Discover the Best of Florida’s Nature
Florida is more than the land of the mouse. With nearly 2,000 miles of coastline, 11,000 miles of waterways and rivers, and the largest tropical wetlands in the U.S., you can find the best of Florida is its natural state.
With so many miles of sun-swaddled shoreline, Florida is blessed with an extraordinary range of beaches that can provide a glorious setting for family afternoons – little coves, hidden bays, resort hotspots, long strips of sand on the ocean. But where, specifically, works well for children?
Try the Gulf Coast, on the west, specifically because the sheltered waters of the Gulf of Mexico roll to land more softly than their roaring Atlantic counterparts. Fine locations are found on Sanibel, where Bowman’s Beach, is noted as a haven for kids keen to search for seashells. This theme continues on Sanibel’s neighbour Captiva, where Captiva Beach, is also coated with crustaceans. Venice Beach, just below Sarasota, meanwhile, has an odd claim to fame: sharks’ teeth wash up here at Mother Nature’s whim.
The appeal of the state’s Gulf Coast is apparent when Dr Beach bestows its “Best Beaches” garland on the Gulf Shore. This online authority that compiles an annual list of the best beaches in America has given high praise to Barefoot Beach at Bonita Springs and St George Island State Park near Port St Joe on the Panhandle.
Siesta Beach, near Sarasota, makes the rankings, and remains a superb spot for kids, with its shallow waters, layers of white quartz (which stays cooler than sand, and rarely burns little feet), and daily lifeguard protection.
Lifeguards are also a presence on the Atlantic coast, keeping an eye on swimmers from the iconic multicoloured huts of South Beach in Miami, and along Hollywood North Beach Park near Fort Lauderdale. Of course, many Atlantic beaches are wonderful even without watchful young men and women on guard. Witness the shoreline at Guana Tolomato Matanzas Reserve, an area of tidal wetlands, north of St Augustine, with pristine sands.
The Keys are the Sunshine State’s best-loved islands. But look closely and the Florida map hosts many lesser-known islets that are just as lovely – and family-friendly.
Three miles off the Gulf coast at Tarpon Springs, Anclote Key is a simple slice of seaside, a place for family picnics under skies where bald eagles hover.
Many tourists who come to Miami fail to spot Key Biscayne, which lurks directly below South Beach, but lives in a different world. Linked to the mainland by the Rickenbacker Causeway, this is an outpost of quiet sands (Dog Beach and Virginia Beach) and coastal whimsy – with the Cape Florida Lighthouse, built in 1825, keeping sentry.
A 40-mile sliver, Santa Rosa Island is a short drive from Fort Walton Beach, on the Florida Panhandle. Some of it is protected as part of the Gulf Islands National Seashore, including Fort Pickens, a doughty 19th-century bastion where little boys can be the kings of the castle.
Florida’s Atlantic edge can often lose itself in its hotels and crowds, but there is a happy tranquillity to Singer Island, a grand nugget of sand at Riviera Beach. John D MacArthur Beach State Park sums up the appeal of this gentle enclave, with its Dune Hammock Trail winding along through whispering tropical foliage.
Off the Beaten Track
Try Somewhere New
Miami is a great global city, Orlando is an enclave of thrills, but many parts of Florida elude the spotlight, yet are well worth discovering. Tucked so tightly into the northwest corner of the state that you can all but see Alabama, Pensacola is one of Florida’s last hurrahs. As well as nearby beaches, it claims the National Museum of Naval Aviation, where planes, flight simulators and IMAX movies excite would-be pilots.
Which city is Florida’s largest? The answer is rarely appreciated Jacksonville. The size of this northeasterly metropolis means it is full of attractions. The Museum of Science & History is a case in point – an interactive feast that includes a walk-in human digestive system.
The non-coastal north of Florida pings on few tourist radars, but those who venture near Gainesville come across Ginnie Springs, a privately owned natural park that amounts to family heaven with its clear waters, swimming holes and accessible caverns.
A true secret, the Dry Tortugas, a tiny archipelago skulks 70 miles west of Key West, dealing in empty beaches and, in Fort Jefferson, a vast 19th-century fort that looms above the water like a ghostly citadel. Day trips to the islands, also a national park, are available by catamaran from Key West.
Natural Dolphin Swimming
Parents who worry about the ethics of swimming with captive dolphins may be won over by the Natural Dolphin Swims run by Key Largo operator Dolphin Cove. Sessions take place in a lagoon linked to Florida Bay, and there is no touching the magical mammals unless they initiate contact.
Strolling with Turtles
Sections of Florida’s central Atlantic coast, such as Brevard County, are a haven for loggerhead sea turtles, which lay their eggs on the beaches during June and July. The Sea Turtle Preservation Society organizes discreet evening walks on Melbourne Beach that let visitors witness this wonderful scene, without disturbing the turtles.
Everglades After Hours
The Everglades are one of the most unique landscapes in the world, and a visit should be on your list to truly appreciate Florida. To really see the area come to life, try a visit after hours. Sawgrass Recreation Park, a quick 35-mile drive from both Fort Lauderdale and Miami, does a twist on standard Everglades tours – one-hour Nighttime Adventures, which let children spot alligator eyes as they gleam in the flashlight. If you’ve got little ones afaraid of the dark, there are daytime tours too!
Peek-a-Boo with Panthers
Florida’s resident big cats are enormously rare; there are thought to be only 160 of them in the whole state. The best place for a chance sighting is Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge, 20 miles east of Naples. Two hiking trails are accessible in the daytime. Kids are welcome, but must be kept close.