Did you know that Orlando is America’s most-visited vacation destination? People, Florida has so much more going for it than amusement parks! More freshwater springs than anywhere in the world, the one and only Everglades, the oldest European city in the U.S., a melting pot of cultures from around the globe, and beach weather when the most of the States is shoveling snow…why wouldn’t we spend our winter here? In partnership with Visit Florida, we set aside one month to road trip the Sunshine State, from the southernmost point to the northwestern border, and discover the places even more magical than Disney.
Our Florida Road Trip Route
By the time we finish this road trip we’ll have traveled about 1,500 miles around Florida so we definitely have to break this blog into two parts! Florida is only 447 miles long but with so many friends here (snowbirds, residents, and vacationers) and fun happenings, we’ve been zigzagging all over the state! Here’s the streamlined version of our South Florida road trip: Key West -> Middle Keys -> Miami -> Everglades National Park -> Sanibel Island -> Arcadia/Peace River -> Highlands Hammock State Park -> Cape Canaveral. Let’s hit the road!
Key West, Our Kind of Town
We have big dreams for Buddy the Camper. Reaching Alaska was one of them and touching the southernmost point of the mainland U.S. (Key West) was another! More than a bucket list item, visiting Key West is like reaching a state of mind. They consider themselves a micronation, The Conch Republic, with the decree: “Come as you are.” They’ve always moved to the beat of a different drummer. Even when they were under a mix of Spanish and British rule from the 1520s-1822, pirates and salvagers were still largely running the show. When Florida went Confederate in the Civil War, Key West went Union. Today, that alternative way of life continues with a chilled-out and fun-loving mélange of people. We got in there with the best of them—from celebrating sunset with Mallory Square street performers to drinking margaritas with Jimmy Buffet fans. Love this town!
Cruising the Overseas Highway
Driving the Overseas Highway, the engineering feat that connects the chain of islands for 120 miles, could be done in a day but it is definitely worth a few. After checking out of the fabulous new Perry Hotel Key West, we had a great beach day at Bahia Honda State Park, took an eye-opening tour at the Turtle Hospital, geeked out at the History of Diving Museum (Mike votes it his Top 3 museums in the world!), then we went on a our own dive in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary (the only barrier coral reef in the States). In driving the Middle Keys, we’ll admit we did see some damage from Hurricane Irma; some hotels are still the process of remodeling and some people are sadly without their homes. That said, the Florida Keys remain absolutely gorgeous, a ton of fun, and in need of tourism more than ever. Go support this awesome part of the world!
Hot Times in Miami Beach
We pulled into Miami on a Saturday night, which left us only one choice…bar hop in South Beach! Wanting to get a taste of the nightlife, but not wanting to don high heels and a white blazer, we kicked it off at Mac’s Club Deuce, Miami’s longest running bar. Judging by the hand-painted signs, wavy mirrors, and chrome bar stools, Mac’s has barely been touched since opening day in 1926 (though they might have mopped when Miami Vice held its cast party there). This place is unapologetically awesome. We parked a block away, went to three bars in walking distance, and slept in South Beach for $12 in the meter. (Thanks, Buddy The Camper!)
Super Model Volleyball
Cities are usually quieter on President’s Weekend, but when the average temp is 80 degrees and your local beach looks like the Caribbean, why leave? Diners packed the Art Deco cafes along Ocean Drive, bikers and rollerbladers cruised the boardwalk, and volleyball players crushed the courts. And not just any players, teams of super models competing in an annual tournament to the sounds of live Latin music and Flo Rida! We soaked up this scene for few hours, then went to Little Havana for the lively Gay8 street festival. No matter how many times you’ve been to Miami, there is always something fun going on. Tip: When you get there, check out our friend Matt Meltzer’s Thrillist column, he rounds up the best happenings each weekend.
Everglades: The River of Grass
Miami is the only metropolitan area in the United States that borders two national parks: Biscayne & The Everglades. Biscayne is best experienced by boat, so we opted for the one-and-only Everglades, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and Biosphere Reserve wetland. When you look at Florida on a map, the bottom eighth is a swath of green with two roads cutting across what is technically a very slow moving river. We took the Tamiami Trail to Shark Valley and were bowled over by the amount of wildlife we saw. Alligators were outside the ticket booth! We walked the trails and stopped every few minutes to see great blue heron dive for fish, osprey feeding their young, or a gator coast by. Shark Valley is honestly one of the most incredible places for wildlife watching, though as we were reading at the ranger station, the park admits its an “unnatural” concentration. The construction of the road in 1928 basically blocked the animals from freely moving downstream, but things are looking up! Governor Scott has green-lit a $90 million project to elevate miles of the road to aid migration patterns and water flow. Props.
From the Swamp to the Sea
The Everglades National Park fades into the Big Cypress National Preserve, home of the Turner River Paddle Trail. As we realized firsthand, this narrow break in the mangroves is just barely wide enough for a kayak and gator to pass. Watch this video for this very close encounter, plus our 10,000 Islands experience, paddling alongside dolphins, jumping stingrays, even a massive crocodile! The Everglades were full of surprises, white sand beaches included.
Sanibel Island: A Seashell Paradise
Cruising north through the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge and Alligator Alley, we rejoined civilization with a stop at Sanibel Island. We featured this world-renowned shelling destination in the “Best-in-class Beaches” section of Ultimate Journeys for Two. The south-facing shores are a veritable net for coquinas, conch whelks, and treasures hailing from across the Caribbean…so we dug in. Dozens of shellers were out with their shovels and nets, while us rookies were just impressed with what we could gather barehanded. To further our shelling smarts, we stopped at the Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum—the U.S’s only natural history museum on the subject. If you didn’t think mollusks were cool, their two-million shell collection will change your mind.
Digging for Fossils in Peace River
When chatting with a Floridian friend, she told us one of her fondest memories was hunting for fossils in Peace River. Over millions of years, low-lying Florida has gone above and below the sea two dozen times…so finding a whale vertebrae or megaladon tootth in the middle of the state isn’t uncommon, especially in Arcadia. We read about Mark Renz’s Fossil Expeditions from a Travel Channel feature and signed up for an all-day dig. He armed us with a floating sieve, shovel, and his 23 years of paleontological knowledge as we waded up to our bellies. We couldn’t believe the ancient treasures we found…we’re talking two-million year old Snaggletooth shark teeth, the armor of a massive dasypus bellus armadillo, and easily 100 more fossils! Watch this video on how it all went down.
Camping in Highlands Hammock State Park
Working our way northeast, we drove under the lush canopy of Highlands Hammock State Park. It’s one of Florida’s oldest and most biodiverse parks with 1,000-year-old oak trees, cypress swamps, and wild orange groves. From looks alone there’s a lot to love…but this park also has such an endearing community spirit. We checked in at the campground and the ranger told us about the week’s activities (music on the green, ranger talks, nature walks, book exchanges, potluck dinners, and more!) then she let us borrow the shuffleboard equipment overnight. We hiked nearly the entire network of trails and biked on our second day to make sure we didn’t miss a thing.
From Cape Canaveral to Outer Space
We were quite happy in the forest but got wind there was a rocket launch happening at Kennedy Space Center later that week. Countdown started at 5pm so we made a full day of it, with the Explore Tour to the Vehicle Assembly Building, The Apollo/Saturn V Center, and the launch pads for NASA and SpaceX. Our favorite stop was the Atlantis exhibit, where you go eye to eye with the legendary space shuttle and the Hubble telescope, and even get to play pilot in a rocket cockpit. The day flew by and before we knew it, they were calling for liftoff. Thousands gathered to watch the GOES-S weather satellite go into fixed orbit over the western hemisphere. 3, 2, 1…we saw the latest NOAA innovation blaze across the sky, then 30 seconds later heard and felt the boom. Going to the Kennedy Space Center, where rockets are born & astronauts begin their journey into space, reminded us how small we are in this universe and how big dreams are never far out of reach.