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Sunshine of state mind

Florida, Norwegian's newest destination, has just about everything you could ever hope for from a holiday. And here's our A-to-Z to prove it

Sunshine of state mind

Text by Jennifer M Wood


Is For Art Deco

Nothing says Miami like the curved corners and nautical accents of its South Beach buildings. The art deco Historic District boasts more than 800 examples of these tropical-style wonders - many of them candy-coloured - within just one square mile.

"Two of the finest art deco buildings in the Art Deco District are the Park Central Hotel (640 Ocean Drive) and the SLS Hotel (1701 Collins Avenue)," says Jeff Donnelly, a public historian with the Miami Design Preservation League, which operates the Art Deco Welcome Center, located smack bang on the beach at 1001 Ocean Drive.

"The Park Central was designed by Henry Hohauser, who is credited with bringing the modern aesthetic to Miami Beach, and the Ritz Plaza was designed by L Murray Dixon, who, next to Hohauser, is the most prolific of the art deco architects." For your own self-guided tour, simply stroll your way around Ocean Drive and Collins Avenue between 5th and 18th Streets. Or drop by the Welcome Center for one of its 90-minute walking tours, departing daily at 10.30am (NOK 120).
www.theparkcentral.com www.slshotels.com/southbeach www.mdpl.org


Is For Basel, As In Art Basel

Having just celebrated its 10th birthday in 2012, Art Basel Miami Beach, the Florida offshoot of Switzerland's famed art extravaganza, has redefined Miami's December social calendar. Bob Goodman, its Florida representative, says: "It's a wonderful time of year to celebrate art and culture, see and view great contemporary art and socialize - they call it 'the Super Bowl of art' or 'the Olympics of the art world.'" With more than 50,000 people descending on the city for what has become 'Basel Week', the mega art show has had a year-round effect. The Wynwood Arts District, where it's held, has transformed itself from a warehouse district into a haven for creative types, with nearly 100 galleries, museums, art complexes and annual fairs, and one outdoor street art park (Wynwood Walls) now calling the neighbourhood home.
www.artbasel.com www.wynwoodmiami.com www.thewynwoodwalls.com


Is For Cable-stayed Bridges

In some places, a bridge is just a bridge - but Florida's growing collection of cable-stayed bridges have become tourist attractions unto themselves. The crown jewel of them all is the Bob Graham Sunshine Skyway Bridge, connecting St Petersburg and Manatee County, known for its 42 striking yellow cables. At 6.5km long, it's the world's longest cable-stayed concrete bridge (The Travel Channel ranked it number three of the world's top 10 bridges). While the trek across can be frightening for some, as you speed along 193 feet above Tampa Bay, the structure's 36 strategically-placed 'dolphins' (aka bumpers) make the bridge able to withstand more force than three fully-loaded Boeing 727s could generate at takeoff. In other words, it's sturdy and then some. 


Is For David's Cafe

From mojitos to medianoches(Cuban sandwiches), Miami is defined by the smells, sounds and flavours of Cuba. Since 1977, both cocktails and Havana-style sandwiches have been served up at David's Café, a pale blue South Beach institution on the corner of Collins Avenue between 10th and 11th Street. David's does brisk business 24 hours a day at its takeout window, where customers - from models to construction workers - line up for a morning café con leche or some post-club sustenance. Or you can take a seat inside at the long counter, where orders come with a side of chatty service - much of it, of course, en Español. 


Is For Everglades National Park

There's a delicate balance that exists within the Everglades, the 1.5 million-acre national park that provides refuge to some of the world's most endangered species, including the Florida panther. It's the kind of place where quiet hobbies like ornithology sit harmoniously side-by-side with riskier pastimes such as python hunting. Yes, python hunting.

In early 2013 the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission sparked a media frenzy when it announced its 2013 Python Challenge. Part publicity stunt and part actual competition, the Commission challenged the public to help reduce the number of Burmese pythons that have been laying siege to the swamps since the 1990s, when a number of pet snakes were released into the wild, where they have grown as long as six metres. While it's estimated that there's as many as 150,000 of them in the Everglades, three weeks into the challenge only 41 had been caught. Which was sort of the point - to educate the public on just how wily these slithery guys can be. While there are plenty of ways to explore the Glades, Christina Soverns Schwartzman of Sawgrass Recreation Park, one of the region's handful of adventure-focused tour operators, believes "airboats are by far the best way to explore by gliding over the sawgrass and cattails." 
www.nps.gov/ever www.myfwc.com


Is For Fort Lauderdale, Norwegian's Newest Destination

Norwegian's new direct flights will land at Fort Lauderdale Airport. More than 12 million visitors a year come to the 'Venice of America', which boasts 23 miles of pristine beaches and more than 300 miles of canals. Fort Lauderdale is also smack in the middle of South Florida, with Miami and West Palm Beach within easy reach, and Florida Keys, Orlando's theme parks and the Bahamas just a little further afield (it's the main starting point for Caribbean cruises, too). For your days in town, it's all about boat rides and weekend nights at Cooley Hammock, the jumping nightlife area along Southwest 2nd Street. 
www.sunny.org www.porteverglades.net


Is For Gourmet

For years, the Sunshine State's most enduring eateries were either casual diners or over-the-top ostentations, but all of that has changed in the past decade. "The evolution of the South Florida food scene has reached the point where we can be called a true food destination," says Katie Sullivan, publisher of Edible South Florida. "Chefs are really starting to understand how great our local produce can be and are using it in incredibly creative ways. It has been a real eye-opener for South Florida foodies - and it can only get better." In recent years, some of Miami's most booked tables have been at the southern outposts of restaurants imported from New York City, like Scott Conant's Scarpetta and Andrew Carmellini's The Dutch. But the tides are changing. Now Miami's hottest tables are at restaurants that were born here, like Michael's Genuine, Juvia and Yardbird (which will be reversing the NYC-to-MIA trend when it opens a location in the Big Apple later this year).


Is For (Ernest) Hemingway

It was following a trip to Paris that Ernest Hemingway first stumbled upon Key West, Florida's southernmost city and an island in the Florida Keys. "At the Hemingway Home, his residence in the 1930s, he wrote 70 percent of his works," says Dave Gonzales of the Ernest Hemingway Home & Museum, a 160-year-old mansion that's the most visited attraction on the island and home to more than 40 six-toed cats, all descendants of Hemingway's puss, Snowball. 


Is For Iguanas

Like the Burmese python, the iguana is yet another formerly domesticated creature that has found its way into the wild and onto the invasive species list. "These beasts are non-native to Florida, but offer a great opportunity to view and photograph these unusual creatures," says Dr Kenneth L Krysko, senior biological scientist at the Florida Museum of Natural History in Gainesville. While they do add to the area's tropical mystique, they have no formal place in its eco-system, leading them to wreak serious havoc on trees, plants and well-manicured lawns. They've also been known to kick owls out of their burrows and get feisty with humans and pets, too. Most alarming have been the occasions - twice in the past five years - when plummeting temperatures caused hundreds to go into an immediate coma-like dormancy, creating what the local media called a "frozen iguana shower". 


Is For Jupiter

It may sound like an out-of-this-world place, but Jupiter, Florida is ground zero for the most American of pastimes. "Roger Dean Stadium is the spring training home of the Miami Marlins and the St. Louis Cardinals," says stadium manager Mike Bauer. "There's no better way to see your favourite Major League Baseball players up close and personal." For fans of faster-paced sports, Jupiter's Palm Beach International Raceway is home to a near-daily slate of high-octane entertainment. 
www.racepbir.com www.rogerdeanstadium.com


Is For The (Florida) Keys

The Florida Keys is an 120-mile archipelago of around 1,700 islands beginning just south of Miami, from Key Largo to Islamorada and Marathon. The Keys are known for their subtropical beaches, conch shells (often served in chowder) and key lime pie. The main city is Key West, the state's southernmost city, home to local institution Sloppy Joe's, a bar/restaurant that was the favoured hangout of Ernest Hemingway - today, expect walls full of fun tropical tat and Hemingway memorabilia. 


Is For The Little Mermaid

You've seen the animated version of Hans Christian Andersen's The Little Mermaid - now see it for real in Weeki Wachee Springs, aka the City of Live Mermaids, one of Florida's oldest and weirdest roadside attractions. It opened in 1947 and still has something of the bonkers old-school circus attraction to it: visitors watch through two-and-a-half metre-tall windows as women dressed as mermaids perform in the only underwater theatre of its kind in the world. 


Is For Mini-golf

Florida is perhaps the world's best place for mini-golf, with more than 80 courses dotted around the state, especially near family-friendly Orlando. Try Panama City Beach's Goofy Golf, overlooked by the glowing eyes of dinosaurs, or one of the Smugglers Cove courses, which have been voted the best mini-golf courses in Florida for five years in a row. The locations in Tampa, Clearwater, Fort Myers, Sarasota and Bradenton all offer the chance for players to feed alligators while enjoying an afternoon's putt. 
www.smugglersgolf.com www.goofygolfpc.com


Is For Nasa

The Kennedy Space Center is the site from which every human space flight has been launched since 1968. And while a suspended US space programme means that we won't be seeing another shuttle launch any time soon, that hasn't stopped thousands of visitors from making the trek to Merritt Island to view the spot from which Neil Armstrong and pals blasted into space. You can strap in for a shuttle launch simulation, view a historic fuselage in the Rocket Garden, or have lunch with an astronaut - $30 gets you fed and up close and live with a NASA vet. 


Is For Ocean Drive

From the Versace Mansion to art deco hotels like the Colony Hotel, nothing says Miami like the bustling, neon-lit Ocean Drive. The 1.3-mile oceanfront stretch is packed with celebrities and gawking tourists most of the time, with the best people-watching at News Café (800 Ocean Drive), a perpetually-packed 24-hour diner and bookstore that was a daily stop for fashion designer Gianni Versace, who lived just a few blocks north. Its local magazine is Ocean Drive, referred to as the 'Bible of South Beach' for its glossy depiction of the wealthy and fabulous who frequent the area - like singer Gloria Estefan, who owns the art deco Cardozo Hotel and the gloriously camp Mango's Tropical Cafe, where the hot waitresses table-dance to carnival-esque Latin beats.
www.newscafe.com www.cardozohotel.com www.mangostropicalcafe.com


Is For Palm Beach

It's an American cliché: when you hit retirement age, you migrate south. The most well-heeled retirees make their way to Palm Beach, the 16-mile barrier island where the median age is 67. Originally established by Standard Oil founder Henry Flagler in the early 1900s (his magnificent home, Whitehall, is open to the public as The Henry Morrison Flagler Museum), the area still boasts many of its original affluent trappings, most famously the Italian-Renaissance-style resort, Breakers Hotel (www.thebreakers.com), which Flagler founded. Nearby you'll find several major museums and galleries, and the Lion Country Safari, a 500-acre preserve where giraffes and zebras roam in protected habitats. But what would retirement be without a game of golf? The Palm Beaches are home to more than 170 public and private courses. 
www.norton.org www.lioncountrysafari.com


Is For Quidditch

In 2010, Orlando's theme park scene got a distinctly magical makeover with the opening of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Based on JK Rowling's fantastically popular book series, the park gives guests a chance to step into the scenes they've read about in the books and seen in the films. The flagship attraction is Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, a recreation of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, where visitors can take a tour of the castle, interact with characters from the series and even witness a Quidditch match. 


Is For Reptiles

The Sunshine State is home to over 100 species of reptiles, some cute and non-venomous, others not so much. Since 1949, Gatorland, a 110-acre theme park, has been inviting people to get up-close to thousands of gators and crocs. There's the Gator Jumparoo Show, where gigantic alligators jump five feet above water to grab a snack from their trainer; and the Gator Wrestlin' Show, where experienced wranglers capture, sedate and then tickle their opponents. 


Is For Theme Parks

Florida is the theme park capital of the world, where ticket takers at Orlando's three major parks - Walt Disney World, Universal Studios and Sea World - punch more than 50 million admission cards each year. Disney's Magic Kingdom, which welcomes more than 17 million visitors alone, trumps them all. But while Mickey and friends have called Orlando home for over 40 years, Mickey is not its oldest - nor its most famous - resident. God is here, too, at The Holy Land Experience, a Christian-themed park which opened in 2001 and depicts the architecture of Jerusalem in the 1st century.

The park's 40 exhibits include an interactive recreation of the Last Supper and a replica of the Garden Tomb where Jesus's body was laid to rest.
www.disneyworld.disney.go.com www.seaworld.com www.universalorlando.com www.holylandexperience.com


Is For Star Island

Star Island, a residential enclave located on a manmade island in Biscayne Bay, stays true to its name. This highly exclusive neighbourhood - which has a population of fewer than 100 - is for A-listers only (think: Gloria Estefan; Sean P Diddy Combs; Shaquille O'Neal), and is the perfect illustration of the over-the-top opulence for which Miami is infamous.


Is For Underwater Hotel

Jules' Undersea Lodge, named after the French author Jules Verne, may not be 20,000 leagues under the sea but you'll still have to scuba dive 21 feet through a mangrove lagoon to reach its entrance. Unlike other underwater hotels, of which there are a few, this Key Largo lodge isn't just for the super-wealthy. Instead it's quirkily utilitarian - compact, amusingly dated, somewhat tatty and - let's seal the deal - all bookings come with a free delivery pizza. Your diver/driver probably deserves a tip. 


Is For Versace Mansion

On the morning of July 15, 1997 - following his daily visit to News Café - famed fashion designer Gianni Versace was shot and killed by Andrew Cunanan on the steps of his three-storey Italianate mansion, located at 1114 Ocean Drive. Nearly two decades after the tragedy, the infamous site is still the third most photographed home in all of America (topped only by the White House and Graceland). For those with money to burn and the desire to move beyond the front gates, the property now operates as The Villa By Barton G, a super-exclusive boutique hotel, restaurant and event space. 


Is For White Sand Beaches

With 663 miles of beaches, Florida has too many options to count, from Miami's art deco lifeguard huts to the Florida Keys' palm-fringed white sandy beaches.

If you only head to one stretch of sand, make it Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park in Key Biscayne, which is regularly cited as one of the nation's 10 best beaches. Located just minutes from Miami and boasting more than a mile of perfect beachfront, the park is most famous for its much-photographed lighthouse, which is the area's oldest standing structure (it was originally built in 1825 then reconstructed in 1846). Visitors willing to climb the 109 steps it takes to get to the top can join in on a free guided tour, which take place twice daily Thursday to Monday.



Though clearly a southern state, Florida is possibly the most liberal state in the Cotton Belt. One need look no further than its sometimes free-wheeling attitude toward nudity, particularly in the Miami area. Chalk it up to the area's European influence; don't be surprised to look up from a trashy beach read and realise that you're the only one on the beach who has not removed most of their clothes. Haulover, located just north of Bal Harbour, is the area's only nudist beach - clothing is optional on the northernmost half a kilometre. 


Ybor City

Ybor City in Tampa used to be home to over 245 cigar factories, which produced over 600 million cigars a year, making it - at least according to the tourist board - the cigar capital of the world. It was first established by cigar manufacturer Vicente Martinez-Ybor in 1885, and is today considered Tampa's Latin Quarter. Lonnie Herman runs walking tours exploring the area's history and its present-day blend of international sounds, smells and flavours. 



There are plenty of ways you can view Florida: on foot, from the water - or screaming through the trees at high speed with only a thin strip of wire between you and the ground below. Welcome to ziplining, the preferred method of travel for thrill-seekers everywhere. In St Cloud, Florida EcoSafaris riders traverse more than 750 feet of zipline from 55 above the ground, with deer, gators, bears and panthers among the wildlife that might be spotted below. For an added dose of danger, opt for a moonlight ride. 

Find more online www.visitflorida.com www.floridathemeparks.com 

Book your flights www.norwegian.com


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