Exploring Orlando, Miami and the Florida Keys
Windows down, shades on, music blaring; a road trip is the best way to see the USA, reckons Helen Wright. Seven days into my Journey, I’d already been on quite an adventure – all around the world, in fact. Thanks to Walt Disney World Resort’s Epcot World Showcase, I had dined in Japan, enjoyed a beer in Germany and gone ice dancing in Norway. With 11 ‘countries’ surrounding a huge lake, guests can glimpse a host of different cultures, and enjoy an epic firework display.
Sixty-six million people visit Orlando every year, making it the most visited tourist destination in the USA, and Disney World is often the first stop for international visitors. At neighbouring theme park Universal Studios, things get even more magical as a ride on the Hogwarts Express transports you to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter.
Away from dragons, goblins and Gryffindors, Orlando has plenty more to offer. The area is actually one of the world’s largest golf destinations and shopping is a big deal here, with two major malls and a choice of discount outlets.
Heading south I couldn’t resist a small detour to explore part of Florida’s more natural side – the Everglades. The UNESCO World Heritage site is made up of 1.5 million acres of wetland and home to alligators, manatees, birds and the endangered Florida panther. On an adrenaline-fuelled airboat ride, with the help of our guide Captain Mitch, we saw a 3.5m alligator – nicknamed Clint Eastwood by locals – luckily more interested in sunning himself than eating us.
From here it was a 90-minute drive to Miami, which greeted me with its rainbow Art Deco houses, offering a cheerful reminder of the 1920s and ’30s. It’s worth ditching the car to explore Miami Beach on foot. Almost everything is within walking distance of the wide, white-sand beach, including the quaint hotels of Ocean Drive.
The Overseas Highway that weaves through the Florida Keys with nothing but azure blue waters on either side, framing a cloudless blue sky, was my trip highlight. The drive was as much a part of the experience as the destination, if not more so.
Key West is a cool city that wouldn’t look out of place in the Caribbean, with cobbled streets and quirky Conch houses sporting rainbow shutters. Surrounded on all sides by coral-filled waters, you can snorkel here and spot the friendly sea turtles that inhabit the area. After hours, the serene streets burst into life, with rum-filled fun the order of the day. Tour the lively bars of Duval Street, carrying a glass of Key West Cooler – the local cocktail – with you as you go. For dinner, don’t miss the fried chicken at Sarabeth’s, but do save room for dessert: a slice of irresistible key lime pie.
Back on the highway, my last stop is Islamorada, a handy halfway point between Key West and Miami airport. Restaurant Marker 88 has been an institution here since 1967, and sits in a palm-tree-decorated, bare-foot beach haven surrounded by sun-faded fishing boats. On my last night I drank cocktails and watched the sun go down from a hammock by the sea. It was a different kind of magic to the spectacle that started my trip, but definitely something dreams are made of.