By Susan & Simon Veness
America is made for travelling the open road, and Florida is no exception. In fact, taking a fly-drive tour of the Sunshine State is practically a holiday requirement these days, as it is (cue Tina Turner) simply the best way to enjoy the huge array of options on offer.
Grabbing a hire car and setting out in just about any direction – albeit, not south if you’re in the Key West – is basically a guarantee of exciting adventures and undiscovered moments anywhere you go. From the Panhandle in the north-west to the gorgeous Keys themselves, the Florida driving holiday itinerary has an almost endless charm to surprise and delight as you travel.
And we have picked six of the very best itineraries that are sure to give you a full and well-rounded view of the state as you motor around and soak up the views.
The Tamiami Trail
The history-rich 275 miles of Highway 41 from Tampa to Miami (hence, ‘Tamiami’) provide some of the most diverse and attractive driving in the southern half of the state, with one modern tweak. Instead of initially driving due south out of Tampa and running along the eastern edge of Tampa Bay itself, we advise heading south-west along motorway I-275 and the fabulous 4.14-mile extent of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge, which was opened in 1987 and features a central span of 1,200ft, some 180ft above the Bay. Once you pick up Highway 41 again at Rubonia after returning to terra firma, you can continue this leisurely coastal route via the cities of Bradenton, chic Sarasota, Venice, Port Charlotte, Punta Gorda and Fort Myers, completing the sweep of the Gulf Coast through Bonita Springs and Naples, with its stylish shopping, restaurants and beaches. From there, the road swings directly east through the Everglades and provides a wonderfully contrasting journey along that wildlife-rich section of roadway, including stops at Shark Valley, Big Cypress National Preserve and quirky Ochopee, with the smallest post office in America. Finally, you reach Miami and the glitzy side of Florida, packed with trendy boutiques, Cuban culture and nightclubs.
Miami to Key West
When it comes to sheer, scintillating coastal scenery, nothing beats the long, leisurely drive through the Florida Keys, where the sea is often just yards away from the road and you can be surrounded by glittering azure waters on both sides at times. It is just 165 miles from magical Miami to the most southerly city in the contiguous USA, but you can easily make the journey last several days as you slip into indolent Island Time, where Florida merges with the Caribbean for a laid-back ‘Floribbean’ culture and shorts and flip-flops are the only required outerwear. Be sure to break your journey at Key Largo (yes, the location made famous in 1948 by Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall and Edward G Robinson), Islamorada, Marathon and Big Pine Key and tap into some of the most world-class maritime adventures in the world, from scuba-diving and snorkelling to kayaking and big-game fishing. Allow a full week for the round trip and you can revel in Florida’s Party Central of Key West itself, where Duval Street rivals Bourbon Street in New Orleans for its lively, bar-centric style, while also taking in the history of Ernest Hemingway’s Home, the Little White House of President Truman and Mel Fisher’s iconic Maritime Museum, with its impressive treasure-hunting background.
Driving The Panhandle
For those who prefer to take the road less travelled, head up to the north-west corner of the state and take a Florida fly-drive with a difference. This is the region where the Sunshine State merges almost imperceptibly into the Deep South of Georgia and Alabama, but that sensational, white-rimmed coastline continues to glisten with an emerald sheen (hence its nickname as The Emerald Coast). Start in historic Pensacola – home of the famous Naval Air Base and Aviation Museum, which dates back to 1914 – close to the border with Alabama and take Highway 98 due east along this fabulous seafront, taking in the sweeping views of the Gulf of Mexico and a series of tempting seaside-based resorts such as Oriole Beach, Fort Walton Beach, Destin, Miramar Beach and Rosemary Beach. This stretch includes the unique town of Seaside, which featured in the Jim Carrey film The Truman Show. Arriving in Panama City Beach, you have one of the gems of the region, packed with great beaches (naturally), exciting attractions (such as Gulf World Marine Park), excellent state parks and memorable dining. Continue around the ‘horn’ of the Panhandle at Apalachicola and you can also take in the Apalachicola River Wildlife and Environmental Area as well as St George Island for more of the natural side of Florida.
State Road A1A
While it’s hard to go wrong for a great coastal drive just about anywhere in the state, the largest extent of Florida’s grand maritime panoramas is provided by the 380-mile north-south axis that is slow-paced Highway A1A, a historic by-way through and along the entire Atlantic seaboard. Start in secluded Amelia Island and head south for the full story of how the Sunshine State came to be, from the first European settlers in St Augustine (in 1565) to the immense railroad achievements that opened Florida to tourism from the 1880s to the 1920s. Be sure to stop at quaint outposts such as Marineland (with the world’s first oceanographic institute), Ormond Beach (where Sir Henry Segrave brought his world land-speed record attempt), Canaveral National Seashore, Indian River Shores, Hutchinson Island and the lovely city of Stuart. You can enjoy superb beach adventures along the full extent of your journey, and finish up by coming right up to date in ultra-modern Miami Beach, where the latest restaurants, nightlife and shops will tempt you to stay awhile, and the beachfront resorts offer a sensational sunrise every morning.
Rural North Florida
For an out-and-out nature adventure, the 120-mile drive from DeFuniak Springs to state capital Tallahassee takes some beating. While you could easily do the drive in two hours along motorway I-10, if you just head a few miles north towards the Georgia border you can pick up Highway 90 and enjoy the timeless rural charm though a series of small towns with evocative names like Sawdust, Quincy, Ponce De Leon and Chatahoochee, as well as miles of pristine countryside that few visitors see, but which the locals adore. Be sure to take in the unexpected attractions of Florida Caverns State Park, where guided cave tours, hiking trails and freshwater springs abound, and scenic Lake DeFuniak, with the Chautauqua Winery. You will certainly need a few days at each end of the journey to explore DeFuniak Springs, with its Victorian era splendours and history, and stately Tallahassee, with its oak-canopied roads, plantation heritage and historic centre.
Tour Central Florida
Continuing the theme of rural exploration – albeit with some genuine city style – another full Florida fly-drive itinerary that ticks a lot of boxes starts in Orlando and heads north for a tour of the central part of the state, home of the University of Florida, the ‘Horse Capital of the World,’ and Ocala National Forest, where you can swim and snorkel in the crystal-clear springs year-round. From Orlando, head north-west to Mount Dora, one of the state’s cutest small towns that is ideal for an overnight stop. Then take Highway 441 north to Ocala, where its equine reputation is truly world famous and the historic central district is a great place to wander. From Ocala, the 441 continues to Gainesville via Orange Lake and Micanopy – the heart of rural Florida. Here, with vast areas of unspoiled wilderness, you can explore the likes of Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park, Kanapaha Botanical Gardens, Carson Springs Wildlife Conservation Foundation (with its exotic array of rescued animals) and the mini rainforest of Devil’s Millhopper Geological State Park. A few days in the bustling university city of Gainesville provides plenty of good dining and shopping, and you can then return to Orlando via the huge extent of Ocala National Forest, with an abundance of recreation opportunities and a drive along State Road 40, otherwise known as the Florida Black Bear Scenic Byway.
Take any of these six super Florida fly-drives, and you will have sampled an essential slice of the Sunshine State. Now, let’s get driving…!
Susan & Simon Veness are the UK’s leading experts on Florida, having written about it for more than 25 years and sold more than half a million copies of their books about Orlando, Disney and the Sunshine State.