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The Sunshine State: Discover the highlights of central and northern Florida

By: Maxine Sheppard

February 6, 2020

Three Sisters Spring, Crystal River, Florida © VISIT FLORIDA

Three Sisters Spring, Crystal River, Florida © VISIT FLORIDA

Escape to the Sunshine State with Virgin Atlantic and experience everything central and northern Florida has to offer

Fly to Orlando with Virgin Atlantic, and not only will you be moments from theme parks, shopping and world class golf courses, you’ll be under 90 minutes’ drive from Florida’s Gulf and Atlantic coastlines, making it easy to plan a twin-centre break.

With more than 230 sunny days per year, the Sunshine State lives up to its name. There’s over 800 miles of sandy beaches to explore, as well as 175 state parks, and more islands than any other state except Alaska. From the magical delights of Disney and Universal resorts to the starry skies of Kissimmee Prairie Preserve, we take a look at the region’s multiple highlights.

Siesta Key Beach © VISIT FLORIDA

Beaches

Whether you want to sunbathe, swim, snorkel or simply find some serenity, Florida’s Gulf Coast beaches will fulfil your every whim. In the Tampa Bay area, family-friendly Clearwater Beach was named the no.1 beach in the USA by TripAdvisor in 2019, while the long uninterrupted shoreline of St. Pete Beach is home to retro motels, laid-back beach bars, and plenty of watersports opportunities.

Across Tampa Bay, the city of Bradenton has more of an Old Florida vibe, with galleries, theatres, museums and boutiques set in restored historic buildings. It’s also a gateway to the unspoiled beaches of Anna Maria Island, where the powdery sands of Coquina Beach are backed by pine trees and grassy dunes. The sunsets here are a sight to behold.

Further south, arty Sarasota offers access to some of Florida’s finest stretches of sand. Head to Siesta Key for beach volleyball and a party atmosphere, or further south to peaceful Manasota Key, where walking trails wind through tropical foliage and Loggerhead sea turtles come ashore to nest.

Over on the Atlantic coast, Daytona Beach is home to some of the most action-packed shores in the state. The area around the pier is a pedestrianised zone, but at other points like Ormond Beach you can drive directly onto the sand, making it a great accessible option for people with limited mobility.

Just further south, Smyrna Dunes Park occupies the northern end of the New Smyrna Beach peninsula and feels far removed from the crowds. Surrounded by water on three sides, it has two miles of elevated boardwalks and birding trails, plus multiple overlooks and an observation tower for outstanding ocean views.

To really get away from it all, head to Canaveral National Seashore, where 14 seasonal backcountry campgrounds are accessible by foot or by boat, kayak or canoe. Spots are limited so you’ll need to reserve in advance, but you’ll be rewarded with fabulous sunrises and absolute tranquility.

Clearwater Beach © VISIT FLORIDA

Attractions, adventures & sports

Universal Orlando and Walt Disney World made Orlando the theme park capital of the world. The two mammoth complexes contain multiple parks, from Disney’s original Magic Kingdom and the brand new Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal’s Islands of Adventure. But while these two destinations could easily fill your entire trip, they’re only part of Florida’s rich theme park heritage. Just south of Orlando in Winter Haven, Legoland is heaven for fans of the colourful interlocking blocks, with a water park, thrill rides and several themed hotels. Further afield in Tampa, Busch Gardens is home to some of the wildest rollercoasters in the nation – stay tuned for the opening of Iron Gwazi in 2020; the fastest and steepest hybrid coaster on the planet!

If you’re after more high octane adventures, you won’t need to look far. Petrolheads can buckle up and take an actual NASCAR race car for a spin at Daytona International Speedway, while those with a head for heights can enjoy a sunrise hot air balloon ride over the lakes of Kissimmee, or a nostalgic vintage biplane ride with Waldo Wright’s Flying Service. For the ultimate thrill, book yourself onto the astronaut training experience at Kennedy Space Center where you’ll get to perform an immersive simulation spacewalk.

For something more energetic, try getting out on the water. Many don’t realise that Florida has a long history of surfing, particularly in Daytona Beach, where the surfing community dates back to the 1930s. Try one of the long-established surf schools near the Main Street Pier or Ormond Beach, where introductory lessons are offered year round. If your balance isn’t great but you still want to feel the wind in your hair and spray on your face, sailing-mad Jacksonville has more shoreline than any other city in Florida. Rent or charter a boat and cruise the Intracoastal Waterway or the St. Johns River, or head out into the ocean to explore more than 30 offshore reefs.

Magic Kingdom, Walt Disney World Resort, Orlando © VISIT FLORIDA

Wildlife & nature

Giant, gentle manatees are easier to see during the winter months. These curious sea cows prefer to hang out in warmer waters, and some of the best places to spot them include Blue Spring State Park and the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge, as well as Tampa Electric’s Manatee Viewing Center, which has a boardwalk and observation deck offering views across Tampa Bay.

Swimming or snorkelling in a jade-green freshwater spring is a quintessential Florida experience. Popular options near Orlando include Wekiwa Springs State Park, while further north at Itchetucknee Springs you can rent a tube, kayak or paddle board and drift six miles along the pristine Ichetucknee River. In the Florida Panhandle near state capital Tallahassee, Edward Ball Wakulla Springs is the largest and deepest freshwater spring in the world. Encircled by cypress trees, its swampy wilderness was the setting for the 1954 horror flick Creature from the Black Lagoon.

The remote Kissimmee Prairie Preserve is an amazing place to view the Milky Way, and the first park in Florida to be certified by the International Dark Sky Association. The vast grassland is part of the Everglades headwaters and is home to several endangered species including the burrowing owl and white-tailed kite. Hike or bike on its 100 miles of trails, or reserve a spot in the campsite to see an unfathomable number of stars with no need for binoculars or telescopes.

Wakulla Springs © Kevin McGeever/VISIT FLORIDA

Golf

If golf’s your game, you’re in one of the best destinations in the world. There are more golf courses in Florida than any other state in the nation. Whether you’re seeking a tough challenge, close proximity to the theme parks, or a particularly scenic spot, there’s a course to fit your requirements. The only problem you’ll have is narrowing down your options.

Near Jacksonville, TPC Sawgrass is one of the most famous and difficult golf courses in the United States. Non-members can play on its Stadium course (unlike several other clubs in the prestigious TPC network) and while its green fees are on the pricey side, the notorious 17th hole – set on an island green – will remain in your memory forever.

Back in Orlando, dozens of courses vie for attention. Some of the most popular include the three courses at the Reunion Resort, designed by Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson respectively, plus the four first-rate courses at Walt Disney World – you can’t get more convenient than that.

If views are your priority, head straight to the Jack Nicklaus-designed Ocean Course at Hammock Beach, set on the Atlantic coast between Daytona Beach and St. Augustine. This 18-hole, par-72 course offers wonderful ocean views from its fairways, with one hole – the ninth – located directly on the shoreline.

Golfing in Florida © Shutterstock

Dining, drinking & nightlife

Some people think Florida’s food scene amounts to little more than theme park fare. More fool them. This is one of the most innovative dining destinations in the country right now, where new restaurants, markets, breweries and even wineries are popping up quicker than you can say ’shrimp ’n grits’.

Dedicated foodies should head straight to Tampa Bay. An explosion of new bistros, casual cafes and warehouses-turned-food halls have opened up over the past decade, bringing farm-to-table dining to a new generation of tourists and locals. Add to this the booming Gulf Coast craft brewery scene, and you have the recipe for a great gourmet stay.

Kick things off with a Cuban sandwich at Florida’s oldest dining venue Columbia Restaurant in the historic Ybor City neighbourhood. Or head to Heights Public Market at Armature Works, where dozens of top chefs and creative food outlets are gathered under one roof. If beer’s on your mind, the St. Pete/Clearwater “Gulp Coast” Craft Beer Trail presents 30+ craft breweries between Tarpon Springs in the north and St. Pete in the south. Featuring a mix of lesser known spots and well-established hangouts, the trail helps beer aficionados discover a range of brews, from rich stouts and juicy IPAs to fruit-infused wheat beers and small batch Florida-born specials.

Meanwhile, Orlando’s been in the grips of a cocktail revival in recent years, to the surprise of many visitors. You’ll find inventive mixology menus in bars across the city, including a clutch of hotspots in Downtown Orlando like the vintage-chic Mathers Social Gathering, the rum-centric Aku Aku Tiki Bar by Lake Eola Park, and eclectic The Woods, set in the historic Rose Building on N. Orange Avenue. Still not sleepy? Round off your evening with a late-night waffle feast at the 24-hour, 50s-inspired B-Line Diner within the Hyatt Regency hotel.

Try a Cuban sandwich in Tampa © Shutterstock

For more information and Sunshine State tips, head to visitflorida.com – and stay tuned for our upcoming feature on southern Florida.

Ready to make your American dream a reality? Virgin Atlantic operates daily direct flights to Orlando from London Gatwick and Manchester, plus seasonal summer services from Belfast and Glasgow. And thanks to our partnership with Delta, you can seamlessly connect to even more airports across the United States. Visit our website and book your flight today.

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Maxine Sheppard

Maxine is the co-editor of the Virgin Atlantic blog. Travel and music are her joint first loves, and despite having written for Virgin for more years than she cares to remember she still loves nothing more than jumping on a plane in search of new sights and new sounds.

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