We’re paddling a kayak through a cedar swamp just outside Everglades City when we pass an alligator floating like a log on a sun-dappled mirrored expanse of water. We don’t see a single sign of humanity other than a red kayak mere metres ahead gliding toward a stand of mangrove.
Yesterday we rode a sort of rollercoaster at Universal Studios, a tribute to Dr. Seuss, before stepping onto a train that deposited us in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal.
In two days we’d stop in South Beach in Miami, passing nightclubs boasting bouncers and twenty-dollar cocktails.
Up until this past week, with the callowness of youth (pause for derisive laughter), I was convinced that I knew Florida. I’ve been to Orlando countless times and my wife and I once drove to St. Petersburg, sunning and dining in a delicious antidote to a Canadian winter. I therefore counted myself a Florida illuminati.
Then I saw as through a glass darkly. Now, after a ten-day Florida immersion, I know better.
North to south, Gulf to Atlantic, Bayside to Oceanside in the Keys, Florida has as many faces as the female impersonators whose demonstrations we forego in the myriad bars lining Duval Street in Key West.
Now I’d never suggest that I’m an expert on the Sunshine State, but I know more than I did two weeks ago – and enough to respectfully outline both a few highlights and to humbly offer a couple of Mangrove must-dos.
The Everglades are one of them – you’ll be overwhelmed by their sheer volume and even more by their diversity. I’ve always thought big swamps populated by alligators and cottonmouth snakes. Plenty of the former, too many of the latter, but what gets you is how different the Everglades seem, depending on where you experience them.
The Shark Valley entrance to the National Park offers a guided Tram Tour that shows up what I always thought of as the Everglades – miles and miles of saw grass swamp, half land, half water. But the biosphere is composed of nine different ecosystems, from forests of cypress to mangrove stands where roots are so thick you’d need a machete to negotiate them.
Orlando might feel as surreal as the swamps if all you do are the theme parks – which are admittedly a blast – but there’s a sophisticated side to that city (complete with its own skyline) that many people miss.
Give the real place a chance if you go – keep a day open. They’ve got art walks and sophisticated restaurants (Kres Chop House, housed in an erstwhile historic department store, is one must-do) and a gorgeous new concert hall that’s just opened.
Most people who do Miami hit the beaches. Different beach experience than I’m used to: palm trees dwarfed by skyscrapers, dunes separating the streets from the sand. The Art Deco historic district is fascinating. One highlight there was the Cadet Hotel. Here Clark Gable rested his head. We did too. The place is an elegant oasis amid the sheer adrenaline of South Beach, an inn with absolutely impeccable service (sorry for the shameless plug but these guys were fantastic.) And Little Havana on the mainland part is a definite Miami must-do – you can actually convince yourself without too much of a stretch that you’re landed in Cuba.
Then there are the Keys. A chain of islands a hundred miles long, an emerald necklace surrounded by sapphire waters. Biggest barrier reef in the continental United States, quirky shops and galleries, even a place to learn how to sail (www.keylimesailingclub.com) on Key Largo.
But don’t rush to get to Key West, downright decadent and appealing though it may be. Go deep-sea fishing, take a glass-bottom boat out to a reef, go kayaking in mangrove glades. And eat the freshest fish you ever had (and I’m not even a fish-lover).
Even so, you’d be wise to save some energy for Key West. Think New Orleans on steroids, think Rodeo Drive meets Savannah, think sheer hedonism and unparalleled delights from a street with more than three hundred bars to cultural activities like a tour of the cemetery or the Hemingway House.
I always thought I knew Florida. I did know one or two of her charms.
But she wears many faces, shares many moods, shows a multifaceted personality I’d never imagined.
The Caribbean island of Antigua has for its motto, “the beach is just the beginning.”
Ditto for Florida’s many faces.
TRIP TIPS: To learn more about the myriad attractions Florida offers you can check out these sites: