Travel: USA/ The Florida bargain this summer

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The Independent Travel
Freddie Laker virtually invented Florida as a holiday destination for Brits, when his Skytrain service to Miami began in 1982. So after the collapse of the original Laker Airways, it is only right that his familiar red-and-black DC-10s should be among the flotilla of aircraft heading west-south-west to the Sunshine State this summer.

His flights to Orlando from Gatwick, Manchester and Prestwick are competing in the marketplace with Virgin Atlantic's new route from Manchester, and a host of charter services - far too many, in fact, for the demand. So fares have fallen to levels unknown for a decade.

Stories over the past few weeks about holidays to Florida for under a tenner are somewhat wide of the mark. As Jeremy Skidmore remarked in his recent Inside Track column in these pages, extras for airport and security taxes, personal insurance and other charges on the car rental are where the agents make their profit, bringing the total price up to around pounds 200 for a fortnight's fly-drive.

Bookings are firmer in July and August, so bargain holidays in the height of summer are likely to be harder to find. But for now, a rental car in Florida is yours for the taking.

The main players for Florida fly-drives include Airtours (01706 260000), First Choice (0161-745 7000), Thomson (0990 673310) and Unijet (01444 459191); or look at the latest advertisements on ITV Teletext.

The question is - where to head when you land? Here is the Independent Traveller's hour-by-hour guide from Orlando International Airport. Note that charters serving the airport at Sanford, 20 miles north, will add around 30 minutes to most of these journey times.

30 minutes: Assuming you can navigate the maze of toll roads and expressways from the airport, then downtown Orlando has plenty going for it. Attractions include streets that are actually designed for walking around; a city park that involves no theme beyond being a peaceful, pond-side venue for a picnic; and, if you prefer not to drive, the hub of Orlando's excellent bus network.

From here you can easily reach International Drive ("I-Drive" to locals and people who have been in Orlando for at least an hour), where those without accommodation should be able to find a room without too much trouble or expense. All those planeloads of Brits have yet to soak up the surplus of vacancies over vacationers. In January (much higher season than now), I paid $30 (pounds 20) per night for a large double room.

1 hour: Make a Bee Line along the Expressway of that name to Spaceport USA, the launch site for what remains of America's space effort. An astronaut built from Lego welcomes to you a rather tired Visitor Center, which is the hub of some worthy audio-visual presentations about the space race.

Once the bus trip around the launch sites begins (you are not allowed to wander off on your own, in case you trip over a Saturn V rocket) any tedium evaporates. Even when no preparations for launches are under way, the audacity with which a tranquil slab of coastline has been transformed into earth's terminus for the moon is astonishing.

2 hours: Drive straight through Tampa on Interstate 4. Florida has more exciting cities than Tampa, and furthermore you actually get a fine view of the downtown area from the freeway that carves through it.

Keep going across the Howard Frankland Bridge to the sprawling, flat peninsula that supports the city of St Petersburg. With Tampa Bay on one side and the Gulf of Mexico on the other, this is a city of two halves. Its Russian namesake may boast the Hermitage Museum, but the Salvador Dali Collection (on the Bay side) bestows Florida's St Pete with a cultural dimension lacking in similar-sized cities.

Once on the Gulf shore, you can almost feel the envy of Miami Beach residents. What it lacks in Art Deco density, St Pete's Sand Key makes up for in splendid solitude and stunning sunsets.

3 hours: When other towns in the state are having to make do with claims like "West Palm Beach - South Florida's Least Crowded Customs Gateway", the epithet "oldest city in the United States" is bound to draw the tourists. So the Spanish colonial heart of St Augustine has lots of visitors and a surfeit of twee restaurants.

Yet this Atlantic resort is an essential stop for anyone wanting to get to grips with Florida beyond the theme parks - and to understand the European settlement of America. Wandering around soon after dawn is ideal, before the day-trippers reach town and while the cafes are busily squeezing their fresh orange juice (and probably sun-drying their tomatoes). At the Castillo de San Marco, you could almost be in Havana - but don't tell anyone.

The United States no longer has a tourist office in London. So start by calling the Florida Division of Tourism (0891 600555). For more specific information try the following: the Keys (01564 794555); Palm Beach (0181- 681 7762); Marco Island (0800 891411); Naples (0800 962122); Orlando (0171- 243 8072); St Petersburg (0181-651 4742); and Tampa (01494 881552).

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