Bok Tower Gardens is one of Florida’s best-kept secrets, and it’s less than an hour’s drive from Disney and Universal territory. Prize-winning author Edward Bok turned his love of nature into a real-life wildlife haven in the 1920s when he started building this retreat. He wanted to create a place that would “touch the soul with its beauty and quiet”, and the setting certainly ticks that box. The path-threaded site’s surrounded by colourful orange groves, and has endangered plants, wild flowers and natural ponds in its midst. Plus, the design was dreamt up by landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted Jr – the same man who created New York’s iconic Central Park.
Animal lovers can clap eyes on 126 different species of bird, and it’s not uncommon to see a gopher tortoise ambling across the lawns. The main attraction, though, is Bok’s impressive singing tower. This 200-foot Gothic structure has a shimmering bronze door and animals carved into its marble exterior. It’s also home to a 60-bell carillon – a piano-like instrument which casts ethereal music across the gardens a couple of times a day.
Elsewhere in the grounds you can tour a Mediterranean mansion, stroll around the oak tree groves, and soak up views from one of the highest points in the state – the Sunset Overlook.
Mermaid shows, waterslides, river cruises – Weeki Wachee covers the lot. Draw a straight line from Orlando to Florida’s west coast, and you’ll reach this place just before the Pacific Ocean comes into view. The natural spring’s been turned into a half-natural, half-new attraction. There are flumes swirling into the main body of water, plus smaller creeks and streams that are ideal for kayaking and wildlife-spotting.
Its name translates as “Little Spring” or “Winding River”, and in the 1940s the turquoise waters first played host to its trademark underwater shows. Today, you can watch ‘mermaids’ drift around the depths of the main lagoon from the comfort of a submerged viewing theatre. The show’s so popular that Kelly Clarkson even featured it in her chart-topping hit ‘Stronger’.
Clearwater Beach has got a trophy cabinet that’s chock-full of prizes. TripAdvisor’s placed it among the best beaches in the world for 2018, and it’s number one in the USA. And once you set foot on the much-loved sands, you’ll see exactly why it’s so popular.
The powdery waterfront’s closer to chalk-coloured than your standard sunbathing sweep, and feels like an extension of the Caribbean’s dove-white shorelines. Head to Pier 60 for a gander at the street magicians and quirky stalls strung along the boardwalk, or pop to the marina for boat and jet-skiing trips across Clearwater Bay. If you’ve got some downtime left over, design your own t-shirt or browse beachwear at one of the nearby surf shops, or grab a grouper sandwich – made up of breaded white fish – close to the sand.
Pop to Daytona Beach, and you’ll find the city has its own set of Willy Wonkas – minus the musical assistants and perilous attractions, of course. South Beach Street, on the cusp of the Halifax River, is home to the Angell & Phelps Chocolate Factory. It’s a quaint Aladdin’s cave of confectionary, and has been selling chocolatey snacks to locals for more than 80 years.
Join one of the free tours to see how everything’s made, and you’ll get a couple of tasty samples thrown in at the end. And when it comes to take-home treats, the options range from caramel and pecan honeybees to crispy bacon and ridged crisps smothered in chocolate.
This corner of Florida boasts the highest percentage of Greek-Americans in the entire nation, and the city’s got a real European feel. The Greektown District is on the USA’s National Register of Historic Places, with pretty churches and authentic restaurants dishing up Mediterranean cuisine.
Aptly-named Dodecanese Avenue is the main thoroughfare, and there are plenty of places celebrating Tarpon Springs’ history of sponge fishing. Greek divers donned heavy, old-fashioned suits to harvest the natural sponges from deep off the Pacific Coast. These days the trade’s less archaic, but the Greek way of life’s still going as strong as ever.
It’s easy to see Ponce Inlet’s standout attraction before you’ve even come close to reaching it. This peaceful area, just south of Daytona Beach, features the tallest lighthouse in the state – a whopping 175 feet tall.
When you’re not snapping pictures of the century-old tower, you can visit a museum at its base that tells the story of its history. There’s also a marine science centre nearby with interactive exhibits, where you can learn a thing or two about Florida’s sea life. When you’ve had your fill of culture, the east coast’s standout sands are about five minutes’ drive away, too.
You’re in the thick of the action when you stay at Avanti Palms Resort. International Drive’s out the front, and you’re close to the interstate for road trips further afield.
The snow-white sands of are right outside the front doors of this hotel. Lively Pier 60 and its surrounding restaurants is close by, too.
The Grove Resort and Spa is set in the lake-spotted landscape on the outskirts of Orlando, so puts you within easy reach of the state’s lesser-known things to do.
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