1/7 Miami to Key West: 160 miles
Fun in Miami
The very concept of the road trip might have been invented for the Florida Keys – the string of low-slung islands that curls down from the main body of the state like a pretty tail. But before you set off, linger in Miami – a city which, for all its reputation as an unabashed party zone, has plenty of family entertainment. Miami Children’s Museum (£11) offers 14 galleries, including ‘Bank’, a six-foot piggybank where kids can design their own money, and a ‘Castle of Dreams’ built of sand.
Explore the Keys
From Miami, follow US Route 1 south until it becomes the ‘Overseas Highway’ – the 128-mile road that links the Keys, flitting over bridges and causeways. Key Largo, the northernmost of the islands, has immediate appeal in the form of John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, a protected area where you can go on a 90-minute snorkelling jaunt (adults £18; under-18s £15), or embark on a glass-bottom-boat ‘safari’ (adults £14, 4-11s £10) in search of the sea turtles that reside in the area.
The journey south becomes increasingly picturesque – especially at islets such as Conch Key and Little Duck Key. And the prize at the end, Key West, is no less appealing. Here, the likes of Smathers Beach and Rest Beach are safe for kids, and the Florida Keys Eco-Discovery Center (free) brings the local ecosystem vividly to life with touch screens and film presentations. Key West Airport offers flights back to Miami.
Find out more: miamiandbeaches.com; fla-keys.co.uk
Hertz recommends: Mustang Convertible
4 passengers, 2 small suitcases, 30mpg
Ideal for families with older children – let the teenagers feel the wind in their hair as you cruise the streets of Miami, take in the sea air and the stunning scenery, on an incredibly cool ride down the Florida Keys.
2/7 Miami to Naples: 121 miles
Miami’s famous South Beach is as much an inviting enclave for families as it is for the joggers and volleyball players who pound its sands. But one of the great joys of southern Florida’s swaggering city is that you can quickly escape its orbit and enter the wilderness.
US Route 41 runs west from the ocean and, within 20 miles, reaches the Everglades – the fabled wetlands where alligators doze at roadsides, crocodiles glide in soupy waters and (elusive) panthers skulk in the shadows. Some of the region is protected as Everglades National Park, and most of it is open to operators who run trips that show off its sharp-toothed reptiles to enthralled children. Captain Jack’s Airboat Tours, based in Everglades City, 80 miles west of Miami, does one-hour airboat rides – adults £23, 4-12s £13, under-4s £1.50.
Marco Island, 30 miles west of Everglades City, is the point where the focus shifts from snap-jawed beasts to the gentle waves of the Gulf coast. Here, Tigertail Beach Park is a lovely seafront strip where white dunes frame a lagoon, ideal for a quiet afternoon. This could act as a precursor to Naples – an elegant town, 20 miles further north, where the wildlife theme can be extended via a search for dolphins. Pure Naples specialises in ‘Dolphin Watch’ cruises on the Gordon River inlet, where these magical mammals leap, soar and splash – adults £20, under-13s £10.20.
Find out more: paradisecoast.co.uk
Hertz recommends: Mercedes E Class
5 passengers, 2 large & 2 small suitcases, 24mpg
Ideal for families with young-teenage children. Enjoy the wilderness of the Everglades, while exploring in luxurious air-conditioned comfort, before arriving in style at the paradise coast.
3/7 Naples to Sarasota: 118 miles
Cruise the coast
Florida’s Gulf coast can be a very different proposition from its Atlantic rival. Certainly, a quieter ambience plays out in southerly Naples – where Vanderbilt Beach is a splendid spot for families to watch seabirds swooping, or to fill a bucket with seashells.
US Route 41 shadows the shoreline as it ebbs north – and 43 miles of it will bring you to Fort Myers, another photogenic town. There are thrills to be had here, especially if you board the ‘Hot Tuna’ – a gaudy yellow jetboat which speeds its passengers around Estero Bay and San Carlos Bay (30-minute sessions from £20 per person).
Adjacent Sanibel is calm encapsulated. This 12-mile barrier isle is linked to the mainland by a three-mile causeway (which has several pull-off points where cameras can be aimed at the scenery). Once you have crossed the gap, you find a haven laced with cycle paths. Billy’s Rentals hires out bikes from £3, including options for kids. Bikes are welcome in the J.N. ‘Ding’ Darling National Wildlife Refuge, a wetland area that plays host to 272 species of bird (60p per cycle).
Some 75 miles north of Fort Myers on Route 41, Sarasota also basks in the sun ingentle style. Here, Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium (adults £11.50; 4-12s £8.50) is a fine attraction for kids – fitted with touch pools swirling with marine animals, and a large shark tank where the greatest of fish move with magnificent menace.
Find out more: fortmyers-sanibel.com; visitsarasota.org
Hertz recommends: Toyota Camry
5 passengers, 2 large & 2 small suitcases, 31mpg
Spacious and comfortable vehicle great for storing the beach gear and exploring the area.
4/7 Fort Myers to Tampa: 127 miles
Follow the coast
Fort Myers is a prime launchpad for a road trip, due to the presence of Southwest Florida International Airport, which receives flights from several US cities (including Orlando) – meaning you can start a holiday adventure here without having to drive from Miami.
This can leave more time to explore the Gulf coast – which throws out some of its most beautiful sections in the 100 or so miles north of Fort Myers. A left turn off Route 41 for Sarasota and Bradenton will carry you onto State Road 789, and the barrier islands which flirt with the mainland here. Lido Key and Longboat Key are delightful, but Anna Maria Island is truly special. Anna Maria Beach, on its south-west shore, is another fine family-friendly spot.
Bradenton, directly to the east (back on the mainland), also has much to entertain young visitors. Local operator Beach Horses does as its name would suggest, offering horse rides along – and into the waters of – Palma Sola Bay. Hour-long sessions cost £82 per person. Equally, the South Florida Museum, in the heart of the town, has a star attraction in Snooty – a venerable 66-year-old manatee who swims in his giant tank with stately grace (adults £10.50, kids 4-12 £8).
Return to Route 41 in Bradenton, and you are on the fast track north to Tampa (45 miles) – where the Busch Gardens theme park (general admission £39) delivers thrill rides galore for older children.
Find out more: bradentongulfislands.com; visittampabay.com
Hertz recommends: Chevrolet Tahoe
5/8 passengers, 2 large & 2 small suitcases, 21mpg
Ideal for larger families/generational holidays. Lots of space to carry all your equipment as you try out the wide range of sporting activities on offer.
5/7 St Petersburg to Fort Walton Beach: 462 miles
For families keen to forge out beyond the usual routes, the north-west shoulder of Florida is the state’s area of mystery – a region where fewer tourists venture. Tampa’s neighbour St Petersburg is a viable start-point – an attractive town where you can idle next to the water in Vinoy Park. Nearby, Clearwater also makes for a lovely start to a holiday. It’s home to Caladesi Island State Park, another idyllic barrier isle on the Gulf.
Some 45 miles north along US Route 19, Weeki Wachee Springs State Park is Florida at its most kitsch. It’s famous for its Mermaid Show, which sees costumed actresses (with tail fins) act out an underwater version of Hans Christian Andersen’s timeless tale The Little Mermaid (adults £8, 6-12s £4.60). A further 80 miles north, Cedar Key is a complete contrast, a fishing town where you can rent kayaks, and paddle sheltered waters awash with egrets and pelicans (£15 a day).
Try somewhere new
If you have the appetite, you can ignore the beaten path entirely. Panama City Beach sits 259 miles from Cedar Key – via US 19 and Route 98 – but rewards families who make the trip with the slides and pools of Shipwreck Island Water Park (adults £20, children under 50 inches £17). Some 56 miles west along the Gulf, Fort Walton Beach also charms – via the Gulfarium Marine Adventure Park and its merry array of dolphins, stingrays and seals (adults £12, kids 3-12 £7).
Hertz recommends: Infiniti G37/Q50 Cadillac ATS
5 passengers, 2 large suitcases, 28mpg.
Ideal for families with young-teenage children. With lots of ground to cover on this route, you’ll need complete comfort as well as good fuel efficiency.
6/7 Orlando to Crystal River: 120 miles
Orlando is an obvious focal point for a family break in Florida, its siren call heard by kids all over the planet. Walt Disney World Resort (one-day adult tickets from £56, kids 3-9 from £52) is a fantasy enclave of four theme parks and two waterparks; Universal Orlando Resort (one-day adult tickets from £57, 3-9s from £53) is the home of The Wizarding World Of Harry Potter.
Find your calm along route 441
But a stay in this city of excitement can also be combined with a road trip into a tranquil side of Florida. Take the winding Route 441 north-west, and you quickly enter the realm of lakes that – contrary to popular perception – frames Orlando . The road meanders past Lakes Eustis, Harris and Griffin before, 80 miles later, depositing you in Ocala – where children can fly between trees and past cliff faces via the Canyons Zip Line and Canopy Tour (three-hour excursions £56; minimum age 10), or clip-clop on horseback along forested paths with Ocala Trail Rides (£23).
If you pick up State Road 40 in Ocala, and follow it 40 miles west, you reach the Gulf coast at Crystal River. Chief attraction here is the opportunity to swim with manatees – those docile aquatic mammals also known as sea cows. River Ventures specialises in boat rides (£26 a head) into Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge that let intrigued visitors climb into the water and snorkel next to these ponderous beasts.
Find out more: visitorlando.com; ocalamarion.com; visitcitrus.com
Hertz recommends: Toyota Corolla
5 passengers, 2 large & 1 small suitcase, 32mpg
Ideal for families with young-teenage children. There’s plenty of space for beach gear, plus it’s cost-effective with its high miles to the gallon.
7/7 Orlando to Miami: 240 miles
Florida’s three most celebrated tourist cities – Orlando, Miami and Fort Lauderdale – are relatively close-knit, and a family road trip between them is a highly plausible prospect. Further child-friendly fun can be found in Orlando at SeaWorld’s Aquatica waterpark (adults £27, children £24) – where the 80ft descents provided by the four-chute Ihu’s Breakaway Falls waterslide are the new thrill for 2014.
Fort Lauderdale is a swift 213 miles to the south-east, along the express toll road Florida’s Turnpike. This is very much a city that faces the ocean. Families can explore the three-mile length of Hollywood Beach by covering its Broadwalk using pedal power. Sun and Fun Cycles hires out interesting and unusual bikes including the six-seat ‘Limo’ (£17.50 per hour).
Elsewhere, the Young At Art Museum, just west of the city in Davie (general admission £8) boasts five exhibition spaces aimed at youngsters – such as Artscapes, where kids can create pictures of themselves in the style of Picasso in the ‘Portrait Salon’, and Greenscapes, where ‘Pablo’s Magical Workshop’ lets children play with, and put on shows with, marionettes.
Things can turn animalistic in Miami, 30 miles south of Fort Lauderdale – perhaps in the form of Jungle Island (adults £21, kids 3-10 £16). Pitched on Watson Island in Biscayne Bay, it is home to kangaroos and a rare liger (a lion-tiger hybrid).
Find out more: sunny.org
Hertz recommends: Chevrolet Malibu
5 passengers, 2 large & 1 small suitcase, 31mpg
Ideal for families with young-teenage children. A practical but stylish vehicle perfect for getting around the local area, and offers great fuel-efficiency.