A hurricane coming: it was never like this for Bogart
My Rough Guide
In a state synonymous with Disney World and Miami it's refreshing to get off the beaten track. The easy-going Barry "Chop" Lege runs boat trips (Swampland Tours) into a vast wildlife sanctuary on Lake Okeechobee. A ranger at one with his environment, he spots all manner of creatures invisible to the untrained eye and enthusiastically explains their habits and habitats. If you want to know the intimate details of alligators, a multitude of birds and the moccasin snake, he's your man. (He also cooks a mean gumbo.)
We can't ignore the state's most magnificent hotels, many of which began life as swanky resorts of the 1920s. Potent symbols of an era of unbridled wealth, they still attract the mega-rich and are worth a look (some give guided tours). For sheer extravagance you can't beat the elaborate pink castle of the Don Cesar Hotel at St Petersburg Beach. Other contenders are the Gatsbyesque Belleview Mido Resort Hotel in Clearwater; and the epitome of graceful living, The Breakers, at the millionaires' haven of Palm Beach. In a different vein is the B&B at the Heritage Country Inn, set in rolling ranch country near Silver Springs. You're lavished with loving care and attention in this turn-of-the-century farmhouse with its six individually styled bedrooms, bearing names like the Plantation Room and the English Thoroughbred Room. We still miss the home-baked cinnamon bread.
Florida's cultural mix produces an exciting range of cuisine. Sarasota has Yoder's, a small award-winning Amish restaurant, where attentive waitresses in traditional dress bring heaped plates of simple homemade food prepared to old-fashioned recipes. By contrast, the hot-blooded Columbia, a cavernous Cuban restaurant in Ybor City, Tampa, goes all out to entertain with spirited Flamenco dancing as diners gorge on refined Cuban and Spanish fare.
Disney World is an unearthly place where you're told to expect all-day fun but have to put up with all-day queuing, rides that break down, horribly expensive and unappetising food, and incessant advertising. Added to this cultural mugging are historical revisions that would shame Clinton, and poor schmucks in cartoon-character costumes who dog your every step.
Early evening Fort Lauderdale greeted us with banging hammers and whirring electric screwdrivers as storm shutters were fixed over doors and windows. Hurricane Erin was threatening, and there was no way the media was going to do a Michael Fish. Constant warnings filled the airwaves but we decided to get a meal before decamping to the mainland emergency centre. At the deserted Ricks Cafe we got the best table overlooking the ocean but the beautiful sunset disappeared behind a shutter, erected with a power tool that drowned out the pianist playing Andrew Lloyd Webber "classics". It was never like this for Bogart. The emergency centre was a run-down high school in a dubious neighbourhood and already full of street dwellers, people from housing projects, and nervous tourists. The grubby classroom made us long for the king-sized bed in the hotel as locals popped their heads round the door stating wistfully: "Here's where we did math." We endured about eight hours - the highlight being the colourful company in the soup line - while Hurricane Erin blew past Fort Lauderdale without rustling a leaf. Never trust a weatherman.
Runners-up are the impressive Salvador Dal Art Gallery in St Petersburg and the enlightening Civil War Soldiers' Museum in Pensacola. First prize goes to Sarasota's Ringling Museum Complex. The passionate project of a 1920s circus multi-millionaire, it boasts a stunning Venetian Gothic mansion - the ultimate combination of American exuberance and European elegance. Next door an ornate gallery is home to an inspired collection of European Baroque paintings, one of the finest of its kind in the US.
Get to the Disney World theme parks just before they open and you'll avoid most of the queues and get on to the best rides, assuming they're working. The state's road signs are poor; even Floridians regularly get lost - if you're driving, get a map from the local tourist office or chamber of commerce and work out your route beforehand.
8 Laura Harper and Tony Mudd researched and updated the Rough Guide to Florida (pounds 10.99). Keep up with the latest developments in travel by subscribing to the free newsletter Rough News, published three times yearly. Write to Rough Guides, IoS offer, 1 Mercer Street, London WC2H 9QJ. A free Rough Guide to the first three subscribers each week.
Heritage Country Inn (tel: 001 904 489 0023), 14343 W Hwy-40, off I-75, near Silver Springs. Double rooms start at $79, including breakfast. Don Cesar Resort and Spa (tel: 001 813 360 1881) at St Petersburg Beach. Doubles from US$175. The Breakers (tel: 001 407 6556611), 1 Sth County Rd, Palm Beach. Yoder's (tel: 001 941 955 7771), 3434 Bahia Vista St, Sarasota. Columbia (tel: 001 813 248 4961), 2117 E 7th Ave, Ybor City, Tampa.
Places to visit
The Ringling Museum Complex, 5401 Bay Shore Rd, Sarasota (daily 10am- 5.30pm; $8.50, free admission to the art gallery on Sat).
Salvador Dal Art Gallery, 1000 S 3rd St, St Petersburg (Mon-Sat 9.30am- 5.30pm, Sun noon-5.30pm; $8). The Civil War Soldiers Museum, 108 S Palafox Place, Pensacola (Mon-Sat 10am-4.30pm; $6).
Swampland Tours (tel: 001 941 467 4411) based near Okeechobee at 10375 Hwy-78, by the Kissimmee Bridge.
Florida Tourist Board (tel: 0891 600 555 and also 0171 6306281).
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