Florida: Introduction

  • © doro024, marcopolo.de

    © doro024, marcopolo.de


The American Way of Life is a mix of myths: freedom and leisure, sun and sand, optimism and openness, a fast buck and fast fun. Nowhere else in the US will you experience this easy-going way of life in quite the same way as in Florida, the Sunshine State. Situated on the same latitude as North Africa, Florida basks under a mostly blue sky. The mood follows the weather forecast: sunny. While only about two thirds the size of England, the US state, with a coastline of some 1860 miles (including the islands makes it 8450 miles) is among the most popular destinations in the world. In 2010 Florida counted 82.3 million visitors, 3 million of them from outside the US. With 1.2 million holidaymakers coming to the state, the British occupy pole position here. Most guests prefer to come in winter, when the sun shines unstintingly and the mercury rises to temperatures that in Europe and the northern part of the US are only achieved in summer.

Never further than 55 miles from the sea

Florida's natural attractions include far more than an emerald-green ocean and white beaches: Florida crocodiles, which are threatened with extinction, and alligators live in the wild here, egrets, pelicans and sea eagles populate mangrove forests and brackwater areas, technicolour fish swarm through the underwater landscapes of the reefs off the Keys. Civilisation, too, has left spectacular marks.

On the east coast, rockets as high as towers start from the Cape Canaveral space station, sending shuttles and satellites into orbit. And Orlando, of course, pulls 'em in with gigantic leisure parks, taking visitors into the fantastical comic universe of Walt Disney or imaginary film worlds such as Harry Potter's. The 27th US state lives the American Way of Life big time, and a well-developed network of roads allows you to explore it in comfort. With over 6000 hotels and motels there is no shortage of accommodation. And any detour inland carries the guarantee that you'll never be further than 55 miles from the sea.

Modern Florida doesn't immediately show its heritage as the first of North America's regions to be discovered by Europeans. Apart from the name of Florida and a few remnants in St. Augustine, the oldest settlement in the US, not much is left of the Spanish colonial heritage, which began in 1513 with discovery by Juan Ponce de León. Which makes it look like one of history's ironies that a few centuries later, the South has been Hispanicised after all. Miami and its surroundings have of course long offered political and economic exile to Cubans, Nicaraguans and Salvadorans, who together with black French-speaking Haitians make up over half of the population of Greater Miami. 

The Florida of today presents a strong contrast to the historic events that the region has experienced. The vision that industry leaders and construction entrepreneurs have painted for the peninsula since the early 20th century doesn't really have space for the Civil War of 1861-65, racial segregation, and discrimination against Native Americans. Men like the billionaire Henry Flagler with his railway lines and state-run hotels laid the foundation for the tourism industry. Investors benefited from the fact that in 1885 the American Medical Association proclaimed the southernmost tip of St. Petersburg, Pinellas Point, the healthiest spot in the US. This marked the beginning of the run on Florida.

 The luxury hotels were attracting rich Americans from the North. The inventor of the light bulb Thomas A. Edison and carmaker Henry Ford spent their winters here. Florida turned into the destination of a migratory movement south, attracting more and more overwintering visitors every year. Entire towns planned on the drawing board such as Palm Beach and Boca Grande became a byword for wonderful beach holidays. Luckily, the holidaymakers were joined by environmental activists. US presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Harry Truman had already pushed the establishment of protected areas. Those who came after them were left with strictly regulated natural surroundings: leisure skippers now potter through Florida's island world on signposted waterways.

An oil disaster threatens nature

Nevertheless, even a wealth of environmental protection measures can become meaningless in the face of political and economic interests. This became clear during the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in the summer of 2010. On 20 April an explosion on the Deep Horizon drilling platform off the coast of Louisiana triggered the worst environmental disaster in history. When months later, on 9 September, the borehole was finally declared closed, an estimated 780 million litres of crude oil had escaped. Still, only a short while afterwards the all-clear was given and the beaches reopened.

All in good time for the start of the tourist season. Coincidence? After all, Florida's tourism sector contributes over 60 billion dollars in revenue every year to state coffers. Independent media  report that every storm still washes up tens of thousands of dead fish onto the beaches of the Florida Panhandle, because the oil that remained in the sea is drifting through the Gulf in clouds of oil particles and methane gas nearly 25 miles long, killing off all life. How long this will last, only time will tell. 

Despite this, Florida just keeps on growing. A highlight of this fast-paced development is the holiday world constructed around Orlando. Disney World lies at the heart of a wealth of fun parks that have made Florida a region attracting tourists all year round and an ideal destination for families with children.

The past 100 years have turned the state with its 18.8 million inhabitants not only into the fourth most populated US state, but also into a wealthy and cosmopolitan hub. An exception is the northwest, the so-called Panhandle. Its inhabitants are known to be patriots and rather fond of guns.

The Sunshine State was formed by ice 

Florida covers a surface area of over 65, 700 square miles: from Pensacola to Key West, the state stretches some 834 miles. Formed by the melted ice masses of the ice ages, the peninsula was given its characteristic landscape some 6000 years ago. Numerous rivers and around 30,000 small and large lakes characterise a natural environment which at its highest point rises only 340 ft above sea level. 

Depending on the season, the flows of tourists move in different directions. The so-called Redneck Riviera around Pensacola is a summer destination and particularly popular with traditionally-minded Southerners, who don't particularly like the society sections such as the stretch of coast between Fort Pierce and Fort Lauderdale. The western coast on the Gulf of Mexico is a favourite with the retired and with young families who have settled between Cedar Key and Marco Island. The northeast coast between Jacksonville and Cape Canaveral is also popular with families. 

European visitors mainly flock to central Florida and Orlando's fun parks and attractions, to Miami, the country's exotic metropolis, the Everglades nature reserve, as well as to the Florida Keys. If you're looking for the American way of life you will find it everywhere here, as much as you can encounter the old, 'real' Florida too. If this is what you've come to discover, don't forget it pays on your travels to look beyond the surface. The Sunshine State is more than the sum of its clichés.

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