Alternative Florida: the Sunshine State beyond Miami & Orlando

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Portia Jones

Portia Jones

With miles of white-sand shores, warm azure waters and year-round sunshine, it's easy to see why Florida* is a holiday haven in the US. The sunshine state attracts around 131 million visitors per year and is a wildly popular family holiday destination.

Alternative Florida holiday destinations © Vladislav Zadjko - Alamy Stock Photo
Alternative Florida holiday destinations © Vladislav Zadjko - Alamy Stock Photo

Florida is probably best known for being the home of Walt Disney World Resort and dozens of other world-famous theme parks, clustered around the city of Orlando*.

This former swampland was transformed by Walt Disney in the '60s and, today, Orlando is filled with thrilling parks, entertainment complexes, malls and hotels, and provides fantastic escapism in a sub-tropical climate.

The coastal metropolis of Miami* is another visitor favourite and offers a blend of beach and city life with buzzing downtown bars, art deco architecture and palm-fringed, pristine beaches.

Yet, outside of these hugely popular cities, there are plenty of alternative destinations in Florida for curious travellers and sun-seekers. From city beaches to national parks, here are some of my top picks for Florida destinations you must visit for your next holiday.

Getting to Florida: if you're looking to explore Florida beyond the big hitters of Miami and Orlando, you can do just that with a great value break from TUI*, which departs from airports across the UK.

Clearwater

Dreamy Gulf coast beaches and dazzling sunsets await at this peninsula. Voted the best beach in the USA, the sugar-fine white sand and gentle waters are proud trademarks of Clearwater Beach*.

Aerial view of Clearwater’s superb beach, Florida © Artiom.photo - Adobe Stock Image
Aerial view of Clearwater’s superb beach, Florida © Artiom.photo - Adobe Stock Image

The meandering beachfront promenade is also extremely walkable for a US city and lined with inviting seafood restaurants and upscale hotels.

The lively downtown area is also worth visiting and is Clearwater's cultural hub, home to swish galleries, performing arts venues and music festivals.

Sunset at Pier 60 is a big draw for locals, pro photographers and visitors, who come to experience a nightly celebration.

Artisans selling handmade soaps and jewellery can be found alongside entertaining street theatre and music as the sun dips below the shoreline in a spectacular blaze of colour.

Dolphin-watching is another popular activity at Clearwater. Book a boat trip with Little Toot and see dolphins in their natural habitat on a cruise of Clearwater Harbor on the eastern fringes of the Gulf of Mexico.

For wildlife lovers, unspoilt Caladesi Island State Park is just a short boat ride away and is home to a wide range of animals, as well as hiking trails and waterways.

Racoons, ospreys and tortoises shelter in the tropical mangrove forests and reefs, so don't forget to bring your camera! Rent a kayak on the island's white-sand shores and paddle around to spot turtles in the balmy waters.

St Petersburg

Just 25 minutes from Tampa, the bohemian beach city of St Petersburg, affectionately known as St Pete*, has a revitalised downtown area, bursting with boutique shops, street art and hipster cafés.

Take a stroll down Central Avenue for vintage finds murals and street eats. The eclectic '600 Block' has retained its historic 1920's brick facade buildings and has carefully repurposed them to house shops, breweries, galleries, record shops and restaurants.

Make sure to grab a moreish, made-to-order Cuban sandwich from Bodega on Central and a refreshing craft IPA from Green Bench Brewing Co.

Art is also abundant in the city with the Dalí Museum being the most impressive gallery offering, with swirling staircases and a free-form glass geodesic structure.

Home to the largest collection of Spanish surrealist Salvador Dalí's works outside of Spain, you'll find priceless masterpieces here including sculptures, oil paintings and original drawings from the undisputed master of surrealism.

Daytona Beach

Found on Florida's Atlantic coast, Daytona* may have a party town rep, but there's plenty to do at the sprawling beach city outside of spring break shenanigans.

Action in the pit lane at Daytona International Speedway © Walter Arce - Dreamstime.com
Action in the pit lane at Daytona International Speedway © Walter Arce - Dreamstime.com

Known as the spiritual home of NASCAR, race fans flock here for the dynamic Daytona International Speedway and the Daytona 500, the biggest race event of the year.

This is a hugely popular event in the motorsports calendar, so be sure to book your race tickets months in advance and make time to visit the Motorsports Hall of Fame and take a speedway tour while visiting.

For racing aficionados with a healthy budget, there's even a NASCAR Racing Experience offering thrilling laps of the 2.5-mile tri-oval speedway.

You can drive or ride along in an authentic NASCAR vehicle as you tear around the track, feeling every inch of the sharp banking turns at this iconic race circuit.

Outside of racing, the best thing about Daytona is the expansive, 500ft-wide beach that's ideal for a dip or catching a pro-volleyball tournament.

Thanks to compacted sand, it's also one of the few places in Florida where you can drive on the beach ($20 per vehicle) in designated areas. After a busy day driving and bathing, feast on delicious Caribbean lobster tail at Chucherias Restaurant.

Fort Lauderdale

Golden sand beaches and boating canals feature prominently in Florida's millionaire playground of Fort Lauderdale*. Here, you can catch a glimpse of the divine intercoastal homes and super yachts of the rich and famous.

The intercoastal city of Fort Lauderdale, Florida, USA © Thierrydehove - Dreamstime.com
The intercoastal city of Fort Lauderdale, Florida, USA © Thierrydehove - Dreamstime.com

Dubbed 'the Venice of America' you can also cruise the blue-green waters on a sophisticated sailing trip or aboard the vintage Jungle Queen riverboat.

Water sports are widely available here; you can book surfing lessons off the shores of Lauderdale Beach, go kayaking through the Venetian Isles and try scuba diving amongst colourful reefs and ghostly shipwrecks.

Greater Fort Lauderdale also has the accolade of being the only place in the continental USA where you can scuba or snorkel on a living coral reef straight from the beach.

For city slickers, shopping, sidewalk cafés and al-fresco dining are plentiful. Stylish shops, galleries and upscale restaurants line the commercial strip of Las Olas Boulevard.

This shopping district can even be reached by boat for car-free travellers, as water taxi number '2' stops right by the chic boulevard.

Naples

Perched on the Gulf of Mexico, Naples* is a cosmopolitan golfing and shopping hub in southwest Florida, with affluent neighbourhoods and gentle surf.

For shoppers, sophisticated shops, galleries and home interior boutiques are found in the historic downtown area, clustered around Fifth Avenue South and Third Street South.

With 280 average days of sunshine and a warm sea breeze, the public beaches are the obvious place to head to for sunbathing on powdery white sand and swimming in calm and clear waters.

Some of the best beaches include Naples Pier Beach, Seagate Beach and Clam Pass Beach Park.

Beauty and drama in Everglades National Park, Florida © Chr. Offenberg - Adobe Stock Image
Beauty and drama in Everglades National Park, Florida © Chr. Offenberg - Adobe Stock Image

Naples is well-positioned to explore the immaculate beaches of swanky Marco Island where boating, paddleboarding and seafood restaurants are plentiful.

The Everglades National Park is also located nearby and offers gator-spotting opportunities in the humid wetlands. Wizz through the subtropical swamps at high speed on a fan boat adventure.

Florida Keys

On the southern tip of Florida and the fringes of the Caribbean, you'll find an archipelago of paradise islands that make up the laid-back Florida Keys.

Surrounded by the topaz waters of the Gulf and the Atlantic, the Keys are predominantly made up of five destinations: Key West, the Lower Keys, Key Largo, Marathon and Islamorada, each with their own distinctive vibe.

The islands are surprisingly accessible by car and you can drive all the way to Key West on the impressive Overseas Highway that connects mainland Florida to the Keys.

This coastal road trip stretches over 113 miles and crosses 42 bridges, offering specular scenery along the way.

Expansive sandy beaches, water sports and world-class wreck diving are widely available in the archipelago and shallow colourful reefs also offer snorkelling opportunities, for those who don't scuba.

Duval Street in the centre of Key West, Florida © Vincent Lammin - Flickr Creative Commons
Duval Street in the centre of Key West, Florida © Vincent Lammin - Flickr Creative Commons

Culture and raucous nightlife can be found in Key West, the southernmost point in the United States. This chilled-out island comes to life when the sun goes down and you can bar hop to find the best live music and rum cocktails and karaoke.

Famously frequented by Hemmingway, Sloppy Joe's is one of the most iconic bars in the Keys and has been around since the end of the prohibition era. It's worth visiting for its Key West Hurricane cocktails, daily live music and bouncing party scene.

Weather in Florida

  Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec
Maximum daytime temperature °C
Hours of sunshine (daily)
Days with some rainfall
Sea temperature °C

The above shows the weather in St Pete. You can find out more about the weather across the state in our complete weather guide to Florida's holiday destinations.

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Portia Jones

Portia Jones
Posted on Wednesday 13th July 2022 in: Caribbean City Excursions North America

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