Florida's Sunshine Route

10 January 2016
Read Time: 4.2 mins

Stitching together a photogenic slideshow of Americana in all its flamboyant variety, one of my long-time favourite road trips involves traversing the coastal highway flanking the Gulf Coast and Caribbean Sea. It’s a sightseeing head-swirl of flamboyant Florida, the 'Sunshine State'.

Heading east from New Orleans, after three hours, the bone-white sands of Pensacola’s picture-perfect coastline will shuffle into view. Pensacola town features a gorgeous historic district – like a movie-set teleported from Little House on the Prairie.

For a spoonful of quirkiness, I popped into the TT Wentworth Jr museum which houses an eclectic collection of oddities, including a mummified cat.

Ocean Drive By night, Miami Beach's Ocean Drive is a neon strip of never-ending entertainment

If you want to check out some of Uncle Sam’s mighty boy toys, the National Naval Aviation Museum is a mammoth muscle flex of military might, with 150 resplendently restored aircraft showcased. I half expected all of them to roar into life in the spotlessly presented hangers.

The World War II collection features some Japanese kamikaze aircraft that were shot down. The IMAX theatre delivers a visually exhilirating documentary, The Magic of Flight, evocatively narrated by Tom Selleck. Surprisingly, this stellar museum is free to visit.

Another nearby draw is Fort Pickens, a 181-year-old fortress that once held a legendary prisoner of war: Geronimo.

When you’ve had your fill of the cultural offerings, you’ll be gagging to reward yourself with some quality beach time on Santa Rosa Island.

Completely encircled by the gleaming turquoise waters of the Gulf of Mexico, this generous-sized sandy island juts out into the ocean, linked to the mainland by a seven-kilometre-long road-bridge. It’s feted beach status is well-deserved – no wonder those notorious Spring Breakers swoop on Pensacola’s sandy expanse in hordes.

Further down the Gulf coastline, the glittering waters, gleaming seashells and ivory-hued sand of Clearwater Beach, Siesta Key and Sanibel Island are all radiant and highly recommended beach-break settings. Thankfully, these succulent seaside spots aren’t yet on the mass-adolescence target list of the Spring Break invasion.

Clearwater Beach Clearwater Beach

For an pinch-yourself encounter with local wildlife, try your hand at swimming with manatees. Crisp mornings in winter is when Florida’s manatees are out in full force in the Crystal River, the sweet spot of Citrus County.

I ventured into the river on a manatee snorkelling safari, greeted by 500 of these graceful giants at the fresh start of day.

Next on the hit list, something very unlike the benign and docile manatees with their wide goofy grins – is a spot of alligator spotting.

It’s exhilirating fun fizzing along the sprawling wetlands of Everglades National Park on an airboat. There’s apparently more than 200,000 gators mooching about in these waters, so you’ll spot plenty of them.

I’d hoped that with a helping hand from Lady Luck I’d catch a glimpse of a Florida panther – but highly endangered and just as elusive, it wasn’t to be.

Everglades Alligator-spotting in Florida's Everglades National Park

Considering it’s the ‘theme park capital of the world’, the thrills, spills and theatrics of Orlando can easily be incorporated into this journey – but instead I made a beeline for Miami’s bright lights and seductive  spoils.

Sun-drenched and mop-topped in swaying palms, Miami’s alluring draws start with South Beach, an eye-candy headrush and art-deco-encrusted pleasure chest I gorged on like a camera-toting gannet.

Before hitting the white sands and foaming surf (the premium playground for flaunting your exquistely sculpted physique), there are three streets you should walk along, from top to toe: Washington Avenue, Collins Avenue and Ocean Drive.

They’re home the bulk of South Beach’s 800-plus art deco structures, cherrily accessorised in pale pastels and splashed in neon.

A great stop is the 11th Street Diner, an original art-deco dining car, where you’ll enjoy settling into a red leather booth for some hearty southern fried chicken.

Everglades Key West is as far south as you can get

Little Havana is the rustic, pulsing heart of Miami’s Latino community and powerhouse of Cuban expats. Hispanic culture permeates the area – vibrant murals, monuments to heroes past and present, elderly chaps playing dominoes in Maximo Gomez Park, the heady aroma of Cuban coffee perfuming the air, and cigar rollers intensely working their craft are all potent street-scene snapshots.

Final stop on your surf-and-sand road trip has to be Key West, via the Overseas Highway. Forty-two bridges stitch the Florida Keys together, but it’s sassy Key West that will steal your heart for its all-encompassing story-book prettiness.

More USA journeys. Lookin' For Adventure: US Road Trip Itineraries

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Miami Unmissables

  • Fronting Ocean Drive, the fabled former Versace Mansion, now operates as uber-luxury hotel The Villa. Sample a flavour of Versace’s lavish residence by dining at the in-house Restaurant Gianni’s, which isn’ts as expensive as you may think.
  • My favourite South Beach watering holes are The Carlyle, an art-deco hotel that took centre stage in the hilarious Robin Williams movie Birdcage. For some tasty retro Latin flair, check out the Cardozo Bar & Grill, owned by Miami music royalty, Gloria Estefan and her husband Emilio.
  • Adjacent to South Beach, Star Island is a honeypot of glitterati trophy homes, owned by the likes of Madonna, Will Smith and Lenny Kravitz. Hire a little water taxi and the driver will spill the beans on who owns what, and all the tabloid goss.
  • Little Havana’s main drag is Calle Ocho. Don’t miss La Ventanita at Versailles, representing typical Cuban takeaway food. Order a cortadito with evaporated milk, empanadas and guava pastries.
  • Visit leafy Coral Gables and take a dip in the Venetian Pool, formed from a rock quarry in 1923, and now the only pool on the National Register of Historic Places. This 3,104,037-litre blockbuster includes waterfalls and sculpted grottos.
Valley of Fire Road-tripping through Nevada's Valley of Fire

Five More Great USA Road Trips

1. Best of the West

Traverse California, Nevada and Arizona on a 3,307-kilometre road romp. On the round-trip route from LA, head first to Palm Springs, Phoenix and the Grand Canyon, before taking in the Las Vegas Strip, Death Valley and Yosemite National Park.

City-break in San Francisco before heading back down to LA, on the storied Pacific Coast Highway, taking in Monterey, Carmel, and Santa Barbara.

2. Grand Texan Trails

Grab your Akubra and blaze a trail through the Lone Star State. This 1,374-kilometre route starts in Dallas, before heading to Austin, the ‘Live Music Capital of the World’.

Then it’s on to Houston for the slew of museums. Remember the Alamo? Hot-foot it to historic San Antonio, and then Fort Worth, where a visit to Billy Bob’s Texas, the world’s largest honky-tonk venue, is a must-visit.

3. Eastern Seaboard Extravaganza

This epic adventure, spanning 2,554 kilometres, encompasses a span of vibrant cities after you’ve taken a bite out of the 'Big Apple'. Discover the headline sights of Washington DC, Virginia Beach, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Florida.

4. American Movie and Music Trails

This exciting two-week roadie spotlights the very best of American film and music locations. The 3,370-kilometre route swings through Illinois, Missouri, Tennessee, Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama and Kentucky.

5. Canyon Adventure Tour

Rich coloured landscapes, staggering formations and deep canyons. Explore the natural splendour of Nevada, Utah and Arizona in depth with this recommended 3,166-kilometre touring route.

Visit your local Flight Centre store or call 131 600 for more advice and the latest deals on travelling to Florida.

Mike Yardley

Ever since he memorised the Air New Zealand domestic timetable, at the age of 10, Mike Yardley has been travel junkie. After 20 years as an award-winning New Zealand talk radio host, in 2012, Mike embarked on a career change into travel media. He is now a full-time travel writer and correspondent for a variety of outlets in print, digital and on radio.