In between Daytona Beach on the East Coast and St. Pete Beach on the West Coast, we found a piece of authentic Florida far away from Minnie Mouse and Miami Beach. The Sunshine State didn’t live up to its name in this weekend getaway, but proved to be a great destination nonetheless.
Waking up in Orlando on a Saturday morning, I couldn’t wait to get on the road. Huge resorts and crowded theme parks are not my idea of fun. Although I would appreciate a Butterbeer in The Three Broomsticks. After breakfast shared with early spring breakers and pensioners, we hit the road to Daytona Beach. This city on Florida’s Atlantic Coast appears to be known by half of the world for its Daytona 500 NASCAR race. I considered it a gateway to the A1A, Florida’s scenic coastal road that runs all the way from Key West to Fernandina Beach up North.
I will always remember the A1A. Not necessarily for its scenic views, but because I was pulled over by the police for the first time. In Europe we get a ticket in the mailbox for speeding, so seeing a pair of flashing lights in your rear-view mirror is definitely memorable. I got off with a warning, which I took very seriously – much to the annoyance of my road trip partner.
The A1A took us to St. Augustine, which claims to be the oldest (continuously occupied) city in the US. With its narrowish, pedestrian-only streets, the city’s historic centre is different from most American cities to say the least. Its historic value however is debatable.
Sun wasn’t shining outside, but we found it inside The Floridian. The interior was exactly what I had in mind for a laid-back Florida restaurant. I am still dreaming of the Florida Sunshine Salad. My friend couldn’t stop raving about the meatloaf sandwich. Lunch doesn’t get better than this!
On our way back to the car we stumbled upon The Hyppo, which lured us in with its “gourmet popsicles”. It took me ridiculously long to decide between all the interesting flavors. At least the Pineapple Ginger was a fine choice.
Next stop was Silver Springs State Park, an hour and a half from St. Augustine. Florida counts many natural springs, pools of crystal clear water in the middle of nature. But the Silver Springs are not just any springs; the park is the oldest tourist attraction in Florida. Since the 1870s, glass bottom boats have been giving tourists a unique look into the springs. The recipe for fun has not changed ever since, yet a visit remains surprisingly amusing.
The glass bottom boat takes you on the water for 30 minutes of old-school fun. Our hilarious captain definitely added to the experience. I didn’t spot the manatee I was hoping for, but the sea turtle was equally rewarding. Be on the lookout for Tarzan’s monkeys in the trees; legend has it that they escaped when the movie was being filmed here.
After this nature break we drove to Tampa, a vibrant city on Florida’s West Coast. We spent Saturday night out in Ybor City, Tampa’s historic Latin quarter. Colorful 7th Ave is lined with lively restaurants and open-air bars. The oldest restaurant on the block – and by extension, in the whole state – is Colombia, founded in 1905 as a Cuban coffee and sandwich bar. Over the years the menu was expanded with a mix of Spanish and Carribean dishes, but the restaurant is still being operated by the same family.
I started to understand why many Americans choose to retire in Florida. T-shirt weather on an early February night! We made the most of this lovely weather by dancing the night away in one of 7th Ave’s outdoor bars.
On Sunday we were planning to explore the West Coast. Fort De Soto Park is home to one of the best beaches of the nation, according to Dr. Beach. The park is entirely accessible by car, after paying toll to a man in Hawaiian shirts. Apparently this is a thing in Florida, because the next toll operator was wearing the exact same shirt. It was no weather to kayak nor to lie on the beach, so we went for option C: biking from beach to beach along the seven-mile paved trail. I have never seen a beach as white as Fort De Soto’s North Beach.
By the time we turned in our bikes, rain was pouring down into these white sandy beaches. Luckily we had the perfect excuse to hide inside all afternoon: the Super Bowl! We drove back to Orlando and spent the rest of the day surrounded by televisions, beers and wings. I’m saving that beachday for the Florida sequel in March!