THE HONEST GUIDE TO FLORIDA

Brochures bill the Sunshine State as the perfect holiday destination, with unbeatable weather and a rare mix of wilderness, all-American entertainment and style. Some people know better. Jill Crawshaw offers advice on the good, the bad and the ugly
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THE GOOD

MIAMI SOUTH BEACH

Poseurs par excellence, paparazzi and film-makers flock to Miami's hip art deco district, South Beach (or SoBe), a tiny area at the bottom third of Miami Beach. It is crammed with cafes, designer boutiques, 135 restaurants at the last count, art galleries and clubs, and most of it is owned by the likes of Sean Penn (the Club Bash), Prince (The Grand Slam), Gloria and Emilio Estefan and Chris Blackwell (who own hotels).

SoBe has nothing whatever in common with the rest of Miami Beach, or other parts of Florida (and most of its aficionados never set foot in either), except for its huge sandy beach. Its topless bathers, certainly, would be completely taboo elsewhere.

South Beach is a heady cocktail of urban America-beside-the-Ocean, with a sizeable Cuban, Latin, European, hetero and homo mix - no suburbia or skyscrapers, no chain stores or chain hotels - the buzz is palpable. Rollerbladers complement the Chevvies on the promenade, salsa beats alongside the rock and rap echoing from the pavement cafes.

After the glittering 1930s, the area became so derelict that developers couldn't even be bothered to knock it down to build the huge high-rises that line the cold, characterless boulevards further north. Its current amazing revival is due to the enterpreneurs turned preservationists, who found the largest collection of art deco buildings in the world, literally crumbling and turning into slums before their eyes. Now it is the latest entry on America's National Register of Historic Places.

Even if you can't take the lifestyle for too long, it's worth joining one of the Saturday-morning cycling or walking tours round some of the 900 rainbow-coloured buildings, with their ziggurated doorways and portholes, Eyptian portals, friezes, pediments, geometric motifs and rounded-off corners. Among the highlights are the Park Central Hotel, the former rendezvous of Clarke Gable and Rita Hayworth; the pastel-toned Marlin, Leslie and Cavalier hotels, with interiors designed by Barbara Hulanicki of Biba fame; the Mayan Art Deco Bass Museum; and the old Bonwit Teller building in Lincoln, where onlookers throng to watch Miami City Ballet rehearsing each day in the shop window. Take plenty of film.

MOST OF DISNEY WORLD

Love it or hate it, it's impossible to ignore the world's largest tourist attraction - at 47 square miles, roughly the size of Manchester and twice that of Manhattan. More than 25 million visitors are attracted annually to its three theme parks, three water parks, five golf courses and 32 night clubs and bars. It has 20 hotels and an independent transport network which includes a monorail system and a fleet of 550 boats (equivalent to the world's fifth-largest navy). The 35,000 "cast" (as employees are known) has a working wardrobe of two-and-a-half million items, while Mickey Mouse himself has 100 different sets ranging from a scuba diving suit to a tuxedo. The Swiss Family Robinson Tree House is claimed to be made of 20,000 hand-painted leaves (someone must have counted them).

No, you cannot do Disney in under five days - ideally, you need a week - and the secret to cracking its survival course is strategy. You must be on your starting blocks before the theme park opens (jet lag in any case ensures you'll wake early). If possible, buy your entrance tickets beforehand, and plan your route with military precision, working in a clockwise direction. The average family takes in nine or ten attractions or rides per day, but given stamina and perseverance, this can be beaten.

Leave the theme parks at about 11am, when the crowds and heat are building up, head for your hotel, the lake or a water park, relax and recuperate for your return at about 5pm. By then, most of the visitors are moving in the opposite direction, and you can plunge back into the fray.

It's impossible to cover all of Disney World in a single visit, but as a veteran of a dozen or so excursions, here is my personal Hit and Miss list. With children (though I question whether the whole exercise is worth it with under-threes), the place to head for is the Magic Kingdom, where favourites include the Pirates of the Caribbean, the Jungle Cruise and the Big Thunder Mountain Railway - all of which you need to catch early, before the queues become prohibitive.

Next come the new Legend of the Lion King spectacular and for the real tinies, Mickey Mouse Tea Party. The It's a Small World attraction enchants some and has others reaching for their sick-bags. In any case, sick-bags will come in handy for the top white-knuckle rides such as Space Mountain and Splash Mountain, the latter with the steepest drop in the world. Another of the latest attractions which is definitely not for the faint-hearted - the Extra Terrorestial (sic) Alien Encounter - has its audience screaming in the dark.

Away from the Magic Kingdom, EPCOT stands for Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow, a name which nobody really understands. It consists of a trade fair and high-tech theme park, with the current rush heading for the 3D sensory experience, Honey I Shrunk the Audience - though children are just as impressed by the marine life of Living Seas.

At the third park, MGM Studios, which is a combination of theme park and working studio, a two-hour backstage walking tour captivates film buffs but bores children, the hardiest of whom revel in the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, a spoof visit to a deserted hotel, culminating in a 13- storey plunge in a lift. A new stage show, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, is due to start here after the film is released in June.

I'm a real fan of the waterparks, though ironically in the summer they can often be shut down due to bad weather. Typhoon Lagoon has rides, sandy beaches, waves for surfing and a reef stocked with fish for snorkellers. Blizzard Beach, now the world's largest waterpark, was established to relieve the pressure on Typhoon Lagoon. It is less relaxing, with more thrills per minute. River Country, near the camp ground, has the rustic charm of an old waterhole, and is often less crowded.

The longest queue I've encountered, two-and-a-half hours, was at Planet Hollywood - for a meal. To be sure of dinner reservations in any of the restaurants, your finger needs to be on the phone button as soon as you arrive at your hotel. Even then you'll have to "wait in line until we seat you".

Finally, newly opened on 2 March this year, the Disney Institute is described as an "edutainment resort" where guests can participate in 80 activities ranging from golf and cookery to performing arts and animation.

A range of one- to five-day Disney World passes can be bought in advance from the Walt Disney Store in London (0171 287 6558), in the Disney Hotels on site, and if all else fails at the entrance gates. A one-day pass costs $40.81 (approximately pounds 27) for an adult, $32.86 (pounds 22) for children aged from three to nine inclusive. Four day "Park Hoppers" cost $152.64 (pounds 100) and $121.90 (pounds 80) respectively.

There is accommodation on-site, and although it can be cheaper to stay off-site, there are advantages in sticking to Disney hotels - including free parking, free transport, priority access to the different parks at least an hour earlier than the general public in the summer (worth at least four rides), and a chance to meet Mickey & Co at breakfast.

The cheapest hotel, costing $69 (approximately pounds 46) for a family of four is in the All Star resort, a bright, jokey motel complex, where the rooms have two large beds, a bathroom, TV and fridge, a large pool, and several self service restaurants. The most expensive is the white Colonial-style Grand Floridian at $300 (approximately pounds 200) per night for a family of four, while my own favourite, the Wilderness Lodge - built of pine that looks as if it had been lifted straight out of the Rockies - costs $200 (approximately pounds 133) for a family of four. (For package tour prices, see Travel Notes on page 65).

THE RIVER OF GRASS

A million-and-a-half acres of largely untouched swamp and mangrove wilderness make up the famous Everglades of southern Florida. It's a perfect antidote to Disney, its attractions low- key rather than spectacular - you can spend a whole day there without a single crocodile offering you a "photo opportunity".

The popular image is of skimming over the sawgrass and mangrove-lined waterways in noisy power-driven airboats. But such pursuits are frowned upon by ecologists for destroying the vegetation as well as scaring off any wildlife. The preservation of what is now one of America's largest National Parks is due in no small part to writer and campaigner Marjorie Stoneman Douglas. Where others saw a noxious swamp, she found a unique natural habitat and a vital, perfectly balanced ecosystem. "The miracle of light pours over the green and brown expanse of sawgrass and of water, shining and slow-moving below," she wrote in 1947. "Grass and water, that is the meaning and central feature of the Everglades. It is a river of grass."

To get there, you can take a 15-mile guided electric tram tour from the northern Shark Valley Entrance. Or alternatively you can take the more leisurely southern route yourself, via Homestead to Flamingo, with walking and cycling trails along the route - though in the summer you need to coat yourself in repellent as the world's most bloodthirsty (non-malarial) mosquitoes descend each day after noon.

You can hire canoes and bikes from Flamingo, as well as houseboats sleeping six and costing about pounds 150 a day, pounds 300 for a couple of nights, and steal away into swampy meadows where the inconspicuous log floating beside your boat turns out to be an alligator, and the only sound will be from frogs burping.

THE GOLD COAST

The 50-mile strip from Palm Beach to Fort Lauderdale, named The Gold Coast after the bounty washed ashore from wrecked Spanish galleons, offers a glimpse of how the other half holidays at remarkably low prices in the off-season summer months.

The real multi-millionaires, of course, only winter here - they arrived in Palm Beach in the 1890s when oil tycoon Henry Flagler extended his railroad south from St Augustine, bought the entire island of Palm Beach (though its beaches are some of the skimpiest in the State), and opened his first hotel. West Palm Beach, the address nobody admits to, was built to house his workers on the far side of the causeway.

Municipal authorities still do their best to keep up the upmarket Palm Beach image - there are by-laws that ban the washing of cars in public and the hanging out of your smalls, and bare-chested joggers and rollerbladers are (fairly) strictly forbidden.

The magnificent Whitehall Mansion, which Flagler built as a wedding present for his third wife, is now a museum with 60 or so rooms decorated in sumptuous European kitsch, including the Louis XV ballroom, Italian Renaissance library, Vatican-style hall and Swiss billiard room.

Cruising around Palm Beach in your hired car, which will soon attract the attention of the vigilant local police, you come across the securely fenced compounds of the rich and famous: the Kennedies are here, of course; more surprisingly, so were John Lennon and Yoko. But the most conspicuous consumption is in the 300-yard stretch of Worth Avenue, where even the dogs' drinking troughs are of painted Andalusian tiles, and some of the joggers (though not bare-chested) have jogging escorts.

The resort's distinctive Spanish Revival architecture is due to another eccentric tycoon, Addison Mizner, a former miner and boxer, whose influence is even more in evidence in the town and hotel of the glitzy Boca Raton a few miles down the coast.

Beaches are not the priority on the Gold Coast, but some of the best of them are at Fort Lauderdale, often described as the Venice of America, which is supposed to have about ten times more canals than the original. Remaining lively through the summer, it attracts a young and sporty crowd.

Delray Beach is the most relaxed and undeveloped resort, with public beaches of fine powder sand. One of Al Capone's former hideouts, Deerfield Park Island, is now a tiny wilderness inhabited by armadillos and grey foxes.

ST AUGUSTINE

Few British holidaymakers head so far north, and those who do may think at first that this oldest continuously occupied settlement in the US is yet another Disney or Al Mizner Spanish Revival reconstruction.

But almost unheard of in the Sunshine State, this is history for real. Pedro Menendez de Aviles, the Spanish Governor of Florida, founded the town in 1565 (predating the Pilgrims by 55 years). The first Gonzales- Alverez house goes back to the early 1600s; the 17th-century fortress, the Castillo de San Marcos survived the attentions of Sir Frances Drake, and the old Spanish quarter has been restored to its 1740s charm.

SANIBEL AND CAPTIVA

Hidden among the busy resorts of Florida's west coast, about 15 miles from Fort Myers and linked to the mainland by a mile-long causeway, the islands of Sanibel and Captiva remain surprisingly unspoilt. Nearly half their area is preserved as a wildlife sanctuary. Dreamlike South Seas- style beaches are fringed with pines and tropical foliage, high-rise buildings have been kept out and many buildings are wooden and on stilts.

Sanibel is about 14 miles long and two miles wide, while Captiva is even smaller and more remote. Life is casual and laid back on these islands, revolving around the boatyards and friendly cafes, and even though a few arty boutiques have sprung up, fishing, birdwatching and island-hopping to even more secluded beaches on neighbouring keys are the chief attractions.

The islands' beaches are treasure troves of rare and beautiful shells, and visitors are said to suffer from the Sanibel Stoop or Captiva Crouch, the distinctive bent shuffle that characterises the addicted shell searcher.

THE FLORIDA KEYS

The Florida Keys (from the Spanish cayos, meaning islets), from Key Largo in the north, to Key West at the southern end, are a spectacular 126-mile string of 200 or so islands, linked by the Overseas Highway, US1, with 42 bridges, including the seven- mile span leading into Key West. They became accessible and fashionable when Henry Flagler completed his dream railway in 1912, "Florida's Railroad to the Sea". This amazing feat was destroyed by a hurricane in 1935, but large sections still remain, strangely haunting in the shimmering azure landscape.

Completely different from the rest of Florida, life on the Keys is more casual and unpretentious, appealing to those who want to fish, snorkel or mess about with boats. Locations are either on the Atlantic or Gulf side (the latter for the famous sunsets).

They're divided into five areas: Key Largo of Humphrey Bogart fame (though most of the film of the same name wasn't shot here, because the stars couldn't cope with the mosquitoes), now a diving centre and the site of the John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park; the Isla Morada, known as the Sport Fishing Capital of the World, with tournaments nearly every month; the Middle Keys, with Marathon at its centre; the wilder Lower Keys, which are home to tiny 18in-high indigenous deer; and finally Key West. There are small hotels, motels and apartments to rent along the way - but make sure you plan your trip avoiding weekends and public holidays, when the traffic jams are ferocious.

SWIMMING WITH DOLPHINS

The worldwide proliferation of dolphinariums raises serious doubts about the exploitation of these intelligent mammals. But two of Florida's establishments where visitors have a chance of swimming with them are linked to research and rescue programmes involving sick or wounded dolphins, or those that are "tired" from years in overcrowded amusement parks.

At Dolphins Plus on Key Largo, which also offers in-water therapy for children and adults with special needs, you are given an hour's study course on dolphins, before a small number may enter the water with the mammals - though no promise is made of direct contact, as they are not trained to do tricks.

"They can be moody," warned Jens, a Scandinavian microbiologist who was leading our group. "Never reach out for them, as they may feel threatened. Let them test you out." For about 20 minutes there was no interaction; some swimmers admitted disappointment, while others felt a thrill when the huge, gentle creatures came up close, scrutinising the rather clumsy creatures on their patch. One 15-year-old boy - participants must be over 10 years old - putting in some fast swimming practice suddenly realised he was in a race in which he came second.

The cost of the session is $75 (pounds 50) and only by prior appointment. Non- swimming observers pay $7.50 (pounds 5). Write to Dolphins Plus Inc, PO Box 2728, Key Largo, Florida 33037. The Dolphin Research Centre (based at Grassy Key, PO Box Dolphin, Marathon Shores, Florida 33036), where the original Flipper films were made, also allows visitors to swim with dolphins. Both centres have very long waiting lists.

KEY WEST

Perilously close to being submerged under a tidal wave of souvenir tat, raucous bars, casino cruises, "sunset spectaculars" and a Hemingway cottage industry that would have had the great pretender reaching for his gun, it's largely the raffish history and genuinely quaint architecture of the Conch Republic that merit the 126- mile drive to the end of US1.

You can stay in some of the historic clapboard houses in the Old Town (instead of the faceless modern hotels on the messy outskirts). The Williams House - a smart little inn from the 1920s, a flophouse in the 1930s - is now an eccentric little guest house at 1317 Duval Street (running from the Atlantic to the Gulf of Mexico). It costs $83-$170 (pounds 55-pounds 115) per double room, per night.

THE BACK COUNTRY

A world away from the hype of Key West, the 500 square miles of mangrove and eerie primeval wilderness between the Keys and the coral reefs known as the Back Country, make up a complex marine laboratory of rare interdependent species.

Powerboats are restricted, but in a canoe or kayak you can paddle your way into a natural history lesson, come upon ibis and egret herding tiny fish, a rare roseate spoonbill perhaps, or maybe a bald eagle or a great white heron found only in the Keys. You can snorkel among the sponges and coral with dozens of types of brilliantly-hued tropical fishes and sea turtles for company, perhaps even catching a glimpse of the shy and vulnerable manatee.

A full day trip with ecological experts cost around $60 (pounds 40), from firms including Mosquito Coast Kayak Guides in Key West.

THE BAD

`FREE' CAR RENTAL

The so-called "Free Car Offers" on tour operators' fly-drive packages are some of the most misleading, if not downright dishonest, offers in the holiday brochures.

Here is an example of one such offer. To claim your "free" car, here are the extras you have to fork out for: a handling fee of $2.50 - $3.50 per day; personal accident cover, from $4.99-$5.99 per day; Loss Damage Waiver, from $13.99-$14.99 per day; a supplement for each additional driver $5 per day; an airport access fee in Florida $2.50-$3.50 per day; Florida surcharge $2.05 per day.

This does not include such luxuries as child seats for children under the age of four, which are compulsory in Florida and cost from $4-$5 a day, nor does it take into consideration the additional surcharge for drivers aged under 25 (at $10-$15 per day), or even the 8.64 per cent fee on all optional items and, just to grind it in, "six per cent local Sales Tax on all extras paid in the resort."

It all adds up. By my calculation this means that, for 14 days, a "free" small car - even without any drivers aged under 25 or any baby seats to add to the financial blow - will cost a total of $29.97 (pounds 20) per day, or $419.58 (pounds 279) for the fortnight. Free? No way.

THE SUMMER CLIMATE

There seems to be a conspiracy to encourage the British to visit Florida in high summer (just when the Americans keep away), when the weather is likely to be stormy and wet, humid at best. The hurricane season lasts from June to October, though these dramatic storms are rare and plenty of warning is given.

For shorter queues in the theme parks, November is the best month. High season in the Keys is December to March, with 24C temperatures, while the dry winter months are also the best time to visit the Everglades; that's also the time to view wildlife, when the birds and other animals congregate around the pools.

As far as clothing goes, light casual garments only (with lightweight waterproofs if you want to be on the safe side) are necessary between May and September, jackets and sweaters between October and March, particularly for the cool evenings. THE UGLY For most people, Florida means crime. The murder of a Dutch tourist in Miami in February, raising the fear that a gang may have been targetting foreign visitors at the airport, once again raises the spectre of violence which was highlighted in 1993 when several British and German visitors were robbed and killed.

The negative publicity and fall in European visitors spurred the Florida authorities into immediate action - better signposting between airport and resorts, avoiding dangerous downtown areas, a higher police presence (1,407 officers added to the force since 1994), and a change in identification of tourist hire cars (previously be recognised instantly by their number plates).

On my trip I was pulled over outside a diner by a traffic cop bristling with hardware - not because I had executed an appalling U-turn, but to warn me in the friendliest way to cover up the map and guidebooks that marked me out as a tourist, as I'd left them lying conspicuously on the back seat.

Other police advice includes writing out your route before you leave the airport, and for first-time visitors to consider picking up their cars the day after arrival, rather than when they are tired and jet-lagged. Cameras and luggage should be kept out of sight and visitors are warned never to sleep in their cars. They should stop the car only in busy areas, and not try to resist any challenge.

If this all sounds alarming, the Florida Department of Tourism has issued figures showing that the crime rate in Florida has declined by almost five per cent since 1990, and violent crime has dropped by seven per cent. However, is there not a case for the car-hire firms installing some kind of fixed-line mobile phone, or even a noisy panic button, to give visitors a feeling of security? TRAVEL NOTES FLIGHTS

Virgin, British Airways, American Airlines and Delta fly scheduled services to Orlando and Miami. An economy Apex return fare in May costs pounds 498 plus pounds 21 tax. Charter firms also fly into Orlando from all parts of the UK, though from May some are switching to Sandford Airport, north of Orlando, where airport procedures are expected to be speedier (and no doubt landing fees lower) but which is 20-30 minutes further from most hotels. A return fare in May will cost apppoximately pounds 299 including tax.

INCLUSIVE HOLIDAYS

A number of operators offer packages using Britannia charter flights to Orlando (and Sandford from May) from six UK airports. With Thomson Holidays (0171 707 9000) a family of four (two children aged 2-16 inclusive) will pay pounds 1,568 in May, rising to pounds 2,456 from mid July to the beginning of August at the All Star Sports Resort. Prices include flights, 14 nights accommodation (no meals) and basic car rental. A 14-night two-centre holiday combining Orlando and Fort Lauderdale costs pounds 1,512-pounds 2,180 for a family of four, pounds 557-pounds 741 per adult. A Florida Highlights Tour with five nights in Orlando, three nights in Fort Lauderdale, two nights in Marathon Key and four nights in Sarasota costs pounds 1,596-pounds 2,264 for four, pounds 599-pounds 783 per adult. A 14-night fly/drive package costs pounds 349-pounds 505 per head, but includes no accommodation or extras. Also try Unijet, Virgin, Airtours and Cosmos (brochures from travel agents) and Special Places Florida (01992 509500).

FURTHER INFORMATION

Florida Tourist Board: 0171 727 1661. For a detailed Florida information pack complete with maps, accommodation details etc, send pounds 2 to cover postage and packing to: ABC Florida, PO Box 35, Abingdon,Oxon OX14 4SF. !

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