Tom Stieghorst
Tom Stieghorst

Florida has so much to offer!

That's the conclusion I have come away with after my first year as the Florida editor for Travel Weekly. I've explored the state from the Georgia border to the tip of Key West, and it has been a revelation how many great things are going on in the Sunshine State.

I've lived here since Ronald Reagan was president, so I kinda knew what it had to offer. Still, there were a few things that took me by surprise in 2020. Here are some of them:

• It is still possible to experience Florida the way it must have appeared when settlers arrived hundreds of years ago.  Certainly big parts of the state have been paved over, denuded of native plants and animals, rechanneled for flood control and otherwise altered. No doubt the commercial parts of Florida make it hard to see anything but chain stores and strip malls when we're driving down the highway.

But I had two moments of wonder that brought me to a stop, and left me with the sensation that I had just felt what others have felt down through the years. The first was a flock of white pelicans in the Ten Thousand Islands area of Everglades National Park that flew one after another across the horizon for what seemed like 10 minutes. I'd never seen so many pelicans at once, and it was an awesome sight.

A few weeks later I had a similar sense of traveling back in time at Amelia Island's Fort Clinch State Park, where a road to the fort lined with ancient oaks and Spanish moss seemed unchanged from what Amelia Island must have looked and felt like when it was settled in the 1700s.

• What a lot of car museums there are in Florida! I had the chance on a rain-soaked day to visit the Tallahassee Automobile Museum and was mightily entertained for several hours by the quality of the collection. Once I started looking around, I realized there's an auto museum in just about every part of the state, from "Big Daddy" Don Gartlits' temple to drag racing in Ocala to the American Muscle Car Museum in Melbourne, the Sarasota Classic Car Museum on Florida's west coast and the Packard-centric Fort Lauderdale Antique Car Museum.

Dezerland Park Orlando will display collector Michael Dezer's trove of auto artifacts in a new 250,000-square-foot Auto Experience scheduled to open later in 2021.

• Weddings are a big draw for visitors, especially in St. Augustine. On a visit there this fall, I was stunned by the number of bridal parties I saw preparing for the big day. "On any given weekend, you'll see five or six weddings going on around town," said Joni Barkley, director of sales and catering at the Casa Monica Resort & Spa. "It really is quite amazing, especially for such a small town."

There were 151,768 marriages in Florida in 2019, according to one wedding research company. Many were destination weddings held on the beaches with receptions afterward at historic venues such as those in St. Augustine.

• If you think you've exhausted Florida's theme park bounty, think again. A visit to Discovery Cove revealed a new park for me, hiding in plain sight. It was my fault, to be sure; Discovery Cove has been around for 25 years. But its mix of relaxing beach experiences, dolphin interactions, all-inclusive pricing and a killer snuba attraction was a treat I wasn't anticipating. This year, the park's flamingos will take center stage in a new Flamingo Mingle.

So make it a point, pandemic permitting, to venture off the beaten path to Legoland, cruise the Drive-Thru Safari Park at Wild Florida, marvel at the reptiles at Gatorland or ogle the mermaids at Weeki Wachee Springs. You won't be disappointed.


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