Heading away on holiday should be about discovering new places, escaping the grind and immersing yourself in new experiences.
But it doesn’t always pan out like that. How much time have you spent abroad waiting in crowded queues, paying through the nose for mediocre food and feeling like the whole thing was overly tourist-y?
In sunny Florida, escaping this trap and getting that local vibe means one thing: renting a car.
The state’s coastline is the ultimate place to explore by car, whether you’re making your way down the Florida Keys, sampling the glorious beaches on the Atlantic Coast, finding the hidden gems along Florida’s West Coast or visiting places like Naples, Marco Island and the Everglades, St. Pete/Clearwater and Tampa Bay. The roads are straight, the routes are scenic and you’ll see a piece of Florida you never knew existed.
Start your four-wheeled exploration of Florida in Greater Fort Lauderdale. Buzzing with a vibrant nightlife scene, beautiful beaches and top-quality restaurants, the city has shed its party hard image and has a sophisticated feel.
For a little off-the-beaten track enjoyment, don’t miss the Bonnet House Museum and Gardens (the Spanish-style former home of Chicago artist Frederic Clay Bartlett, which overlooks lovely woodlands and water). When you get hungry, Grampa’s is a local favourite for a stack of pancakes, or try the bottomless brunch at cocktail and burger haunt Tap 42.
If you’re looking to explore Florida’s West Coast, the fastest route to get you there is the I-75 N, with a total drive time of four hours. After an hour’s drive, turn left onto state road 29, which takes you directly down to Everglades City. Here, you’ll find the heart of the Everglades and an entrance point for the historic wetlands preserve.
The best part of this is that most people visiting the Everglades approach it from the east, so you’re accessing the park’s less-busy areas by entering from the northwest.
You’ll find smaller crowds, but an atmosphere that’s pure magic. Rent a canoe, kayak or boat to see the Ten Thousand Islands for a peaceful glide along the water and some exciting wildlife spotting – including dolphins and manatees – along the way.
Marco Island is the largest of the Ten Thousand Islands and is one of the more off-the-beaten track gems, with three and a half miles of white, sandy beach and warm waters perfect for sailing. Be sure to wade across the lagoon to enjoy the stunning Tigertail Beach, before grabbing a cocktail at the outside tiki bar at Snook Inn. Another fun find? Marco Movies is a quirky take on the classic movie night: watch your film while eating your dinner in a restaurant-cum-cinema.
Naples, a 40-minute drive north of Marco Island, is often considered the go-to destination for high-end amenities and culture – the shopping, art and dining scenes in downtown Naples are among the best the state has to offer. There’s also plenty of adventure to be found in Naples: glide over water on a jet pack, bond with dolphins on a dolphin tour and head to the wetlands to see gators, birds and amazing plant-life at the Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary.
If you’re celebrating a special occasion, you’ll love the atmosphere and French fare on offer at Escargot 41, including an entire page of escargot options (who knew you could cook snails so many ways?) For something more low-key, Grouper and Chips is a popular hole-in-the-wall, while Taqueria San Julian serves up the best shrimp tacos and steak quesadillas this side of the border.
Enjoy the two-and-a-half hour drive up the Gulf Coast to St. Pete/Clearwater, and then stretch your legs by going for a bike ride, walk or skate along the oak-lined Pinellas Trail, a 40-mile stretch from St. Pete/Clearwater to Tarpon Springs.
St. Pete/Clearwater is known for its glorious waterfront, but if you want to get away from it all and go somewhere more secluded, you’ll find one of Florida’s best beaches nestled in Caladesi Island State Park, where you can also walk the nature trail (try spotting a snake or raccoon on your stroll). You can access the island by boat from Clearwater beach, take the ferry from Honeymoon Island State Park or walk the three miles to get there.
The Saturday morning market is worth a visit for fresh vegetables, jams and delicious baked goods. When it comes to entertainment, don’t miss the fascinating glassblowing display at the Morean Arts Centre.
Next comes Tampa Bay – roughly a 40-minute drive north of St. Pete/Clearwater. You can deposit your car here, but, before you do, drive to Plant City, which is all about the strawberries (depending on the time of year you visit, you might get to pick your own berries). The Greek fishing village of Tarpon Springs is another must-see and is dotted with Greek tavernas for lunch.
Last up, Ybor City in Tampa Bay is the funky, artsy capital of the city that was once the heart of the cigar-manufacturing industry. After dusk, enjoy the live music and dancing, Cuban fare at local favourite La Tropicana and the bustling nightlife the neighbourhood has to offer.