YOUR ADVENTURE STARTS HERE
Florida has exerted a magnetic pull on visitors for the past 500 years-beginning with Juan Ponce de Leon.
St. Augustine, where he landed in 1513, educates visitors and residents alike through attractions, museums and festivals where re-enactors dress in historic garb and tell tales. In this charming town, it’s not unusual to have breakfast in a café seated next to a “pirate”.
Ponce de Leon named what he saw “La Florida,” or “place of flowers,” because of the lush landscape. Indeed, Florida has 300 native plants, ranging from the thorny sweet acacia to the wild azalea.
The state lists an additional 1,300-plus introduced exotics, many of them considered invasive. Others are housed in botanical gardens, such as the renowned Fairchild Tropical Botanical Garden and the Central Florida Zoo and Botanical Gardens.
Ironically, the state flower, the orange blossom, is considered an exotic, albeit one that became extremely important to the region’s economy. Native to Southeast Asia, the orange tree is an evergreen shrub brought to the colony of St. Augustine in 1565. The orange and its aromatic blossom, which connotes fertility and good fortune, quickly became representative of the area. Many towns such as Davie have Orange Blossom Festivals. Today, Florida is the largest producer of oranges in the US, as well as the honey made by the bees that sip pollen from the fragrant blossoms.
In fact, Florida depends on export crops as diverse as sugar cane and tomatoes to survive, while still leaving plenty of sweet corn and green beans available for passersby to purchase. Visitors are often amazed to find farm stands and U-pick farms offering everything from boiled peanuts and blueberries in Gainesville to mangoes and lychees in the southern areas of Redland and Homestead. Throughout the year, festivals, such as Plant City’s Florida Strawberry Festival in late winter and the mid-summer International Mango Festival at Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden in Coral Gables, are hugely enjoyable, multi-day attractions.
If you prefer bottled fruit, wineries are popping up everywhere, with many offering both grape varietals as well as tropical fruit vintages.