Florida: state of sunshine

Florida may be Caribbean Airlines’ most popular international destination — no surprise, considering its reputation for nightlife, amusement parks, and shopping. But there’s much more to the Sunshine State — from the Space Coast to the Everglades to a thriving art scene

Photo by Chad Mcdermott/shutterstock.comPhoto by Linda Moon/shutterstock.comPhoto by Nick Fox/shutterstock.comPhoto by Mr Interior/shutterstock.comPhoto by Photoluminate LLC/shutterstock.comPhoto by Photoluminate LLC/shutterstock.comSnorkelling at Three Sisters Spring in Crystal River. Photo by Arpad Benedek/iStock.com

SHELL ISLANDS

There’s always something special about strolling down a beach and coming across a gorgeously formed and coloured seashell. Some people are happy to stumble across these natural treasures. Others set off in deliberate search. And for amateur conchologists around the world, the islands of Sanibel and Captiva on Florida’s Gulf Coast are legendary for the sheer profusion of seashells lining their shores. Some hotels offer guests special sinks for cleaning their finds. Locals even joke about the “Sanibel stoop” — the classic posture of shellers bent over the sand, creeping forward inch by inch in search of rarities.

Most prized of all? The junonia, also called Juno’s volute, a cream-coloured cone with a pattern of brown dots. The Scaphella junonia mollusk favours deep water, which means intact specimens rarely wash up on shore, even on shell-littered Sanibel. Find one, and the local newspaper will print your photo.

You’ll want to spend as much time here as possible on the beach, but don’t miss the renowned Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum, with its collections from around the world. If you don’t already know the difference between a whelk and a cockle, a tulip and a coquina, this is the place to learn, before you head out to practice your own Sanibel stoop.

 

SPACE COAST

3 . . . 2 . . . 1 . . . The countdown to rocket launch happens to correspond with the area code for Florida’s Brevard County, home to Cape Canaveral and NASA’s Kennedy Space Centre. This is where the Apollo 11 astronauts, the first men on the moon, blasted off at the start of their journey into the sky — along with every single one of NASA’s manned space missions, from 1961 until the last voyage of the Space Shuttle in 2011.

The highlight of the so-called Space Coast, an hour’s drive out of Orlando, is the Kennedy Space Centre Visitor Complex, combining scientific education with amusement park kicks. Here you can see original artifacts of past space missions and visit the Astronaut Hall of Fame, then pretend you’re blasting off yourself at the Shuttle Launch Experience simulator. Climb into a replica of an Apollo capsule, compare the sizes of the rockets in the rocket garden, and even see what the moon looks like up close: the displays include a slab of moon rock which visitors can lay their hands on. How else will you ever get to literally touch the moon?

 

RIVER OF GRASS

Long, long before anyone even thought of Miami, Florida’s southern tip was a lush and majestic expanse of tropical wetland. Indigenous Seminole knew this region as “Grassy Water,” and the writer and environmentalist Marjory Stoneman Douglas called it “River of Grass,” but it’s better known as the Everglades, now protected by one of the United States’ largest National Parks, with a million visitors each year. Home to panthers, crocodiles, and manatees, 350 species of bird and three hundred different fresh- and saltwater fish, the Everglades are an important natural habitat and a major attraction for outdoor adventurers at the same time.

Geographers explain that the vast swath of Everglades grassland is actually an immense river. The Kissimmee River feeds into Lake Okeechobee, which gently overflows across the huge limestone floodplain of South Florida. Sixty miles wide and a hundred miles long, the Everglades flow ends up in Florida Bay, along the way shaping and feeding a unique natural ecosystem.

Everglades National Park, extending across more than two thousand square miles, features numerous opportunities to get close to nature: extensive hiking trails, campsites, boardwalks, observation towers, and chickees — stilt houses built over the water. The ninety-nine-mile Wilderness Waterway is a canoeing and camping route connecting the eastern and western sides of the Everglades.

 

ART CENTRAL

Twenty years ago, the idea that Miami could be a pivotal city of the international art world would have seemed far-fetched. New York, Paris, London — sure. But Miami? Then in 2002 the ascendant Art Basel art fair, one of the three or four major annual gatherings for blue-chip gallerists and collectors, launched a December offshoot in Miami Beach. It quickly won a reputation as the art world’s “winter reunion,” after the heavy schedule of summer art fairs. A decade and a half later, with the international contemporary art market booming and no end in sight to soaring art prices, Art Basel Miami Beach and the numerous other events that have sprung up around it guarantee that, come the first week of December, flights to Miami are full of the art world’s powerbrokers.

This newfound attention has fuelled the growth of Miami’s Design District, a neighbourhood of galleries, studios, and shops in the Buena Vista neighbourhood north of downtown. And the latest player in the burgeoning Miami art scene is PAMM, the Pérez Art Museum Miami, the city’s major contemporary art museum. Originally founded as the Centre for the Fine Arts, then renamed the Miami Art Museum, PAMM took on its present moniker following a major donation from an important collector. In 2013 it moved to a game-changing new building on Biscayne Bay, designed by Swiss architects Herzog and de Meuron. With its huge platform of stairs leading up from the waterfront and massive overhanging canopy roof, PAMM is a classic “destination museum,” even before you step inside to inspect the collection.

 

CONCH REPUBLIC

“Ninety miles to Cuba” reads the squat little monument on Key West that supposedly marks the southernmost point in the Continental United States. Locals will tell you both claims are merely approximate: Cuba is actually ninety-four miles south, and the actual southernmost point is on a private island ten miles away. But pose for a photo anyway.

What’s certain is that on Key West, near the end of the coral archipelago known as the Florida Keys, the nearest major city is not Miami, but Havana. And you may not be in the Caribbean in the strictest geographical definition, but the evidence of white sand beaches, palm trees, picturesque cottages, and happy holidaymakers will suggest otherwise. The Keys have been a favourite vacation resort of northerners for generations. The writer Ernest Hemingway lived here for most of the 1930s: his house remains a landmark, and visitors come looking for the famous six-toed cats descended from his pet Snow White. Key West was also the regular winter retreat for President Harry S. Truman — he visited so many times, the Navy facility he stayed at became known as the Winter White House.

Both landmarks fall within the Key West Historic District (also known as Old Town), along with the Audubon House (once home to the celebrated ornithologist), Sloppy Joe’s Bar (a favourite of Hemingway’s), and waterfront Mallory Square, the traditional spot to catch the sunset, in the company of a drink or two.

 

DECO DISTRICT

For most people, the South Beach neighbourhood of Miami Beach — on the built-up island across Biscayne Bay from Miami proper — suggests tourist bars, poolside parties, and supermodels tanning on deckchairs. For architecture buffs, it means one of the world’s most spectacular collections of historic Art Deco buildings — more than nine hundred, in fact, in a relatively compact neighbourhood, easily explored on foot.

Miami owes this design bounty to a natural disaster: the 1926 hurricane that devastated the newly developed and increasingly popular Miami Beach resort area. Local landlords and property speculators took the catastrophe as an opportunity to rebuild hotels and apartment houses in the trendy Art Deco style: streamlined, symmetrical, pastel-hued façades with prominent geometrical forms, ziggurats and porthole-shaped windows, balconies and porticoes.

The 1970s and 80s brought a sad decline to the fortunes of South Beach, though local activists managed to prevent widespread demolition of the Art Deco neighbourhood, and in 1979 the US government designated the Miami Beach Architectural District. The late 1980s saw a return of trendsetters to the area, fashion designers in particular, and the second life of South Beach began.

The Art Deco architecture is concentrated on Ocean Drive and Collins Avenue. Many of the admired buildings are hotels: the Carlyle, the Webster, the Cardozo, and the Raleigh. When you’ve taken in their gleaming façades and are ready for a pause, the bartenders of Ocean Drive will be only too happy to mix the cocktail your thirst desires.

 

SPRING COUNTRY

The same limestone geology that gave rise to the mighty Everglades at Florida’s south tip is responsible for another kind of natural bounty further north: a landscape of mineral springs and sinkhole swimming-pools. And the region along the Gulf of Mexico called the Nature Coast, home to many thousands of bubbling springs, large and small, is the best place to experience these balmy outdoor spas. The most accessible have attracted visitors since the nineteenth century, to soak up the reputed health-giving properties of the refreshingly cool or naturally warm waters.

Warm Mineral Springs near Sarasota, for example, is sometimes said to be the Fountain of Youth that Juan Ponce de Léon searched for in vain in the sixteenth century. You can take that story or leave it, but even if it doesn’t prolong your youthful vigour, a dip in the deep blue waters of the perfectly round flooded sinkhole will linger in your memory.

Or head to Crystal River, further north along the coast, where Kings Bay is fed by fifty submerged freshwater springs. The pristine water remains at twenty-two degrees Celsius year-round, attracting a large population of West Indian manatees in the winter months. It’s one of the few places in the world where you can swim with manatees without endangering the gentle creatures. The conditions that make Crystal River ideal for manatees are also great for human swimmers, snorkellers, and kayakers — with nearby hiking trails and campsites as well. Maybe just being in the great outdoors is the next best thing to a Fountain of Youth.

 

Caribbean Airlines operates daily flights to Miami International Airport, Fort Lauderdale–Hollywood International Airport, and Orlando International Airport from destinations in the Caribbean