Sure, Disneyland, Seaworld and Universal have a lot to do with Florida being one of America's favourite holiday destinations. But with a coastline that stretches more than 1,100 miles, over 30,000 lakes, national parks, gorgeous pine forests and year-round sunshine, there's much more to Florida than just theme parks. Each is interconnected by thousands of miles of highways, too, making a vacation by car one of the best ways to create an itinerary characterized by flexibility, spontaneity and the sites that you want to see. So without further ado, here is some advice on what there is to experience in the state of Florida beyond the theme parks.
Life's a beach
The Florida peninsula is long and straight, stretching approximately 600 miles from Key West in the south to the Georgia border in the north. No matter where you are you're never far from the sea and one of the state's many incredible beaches. This, alongside the all-year climate, has made it the ideal haven for holidaymakers seeking seaside locales.
A1A Scenic and Historic Coastal Byway
On the east coast, the A1A Scenic and Historic Coastal Byway offers one of the most relaxing and enjoyable ways to drink in some of Florida's most beautiful vistas. Notable attractions along the route include Ponte Vedra Beach – one of the best places to enjoy nature walks and deep-sea fishing – Pellicer Creek Aquatic Preserve, Faver Dykes State Park and the Intracoastal Waterway.
West coast beaches
If fewer crowds and more natural beaches are your preference, Siesta Key and Sanibel Island are two of Florida's finest examples that fit into this bracket.
Siesta Key is an eight-mile long island complete with shopping, dining and amazing nightlife. The beach meanwhile contains stunning white sands and glimmering blue waters, which contributed to Dr. Beach voting for Siesta Key as the number one beach in the country in 2011.
Sanibel Island, on the other hand, is one of the best beaches in the state for shell hunters. As such, the location has helped coin the phrase the 'Sanibel stoop' – reserved for those who bend down to pick the spoils presented by the sea.
South Beach, Miami
South beach, Miami is one of the busier beaches offering a prism from which to view the stereotypical Florida, for better or worse. South Beach has the highest concentration of plastic surgeons of anywhere on earth, and this is where you will find the perfectly sculpted bikini-clad beachgoers as a result.
This part of Miami is also where you will find the resplendent art deco buildings and neon lights which fill the night sky and form the traditional and romantic perception of Miami. From Miami, the Everglades are easily reachable by car and make for a fantastic next leg of your Florida-based road trip.
The U.S Route 41 in Florida runs from Miami to the Georgian border, stretching 479 miles in total. The southern section, from Miami to Tampa Bay, intersects the Everglades and as such has been designated as a National Scenic Byway named the Tamiami Trail.
The landscape along the trail, and by extension the everglades, is as varied as it is beautiful – encompassing everything from pinelands and tall cypress trees to vast wetlands. The trail teems with wildlife too, and if you drive slowly enough, the chances are you'll be treated to the sight of alligators in their natural habitat.
In terms of attractions, Shark Valley offers a variety of amazing outdoor pursuits in abundance – including arguably the state's best bike trail for experiencing wildlife. After the everglades you should consider returning to Miami, before heading to the Florida Keys.
The Overseas Highway is a roughly 130-mile stretch of the U.S. Route 1, and represents the perfect way to experience the Florida Keys. Many will start in Miami before heading to Key West, but en route there is a myriad of attractions that should catch your eye and compel you to get out of your car and explore.
Key Largo, the largest of the Florida Keys at roughly 30 miles long, should represent your first pit-stop. Characterized by commercial development, Key Largo has very much become a tourist trap; however the northern part of the key at least presents the chance to view the area as it used to look, complete with marshes, swamps and wildlife. The John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, the world's first undersea wildlife preserve, is also well worth a visit.
Other notable stop off points along the Overseas Highway includes Islamorada; famed for its astounding sportsfishing and nearby Lignumvitae Key State Botanical Site. Whilst Marathon is home to The Museum of Natural History of the Florida Keys, complete with various exhibitions that unpick the area's ecological and founding heritage.
Key West, at the end of the road, offers an attractive but elective mix of things to see. A statement epitomized by a visit to Mallory Square, which offers a carnival like experience by night where street performers and artists congregate to celebrate the last of the day's sun as it sets over the nearby ocean.
Contemporary car hire companies offer an almost endless array of options that can make choosing the correct combination a daunting task. Here is a list of some of the most important to consider.
What type of rental car will I need?
If you just need a vehicle to get you from A to B, a rental car will suffice. Although you will need to consider the size of the car in relation to the number of people travelling, and whether you'll be able to fit your luggage inside.
There is also the option of hiring a camper van or RV for your vacation. This way you won't even need to book a hotel, and will have even greater flexibility to plan your own adventure with more than a fair share of spontaneity
Picking up your car on arrival
The easiest and perhaps most convenient time to pick up your rental car is at the airport. Yet this can also be the most expensive. In order to operate in the highly profitable area near the airport, car hire companies have to pay a sizeable concession fee, the cost of which is usually passed on to the customers.
For this reason, it can often be cheaper to pick up your car from a location away from the airport. Although you will have to balance the cost of taking a shuttle bus or taxi with the saving you will make, as the difference might not make it worthwhile.
If you are arriving at one of the busier airports such as Orlando International Airport or Miami International Airport, the regularity and relative low-cost of public transport options will make this more viable.
Beware of stealth charges
Fuel charges are one of the most common stealth charges. Always be aware on the fuel policy you take out and whether you're expected to return the car with a full tank otherwise the fine could turn out to be wallet busting. Returning the car late and, unbelievably, even early can result in fines. As can returning the car dirty, so always make sure you read the terms and conditions and adhere to them wherever possible.
This can often be the most confusing and maddening aspect of hiring a car, and one where the staff at car hire service desks will try and catch you out by selling you insurance that you don't need. For more information on the intricacies of car hire insurance, check out the facts presented in this post.
The main type of insurance you'll likely be told that you can't do without is Collision or Loss Damage Waiver (CDW & LDW). Both CDW and LDW ease the financial burden you would face if your rental car became damaged in an accident or stolen. These types of insurance are typically more expensive if paid for over the desk with your hire car company. Insuremyrentalcar.com offer Loss Damage Waiver (LDW) policies from $5 a day, potentially saving you up to 70% on over the desk prices. For more information and to get a quote, click here.
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