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Introducing Florida

Walt Disney was right: Florida is a place that captures the imagination. The landscape is exaggerated and invites exaggeration. Spanish explorers saw manatees and imagined they were mermaids; Ponce de León saw a crystal-clear spring and imagined it was a fountain of youth. Developers saw swamps and sold them as paradise, but if they are, there's plenty of the devil in them. In its history, Florida has inspired as much madness and murder as it has fantasies of a magical kingdom where dreams really do come true.

And that's OK. The vision of a seaside paradise can falter sometimes as growing numbers of high-rise Miami condos block the view, but the land – the watery, swampy, humid, shimmering, creature-filled peninsula – remains. In the end, it's this unstable, ever-shifting landscape that never fails to overwhelm, working its way under your skin, never to be forgotten. And it does so both in that grand, uplifting, aching-beauty-of-nature kind of way, and in that fetid, surreal, alligators-in-the-swamp-snakes-in-the-trees-get-me-outta-here kind of way.

Florida, more civilized than it once was, is still seductively and unnervingly fluid. Miami continues to be washed with wave after wave of Latin immigrants, and the city vibrates with energy and culture and change. The Deep South of northern Florida lovingly tends its memories, even as old ways fade or are simply paved over. The phantasmagorical theme parks continue to weave their mechanical magic. And just off the coast, another hurricane is always brewing.

So come for the beaches and Mickey Mouse, come for the people and the Everglades, come for the nightlife and the kayaking and the manatees and the gators. But make sure to come. Because Florida is always stranger than you imagine, and it never holds still.

Ready to go?

These tours & activities make it easy:

Lonely Planet has teamed up with Lee County Tourism to produce an in-depth guide to the beaches of Fort Myers and Sanibel.

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