Monday, January 31, 2011

Florida debriefed: An insider's look at America's wang.

I've never been one to take offense to anything. And that's probably a good thing, having been born, raised and continue to live in the great state of Florida. But as the joke goes: If Canada is America's hat, and New Jersey is America's armpit, Florida, naturally, is America's wang. And us Floridian's, I think, are ok with that. And therin lies the part of the reason why I like it so much here.

The US is a big place. And each state offers something different, be it atmosphere, attitude, architecture. And after having visited a majority of the 50 states, I can honestly say, I wouldn't want to live anywhere else. Sure, I'm a homer, I'm biased.  I can admit that. And I've known a fair share of Floridians-by-birth who hated it here and moved away as soon as they had the chance. I spent 4 months living outside of the state and couldn't wait to get back. Florida moves at its own pace, somewhat removed from the rest of the country. This is where people come to play, come to relax and come to die.

Only in Michigan are you closer to water no matter where you stand. But that's Michigan. You can't really enjoy that water when it's frozen over half the year. Here in Florida, you are never more than 60 miles (less than one hour) from an amazing beach. So let's start there:

Florida's Beaches
You can cut the state up into 4 distinct beach quadrants and each have their own personalities: Atlantic coast, Gulf coast, Emerald coast (in the panhandle) and Miami and the Keys. I currently live in Panama City Beach along the Emerald coast. The sand is snow white and the water an amazing mix of turquoise blue and green. Thanks to the climate, the beaches can be enjoyed year round. Even in the winter, when the water is too cold to get into, the sandy shores offer a peaceful place to sit and relax, or take advantage of the outdoors with a truly scenic jog. The tiki bars and restaurants up and down the beaches go without saying.

Cities and towns
Every state has a big city. Hell, Delaware even has Dover. (Delaware IS still a state, right?) But no other state has so many different, well known cities within easy driving distance of each other. California may have some exciting and big cities, but the distance between them isn't user friendly. Florida, however, is literally peppered with visitor-worthy locales.

-Thanks to Disney World and Universal Studios, Orlando is one of the most popular family tourist destinations in the world. I grew up in Orlando and, even after the Disney magic fades, there is still so much to do there I haven't even begun to cover it all. It's a playground, plain and simple. Orlando gives you an excuse to act like a kid again. At a price, of course.

-Miami, if you're lucky enough to not get shot or carjacked, has some really nice areas. Key Biscayne, just off the mainland, is the closest I've ever been to a real "island getaway." And South Beach with it's art deco buildings and music blaring out of every corner is definitely worth a visit, if not for the Cuban restaurants alone. Also, Miami recently was voted the nation's most beautiful city (people-wise), so it's got that going for it.

-The Keys. Visiting the Florida Keys should be a must on everyone's bucketlist. They're like being in a different world where time literally doesn't move. There are a number of keys between south Florida and Key West (which is the US's most southern point) and each are very relaxed and comfortable. Key West, however, is a circus, living a totally care-free life of it's own. If you really want to take a vacation from yourself, go to Fantasy Fest over a Halloween weekend.

-Gainesville. As a Gator Grad, you damn well better believe I'm putting this on the list of must-see Florida cities. Especially during football season. Whether you like the team (and/or the sport) or not, the vibe on a gameday Saturday is unlike anything I've ever experienced surrounding a sporting event.  Located in the middle of the state, Gainesville is a classic college town, built around the University of Florida and its 50 some odd thousand undergrad students. On a hot day, you can see wild alligators in their natural habitat, sunning themselves on the banks of the campus lakes.

-A city I've always enjoyed visiting is Tampa on the western side of the state. Two times a year, they have massive street festivals (Gasparila and Guavaween) that bring visitors from around the country. They also have an interesting and reliable public transport system linking three parts of the city: Downtown, Ybor City (where you can find unique Cuban food, cigar shops and night clubs) and Channelside (a popular young professionals spot of restaurants, shops and bars). The Tampa area is also home to professional football, baseball and hockey teams.

-St. Augustine is one of my favorite cities in the US. It's also the oldest. The Spanish fort, Castillo de San Marco, and surrounding old town is tiny taste of old Europe here in America. With narrow walkways and 400 year old architecture, you'll feel like you're walking through 17th century Spain. To our young country, THIS is history. To Europeans who visit, many live in apartment buildings far older. (And I complained that my apartment was built in 1987) I've been on many ghost tours throughout the country and St. Augustine's is by far the best.

-Just 20 minutes south of Tampa lies the mysterious town of Gibsonton. Supposedly, this is where all of the world's freakshow and carnie-folk go when they retire. The bearded lady, the lobster boy, the monkey-faced girl...this is their 'hood when they leave the circus. Even the local bank has a counter that is specially made for dwarfs. Elephants are allowed to freely roam the streets and yards. I took a date here one night back in high school. It was late, so there wasn't much going on. I remember only seeing the neon glow of tarot and palm reader signs in the windows of just about every home. Aside from that, it could've been any other neighborhood. We didn't stay long out of fear a clown car might've come after us. I'm sure during the day it's a lot more festive. And creepy.

All this and I haven't even touched on the state's capital, Tallahassee. Or the largest city in the country (land area-wise), Jacksonville. Or the Kennedy Space Center and NASA headquarters on Cape Canaveral near Cocoa. Or the numerous sleepy, beach towns that make up the Emerald Coast of the panhandle like Destin, Pensacola, Ft. Walton and Panama City. If states were people, Alabama would be the slow kid, being laughed at as he struggled to push the "PULL" door. Whereas Florida would be the cool, quiet guy at the end of the bar. The guy that everyone flocks to out of child-like curiosity, only to return emotionally ruined and confused. And yet, they'll keep going back because there's something strangely likable deep down. I've always admired that guy. Sure, there are oddities and strange stories throughout, so much so that has mockingly created its own "Florida" headline tag. But us locals are ok with that. I think it's a testament to our relaxed state of mind that welcomes the bizarre and unique. Things are backwards here, I won't deny that. The further south you go in the state, the more northern the people are; transplants from New York, New Jersey, Ohio and Pennsylvania. The further north you go, you begin to get a taste of the deep south with hints of Georgia pine, sweet iced tea and twangy accents. Is "twangy" even a word? Probably not, but it's no big deal. And that's why I love it here.


  1. I have been to Florida, quite a long time ago and really like it! Florida needs you as its spokesperson!!! Niece was also based in Miami in the Coast Guard for three years. Didn't get a chance to get there while she was there though :(

  2. An interesting post as someone who considers themselves a transplant native Floridian (I moved to Tampa when I was young, graduated high school there and attended FSU for two year).

    But something your post didn't cover: which do you prefer? East coast or west coast? I am hands down a Gulf Coast girl. I'd rather hang out at a cold Clearwater beach over a beach in Miami any day.