“Florida is all fun parks or for those with children” I was told before departing the cold shores of London. Florida wasn’t on the top of my list if truth be told, it was a work 4 day travel trade show called IPW where as part of the event, we had exclusive evening access on three consecutive evenings to Disney World, Sea World and Universal Studios.
Sure, I had fun because ultimately these parks make a big kid of us all. It allowed us the chance to let our hair down, brave the rides and enjoy ourselves in the most basic form without pangs of guilt.
But the truth is there is much more to Florida than package holidays and Mickey Mouse ears. It’s easy to see why people fly in for the ‘Disney’ experience and they are well-catered for, but there is more to experience. With time restrictions we only scratched the surface however; we found a wealth of treasure not to be overlooked when planning a Florida getaway.
Following the event my colleague and I rented a car and headed south to discover just what the ‘Sunshine State’ has to offer. Firstly even though June is most certainly storm season, it only pours in short, sharp bursts. This helps cool the humid air down to a bearable temperature and also why, Florida is an exceptionally green state. Yes that’s right folks, Florida is so green because it rains…I know, shock horror.
There are a number of rental places around all offering a similar service. I can only suggest from my personal experience to use Hertz who were quick, efficient, reasonably priced and hidden costs were not filtered through terms and conditions as can occur.
The Everglades – Billy’s Swamp Safari
For locals and visitors alike, the Everglades is one of those ‘real’ travel experiences. The drive to Billy’s Swamp Safari park for the most part is on unassuming motorways, which morphs into endless seas of swamp, forest and mangroves. Everything is lush green as far as the eye can see and a sweet sticky aroma fills the air.
We stayed within the Seminole Indian Reservation in a ‘chickee’ which is a basic cabin on stilts with no air conditioning, electricity or running water. All we found inside were two single beds and an outside balcony with chairs to get comfortable for sunset. It couldn’t have been more perfect. Sweeping unobstructed views cascaded around us from the balcony and with all artificial light or noise removed, the true pulse of the Everglades sang. Alligators literally basked in the shallows directly below us and to get so close to these fiercely majestic creatures, and see their bodies are rock hard and ridged with prehistoric bumps is incredible.
Turns out we were the only people staying at Billy’s which added to the atmosphere, removing all noise pollution. One thing I would say is to take mosquito repellent. I was lucky enough to have a natural mosquito repellent in the form of my colleague, who is essentially a pin-cushion for every flying bug within 100 metres. The park closes at 6pm so if you arrive late there will be no one to open the gate for you, there is a cafe which shuts at the same time but if you drive down the road for about 10 minutes you’ll find an open late cafe/grocery store/booze shop/free Wi-Fi.
Billy’s offers airboat rides through the swamp land at US$25 per person for 20 minutes, sure it wasn’t a long ride but it allowed us to wind through the maze of swamp channels, see an array of birds, alligators and meet a guy who looks right at home in the Everglades. They provide air plugs and it’s a great way to try a new experience for families and travellers, without breaking the bank.
Billy’s has an array of enclosures with a mixture of wildlife including bears, puma, racoons and birds. As someone who refuses to visit zoo’s it wasn’t my cup of tea and it’s up to you if you choose to support a place such as this.
Key West is a place I didn’t want to like as much as I did, but when it was time to leave, all I wanted to do was stay in my hammock between two palm trees and while away the days with a good book and cold lager. The drive from Key Largo to Key West is beautiful, with a series of interconnecting bridges and islands which essentially forms the entrance to the Caribbean. Surrounded by turquoise water and water-sports enthusiasts, the drive takes about 4hours and is simply spectacular.
Key West with the exception of the military presence feels very bohemian and there never seems to be a shortage of interesting people to meet. “What’s your story and where are you from”? This is the common catch phrase down there as very few people were born in the Keys. Heading to Duval Street we met one taxi driver who as a keen boater, was finally convinced (on the third try) to carry drugs from Key West to Cuba, was caught and served 9 years in a Cuban prison. When I suggested he write a book he produced one from his glove box (Hotel Fidel Castro by Rick Townsend). This is what I mean; interesting people and this is just one example. But there is also an escapism side to Key West and with its laid back charm it makes people stay.
Duval and the surrounding area is where nightlife comes alive. It’s jam-packed full of bars and clubs, restaurants, gay bars, and just about anything you could want. The party doesn’t seem to stop, even during the day some of these bars appeared to be rocking. Although we did a pub crawl on Friday night, Sloppy Joe’s Bar was a place we spent a lot of the night dancing to the cover band, drinking frozen margaritas and talking to people. Great night, great music, and shocking hangover.
What to do in Key West?
The options are endless and they all seem to involve water such as jet-skiing, boating, fishing and kayaking. We opted for a 2 hour kayaking trip through the mangroves in search of wildlife with Key West Eco Tours which was brilliant. Our guide named Margot who was able to answer all questions and with a small group of ten we navigated the twisting channels with ease. On this trip we saw a shark, turtles, jellyfish, and birds but more importantly it was a different way to explore Key West.
Later in the evening we opted for a sip and sail cruise for sunset with Key West Sunset Sail. I wasn’t expecting much as we’ve all seen a sunset before but they are well organised and I had a wonderful time. On board they provide light snacks, open bar and hired a singer to ease our passage. The trip lasts about 3 hours and as a storm approached but never hit, we were treated to one of those moody electric skies and ridiculously beautiful sunsets you would expect from the Caribbean.
If you’re after a seafood restaurant where you can inhale delicious cuisine, right on the water and with a relaxed atmosphere then this is like gold dust. Half Shell Raw Bar set inside an old shrimping warehouse ticks all the boxes, including frozen margaritas to wash the food down. Highly recommended are the Mahi Mahi, fresh prawns and calamari and at a reasonable price.
Dock to Dish
As Key West is surrounded by nothing but water, there is an array of seafood on offer, and it’s so fresh it literally jumped from the sea and into our mouths. ‘Dock to dish’ is a term given to the process whereby seafood only touches three people’s hands ever; those being the fisherman, chef and your own as you shovel down spoonful’s. It a great concept and pioneered by the folks in Key West.
Top tips for a trip to Florida
Mosquito repellent – bring repellent as although they spray the area to kill mosquitos, they are still there. I never get bitten (even in the Amazon Jungle) so I was ok but being surrounded by mangroves they are never far.
Sunscreen – It can be hot, damn hot so take the sunscreen and slap it on
Talk to the locals – People living in Key West are interesting and very laid back. They can hold a great conversation and appear to take people at face value.
Florida exceeded my expectations on all accounts and is certainly a place I would return to. Whether you’re a kid meeting cartoon hero’s, a parent looking to keep kids entertained, after a relaxing holiday or something to get the pulse racing, or young folks looking for a party, Florida does not disappoint!