By JEN KARETNICK

Florida has exerted a magnetic pull on visitors for the past 500 years— beginning with Juan Ponce de León. St. Augustine, where he landed in 1513, educates visitors and residents alike through attractions, museums and festivals where re- enactors dress in historic garb and tell tales. In this charming town, it’s not unusual to have breakfast in a café seated next to a "pirate."

Ponce de León named what he saw "La Florida," or "place of flowers," because of the lush landscape. Indeed, Florida has 300 native plants, ranging from the thorny sweet acacia to the wild azalea.

The state lists an additional 1,300-plus introduced exotics, many of them considered invasive. Others are housed in botanical gardens, such as the renowned Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden in Coral Gables and the Central Florida Zoo and Botanical Gardens in Sanford.


RULES OF THE ROAD

Florida is easy to explore by vehicle. Bring your own or, if you’re at least 25, rent one. Visitors ages 16 and up holding licenses from other states or countries may drive in Florida. Cash is no longer accepted on some Florida toll roads. Purchase a SunPass Mini Sticker transponder at one of the more than 3,100 retail locations for US$4.99 plus tax. A minimum opening balance of US$10 is required. Most rental cars come with a SunPass.

Drivers and front-seat passen- gers must wear seat belts. All children under 18 are required to wear seat belts, regardless of where they are sitting. Children, three and younger, must be secured in a federally approved child-restraint seat in the back seat; children, ages four and five, also must be in the back seat and secured by a child- restraint seat or a safety belt.

Florida has strict drunk driving laws and texting while driving is illegal. Pedestrians always have the right of way at crosswalks. And remember, hot pavement acts like ice when rain first hits it, so be cautious driving during rain showers.

A BOUNTIFUL LAND

The state flower is orange blossom, which is considered an exotic, albeit one that became extremely important to the region’s economy. Native to Southeast Asia, the orange tree is an evergreen shrub brought to the colony of St. Augustine in 1565. The orange and its aromatic blossom, which connotes fertility and good fortune, quickly became representa- tive of the area. Many towns such as Davie have Orange Blossom Festivals. Today, Florida is the largest producer of oranges in the U.S. As well, it is the third largest producer of honey which is made by the bees that sip pollen from the fragrant blossoms.

In fact, Florida depends on export crops as diverse as sugar cane and tomatoes to survive, while still leaving plenty of sweet corn and green beans available for passersby to purchase. Visitors are often amazed to find farm stands and U-pick farms offering everything from boiled peanuts and fresh blueberries in Gainesville to mangoes and lychees in the southern areas of Redland and Homestead. Throughout the year, festivals —such as Plant City’s Florida Strawberry Festival in late winter and the mid-summer International Mango Festival at Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden in Coral Gables— are hugely enjoyable, multi-day attractions.

If you prefer bottled fruit, wineries are popping up everywhere, with many offering both grape varietals as well as tropical fruit vintages.



WILD ABOUT FLORIDA

Florida is home to more than 330 commonly found bird species, which amateur ornithologists can track along The Great Florida Birding & Wildlife Trail. Completed in 2006 by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conserva- tion Commission, the 2,000-mile trail comprises four sections—the Panhandle, East, West and South—and lists what species can be found where.

Florida also has more than 170 native butterflies. In addition to finding them in the parks and in the wild, visitors can observe them in conservatories such as Butterfly World in Coconut Creek and the Butterfly Rainforest at the Florida Museum in Gainesville.

The 142 native species of amphibians and reptiles, including around 50 kinds of snakes—of which only six are poisonous— are equally fascinating. You can view these and the 50 plus additional non-native species at many zoos and safaris, ranging from Zoo Miami to Lion Country Safari in Loxahatchee and ZooTampa at Lowry Park. At Jungle Island in Miami, brave guests hold giant pythons.

Visitors who prefer to check out natural habitats where wild things reside can hit any section of the sprawling Everglades. There, a range of activities, from boating and fishing to biking and hiking, puts one in close touch with nature’s biggest beasts and smallest insects. The curious can also arrange private tours with exotic animal rescue and rehabil- itation operations such as the Zoological Wildlife Foundation and McCarthy’s Wildlife Sanctuary, both located in South Florida.

For conservancy on a smaller but no less important scale, many programs all over the state, such as the Museum of Discovery and Science in Fort Lauderdale, help protect sea turtle nests. If visitors are in the area at the right time, they may be able to witness a hatching.


WATER, WATER EVERYWHERE

Florida is made up of 1,200 miles of coastline, of which 663 are foot-friendly beaches. It isn’t all salty water and fruity cocktail culture, however. The interior of the state is far different than many expect, with nearly 8,000 lakes and almost 1,700 rivers and streams. Lake Okeechobee—in the center of the state—is Florida’s largest. It not only provides drinking water for many surrounding and southern counties, but it is also an agricultural resource for the state’s abundant produce. It offers some of the best largemouth bass fishing in Florida. The protective dike that encircles the lake is part of the National Scenic Trail, a 110-mile route, popular with hikers, naturalists, cyclists and horseback riders. (Horse enthusiasts should also head to Ocala and the Davie/Plantation region, where there are horse farms, schools, trails and competitions galore.)

In addition, the state has some 30 first- magnitude freshwater springs—more than any other state. Most of these watering holes, including Wakulla Springs—one of the deepest, and Silver Springs—one of the largest, are clustered in Central West and North Central Florida.

Finally, Florida claims quite a river culture, notwithstanding the famed River of Grass, a.k.a. the Everglades, where native and non-native wildlife is the most diverse. If you’re lucky, you’ll spot the elusive and endangered Florida panther, the only big cat living in the wild in this state.

From airboat rides and alligator spotting in the swamps to kayaking along the immortal Suwannee River, framed by cool, green woodlands, and crabbing in the tributaries of the Apalachicola River, waterway adventures are endless. Here is also where you’ll find wild boar, which acclimated after the Spanish brought over their native pigs 500 years ago.

Beyond the rivers and lakes, bodies of water on either shore of the Florida peninsula offer deep-sea fishing and diving opportunities galore.


BREAK OUT THE SUNSCREEN

Blessed with climates ranging from subtropical in the north to tropical in the coastal and southern regions, Florida is known as the “Sunshine State.” Tempera- tures average a balmy 70oF daily, with highs usually peaking in the 90s in July and August. And while the lowest temperature ever recorded in the winter of 1899 was –2oF in Tallahassee, the normal lows, which last only a couple of days, hover around the 40s or 50s during January or February. Although Florida has its share of inclement weather, it’s renowned for being the warmest state in the U.S. mainland.

The currents of Key Biscayne and the coastal areas around Fort Myers, particularly Sanibel and Captiva islands, are perfect for learning the rudiments of paddleboarding, ocean kayaking and other water sports. For shell hunters, the Gulf Coast, from Fort Myers to Sarasota, is where to go. And if you’re lucky, you may find thousand-year- old sharks’ teeth.


FAMILY ENTERTAINMENT

Resorts and attractions are an inescapable part of Florida’s identity and some are destinations in their own right.

Head south to the 173,000-acre, mostly underwater, Biscayne National Park where all sorts of outdoor activities are available together with snorkeling, diving and glass-bottom boat tours. It is certainly worth renting a watercraft to search the islands for evidence of Indigenous American inhabitants, to explore shipwrecks and to drift above the coral reef system, where more than 200 species of fish thrive.

Popular water parks in Southeast Florida include Rapids Water Park in Palm Beach County and Broward County’s collection of child-pleasing soakers: Paradise Cove Water Park at C.B. Smith Park, Splash Adventures Water Park at Quiet Waters Park, Castaway Island Water Park at Topeekeegee Yugnee Park, and Tropical Splash Water Park at Central Broward Regional Park.

Water parks, such as Shipwreck Island Waterpark in Panama City Beach, Adventure Island in Tampa and Adventure Landing in Jacksonville, offer thrilling experiences for the whole family, and are especially refreshing in the summertime when the air can be quite humid.


Tips for visiting Florida

STAY COOL

Heat exhaustion can affect anyone, especially young children and the elderly. Symptoms include mild muscle cramps to dehydration. If you feel faint, head for air conditioning and start drinking fluids. Also keep in mind that Florida is the lightning capital of the United States. Afternoon storms start and stop quickly and often without much warning. However, most parks and some other public places are equipped with lightning detectors. Heed the saying, “If thunder roars, go indoors.” Hurricane season runs June 1–November 30, but there is no need to worry as your hotel (and the local news) will keep you well informed. If you plan a trip during hurricane season, it’s wise to buy travel insurance.

NEED TO KNOW

Many beaches, parks and festivals don’t charge an entrance fee or, if they do, it’s only a few dollars. If you do run out of cash, ATMs are everywhere from convenience stores to festivals. Many stores allow debit card users to obtain “cash back” above their purchase without a transaction fee. Most banks are open Monday through Friday from 9 AM to 4 or 5 PM, however, TD Bank has locations open every day, except major holidays.

Banks and government offices, including the post office, are closed on major U.S. holidays. Most attractions remain open year-round.

Florida’s base sales tax on purchases is six percent, with some counties adding discretionary taxes. In addition to pet deposits, most hotels charge a “bed” tax and some will add a “resort or amenities tax” and even parking fees.

STAY CLEAR

American alligators and crocodiles are found in the state’s 67 counties. Wherever you see a body of water—even a large puddle that has formed on the side of a highway—you should assume a reptile is in it. Do not feed alligators. It is dangerous and illegal. Never swim in a canal or wade in an unknown body of fresh or brackish water, especially at dawn or dusk, which are their feeding times. And keep small children and pets away from fresh or brackish water shorelines at all times.

GREAT SAVINGS

Head to South Florida in the heat of summer for good deals. Winter yields great rates in northern Florida. Orlando has its own seasons, which coincide with school breaks; Visit Orlando recommends visiting during “deal season,” August 15–September 30.

Save on attractions, restaurants and shopping by visiting VisitOrlando.com/en/ discounts-and-tickets and reputable online ticket brokers such as Mousesavers.com, Ticketmomma.com, UndercoverTourist.com and OfficialTicketCenter.com.

The Entertainment Book (entertainmentbook.com) is a local favorite and you don’t have to be a local to buy it. Also try Groupon.com or LivingSocial.com for 35 to 90 percent off at hotels, attractions and restaurants. Four of South Florida’s top attractions—Lion Country Safari, Miami Seaquarium, Museum of Discovery & Science and Zoo Miami— offer unlimited visits for 100-plus days at SummerSavingsPass.com.

In the Tampa Bay area, CityPASS offers savings of 50 percent on admission to the top five Tampa Bay attractions: Busch Gardens Tampa Bay, The Florida Aquarium, ZooTampa at Lowry Park, Clearwater Marine Aquarium and the Museum of Science & Industry or the Chihuly Collection. Since the pass is good for nine consecutive days starting with the first day of use, you’ll have plenty of time to take in all of the sites. Plan your visit at CityPASS.com/Tampa.