Florida is a long, lean peninsula anchored to the mainland by a "panhandle," so the distances between destinations may surprise you. Panama City, for example, is closer to New Orleans than to Orlando, and Tallahassee, though only 8 miles from the Georgia border, is a whopping 465 miles from Miami Beach. Key West, similarly, is 494 miles from Jacksonville, yet only 90 miles from Cuba. When plotting your dream trip, study a map to determine how easy it will be to connect the dots—or simply follow one of these tried-and-true itineraries. If you have two or more weeks to drive through the state, you can do them all.
3 to 4 Days: Orlando
Anyone can easily spend a week doing the attractions. (Remember, Walt Disney World alone is roughly the size of San Francisco.) But unless you're a die-hard ride hound, a few days will let you sample them and still enjoy some of Orlando's other amenities. The hard part is deciding where to start. The Magic Kingdom has the greatest concentration of classic sites, and Epcot proves this really is a small world. Film buffs can get reel at Disney's Hollywood Studios or Universal Studios, and thrill seekers can get their hearts pumping at Islands of Adventure. As for wildlife encounters, you can do like Dolittle at Disney's Animal Kingdom or SeaWorld. On top of all that, there's a sufficient number of water parks—including both old favorites such as Wet 'n Wild and newer entries like Aquatica—to make you forget you're inland. In the city itself, art connoisseurs can survey the collection of modern paintings at the Orlando Museum of Art, and flower fans can check out Orlando blooms in the 50-acre Harry P. Leu Gardens. Boaters can take advantage of the area's numerous lakes, and golfers can link up on courses designed by the sport's biggest stars.
2 to 3 Days: Panhandle
Let's be honest: people come to Florida's Panhandle primarily for those white-sand beaches. Some of the best in the country are along this coastline, affectionately known as the Redneck Riviera. But it's possible to work on a tan and still work in some sightseeing. At Gulf Islands National Seashore, for instance, you can soak up the sun, cast a fishing net, take a hike, tour centuries-old forts, and have time left for a trip into historic Pensacola. After beach time around Apalachicola Bay, head north through the canopied roads around Apalachicola National Forest. Then get a true taste of the Old South in moss-draped Tallahassee. Yet another day could be devoted to glorious Grayton Beach, where diving and kayaking can be followed up with a relaxing drive along Route 30A to cute, nostalgia-inducing communities like WaterColor and Seaside. When planning your trip, bear in mind that the Panhandle not only has its own time zone but its own tourism season—summer, and that's prime time for beach-going.
2 to 3 Days: Space Coast
If you need proof that Florida was the first part of the United States to be settled, look no further than St. Augustine. It was founded by the Spanish in 1565, and visiting Castillo de San Marcos (its colonial-era fortress) or strolling the streets of the Old City that grew up around it allows you to experience life in the past lane. Taking in the stellar sites at the 150,000-acre Kennedy Space Center has just the opposite effect. Although it may seem centuries removed, the nation's oldest continuously inhabited city is less than two hours by car from our launch pad to the moon. Between them, you can hear the call of the wild at Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, catch a wave like local surfing legend Kelly Slater, or blissfully hit the beach at Canaveral National Seashore. (The 24-mile preserve remains undeveloped, so you lounge in the shelter of dunes, not the shadow of high-rises.) Racier options also await—just reset your GPS for Daytona Beach. Its International Speedway, which has hosted NASCAR's Daytona 500 every February since 1959, is a must-see for stock-car enthusiasts, and there's plenty to do here year-round even if it's not a race day.
2 to 3 Days: Gold Coast and Treasure Coast
The opulent mansions of Palm Beach's Ocean Boulevard give you a glimpse of how the richer half lives. For exclusive boutique shopping, art gallery browsing, and glittery sightseeing, sybarites should wander down "The Avenue" (that's Worth Avenue to non-Palm Beachers). The sporty set will find dozens of places to tee up (hardly surprising given that the PGA is based here), along with tennis courts, polo clubs, even a croquet center. Those who'd like to see more of the Gold Coast can continue traveling south through Boca Raton to Fort Lauderdale (justifiably known as the Yachting Capital of the World). But to balance the highbrow with the low-key, turn northward for a tour of the Treasure Coast. Notable for its outdoor opportunities and Old Florida ambience, this region was named for the booty spilled by a fleet of Spanish galleons shipwrecked here in 1715, and for centuries treasure kept washing ashore south of Sebastian Inlet. These days you're more likely to discover manatees and golden surfing opportunities. You can also look for the sea turtles that lay their own little treasures in the sands from March through October.
2 to 3 Days: Miami Area
Greater Miami lays claim to the country's most celebrated strand—South Beach—and lingering on it tops most tourist itineraries. (The Ocean Drive section, lined with edgy clubs, boutiques, and eateries, is where the see-and-be-seen crowd gathers.) Once you've checked out the candy-color art deco architecture, park yourself to ogle the parade of stylish people. Or join them in browsing Lincoln Road Mall, and be sure to check out its latest addition, the glittering Frank Gehry-designed New World Symphony. Later, merengue over to Calle Ocho, the epicenter of Miami's Cuban community. Elsewhere in the area, Coconut Grove, Coral Gables, and the Miami Design District (an 18-block area crammed with showrooms and galleries) warrant a visit as well. Since Miami is the sole U.S. city with two national parks and a national preserve in its backyard, it is also a convenient base for eco-excursions. You can take a day trip to the Everglades; get a spectacular view of the reefs from a glass-bottom boat in Biscayne National Park; and then spot some rare wood storks in Big Cypress Swamp, which is best explored via Alligator Alley (Interstate 75).
2 to 3 Days: Florida Keys
Some dream of "sailing away to Key Largo," others of "wasting away again in Margaritaville." In any case, almost everybody equates the Florida Keys with relaxation. And they live up to their reputation, thanks to offbeat attractions and that fabled come-as-you-are, do-as-you-please vibe. Key West, alternately known as the Conch Republic, is a good place to get initiated. The Old Town has a funky, laid-back feel. So take a leisurely walk, pay your respects to Ernest Hemingway, and then (if you haven't imbibed too much at one of the renowned watering holes) rent a moped to tour the rest of the island. Clear waters and abundant marine life make underwater activities another must. After scoping out the parrotfish, you can head back into town and join local Parrotheads in a Jimmy Buffett sing-along. When retracing your route to the mainland, plan a last pit stop at Bahia Honda State Park (it has ranger-led activities plus the Keys' best beach) or John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, which offers unparalleled snorkeling and scuba diving.
2 to 3 Days: Tampa Bay Area
Whether you bypassed Orlando's theme parks or simply want to add another one to your list, Busch Gardens is a logical starting point. With hair-raising rides and more than 2,000 animals, it appeals to adrenaline junkies and 'fraidy cats alike. Later you can catch a pro-sporting event (Tampa has Major League baseball, football, and hockey teams) or catch an act in the Spanish-inflected Ybor City entertainment district. If you're more interested in catching some rays, try Caladesi Island State Park to the west of the city or Fort De Soto Park at the mouth of Tampa Bay. After exploring the Riverwalk's new museums, culture vultures can take day trips to the galleries in St. Petersburg and to Sarasota's thriving arts scene. Nature lovers proceed north to Crystal River, where you can snorkel with the manatees that congregate in the warm water November through March.
Now that one-way airfares are commonplace, vacationers visiting multiple destinations can fly into and out of different airports. Rent a car in between, picking it up at your point of arrival and leaving it at your point of departure. If you do this itinerary as an entire vacation, your best bet is to fly into and out of Orlando and rent a car from there.
Inquire about scheduled activities when visiting national and state parks or preserves. Many of them run free or low-cost ranger-led programs that run the gamut from walks and talks to campfires and canoe trips.
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