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Animal Encounters

Florida is home to one supersize mouse and makes an ideal habitat for party animals. Yet there are other types of wildlife here, too. In terms of biodiversity, the state ranks third in the country, with approximately 1,200 different kinds of critters.

Alligators. Florida has more than 1.3 million resident alligators. You can witness them doing inane tricks at places like Gatorland, but gator spotting in the wild is far more rewarding. Everglades National Park teems with gators. The best place to get up close and personal with them is Shark Valley, in the north of the national park. Birds. Poised on two major migratory routes, Florida draws about 500 species of birds—and the 2,000-mile Great Florida Birding Trail helps you track them down. Through detailed guides and highway signs, it identifies sites where you may spy anything from bald eagles to burrowing owls. Manatees. They're nicknamed sea cows and resemble walruses. But Florida's official marine mammals are most closely related to elephants, which may account for their slow pace and hefty frames. For a chance at swimming with manatees in the wild, take an organized pontoon ride through Crystal River, near the Upper Gulf Coast. Sea Turtles. Ready for a late-night rendezvous with the massive leatherbacks and loggerheads that lumber onto Floridian beaches to lay their eggs between March and October? Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge, the Western Hemisphere's largest loggerhead nesting site, organizes free turtle watches in June and July.

Life in the Fast Lane

The Sunshine State has been satisfying visitors' need for speed ever since Henry Ford and his snowbird buddies started using Ormond Beach as a test track. Today roller coasters, stock cars, supersonic jets, and spaceships add momentum to your vacation.

Daytona Beach. Daytona 500, NASCAR's most prestigious event, pulls in legions of devotees each February. But any time of year you can slip into a driving suit and then into the driver's seat of a Winston Cup–style stock car, courtesy of the Richard Petty Driving Experience at Daytona International Speedway. Kennedy Space Center. Whether you admire Buzz Aldrin or Buzz Lightyear, this spot has the right stuff. See a rocket launch or take your own giant leap with the Astronaut Training Experience. The half-day program consists of realistic training exercises culminating in a simulated mission. Pensacola. The National Museum of Naval Aviation displays 150-plus military aircraft and has motion-based simulators that let you "fly" an F/A-18. Better yet, the U.S. Navy Precision Flight Team (familiar to most of us as the Blue Angels) is based here, so you may get to observe them in action at 700 mph. Tampa. If you think the pursuit of happiness is a high-speed activity, head for Busch Gardens, Florida's premier roller-coaster location. SheiKra is one of the world's tallest dive coasters, Kumba features one of the world's largest vertical loops, and Montu (a gut-churning inverted coaster) delivers a g-force of 3.85.

Something Old, Something New

You don't have to look far for "New Florida." It's evident in skyscrapers and sprawling suburbs, in malls, multiplexes, and the ubiquitous condo complexes that obscure parts of the coast. Yet it is easy enough to find reminders of the state's rich past.

Apalachicola. A booming cotton-and-lumber industry turned this Panhandle town into a bustling port in the 19th century. Now it's part of the Forgotten Coast. Hundreds of preserved buildings, ranging from antebellum warehouses to gracious Victorian-style homes, give it a time-warped appeal. Coral Gables. You can soak up 1920s architecture in Miami Beach. But in nearby Coral Gables you can soak in it at the Venetian Pool, a vintage municipal lagoon fashioned from a quarry. Back in the day it attracted Johnny Weissmuller, Esther Williams, and other legendary swimmers. Cross Creek. You can tour the Cracker-style house where Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings wrote The Yearling at Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Historic State Park from October through July and visit the surrounding farm and grove year-round. St. Augustine. Fortify yourself at Castillo de San Marcos. Built by the Spanish to defend La Florida, this formidable 17th-century structure is America's oldest masonry fort. Even kids whose interest in architecture stops at Cinderella Castle will be impressed by its turrets, moat, and double drawbridge.

Hitting the Greens

With more courses than any other state and weather that allows for year-round play, Florida is a dream destination for golfers. Ready to go for it? The tourism board's new, dedicated golf site (www.golf.visitflorida.com) will point you in the right direction.

The Breakers. Floridians' fascination with golf began in 1897 when the state's first course opened at this Palm Beach resort. (Rockefellers, Vanderbilts, and Astors are all listed in the guest book.) Today, the original 70-par Ocean Course offers spectacular Atlantic views and challenging shots on 140 acres. Doral Golf Resort & Spa. The Blue Monster understandably grabs the spotlight here: the par-72 course has been a stop on the PGA tour for more than 45 years. But the Miami resort has four other championship courses (including the new Jim McLean Signature Course) as well as McLean's own golf school. PGA Village. Owned and operated by the PGA, this Port St. Lucie venue boasts three championship courses designed by Tom Fazio and Pete Dye, plus a 35-acre Golf Learning and Performance Center that can turn weekend duffers into scratch players. A free museum of golf memorabilia is also on-site. Reunion Resort. This spot near Orlando just keeps upping its game. Not content with having courses laid out by Tom Watson, Arnold Palmer, and Jack Nicklaus, it recently added the Annika Academy, a golf school named for LPGA phenom Annika Sörenstam and overseen by her coach, Henri Reis.

Updated: 10-2013

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