St Augustine, situated on the north-east coast of Florida, is the oldest European settlement in the United States. The Spanish conquistadors founded this resilient little town in 1565, which was later attacked and burned by Sir Francis Drake. In 1668 it was plundered by pirates and all its inhabitants killed. The town survived and so did some of its Spanish colonial architecture. Even within the highly developed and technological state of Florida, some of the buildings in St. Augustine are five hundred years old. It is believed to be home to a sizable community of ghosts; the Spanish Military Hospital is thought to be one of the most haunted sites.
St Augustine also plays an important role in the history of Florida’s black community. Fort Mose(pronounced mo-say) was the first legal community of freed blacks in the United States. It was established in 1738 by Manuel Montiano, the Spanish governor of Florida. The location provided a haven for over 100 African fugitives who were escaping into Spanish colonial territory from South Carolina. As Spanish Florida’s first line of defense against the British colonies, Mose is a testament to the courageous African Americans who took immeasurable risks to live their lives freely. Fort Mose is open to visitors and makes a fine spot to survey the town’s magnificent historic bridge.
St Augustine was also an important location during the Civil Rights Movement. The town was at the very center of sit-in protests against segregation laws, including the famous Woolworths sit-in in 1963. In 1964, Martin Luther King was arrested in St Augustine for attempting to get served in a white-only restaurant.
Most of the pre-packaged tours pick Orlando inevitably as their main attraction destination. And why not? No other city in Florida, or the world for that matter, is home to seven major theme parks, all within such close proximity and packed full of more things to do than anyone could possibly have enough time for. Whereas in the past most of the theme-parks were touted as ‘family adventures,’ the marketing and development over the past few years has been moving towards focusing on a more adult crowd who want to experience fun in the sunshine, and the sparkle of the Mouse’s Magic Kingdom.
Celebration is a town planned, built, and run entirely by the Disney Corporation. Although Disney World is just up the road, it isn’t a theme park but a “planned community” – a functioning town with a population of people living perfectly normal lives. The houses of Celebration are characterised by white picket fences, Southern-style porches, immaculate streets, and any curtains that are visible from the street have to be white or off white. The town favours old-fashioned values, small speciality shops, and streets where all the neighbours know each other and greet one another every day. In winter, artificial snow is sprayed from overhead jets overMarket Street, giving residents the sense of a white Christmas without sacrificing the mild Florida climate. Every year this town hosts the Posh Pooch Celebrations, an event for dog lovers and their dogs, featuring everything from pet-i-cures and paw reading to canine beauty pageants. The highlight of the celebrations in Celebration is the joining of paws in matrimony at a pet wedding.
For many people, Orlando is synonymous with Disney World. This is the theme park that set the standard. Disney World is in fact four parks: Magic Kingdom has been open since 1971 and it’s still the place you are most likely to bump into Mickey Mouse et al; Epcot conjures up the appeal of different nations, saving travellers some time in their world travels by enabling them to enter eleven countries all within a few steps; MGM Studios pays homage to the world of show biz; and the Animal Kingdom offers a safari experience plus rides and animal shows. In addition you can explore three water parks, a network of monorails, ferry boats and watertaxis, 72 golf courses, and entire shopping malls. Disney World is clearly designed to keep tourists in; you could easily spend a two-week vacation without leaving its borders.
Key West is closer to Cuba than mainland Florida, and the local people, called “Conchs”, pride themselves on their artistic and individualistic spirit. Key West was home to the writer Ernest Hemingway. His house is now a museum and Hemingway wrote some of his finest novels here such as For Whom The Bell Tolls, A Farewell to Arms and To Have and Have Not.
Sample the local speciality, key lime pie, and decide for yourself which of the many pie shops really does sell the original and best. Before sunset each evening, you can gather in Mallory Square to be entertained by an assortment of jugglers, fire-eaters, acrobats, bongo players, and peg-legged pirates. Duval Street has a thronging nightlife and you’ll be spoilt for choice between live bands and performers in dozens of all-night bars. Stay in one of Key West’s homely guest house surrounded by lush vegetation and the sounds of colourful birds in the trees.
Miami is a vibrant super city brimming with different cultural influences. The city is divided into distinct districts. The trendy Design District is the place to go for “bling” furniture and bespoke decorative items. Try Little Haiti to capture a sense of the fastest growing immigrant neighbourhood. Look out for murals displaying the Haitian passion for bright colour and pictorialism. Little Havana, an established thriving Cuban district, is well worth a visit. Salsa pours out of every shop entrance and the smell of sizzling goat meat fills the air. Without a word of English being spoken in the streets, you could be forgiven for forgetting you are in America.
South of Little Havana is the affluent district of Coral Gables where huge graceful houses are shaded by enormous lush canopies of the trees which line the boulevards. Nearby there is a thriving business district where many of Miami’s richest multi nationals have offices in stately tall buildings.
This is also the location of one of Miami’s most beautiful hotels, The Biltmore. Completed in 1926, this graceful and imposing building first lit its famous Giralda Tower in 1926 when it became a hotspot for foxtrotting jazz crowds who danced through the stylish twenties inside the great mosaic-decorated halls. Throughout the twenties and thirties, the Biltmore was the height of fashion and counted the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Ginger Rogers, Judy Garland, Bing Crosby, and Al Capone among its regular guests. The hotel was converted into a hospital during World War Two and remained one until the late 1960s. It did not open as a hotel again until the 1980s, and in the 90s it was registered as a National Historic Landmark. Today, it’s quite simply one of the most graceful and impressive hotels you’ll ever see. Even if you can’t stay there, take a stroll around the grounds, peek at the lovebirds in the cages in the lobby, marvel at the hidden courtyards draped with lush greenery, and admire the biggest hotel pool in Florida. You can hear tales of the Biltmore’s colourful past at their regular story telling evenings, which are open to everyone, no reservation necessary, usually held on a weekday evening in the main lobby fireplace.
Kennedy Space Center
Just 45 minutes from Orlando is Cape Canaveral, home to the Kennedy Space Center, one of only two places on earth from where humans have been launched into space. It’s a fantastic place to visit and plays a big part in any Florida vacation. On show is technology originally designed by the military to blow people up, but now used to further the nobler international effort to send people into the unknown. It’s also home to NASA’s launch headquarters, a working government facility where over 10,000 men and women daily push the limits of scientific knowledge. You can see the working launch platforms and, if you time your visit right, even witness a launch!
The Kennedy Space Center tells the story of NASA’s past, present and future in space exploration. Wander round the Rocket Garden and see the incredible machines that have shot man into space. Climb inside the Explorer, a full size replica of a NASA shuttle obiter an imagine yourself floating in earth’s orbit. It looks real, it feels real, and even has real space equipment in its cargo bay. If you want to takes things further, there’s the ATX Astronaut Experience, which promises a day’s training and contact with a real astronaut. You’ll be spun on every axis on the 1/6 gravity chair, which was used to train astronauts in how it felt if their capsule went out of control, or find out what its like to walk on the moon by bouncing in a space sling.
There are typically two reasons people come from all over the world to the Bahamas. One is for the beaches and two is for the diving. Both require water, which the Bahamas has in abundance. Rarely, at any one point, is anyone more than a few yards from a beach anywhere across the islands. In addition to water, people also come to the Bahamas to be entertained.
Nassau is the capital city of the Bahamas, having gained its wealth from its expansive harbour and years of trade. The city of Nassau is basically divided into three sections. One is the inner commercial district, in which Bay Street is the heart, boasting outdoor markets, pubs, shops, and cafes all nestled between with historic buildings. Another is the area set back on the cliff where the colonial mansions and townhouses of the merchants still sit. The city suburbs are inhabited by the majority of the locals, areas that contribute greatly to the liveliness of the city. And of course, all around is water and beaches to make the stay even more enjoyable.
Paradise Island is a quick jaunt from Nasssau and the two are connected via a bridge that can be walked or driven across. The toll for cars is $2 and a mere 25 cents for those on foot. However, there isn’t much to see on Paradise Island as it is almost purely a fabricated island built up specifically for the quintessential tourist. There is some repute about the quality of the beaches on the island, but there are few places in the Bahamas that do not have lovely beaches.
Grand Bahama Island
Grand Bahama Island is the fourth largest of the Bahamian islands. Of the major cities,Freeport/Lucaya is by far the largest, the most flocked to, and the least exotic. In fact, the resort town was not even in existence a few years ago and was founded and erected by a corporation. Therefore, you can imagine what sorts of entertainment and accommodation is available. Casinos, water sports, large production cabarets, towering hotels and a plethora of vacation packages are all found in abundance. In Freeport it is worth checking out theInternational Bazaar which consists of a numerous amount of buildings that are replicas of buildings elsewhere in the world. For a more natural experience, take a stroll around the Garden of the Groves, reputed to be the finest botanical garden in all of the Bahamas.
The Out Islands
The Out Islands are aptly named as they are far less developed and more remote than Nassau and Grand Bahama Island. Consisting of the 697 other islands that make up the Bahamas, the lifestyle on the Out Islands is a bit more laid back and traditional. There, you will be far away from the casinos, nightlife, and bustle of the major cities. As more and more people begin discovering the peaceful surroundings these islands have to offer, the more accommodation and restaurants are opening up. Some of the islands have also gained reputations over the years, for example Bimini is travelled to from the world over for deep sea fishing, while Aboacos and theExumas are renowned for their excellent sailing facilities. If it is a break from the city that you are seeking, then a trip to the Out Islands makes for an ideal tranquil retreat.
Although Bermuda isn’t technically included as a Bahamian island, it isn’t far off. Located to the northeast of the Bahamas, Bermuda is world renowned for its beauty and mystery. At just 21 square miles and with a small population of just over 60,000 inhabitants, the island of Bermuda certainly is not lacking in wonders. Hamilton is the bustling centre and capital city of Bermuda. It is here that the majority of the pubs are found, as well as a wide array of shops, cafes, restaurants and hotels to spend your money on. However, due to the high cost of living and the reliance on imported goods, Bermuda is not the best place to go if you’re on a budget. Known for splendid beaches and gorgeous weather, Bermuda is an excellent place to go to escape from it all, or to disappear completely if you’re a believer in the Bermuda Triangle myth, where, just slightly to the south of the island, a record number of inexplicable disappearances of ships and planes apparently occurred.
Guide by Gianna De Salvo and Faye Welborn