the summer. First, they avoid beachfront lighting and draw their blinds to make sure the turtles follow the moon back to the surf instead of getting confused by street lamps. They also remove trash from the beach whenever possible and avoid all areas of known sea turtle nests marked by researchers. If you want to learn how to protect these animals while watching them complete the circle of life, check to see if there is a turtle walk near you. They're not just in Melbourne; you can find them all over the Florida coast. Jacksonville: Zoo and Gardens We've covered just about every corner of Florida except for the north, but there's no shortage of endangered species to see there. Jacksonville Zoo (which has the witty slogan, "more to see, more to zoo") has 92 acres of animal exhibits and more than 25 educational programs. On top of animals, the zoo also has several species of plants that correspond with the animal exhibits around them. Parenting magazine named the Jacksonville Zoo in their top 15 out of 2,000 surveyed zoos. Check the website for special discounts like Father's Day coupons and to find out about special events held by the zoo. Animal birthdays are common, along with conservation fundraising events like "Bowling for Rhinos." The keepers and staff work to make the zoo a place where visitors can see endangered species and interact with them to form a close connection, all while learning something along the way. Florida offers many opportunities to see endangered species. When you arrive, look to see what conservation groups are nearby. These experts know the ins and outs of the area and can take you to meet some gators, see the sea turtles, or get up close and personal with a manatee.
Wild & Wonderful Leaf-Peeping Destinations You Haven't Seen Yet
Leaf-peeping season is flying by, but there’s still time to catch the colors in all their glory—if you know where to look. Enter: The fall-foliage map from Hipcamp, a website that aims to get people outside and into nature via campsites at national parks and private properties around the country. Input your travel dates, tailor your search by price, group size, amenities, activities, or terrain, and the results will reveal where leaves are still at their peak and what properties are available to book, so you can choose a location and pick your accommodation in one fell swoop. Having a tough time deciding between New England and the Smokies? Let the destination be your guide. From glamping in the Adirondacks to snuggling up in a tipi at an animal sanctuary in the shadow of Mt. Rainier, these are not your average drive-in campsites. Glamping at Wintergreen Lake in the Adirondacks. (Courtesy Mariah Baron) Get away from city life and back to nature with a glamping trip to Wintergreen Lake, a private retreat in the Adirondacks run by the same family for seven generations. Go for a hike and feel the leaves crunch beneath your feet, then spend the afternoon on the water, canoeing or kayaking, before heading back to home base: a platform tent kitted out with soft rugs, cozy linens, and mood lighting, courtesy of string lights at the entryway and lanterns at the bedside. A nearby cabin with full electricity and comfy couches supplies an extra lounge area, while the lakeside firepit—complete with a pair of the region’s namesake Adirondack chairs—provides the perfect position for star-gazing, bird-watching, or canoodling. Butterfly Farm Sanctuary's EarthSeed tent. (Courtesy Bryan Collings) In the Great Smoky Mountains, the Butterfly Farm Sanctuary offers an Instagram-worthy photo op for anyone seeking personal clarity minus the roughing-it part of the outdoor experience—in the spiritual retreat’s EarthSeed tent, you'll find solitude without sacrificing the amenities. With its queen-size bed, carpeted floors, and in-tent furnace allowing for year-round use, nearby bathroom and kitchen facilities (vegetarian cooking only!), and a private deck for morning meditations, you’ll be saying “serenity now” in no time. Beechwood Cabin Tent. (Courtesy Andrew Shepherd) For something similarly civilized but a little more spacious, consider one of the cabin tents at Thus Far Farms in South Carolina—it’s the best of both worlds, with sturdy wood flooring and metal roofing, plus canvas tenting to remind you that you’re out in the elements (but still keep you warm and dry). There’s a kitchen with a camp stove and dish-washing area for easy meal prep, dining tables inside and out, a wood stove, and an indoor toilet; the solar-heated shower is just steps outside the door. Forage for mushrooms at Hawk Meadow Farm. (Courtesy Ezekiel Gonzalez) Fans of fungi will appreciate a stay at a working shiitake farm in the Fingerlakes, set on 60 acres of woods and fields in the middle of wine country, complete with a crystal-clear stream, plenty of leafy colors, easy access to vineyards, and log-grown fresh mushrooms for breakfast. If 'shrooms aren't your thing, try taking in the stunning views of the Blue Ridge mountains from a private perch on a North Carolina farm, just outside of Pisgah National Forest. Pitch your tent at one of the secluded campsites, explore the property’s fields and trails, and revel in seclusion under the stars. But only if you want to be alone—the property is also home to a music and arts retreat, so the vibe is warm and welcoming, with live jam sessions and a community house with a wood-burning stove. Be sure to tour the solar-powered recording studio and tropical subterranean greenhouse before you make tracks. Further north, on the banks of the Winooski River in Vermont, a public campground called Onion River plays host to campers, hikers, and leaf-peepers from May to October. It’s not quite as private as some of the other places mentioned here, but the beautiful surroundings more than make up for it. Go for a dip in the river if it’s not too cold, pick apples from the orchard, and wander the trails before heading back to your site for a quiet evening around the firepit.
Canada's Natural Wonders Are Free in 2017
Nature is a little bit like love: Poets and philosophers and songwriters have struggled to describe it since, it seems, the beginning of time. Its majesty, simply put, cannot be simply put. Perhaps one of the best portrayal came from the celebrated naturalist, John Muir when he wrote “This grand show is eternal. It is always sunrise somewhere; the dew is never all dried at once; a shower is forever falling; vapor is ever rising. Eternal sunrise, eternal sunset, eternal dawn and gloaming, on sea and continents and islands, each in its turn, as the round earth rolls.” But enough of the sentimentality. The only real way to understand nature is to experience it for yourself. You’ve likely entertained the notion of visiting Yellowstone, Yosemite or the Grand Canyon. Maybe you’ve already been. But on the occasion of Canada’s 150th birthday celebration, we’ve been spending a lot of time lately learning about our mighty northern neighbor. When it comes to breathtaking nature, Canada’s got serious game. (No, really—those geese!). But all groaners aside, there are 46 national parks in the country and 171 national historic sites. Parks Canada, which was registered as a government agency under the National Parks Act of 1911, oversees all those national parks, the one urban national in Ottowa, and 125 national historic sites, the first of which, Fort Ann National Historic Site in Nova Scotia, was designated 100 years ago in 1917. We recently told you that 2017 marks the 150th anniversary of Canada and offered a rundown of its diverse offerings, from natural wonders to sports to cultural destinations. But here's the biggest news yet: on the occasion of the nation's birthday, Parks Canada is giving the world a gift. All year they’re giving out the Discovery Pass, which affords free entry to any park and historic site—148 in all—for a carload of up to seven people. The pass typically goes for $136 Canadian dollars. Little wonder, then, that as of early April, they’ve received 5.9 million orders for the pass, says Eric Magnan, media relations officer at Parks Canada. Additionally, boats get free lockage to the seven national sites, a fee that typically runs $8.80 per foot. (And take note: a small boat is 25 feet.) “It’s a great opportunity to visit hidden gems,” Magnan says. Among the many suggestions he gave us is Rocky Mountain Historic Site, which is situated close to Banff National Park, offers a heritage camping experience of sleeping in teepees. Also, the Grasslands is still considered a somewhat undiscovered destination, especially for horse riders, he notes. “The diversity of activities and landscapes makes our national parks different and unique. In a few hours’ drive you can totally disconnect from urban life,” says Magnan. “For me, that feeling of being free in a national park, that’s really what thrills me.” So about those sites, Canada is home to some of the most superlative sites the planet has to offer—the biggest, highest, darkest of their class. Take, for instance, Kluane National Park and Reserve in the southwest Yukon. It’s where Mount Logan juts 5,959 meters into the sky, higher than any other peak in the nation. It’s also where you’ll find the country’s largest ice field, so it’s no surprise that it’s a destination for rafting-loving adventurers. The calving glaciers make for spectacular scenery on the water. Speaking of scenery on the water, the Bay of Fundy, part of Fundy National Park in New Brunswick, offers quite a spectacle: the world’s highest tides. At the head of the bay, waves can rise as high as 16 meters, which translates to about the height of a four-story building. Inland there's plenty of camping options, including yurts. For a different kind of extreme excursion to water, check out Lake Superior, the world’s largest freshwater lake. This Ontario destination, often referred to an inland ocean, has long stunned people with its intense storms. It’s part of a National Marine Conservation area, soon to be recognized as one of the largest protected areas of fresh water in the world. And while we’re on the topic of fresh water, the world’s largest freshwater archipelago, Georgian Bay Islands National Park, features woodlands that offer bike trails, secluded campsites, waterfront cabins and hiking trails with unbeatable shoreline views. The Discover Pass also offers access to a huge range of awe-inspiring historical sites, including feats of industrial and manufacturing progress that man has been able to achieve over the years, each quite consummate in its own right and, of course, a wondrous sight to behold. What’s more, each embodies a moment of history, a turning point in the nation. Take, for instance, Red Bay National Historic Site in Newfoundland and Labrador, the world’s largest and most complete industrial-scale whaling station. With its large population of right and bowhead wales, the area drew multitudes of whalers from Spain’s Basque during the mid-16th century. They established a major whaling port that stands mightily today. Over in Ontario you’ll find the Peterborough Lift Lock at the Trent-Severn Waterway, the world’s highest hydraulic lift, which opened in 1904. Elsewhere in Ontario, an industrial feat from later in the 20th century is on display at the HMCS Haida, the world’s only surviving tribal class destroyer. Known as "Canada's most fightingest ship," it tread waters during WWII, the Korean War and the Cold War and today it sits majestically in Hamilton’s gorgeously revived Bayfront Park. This is merely a tiny sampling of Canada’s rich offerings. We’ll leave it up to you to head north and discover the rest.
Travel 101: How to Raft the Grand Canyon
WHEN SHOULD I GO? Thanks to its desert location and dramatic changes in elevation, Grand Canyon National Park is a veritable climate roller coaster, with recorded temperatures spanning from winter lows of -22ºF to summer highs of 120ºF. Amazingly, these shifts have no impact on water temperature: Because the Colorado River is dam-released from the bottom of the country’s second-largest man-made reservoir, Lake Powell, waters remain at or near a brisk 46ºF, even during the blazing summers. While you’re welcome to raft year-round, keep in mind that each season offers a markedly different experience. May through September is the most crowded, when the summer sun offers a welcome respite from the chilling rapids. But consider the less crowded months of April and October, when you’ll practically have the river (and the limited campsites) all to yourself. Plus, spring and fall come with their own natural perks. April is peak wildflower season in the canyon, while October brings about the so-called “yellow” season, when golden plants all seem to miraculously blossom at the same time. You might say rafting the Colorado River is like Choose Your Own Adventure: It’s an infinitely customizable trip that you can cater to your skill level, stamina, and schedule. The easiest option is a half-day, “smooth water” raft trip with Colorado River Discovery (raftthecanyon.com, from $87 plus $6 river-use fee). You’ll start at the base of the 700-foot-tall Glen Canyon Dam, near the town of Page, Ariz., and encounter no rapids along the way. The most hardcore trips, which require expertise and months to years of planning, are the 12- to 25-day self-guided journeys, which take rafters from Lee’s Ferry to Diamond Creek—a whopping 225 miles. HOW EARLY SHOULD I START PLANNING? Your planning schedule will all depend on the length of your trip and whether or not it’s professionally guided. For quick day tours, you can book online, often at the last minute. But most other options require months to years of planning. For overnight self-guided trips, you’ll need a permit from the National Park Service. Only two raft groups can disembark each day, so you should have a date in mind and pounce on the slot when it becomes available a year in advance. Longer guided trips can be booked with one of the park’s approved tour outfitters, and many fill up two years early. Finally, if you’re hoping to set out on a large-scale, self-guided river trip (12 to 25 days), it’s all about luck: To receive a permit, you’ll need to enter a weighted lottery system (nps.gov/grca). Names are drawn and launch dates are assigned each February, but keep in mind that it can take years to have your name selected, so be open to other types of trips as a backup plan. WHY SHOULD I CONSIDER A PROFESSIONAL OUTFITTER? Unless you have experience with whitewater rafting, you’ll definitely want to use one of the National Park Service’s approved tour vendors. While the river may look peaceful from up above, it can actually be rather treacherous for amateurs. The most intense rapids—labeled either Class V on a standard river scale or size 10 on the Grand Canyon’s unique ranking system—can include enormous waves, steep drops, waterfalls, and extremely narrow passageways between dangerous cliffs. But it’s notjust safety that makes outfitters so great: They also, quite simply, make planning infinitely easier. Most tour companies will provide rafts and oars (as well as auxiliary watercraft, such as kayaks and stand-up paddleboards), helmets and life jackets, sleeping accommodations (such as sleeping bags, mattress pads, or tents), food, and, perhaps most importantly, bathroom accommodations. In addition, tour operators will shuttle guests down to the river, which can often be an adventure in its own right for travelers going it alone. WHAT ELSE WILL I DO ON THE TRIP? The river may be the focus of your rafting adventure, but it’s also a fantastic delivery device, connecting the canyon’s many diverse activities. During layover days and meal breaks, you might find yourself rock climbing, bird watching, swimming along the banks, cliff jumping, searching for hidden waterfalls and grottoes, or touring ancient Anasazi granaries and dwellings. Rafting offers a serious upper-body workout, so consider a hike to get your legs moving. By heading into one of the many narrow limestone slot canyons and going up in elevation, you’ll find a totally different view of the river—an outstanding perspective on how far you’ve traveled and how much river is still left to conquer. WHAT WILL I SEE ON THE JOURNEY? Bald eagles spend winters along the Colorado River, stocking up on trout.Bighorn sheep can be seen negotiating the steep cliffs leading down to the water.Eight species of bats live in the desert uplands, but feed on bugs right along the river.Arizona’s state mammal, the raccoon-like ringtail, is a nocturnal hunter, frequently seen scavenging around campsites.The rare California condor can often be glimpsed circling on thermal wind currents high overhead.WHAT SHOULD I PACK? L.L. Bean Neoprene Paddling Gloves: The Colorado River remains at or near a chilly 46°F, even in the summer. Neoprene gloves are a lifesaver, and these come with a Sharkskin grip so you won’t drop your paddle (llbean.com).Pelican iPhone Case: Professional photographers swear by Pelican’s heavy-duty camera cases, but you’ll love its water-resistant, crush-proof iPhone covers, which are O-ring sealed and include an attached carabiner (cabelas.com).Outdoor Research Bug Bivy: River banks can be notoriously buggy, so campers swear by this affordable sleeping sack that comes complete with a protective layer of mosquito netting (rei.com).