From north to south and east to west, the Sunshine State delivers on fun and local culture.
Story by Jim Byers, Vacay.ca Writer
In every corner of Florida, there’s fun, adventure and unique finds to discover. Here’s a look at five diverse places to put on your itinerary next time you’re in the Sunshine State.
NORTHEAST: AMELIA ISLAND
This is a wonderful, throw-back kind of spot north of Jacksonville and just south of the border with Georgia. The north end of the island features the fun, funky town of Fernandina Beach, with a low-rise main street and pretty shops and restaurants. It’s the sort of place where people still stroll arm in arm and wolf down ice cream cones on shady benches. There’s also some wonderful galleries and fun shopping in places such as Pickers Market, where you’ll find a wild array of just about everything; furniture, 1970’s disco records, beach-inspired home décor items and more. Drop into the Palace Saloon and admire the dark wood bar and tin ceiling. It’s the oldest operating saloon in Florida, the owners say. Kids and most adults will get a charge out of visiting Fort Clinch, where workers dressed as Civil War soldiers will spin yarns about the old days and show off the sights. You’ll find pretty views of the water from here. You also can take boat rides in the harbour. Farther south there’s more development, including the wonderful Ritz-Carlton Amelia Island and a couple of great golf courses at the Omni Amelia Island Plantation Resort.
This is a bit of a hidden beach town, just south of cultured Sarasota. It was very much a society spot back in the day, with stars such as Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Henry Ford and Thomas Edison making their way south for sand and sun. The population is getting younger now as folks discover the beautiful, quiet beaches and the pretty downtown, where you’ll find tons of parks and towering trees, and where buildings are kept to a strict height limit. The beach is famous for shark’s teeth and there’s a pretty pier with a colourful, waterfront restaurant called Sharky’s. Try the macadamia nut-crusted grouper and shrimp, and be prepared for huge portions. Folks looking for more elegance or romance should aim for the Crow’s Nest, located on a pretty marina with excellent seafood. Better yet, grab an ice cream or a chocolate pretzel at Kilwin’s Chocolate on the main street, Venice Avenue, and watch the passersby. The Inn at the Beach is right across the road from a fine stretch of sand. http://www.innatthebeach.com/ A spacious Hampton Inn and Suites is just a few minutes away that’s ideal for a small family, provided you have a car to get you there.
SOUTHWEST: CHOKOLOSKEE ISLAND
This is a remote, tiny spot south of Everglades City, itself a speck of a town that rarely finds its way into the fashionable travel magazines focusing on spiffy South Beach. But that’s what I like about the place. It’s a rural outpost southeast of Naples where the emphasis is on Everglades adventures; quiet kayaking among serene mangrove swamps and out on the open water. You might spot bald eagles in their nest or dolphins playing in the clear water. You’ll surely see plenty of elegant egrets or ibis stalking their breakfast. The Everglades City motel is a comfortable spot with renovated rooms and free bikes you can use. Camelia Street Grill is a fun restaurant in Everglades City with an outdoor patio on a placid stretch of river. The area has a colourful history, as evidenced by a visit to the glorious Smallwood Store. Among the old-time candy bars and soap boxes and green soda bottles that read “Kickapoo Joy Juice” you’ll find stories of how a local businessman was allegedly cheating his employees back in the day. He was set upon one day by a group of workers and killed. When I was at the store there was a small sign that read, “Killing Mr. Watson was a community project.” A tad macabre, but the old-style displays of old-style goods are utterly charming.
SOUTHEAST: DELRAY BEACH
This town doesn’t get a lot of press, sandwiched as it is by Miami and Fort Lauderdale to the south and Palm Beach to the north. But it’s an adorable, walkable and beautiful community with lovely, shaded outdoor cafes and a lively arts scene. Located in the refurbished Pineapple Grove Arts District, the Gallery Arts Garage features lively displays you might expect in Dallas or Denver. The Delray Center for the Arts at Old School Square (http://delraycenterforthearts.org/) features a theatre complex, art school and museum, partly housed in a beautiful old school dating nearly 100 years. Deck 84 makes tasty fish tacos and has tables just a few yards from the Intracoastal Waterway. The Seagate Hotel (http://www.theseagatehotel.com/) is a classy spot close to the beach. Folks on more of a budget should try the spiffy Hyatt Place (http://delraybeach.place.hyatt.com/en/hotel/home.html) in the thick of the downtown shopping and restaurant scene.
This is one the coolest towns I’ve found in Florida. Apalachicola is a way off-the-beaten-track city that’s east of Panama City Beach and southwest of Tallahassee on the Florida Panhandle. It’s not quite the city that time forgot, but parts of it feel like time at least got up and left for a while before coming back. You’ll find cool shops such as Charming Comforts and Deep Southern Boutique and also a very good craft brewery called Oyster City as well as old-style shops selling old buoys and pirate statues and other bric-a-brac. Gibson Inn (http://www.gibsoninn.com/) is a fine old hotel with a massive porch that just begs for a cold, frosty glass of lemonade, a morning cup of coffee or a brew from Oyster City. Hole in the Wall serves truly massive oysters and other seafood, while Up the Creek Raw Bar has a nice upstairs patio with fine views of the Apalachicola River. There’s surprisingly cool shopping, too, with lovely brick buildings and a few stores that wouldn’t look out of place in Miami’s South Beach. A few minutes east is St. George Island, with a great lighthouse and family-style seafood joints. A fine nature centre is nearby where you can stroll on boardwalks and inspect the mangrove islands or wander inside to learn about local marine life, including live turtles they have on display. A great spot for a rainy day.