(This article by freelance writer Kathie Rowell originally appeared in the June 2021 issue of Military Officer, a magazine available to all MOAA Premium and Life members. Learn more about the magazine here; learn more about joining MOAA here.)
With more than 1,300 miles of coastline — including 825 miles of sandy beaches — a trip to the shore is a must when visiting Florida. Even if you aren’t the type to spend the day soaking up the Sunshine State’s rays, there’s likely a beach that will appeal to you.
If you want to be in the middle of the action — and perhaps sight a celebrity — head to South Beach, a Miami Beach neighborhood with nonstop nightlife, high-end shopping, celebrity-chef restaurants, and an Art Deco district resplendent in pastels to complement its aquamarine waters. For those who prefer a quieter scene, Grayton Beach in the Florida panhandle offers the same sugar-white sand and turquoise waters as the more-populated Panama City and Pensacola beaches, all wrapped up in a funky beach town atmosphere. Its unofficial slogan? “Nice Dogs, Strange People.”
Beachgoers who relish the thrill of the hunt might enjoy one of Florida’s renowned shelling beaches. In addition to the well-known Sanibel and Captiva islands, shell seekers may choose the less-visited Barefoot Beach Preserve near Naples, one of Florida’s last undeveloped barrier islands. And Daytona Beach, one of the few places in the U.S. where you can drive right onto the sand, is a must for car culture enthusiasts.
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If you’re traveling with children through Central Florida, you know a visit to Walt Disney World is mandatory. The four parks include the Magic Kingdom (say hello to Mickey), the Animal Kingdom, Epcot Center, and Hollywood Studios. Also clustered in the Orlando area are Universal Studios, Islands of Adventure, Discovery Cove, and Legoland.
For an out-of-this-world experience, head to the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex on Merritt Island, where you can see a space shuttle, walk among giants in the Rocket Garden, and tour the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame. If your vacation coincides with the launch schedule, you can even buy a ticket to experience firsthand the awesome power of a rocket launch.
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Take a walk on the wild side at Everglades National Park, a 1.5 million-acre preserve teeming with alligators, river otters, turtles, and deer, as well as rare species like the manatee, Florida panther, and American crocodile. Airboat tours are exciting, but you’ll have a better chance of seeing wildlife in a canoe.
Florida offers military history lovers a wealth of museums and historic sites to explore, ranging from St. Augustine’s Castillo de San Marcos, on which construction began in 1672, making it the oldest masonry fort in the U.S., to the National Naval Aviation Museum, the world’s largest naval aviation showcase featuring 150 restored aircraft displayed both inside and outside on its 37-acre site within Pensacola Naval Air Station.
Other sites include the Museum of Military History, Kissimmee; and Civil War-era battlements Fort Clinch State Park, Amelia Island; and Fort Barrancas, near Pensacola.
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Florida’s year-round warm weather makes it a golfer’s paradise. With more than 1,300 courses, it would take three years playing every day to hit them all. For an unexpected round of golf, try Central Florida’s Streamsong Resort, which boasts 16,000 acres of reclaimed phosphate mining land and three courses regularly included on golfing “best” lists. There, you’ll find towering sand dunes, natural bunkers, elevation changes, and 100-foot-deep ponds.
For those whose idea of a perfect day includes dropping a hook into a body of water, Florida — with its 7,700 lakes, 10,550 miles of rivers, and 2,276 miles of tidal shoreline, as well as both Gulf and Atlantic waters — is a fisherman’s dream. Charter operations can take you out to the Gulf Stream and help make your dream of fighting to reel in a sportfish such as blue marlin, swordfish, or sailfish come true.
Sponsored Content: Sun City Center, Fla., affords easy access to shopping, beaches, performing arts, sports arenas, the airport, MacDill AFB, and VA health care. Nestled on a 140-acre nature preserve in Sun City Center is Freedom Plaza, a continuing care retirement community for those who choose to pursue their dreams in an engaging environment with the added peace of mind knowing that, if needed, health care is available on site. Enjoy golf on our own Freedom Fairways, tennis, or pickleball, or join one of the many other outdoor activities offered. Residents have priority access to fully staffed health care centers on campus. There is a safety net of services and support offered through our comprehensive health care centers, including skilled nursing, rehab, assisted living, and memory care.
If gamefish are more your style, try sight fishing from a guided flat boat, casting from shore or pier, or taking a lazy drift along a slow-moving river. Got your heart set on hooking a lunker largemouth bass? Head for Lake Okeechobee, the second largest body of freshwater in the U.S., covering a 730-square-mile area.
If observing marine life is more your style, Florida has the first undersea park in the U.S., established to protect a portion of the only living coral reef in the continental U.S. John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, on Key Largo, extends three miles into the Atlantic Ocean and is about 25 miles long. Snorkeling and scuba opportunities immerse visitors into a spectacular world of more than 260 species of tropical fish and about 80 species of coral. Among the most commonly viewed marine life are parrotfish, wrasses, damselfish, snappers, barracudas, lobster, sea cucumbers, urchins, and anemones. Coral varieties include brain coral, mountainous star coral, elkhorn coral, and sea fans. Non-swimmers can view the underwater world from the comfort of a glass-bottomed boat.
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Florida’s iconic foods have evolved through a melding of plentiful seafood, tropical produce, and diverse cultures. Sweet, meaty stone crab claws make their way to the top of just about every must-eat list, as does the tasty Cuban sandwich with roast pork, smoked ham, Swiss cheese, pickles, and mustard grilled between two slices of bread. Round things out with conch fritters, Gulf shrimp any number of ways, black beans and rice, jerk pork or chicken, and a fruity tropical drink. Finish off your Florida smorgasbord with a tangy slice of pale yellow — never bright green — Key lime pie.
For the ultimate taste of sunshine, pick up a box of oranges fresh from the tree. There are still a few places you can pick your own, best between December and May.
FLORIDA’S MILITARY MUST-SEE: It’s not easy to get to, but Fort Jefferson in Dry Tortugas National Park is worth the journey for its perfect mixture of Florida history and scenic beauty. Located among coral reefs 70 miles west of Key West, the park is accessible only by seaplane or boat, including day trips by ferry. After touring the fort, take advantage of the swimming, snorkeling, and birding opportunities offered by the seven keys in this pristine park.