Florida – Touring holiday

Family holidays in Florida usually mean a succession of visits to theme parks in the Orlando area. Senior Travellers may find these of some interest, but there is lot more to the “Sunshine State”, including an interesting coastline and hinterland, attractive gardens and historical towns and cities.

St Augustine Old Town
St Augustine Old Town

The USA is generally Senior Traveller friendly and most hotel chains happily give senior discounts including the Intercontinental Hotel Group (which mainly I used), Marriott, Radisson and Ramada (see Hotel Deals for details of how to claim these discounts). Many tourist venues will also give 10% or more discount for Seniors, so well worth asking when paying entrance fees.

Having checked on the prices and on-board service provided by a range of British and American airlines, I opted to fly by Virgin Atlantic to Miami and was very pleased with the service. Unlike some reports, I had no difficulty with customs and immigration formalities on entering and leaving the USA; I was driving off in my hire car less than an hour after landing.

As always, I booked my hire car (with fully refundable excess) through Auto Europe and again was pleased with the service. A couple of tips: Firstly, it’s a good idea to pay extra when picking up your hire car in order to cover for road and bridge tolls throughout Florida. Secondly, rather than paying several dollars a day to hire a sat-nav, take your own having added USA maps. I purchased a full set of Garmin North America maps for less than £50 from Amazon, and of course I can use them time and time again.

My two week tour took me from Miami down the Florida Keys to Key West. After returning to Miami, I travelled west through the Everglades and then north to Tampa. From there I crossed Florida driving north-east to Jacksonville. After following the coastline south through St Augustine, I then moved inland to Orlando before heading back to Miami.

In general it proved to be very easy driving, although it always takes me a couple of days to get used to automatic transmission, and fuel is still less than half the UK price. My trip was made at the end of February, but it was sunny almost every day with temperatures in the high teens or low twenties.

So which are the five highlights of my touring holiday? Well I must admit I did enjoy visiting Busch Gardens theme park near Tampa and SeaWorld in Orlando was much, much better than I was expecting – particularly the dolphin and whale shows. The visit to the Budweiser Brewery in Jacksonville was memorable – free of charge and several samples to try at the end!

But the following are my highlights, which hopefully I’ll revisit at some time in the future:

Florida Keys and Key West. One of the world’s great drives, 110 miles along a chain of islands and bridges to reach Key West at the end. Stop and see the “African Queen” (now restored) and the miniature Key deer. In Key West I stayed at the Crowne Plaza, the Concha Hotel in Hemingway’s time, and enjoyed the sunset from the roof and the key lime pie from the store opposite.

Airboating in the Everglades. I took the airboat ride from Coopertown – an exhilarating experience with plenty of alligators along the way.

Gardens in Miami. The Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden is included in my Top Gardens of the world, but don’t miss nearby the Villa Vizcaya and Gardens. And don’t forget your Senior discount at both venues.

Cape Kennedy Rocket Garden
Cape Kennedy Rocket Garden

Historical sites in north-east Florida. The two places I found of most interest in this area were the Kingsley Plantation with museum and old slave houses (plus armadillos creeping around) and St Augustine with its 17th Century Spanish fort and old, narrow streets. I stayed at the Staybridge Suite in Jacksonville – inexpensive, but excellent, friendly service.

Cape Kennedy. Maybe the greatest theme park of them all, but not to be missed. Sadly it’s now starting to seem quite historical.

Although I covered almost 2000 miles on this trip, I found it a relaxing experience with plenty of time to stop off at the beaches in Clearwater, Daytona and Miami. The sat-nav was essential, but I must admit I needed my wife’s navigation skills as well when negotiating rush-hour in Miami. Everyone we met was friendly and very helpful, but maybe that is expected in a state with a very high population of Seniors!