Florida travel guide

Why go?   

Superficially, Florida’s attractions are no secret. Blissful beaches, amazing theme parks, fabulous shopping and nightlife make this a “no-brainer”, as the locals say, whether for families, couples, seniors or solo travellers. But dig below the surface and what at first might seem a two-dimensional destination bursts into vivid 3-D with an array of possibilities that keep people coming back year after year.

Orlando, which lives up to its name as the theme park capital of the world, is the honeypot that draws most of the state’s 87 million annual visitors. It’s a captivating place of elaborate fantasy, yet only the starting point on a journey that now encompasses eco-adventures and wildlife expeditions as well as a growing trend in outdoor pursuits, from kayaking and cycling to fishing and golf. And, while its core business remains the mass market, there is ever more luxury in hotels, spas and dining.

Florida travel guide

Florida has a real ability to surprise: it has America’s oldest city (St Augustine), a rich Native American heritage (with the Seminole tribe), a legacy of early 20-century expansion (Henry Flagler’s railroads) and the home of space exploration (at the Kennedy Space Center). It’s also home the Ringling circus business, which promises “the Greatest Show on Earth”.

There is one other reason why many return – value for money. When you’re splashing out on your annual two-week trip, you want a good return on your investment. Florida delivers a consistent, reliable and quality-conscious holiday that is the nearest thing to a guarantee you’ll find in today’s travel world.

2013 is a fantastic year to visit Florida as the state will celebrate Viva Florida 500, a year-long celebration of 500 years of visitors. See visitflorida.com/viva.

When to go

Not for nothing is this called the Sunshine State, but be aware that May to September can be fiendishly hot and humid, with temperatures rising above 95F/35C. The ideal cooler-but-pleasant weather runs from March to early May and mid-October to late November.

A view of Miami

Southern Florida is still in the 70sF/20sC in winter but, further north, temperatures can dip below freezing at night. Orlando and its theme parks are also extremely busy in March and early April and from June to mid-August, and thoroughly packed at Christmas and New Year.

Fierce daily thunderstorms in summer are common. They rarely last long but it’s advisable to pack a light raincoat or umbrella – or buy one of the cheap plastic ponchos sold in all the theme parks.

Where to stay

Florida is larger than England and Wales combined and splits into five distinct areas in tourism terms – north-east, central, south-east, Gulf Coast and the Keys. You can’t go wrong for great beaches, with more than 1,200-miles of coastline, but the Gulf Coast tends to be calmer and slightly warmer (better for families) while surfing and watersports are more abundant on the Atlantic side.

Many visitors combine an Orlando stay with a week on the Gulf Coast or a trip down to the Keys, the jewel-like string of islands that arc 120 miles off the southern tip of Florida down into the Caribbean, finishing just 90 miles from Cuba.


Jacksonville is the principal city in the northern quarter, a lively and modern development with a stretch of eye-catching riverfront, nightlife, shopping, beaches and the world-renowned golf resort of the Tournament Players Club at Sawgrass.

Fans of the sport will enjoy the World Golf Hall of Fame at nearby St Augustine, where the Spanish established their first colony in 1565. The town is also home to the Castillo de San Marcos, one of the state’s most iconic monuments and America’s oldest fort. Colonial buildings abound here, along with the graceful landmarks of the Flagler era from the 1880s to 1913, such as the Lightner Museum (formerly the railroad baron’s Alcazar Hotel), Flagler College (dating to 1888) and the towering Memorial Presbyterian Church.

Florida travel guide


Orlando is at the heart of the state, literally and metaphorically. Almost two-thirds of British visitors arrive here and spend at least a week exploring its theme parks, water parks, dinner shows, nightlife and other attractions, including golf, outlet shopping and some 4,000 restaurants.

This is the home of Disney, Universal, SeaWorld and, just to the south in the town of Winter Haven, the new Legoland Florida. With the motorways I-4 and the Florida Turnpike offering good access to both coasts and the south, it is a great starting point, as well as being handy for the Kennedy Space Center, Daytona Beach and Tampa. The latter offers the animal-themed Busch Gardens park, the Lowry Park Zoo and the Florida Aquarium, as well as the fascinating district of Ybor City, formerly the cigar-making capital of the world.

Though Orlando has the headline attractions, many British visitors choose to stay just to the south, in the area of Kissimmee, where holiday villas are at their most numerous (and affordable). Some of Florida’s most eco-friendly developments can be found in and around Kissimmee, notably the Florida Eco-Safaris centre on a ranch to the south, plus the chance to go ballooning, boating, kayaking and bass fishing.

Central Florida has become action central in recent years. Here you can learn to sky-dive, hang-glide, ride ATVs and dune buggies, pilot a plane, do aerobatics or drive a £200,000 Ferrari around a race course.

Gulf Coast

West and south from Orlando, visitors have the pick of 210 miles of brilliant white-sand beaches, from Greek-tinged Tarpon Springs to the southern tip of Marco Island, on the edge of the Everglades.

Immediately west of Tampa are the popular communities of Clearwater and St Pete’s Beach, where families flock, while the seafront towns and resorts tend to become more exclusive and “grown-up” as you head south through Bradenton, Sarasota, Venice, Port Charlotte, Cape Coral, Captiva, Sanibel and Naples, with a distinct country-club atmosphere. It is also popular for weddings and honeymoons.

The beaches here are notable for amassing thousands of sea shells, hence they are popular for shelling, while Venice – officially the “shark-tooth capital of the world” – is where thousands of shark teeth wash up on the beaches and a festival dedicated to collectors takes place each April.


West Palm Beach was Henry Flagler’s ultimate beach resort in the early 20 century, hence this became home to the rich and famous looking to enjoy winter away from the cold northern climate. It has been a hideaway for the glitterati ever since, with a mix of condos and hotels dominating the seafront for miles.

Tiger Woods now makes his home in Jupiter, just to the north, while the string of resorts and cities farther south include Deerfield Beach, Pompano Beach, Boca Raton and happening Fort Lauderdale, where a rich waterway infrastructure has led to its nickname as “the Venice of America”. It also features the state’s largest shopping mall, the massive Sawgrass Mills, as well as great dining, nightlife and, of course, more beaches.

Fort Lauderdale has a rich waterway infrastructure which led to its nickname as 'the Venice of America'

West from Fort Lauderdale on motorway I-75 is the home of the Seminole tribe at Big Cypress, where the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum is part of their “living village” of history and culture, along with the Billie Swamp Safari, a fascinating delve into the Everglades.

The Keys

South of Miami on Highway 1, visitors soon reach the chain-link islands known as the Keys, which challenged Flagler’s great railroad-building empire and also served as home to Ernest Hemingway during some of his serious drinking years.

The islands begin in Key Largo, the city made famous by the Humphrey Bogart film of the same name, which will be celebrated with an inaugural film festival in May 2013. It’s also home to the John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, a scuba-diving Mecca.

Islamorada and Marathon are the two other main towns along the Keys trail before you arrive in the USA’s southernmost point, Key West, where Hemingway roamed the bars, periodically, from 1928-39, and deep-sea fishing is a quasi-religion.

If you want to visit the Everglades, the vast wildlife-rich wetlands that are home to more than 350 species of birds, the western gateway is via Naples while the eastern area is accessed via Fort Lauderdale.

Getting there and around

Florida has three international gateways, with British Airways (ba.com) serving Orlando, Miami and Tampa, while Virgin Atlantic (virgin-atlantic.com) flies to Orlando and Miami. Indirect flights, notably with American Airlines (via Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Miami, New York or Raleigh-Durham; americanairlines.co.uk) and Delta/KLM (via Atlanta, Minneapolis, Detroit or New York; klm.com) can often be cheaper.

A hire car is almost essential as public transport is limited, even in the cities, and city-to-city travel via the Greyhound bus system (greyhound.com) is ponderous at best. The big car hire companies are Alamo (alamo.co.uk) and Dollar (dollar.co.uk) but it’s worth also trying a broker such as US Rent-A-Car (usrentacar.co.uk).

Best operators

Virgin Holidays (virginholidays.com) is Britain’s biggest Florida operator, with an enormous range of options and great flexibility as to duration, using Virgin Atlantic flights. Virgin’s budget brand, Travel City Direct, offers keenly priced two- and three-week packages.

Thomson (thomson.co.uk) has a year-round array of standard packages while Thomas Cook (thomascook.com) and Cosmos (cosmos-holidays.co.uk) offer packages from spring to late autumn; these three companies use Orlando Sanford Airport as a gateway. For a tailor-made choice, try Kuoni (kuoni.co.uk) or Complete Orlando (completeorlando.co.uk).

For many attraction tickets, notably in Orlando, it is often best to buy in advance. Attractions Tickets Direct (attraction-tickets-direct.co.uk) features award-winning service and a price match guarantee.

Know before you go

Flight time: London to Orlando is around 9 hours; to Tampa is 9.5 and Miami around 10.
Currency: US dollar
Foreign Office Advice: none at present (but check fco.gov.uk/en/travel-and-living-abroad/).
Extra reading/apps: Brit Guide to Orlando Walt Disney World (Simon Susan Veness; Foulsham £14.99); Lonely Planet Florida (Jeff Campbell; £15.99); sunny.org/visitors/apps; floridakeysapps.com.Emergency numbers/contacts: dial 911 for police, fire or ambulance services (9-911 from most hotels); 511 for traffic info.

Local laws etiquette

Always carry your driver’s licence and your rental car contract in case you are stopped by police.

When driving, you can turn right at a red light, but come to a full stop first and check there is no traffic coming and no sign that says “No turn on red”.

You must have your lights on in the rain. On motorways, either move over one lane or slow down for an emergency vehicle stopped on the hard shoulder. On minor roads, you must pull over and stop for an emergency vehicle going in either direction. You cannot overtake a school bus when it is stopped and unloading.

Remember to tip porters and servers at hotels and restaurants. Porters would expect $1/bag, while a 15 per cent tip for dining and taxi drivers is the norm. Oh, and locals really do mean it when they say “Have a nice day!” This is one of the friendliest states in America.

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