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Monday, May 29, 2006

Florida: Land of Sunshine

Although it's the state nickname, describing Florida as the Sunshine State is like calling Katie Couric "perky." Sure, it's true, but not all the time -- and it doesn't nearly begin to describe the state's other marketable assets. There's a lot more to the state than just sunshine -- which, by the way, isn't even a 24/7 given; it does rain here. Weather aside, choosing the best of Florida is by no means simple.

While millions of visitors flock to Florida to escape the bleakness of winter and landlocked locations, they don't all come down for sun, fun, and Mickey Mouse. Granted, the promise of (mostly) clear skies and 800 miles of sparkling, sandy beaches is alluring, as are the animatronics and roller coasters in Orlando and Tampa, but there's much more to the state than that. In fact, in many ways, Florida is like a beautiful, blond beauty queen whom everyone thinks is all fluff until they find out she happens to be a Rhodes scholar. More than meets the eye has made this one of the country's most popular year-round vacation destinations.

Here you can choose from a colorful, often kitschy assortment of accommodations, from deluxe resorts to mom-and-pop motels. You can visit remote little towns like Apalachicola or a multicultural megalopolis like Miami. You can devour fresh seafood, from amberjack to oysters -- and then work off those calories in such outdoor pursuits as bicycling, golfing, or kayaking. Despite overdevelopment in many parts of the state, Floridians have maintained thousands of acres of wilderness areas, from the little respite of Clam Pass County Park in downtown Naples to magnificent Everglades National Park, which stretches across the state's southern tip.

Choosing the "best" of all of this is a daunting task. You'll find numerous outstanding resorts, hotels, destinations, activities, and attractions in Florida. And with an open mind and a sense of adventure, you'll come up with bests of your own.

To a large extent, the timing of your visit will determine how much you'll spend -- and how much company you'll have -- once you get to Florida. That's because room rates can more than double during the high seasons, when countless visitors migrate to Florida.

The weather determines the high seasons. In subtropical South Florida, high season is during the winter, from mid-December to mid-April. On the other hand, you'll be rewarded with incredible bargains if you can stand the heat and humidity of a South Florida summer between June and early September. In North Florida, the reverse is true: Tourists flock here during the summer, from Memorial Day to Labor Day.

Hurricane season runs from June to November and, as seen in 2004, when Florida was hit by four hurricanes in a row, you never know what can happen. Pay close attention to weather forecasts during this season and always be prepared.

Presidents' Day weekend in February, Easter week, Memorial Day weekend at the end of May, the Fourth of July, Labor Day weekend at the start of September, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's are busy throughout the state, especially at Walt Disney World and the other Orlando-area attractions, which can be packed any time school's out.

Northern and southern Florida share the same "shoulder seasons": April through May, and September through November, when the weather is pleasant throughout Florida and hotel rates are considerably lower than during the high seasons. If price is a consideration, these months of moderate temperatures and fewer tourists are the best times to visit.

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Blogger gamweb said...

The Best Beaches:

Virginia Key (Key Biscayne): The producers of Survivor could feasibly shoot their show on this ultra-secluded, picturesque, and deserted key, where people go purposely not to be found.

Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park (Key Biscayne): The pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, Bill Baggs radiates serenity with 1 1/4 miles of sandy beach, nature trails, and even a historic lighthouse that recalls an era before pristine places like this one gave way to avaricious developers and pollutants.

Lummus Park Beach (South Beach): This beach is world-renowned, not necessarily for its pristine sands, but for its more common name of South Beach, on which seeing, being seen and, at times, the obscene, go hand in hand with the sunscreen and beach towels. The 12th Street section is the beach of choice for gay residents and travelers who come to show off just how much time they've spent in the gym and, of course, catch up on the latest gossip and upcoming must-attend parties and events. Oftentimes, this beach is the venue for some of the liveliest parties South Beach has ever seen.

Haulover Beach (Miami Beach): Nestled between the Intracoastal Waterway and the ocean, especially at the north end, is the place to be for that all-over tan: Haulover is the city's only clothing-optional (aka nude) beach.

Bahia Honda State Park (Bahia Honda Key): This is one of the nicest and most peaceful beaches in Florida. It's located amidst 635 acres of nature trails and a portion of Henry Flagler's railroad.

John U. Lloyd Beach State Park (Dania Beach): Unfettered by high-rise condominiums, T-shirt shops, and hotels, this wonderful beach boasts an untouched shoreline surrounded by a canopy of Australian pine to ensure complete seclusion.

Lover's Key State Park (Fort Myers Beach): You'll have to walk or take a tram through a bird-filled forest of mangroves to this gorgeous, unspoiled beach just a few miles south of busy Fort Myers Beach. Although Sanibel Island gets the accolades, the shelling here is just as good, if not better.

Cayo Costa State Park (off Captiva Island): These days, deserted tropical islands with great beaches are scarce in Florida, but this 2,132-acre barrier strip of sand, pine forest, mangrove swamp, oak hammock, and grassland provides a genuine get-away-from-it-all experience. Access is only by boat from nearby Gasparilla, Pine, and Captiva islands.

Naples Beach (Naples): Many Florida cities and towns have beaches, but few are as lovely as the gorgeous strip that fronts Naples's famous Millionaires' Row. You don't have to be rich to wander its length, peer at the mansions, or stroll on historic Naples Pier to catch a sunset over the Gulf.

Caladesi Island State Park (Clearwater Beach): Even though 3 1/2-mile-long Caladesi Island is in the heavily developed Tampa Bay area, it has a lovely, relatively secluded beach with soft sand edged in sea grass and palmettos. Dolphins cavort in offshore waters. In the park itself, there's a nature trail where you might see one of the rattlesnakes, black racers, raccoons, armadillos, or rabbits that live here. The park is accessible only by ferry from Honeymoon Island State Recreation Area, off Dunedin.

Fort DeSoto Park (St. Petersburg): Where else can you get a good tan and a history lesson? At Fort DeSoto Park, you not only have 1,136 acres of five interconnected islands and 3 miles of unfettered beaches, but also a fort, for which the park was named, that's listed on the National Register of Historic Places. There are also nature trails, fishing piers, a 2.25-mile canoe trail, and spectacular views of Tampa Bay and the Gulf.

Canaveral National Seashore (Cape Canaveral): Midway between the crowded attractions at Daytona Beach and Kennedy Space Center is a protected stretch of coastline 24 miles long, backed by cabbage palms, sea grapes, and palmettos.

Gulf Islands National Seashore (Pensacola): You could argue that all of Northwest Florida's Gulf shore is one of America's great beaches -- an almost-uninterrupted stretch of pure white sand that runs the entire length of the Panhandle, from Perdido Key to St. George Island. The Gulf Islands National Seashore preserves much of this natural wonder in its undeveloped state. Countless terns, snowy plovers, black skimmers, and other birds nest along the dunes topped with sea oats. East of the national seashore and equally beautiful are Grayton Beach State Park, near Destin; and St. George Island State Park, off Apalachicola.

St. Andrews State Park (Panama City Beach): With more than 1,000 acres of dazzling white sand and dunes, this preserved wilderness demonstrates what Panama City Beach looked like before motels and condominiums lined its shore. Lacy, golden sea oats sway in Gulf breezes, and fragrant rosemary grows wild. The area is home to foxes, coyotes, and a herd of deer.

1:52 AM  

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