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The Sunshine State: The Best of South Florida

By: Maxine Sheppard

February 19, 2020

Naples Pier, Florida

Naples Pier, Florida

Head to South Florida with Virgin Atlantic for a wild and wonderful taste of the Sunshine State

Fly to Miami with Virgin Atlantic and discover one of the most exciting and diverse regions of the USA. This sun-soaked destination proudly claims the only tropical climate in the continental United States, along with the largest mangrove ecosystem in the Western Hemisphere and the tropical coral cay archipelago better known as the Florida Keys.

With more than 230 sunny days per year, the Sunshine State is hard to beat. 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 hedonism of Miami and the beaches of the Gulf and Atlantic coasts to the remote wilderness of Everglades National Park, we narrow down some of South Florida’s best highlights.

Miami skyline © Pixabay

Beaches

South Florida is home to some of the most renowned beaches in the world – Miami Beach chief among them. Famed for its broad white sands and sorbet-hued lifeguard stations, the iconic beach is backed by a mix of oceanfront cafes and art deco hotels in the South Beach district, while further north you can find solitude amid the green space of North Shore Open Space Park.

Further north on the Atlantic Coast, Greater Fort Lauderdale‘s 23-mile coastline includes peaceful Hillsboro Beach, a favoured spot for leatherback, loggerhead and green sea turtles, and the golden sands of Hollywood Beach, where joggers, cyclists and roller-bladers ply the two-and-a-half mile Broadwalk alongside. Still on the Atlantic, the Palm Beaches region is home to 29 beach parks, including the chilled-out sands of Boynton Beach, and lovely laid-back Juno Beach, with its wooden fishing pier.

Over on the Gulf Coast, pelicans swoop low over Naples Beach, part of the so-called Paradise Coast. This sun-drenched stretch of shoreline also includes Marco Island – part of the Ten Thousand Islands chain – as well as Everglades City and the western section of the Everglades National Park. Up the coast near Fort Myers, tranquil Bowman’s Beach on Sanibel Island is known for shelling and seclusion, while the seven-mile-long Fort Myers Beach on Estero Island has all the amenities you could need, including plenty of laid-back beach bars for peachy sunset views.

Aerial view of Fort Lauderdale Beach

Attractions, adventures & sports

While southern Florida may not have the super-sized theme parks of the central part of the state, it makes up for it with a host of world class cultural attractions and museums, as well as some of the best sporting activities and shopping hotspots in the country.

The city of Miami is a contemporary art lover’s dream. Every year, dealers and collectors flock to the city for Art Basel, the nation’s leading art fair, while the striking Pérez Art Museum Miami (PAMM) caters to a year-round crowd and Wynwood Walls brings an ever-evolving collection of street art to the masses.

Elsewhere in Miami, cultural highlights range from the waterfront Vizcaya Museum and Gardens; a lavish Gilded Age mansion, to the Mediterranean Revival-style, 1924-built Venetian Pool in Coral Gables, a public pool built into an old coral rock quarry. Now listed on the National Register of Historic Places, it’s the largest freshwater swimming pool in the United States.

From sedate swimming pools to the open ocean: water sports opportunities abound in this part of the state. One of the best destinations is Biscayne National Park in the northern Florida Keys, a marine park which protects the coral reefs, islands and mangrove forests of Biscayne Bay. Here you can go kayaking or canoeing amid the rays, crabs, anemones and wading birds that call this place home, or take a guided boat tour out to the Maritime Heritage Trail, and snorkel or dive amid shipwrecks and a cast-iron lighthouse. Sailing charters and seaplane tours are also available.

South Florida’s shopping scene ranges from gargantuan outlet malls like Sawgrass Mills in the city of Sunrise, 16 miles west of Fort Lauderdale, to quirky flea markets and antique dens, some of which house drive-in movie theatres, restaurants and video arcades. Check out Fleamasters Fleamarket in Fort Myers, Flamingo Island Flea Market in Bonita Springs, or the truly enormous Fort Lauderdale Swap Shop. The latter is the biggest flea market in the world and transforms every night into the largest drive-in movie theatre in the USA.

Vizcaya Museum and Gardens © Wikimedia Commons

Wildlife & nature

Few creatures sum up the essence of southern Florida like the glorious Roseate spoonbill. These pretty pink birds can be found across the state, but one of the best places to view them is at the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge on Sanibel Island in the Gulf of Mexico, where a 5,200-acre refuge was established to protect them, alongside river otters, bobcats and raccoons.

Silently kayaking through a mangrove swamp is one of the best ways to experience the splendour of Everglades National Park. A naturalist-led eco-tour will lead you through these brackish forests – home to herons, egrets, wood storks and even alligators – with tailor-made itineraries that allow for photography, birdwatching or sunrise/sunset viewing.

Elsewhere in the park, you can take a walking tour through protected areas of bald cypress trees, with the option of a ‘dry walk’ or a ‘wet walk’ that involves wading through knee-deep swamp water. Keep your eyes peeled for water reptiles and white-tailed deer, and if you’re lucky you may spot tracks from an elusive Florida panther or black bear.

For an easy and accessible boardwalk trail, head to the Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary north of Naples, where a two-and-a-half-mile path leads through pine flatwoods and wet prairie. Look out for red-bellied turtles, American kestrels, and fish-eating Merganser ducks.

For a camping experience that’s truly remote, head to Dry Tortugas National Park some 70 miles west of Key West. Only accessible by seaplane or boat, the park is home to the 19th-century Fort Jefferson, as well as a primitive campground at Garden Key which offers picnic tables, bbq grills, amazing stargazing and not much else!

 

 

Sunset in Everglades National Park © publicdomainpictures.net

Golf

Florida is home to more golf courses than any other state in the US, so whatever level of golfer you are, you’ll find a course to suit. If you’re staying in Miami and not planning on venturing far, the Miami Beach Golf Club is in the centre of Miami Beach, and comprises an 18-hole, par 72 course, plus an all-day restaurant and a golf academy featuring pros who work with top PGA players.

Nearby on Key Biscayne, Crandon Golf claims to be the only course in the United States to feature a subtropical lagoon. The challenging Everglades-style golfing experience includes mangrove swamps and seven saltwater lakes, all backed by views of the downtown Miami skyline.

Over on the Gulf Coast and originally built in the 1920s, Naples Beach Hotel and Golf Club is home to a first-rate public course. It was totally redesigned in 2016 by renowned course designer Jack Nicklaus in consultation with architect John Sanford, whose goal was to ensure the course challenged players of all levels. Alongside a new 300-yard practice and teaching range, the course features gently contoured greens that play ‘firm and fast’, as well as a signature 16th hole located on a peninsula, surrounded by water on three sides.

On the Atlantic Coast near ritzy Palm Beach, the Championship course at PGA National Resort & Spa was ranked one of the best public courses in Florida by Golf Digest magazine. The course – which hosted the Ryder Cup in 1983 and is currently the home of the Honda Classic – features five sets of tees and the notorious ‘Bear Trap’; an insanely difficult, Nicklaus-designed stretch of 3 holes (15, 16 and 17) that have been known to make grown golfers weep.

Golfing in Florida © Shutterstock

Dining, drinking & nightlife

With an influx of celebrity chefs over the past decade or so, South Florida’s dining scene has become as hot as a habanero pepper. Hundreds of new restaurants have sprung up across the region over the last 10 years, elevating destinations like Miami to the level of other major culinary cities in the US.

One such restaurateur is Kansas-born chef Bradley Kilgore, who recently added wood-fired American bistro Ember to his already impressive portfolio. The venue – in Miami’s hip Design District – specialises in fire-roasted and cold-smoked dishes, and joins his Japan-inspired cocktail lounge Kaido (conveniently located on the floor above) and industrial-chic Alter in Wynwood, where the seven-course tasting menus have attained legendary status.

Other destinations are hotting up too, including Palm Beach County and Fort Lauderdale. In addition to its swankier fine dining venues, the former has a clutch of low-key hotspots serving authentic Floribbean cuisine – a mix of Caribbean, Floridian and Latin American influences – including Troy’s BBQ in Boynton Beach and Bamboo Fire Cafe in Delray Beach. Fort Lauderdale’s dining scene has also been making waves in recent years, with the arrival of fresh new restaurants like the waterfront Casa Sensei, which specialises in pan-Asian cuisine, and the multicultural Caribbean-American fusion venue Steelpan Kitchen & Bar.

But it’s not all about the new. The region is home to classic, long-established stalwarts that are as much about the atmosphere, decor and overall experience as they are about the food and drink itself. Think Key West‘s fabled Green Parrot Bar, Kelly’s Fish House Dining Room in Naples, or the Farmers Market Restaurant in Fort Myers. One of the most beloved is the South Pacific-themed restaurant and tiki bar Mai Kai in Fort Lauderdale, where a twice-nightly show, the Mai-Kai Islanders Revue, is the longest-running Polynesian show in the US.

Finally, no trip to Florida’s south would be complete without sampling its finest invention – Key Lime Pie. This deliciously tart dessert – a shortcrust base topped with a filling made from Key lime juice, condensed milk and egg yolks – can be found all over the state, but the Florida Keys is where you’ll arguably find the best: try the Green Turtle Inn in Islamorada, Castaway Waterfront Restaurant in Marathon, or Pepe’s Cafe, Old Town Bakery and Kermit’s Key Lime Pie Shop in Key West.

Key Lime Pie © Pixabay

For more information and Sunshine State tips, head to visitflorida.com – and remember to check out our previous feature on Central and Northern Florida.

Ready to make your American dream a reality? Virgin Atlantic operates daily direct flights to Miami from London Heathrow. 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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