Freaky Florida

Flamingoes and giant plastic alligators, pirates and underwater dancing mermaids: Jo Roberts finds an intriguing, idiosyncratic patch of America.

American crime novelist and poet JamesW. Hall calls Florida "the weirdest state in the union" in his book Hot Damn!, inspired by the state. After two visits to this most curious part of America, it's hard to disagree.

Where else but in Sarasota County could you find cycling Amish folk in bonnets and braces sharing the road with stretch Hummers and camper vans the size of school buses? Or see two-metre alligators sunning themselves on the edges of suburban ponds? Wander through a 15th-century Spanish fort in the morning and gawk at spacecraft in the afternoon? Or go to museums dedicated to curiosities ranging from the Ringling Brothers Circus (also Sarasota) to Ripley's Believe It Or Not (St Augustine)?

Florida, the state shaped like a handgun. Florida, the Waterloo of 2000 presidential hopeful Al Gore. Florida, the "Sunshine State" of the United States.

Florida is an odd mix of bling and down-home Southern charm, where well-to-do gated retiree communities with homes backing onto private golf courses are close to trailer parks of "good old boys", all set against a stunning geographic backdrop of snow-white beaches, thousands of sparkling artesian springs, palm trees and lush vegetation dripping with the fluffy epiphyte, Spanish moss.

Florida is at the bottom right corner of continental America, with the Atlantic Ocean on the east and the Gulf of Mexico to the west. Its beaches and relentlessly humid climate - ranging from tropical to subtropical that can put corkscrew curls in otherwise dead-straight hair - lure 60 million tourists a year.

The state has some of the biggest tourist destinations in the US. Yes, you could go straight to Orlando and the cash-scoffing behemoth that is Disneyworld or down to the legendary Keys, the little clutch of islands off Florida's southern tip that brims with romance and literary history - Ernest Hemingway's presence remains strong in Key West - or explore the faster-paced Miami.

But the best parts of Florida are the ones that move slowly or, better still, have remained virtually frozen in time.

Head up to the north-eastern corner of the state, for instance, just below Florida's biggest city of Jacksonville, and you'll find the oldest permanent European settlement in the nation. St Augustine is a seaside retreat, still with narrow historic laneways and, more notably, an enormous Spanish fort overlooking the Atlantic. Castillo de San Marcos was built in the 1600s to keep watch over the land that Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon named "La Florida" in 1513.

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From St Augustine, the Spanish defended Florida against various attempts from the French and English to claim the territory, before handing it to Britain in return for Cuba in 1763. They took it back 20 years later under the Treaty of Paris and held it until 1821, when Florida was ceded to the United States.

The Americans, in turn, used the fort to house Indian prisoners during the Seminole war of 1835-42. The town of St Augustine was burned by the British in 1702 but the castillo has withstood all challenges. It's a great place to spend a morning; you'll learn much about St Augustine and Florida's broader history.

But make time to take in the rest of this picturesque place, too. Take a guided trolley tour by day or a ghost tour with a "pirate" (more Johnny Depp than Jon English) at night. Stop in at the historic, almost cartoonish Conch House restaurant and have a bowl of clam chowder while trying to convince yourself you're not on Gilligan's Island.

For gastronomes, there are three things Florida is famous for: key lime pie, seafood and barbecues. A restaurant chain throughout Florida called Sonny's serves some of the tastiest barbecued ribs, grits, cornbread, red beans and rice you'll get anywhere. It's a great place to sample southern soul food (perhaps not too regularly for the weight-conscious).

And Harry's Seafood Bar and Grille in downtown St Augustine has one of the best examples in town of the signature dessert, key lime pie.

As you leave St Augustine, check its Alligator Farm, one of several 'gator theme parks in Florida. There you'll see ponds teeming with 23 species of crocs, alligators and caimans crawling all over each other; it's as spectacular as it is unsettling.

If you're game, for 25 cents you can even buy a handful of smelly brown pellets and feed the beasties. Or just wander the wooden walkways, framed by squirrel-heavy banana trees, and observe the other residents - monkeys, wading birds (flamingoes are synonymous with Florida) and exotic parrots, including Major Mitchell cockatoos in Downunderland.

Here you can see the farm's biggest resident, the huge Australian saltwater croc, Maximo. There's also a massive fake 'gator that looks so realistic it is difficult to resist the lure of bad-taste holiday snaps inside its gaping jaws. Our son will attest to it in years to come when he's old enough to say no to such photo opportunities.

Leave the past behind at St Augustine, keep driving south down the I 95 highway and in three hours you'll be back to the future at the Space Coast, home to Cape Canaveral and the Kennedy Space Centre. If you don't get there in time to spend an afternoon on a guided geek tour, spend the night at one of nearby Cocoa Beach's many hotels (get a room at the affordable Oceanside Inn and watch the sun set on the western shore of the Atlantic) and do it in the morning. Head a little further south and you'll find yourself in Melbourne. Yes, really. Melbourne, Florida, is best known as the birthplace of the Doors singer, Jim Morrison.

Rock stars still like to live in Florida. Iggy Pop, AC/DC singer Brian Johnston (often sighted in a Sarasota video store) and Aerosmith guitarist Joe Perry (who personally delivers his home-made hot sauce to Morton's gourmet food store in Sarasota in his limousine) all live here.

For music fans, particularly fans of roots music, Florida has some great attractions. In Tampa, in the state's south-west, you'll find Skipper's Smokehouse Restaurant and Oyster Bar, a gorgeously rustic outdoor venue with a stage framed by festoon lights and a wide crowd pit dotted with picnic tables and canopied by ancient trees dripping with Spanish moss.

Here we order some fried 'gator tail, fried okra and hush puppies (deep-fried corn bread) to soak up our Rolling Rock beers while we take in the alt-country bands and watch children play chasey through the crowd.

Another great venue is at the historic fishing town of St Petersburg, or St Pete as they call it, about 15 minutes north of Tampa over the Skyways Bridge. Probably the most famous live music venue here, Jannus Landing, is one block from Tampa Bay in downtown St Pete and draws bands ranging from Little Feat to Ministry to its stunning outdoor stage. You can even go there and see a band you don't like (I won't name names) and still have a fabulous time. It's that sort of venue.

Among Florida's natural attractions are its artesian springs. There are thousands of them. Silver Springs, just east of Ocala, is one of the bigger ones, with plenty of tourist-friendly amenities such as glass-bottomed boats. Or as a friend who doesn't like crowds put it: "Silver Springs is what you don't want to have happen to your grandfather's swimming hole." So if you'd prefer somewhere less commercial, the smaller local haunt, Salt Springs in the Ocala State Forest, is more rural and isolated. There you can snorkel with the bass and mullet in the chilly, crystal-clear salty water that bubbles up to the surface from several "boils" at the spring's base. On the August day we were there, we shared the springs with a family of four.About an hour's drive from Salt Springs is one of Florida's stranger tourist destinations, Weeki Wachee Springs. The main attraction at this old-style family resort is its Mermaid Theatre. Descend the steps into a clammy underground theatre and on the other side of glass windows you'll see women wearing shiny fishtails and sucking on air hoses as they dance and mime to songs of The Little Mermaid in the sparkling spring water. The kids adore it. The sweet folk at this attraction don't publicise it but they reluctantly admit it was here that Paris Hilton auditioned for the mermaid show as part of her reality-TV series The Good Life. But don't let that put you off. Where else could you get your photo taken with a mermaid for $5?

Despite being the hottest month of the year, August is not a bad time to go to Florida. Schools are in so the tourist spots are quiet and, if you cover all the outdoor attractions in the morning, you beat the heat. Spend the afternoon in air-conditioned places (if you're interested in second-hand treasures, the plentiful and enormous Goodwill thrift stores are a boon). Or head to one of the state's sugar-white beaches. In November and December, the height of the tourist season, the weather is perfect most days - low to mid 20s - but air fares and accommodation will cost more and you'll be holidaying with the crowds.

One thing's for certain about Florida: you can't see it all in one go. In two visits we've barely scratched the surface of this intriguing, idiosyncratic patch of America.

FAST FACTS

Getting there

Florida has several major airports, including Miami, Tampa and Orlando. Qantas has flights to all three cities for $2405 from Melbourne and $2305 from Sydney. Fly non-stop to Los Angeles and then change to an American Airlines flight to Miami or via a change of aircraft in Dallas-Fort Worth to Orlando or Tampa.

United Airlines flies to all three cities for $2305 via Sydney with a change of aircraft in San Francisco or Los Angeles. Northwest Airlines and Qantas have a fare for $1915 - fly Qantas to Tokyo and then Northwest to your destination via Minneapolis or Detroit. (All fares are low-season return and do not include tax.)

Australian passport holders are issued a port and date stamp upon arrival for a stay of up to 90 days, provided they qualify for the visa waiver program.

Staying there

Oceanside Inn at Cocoa Beach, 1 Hendry Avenue, Cocoa Beach, has rooms from $99 to $250 a night, plus tax. Phone +1 407 784 3126 or see http://www.cocoabeachoceansideinn.com.

Monterey Inn, 16 Avenida Menendez, St Augustine, has rooms from $79 plus tax in low season (August). Phone +1 904 824 4482 or see http://www.themontereyinn.com.

The Conch House Marina Resort Motel, St Augustine has rooms from $95-$275 plus tax. Phone +1 800 940 6256 or see http://www.conch-house.com.

Sightseeing there

Castillo de San Marcos, 1 South Castillo Drive, St Augustine. Phone +1 904 829 6506 or see http://www.nps.gov/archive/casa/home/home.htm.

Ripley's sightseeing trains and ghost trains (night), 170 San Marco Avenue, St Augustine. Phone +1 904 829 6545 or see http://www.redtrains.com.

St Augustine Alligator Farm Zoological Park, 999 Anastasia Boulevard, St Augustine. Phone +1 904 824 3337 or see http://www.alligatorfarm.us.

Kennedy Space Centre, SR 405 East (45 minutes east of Orlando). Phone +1 321 449 4444 or see http://www.kennedyspacecenter.com.

Weeki Wachee Springs, 6131 Commercial Way, Weeki Wachee. Phone +1 352 596 2062 or see http://www.weekiwachee.com.

Silver Springs, 5656 E. Silver Springs Blvd, Silver Springs. Phone +1 352 236 2121 or see http://www.silversprings.com.

Skipper's Smokehouse, 910 Skipper Road, Tampa. +1 Phone 813 971 0666 or see www.skipperssmokehouse.com.

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