It’s not all showy spectacle, queues, rides and golf in the Sunshine State: historic sites, glorious gardens, quiet beaches and Biff’s burger joint also feature
Near the small town of Estero, about 12 miles from Cape Coral, is beautiful Koreshan state park, which up until the early 1960s was the last home of a 19th-century cult, the Koreshan Unity. They believed the Earth was hollow, set up a community here in 1894, called New Jerusalem and produced their own newspaper. They also were the first to provide the surrounding community with electricity. The last follower of the cult, a woman who had fled Nazi persecution in Germany called Hedwig Michel, ceded the grounds to Florida in 1961. The park is beautifully maintained and staffed by knowledgeable volunteers. Visitors can walk around the landscaped site and see many of the buildings used by the community. It’s fascinating, peaceful and very strange – quite unlike the well-known bits of Florida. You pay $5 a car for parking. Activities such as kayaking and camping are available in the park and there are wildlife and running trails, too.
Biff Burger, Saint Petersburg
Biff Burger started as a chain and grew in popularity in the 1950s. Today, the only surviving branch that has retained its name stands relatively unchanged in St Petersburg. Friday nights see hot rods and classic cars come roaring by (the last Friday of the month is competition night, which is particularly spectacular) and the smell of gasoline wafts around as you tuck into an enormous, freshly cooked hamburger with tater tots or fries (or both) and a beer or a bucket of Coca-Cola. Speakers blast rock’n’roll, American sports play on the TVs, staff are friendly and sometimes a great band plays. If you’ve ever dreamed of stepping into American Graffiti, this is the place for you.
Corkscrew Swamp is a 30-minute drive from Naples, one of the wealthiest enclaves on the Gulf Coast. Run by charity the Audubon Society (whose foundation was a direct result of the slaughter of millions of water birds to provide feathers for the millinery trade in the 19th century), Corkscrew Swamp takes visitors on a shaded circular boardwalk of 2½ miles. At different times of day, as well as year, you can chance upon a variety of creatures, plants and habitats. As you wander along, passing through pine woods, prairies and marshland, look out and listen for hundreds of creatures: from alligators, water moccasin vipers, hawks and bald eagles, deer and bobcats through to tree-frogs, otters, colourful painted buntings, lizards and butterflies; during every visit Corkscrew has shown us something new. On one memorable visit we saw four different tree snakes, as well as a mother alligator with her young. Children and adults will enjoy it equally and there are mobility aids for people unable to walk the distance.
Rod and Reel Pier, Anna Maria Island
Just when you think you can go no further without falling into the Gulf of Mexico, you arrive at the Rod and Reel Pier. Tucked so far into the northern tip of Anna Maria Island that we thought we must have missed it, sits a great little restaurant and bar. The drive across from Bradenton proved so worth it. Excellent food, cool beer and a warm evening spent outside chatting to local people as they fished from the deck. We couldn’t have felt further from “Disney Florida”. I can’t wait to walk that pier on a still, moonlit evening again.
A historic landmark in Uptown, the Tampa Theatre is an ornate 1920s not-for-profit movie palace, with a ceiling resembling the night sky, giving the feeling of watching films outdoors – a magical place. It shows new, indie, documentaries, and foreign films, along with running classic or themed films (and events) on Sundays. After the film, a great place to end the evening is the restaurant Ulele (dinner mains from $19), less than a mile up the road, which is set on the Hillsborough river on Riverwalk. It serves dishes based on Native Floridian food and it never disappoints. With an open kitchen you can always see what is cooking and if you sit upstairs you can get a bird’s eye view of the busy kitchen.
The best way to see the flora and fauna of the swamps and creeks around Amelia Island is to kayak ($55 kayak tour with ameliaislandkayak.com). As a novice – and decidely wary of the alligator eyes peering at me from the edge of the water – I wasn’t sure this trip was for me but there are many types of kayak and routes to choose from. Head over to Cumberland Island to skim close to dolphins before landing on the pristine beaches to collect sand dollars (flat, burrowing sea urchins) and watch crabs dashing for cover. Alternatively, paddle through Okefenokee Swamp ($16 including boat trip down Seminole waterways) on the Georgia border, one of the best-preserved freshwater areas in the US, which is known as Land of the Trembling Earth. As you drift by trees draped with Spanish moss you will certainly see cranes, alligators and maybe an elusive otter or water moccasin snake. There are also black bears. Gliding silently along the water gives you the best chance of see these creatures in their natural habitat.
City hall and Alcazar Courtyard, St Augustine. Photograph: Alamy
Founded in 1565 by a Spanish admiral, St Augustine, 40 miles south of Jacksonville, is the oldest European settler-founded city in the US. At times the city has been Spanish, French and British, and the spectacular Spanish fort is completely intact. It feels very European, and at night buzzes with bars and live music. Its distillery (free entry), housed in a 1907-built ice and power plant, is a highlight with free tasting tours; its gin and rum are excellent, but the bourbon is even better. The city also boasts some of the best pizza in the US, at Pizza Time, close to the Cathedral Basilica of St Augustine. It’s almost worth the trip alone.
We found the Vizcaya Museum and Gardens in Coconut Grove the perfect retreat from the Miami heat. Sitting on Biscayne Bay, it provides a glimpse of how wealthy industrialist James Deering lived in the 1920s. The house is a fusion of tastes, built in the European style with a nod to baroque and renaissance architecture. Inside, accessed via the vast indoor courtyard, several rooms have been preserved in their original state with opulent decor, fabrics, tiles, art and artefacts. Outside, stroll around pristine landscaped gardens with geometric designs, statues and a swimming pool grotto, before taking the woodland walk to the car park.
Port St Joe, in the Panhandle
This area has no high-rise chain hotels and aqua-parks and few people, even at the height of summer. Consequently, the place pretty much shuts down at 8pm – but that allows for peaceful walks in starlight on deserted beaches. One of the reasons for the lack of development is conservation; turtles head to the beaches at night and all external lights are banned to avoid disorientation. I stayed at Turtle Beach Inn (doubles from $210 B&B), a family-owned guesthouse with access to the beach. A short drive takes you to St Joseph Peninsula, a 15-mile spit, and state park, where the sand is white and the water emerald. A 30-minute drive in the other direction is the fishing village of Apalachicola where you can eat the most wonderful seafood while watching the boats come in as the sun sets. When nightfall hits, the characterful, craft-beer outpost Bowery Station is a great place to hang out.
Caspersen Beach, near Sarasota
A natural, secluded Gulf-coast beach that has the added attraction of being a perfect place for beachcombing, especially if your interest turns to fossilised sharks’ teeth. Fossil-hunters should come at sunrise for the best pickings to see what the tide has brought in overnight. The beach also offers excellent nature trail/beach walks and there is easy parking adjacent to the shore. A free activity ideal for family outings.
Native American history, Paynes Creek
As a family we visited the Paynes Creek state park 70 miles east of Tampa where we enjoyed the walking trails. However, the highlight was the fort and recreation of a trading post that was the site of a battle between settlers and the Seminole Native Americans in the 1800s, which, along with malaria, turned Paynes Creek into a ghost town. Florida wasn’t somewhere we expected to find such history, so it was a welcome surprise.