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Boston Globe Magazine

Find your Florida

By Alisson Clark
November 13, 2011
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WITH THE KIDS, WITHOUT THE QUEUES

Cannon fire ringing out from the Castillo de San Marcos National Monument, a 17th-century Spanish fort in St. Augustine on Florida’s Atlantic Coast, is just one of the kid-friendly lures of this former Spanish colony that was founded nearly 50 years before Jamestown. Reenactments of privateer raids and living-history tours also make America’s past leap to life. The new Pirate & Treasure Museum (877-467-5863, piratesoul.com) displays a real treasure chest, flags, and other artifacts. Take a trolley tour, which offers both an easy glimpse of the area’s tumultuous past and a convenient way to navigate the town (888-910-8687, trolleytours.com/st-augustine), and spend an evening cruising on a schooner or pirate-themed ship (800-653-2489, floridashistoriccoast.com).

Gainesville is home to the University of Florida and its Florida Museum of Natural History, where the Butterfly Rainforest houses from 60 to 80 free-flying species from around the world, there’s a model of a North Florida cave, and kids can get a fish-eye view of life beneath the surface of an estuary (352-846-2000, flmnh.ufl.edu). Next door, the Harn Museum of Art offers hands-on kids’ programs twice a month (352-392-9826, harn.ufl.edu). Munch on mac and cheese at the museum’s Camellia Court Cafe before exploring the adjacent water gardens.

At Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park, wild bison roam part of the 22,000 acres alongside horses and cattle descended from those brought by early Spanish settlers. Don’t miss a walk down the La Chua Trail, where hordes of toothy alligators sun themselves near the boardwalk (352-466-3397, floridastateparks.org/paynesprairie). Just outside of town, explore the area’s springs, where crystal-clear water bubbles up from an underground aquifer. Rent a canoe and peer down at the river bottom as you glide along, keeping an eye out for otters and kingfishers (352-463-3467, purewaterwilderness.com).

For warmer temperatures, head for the Florida Keys. Stop by the visitor center of the National Key Deer Refuge on Big Pine Key for tips on spotting the adorable dog-sized Key deer that populate the Lower Keys (305-872-0774, fws.gov/nationalkeydeer). See and feed residents of the Turtle Hospital in Marathon, the world’s only licensed veterinary facility for sea turtles (305-743-2552, turtlehospital.org), or visit the pelicans at the Florida Keys Wild Bird Center in Tavernier (305-852-4486, fkwbc.org). At the Key West Aquarium, pet a nurse shark and hold sea stars, giant hermit crabs, and squishy sea cucumbers (888-544-5927, keywestaquarium.com).

WHAT’S NEW AT THEME PARKS

When the 50 millionth brick was snapped into place in October, Legoland Florida in Winter Haven became the largest of the world’s five Lego parks. (And with shuttle bus service an hour ride from Orlando, it’s easy to piggyback onto another theme park vacation.) The park has roller coasters geared toward the under-12 set and interactive exhibits where “brickniks” can build and test Lego creations. The park’s Bed and Brick hotel program lets visitors book accommodations and tickets on the Legoland website with a choice of more than a dozen area hotels (877-350-5346, florida.legoland.com). At the Nickelodeon Suites Resort in Orlando, family game shows, daily slimings at the massive pool, and character visits are a major draw for fans of SpongeBob, Dora, and company (407-387-5437, nickhotel.com, rates from $149).

Tweens and teens will gravitate toward Universal Studios Florida and Islands of Adventure, the twin parks of Universal Orlando. Stay at one of the resort’s on-site hotels, which give guests an hour in the latter park before the gates open to the public and a Universal Express pass, which allows you to skip some lines (407-363-8000, universalorlando.com). Don’t miss the Dragon Challenge roller coaster at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter.

At Disney World, which marked its 40th anniversary in October, new attractions include a revamped Star Tours at Disney’s Hollywood Studios, which takes riders on a 3-D journey to “planets” from Kashyyyk to Naboo. Also at Hollywood Studios is the jaw-dropping Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights (through January 7), where millions of twinkling lights pulse in time to holiday music. At Disney’s Animal Kingdom, the Wild Africa Trek, available for an additional fee, takes guests on a small-group behind-the-scenes tour of the savanna (407-939-6244, disneyworld.disney.go.com).

In Tampa, the latest addition to African-inspired Busch Gardens’s (888-800-5447, buschgardens.com) roller coaster offerings is Cheetah Hunt, which uses magnet-powered cars to accelerate even when climbing uphill, with bursts of speed along a grassy plain that simulate a cheetah on the chase. At the neighboring Cheetah Run, trainers lead actual cheetahs in daily sprints that visitors can watch. Also worth a visit in the Tampa area: The Museum of Science and Industry, with a new outdoor ropes course along with 450 hands-on science exhibits (813-987-6000, mosi.org); Lowry Park Zoo, named the best in the country by Parents magazine (813-935-8552, www.lowry-parkzoo.com); and The Florida Aquarium, where you don’t need to be scuba certified to try a surface dive in the 500,000-gallon coral reef exhibit (813-273-4000, flaquarium.org).

THE SUNNY SIDE OF WINTER SPORTS

Golfers who want to test their skills where the pros play can take advantage of winter values: In Ponte Vedra Beach on the state’s east coast, you’ll find TPC Sawgrass, home of the Players Championship. Winter specials include a third night free through mid-January (888-877-9193, tpc.com/sawgrass). For balmy weather, head to Miami’s TPC Blue Monster at Doral, where the Championship Golf Package (available through December 24) includes an afternoon golf clinic, 18 holes on a choice of three courses, and breakfast and accommodations from $219 (per person) a night (305-592-2000, doralresort.com). In Palm Beach Gardens, ask for the Escape and Play package at PGA National Resort and Spa for breakfast, accommodations, and unlimited golf on four courses from $199 a night through January 12 (800-863-2819, pgaresort.com). Arnold Palmer’s Bay Hill Club & Lodge in Orlando – home to the Arnold Palmer Invitational – celebrates 50 years with a Golden Anniversary package through January 15. Golf, accommodations, and breakfast start at $241 a night (888-422-9445, bayhill.com).

The Florida Keys might be known for relaxation, but Key West’s Jetpack Adventures can give you a break from all that. The experience starts with a boat ride to the launch platform a mile and a half offshore. Then you strap on a jet pack and launch into the air on two fire-hose-strength streams of water. Operators guide the jet pack remotely at first, giving instructions through a radio headset, before turning over the controls (305-294-2000, jetpackadventures.com). Another company, Sundance JetLev, offers a similar experience in the waters off Duck Key (305-743-0145, flyajetlev.com).

If you’re not yet ready to hang ten, try kayak surfing lessons from Marathon Kayak, available in the Keys, Miami, and Fort Lauderdale. Beginners learn to catch a wave on special sit-on-top kayaks, and paddle through gentle surf (305-395-0355, marathonkayak.com). If that’s not daring enough, Otherside Boardsports in Islamorada gives beginner and advanced kite-boarding lessons in the turquoise waters off the Keys (305-853-9728, othersideboardsports.com).

Canoe and kayak enthusiasts paddle all year long in Florida, from inland waters to “blueways” – paddling paths that ring the coasts. Not-for-profit Paddle Florida (352-377-8342, paddleflorida.org) offers three multi-day kayak camping itineraries this winter . The 10-day Florida Keys Challenge in January covers 115 miles, while the Peace River Paddle follows 42 miles of a designated state canoe trail February 17-20. In March, participants in the Dam to the Bay paddle spend three days in the Apalachicola National Forest before crossing into the more-scenic-than-it-sounds Tate’s Hell State Forest. Evening entertainment is included, and a meal plan, rental boats, and camping gear are available.

FUN WHEN THE SUN GOES DOWN

Visit the beach towns along Florida’s 1,200 miles of coast and you’ll find an array of dive bars (not that there’s anything wrong with that), but some seaside cities offer more. A sampling: In Key West, try Commotion on the Ocean, a sunset catamaran cruise with margaritas and live music (877-994-8898, furycat.com), or Danger Charters’ Wind and Wine cruise (305-296-3272, dangercharters.com) , which sails through four reds, three whites, and a bubbly on its two-hour tour. Key West’s famed Sunset Celebration in Mallory Square sees the sun down nightly with street performers and live music (305-292-7700, sunsetcelebration.org). But in Islamorada, it’s the full moon that gets the attention. A crowd gathers by the waterfront Morada Bay Beach Cafe for bonfires and live music on the beach, with capoeira dancers, stilt walkers, and even a Bahamian Junkanoo parade (305-664-0604, moradabay-restaurant.com).

The South Beach club scene in Miami Beach is legendary, but on nights the symphony is playing, head instead for the Frank Gehry-designed New World Center, where a 7,000-square-foot projection wall and 167 speakers simulcast live performances. On Wednesday nights, the city uses the giant screen to show movies, anything from Some Like It Hot to Chicago (800-597-3331, newworldcenter.com). For Latin music, head to Noches Tropicales at Tropical Park, where free alfresco concerts (December 2, February 10, and March 23) always seem to spark dancing under the stars (305-271-0812, miami-artsandculture.org). Just south of town in Coral Gables, hop on a trolley at no cost for Gallery Night on the first Friday of each month, with free wine and cheese stations and live music along Ponce de Leon Boulevard (305-460-5070, coralgables.com).

Fort Lauderdale has its own gallery scene. At the Flagler Arts & Technology Village, art walks wind through warehouse studios and exhibition spaces on the last Saturday of each month (fatvillage.com). Or for an entirely different take on night life, brave a ghost tour at the historic Stranahan House, a 1901 Florida-vernacular home on the National Register of Historic Places. The Sunday evening events include a house tour and a boat ride on the New River (954-524-4736, stranahanhouse.org).

Just north of Miami, dancing alfresco to live music is a way of life at the Hollywood Beach Theatre, with events five nights a week (954-921-3404, hollywoodfl.org). And for a wild time you won’t find in the clubs, go alligator spotting on an evening airboat tour at Sawgrass Recreation Park in Weston (888-424-7262, evergladestours.com).

On Florida’s west coast, Siesta Key is known for its night life as well as its beaches; for a slice of local culture, stop by Siesta Beach’s Sunday-night drum circle, where the music begins after sunset and continues into the night (800-800-3906, sarasotafl.org).

ALMOST-PRIVATE ISLANDS

If your idea of the perfect beach getaway is more pristine than see-and-be-seen, head for southwest Florida’s barrier islands. (The Panhandle and the northern Atlantic beaches also have dramatic scenery and unspoiled beaches, but winter temperatures can be chilly.)

Hop on a ferry from Bokeelia, west of Fort Myers, to Cayo Costa State Park, where snorkeling, fishing, and spotting seashells are the main draws. Hike or bike (rentals available) on 6.5 miles of trails before heading back to the mainland (941-964-0375, floridastateparks.org/cayocosta). For secluded shores accessible by car, try the nearby Gasparilla Island State Park (it is also accessible by boat), with five Gulf beaches and an 1890 lighthouse and museum (941-964-0375,). For a splurge, stay at the nearby 1913 Gasparilla Inn & Club, with a Pete Dye championship golf course, a marina, and on-site dining options (877-403-0599, gasparillainn.com, rates from $240).

Visitors to the state park Caladesi Island, off the coast of Clearwater and accessible by ferry from Honeymoon Island State Park, can rent kayaks to explore a 4-mile paddling trail that winds through mangrove trees. Recharge with a smoothie on the deck of Cafe Caladesi, the island’s snack shop (727-469-5918, floridastateparks.org/caladesiisland).

Farther south, Keewaydin, one of the Naples area’s largest unbridged islands, has white sand beaches and lots of wildlife. To get there, rent a boat from nearby Naples Bay Resort, where the “Boatel” package combines a hotel stay with a day’s use of a 22-foot cruising boat or 24-foot center-console fishing boat with poles (239-530-1199, naplesbayresort.com, rates from $345).

At the mouth of Tampa Bay south of St. Petersburg lies Egmont Key State Park, where sunken ruins of a fort dating to the Spanish-American War make the island a popular destination for snorkelers. Ferries bound for the island depart from Fort De Soto Park; snorkel gear is available for rent on the ferry. While on the island, comb the beach for shells, visit the 1858 lighthouse, explore the gun batteries, and stroll brick roads left over from the days when 300 people populated the fort, which was closed in 1923 (727-893-2627, floridastateparks.org/egmontkey).

A BIKE TRIP

On hundreds of miles of former railroad track converted to bike trails, cyclists can take advantage of rest stops, restaurants, and bike repair shops without contending with cars (or, for the most part, hills). The 47-mile Pinellas Trail extends from St. Petersburg to Tarpon Springs, the town with the largest proportion of Greek-Americans in America. Take time to walk along the docks of Dodecanese Boulevard, where sponge boats moor, then dine in one of the many Greek restaurants, and step inside the ornate Greek Orthodox cathedral. (Find information on this and all of the following trails–or download a brochure–at dep.state.fl.us/gwt/guide.)

The 46-mile Withlacoochee State Trail spans a hidden corner of west-central Florida, passing a chain of lakes and crossing Withlacoochee State Forest, home to bald eagles and wild turkeys. In north Florida, the 16-mile Gainesville-Hawthorne Trail passes from the outskirts of this college town into the wilds of Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park, where sharp-eyed cyclists can spot white-tailed deer, sandhill cranes, and bobcats. Just west of Gainesville, the 32-mile Nature Coast Trail includes a bridge over the Suwannee River and a chance for a dip in the crystal-clear water of Fanning Springs State Park. Nicely appointed cabins with gas fireplaces and full kitchens offer a comfortable overnight option. Stick around and you may see wintering manatees.

In the Panhandle, the recently refurbished Tallahassee-St. Marks Historic Railroad State Trail runs 16 miles from the state capital to the waterfront village of St. Marks, where fresh seafood, waterfront parks, and the trails of the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge await.

The once-bustling citrus town of Winter Garden, just west of Orlando, is a good stop on the wide, well-tended, and mostly flat 19-mile West Orange Trail. In the tiny downtown, cyclists lunch at sidewalk cafes in full spandex and the historic Edgewater Hotel caters to riders with hearty breakfasts and a location right on the trail (407-654-6921, historicedgewater.com, rates from $78).

The Florida Keys Overseas Heritage Trail, a sun-drenched 106-mile path, stretches from Key Largo to Key West, crossing 23 original railroad bridges. Parts of the full span share the road with cars, but 70 miles are set aside for biking, walking, and skating.

On the Gulf Coast, the 10-mile Legacy Trail follows a former railroad corridor between Sarasota and Venice, with seven trailheads, including the historic Venice Train Depot. It crosses three trestle bridges before passing through Oscar Scherer State Park in Osprey, home to the brilliant blue Florida scrub jay (941-483-5956, floridastateparks.org/oscarscherer).

For a planned itinerary in the company of other cyclists, the annual Bike Florida event offers a weeklong tour with medical and mechanical support and luggage transportation and entertainment, with rest stops, camp-style accommodations, and an optional meal plan. Next year’s Forgotten Coast Tour on March 24-30 begins in Tallahassee and heads into Apalachicola National Forest for a tour of towns as charming as they are unpronounceable, including Wewahitchka, Apalachicola, and Sopchoppy (352-224-8601, bikeflorida.org).

Alisson Clark is a freelance writer in Florida. Send comments to magazine@globe.com

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