I served as editor for a pilot blog project the state travel bureau, VISIT FLORIDA, put together. This is one of my posts.
Every family has personalities who give it shape and meaning: The uncle who showed you how to fish. The sister who was the bane of your existence, but taught you how to charm your way into—and out of—almost anything.
Having lived in Florida for most of my life, many of my significant events—happy ones, sad ones, those filled with hope and those drenched in drama—have been played out against the backdrop of Central and Southwest Florida. And it recently occurred to me that key points of the state have qualities of family members you’d find in any family. Take Orlando, for instance…
Orlando is like the fun uncle. The one who lifts you up and tosses you over his shoulder while you squeal with glee—and just a hint of terror. Home to Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando, this area has more thrill rides per capita than anywhere else. Plus, just like you feel around the fun uncle, every day is a holiday here. You can’t help but be relaxed in its presence—and expectantly wait for what’s next.
Northwest of Orlando is Ocala—the genteel southern granddaddy. Ocala is filled with horses grazing grassy hills that stretch for miles behind gleaming white fences. Within Ocala lies a sense of prudent living gleaned from good ‘ol fashioned horse sense. A day in Ocala is like a day with your granddaddy—sipping lemonade on the front porch and gaining wisdom wrapped up in old stories. Both of which go down slow and easy.
Located between Ocala and Orlando is Mount Dora. Stepping into Mount Dora is like stepping back in time. Tree-lined streets and gabled houses full of antiques and tea. It’s the great-grandmother of the state—always armed with doilies and hard candy. It’s ideal for a day trip in search of that one-of-a-kind treasure and a cucumber sandwich.
Just north of Ocala is Gainesville—the cool big brother. Gainesville is a college town with a hip, young vibe. Red brick buildings fill the campus, which in turn is surrounded by fun, funky eateries and on-the-fringe things to do and see. It’s a great place to kick back, pop open a cold one and experience the renegade within.
Directly south along I-75 is Tampa Bay—my hometown. Now, having grown up here, I can say this: Tampa/St. Pete is the precocious kid sister who seeks to impress and never ceases to surprise. Her beaches are some of the loveliest and liveliest you will find along Florida’s Gulf Coast. When it comes to fun or business, sometimes she dresses up and paints the town urban red. Sometimes she dons jeans and does the two-step. And other times she’ll slip into a button-down shirt and turn up Jimmy Buffet.
One of Lil’ Sis’ best features is Busch Gardens, home of exotic animals, thrill rides and Busch beer. But watch it. Tampa’s VERY competitive. The Tampa Bay area is home to three champion teams: the Buccaneers, the Rays and the Lightning. Plus, it has more millionaires per capita than anywhere else in the state. (That’s PER CAPITA—Miami. You’re still No. 1 when it comes to garish wealth.)
A little east of Tampa is Lakeland. Lakeland is homey in a maternal, nurturing way, so I’ve dubbed it the mom of this part of the state. Its lakes and hometown feel nourish your soul and its mom-and-pop eateries nourish your belly. It’s a great place to stop, stretch your legs, pull up a chair and stay a while.
Farther south on the west coast is Sarasota. Home to the Ringling Museum of Art, Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall and the Asolo Repertory Theater, this city qualifies as the artsy auntie—the one with the painter’s palette and scarf to match. It’s also got some great beaches, and St. Armand’s Circle of shoppes and dining is not to be missed.
Right next to Sarasota is Bradenton. Because it’s rural, it reminds me of the handy cousin—the one who can fix anything, grow anything and still have time to hop on a horse and ride into the sunset. The Tamiami Trail is a great drive, as is the Bradenton Beach Scenic Highway, but there is another one, which in my opinion is just as enjoyable. If you drive from Sarasota east on SR 70, you will see some of the most breathtaking farmland you’ve ever seen—the true heart of Florida—full of orange groves, horses and cattle.
Farther south still is Fort Myers, with its beautiful beaches and laid-back feel. Like a well-prepared grandma, it’s got a little something for everyone in its purse of treats. Golf and world-class shopping will keep the adults entertained, while a skate park and an Imaginarium keep teens and little ones amused. Fort Myers is the ideal place for the family to unwind after playing with the fun uncle up in Orlando or tussling with precocious Tampa.
And finally, there’s daddy Naples. I call it daddy because it has 35—count ‘em—35 golf courses. Plus boating and fishing. But he’s not just any daddy. He’s a sugar daddy with a cherry on top. Naples is high class all the way, with high-end resorts lining its sugar-powder beaches…
Banner image by Michelle Maria.
*Some of the information in this older article may be outdated.