Florida was the stop I was most anticipating on this trip. I am familiar with the panhandle, having been to the Pensacola and Destin areas several times. I was particularly looking forward to visiting Key West, since I first heard about it years ago.
Driving south from Georgia, I stopped at the Official Welcome Center, just inside the state line. I was pleasantly surprised at the notable effort the state has put into being hospitable. Visitors could choose from fresh-squeezed orange or grapefruit juice and talk to an official to get travel tips. Boasting the longest coastline in the contiguous United States, tourism is a big part of Florida’s economy.
Inland Florida is not much to write home about. Gentle hills or plains, low-lying scrub and trees dominate the landscape. The coastlines range from drab to magnificent, depending on which one you choose to visit. Any place that Florida markets as a vacation destination is usually worth the trip.
Tampa is a fun, smaller city on the Gulf of Mexico. I visited a part of downtown called Channelside. This section has a small shopping district as well as restaurants, entertainment and the Florida Aquarium. Not too far away is Ybor City, a historic Latin Quarter. The finest cigars made in the US have come from here since the 1880s. It’s a National Historic Landmark District.
Key West, by the Florida Straits, was so much fun! The temperature was in the low 80s with high humidity, and they told me this was a good time to visit. The climate is definitely tropical and, thus, a bit too warm for me, but I enjoyed the beaches. I’ve always wanted to own a house by the sea, but I won’t be buying that house in Key West. After a 2-hour drive from the mainland on the one road that leads to and from the island, I was left feeling a little claustrophobic.
The island itself is rich in history and old world charm. The trolley tour was worth it. It takes about an hour and a half to tour the island by trolley without getting off at any of the stops. If you want to get the most out of it, plan to stay overnight and spend and least two days exploring Key West. The most popular tourist spot is the Southernmost Point, which is only 90 miles from Cuba and, as its name suggests, also the southernmost point of the contiguous United States. As long there is daylight, tourists are always lining up to take pictures next to this landmark.
I didn’t have time to explore Miami, but driving past the city on I-95, I was surprised by the sheer number of its skyscrapers. I would have to say that downtown Miami seems far greater in size that downtown Los Angeles. There’s just something awe-inspiring about those skyscrapers by the Atlantic–two giants side by side, as it were.
Here’s a fun fact: May to September is low tourist season in Florida and the best time to visit, if you’re not into crowds. The snowbirds go back to the north, Floridians go elsewhere for vacation and prices are lower.