The People, Places and Pastimes We Love in Our State
Florida endures as a land of wonderment, where southerners live in the north, and northerners live in the south; nature’s splendor masks mortal dangers; and ancient tribalism collides with modern capitalism. While 850 miles and a cultural chasm separate the folks of Perdido Key from the conchs of Key West, the classic traits and treasures of our home bind us as Floridians. Here, we celebrate our favorite icons of the Sunshine State.
Neil Armstrong’s giant leap for mankind started with a short walk down a runway on Merritt Island. The John F. Kennedy Space Center, NASA’s primary launch site of human spaceflight since 1968, sent the Apollo, Skylab and Space Shuttle programs into the heavens and mesmerized the millions of Americans who watched the footage in their living rooms. At the visitors’ complex, guests can explore replicas of rockets, experience g-forces in a shuttle simulator, interview an astronaut, and get a glimpse of the building where the latest spacecrafts are being built. In honor of the region’s aeronautical importance, the Space Coast—from Titusville to Palm Bay—received in 1999 the area code 321, meant to represent the countdown before liftoff.
All roads lead to Florida. Well—U.S. Route 1 and Interstate 10—do. But beyond the crowded highways, perfect top-down cruising routes lace the state: palm tree–lined boulevards from Sarasota to Palm Beach, rural backroads in Ocala’s horse country, vast expanses of the Overseas Highway connecting the Keys, and canopied passes draped with Spanish moss from Jupiter to Tallahassee. Byways like the Ormond Scenic Loop & Trail, enveloped with native palms and oaks seemingly as old as the state, transport motorists and cyclists to an era when Sunday drives reigned as a premier weekend activity. Those who appreciate an even slower, sandier ride make tracks on the beaches along the state’s northeastern shoreline. From Daytona Beach to Amelia Island’s Big Talbot Island State Park, speed limits max out at 10 mph and 4X4-only stretches provide a quiet perch for going parking. We love beach drives so much that we chose to cruise a strip at Porpoise Point in St. Augustine for our inaugural issue cover shoot.
Stretching from Lake Okeechobee to the Gulf of Mexico, the Everglades saturates 3 million acres of the state’s southern region. The Glades, as locals call it, is arguably Florida’s most defining natural feature, as well as one of its most threatened ecosystems due to agricultural and land development. Today the Everglades has lost about half its original size, according to the Everglades Foundation. The work of Marjory Stoneman Douglas, a fierce activist and journalist, helped slow the degradation of this “River of Grass” and raise its stature when it became a national park in 1947, and eventually a World Heritage site.
“There are no other Everglades in the world. They are, they have always been, one of the unique regions of the earth; remote, never wholly known. Nothing anywhere else is like them,” said Douglas.
Its beauty and mystique draw tourists and natives to explore untamed sawgrass–covered terrain by roaring airboats or through quiet mazes of boardwalks. For a marshy overnighter or fresh gator bites, bunk up at the Rod & Gun Club, an old-Florida outpost suspended in time in the heart of tiny Everglades City.
The Intracoastal Waterway, or “The Ditch,” as Floridians lovingly call it, traces most of our seaboard for a combined 914 miles, with the longest continuous section along the Atlantic coast and two disconnected thoroughfares along the western and upper Gulf coasts. While some commercial boats still squeeze through its narrow corridors en route to Florida ports, most Floridians know the ICW best for sunny days spent throwing wake up and down the protected canal, with the wind in their hair and saltwater spray in their faces. From land or vessel, voyeurs gather along the Intracoastal to spy luxury yachts and celebrity homes (a smidge of Tiger Wood’s Jupiter Island estate comes into view from the high perch of a tuna tower), enjoy holiday boat parades, and tie up to unpretentious waterfront eateries like Fort Lauderdale’s Coconuts. You don’t need twin engines to experience the wonder of the Intracoastal. Paddleboarders, kayakers, anglers and dockside sunset seekers have just as much love for this iconic waterway.
Nothing sets the stage for enjoying a classic sunny Florida day like sitting dockside at a restaurant, where red plastic baskets overflow with flaky, fresh-off-the-boat filets of mahi mahi cradled in a soft bun. Along with fish sandwiches, steamed stone crab and even sushi top the list of locally caught dishes, attracting foodies to these salty outposts with direct lines from the docks to dining tables. At Hogfish Bar & Grill in Safe Harbor Marina on Stock island in the Keys, savor the fresh conch salad or cook your own catch. Joe Patti’s on Pensacola Bay is renowned for its sushi bar, with rolls like the Blue Angel, made with fried soft-shell crab. Safe Harbor Seafood Market and Restaurant in Jacksonville hauls in Mayport shrimp for po’ boys brimming with locally caught crustaceans. For just-harvested stone crab claws, skip the scene at Joe’s Stone Crab in Miami and drive two hours west to tiny Everglades City’s Triad Seafood Market & Café, where you’ll find unrefined Florida at its finest.
Southeast Asia may be the birthplace of citrus fruit, but nowhere is so revered for juicy orbs of vitamin C as the Sunshine State. “Visiting a restaurant in France, I spotted a crate with the Indian River Groves label, and smiled to see a piece of Florida abroad,” says W.T. Harrison Jr., who owns a 110-acre citrus grove in Zolfo Springs and, as a child, worked after school at Manatee Fruit Company in Palmetto. Credit Spanish conquistadors with planting Florida’s first orange trees in St. Augustine in the mid-16th century, and Odet Philippe, a French count, for introducing grapefruit near Tampa in 1823. Rail transportation in the late 1800s, pioneered by Henry Flagler and fellow magnate Henry Plant made shipping simpler and helped Northerners develop a taste for pulpy fruit. An Italian immigrant, Anthony T. Rossi, foresaw Florida orange juice becoming a year-round staple on breakfast tables far and wide, so in 1947, he started the Tropicana Products Company in Bradenton. By 1954, he patented a process to pack the juice in bottles, which eliminated the need for refrigeration in shipping. The industry has survived hurricanes and freezes, and currently faces its greatest challenge: citrus greening, a disease that destroys orange and grapefruit trees. Scientists are researching treatments, legislators are pushing for a bill to alleviate the cost of replanting, and growers are digging in their heels. “The path to survival is paved with passion and perseverance,” says Mike Sparks, CEO of Florida Citrus Mutual. “We are too resilient to fail.”
With 1,197 miles of coastline, Florida is a veritable playground, whether you fancy boating or building sand castles. On the east coast, the Atlantic Ocean’s waves beckon surfers to spots like New Smyrna Beach, Sebastian and West Palm Beach. To the south, from Stuart to the Dry Tortugas, stretch 358 miles of coral reefs for snorkelers and scuba divers to ogle. Meanwhile, paddleboarders, kayakers, shell-seekers and families flock to the Gulf of Mexico for its still, bath-like water and award-winning beaches, where sand has the consistency of cornstarch. Floridians are as passionate about their oceans as they are football. Fierce loyalties to both the Gulf and the Atlantic exist, with debates breaking out over which one has prettier water, better fishing and bigger waves.
Florida’s rich culinary tapestry owes much to the people of Spain, Cuba and Haiti, who brought old-world recipes to their new home. Credit the Spaniards with paella (a rice and meat or shellfish platter seasoned with onions, garlic, sweet paprika, piquillo peppers and saffron), as well as croquetas (ham, chicken, cheese and potato fritters), jamón Ibérico (a cured ham with sweet, nutty flavors) and gazpacho (a chilled tomato soup). Cubans introduced comfort dishes such as ropa vieja (braised shredded flank swimming in a tomato-sauce base) and vaca frita (skirt steak marinated in oregano, parsley, cilantro, garlic, cinnamon and red vinegar); satiating sides like yucca and black beans; and what might be the world’s best pressed sandwich. Haitians brought tropical cuisine with French and African influences, such as griot (deep-fried pork shoulder marinated in lime juice and a paste of habañero pepper, parsley, onion, cloves, garlic and paprika), kibbeh (a fried concoction of ground beef, lamb or goat with bulgur wheat, seasoned with cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves and allspice) and pain patate (a bread made from a variety of sweet potatoes known as boniatos).
In the 1920s and ’30s, when saltwater fishing was first being explored, the state’s marine industry got its start with mom-and-pop boatyards and associated businesses providing solutions for fishermen’s problems. Florida innovations include: marine outriggers, fighting chairs with integrated footrests, the aluminum tuna tower for spotting fish, center-console fishing boats with 360-degree access while fighting fish, and the flats boat for stalking bonefish, redfish and tarpon. This is the state where the modern-day big-game fishing boat was invented by Rybovich; where Evinrude and Mercury perfected their high-performance outboards at secret test centers; and Huckins Yachts created the maneuverable pursuit craft (the PT) that helped defeat the Japanese in World War II. Every winter we host the world’s biggest boat shows in Miami and Fort Lauderdale. From offshore race boats to mega-yachts and the finest sportfishers, Florida is where the world comes to build, buy and outfit their boats, spending $2.3 billion a year with some 5,500 related marine businesses. — Jan Fogt
Floridians — and the world – have embraced the flamingo as the unofficial state mascot for generations. Souvenir shops overflow with pink feathered mugs, and the trend of “flocking,” or blanketing, yards and public spaces with colonies of plastic flamingos (to celebrate birthdays and even to recognize cancer survivors) has become quite popular. Although not indigenous to our lands, wild flamingos migrate to points in South Florida every year to mate. Seeing them au naturel is rare, but certainly possible, thanks to organizations like the Audubon Society of the Everglades. Little known fact: A flock of flamingos is called a flamboyance.
There’s just something irresistible about a smoky bar in a run-down shanty with the yeasty scent of beer rising up from the floorboards and women’s bras hanging from the ceiling. Dive bars freckle the state, from No Name Pub in Big Pine Key, famous for its dollar-bill décor, to Pete’s Bar in Neptune Beach, known for its annual Thanksgiving Day street party. Almost every neighborhood in Florida has its signature hole-in-the-wall, adored by the locals, and in some cases, sought after by tourists seeking that pared-down, old-school vibe. Ragtag environs aren’t the only factors that make up a great dive bar. Bartenders and barflies, like roving crayon caricature artist Mickey Clean at Ft. Lauderdale’s Treasure Trove, can become legends in their own right at these frothy saloons.
Animals with Bite
Florida bites! Who remembers this tongue-in-cheek motto—complete with mosquito illustration—proposed for the state quarter back in 2002? Alas, judges quickly zapped the entry, but no one could deny the slogan’s validity. On land and on sea, many dangerous animals call Florida home sweet home. Among them: barracudas, sharks (most notably Old Hitler, the legendary hammerhead of Boca Grande), panthers, black bears, snapping turtles, six (!) species of venomous snakes, and, of course, the American alligator.
Fruit Stands/U-Pick Farms
Florida’s fertile soil yields some of the tastiest fruits and vegetables gracing grocery stores nationwide. Nothing, though, beats the joy of biting into a Plant City strawberry straight from the ground. From Molino to Homestead, 102 U-pick farms invite visitors to get acquainted with the land and its stewards. Meanwhile, roadside stands, such as The Orange Shop in Citra, Ferris Groves in Floral City, Barberville Produce in Pierson, and Robert Is Here in Homestead, let fresh fruit foodies savor what’s in season without getting their hands dirty.
Confronted with an excess of rum and other liqueurs, a quick-thinking bartender at the Holiday Isle Tiki Bar in Islamorada came up with a way to purge the overstock and put a sloppy smile on patrons’ faces. Enter: the Rum Runner. Named for the bootleggers who carted booze from the Caribbean to Florida during Prohibition, this sweet-but-potent cocktail has been raising spirits and lowering inhibitions for six decades. For a thoroughly Floridian version, order one with Siesta Key Rum. Should you prefer libations with a tad less sugar, the state also produces a slew of stellar brews, such as Cigar City’s Maduro, Florida Cracker and Jai Alai, Swamp Head’s Wild Night, and Tequesta’s Terminally Ale.
“Florida craft breweries have tripled in five years,” says Ben Davis, founder of Jacksonville-based Intuition Ale Works craft brewery, known for its 1-10 IPA. “There are opportunities to use local ingredients like strawberries and citrus. The advantage is the tourism element. When you’ve got people coming in for spring break or the holidays, they want local breweries.”
There must be something in the orange juice. What else can explain the scope of athletic talent to emerge from Florida? Let’s start with football. Practically every collegiate and NFL roster includes representation from Dade, Broward, Polk or Duval counties. Between our three marquee universities — Florida State, Miami and University of Florida — we have 11 national championships and eight Heisman Trophy winners. Several of these institutions’ standouts went on to become household names, such as Deion Sanders, Warren Sapp, Michael Irvin, Emmitt Smith, and Tim Tebow. Off the gridiron, with 9 irons in their hands, we have golfers David Duval, Bubba Watson, Billy Horschel, Jim Furyk and Morgan Pressel. And serving aces are tennis players Jim Courier, Venus and Serena Williams, and Chris Evert. With Evert’s academy in Boca Raton and Nick Bollettieri’s in Bradenton, most tennis professionals have logged considerable practice hours on Florida courts. Rounding out the list of star athletes: Artis Gilmore (basketball), Nancy Hogshead-Makar (three-time Olympic gold medalist in swimming), race car drivers Glenn Roberts and Don Garlits, and a slew of baseball players, including Wade Boggs, Jose Canseco, Boog Powell and Alex Rodriguez.
Bright Lights, Big Cities
Beyond our beaches and backcountry, Florida’s anchor cities—Tampa, Miami and Orlando—remain among our most treasured places.
In the 1880s, Henry Plant recognized Tampa’s potential as a major port and started a steamship line that traveled to Key West and Havana, Cuba. In 1885, Don Vicente Martinez-Ybor, an influential cigar manufacturer and Cuban exile, moved his business to Tampa, and a stream of other Spanish and Cuban businessmen and laborers followed suit, leading to a vivacious Latin community known today as Ybor City. Tampa Bay is also the state’s largest open-water estuary, spanning 398 square miles at high tide. Runners and bikers buzz up and down the 6-mile waterfront sidewalk along Bayshore Boulevard, lined with historic homes built more than 100 years ago.
Further south, in 1896, canals were drained (drying up a healthy chunk of the Everglades), roads were built, and Miami was erected, after citrus titan Julia Tuttle convinced Henry Flagler to extend his railroad down the East coast of the peninsula. A hurricane in the 1920s wiped away a swath of that new development, making room for the Art Deco style synonymous with the city today. From the Coppertone sign on Biscayne Boulevard and the News Cafe on Ocean Drive, to Freedom Tower and Little Havana’s Calle Ocho Festival, Miami’s iconic landmarks, oceanfront hot spots and Latin culture attract visitors the world over. Even Miami Vice has evolved from a cheesy TV show into a cult classic, paying homage to the glamorous architecture, sparkling waterways and beautiful people of the Magic City.
Orlando, and Disney’s magic, account for a large portion of the 100 million visitors here last year. Floridians, not just tourists, flock to O-Town for fun in the sun. Outside of its theme park walls and International Drive, the city has quaint cultured pockets like Windermere, Winter Park and Lake Mary with boutique shopping, chef-driven restaurants and lakefront historic homes (not castles). Orlando also means business: It has a mammoth convention center that functions like a mini city, the seventh largest research park in the country and more than 150 international companies.
Time has done nothing to dull the glitz of Florida’s grand hotels. Railroad magnate Henry Flagler’s Palm Beach Inn, known today as The Breakers, has welcomed politicians, tycoons, movie stars and European nobility since 1896. Twelve years after Flagler’s death, in 1925, a neglected curling iron set the place aflame, but his heirs vowed to rebuild “the world’s finest resort.” In 1927, they opened a 540-room replacement modeled after the Villa Medici in Rome that still wows the rich and famous. Across the state, the understated Gasparilla Inn & Club, founded in 1911 on Boca Grande, beckons sportfishermen, golfers and those in search of solitude. President George H.W. Bush and family have celebrated many New Year’s Eves at this bespoke Queen Anne–style retreat known for its genteel ambience and customs, such as dressing for dinner. The Jazz Age ushered in The Biltmore in Coral Gables (1926) and The Don CeSar in St. Petersburg (1928). Both properties sport a distinct color (peach and pink, respectively); frequently hosted F. Scott Fitzgerald, Al Capone and Franklin D. Roosevelt; and served as military hospitals during World War II.
Theme Parks and Springs
People worldwide know Florida as a theme park hub, but the region earned the reputation long before Mickey, Shamu or Harry Potter put down roots. Since 1878, when Hullam Jones installed a glass box in the bottom of a dug-out canoe, tourists have trekked to marvel at the crystal-clear waters of Silver Springs in Ocala, Rainbow Springs in Dunnellon and Weeki Wachee Springs in Spring Hill. Only the last park remains a fully operational theme park, anchored by the popularity of its underwater mermaid shows, started in 1947. Ninety-five miles southeast in Winter Haven, Cypress Gardens delighted visitors for nearly 75 years with water ski shows, Southern belles and acres of manicured flower beds. Today the property is home to Legoland, but the botanical beauty of the original park endures. A trio of attractions, opened in the mid-20th century, still pays homage to some of the state’s beloved creatures: manatees (Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park in Homosassa), alligators (Gatorland in Orlando) and dolphins (Theater of the Sea in Islamorada).