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Brochure images of tanning tourists and Mickey Mouse give an inaccurate and incomplete picture of FLORIDA. Although the aptly nicknamed “Sunshine State” is indeed devoted to the tourist trade, it’s also among the least-understood parts of the US and there are plenty of things to do in Florida. Away from its overexposed resorts lie forests and rivers, deserted strands filled with wildlife, vibrant cities and primeval swamps. Contrary to the popular retirement-community image, new Floridians tend to be a younger, more energetic breed, while Spanish-speaking enclaves provide close ties to Latin America and the Caribbean.

In terms of where to go in Florida, the essential stop is cosmopolitan, half-Latin Miami. A simple journey south from here brings you to the Florida Keys, a hundred-mile string of islands known for sports fishing, coral-reef diving and the sultry town of Key West, legendary for its sunsets and liberal attitude. Back on the mainland, west from Miami stretch the easily accessible Everglades, a water-logged sawgrass plain filled with alligators, a symbol of the state that can be found on college campuses (as a college mascot) and on innumerable business billboards. Much of Florida’s east coast is heavily built-up – a not-so-small side effect of powerful migration flows of so-called “sunbirds” seeking to escape the cold climes of the northeast USA. The residential stranglehold is loosened further north, where the Kennedy Space Center launches NASA shuttles. Further along, historical St Augustine stands as the longest continuously occupied European settlement in the US, and at its urban core, its dense street pattern gives it a vaguely European flavour.

In central Florida the terrain turns green, though it’s no rural idyll, thanks in the most part to Orlando and Walt Disney World, which sprawl out across the countryside. From here it’s just a skip west to the towns and beaches of the Gulf Coast, and somewhat further north to the forests of the Panhandle, Florida’s link with the Deep South.

Weather-wise, warm sunshine and blue skies are almost always the norm. The state does, however, split into two climatic zones: subtropical in the south and warm temperate in the north. Orlando and points south have a mild season from October to April, with warm temperatures and low humidity – this is the peak tourist season, when prices are at their highest. Conversely, the southern summer (May to Sept) brings high humidity and afternoon storms; the rewards for braving the mugginess are lower prices and fewer tourists.

North of Orlando, winter is the off-peak period, even though daytime temperatures are generally comfortably warm (although snow has been known to fall on the Panhandle). During the northern Florida summer, the crowds arrive, and the days and nights are hot and very humid. Keep in mind that June to November is hurricane season, and there is a strong possibility of major storms throughout the entire state.

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