The other Florida

Sunshine state offers many thrills outside its theme parks
By Pam Fischer

Whenever I to travel to Florida on business, my 8-year-old son always asks, “Mom, are you going to Disney World?”

Like most people his age, the two are synonymous. In fact, since his first visit to Florida four years ago, I’ve lived through a relentless barrage of “When are we going back to Disney World?” Just last year, while waiting to board a cruise ship in Miami for seven glorious days in the Caribbean, he innocently asked, “How close are we to Disney?”

If your children are like mine and think Florida’s theme parks are all the state has to offer, why not help them discover the other Florida. From the Keys to the white sand beaches of Pensacola and in between, Florida is filled with wonderful, family-friendly destinations.  

A jewel of a beach

Pensacola, which is located in one of the four counties that are commonly referred to as the Emerald Coast, is a jewel. I discovered it thanks to my sister, who relocated there from  Pennsylvania several years ago. While the sparkling white sands and clear blue water of the Gulf Islands National Seashore are the real draw, the area offers a great mix of activities beyond beach going.

Without question, the National Museum of Naval Aviation should not be missed. Located on Pensacola’s Naval Air Station, the museum is the only one in the world devoted exclusively to naval aviation. It’s not only a bargain (it’s free), but fascinating, too. I was certain I’d be bored when my sister first suggested we visit, but almost four hours later, I was begging for more.

Pensacola is also the site of one of the country’s first European settlements. Seville Square, a historic district of shops, restaurants, museums and art galleries inhabiting a mix of restored 18th- and 19th-century cottages and mansions, is in the heart of the city and worth a tour.

And if you’re in need of refreshment, McGuire’s, one of the city’s favorite watering holes, is a must. The walls are adorned with everything from hippos, moose and water buffalo, to more than 30,000 $1 bills.

Cosmopolitan Naples

Naples, on Florida’s west coast, is a destination that's beautiful and relaxing. Golfers, nature lovers, beach bums and the well-to-do are attracted by its tropical climate, wonderful hotels that appeal to every budget, great restaurants, and its eclectic mix of shopping venues,  ranging from the elegant Third Street South and the Avenues shops, to the shops and eateries at Tin City, an old oyster-processing plant.

Naples is also home to the National Audubon Society’s Corkscrew Sanctuary, a nearly two-mile-long, self-guided boardwalk that wanders through broad stands of magnificent bald cypress trees, some dating back 500 years.

South Florida

Miami Beach also ranks as one of my Florida favorites. The city’s Art Deco district is such a treasure. Once in danger of succumbing to seediness, the district is being restored to its original glory, thanks to the work of the Miami Design Preservation League.

When I visited, I wandered through the one-square-mile area (guided tours are also available) situated between the Atlantic Ocean and Lenox Court to the west, Dade Boulevard to the north and Sixth Street to the south, marveling at these architectural gems. Many have been converted into boutique hotels showcasing terrazzo floors, etched glass and other period embellishments.

Also awe-inspiring is a drive through the Florida Keys. Beginning just south of Miami, take the 125-mile journey down U.S. Highway 1. Inter-connected by 43 bridges, the roadway extends majestically over sparkling turquoise water where the Atlantic Ocean meets the Gulf of Mexico.

My visit included an overnight in Islamorada, the “sports fishing capital of the world,” and a visit to a marine hospital.  

From there, continue to Key West, which is billed as the southernmost city in the continental United States. While the islands has it all–fishing, camping, beaching, water sports, gourmet dining, history, nightlife, romance and plenty of adventure–it’s also just a great place to kick back and relax with the locals or “Conchs” (pronounced konks).

A visit to Mallory Square to watch the sunset while being entertained by a colorful group of street performers, musicians, vendors and artists is a must, along with a stop at one of the city’s many famous watering holes, Slopppy Joe’s, where Ernest Hemingway was a regular patron.

You can tour Key West by foot (the easiest and most economical way to get around) or consider renting a moped, “conch cruiser” bicycle or electric car, which is much like a souped-up golf cart. I opted for the Old Town Trolley and was treated to 90-minutes of colorful history and folklore offered up by our delightful driver.

While in Florida's Keys, make time to go snorkeling. You will not forget the experience.

History, magnificent beaches, great nightlife and lots of recreation and relaxation–a drive through the "other Florida" will provide as many thrills as a roller coaster could offer.

Pam Fischer is editor of "AAA Traveler," the New Jersey Automobile Club's publication.





Above: The Art Deco district of Miami's South Beach is being restored to its original glory.

Below: Naples Pier at night offers an unforgettable view.

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