Along its seemingly endless coastline, on its myriad islands, amongst its vast green spaces and throughout its distinctive towns, Florida always has the capacity to astonish even veteran visitors. Here, we uncover five Florida destinations which might surprise you: the blissful beaches of Bradenton, the castaway communities of the Florida Keys, the cosmopolitan waterways of Fort Lauderdale, the untamed wilds of Lake County and the multi-cultural buzz of Tampa Bay…
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Hiding in plain sight, only one hour from Tampa and two hours from Orlando, the Bradenton Area is an unspoiled gem of a destination on the west coast of Florida, hugged by two stunning barrier islands. It’s perfect for a relaxing beach holiday on its own, or as a twin centre with a more bustling neighbour.
The Bradenton area is the kind of place that allows you to say goodbye to your shoes and switch off your phone. Soft sandy beaches are made for everything from volleyball and sunbathing to bird watching and shell hunting. The pristine water is home to manatees, pods of dolphin and turtles, as well as being the perfect playground for boat trips, kayaking, paddle boarding and more.
If you can tear yourself away from the beach, there’s plenty to see. Downtown Bradenton is full of character and culture and its Riverwalk is a hub for outdoor arts and concerts. You won’t find mega malls, but shopaholics will adore the Village of the Arts, an eclectic community of brightly coloured 1920s cottages home to art galleries, craft shops and cafes.
Bradenton’s cuisine is dominated by locally sourced produce with a farm-to-fork ethos. Stone crab and roe are a speciality. As well as its rows of bars and restaurants, the town has a farmer’s market and its own brewery.
Close-by, Cortez is the oldest working fishing village in Florida, with a working seafood market and plenty of places to grab some fish tacos. After, you can head to Mixon Fruit Farms to pick your own fresh oranges among its green groves.
Anna Maria Island is the jewel in the crown of the Bradenton area. Just seven miles long and no more than a mile wide, this sugary strip is a dreamy place to unwind. Palm trees reign supreme on the island since buildings higher than three storeys are not permitted.
Instead of towering hotel blocks, accommodation on this uncrowded isle is mostly stylish, pastel-painted private villas or condos with pools, on or minutes from the beach, with the exception of the luxurious Waterline Marina Resort and Beach Club.
The island also favours independent businesses over chain establishments and restaurants, quirky cafes and tiki bars all have a toes-in-the-sand vibe.
This string of 800 idyllic islands is conveniently connected by one spectacular road, stretching from the end of Florida’s swampy Everglades to Key West, the southernmost point of the continental U.S. It’s a place where you can reconnect with nature as well as your travelling companions, leave modern worries behind and gaze at the endless horizon instead scrolling never-ending content.
Once you’ve joined the overseas highway you’ve committed to cast away to the Conch Republic, a place of open skies and infinite sea views. Each of the Keys has its own personality and the further south you go, the more relaxed it gets.
Furthest north is Key Largo, home to the first undersea park in the U.S., where coral reefs, seagrass beds, mangrove swamps and a huge statue of Christ lie waiting to be explored. The six keys that make up Islamorada are known as the sports fishing capital of the world as well as being home to arty boutiques and ‘old Florida’ vibes. Then there are Marathon’s family-friendly, chilled out keys, the green and natural Lower Keys, and lastly Key West, the end of the U.S., where you can party in your flip-flops on Duval Street or meet the six-toed cats at novelist Ernest Hemmingway’s old house.
A holiday in the Keys isn’t all about lying on a beach, unless you want it to be, and there are plentiful diversions to please all kinds of traveller. Adrenaline junkies can learn to kite surf in Islamorada or dive with sharks in Marathon. Eco warriors can visit the Turtle Hospital in Marathon or spot the unique deer at the National Key Deer Refuge on Big Pine Key. Families can take the Conch Tour Train in Key West while couples can elope to Little Palm Island Resort and Spa with its lagoon-style pool and Zen Garden.
Art lovers admire the galleries and studios of Islamorada’s Morada Way Arts and Cultural District, and foodies can fill up on Key West pink shrimp, locally brewed beer and key lime pie.
Because of its uniquely exotic locale, the Florida Keys takes sustainability seriously and is home to the 2,900 square nautical mile Florida National Marine Sanctuary which protects coral reefs, manatees, dolphins and more. There’s also the pristine beaches of Bahia Honda State Park and the remote islands of Dry Tortuga’s National Park, reached by seaplane or ferry from Key West.
Located in Southeast Florida, just north of Miami, Greater Fort Lauderdale is accessible through no less than three international airports. As well as being a gateway to the Everglades, the region boasts miles of golden beaches and meandering inland waterways to explore, with a plethora of dining, shopping and entertainment options across its many diverse and welcoming communities.
Known as the Yachting Capital of the World and the Venice of America, Greater Fort Lauderdale has 24 miles of pristine beaches and 300-plus miles of navigable waterways. You can chill out next to a historic lighthouse on Hillsboro Beach or follow the shipwreck snorkel trail at Lauderdale-By-The-Sea. Walk breezy promenades, try water sports including fishing, scuba diving and paddle boarding and enjoy an impressive choice of beachfront shopping and dining.
Inland, take a boat or a bike; a Segway or a kayak and check out some of the neighbourhoods, the mansions and mega-yachts of Millionaires’ Row, downtown Las Olas Boulevard with its hip coffee shops and boutiques, or the vibrant LGBTQ+-friendly Wilton Manors.
The food and drink scene in the region is strong. Luxury hotels are a good starting point for fine dining, like the new Takato at the Conrad Fort Lauderdale Beach Hotel, serving up Japanese and Korean fusion. But there are plenty of casual eateries too, like the Rustic Inn Crabhouse where you can get your bib on and crack into some seafood. And check out the many craft breweries on the Greater Fort Lauderdale Ale Trail. There are a huge choice of museums and art galleries in Fort Lauderdale but if you can’t bear to waste the sun, take a tour of the Hollywood Murals, there are 20 by internationally recognised artists – all outside. Movie buffs look out because crews are often seen filming in vintage Hollywood Beach. And if you need to catch a flick head to the quirky Savor Cinema, housed in an old church.
There are always new, exciting openings in Greater Fort Lauderdale, and all are committed to the Visit Lauderdale Safe + Clean Pledge. New digs include Hotel Maren Fort Lauderdale Beach, a modern boutique hotel near the bright lights of Las Olas Boulevard.
Just 35 minutes from Orlando you can switch from theme parks to green parks and change the soundtrack from screams to songbirds amongst the wide-open spaces of Lake County.
Acres of protected nature are bursting with unique flora and fauna, like the Florida Scrub-jay and gopher tortoise. Lake Louisa State Park offers glamping, room for RVs and lakeside cabins. Its trails wind past submerged cypress trees and through forest and old orange groves, with the chance to spot bald eagles, deer and bobcat. At Lake Griffin State Park, you can hike through pristine swampland, see the state’s second largest live oak tree and maybe spot a bear.
Lakes and parks offer activities like fishing, canoeing, paddle boarding and horse riding and hikers and cyclists are in heaven with the choice of trails. The Apopka Loop Trail follows the edge of Apopka Lake, where alligator lurk, and leads up to the panoramic Green Mountain Scenic Overlook. Amidst rolling farmland, Sugarloaf Mountain is the highest point in peninsular Florida, with stunning vistas of glittering Orlando.
The South Lake Trails has nine miles of beautiful views and picnic spots and connects to the 22-mile West Orange Trail, an old train route which passes through nostalgic 1950s towns.
Small towns full of authentic charm abound in Lake County. Historic Mount Dora is lined with cute, canopied shops and palm trees. You can wander the boardwalk by the lake, take a ride on the historic railway or hop aboard a canal boat to explore waterways draped in Spanish moss. Downtown Clermont is known for its food and drink scene. Taste local beers at SunCreek Brewery or the Clermont Brewing Co. or tuck into local flavours at the Crooked Spoon pub. And with its many boutique shops, cafes and bakeries, Leesburg is a great place to browse and graze.
Time your visit right and you can drop in at one of Lake County’s many festivals, like the Mount Dora Craft Fair in October, celebrating fine art, crafts, food, drink and live music; or the Lakeridge Winery Harvest Grape Stomp every August in Clermont. And depending on the season, visit a farm to pick your own peaches or blueberries, gaze at sunflowers or get lost in a corn maze.
Tampa Bay is a buzzing and eclectic region at the heart of Florida’s Gulf Coast, offering endless open-air fun – including al fresco dining – lush state parks and a sparkling waterfront. With a wide range of new attractions, events, restaurants and hotels, there is always a reason to head to Trophy Town.
Why Trophy Town? Well, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers became the first team to host and win the Super Bowl this February. Sports are a big deal here, but there is more to entertain. Busch Gardens® Tampa Bay is home to superlative rollercoasters – Tigris is the tallest launch coaster in Florida. There’s also a water park, Adventure Island, with wet and wild rides like Solar Vortex; The Florida Aquarium with its Florida Wetlands Trail, home to otters and alligators, and ZooTampa at Lowry Park, where you can visit convalescing sea cows at the Manatee Critical Care Centre.
If you prefer a slower pace, you can always take to the water. The Hillsborough River and the bay are just waiting for kayakers and paddle boarders.
Or head to the Alafia River State Park to enjoy miles of biking and hiking trails through forests and gentle hills. City slicker? Stroll around the Tampa Museum of Art, or along the 2.6-mile Tampa Riverwalk which links some of the city’s top attractions – you can even enjoy a tipple as you go, thanks to a special license.
Ybor City, the ‘Cigar Capital of the World’, is an exciting cultural melting pot thanks to the Cuban and European immigrants who settled there long ago. You can learn how cigars are made at J.C. Newman Cigar Company or visit José Martí Park, which was the only piece of Cuban-owned land in the U.S. until the Cuban Embassy opened in 2015. Tampa Bay is famous for its nightlife and multi-cultural cuisine. You can sip cocktails at a swanky rooftop bar or whisper the password for Ciro’s Speakeasy in the old Bayshore Royal building. Prefer beer? Grab a cold one at one of the many microbreweries, like the 20-tap Coppertail Brewing Co. Treat yourself to fine dining at the new JOTORO by Michelin-star chef, Joe Isidori or go snacking at the Heights Public Market – try Bake ‘N Babes’s instagrammable cookies. Taste Sicilian at new restaurant Casa Santo or Cuban-style Spanish at Florida’s oldest eatery, Columbia.
If you like what you see here, talk to one of our travel consultants about creating your dream Florida Itinerary.
This is a feature from Issue 5 of Charitable Traveller. Click to read more from this issue.