Just a short hop away from Miami are some of Florida's most alluring, charismatic and well-known attractions. So, if you're tired of clubbing and celebrity-watching, take a break and head for the some of the most exciting sights that lie around the city.
An easy day trip from Miami, the Everglades provides the perfect excuse to escape from the rat race and reconnect with nature. Here, you'll be able to witness alligators’ backs breaking the water, anhingas flexing their wings before breaking into a corkscrew dive or the slow, dinosaur flap of a great blue heron gliding over its domain.
The Glades should be approached with the same silence and gentle persuasion it shows its inhabitants. Come by car and canoe, bike, kayak or walk around the park. To understand the way a nutrient-rich patch of water produces a mosquito that feeds a frog, who becomes lunch for a ‘gator, who snaps up a fish that gets speared by an anhinga under these long, low marsh winds, you need to be still. In the quiet spaces, you realize that the Everglades, so often dismissed as a swamp, are more beautiful than all the sin and flash Miami can produce. South Beach changes by the day. The Glades have beautifully endured forever, and if we’re very lucky, they’ll last that much longer.
Just to the east of the Everglades is Biscayne National Park, where a portion of the world's third-largest reef sits (along with mangrove forests and the northernmost Florida Keys). Fortunately, this unique 300-square-mile park is easy to explore independently with a canoe or via a glass-bottom boat tour. Biscayne is unique as far as national parks go, requiring a little extra effort to see the reef, and a lot more reward for this work. This is some of the best reef-viewing and snorkeling you'll find in the US, outside Hawaii and nearby Key Largo.
3. Florida Keys
Take: one part, rednecks. Add: snowbirds. Sprinkle with a large number of Cuban immigrants and Eastern European guest workers. Include: gay community (may consist of ‘sedate partners who just bought art gallery’ and ‘screaming drag queens of the night’). Garnish with Bahamians. Set attitudes at ‘tolerant’ and ‘eccentric.’ Turn up the eccentric. Finish with rum. Lots of rum. Bake in searing Florida sun and serve on 45 islands scattershot over a 113-mile-long chain, connected by one long-ass road. Throw in the government of the only republic to successfully secede from the US. Yes, those Conch Republic flags say ‘We Seceded Where Others Failed,’ and that’s the Keys in a conch shell: equal parts tacky, quirky and, damn it, alluring.
Hang out here for awhile and you start turning into a ‘Freshwater Conch’ – a permanent transplant – real quick. The Keys are out there; it’s three or four hours at a good clip from Key West, at the end of the chain, back to Miami. Come out this far, and you either contract cabin fever or fall in love.
4. Theme Parks in Orlando
In 1971 Walt Disney World opened the gates of Magic Kingdom; today, it includes 23 hotels, four theme parks (Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Hollywood Studios and Animal Kingdom), almost 100 restaurants, two water parks (Typhoon Lagoon and Blizzard Beach), a sports complex (Disney’s Wide World of Sports), and two shopping and nightlife districts (Downtown Disney and Disney’s Boardwalk), as well as six golf courses, three miniature golf courses and lagoons with water sports, all connected by a complicated system of free buses, boats and monorails. Just to get from one end of Disney to the other is a $25 cab ride!
In contrast, Universal Orlando is a pedestrian-friendly and intimate complex with two excellent theme parks (Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure), three first-rate resorts, and a carnival-like restaurant and nightlife district (CityWalk) connected by lovely gardened paths or a quiet wooden-boat shuttle.
Located just about equidistant from both, you’ll find the aquatic park SeaWorld, with fantastic animal shows, a handful of rides and animal-interaction programs; its water-park sister, Aquatica; and the worlds-away Discovery Cove, where a limited number of guests enjoy a day of lounging on a private beach, swimming with the dolphins and floating along the lazy river through the bird aviary. On top of these biggies, there’s Old Florida’s Cypress Gardens, just south of town, kitschy Gatorland and lesser attractions sprinkled throughout the city.
5. Space Coast
The space shuttle is to the Space Coast what pastel hotels are to South Beach, and you’ll be amazed, amused (and exhausted?) by the celestial themes swirling in every gas station, roadside café and hotel lobby within a meteorite’s throw. C’mon, even the area code is 321! Not surprisingly, the Kennedy Space Center is both the largest attraction in the area (occupying more than 140,000 acres) and the biggest (more than 1.5 million visitors spin the turnstiles annually).
In contrast to the high-tech buildings and bad space puns, however, the area also boasts some of Florida’s most deliciously undeveloped areas. The Space Center only uses about 10,000 acres for its purposes. The rest of the area is set aside as a federally protected wildlife refuge, so don’t be surprised to see sunning alligators, soaring birds (including bald eagles), and rooting wild pigs, giving new meaning to the term ‘government pork.’
Along the coast, you can find some of Florida’s finest sea turtle observation programs and among the most pristine beaches in the state. For adventure-holics, the waves from Sebastian Inlet to Cocoa Beach offer the state’s gnarliest surfing, and just west of the barrier island the lagoon is dotted with quiet, undeveloped islands, perfect for wiling away warm summer days.