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Celebrating 500 years of La Florida

This year marks the 500th anniversary of the discovery of ‘La Florida’ by the Spanish explorer, Juan Ponce de León. Plenty has changed since the European’s arrival, including the region’s entertainment hub, Orlando, having developed into one of the most visited cities in the US. But the Sunshine State has much more to offer than just amusement parks

This year marks the 500th anniversary of the discovery of ‘La Florida’ by the Spanish explorer, Juan Ponce de León. Plenty has changed since the European’s arrival, including the region’s entertainment hub, Orlando, having developed into one of the most visited cities in the US. But the Sunshine State has much more to offer than just amusement parks

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Stop 1: St Augustine

“Boom!” As I fire the cannon, the deck begins to shake and I’m pretty sure the galleon I’ve targeted is going to be toast. Captain Jack would be proud, but this isn’t Disney World. And the cannon isn’t real but a model one, part of an interactive display. I’m shivering me timbers on a rare, rainy afternoon at the booty-licious St Augustine Pirate & Treasure Museum, my first stop on a two-week road trip. This small, quirky city on Florida’s northeast coast became the first European settlement in the US, not long after Spanish explorers arrived in 1513, searching for gold.

The downpour over, I head outside to search for signs of St Augustine’s rich, colonial past. It doesn’t take long. From the battlements of the 17th-century Castillo de San Marcos to the cobbled streets of the Colonial Quarter — a living history museum, complete with tavernas, blacksmith’s forge and boatyard — the city transports you to another age.

I hop on and off an Old Time Trolley Tours bus for easy access to attractions including the Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park, and later join a sangria-fuelled City Walks ghost tour, around what’s rumoured to be one of America’s most haunted destinations. Suitably spooked, I fall into bed, dreaming of ghostly pirate ships.

Next morning, I’m captaining a slightly smaller, less sinister craft on a Ripple Effect Ecotours kayaking trip through the Guana Tolomato Matanzas National Estuarine Research Reserve, outside the city. Paddling through the salt marsh and mangrove wetlands, our guide points out ospreys, bald eagles and bottlenose dolphins. Luckily, there’s not a pirate in sight… floridashistoriccoast.com
Stop 2: Ocala

“It’s important not to grab the wire, because you’ll dislocate your shoulder,” says my reassuring guide, José. I’ve driven an hour-and-a-half west and I’m about to launch myself along a 1,100ft-long zip-wire, suspended over 130ft above a canyon. The lake at the bottom looks almost like a puddle.

The Canyons park is home to the longest, highest and fastest zip-wires in Florida, offering canopy eco-adventures with (literally) breathtaking views. And, despite the initial feeling of terror, after soaring bird-stylee over the incredible landscape, I’m hooked.

I survive, shoulders intact, and slow the pace, paddling through Ocala National Forest with Kenny, from Central Florida Nature Adventures.

Ocala is black bear country and, although they’re picnicking elsewhere today, we see alligators, turtles, wild hogs and snakes, as we drift along the crystal-clear river. “Can you believe we’re an hour from Orlando?” smiles Kenny. We could be on another planet. ocalamarion.com
Stop 3: Crystal River

In less than two hours, I reach Crystal River on Florida’s west coast. After an interesting night’s sleep, where I still seem to be flying, I head to the Plantation on Crystal River’s Adventure Centre to pick up my snorkel gear and board a boat to go and meet a manatee.

The region’s spring-fed waters maintain a year-round temperature of 22°C, providing a vital refuge for these endangered marine mammals, with up to 400 wintering here to escape the cold, feed, mate and give birth.

Our guide, Captain Jeff Sandmann, soon spots two large, grey shapes in the shallows. I slip quietly into the water and, without kicking, swim towards them.

“It’s important not to splash or chase them,” warns Jeff, “but they’re curious, so they may approach you.” He’s right, but I try to keep a respectful distance, watching them watching me, as they gently graze on seagrass on the riverbed. I’m not sure how a collision with a half-ton manatee would feel, but I figure it’s best not to find out.

Time’s up and I leave the manatees’ underwater world for a warming hot chocolate back on the boat. It seems I did get to visit Florida’s Magic Kingdom after all. visitcitrus.com
Stop 4: Sanibel & Captiva

Just as I’m wondering what could match meeting a manatee, two bottlenose dolphins break through the waves at the bough of our boat. Their acrobatics and skill at outrunning our pacey 20 metre-long cruiser, draw squeals of delight from kids, who are reaching so far over the rails, they’re in danger of becoming part of the show.

My road trip has brought me to Sanibel and Captiva, idyllic sub-tropical barrier islands that lie in the Gulf of Mexico, just off the southwest coast of Florida, connected to the mainland by a small bridge. Having escaped Florida’s intense development, the islands are a haven for wildlife, with over half of Sanibel occupied by reserves. The largest is the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge, which protects precious mangrove habitat, along with native animal and plant species and thousands of migratory birds.

Sun-drenched days searching for shells on the white-sugar sandy beaches and sundowner cocktails at The Mucky Duck make it easy for visitors to switch off and slow to the islands’ pace. I could easily stay the month, but after a few days, it’s time to move on. Relaxed and recharged, I drag myself away and drive across the long causeway to the mainland before heading south to Florida’s steamy swamplands… fortmyers-sanibel.com
Stop 5: The Everglades

‘Violators will be shot!’ reads the keep-out sign, which our captain completely ignores, as our airboat idles along a narrow channel surrounded by thick mangroves. Shifting nervously, we look at each other, then at him. It’s not quite the ‘Have a nice day!’ we’ve all come to expect of America.

“Snake!” shrieks a fellow passenger, momentarily distracting us from the gun threat still hanging in the hot and humid air. People grapple for cameras while keeping their eyes firmly fixed on the long, stripy — and surely venomous — reptile dangling menacingly above our heads.

Just as we glide below the branch, our captain can restrain himself no longer. “Gotcha all!” He roars a big-belly laugh as we slowly come to realise the snake is rubber and the sign a spoof. The locals like a little joke at Corey Billie’s Airboat Rides. Ha. Ha.

Pranks over, we zoom across the vast Everglades wetlands, spotting alligators, herons and wood storks — grateful for the ear protectors that drown out the airboat engine.

Next morning, before dawn, we’re riding another iconic Everglades vehicle, searching for ’gators in the early-morning mist of Big Cypress Swamp. Captain Steve’s mammoth swamp buggy rumbles through the ancient landscape before we venture on foot to a water hole.

“There’s our ’gator!” says Steve, pointing out what seems to be a 20ft-long log. Slowly, she turns her head to see who’s come for breakfast and there’s no doubt in anyone’s mind that this up-close wildlife encounter is for real. paradisecoast.co.uk
Stop 6: Florida Keys

The Overseas Highway is one of those roads everyone should drive once in their lifetime. Linking the major islands in the Florida Keys, it crosses turquoise seas under endless blue horizons, leading travellers to the southernmost town in continental US, Key West.

Take your time getting to the rainbow’s end and you’ll find little pots of gold along the way. Stop off at Key Largo’s John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park to snorkel or dive on the planet’s third largest barrier reef. If you’d rather be on the water than under it, paddle the mangrove islands of Great White Heron National Wildlife Refuge with Big Pine Kayak Adventures, before treating yourself to pizza at the No Name Pub (if you can find it). And for a lazier day, there’s no prettier place for a picnic than the beach at Bahia Honda State Park.

My trip nearly up, I spend my last few days in Key West, the party town of the Keys and continental USA’s southernmost city, which attracts artists and authors, bohos and bikers, hippies and hipsters and pretty much everyone in between.

I wander the Ernest Hemingway Home & Museum, pass a dreamy hour at the Key West Butterfly & Nature Conservatory, squeeze in a sunset sailing trip, sink Sloppy Rita’s at Sloppy Joe’s and eat so much Key lime pie, I turn a little lime-coloured myself. On my last day, I swim with wild dolphins.

Orlando may be the place for thrills and spills, but take time to discover what else Florida has to offer and you could just find yourself having the ride of your life. fla-keys.co.uk
Go to Visitflorida.com to find out more.