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Where to go and when
Heat-induced lethargy is no excuse not to get out and explore the different facets of Florida, as the state is compact enough to be toured easily and quickly. The essential stop is Miami, whose addictive, cosmopolitan vibe is enriched by its large Hispanic population, and where the much-photographed Art Deco district of Miami Beach provides an unmistakable backdrop for the state's liveliest night clubs.
From Miami, a simple journey south brings you to the Florida Keys, a hundred-mile string of islands of which each has something to call its own, be it sport fishing, coral-reef diving, or a unique species of dwarf deer. The single road spanning the Keys comes to a halt at Key West, a blob of land that's legendary for its sunsets and anything-goes attitude. North from Miami, much of the Southeast Coast is a disappointingly urbanized strip - commuter territory better suited for living in than visiting. Alongside the busy towns, however, beaches flow for many unbroken miles and finally escape the residential stranglehold along the Northeast Coast, where communities are often subservient to the sands that flank them.
When you tire of beachlife and ocean views, make a short hop inland to Central Florida, whose verdant terrain features cattle farms, grassy hillsides, and isolated villages beside expansive lakes. The sole but rather dramatic disruption to this rural idyll is Walt Disney World, which practices tourism on the scale of the infinite. If you're in the mood, you can indulge in its ingenious fix of escapist fun; if not, the upfront commercialism may well encourage you to skip north to the deep forests of the Panhandle, Florida's link with the Deep South - or to the art-rich towns and sunset-kissed beaches of the West Coast. Explore these at your leisure as you progress steadily south to the Everglades, a massive, alligator-filled swathe of sawgrass plain, mangrove islands and cypress swamp, which provides as definitive a statement of Florida's natural beauty as you'll encounter.
Cost-wise, it makes little difference when you visit. Intense, year-round competition for your dollar gives rise to tremendous bargains in accommodation and food, though prices are lowest off-season (see below). The best-value plan is to explore northern Florida in March and move south in April - or vice versa during October and November. However, it is also worth considering Florida's climatic variations when planning your trip; winter in northern Florida is unsuitable for beach holidays, while summer in the south is plagued by high humidity, with many of the natural areas infested by mosquitoes.
Climate and seasons
Florida is split into two climatic zones: subtropical in the south and warm temperate - like the rest of the southeastern US - in the north. More importantly for the visitor, these two zones determine the state's tourist seasons, which are different for Florida's southern and northern halves and have a great effect on costs (see above).
Anywhere south of Orlando experiences very mild winters (November to April), with pleasantly warm temperatures and a low level of humidity. This is the peak period for tourist activity, with prices at their highest and crowds at their thickest. It also marks the best time to visit the inland parks and swamps. The southern summer (May to October) seems hotter than it really is (New York is often warmer) because of the extremely high humidity, relieved only by afternoon thunderstorms and sometimes even hurricanes (the southern section of Florida was devastated by Hurricane Andrew in August 1992, and, to a lesser degree, Hurricane Georges in September 1998); at this time of year you'll be lucky to see a blue sky. Lower prices and fewer tourists are the rewards for braving the mugginess, though mosquitoes can render the natural areas off-limits. Winter is the off-peak period north of Orlando; in all probability, the only chill you'll detect is a slight nip in the evening air, though it's worth bearing in mind that at this time of year, the sea is really too cold for swimming, and snow has been known to fall in the Panhandle. The northern Florida summer is when the crowds arrive, and when the days - and the nights - can be almost as hot and sticky as southern Florida.
The Florida sun: sunbathing and sunburn
Any visitor with sensitive skin should bear in mind that Florida shares a latitude with the Sahara Desert; the power of the Florida sun should never be underestimated.Time spent outdoors should be planned carefully at first, especially between 11am and 2pm, when the sun is at its strongest. A powerful sunscreen is essential; anything with an SPF of less than 25 is unlikely to offer the necessary protection. Light-colored, loose-fitting, lightweight clothes should protect any parts of your body not accustomed to direct sunlight. Wear a hat with a wide brim, carry sunglasses, and keep to the shaded side of the street. Drink plenty of fluids (but not alcohol) to prevent dehydration - public drinking-water fountains are provided for this purpose; iced tea is the best drink for cooling off in a restaurant.