Planning a Trip to Florida
The raw beauty of Florida is unmatched by any state in the continental United States. In a single day during a Florida road trip, you can drive from the rolling waves of the East Coast to the dense panther-filled jungles in Central Florida. When planning a trip to Florida, curious travelers will want to understand its natural beauty and complexities.
As a tourist, your visit to Florida will likely be jam-packed with beach lounging, seashell collecting, kayaking in the Keys, hiking in the Everglades, and swimming in crystal-clear lagoons. If you are wondering how to plan a trip to Florida, we suggest you begin by exploring it from home. By familiarizing yourself with the following important topics will lay the groundwork for you to really understand Florida as more than a simple tourist destination.
Explore the Nature to Plan your Trip to Florida
The Everglades is one of the largest of America’s National Parks. It’s brimming with wildlife and vast, wide-open natural landscapes, and no visit to Florida is complete without a day or two spent there looking for gators. Learning about Florida’s wildlife and conservation efforts will help you appreciate the landscapes and species found only here. The National Park website has plenty of resources to virtually explore the subtropical wilderness.
If you’re more of a visual learner, or mostly interested in the wildlife that this environment shelters, this free Discovery documentary focuses on the relationship among the native species.
Florida is world-renowned as a bird watcher’s paradise. Even I couldn’t help but be enthralled by the vast number of large exotic birds that call Florida home: Cormorants, American White Pelicans, Roseate Spoonbills, Great Blue Herons, and Ibis just to name a few. This Florida Birding website provides great resources for identifying species and the game Wingspan is a fun way to learn about many of the birds you will see.
Manatees, The Gentle Giants of Florida
To round out your knowledge of Florida wildlife, you can’t miss researching the Florida Manatee. Endangered and protected, they are perhaps one of the most important native species that call Florida home. This National Geographic article explores the slow, underwater life of sea cows and why they are so at risk.
I visited several state parks in Florida, including Blue Springs and Silver Springs, where sightings of manatees are common. If you are heading to Tampa, here are more tips to see manatees in person.
Explore the History to Plan your Trip to Florida
St. Augustine-- The First Settlement in the United States
Jamestown and Plymouth get all the glory when it comes to colonizing the United States, but St. Augustine was established long before its northern counterparts. This History Channel article lays out how the Spanish colony was established, as well as the timeline of France and Spain arriving and laying claim to settlements in Florida.
Today St. Augustine is a tourist mecca in Florida. It’s a beautiful city covered in brick and old colonial architecture. Add in its lovely coastline, and it’s easy to see why it’s one of the top destinations in Florida.
Florida's Cuban Heritage
From Miami to the Keys, any visitor to Florida will notice the heavy Cuban influence in the area: from food to coffee, and rum to cigars. It’s apparent that although we cannot trade with Cuba itself, Cuban culture plays a huge role in Florida. During my time in Florida, I savored Cuban sandwiches and guava jam just like I enjoyed during a previous visit to Cuba. This PBS article explains the four great exoduses of Cubans to Florida, and why so many immigrated to the neighboring state.
Native Americans are integral to the fabric of the United States. After centuries of oppression, tribes like the Seminoles continue to preserve their rich traditions. This is the official Seminole Tribe website and it provides lots of information for those interested in learning about Florida’s most famous Indian Nation. They are the only Native American Tribe to never sign a peace treaty with the US government.
The Seminoles are an important, lesser-known group in Florida’s history. Slaves from Georgia and South Carolina fled to Florida and took refuge with the Seminole people. The offspring of the slaves and the Seminoles created the Black Seminoles, as outlined in this Yale article. The Black Seminoles were known for their bravery and tenacity during the Seminole wars and after the fact many were exiled to the Bahamas.
Black History in Florida
From the first free black settlement in Fort Mose to the slave trade fueling the sprawling sugar plantations of Florida, to the many influential Black Floridians in recent history and today, Black Americans played a large role in Florida’s history. In fact, right before the civil war was over, half of Florida’s population was enslaved African Americans. This article takes a look at Florida’s slave-trade history.
Florida was a confederate state during the civil war, but not all of Florida– the Keys famously tried to remain part of the union, despite mainland Florida’s views on slavery.
The Conch Republic
The Keys also once seceded from the United States for a completely unrelated reason. Visit the Florida Keys and you’ll see dark blue flags proudly fluttering in the wind with the white emblazoned logo of the Conch Republic. In the 1980s, during the ramping up of the War on Drugs, the Florida Keys seceded from the US in protest. Not in protest of anti-drug laws, per se, but because of the highly invasive roadblocks set up on the way to Key West. This short podcast from Stuff You Should Know outlines the publicity stunt and the weird history of the Conch Republic.
The Florida Keys are a must-see on any Florida itinerary. From the bustling famous Key West to the more laidback Key Largo– there’s an island for every kind of traveler.
Movies and books to help you plan a trip to Florida
In our exploration of Florida, we have to glance at the Cocaine trade. Florida has long been a major player in the international trade of Cocaine, both as a port of entry and as a major consumer of the infamous drug.
The documentary Cocaine Cowboys does a great job of examining the booming Miami Cocaine trade of the 1980s. Straight from the mouths of cops, citizens, and smugglers, it’s a harrowing look at an unscrupulous time in Florida’s history.
Florida & the Great Depression
Christopher Knowlton’s book, Bubble in the Sun, is a great read for those who want to learn a little more about the glamorous side of Florida and how it caused the US economy to come crashing down. The book illustrates how the boom of Florida in the roaring 20s, a land of excess and crime, may have directly caused the great depression. Florida has a complicated modern history of development, overindulgence, and extravagance. You’ll still see signs of this today walking the high-rise lined streets of Miami.
Florida is Weird
We’ve all heard the infamous “Florida man” stories. But take it from longtime Florida resident Dave Barry– it only gets weirder the longer you stay. His book Best. State. Ever. is a look at the weirder side of Florida and the odd attractions and stories that make his state so unique.
Whether it’s Florida that brings out the weirdness in us or the other way around, I found myself sucked into the strange culture during my visit. Standing in a parking lot in the middle of the night feeding stray cats from a can of Spam and parading a herd of ducks across the lot with crackers, I realized that maybe I had become ‘Florida woman’.
Planning a Trip to Florida
After spending a few weeks road-tripping through the state, I found Florida to be one of the most interesting states in the US, with diverse landscapes, a melting-pot cultural history, idyllic beaches, and also a prominent wildlife destination. Planning your visit is easy. But exploring the intricacies of Florida and digging deeper takes a little preparation. Be sure to check out all the resources we have available in our Tripscholars Resource Library.
This guest post was contributed by Geena at Beyondthebucketlist.
We love to learn from our guest writers and appreciate their expertise! Visit her website by clicking on the image or name below.
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