By Lauren Jarvis | February 2020 | 7 minute read
Road-tripping around the sunshine state is one way to uncover its diverse attractions.
On the road
If any band knows how to capture sunshine in a song, it’s The Beach Boys. “Off the Florida Keys, there’s a place called Kokomo… That’s where you want to go to get away from it all…” And if ever there was a song to sing along to, as you drive south from Miami on the Overseas Highway to Key West, Kokomo is it.
An iconic drive need an iconic car, and mine’s a convertible Chevrolet Camaro from the Hertz American Collection. Add suncream, shades and an open road, stretching over the ocean and into the blue, and within minutes of leaving Miami International, and I’m living the American Dream.
Kokomo may not be real, but the chain of islands that form the Keys at the southernmost point of mainland USA hold as many delights as the fictional isle. At Playa Largo Resort & Spa, I sink tropical sundowners on the sand beyond its opulent pool; Marathon’s Isla Bella Beach Resort greets me with laidback luxury and manatees swimming offshore, and in Key West, Margaritaville Resort & Marina offers stylish suites, a skip from the famous sunset-watching spot of Mallory Square.
I almost forget I’m in the world’s theme park capital, as I kayak through mangroves around Big Pine Key, snorkel the John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park to see turtles and rays, and catch a boat to search for wild dolphins in Key West.
Fitting it all in
“Road trips that include theme parks, beaches, cities and nature are hugely popular with our visitors,” says Dana Young, President & CEO at Visit Florida. “The Sunshine State continues to be the most popular long-haul destination for Brits, and while Orlando’s theme parks are still a huge draw, we’re seeing a rise in visits to Florida’s smaller towns, national and state parks and monuments.”
Pairing time at the theme parks with a beach is easy, with miles of beautiful shoreline to choose from. Idyllic barrier islands like Sanibel and Anna Maria, and mainland resorts like Panama City Beach, Siesta Key, St. Pete and Naples, offer long stretches of white sand along the Gulf of Mexico. On the Atlantic Coast, unspoiled beaches await around St Augustine and Palm Coast, while Daytona Beach offers fun for families, New Smyrna Beach is a magnet for surfers and nature lovers, and Amelia Island offers tranquil, golden sands and luxury resorts.
“Visitors are looking to journey beyond the city gateways and typical tourist attractions to get to know the destination on a deeper level,” says Young. “We’re seeing all types of travellers choose twin or multi-centre holidays.”
Florida welcomed a record 127 million visitors in 2019, and Visit Florida recognises that with this milestone comes a responsibility to promote sustainable travel.
A new hub on VisitFlorida.com highlights green travel tips plus eco-friendly accommodation, attractions, dining and activities, and includes a section on ‘voluntourism’, another growing travel trend. Across the state, over 370 hotels and resorts are designated Florida Green Lodging properties.
The new Florida Keys & Key West Travel App promotes safe driving and recommends eco-friendly attractions along the Florida Keys Overseas Highway. Meanwhile, the New Smyrna Beach Area Visitors Bureau is implementing eco-friendly measures in partnership with local hotels and restaurants, and programmes to protect the regions’ wild attractions, including the Indian River Lagoon.
<p“While consumer confidence was down in 2019, demand for Florida showed no signs of waning”, says Young. “New capacity with TUI and Virgin Atlantic will fill some of the lost capacity from Thomas Cook, and January bookings are looking very positive.”
“There is strong interest in Florida, particularly in the family market,” agrees Malcolm Davies, Product Destination Manager at Funway Holidays. “Orlando is outpacing other destinations, with villa stays proving very popular, but Daytona Beach, St Pete/Clearwater and Naples are growing in popularity.”
With the second-highest number of hotel rooms in the USA after Las Vegas, and 2019 and 2020 seeing its biggest hotel expansion in over two decades, Orlando looks set to be Florida’s flagship destination for years to come. But encourage your customers to venture beyond Disney - there’s plenty more more magic in the Sunshine State.
Step back in time: The precious wetlands of Everglades National Park is home to wonderful wildlife including bobcats, white-tailed deer, black bears, elusive Florida panthers and, of course, the state’s infamous alligators. Explore on guided walks, buggy tours through ancient cypress swamps, kayaking amidst the mangroves, or zooming across the ‘River of Grass’ on an airboat.
Swim with giants: The warm springs of the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge on Florida’s western Nature Coast provide a refuge for hundreds of West Indian manatees who come to escape cool temperatures in the Gulf of Mexico. It’s one of the only places in the world where you can swim and snorkel with wild manatees.
Hold on tight: Orlando’s amusement parks deliver year-round thrills and spills, with Walt Disney World, Universal, Legoland and SeaWorld each offering their own themed accommodation and no end of dining and entertainment options. Outside of the parks, Orlando has a great range of family-friendly hotels to suit all budgets, or choose a luxe, self-catering villa with a pool in Kissimmee to escape the crowds.
Make a splash: The Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary protects 2,900 nautical square miles of marine habitat. The Florida Keys’ ‘Become a Reef Explorer’ programme encourages divers and snorkellers of all ages to explore five reefs between Key Largo and Key West, with a complimentary reef guide and souvenir journal to log their underwater adventures.
Paint the town: Florida’s art and design districts are thriving, with everything from boutique galleries to world-class museums. Visitors can wander Miami’s historic Design District with its Institute of Contemporary Art, striking architecture and vibrant street murals; visit The Sarasota Art Museum for contemporary exhibitions; or join the free ‘First Friday Gallery Hop’ around the studios, galleries and shops in Tallahassee’s Railroad Square.
Accommodation: The luxury, adults-only Little Palm Island Resort & Spa will reopen in April in the Lower Keys.
Universal’s Endless Summer Resort: Dockside Inn and Suites opens in March while LEGOLAND Florida also opens its new Pirate Island Hotel in April.
JW Marriott Orlando Bonnet Creek Resort & Spa opens this month (February) with a Spa, followed by a JW Marriott near the Tampa Riverwalk in the autumn. Marriott Autograph Collection Hotels will open the Luminary Hotel & Co. in downtown Fort Myers in 2020 and a124-room Towne Place Suites by Marriott will open in Panama City Beach in 2020. Compass by Margaritaville will open at One Particular Harbour in Bradenton in 2020.
Everglades National Park’s Flamingo region in the Florida Keys, now offers 20 new eco-tents.
Boutique Hotel Haya opens in spring 2020 in the Latin Quarter of historic Ybor City, Tampa.
The Hacienda Hotel reopens after 90 years this autumn on Florida’s Sports Coast. Opening in November 2020, Banyan Cay Resort & Golf in West Palm Beach boasts Jack Nicklaus’ 300th Signature Golf Course.
The Florida Keys’ only all-inclusive resort, the adults-only Bungalows Key Largo, has reopened after extensive renovation.
Homes2 Suites by Hilton opened near the Daytona International Speedway at ONE Daytona in December 2019, with an oceanfront Home2 Suites by Hilton opening in early 2020.
Hotel Effie Sandestin opens in Miramar Beach on the Emerald Coast in summer 2020.
Attractions: The Bourne Stuntacular, a live-action stunt show based on the Jason Bourne films, debuts in spring 2020 at Universal Studios.
Epcot is undergoing a major transformation with new attractions planned for 2020, including Remy’s Ratatouille Adventure.
Legoland will offer PirateFest Weekends throughout April and May and a new Pirate Water Ski Show Adventure.
Greater Fort Lauderdale will host the first ever Pride of the Americas LGBT festival from April 21-26 2020 with parades, concerts, conferences and fashion shows.
Orlando’s ICON Park opens the world’s tallest slingshot ride, The Orlando Slingshot, and the world’s tallest free-standing drop tower, The Orlando Gyro Drop Tower, in 2020.
Old Town Kissimmee is completing its final expansion phase with new shops, restaurants and a spa in the reimagined Front Plaza.
Pointe Orlando shopping mall will have a $32 million makeover by summer 2020.
Travel: Hertz has added a limited-edition custom 2020 Camaro ZL1 and 2020 Camaro SS to its US rental fleet.
Norwegian Air increases its London to Tampa service to three times a week this summer.
Celebrity Cruises, Holland America and MSC will join Carnival Cruises, Royal Caribbean Cruise Line and Norwegian Cruise Line with sailings to and from Port Tampa Bay in 2020.
Where to book it
America as you like it has a 14-night Florida road trip includes three nights B&B at the Residence Inn Miami Beach Surfside, two nights at Playa Largo in Key Largo, two nights at the Isla Bella in Marathon, two nights at Margaritaville in Key West, two nights at the Port of the Islands Adventure Resort in the Everglades, three nights at Castaways Beach and Bay Cottages on Sanibel Island, plus return flights from Gatwick to Miami on Norwegian Airlines and Mustang car rental with Hertz.