This weekend, there was a big sale on airline tickets from Brussels to Miami and Orlando at our airline (jetairfly.com) and I just had to get myself some tickets. If I can’t become a permanent resident in the USA, by god, I’ll be spending all my money traveling there! 🙂 It also made me reminisce about all the lovely things I’ll be able to do again. And it made me realize that there’s a whole lot of things that you can see or do that’s only available in Florida! Here’s my list of things you’ll only find in the Sunshine State:
First up are the lovely manatees that roam the warmer waters of Florida. I had never ever heard of those creatures before, so I don’t think you can find them in Europe. They’re also known as “sea cows” and as I happen to be a cow lover, I immediately fell in love with these gentle giants as well. They can weigh up to 1.300 pounds, so you can imagine that they’re not really speedy swimmers. They’ve got these huge flippers that resemble paddles with which they can gather up a speed of up to … 3 to 5 mph! Crazy huh? They love to swim (or rather float) in warmer waters, so I guess that’s why they keep themselves in shallow waters. That also makes them quite vulnerable for human threats, so they now mostly live in State Parks where the state of Florida prevents them from extinction. We visited them in the Blue Springs State Park.
The perfect time to spot them is between November and March, when they come inland for the winter time – if you can speak of cold winters in Florida, I think the temperature never drops below 20° … You can also swim with the giant creatures. I’ve never done that myself as I believe in leaving nature to itself, but I do think there are some good programs out there if you want to paddle along next to the manatees. Imagine getting up close and personal with one of these lovely cuties:
Sticking to nature, Florida is also home of the Everglades. It’s the third largest national park of the USA, and it covers almost the entire bottom of the state. There two main roads that go through the Glades: the Tamiami Trail, or route 41 and Alligator Alley, I75. Both take you from Miami to Naples and back. I was particularly fond of the Tamiami Trail as it’s the more relaxed route and you have the best vistas 180° around.
The Everglades are home to a lot of animals, one of them being the Florida panther. I’ve searched everywhere for them during my drives through the Glades and I haven’t even spotted a whisker. But as there are only 160 panthers suspected to still be alive, I guess you have to count yourself lucky to spot one … What I did see were these “little” friends:
When I saw these two fellows I first thought they weren’t even real … they were just lying next to the road! I just saw loads of cars parked when I was driving by. People were looking over a wooden railing, so I turned the Mustang around and joined them. My first gators from really up close – but at a safe distance! And please, if you happen to see these guys, don’t come too close! They might be just laying about sunbathing, but they can gather up a lot of speed! And you don’t even want to know how big there teeth are … It was an awesome experience though, they made me think of dinosaurs! And yes, I wanted to pet them, but it did seem wise to refrain from doing so. 😉
If you’re going to the Everglades, you have to act the tourist and take one of the airboat rides through the mangroves. It’s a really fun experience. I can’t remember which company I used, but there are several located on the Tamiami Trail, so you can take your pick.
Tip of the day: BRING MOSQUITO REPELLENT. Ok, so I might attract more than the average number of mosquitoes, but buy some deet-fuelled repellent in a supermarket before boarding the airboat. Just in case. Tip nr 2 of the day: wear SUNSCREEN. It gets hot out there and the sun will be shining. It’s called the Sunshine State for a reason you know … Anyhow, back to the airboats. You pay for your ticket, you get a set of free earplugs and you can board your airboat. First they drive you through the swamps and the mangroves. You look for gators and turtles (we found both) all around. And you watch out for snakes that live in the trees and might fall into the boat. I hate snakes. Thank god I found none of those.
When it all starts to get a bit of the same, your airboat driver asks you to jam in those earplugs and revs up the engine. Get ready for the ride of your life – water splashes all around and they do 180° spins with the boat, it’s so much fun. To give you an idea of the views and the sound I found this clip on YouTube – don’t turn up the volume:
If you’re hungry after all that excitement you can go and eat some gator nuggets. I am not kidding. It’s nuggets. Made out of gator meat.
I did not try it. Sorry, I just couldn’t bring myself to it.
Florida is also known for it’s theme parks. Orlando equals Disney. But let me take you off the beaten track once more. Don’t get me wrong, do visit Disney, Epcot, Seaworld, Universal and the likes. But! Have you ever heard of the HolyLand Experience? I think you haven’t, right? It’s this entire theme park about Jezus! For real.
There’s Noah’s Ark, The Jerusalem Street Market, the Tiny Town of Bethlehem, Golgotha and so on. I didn’t visit the park though, but the guy that plays Jezus does look pretty much like you’d think Jezus would have looked like, doesn’t he? 🙂
Another theme park, one that I did visit on my very first trip to Florida 20 years ago, is Weeki Wachee. Aka the City of Live Mermaids. Yes, mermaids. What’s next I hear you think, unicorns? But at Weeki Wachee Springs you can see live performances of women dressed up as mermaids. If you’re a little kid, it’s magical. If you’re a bit older, it’s just fun to see. The Weeki Wachee Park was founded in 1959 by the ABC Studios. When the park started up, girls from all over the world came to try out to become a mermaid. It sounds a bit like the Moulin Rouge, but then with water 🙂 Nowadays, there’s also water slides and you can also visit the manatees that reside in the Buccaneer Bay. It’s just a perfect little underwater world that you have to visit.
From a dream world for little girls (and maybe also grown men) to one for little boys (and most certainly grown men!): Cape Canaveral. Where else can you get up close and very personal with space shuttles and astronauts? Where else can you get into a launch simulator and experience what it feels like to be fired up into space?
Drive up to the Nasa Parkway to the visitor entrance. Beware: everything you will see here is huge! The Cape is where America launched the manned Apollo moon landing from, so you’ll step right into history. The Kennedy Space Center covers about 219 square miles, but don’t worry, you’ll be driven around in busses whilst visiting the site. Ok, they don’t send any manned shuttles into space anymore nowadays from here, but I do hope that’ll change again. When we were visiting the Cape, one of the last shuttles was waiting on a launch pad, so we were able to see a real shuttle – from really afar though for safety reasons of course – but it was still very impressive.
The drive takes you along several launch pads that are closed now. You really get a feel about how big this place is and how big the entire operation is. During your visit, you can see several space shuttles (some of them real, some replicas), moon rocks, space suits, the works. You can visit the old command center where they fired up several of the Apollo launches. You can even have lunch with a real time astronaut! I mean, think about the questions you could ask a guy who’s actually been in space?
So you see, Florida caters to all kinds of ages and interests. I for one can’t wait to go back – let the countdown begin! 🙂
Inspired and want to know more?
Visit the manatees at Blue Springs http://www.bluespringspark.com
Cruise through the Everglades http://www.nps.gov/ever/index.htm
Get up close and personal with Jezus at the HolyLand http://www.holylandexperience.com
Swim with the mermaids at Weeki Wachee http://www.weekiwachee.com
Send yourself into outer space at the Cape https://www.kennedyspacecenter.com
Try the gator nuggets http://www.miccosukee.com/dining/