If you’re anything like me, one thing you’ll know Florida for is Disney. The happiest place on earth and a trip all families want to do once in a lifetime. But while my kids love theme parks and we can find the magic of imaginary worlds enchanting for a day or two, at heart my husband and I are travellers, and the thought of going all the way to Florida and dedicating our entire holiday to theme-park food and endless queues was not something we really wanted to do.
What we yearned to do was explore - we fancied a road trip. But while our kids are now 9 and 12, and so much easier to travel with, it’s extremely daunting to try and plan a massive adventure like this when you’re so far away. Fortunately, the Hertz road trip planner is a fantastic inspiration for a journey like this (or in fact a road trip around pretty much any state in the US that you’re keen to visit), so we downloaded the Florida version, adapted it for the 10 days of holiday we were managing to squeeze out of our October half term break, and headed to Miami. For what turned out to be without a doubt the most amazing family trip of our lives.
So here’s what we did, in the order we did it, with the tips we learned along the way. Feel free to adapt it according to the time you have, and spend longer anywhere you can. But if you can avoid it, don’t miss anything out. This is our family’s list of the 20 things you MUST do and see if you and your clan head to Florida. And one thing to add, which took us entirely by surprise, is that we came back not only full of the most amazing memories and with a camera overloaded with incredible pics, but also inspired, energised and with the kids’ dreams and ambitions stretched beyond previous limits. When an astronaut tells you to reach for the stars, it’s hard not to take their advice.
1) Hang with the cool kids in Miami Beach
With promises of the Florida Keys and Space Centres, I have to admit Miami wasn’t on the top of my ‘can’t wait to get there’ list – I thought it might be too busy and fast for a family holiday, but I was so wrong. Miami is a fabulous city. The beach is a dream – white sand for as far as you can see, punctuated by lifeguard huts, making you fee like you’re in an episode of Baywatch. Nightlife is fun and funky – but accessible. We were welcomed with open arms with the kids everywhere we went. And the coast is so stunning it’s clear to see why celebs and millionaires like David Beckham make this part of the world their home. A boat trip past the most expensive homes give you a glimpse into another world.
Cool kids on Miami Beach
Where to Stay: The Betsy Hotel on Miami’s famous beach was an incredible place to start our adventure. Resplendent in 1930s art deco design combined with Colonial-style architecture there’s a true feeling of low-key, old-school glamour here – and the rooms are perfect for families. The kids cosied up on a double sofa bed in the separate living area leaving plenty of privacy for mum and dad. The roof-top pool was a highlight for us all. Sipping on a frose cocktail in the deep end, I was able to convince myself I might just be able to blend in with the cool crowd no doubt about to descend on the bar as the sun set.
Where to Eat: Joining the celebs at the Sugar Factory is a lot of fun and for one night only I was just about able to throw caution to the wind and let my kids inhale mocktails literally swimming in gummy bears and multi-coloured rainbow hamburgers (not thinking about the e-numbers). America knows how to do things big, and the Sugar Factory does that, and then some. We’ve still got stashes of nerds and Haribo in the boys’ backpacks that couldn’t physically be eaten in one sitting.
Dinner on the rooftop at Juvia is another experience – more full-on A list glamour, but just as welcoming to the boys, even offering a kids’ menu with some exciting and adventurous options. We sipped cocktails in the warm Miami air, overlooking the twinkling city beneath us, whilst dining on some of the best sushi we’ve ever eaten. Even though jet lag was getting the better of us by desert, we managed to squeeze some in.
2) Enjoy some street art at Wynwood Walls
If you’re looking for an Instagram moment, this is the place to come. This uber-cool regeneration project has brought art (and tourism) to a part of town which previously had neither, and now locals and visitors alike can pass an afternoon viewing street art from some of the best in the business, on the walls and containers of this incredible, accessible, open-air art gallery. The creativity has become catching – with the roads surrounding Wynwood Walls boasting a less curated but equally exciting array of artwork. The perfect backdrop to your first family holiday snaps.
3) A little bit of educational fun at Frost Science
Located on the Miami waterfront, if you want a break from the pool or the beach, Frost Science is the ideal place. There are everything from huge aquariums boasting stunning underwater wildlife, to interactive and very educational exhibits drawing kids and adults in to learn about biology, physics, geography – you name it. You can build sand sculptures while learning about contour lines, do a bit of aeronautical engineering courtesy of a paper aeroplane machine, or just have a cup of coffee and enjoy the view.
4) Escape city life in the Florida Keys
A strip of land stretching over 180km off the end of Florida, the Keys is just the place to test out the dynamics of a family road trip. It turned out that never-ending sea views, only one or two bad turnings getting out of Miami and an array of movies on the kids’ tablet meant our first foray into life as real American roadtrippers got off to a good start. We’d chosen a roomy Nissan Pathfinder for our 10-day adventure and having enough space in the boot to pack a bit less neatly than we had on departure from the UK was handy. One thing we learned half way through our trip (after a few panicked google searches) is that if you're in a Hertz rental, you can sail through the toll lanes without stopping to pay.
Sunset at Duck Key
Tip: dedicate one bag to the swimming/beach bag and another to not-yet-quite-dry items so you always have your swimmers ready at your next destination and can hang up the wet things right away. Don’t be shy and British about valet parking either - both valet and luggage carts are the way to make sure the baggage side of road tripping doesn’t become a headache. Another tip - about tips, is to make sure you've got a few dollar bills to hand to show your appreciation to the valet man or bellboy.
There are many spots to stop at in the Keys – we opted for Duck Key – about two and a quarter hours from Miami.
Where to stay: Duck Key is home to the family friendly Hawks Cay Resort – a different vibe to Miami, at once very family focussed and the boys felt instantly at home, jumping in the pool and making pals with the other kids. There is a large swimming pool in the main resort area, which looks out onto the ocean and its stunning sunsets. There’s also a beach pool – a sectioned off area of seawater for families to swim, paddleboard and kayak around, safe in the knowledge there will be no drifting off to Cuba. And you don't have to worry about your kids being noisy as anybody who isn't keen on a bit of family fun can retreat to the Adults Only pool around the corner.
Where to Eat: In the resort there are a variety of dining options – we enjoyed the informality of the beach bar for our first dinner, and for the second, after enjoying a dip in the completely empty Sunset Pool to watch the sky turn orange, we wandered up to the Angler and Ale restaurant – more formal but still relaxed and very child-friendly. The waiters remembered the kids from breakfast, one chatting to them eagerly about his lifelong desire to watch cricket at Lords.
5) Get up close and personal with the fish in a snorkelling adventure
With water warm and inviting and fish in plentiful supply, jumping into the ocean with a snorkle, mask and fins is great experience for adults and kids alike. There are many snorkling possibilities - we headed out on a boat with Captain Hook's Marina and Dive Centre. It was a great family adventure. The sight of the fantastic fishes only compromised slightly by the jelly-fish dodging required to get to the perfect coral spot.
6) Cuddle a dolphin at Hawks Cay's Dolphin Experience
One of the highlights of any stay at Duck Key is the opportunity to swim with dolphins. The resort has five dolphins living in the sectioned off areas of ocean around the edge of the resort and the trainers who look after them are inspiring with their knowledge and clear affection for the animals in their care. Being in close contact with these magnificent creatures is an astonishing experience and one the kids will carry with them for their lives (in fact our youngest is determined to become a dolphin trainer when he grows up). The experience is very educational, and the dolphins share their latest tricks with you before – if they feel like it – sidling up for cuddle.
7) Experience Florida's wild side in Martin County
Jumping waves in Martin County
The next stop on our road-trip adventure was one I’d not heard of before – Martin County. And had I known how beautiful it was we would have definitely planned to stay longer. While the Florida Keys has oceanfront resorts, Martin County has ocean front sand dunes and with its native wild turtles and stunning beaches it’s a nature-lovers delight. It was a three and a half hour drive from the Keys – and after an en-route Waffle House stop for lunch, we didn’t arrive until the afternoon. A sunset walk along the beach, some wave jumping while the surf pros did their thing, and a quick dip in the pool, we were left wanting more.
Where to stay: We stayed at the luxurious Hutchinson Shores Resort and Spa – which was very A-list glam but wonderfully accessible for families too. Sipping a cocktail in your poolside cabana while the kids jumped in the water and we nibbled on a mid-afternoon pizza was pretty much my definition of bliss. Food here is delicious – again high end, but with a great provision for kids. Homemade pasta and pork belly got our thumbs up for dinner, while the breakfast was a to-the-table treat which set us up perfectly for the next stop on our roadtrip adventure.
8) Zeke’s Surf and Paddle SUP tour
Sadly, for our trip, the waves were not on our side and our paddle board trip was not to be. But Zeke’s tour of the stunning waters around Martin County came well recommended.
9) Escape to infinity and beyond at the Kennedy Space Centre
100 miles up the road from Martin County is the Kennedy Space Centre, and this is truly a must-stop destination on any Florida adventure. Kids aside, I left my day at NASA wishing to become an astronaut, after an utterly inspiring and fascinating peek inside the lives of the scientists discovering details about the planets and galaxies around us on a daily basis. If you’re lucky and your trip coincides with an actual rocket launch, you can watch it here – and actually more rockets are zooming off into space each year than I’d ever imagined, taking care of the satellite demands we take for granted such as GPS and mobile phones.
The Lunch with an Astronaut is an extra to the entrance price but if you can stretch to the $30 price tag ($16 for children) it’s an unforgettable experience. Not for the buffet lunch (which beats normal theme-park fair but isn’t anything to get too excited about) but for the fact that you have access to a real, live astronaut. Ours, Wendy Lawrence, addressed the room sharing details of life in space from how they avoid muscle depletion with daily treadmill sessions, to how they manage to go to the loo – something which enthralled the boys of course. A few questions can be asked, though naturally not everybody can be picked, and you’re left wishing you had an hour with Wendy across a small dinner table rather than in a huge banqueting hall. But her messages – written in the kids’ autograph books afterwards – were clear. Dream big and reach for the stars. Even I left the Kennedy Space Centre believing the world was my oyster. Exactly the kind of inspiring message you want your children to take away from a holiday of a lifetime.
10) Get speedy at Daytona Beach
An hour up the coast is Daytona Beach, and we headed there directly from NASA. This stop was for Dad – they Daytona Race Track was high on his wishlist for a trip to Florida. But there’s more to Daytona than that. With 23 miles of white sand beaches, with plenty of parks lining the beach, and huts for ice cream, you can spend some glorious sun days here. The boardwalk and amusement part is fun, plus you can even drive on the beach.
Where to stay: Daytona Beach’s Hard Rock Hotel is a cool spot in a stunning location, and perfect for tweens. Again our only complaint is that time on our road trip was too limited so the boys could only enjoy a super-fast visit to the Roxity youth club – but with air hockey tables, computer games and a host of other kid and teen friendly activities, they could have spent a lot longer there. The swimming pool which plays rock music under the water was another quirkly highlight not be missed.
11) Become a surfer dude at Pure Life Surf School
There can be no two cooler surf dudes than Bernie and John but having once tried surfing before (as a much more appropriately aged 18 year old) with no success, I took their guarantees that I would be standing on the board by the end of our hour-long lesson, with a pinch of salt. With a look of awe in their eyes, my boys breathed in every word of dreadlocked Bernie’s directions and we all placed our boards on the sand and practiced jumping up to surf position out of the water. So far so good (actually even that was a challenge for me). But this 2 on 4 surf lesson proved equally successful even when we took our boards into the water. Staying side by side with us to catch the perfect wave and sending us off towards the shore, all 4 of us were up standing within a few tries (admittedly some of us for longer than others!). The boys got the hang of it instantly and excitedly wrote down Bernie’s details to look him up in the Guinness Book of Records when we returned to the UK, for being the person who can spin a basketball on his toe for the longest time while surfing. Sure enough, he’s in there!
12) Take a spin on the Daytona International Speedway
The Daytona experience is a morning or afternoon which starts with a tram ride first around, and then into, the iconic motorsports venue, giving you fun snippets of historical information alongside an photo opportunities galore. In fact, the first Daytona car races took place on the beach (and it’s still possible to drive your car down onto the beach at certain times – we didn’t think we’d risk it in our rental in case it was outside of our contract agreements!) but the Hall of Fame is a fascinating insight into the history of the famous track and the exciting races and champions who form part of its story.
13) Head to Orlando for some theme park fun
Speeding off from Daytona (remembering we weren’t Nascar racers, of course) it was an hour's drive to Orlando - the part of Florida most famous for its larger-than-life theme parks. Orlando can seem like a mission impossible to navigate; friends who have visited previously had recommended books and websites entirely dedicated to planning an Orlando visit and I was full of mild terror about making the wrong choices. In reality though, there is no need to stress. There are decisions to be made: staying in a Disney hotel allows you early access to park, so maybe worthwhile to avoid some queues. But making the wrong decision isn’t a disaster either – we stayed in a Disney hotel (the B Resort and Spa, with a stunning pool and very useful laundry room!) the night we went to Universal and it was only a short drive from one to the other.
If you want to make the theme parks the centre of your trip to Florida, then you absolutely can, and you can spend the months beforehand reading up on every last tip of how to find the best deals. Read our piece on a family visit to Disney here. But while the happiest place on earth is full of fireworks and fairytales, and any Harry Potter fan (I have two in my family) will have their little minds blown at the recreations in Universal which overshadow the UK’s WB Studio Tour completely, when asked what the highlights of our Florida road trip were, I was happy to discover that the rest of Florida was up there – and in some places miles above – the offerings of Orlando. So if queues and Mickey ears are not your bag, just hold on tight for a day or two – because there are alligators and airboat rides the other side!
14) Fly above Orlando on the Icon
Driving into Orlando from Daytona, the Icon Orlando was our first stop and a really pleasant and gentle introduction to the city of theme parks. A London Eye-style slow-moving Ferris wheel, we enjoyed a glass of champagne (with juice for the kids) as the sun set over the city, rollercoasters and magic kingdoms glistening in the distance. The restaurants around the Icon are fun – we pigged out on nachos and burritos at Uncle Julio's. With impossibly optimistic servers and platters so big you could dine on them for a week, it’s all very American and a lot of fun. The parking’s free too.
15) Find Mickey and Minnie at Disney World
Of course, no trip to Florida is complete without at least considering a trip to Disney World. And whether you want to hang out with Mickey, get Cinderella’s autograph or ride the terrifying Haunted Mansion, this is without a doubt the place to do it. HELLO!’s Laura Benjamin visited Disney last year and this is her advice on how to navigate the happiest place on earth.
16) Enjoy the magic of Harry Potter at Universal
If princesses and castles are less appealing than the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, then a Disney alternative is Universal's three theme parks – Universal Studios, the Islands of Adventure and the newly-opened water park, Volcano Bay. We did the first two parks in a day (and if you have a Harry wannabe in your party you’ll want to do the same, as the park-to-park transfer on-board the Hogwarts Express is definitely a highlight). There are terrifying rides (delicate mum alert: the Hulk is possibly not the best ride to start the day off with, it’s worth building yourself up to it slowly!) and with a front-of-line pass you can avoid the queues on the biggest rides. Definitely worth an indulgence if your park time is limited.
17) Go gator spotting at Boggy Creek Airboat Ride
An hour out of Orlando, but a world away, is Boggy Creek. Think Gentle Ben – with endless miles of mangrove swamps which you can explore at high speed (whilst wearing ear defenders!) on an airboat ride. Miles from anywhere, this is a spot of unspoilt beauty and the guides – who grew up swimming in the creek (dodging alligators – it doesn’t even bear thinking about) are full of fascinating insights into Southern living alongside these fascinating creatures. There are airboat rides in the Everglades – we didn’t have time to squeeze that into our time in Miami. But people who have done both rate Boggy Creek higher, and it’s a great antidote to the hustle and bustle of Orlando’s parks.
18) Enjoy peace, tranquility and real Southern Style in Crystal River
A sense of sadness in the air, as we knew we were embarking on our final adventure of this 10-day roadtrip, the two hours from Boggy Creek to Crystal River passed easily on a great American freeway. The lack of overtaking rules making us glad we were in a hefty SUV – personally on American motorways I feel bigger is always better. But our sadness lifted as soon as we arrived in Crystal river, and drew up to our lodgings at The Plantation on Crystal River. The location was utterly stunning and as I was welcomed at the front desk as Miss Sophie I felt fully at home and southern (the biscuits and gravy at breakfast only served to reinforce this feeling!)
Where to stay: The Plantation is situated on the banks of Crystal River and it’s really like stepping inside a cosy American TV series – you get the sense residents and holiday makers must be some of the most relaxed in the world as they watch the world go by from river-side verandas and pootle around on rowing boats, floating in some of the the most gloriously clear water I've ever seen. Bliss. The hotel is great for kids – more homely than super glam – with a swimming pool on the banks of the river, a giant chess board, a teenager’s games room, and al fresco family movie screenings (with popcorn).
Where to eat: One restaurant that deserves a mention is the Greenhouse Bistro – as you may well miss it otherwise. All food is local and fresh, and utterly delicious, also catering very well for vegans and vegetarians. You can lunch in the butterfly dining room (surrounded by butterflies) - at night they disappear and instead you're treated to birdsong.
19) Swim with Manatees
Having already kissed a dolphin in the Florida Keys, we didn’t really know what to expect of our manatee encounter – but the two could not have been more different. Manatees are most similar in DNA to elephants and, although water dwelling, you can see the resemblance at once. Huge, graceful and non-stop-eating, these gentle giants flock to Crystal Water river every year and bring with them hoards of tourists. But while their interest is welcomed by those working in tourism, their wellbeing is clearly of utmost importance, and in high season huge sections of the river are roped off, allowing the manatees peace and quiet when they want it.
Our visit occurred very early in the morning and thankfully the meeting point was our hotel. We got dressed in very buoyant wetsuits to make floating a doddle (and to enable us to disturb the creatures as little as possible), were fitted with snorkels and took off in our flat-bottomed boat. After 20 minutes or so we found a pair, and so our boat-load of eager swimmers descended into the water. We’d been taught how to act (slowly, no splashing, nice and quiet) and were delighted to find a mother and her baby, munching away on the seabed greenery, and squeaking at each other with high pitched sounds. Truly magical moments enjoying these animals in their home environment.
20) Kings Bay & Three Sisters Kayak tour
An incredible end to a whirlwind trip, a second trip on Crystal River, this time on board an entirely see-through kayak. Not only could we paddle across the manatees feeding (quite an awe-inspiring sight when you compare their size to yours) we also meandered our way into the stunning Three Sisters Springs, watching fish and turtles swimming beneath us as we hovered over three of the underwater springs that spew out crystal-clear water from their deep blue depths, giving the river its undeniably accurate name. Make no mistake, kayaking is a work out, especially when the wind picks up a little, but our guide and his knowledge about the history and nature of his stunning part of the world, encouraged us to push on when we felt tired. We loved hearing how the manatees are protected, how the crystal clear waters are being restored thanks to active planting and how much pride and love the locals have for their very special part of the world.