When the illustrious Senor Ponce de León was staking his claim on land in the New World, it needs to be remembered that Christopher Columbus had only sailed the ocean blue some 21 years earlier. The Spanish links with Florida remain strong today but, did you know that Great Britain used to ‘own’ this territory, which it divided into the twin regions known as West and East Florida?

While the state has an undoubted appeal to British people, many of whom have not merely holidayed on the peninsula but have retired and settled there too, it is worth contemplating just how long is Florida’s history. In fact, some of the oldest recorded inhabitants were the Paleo-Indians of around 14,000 years ago and they were some of the earliest known human settlers in all of the Americas.

The British connection commenced properly in 1763, with the declaration known as ‘The Peace of Paris’. St Augustine became the capital of East Florida, while Pensacola was the capital of West Florida. Just 20 years later, with the Treaty of Versailles, the regions were handed back to the Spanish, who opened the doors to American settlers. Yet, in a changing world, Spain  returned Florida to the Americans for a cool $5m, although the home team was required to renounce any claims it possessed on Texas, in 1819.

It is said that Florida’s original discovery was made on the third day of the third month, just as its innumerable spring blooms were blossoming and filling the horizon with colour and the air with magical scents. The state’s name means ‘flowery land’. On the third day of the third month in 1845, Florida became the 27th state of the United States of America, a symbolic date. Yet, its population grew only very slowly.

The tourism business blossomed in the early-1900s thanks to tremendous economic prosperity. As a result of the Florida land boom of the 1920s, a major bubble grew that saw innumerable towns and cities being developed that would shape the state’s demographics for  much of the past century. Land prices were in escalation in a period that would have parallels drawn with it in more recent times. Just as the more recent economic crash proved, the foundations need to be based on a lot more than just promises. The bubble burst.

The Great Depression put paid to many Floridians’ hopes for a brighter future. Yet, even before the Wall Street Crash of 1929, the devastating Miami hurricane of three years earlier rocked the property developing scene and many speculators were forced into bankruptcy. The boom period ended and would show no signs of recovery until the mid-1940s, by which time the horror of Pearl Harbour had occurred and the Americans had been dragged into World War II.

Attracted by the arrival of air conditioning, which made living in such a hot and humid climate almost tolerable, the state’s fortunes were aided by a truly low cost of living, which turned it into a veritable haven. Its population grew in the post-war period and vast numbers of people migrated to Florida to fill growing job requirements in a fast developing economy. From hovering around the one million mark some fifty years earlier, Florida’s population grew to a remarkable 18m (according to the last census of 2010) and its repute as a major vacation centre was sealed.

The lay of the land

Its history is certainly as colourful as the state itself but the low-lying peninsula has a geographical layout that is equally fascinating. You may have heard of ‘The Panhandle’ already, which is a strip of land to the north and west of the state that borders the Gulf of Mexico, with Georgia and Alabama located above it. Naturally  Florida benefits from two major coastlines, those of the Gulf and the Atlantic, but it also boasts two time-zones.

The tallest ‘mountain’ in the state proper is Sugarloaf, located just south of the Suwanee River but you will hardly suffer from eye strain looking at its peak, which is just 312 feet above sea level. In fact, the lowest highpoint of any US state is Britton Hill (345 feet) in
northern Florida, on Alabama border country, which is dwarfed by the Four Seasons Hotel in Miami that is more than twice its height.

However, height is most definitely not the be all and end all (which is the only time that you will hear all two metres of me making such a statement). Thanks to its low-lying countryside and close proximity to the sea, Florida boasts some of the most wondrous seaside resorts, as well as its magical Everglades swamp area, which provides a holiday destination like few others anywhere in the world.

Of course, most British travellers appreciate Florida for its theme parks, of which there are several. Far be it for the Americans to miss out on creating a success from ‘kitsch’. One look at the glass-fibre fabricated majesty of Las Vegas should be enough to inform you that, wherever an opportunity exists to create something from virtually nothing in the US of A, a definite ‘can do’ policy kicks into action.

Climate is the state’s saviour. Predominantly maritime, because of its double coastline, it ranges between extremes of tropical. It is without doubt the warmest state in North America, which explains why so many retiring New Yorkers, happy with the east coast, will traipse merrily to Florida for the rest of their lives. The heat is good. Bones and muscles do not ache and, while the skin might age somewhat quicker, when subjected to endless sunshine, creams and screens are available.

However, it would be unfair to paint a picture of pulchritudinous perfection, because bad weather can strike and, when it does, it can do so with awesome force. Hurricane season runs from June to November, which happens to be slap-bang in the middle of most holidaymakers’ vacation periods. Charley, Frances, Ivan and Jeanne cost the state over $45bn in repairs, with another $42bn in economic costs, when the four hurricanes struck over a five weeks period in 2004, which was a record.

Making tracks

Of course, the popular haunts are around Tampa Bay and the various coastal locations but there is a lot more to Florida than oranges, ghost trains and gators. Between Daytona Beach (motor racing) in the northeast and Sarasota in the south-west of a central region that also encapsulates Orlando in the middle and the resorts of Clearwater, St Petersburg and Titusville, plus the wonderful Cape Canaveral, Florida could almost be the USA’s playground.

While there are still several juicing plants in the area, Orlando is the ideal centre from which to explore so much of the central state. Within easy reach are Walt Disney World, SeaWorld (Orlando), Universal Studios, Legoland and Busch Gardens. However, once you tire of the theme parks, you can head for any one of several natural attractions in any of the state parks, such as Wekiwa Springs, Blue Spring, Rock Springs Run, Canaveral National Seashore and even Merritt Island Wildlife Refuge.

Of course, Florida is packed with exciting wildlife, whether you are a twitcher or slightly more gamey. Obviously, the alligators are a magnetic draw but so are manatees, panthers, leatherback turtles, whooping cranes and Keys deer. You can visit any of the three major zoological parks in Central Florida, the Central Zoo in Sanford, the Brevard, or the Animal Park within Busch Gardens to see captive beasts. However, just remember the earlier comment about Florida’s low-lying status, because there are no less than 1,500 lakes, a massive wetlands area and forests and pastures to go at. Polk County, which is the administrative centre for much of Florida‘s middle part, talks of exploring all of the natural elements, earth, water, fire and air, but with a guarantee of lower costs than you might expect. If you read our driving feature on the Florida Keys, in our last issue, you will be aware that car rental is lower cost in Florida than any other US state.

Heading south

Should you happen to be flying into Southwest Florida International, your local town will be Fort Myers. As with most of the place-names preceded with ‘Fort’, there exists an implication of history and this was one of the first fortified areas built on the Caloosahatchee River, in the early-1800s. A lot of colonial architecture remains in the area and the town is a great base from which to explore the Everglades and take a swamp buggy ride, which is an exciting (and safe) way to experience the great diversity of wildlife in the area.

Cape Coral, which is the coastal geographical area around Fort Myers, presents some of the finest caster sugar beaches of the Gulf. They stretch for miles, white sands meeting azure blue skies as far as the eye can see. If you want a suntan, this is the place to visit. However, just off the coast is the restful island of Sanibel, which is perhaps not quite as well known as the mainland.

Mind you, there is good reason for Sanibel’s relative novelty appeal. A town was only created on the island as recently as 1974, when the new causeway from Fort Myers to the island was opened and replaced the old ferry service. In fact, a short link exists between Sanibel and Captiva and more than half of the land mass is retained as a natural wildlife refuge, where visitors can drive, walk, cycle ride or kayak through the JN Darling National Wildlife Refuge. The area is utterly stunning in its unspoilt beauty and, thanks to exceptionally strict residential and building regulations, only low level properties exist, although there is plenty of accommodation on Periwinkle Way and the Gulf Drives.

St Petersburg and Clearwater

Known charmingly by the locals, as ‘St Pete’, St Petersburg is also known as ‘Sunshine City’ and is located a moderate drive north of Fort Myers on the other side of Tampa Bay. Renowned for its landmark pier, which is set to be demolished and replaced by a new structure next year, St Pete plays successfully on its tropical location. However, checkout the skyline, because the remarkable ‘one buck each way’ Sunshine Skyway is the 4.1-mile suspension bridge that links the southern tip of the city with Manatee County and Sarasota to the south, from which stunning views of the Gulf are possible.

The sunken tropical gardens are a real gem within the heart of St Pete’s. Spread over four acres, I doubt that, even while you might get your tongue around some of the plant names, with more than 50,000 possibilities to choose from, plus a butterfly garden, an orchid arbor and even a walk-through aviary, memorising them all over the course of a holiday will be immensely difficult. However, the gardens is also a delightful spot to renew  your marriage vows, or even make a serious proposal and its wedding lawns are a popular feature. Open all week, it is worth at least a day’s visit, even as part of a busy schedule.

Culture vultures have not been sidelined by Florida, as any visit to St Pete’s would warrant. Throughout the year, the city organises upwards of 1,000 events, from food to jazz music, sporting spectacles to theatrical appearances. In fact, on the Stage In The Park, there is usually something playing to maintain a high entertainments value. However, there are art galleries and museums dotted around the town, some of them with seriously ‘handson’ opportunities worth exploring. If you fancy a dance, the downtown Coliseum was featured in the movie, ‘Cocoon’, and offers more than 13,000 square feet of polished maple in lovely art deco surroundings.

St Pete’s nightlife is as vibrant as its daily exploits and a strong café and bar culture exists along Beach Drive, where people-watching is the inevitable pastime. Live music is central to St Pete’s core attractions and there is guaranteed to be something for all tastes, for either appreciation or straightforward sing-along. Of course, fishing by spotlight is a popular Floridian hobby and dusk trips take place regularly. However, St Pete’s links to the  sea are omnipresent and with access to three of the top 20 beaches in all of North America on its doorstep, visitors are spoilt for choice. Trust me. If you cannot find a deserted spot to meet your vacationing needs to perfection, then I shall eat my hat!

Even if diving in the Gulf is not your bag, there are no less than nine local swimming pools and diving venues available in the town, several of which boast Olympic dimensions. The municipal marina is one of the most expansive and surprisingly attractive of any and, from it, you can rent anything from a skiff to a yacht with crew to take your nautical flight of fancy across the Mexican Gulf. Whether hoisting a sail, tanning your toes or feeding a pelican, Clearwater and St Pete’s will provide the best coastal holiday in Florida.

Miami for pastel shaded style

Slipping even further south to the gateway of the Everglades and Miami, the view could not become more daring. Passing towns and habitations with such memorable names as West Palm Beach, Boynton, Delray, Boca Raton and Fort Lauderdale, Miami and its infamous beaches are located on both mainland and a spit of sand that runs parallel to the Atlantic coastline.

Rest assured, Panama hats, Bermuda shorts, flapping silks, linens and cottons are all part of the local style scene and not to be dressed up to go out in Miami is to kind of miss the point. Do not worry, if you do not own the gear, because the candy-striped shops, with their bright canvas awnings are packed with goodies to ensure that you can enter the spirit of things at this resort, on a whim. Thoroughly Bohemian, its Art Deco district will have your camera snapping furiously both day and night, with a not dissimilar sound to the clasp of your purse or pocketbook.

It is stated in all the best tourist guides of the area that you do not need to travel far out of Miami to be on an unbeaten path. Whether visiting fruit farms, fish farms or cattle ranches, the choice is varied and all within each reach of Miami centre. I have always found that car or bike rental is the best way to get around the area and it is the most economical means too.

Incidentally, eating out is also part of the culture in this area and, thanks to a combination of the tropical climate, plenty of varied produce and the wide diversity of the local population, from resident native Americans, to the Spanish and even British communities, with the usual oriental options, the food is both fresh and can be quite adventurous. However, none of it is ‘bad’ and as prices can be disarmingly low, although there are several first-class culinary delights that will cause you to dig deeper, dining out is seldom less than a delightful experience.

In case you had not noticed, both baseball and American football figure quite highly in local minds and  practices and visiting the occasional game will certainly engender good local relations and even lasting friendships. Determinedly family orientated, you will soon fall into the local parlance to provide partisan support and a surety that you will watch the games on Sky, upon returning home. Yes, they are that motivational. In fact, you can warrant that, if this is your first trip to the Sunshine State, it most certainly will not be your last.

10 facts about Florida

  • Orlando attracts more theme park visitors than any other, anywhere
  • In Spanish, Florida means ‘feast of flowers’
  • Crystal River is the only place where it is legal to swim with manatees
  • St Augustine is the oldest European settlement in USA
  • The Mug Race of Florida is the longest river sailboat race in the world
  • There are over 30,000 lakes and over 1,000 golf courses in Florida
  • The world’s deepest freshwater spring is Wakulla, near Tallahassee
  • There are 10 deaths and 30 injuries arising annually from Florida lightning
  • The biggest collection of Frank Lloyd Wright buildings is in Lakeland
  • Haines City is known as ‘The Heart of Florida’.

Florida facts

Packages - As one of the USA’s most popular destinations, obtaining a combination of cost-effectiveness and a wide choice of carriers and package holidays is simply excellent. Take your pick of the following: www.thomascook.com www.taketours.com www.tours4fun.com www.monarch.co.uk www.virginholidays.co.uk www.orbitz.com

Carriers - Several airlines operate on routes to Florida. Among them is Air Canada (www.aircanada.com), which operates its ‘Sun Pass’ for flights to the state, the airline serving Miami, Orlando, Tampa, Fort Myers and Fort Lauderdale throughout the summer, with two additional airports in winter.

Car rental - Among the least costly of any US state, whether you book and pay in the UK, or upon arrival in Florida, the only real formality is to ensure that you carry your driver’s licence with you.

Accommodation - Largely what you might expect of North America, with the usual
Holiday Inn, Best Western and other hotel chains, up to the costlier Westin and Hilton class. There is a good mix of boutique type accommodation in Florida, especially in the south.

Useful contacts: www.fortmyers.org www.visitstpeteclearwater.com www.floridaattractions.org

All prices and details were correct when published in tlm - the travel & leisure magazine, please check before you travel to Florida.