First stop for the tourists visiting Florida, unless they are getting on a cruise ship in Fort Lauderdale, is usually Disney World, over 40 times the size of Disneyland with twice as many theme parks 10 times as many hotels, and Cinderella's vs. Sleeping Beauty's castle. A convention centre in its own right with 24 hotels, and a multi-themed amusement park on 40 square miles of land, it claims to be the largest and most visited recreational complex in the world.
But an even more awe inspiring complex awaits at the nearby Kennedy Space Centre. On display are the rocket ships and spacecraft of the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo space programs that culminated on July 20, 1969 with the first men on the moon. A feat repeated 5 subsequent times and then abandoned in favour of the Challenger space program and the International Space Station. The audacity of this endeavor in an era of slide rulers and mechanical engineering is so hard to imagine in the computer age, but they did it, and what a humbling experience it is to see and touch the equipment they used.
The size of the rockets themselves and the awesome power they are able to unleash is hard to comprehend never mind imagining sitting on top of them when they blast off.
The scale of the entire Kennedy Space Centre/Cape Canaveral Air Force Station complex is overwhelming. Everything is so huge and there is so much going on with rockets being transported to various launch pads to deliver commercial payloads for satellites and the Space Station.
There are more than 1,100 miles of stunning, palm lined Florida coastline facing the Atlantic Ocean alone and, with the water so clear and warm, it's no surprise to discover what appears to be a continuous condo development all the way to Miami. From Cocoa Beach to Deerfield Beach we took advantage of the perfect conditions to swim and enjoy the sunshine.
Next stop was Key Largo to do some scuba diving and swim with a couple of very friendly and accommodating dolphins.
Key West itself is the southernmost city in the U.S. and is a colourful little tourist town where Ernest Hemingway lived and now Jimmy Buffet has a restaurant. A town devoted to fishing and scuba diving and full of funky bars and great restaurants it's a very popular end of the road location.
For the final leg of the journey it was back to Miami, "the sun, fun, capital of the world". Originally developed in 1910, the 1930's brought in Art Deco architecture and, from the 1960's, it started to take off as a retirement community. However, by the 1980's the drug dealers had taken it over and some of the Art Deco buildings were demolished but, once it was declared a heritage area, the rest of the Art Deco buildings were saved and the "beautiful people" then moved in, making it a major entertainment destination.
The Art Deco splendor of South Beach makes this spot the ultimate destination for urban sophisticates and just outside the shady confines of the hotel and pool is a shaded and beautifully groomed seawall to take you to the beach. With all the delicious outdoor restaurants along Lincoln Avenue and Ocean Drive, there's no reason to venture any further. This is a very happy ending.
The beaches on the west side of Florida are equally spectacular and starting from Tampa they go all the way to Naples with highlighted stops along the way at Sarasota, Punta Gorda, Venice, and Fort Myers. From Naples the road then goes through the Everglades and comes back out at Miami. Started off with the powdery white sugar sand of Fort Myers where you have to get to the beach early, if you want a spot, and settled in to watch the action.
Plenty of bums (good, bad, and ugly) on display along with good fun entertainment, but mostly everyone is just standing around drinking beer and checking out the scenery.
The historic downtown has a cool vibe and we also had the pleasure of staying with relatives in a nearby holiday condo where we could also take advantage of shadier amenities when things got too hot.
Close by is another popular but less crowded beach scene on the beautiful Sanibel and Captiva Islands accessible by a tolled causeway. Here the main attractions are seashells, eating, and plain relaxing. It's also home to the historic lighthouse one of the first on the Gulf coast. Plenty of beautiful homes and hotels as well which would turn out to be the norm everywhere we went.
The beautifully appointed nearby city of Naples with its immaculately maintained streets is a delight to drive through. One of the wealthiest cities in America with the 2nd highest per capita number of millionaires, it provides an opportunity to see how the other half lives as you check out all its expensive homes, hotels, shopping centres, and spectacular beaches.
Another lovely upscale city is Sarasota, home to the famous kissing statue and a downtown filled with art deco architecture and funky shops not to mention a lively marina scene.
The pretty little beach town of Venice also offers tree lined boulevards, cute shops, and warm clear waters for swimming and shell hunting with the ubiquitous pelicans.
Took time out to go through Lovers Key State Park in search of manatees and alligators but came up empty handed for wildlife except for a friendly squirrel so we settled in at the Parrot Key.
To cap things off in the Fort Myers area we drove to Pine Island to do a little sightseeing, go for a swim at Bokeelia, have lunch in St. James City and then finish up by checking out the colourful scene in Matlacha.