Florida

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 24 September, 2002, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 24 September, 2002, 12:00am

Planning


If you're planning a two-week jaunt to Florida, I would suggest one week at the theme parks and one week chilling out in Miami and the Florida Keys.


There are definitely good and bad times to go to Florida. Many people go at Christmas, which means fine weather of about 22-26 degrees Celsius, but it's extremely busy. In January, you can get cheap flight bargains and you won't have to endure such long queues at theme parks. Don't go in summer when it's about 32-35 degrees Celsius - and hotter still inland at the theme parks.


Accommodation


In the Keys, I would recommend staying at the Barnacle Bed And Breakfast, which is on the beach and good value for money. Breakfast is served overlooking the sea - a great start to the day (1557 Long Beach Drive, Big Pine Key, Florida 33043. Tel: [1305] 872 3298).


Activities


The most incredible trip I experienced in North America was organised by Dolphin World. Imagine spending up to seven days feeding, swimming and playing with and photographing friendly dolphins - a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Although the boat you stay on is quite small and basic, without many facilities or much entertainment, it's such a rewarding trip. The captain also takes you to a dolphin store which offers a wide variety of dolphin merchandise such as dolls, necklaces, T-shirts and door chimes. For online reservations, visit www.dolphinworld.org or call [1954] 525 4441. Bookings necessary.


The 'Sunshine State' is great for cycling and hiking, with relatively few hills and plenty to do outdoors. There are many beautiful routes, especially in north central Florida where you can ride through pine forests, see wildlife, snorkel in natural water springs, canoe down the famous Suwannee River and camp for a small fee on its many well-maintained camping grounds. Motels are also available. Maps from the Florida Department of Transportation highlighting cycling routes are indispensable and less than HK$5 each (order from www.dot.state.fl.us). The book Mountain Bike! Florida by Steve Jones also has a great rundown of cycling routes to suit everyone (HK$124 from paddyfield.com).


My children love all the theme parks that Disney provides: Magic Kingdom, Epcot and the newest, Animal Kingdom (a beautifully designed park with entertaining shows featuring real animals and not animated robots). With the pass system, you can avoid long lines at Walt Disney World by inserting your pass in the machine at the entrance to the ride and then coming back at the designated time. The laser show and fireworks at Epcot are fantastic. You get a good view from all sides of the lake, but arrive early for a prime viewing spot.


One of central Florida's newest attractions is the Holy Land Experience, where staff are dressed in costumes and perform various short plays. It's like visiting historical Jerusalem between 1450BC and 66AD - we really felt like we were in Israel, not Florida (4655 Vineland Road, Orlando, FL 32811. Tel: [1407] 363 5872; www.theholylandexperience.com).


Naples is a charmingly quaint city on the west coast of Florida and the thing to do is head down to the pier at sundown. It seems as if everyone in town is there to see the magnificent sunsets. There also is a lovely shopping area (www.naples-florida.com).


Kennedy Space Centre is worth an all-day visit. There are many areas to explore and movies to watch. It is amazing that visitors are allowed on a real working rocket and satellite launch pad. It's well-organised and there is a museum where you can see all the past rockets, satellites and astronauts (FL 32899. Tel: [1321] 452 2121; www.ksc.nasa.gov).


Kissimmee is the strip where the hotels near the theme parks are located. Parks include Wet'n'Wild (tel: [1407] 351 1800; www.wetnwild.com), where there's water fun for all the family (wave machines, big slides and so on) and my favourite, SeaWorld (tel: [1407] 351 3600; www.seaworld.org) where there are fantastic water-ski and killer whale shows and where you can encounter sharks and feed sea lions and dolphins. Other must-do activities are the film theme parks, Disney-MGM (disneyworld.disney.go.com) and Universal Studios (www.universalstudios.com), which are great for both kids and adults.


Miami is a great place to hang out. There is South Beach where you can dine alfresco amid beautiful art deco buildings, the club scene - Level is the best (1235 Washington Avenue. Tel: [1305] 532 1525; www.levelnightclub.com) - plus a variety of shopping malls. Miami also is famous for its cruise ships, which you can take for a weekend jaunt to Nasau at reasonable package prices. There is a casino on board and all meals are included.


I highly recommend a drive to the tip of the Florida Keys. Motorists travel on causeways and bridges over the many islands to Key West, the most southerly tip of the US, where there are fabulous seafood restaurants. We took a seaplane to Dry Tortugas National Park and had a great time at the beach, snorkelling and exploring the old Fort Jefferson. The seaplane flies low and we could see stingrays, giant turtles, fish and coral reefs. Bring along a picnic lunch and drinks as there are no restaurants on the little island (www.nps.gov/drto).


The Florida Keys consist of a 160km stretch of coral atolls as featured in the Arnold Schwarzenegger movie, True Lies. The first is Key Largo, about 90 minutes from Miami airport, the second is Tavernier and the third is Marathon. At Marathon you can stop at the legendary Tiki Bar, popular with the younger crowd, where there are live bands (84001 US Highway 1, Islamorada. Tel: [1305] 664 2321; www.holidayisle.com).


No trip to the Keys is complete without a visit to Key West, but don't go at New Year or the high season as it becomes too touristy. Beautiful wooden houses with lazy porches evoke a more leisurely lifestyle of times gone by. To dine in a beautiful setting, visit Marker 88 (MM88, Plantation Key. Tel: [1305] 852 9315) or Bentley's (MM82.8, Oceanside, Islamorada. Tel: [1305] 664 9094) to experience fresh 'Floribbean' seafood at its best. For accommodation, I recommend Paradise Connections, a friendly, family-run operation with several self-catering apartment options (tel: [1305] 852 2405; www.floridakeyscondo.com).


When in Orlando, you must take the family to Arabian Nights - the kids will love it. In the Arabian Pavilion, with a 1,200-seat dining hall and the largest indoor equestrian arena in the world, 60 horses from around the world perform amazing feats and there is an elaborate staged wedding of a prince and princess. All this goes on while you're dining on a delicious prime rib dinner with seasoned red potatoes and unlimited beer, wine and soda. It costs US$44 (HK$343) for adults and $27 for kids (6225 West Bronson Highway, Kissimmee. Tel: [1407] 239 9223; www.arabian-nights.com).


Shopping


If travelling from Miami to the Keys, stop where the Florida Turnpike meets US 1 and shop at Prime Outlets Florida City for great savings on brand-name goods (250 East Palm Drive, FL 33034. Tel: [1305] 248 4727; www.primeoutlets.com).


Dining


At Astor Place at the Astor Hotel, chef Johnny Vinczencz is the recognised king of South Beach continental cuisine. The Seafood Margarita is fabulous - stoned crab claws, shrimp and lobster bathed in a lime mustard dressing (956 Washington Avenue, Miami Beach, FL 33139. Tel: [1305] 531 8081; www.hotelastor.com).


Nightlife


If you want action, you'll find it in Ybor City, Tampa's own Latin Quarter. Skipper's Smokehouse Restaurant And Oyster Bar serves live reggae, blues and zydeco in addition to dinner. It's always packed so get there early (910 Skipper Road. Tel: [1813] 971 0666; www.skipperssmokehouse.com). For laid-back blues, check out the Blues Ship Club And Cafe which also features jazz and reggae (1910 East 7th Avenue. Tel: [1813] 248 6097). The Brass Mug Pub, near the University of South Florida, is heavier, but bring a guitar along on a Monday and you can join in (1441 East Fletcher Avenue, FL 33612. Tel: [1813] 972 8152; www.brassmug.com).


 

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