Travelling in the US and seeing as much as possible - a tour of Florida is the most efficient way to fulfil that dream. Tampa is the perfect starting point for round trips by car.
The distances in the US’s southernmost state are comparable to Italy: the route along the Atlantic coast, from Jacksonville in the north to Miami in the south, roughly corresponds to travel from Bologna, in northern Italy, to Bari on the southern Adriatic coast. Florida’s attractions are spread out state-wide, which basically makes travelling to all corners a “necessity“. Accordingly, the starting point can be chosen based on purely practical reasons. Tampa is a great choice, not just because of the direct Edelweiss flight from Zurich, but also because the city and airport are very straightforward, distances are short and entry into the US via Tampa is amazingly swift. What is more, on taking to the wheel in the land of super highways and megacities, no culture shock ensues in Tampa – which is something one might expect in Miami. A car is essential here. Being able to get around independently means having a rental car at one’s disposal.
Our Edelweiss flight touches down in Tampa in the evening. After checking in at our hotel, there is still time to go for dinner. We choose Tampa’s nightlife district Ybor City, where the century-old buildings are reminiscent of New Orleans. The car drive from our hotel near the airport to Ybor City is just fifteen minutes. We choose to eat in the “Columbia Restaurant“, which is Florida’s oldest restaurant. As well as a wide range of delicious Cuban specialities, visitors can expect to enjoy a fiery flamenco show.
Day 1: From Tampa to Orlando, the Mecca of amusement parks
We are up early, thanks to our jetlag, and are rewarded with a spectacular sunrise. Time to bid farewell to the business city Tampa and make our way to Orlando via the Interstate 4. One hour later, we have reached the carpark of one of the four Disney theme parks. Orlando is the Mecca of amusement parks. Just seeing and enjoying the four-park-strong “Walt Disney World“ could easily take up a whole week. Besides “Disney’s Hollywood Studios*, movie aficionados will definitely want to visit ”Universal Studios Orlando“ which features movie set replicas of famous movies like ”Harry Potter“.
“Sea World Orlando” is the place for fans of marine animals, shows and rollercoaster rides. The huge shopping outlets are another Florida highlight – where there are always bargains to be found and time simply whizzes by. Finding an (affordable) hotel is never a problem in Orlando, even without booking in advance, which makes it very practical.
Day 2: From outer space straight to Miami Beach
Space flight holds an almost global fascination. So a visit to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center adjacent to Cape Canaveral Air Force Station is a must. The Space Center is just an hour’s drive from Orlando and also happens to be on our route. Our satnav suggests taking State Road 528. But we opt for the more interesting State Road 50. The Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex features the entire history of spacecraft, including the Space Shuttle Atlantis. Buses take visitors to one of the impressive launch pads, which is sadly empty on the occasion of our visit. With more luck and better timing, an impressive space shuttle could be parked there, ready to lift off into space.
We continue our journey on the Interstate 95 along the Atlantic coast. Two hours onwards, we spot the first suburban villa complexes of the Miami metropolis on either side of the freeway. It still takes us another hour to reach the city centre.
We have chosen to stay in a hotel in Miami Beach, within sight of the “Fontainebleau Hotel” which opened in 1954 and is where Goldfinger once wrapped his Jill in gold. We could have gone for a cheaper, less central hotel, but have decided to treat ourselves to this prime location. After all, we will be spending two nights here and probably won’t be back for some time. We go for an evening stroll along Ocean Drive in the South Beach neighbourhood – a venue chosen by many Miami locals to present themselves and flaunt their tuned cars.
Day 3: Welcome to Miami!
Our morning is spent at the beach. Unfortunately, we missed the sunrise over the Atlantic (no more jetlag). We set off on a tour of Miami at midday. Depending on which TV generation one belongs to, there’s a sense of Sonny Crocket from ”Miami Vice“ or Horatio Caine from ”CSI: Miami” in the air. Art Deco fans must make a point of visiting the Miami Beach Art Deco District.
We relish the Cuban flair of Little Havana – where we savour Caribbean food and visit one of the numerous Latino bars with live music. All of this triggers the desire and the decision to visit the real Havana one day. Thankfully, Miami has a public bus service so the pleasure of a mojito or a Cuba Libre in the evening is not hindered by having to drive.
Day 4: 180 miles of island hopping to Key West
We have been really looking forward to today. Our destination is Key West, the southernmost tip of the Sunshine State, or more precisely, the southernmost of more than two hundred coral islands. We cannot explain why the Florida Keys hold such a fascination for us. Perhaps it is because of the seemingly infinite number of bridges that almost touch the water – of which the longest spans seven miles. The journey is a treat in itself. This is the last section of US Route 1 - island hopping in a convertible, for 180 miles, with the sun shining down on us and the music turned up loud. Fragments of the railway bridges, abandoned in 1935, partly run parallel to the road bridges. We resist the temptation of stopping at every photo-worthy sight, as this would mean arriving in Key West well past midnight. Hotel accommodation is available on practically every island – so there is no need to drive all the way to Key West for a bed. We do it anyway. The sunset is not to be missed in the US’s southernmost state, and best viewed on Key West’s Mallory Square which, as it happens, is also a main tourist spot.
Day 5: In the swamps of the Everglades
We start our journey back to Miami on the Overseas Highway, then Route 41 westwards through the Everglades National Park. This UNESCO protected swamp area encompasses almost the entire southern end of the Florida peninsula and is home to alligators, flamingos, pelicans and raccoons living in the wild. There are five visitor centres in the park. We choose the Gulf Coast Visitor Center (since it is fairly close to the direct route we are on) and take an airboat tour from there. A must-do! As an alternative, we could have opted for the Shark Valley Visitor Center which is closer to Miami, had we not inadvertently driven past it. Instead, we spend the night in a simple lodge near the Gulf Coast Visitor Center.
Day 6: Back to St. Petersburg/Tampa via Naples
After a hearty breakfast that comes with a view of the subtropical Everglades, we are ready to take on the last leg of our round trip. The quickest route is the I-75 via Naples and Sarasota to St. Petersburg. Naples is very touristy and scores with its beach, its proximity to the Everglades, a historical centre with a 300 metre-long fishing pier and a string of shops, galleries and cafés. We don’t spend much time in this tourist magnet, preferring to venture on to a small, more authentic US town. Leaving the I-75 after Naples, we take Route 17 to Arcadia. This small detour adds just thirty minutes to our driving time. The compensation is a visit to a US town that mirrors the set of a typical US movie or TV series. Arcadia is home to 7600 inhabitants and features a neatly kept main street reminiscent of an episode out of “Knight Rider“, a court house like the one featured in “Back to the Future”, a Walmart and pavilions with every fast food chain represented. Life in typical small town America - boring for the people who live here perhaps, but a highlight for us.
We continue our journey in the afternoon. The drive from Arcadia to Tampa Airport would normally take ninety minutes. But against the suggestion of our satnav, we take the St. Petersburg route and end up on the Sunshine Skyway Bridge that spans Tampa Bay with a cable-stayed main span and stretches for 5.5 miles. One reason for choosing this route is our decision to extend our week in Florida with a three-day beach holiday in Clearwater Beach. This also improves the ratio of flight time to length of stay.
Useful tips for driving in Florida:
A car is essential here. The larger portion of Florida was developed after the invention of the automobile, which is made apparent by the wide streets and the fact that there is always sufficient parking.
A valid driver’s licence, a passport and a credit card are required to rent a car here. The minimum driving age is twenty-one. Some car rentals charge an additional fee for drivers aged under twenty-five.
Orientation is easy in the US and aided by the numbered highway system. The blue numbers indicate US interstate highways, expanded to freeways. The standard of US freeways is the equivalent of our motorways. The US highways are numbered in white. East-west highways are allocated even numbers and north-south highways have odd numbers.
Turning right at a red light after stopping is permitted, provided there is no signpost at the crossing that says “No right on red“.
It is forbidden to drink alcohol or to be under the influence of alcohol while driving. Decide in advance who will not drink alcohol and be your driver, so that everyone gets a safe ride to their hotel.
Tolls are charged on some of the freeways, including on Florida’s Turnpike (from Ocala to Homestead), the Alligator Alley (Interstate 75 between Miami and Naples) and on the Bee Line Expressway (from Orlando to Cape Canaveral). The same applies to many of the bridges that connect the islands to the mainland (however, the sum charged tends to be quite moderate). Some toll payment facilities only accept credit cards or prepaid cards.