Total driving distance : 2087 miles
To summarize our trip I would say that we were most impressed by the wildlife and the beaches, especially Naples Beach on the west coast, Sombrero Beach at the Florida Keys, North Beach at Fort de Soto and Siesta Key Beach near Sarasota. On the east coast I quite liked the beach at Fort Lauderdale. We saw lots of alligators and wading birds in Shark Valley and on the Anhinga Trail, both part of Everglades National Park. The wildlife drive on Sanibel Island was good for bird-watching.
The canoe run at Juniper Springs was great fun and we saw some beautiful sunsets on the west coast. On most days the weather changed from a cloudy morning to a sunny afternoon or the other way round, but we had sunshine every day. The sea water was still fairly cold, but okay to go for a swim. The pool water was too cold if the pools weren't heated.
We did like Key West with its sidewalks and historic turn-of-the-century houses, so untypical of most cities in the US. The same goes for St. Augustine on the east coast and quaint Cedar Key on the west coast.
We enjoyed the American food, especially the fantastic beef burgers, but after two weeks of eating a lot of meat and fries, it's enough for a while!
As our average spending per day (for 2) I would estimate: $70 accommodation, $50 food, $10 gas, $20 admission fees. Gas was around $2.30 per gallon, approx. $19 per tank filling. And the exchange rate was very favorable for us: 1 US Dollar = 0.77 Euro / 1 Euro = 1.29 US Dollar.
What I like about Florida is the abundance of wildlife, the sunshine, the ease of traveling. What I don't like are the mosquitoes and no-see-ums, the hurricanes and tornadoes and that you have to pay for nearly everything including beach access in many cases; and for every state park you have to pay separately. The National Parks Pass that we used in the western states was much more convenient.
We didn’t go to Orlando. We already went to Universal Studios in California and I had already been to Disneyland Anaheim, so it wasn’t a must for us. If we'd had 1 or 2 days more, we may have gone there, but as it was we had other priorities.
If I'd ever go back to Florida, what I'd still like to do is visit Corkscrew Swamp, take a boat ride in the Ten Thousand Islands, drive the dirt road through the Everglades from Monroe Station, visit Pennekamp State Coral Reef Park, snorkel at Red Reef Park and visit the Panhandle region which I often heard is even more beautiful than the south and less touristy.
We made our flight reservations at the end of November. We tried to avoid Easter and the spring break in March which is high season and opted for the month of April which is already warm but not humid yet. We paid 505 Euro for the LTU flight (German charter) and we weren't disappointed. The planes were new and the service was good, and the big advantage was that it was a direct flight from Düsseldorf to Fort Myers (alternative destinations would have been Miami or Orlando).
In mid January we booked the rental car (Alamo). We got the best all-inclusive price with a 20% early-bird discount rate from FTI.
We made a few hotel reservations at the end of February/beginning of March: the first two nights in Ft. Myers plus two nights in Key West and one night in Miami to make sure we had a room secured. After the long flight we didn't want to look around and Key West tends to be busy, especially at the weekends, and I thought on a Saturday night in Miami Beach it's best to be on the safe side. We were glad eventually that we didn't have to drive around in Miami Beach looking for a hotel in the Saturday afternoon beach traffic. It would have been a nightmare!
For Miami the Miami River Inn , Miami’s only B&B, looked very good for $89 plus 13% tax including parking and continental breakfast. Most cheaper (2 star) hotels in Miami Beach had rather poor reviews (tripadvisor.com), but with the Hotel Atlantica we found a great value hotel ($89 + tax on their website) for just $69 plus tax (€ 52) including continental breakfast (parking was extra at $10) via hrs.de right in the Art Deco District, South Beach. It had very good reviews on tripadvisor.com and Friday and Saturday nights appear to be booked several weeks in advance.
For Key West the El Patio Motel had very good reviews (tripadvisor.com) and a central but quiet location, but their $83 (plus 11.5% tax) rooms were already booked for the nights of our stay. So we booked the Days Inn instead for which we got a very good rate (€ 58 per night) with FTI (via flugboerse.de). The following hotels which we came across locally in Key West also looked good from outside and they seem to be a good choice: Southernmost Hotel, Best Western Key Ambassador and El Rancho Motel. In the winter season it’s not easy to get a room for under $100 in Key West.
For Fort Myers Beach the Days Inn Island Beach Resort (2 stars) would have been in the right location right on the beach and it seemed to have very good rates, but it was no longer bookable via the web. I think we saw it when we were there and it looked still closed and rather run down (maybe damaged in the last hurricane?). Besides we noticed that the area is indeed very central but also noisy and busy. The Holiday Inn (3 stars), right on the beach at the southern end of Estero Island, had a good offer for $99 + 9% tax per night for 2 nights stay. Most other resort hotels were much more expensive. It's in a quieter location but quite a way from the main part of Fort Myers Beach with all the restaurants. Eventually we decided on the Mariner's Lodge which is located right next to a marina just one mile from Estero Island (Ft Myers Beach) and only 5 miles from Sanibel Island and 7.5 miles from downtown Ft Myers for 69$ plus tax (via hotel.de). It also had a good review at tripadvisor.com.
Hotel Prices are cheaper between May and November. Spring break in March and Easter in March or April are high season. Many motels are more expensive on Fridays and Saturdays and reservations may be advisable.
We tried Priceline in February, but it was obviously still too early to get a good price. Apparently the hotels are trying to fill their rooms last minute that way, otherwise why should they give a large discount on their normal rates long in advance?!
For the rest of our trip we wanted to be more flexible, so we didn't book in advance. And it's usually not a problem to find a motel in Florida because there are so many of them. Of the motels we stayed at during our tour I would recommend The Boat House on Marco Island (not cheap, but quite nice and with a waterfront setting), the Travelodge in Florida City which offered good value for money, the Beach Front Motel in Cedar Key, the Park Inn in Homossassa Springs and the Best Western in St. Pete Beach.
We often tried to get a cheaper rate with the hotel discount coupons which can be found at MacDonalds and it always worked very well. But we believe it is usually better to try one of the larger chains because the small cheap motels are often not very good quality.
And two double or queen beds are often the same price as one bed.
For hotel reservations I would recommend the above.
The weather in April was lovely. It was mostly sunny but didn't get too hot and it always cooled down sufficiently in the evenings so you could get refreshed again.
The water was still fairly cold, however. It was just okay for me to swim in the sea. We did go swimming on the west coast a few times, but we didn't try the east coast as the sea was too choppy when we were there. If the hotel pools weren't heated, they were normally too cold. And I don't like cold water!
Restaurants tend to get most busy between 6 and 7 p.m. At that time you may have to wait for a table, but from 7 p.m. there shouldn't be a problem. We usually finished dinner within 30 minutes. You never have to wait long for your food as in Europe. Ordering meals can be complicated as there are lots of choices. But once you know the menu of a certain restaurant chain, it gets easier!
From friends in Florida we heard that 10-15% tip in restaurants is usual, or double the tax.
Don't mistake "sandwiches" on a menu for what we know as sandwiches in Europe, they are usually what we know as burgers. A sandwich (and not a burger) from Subway was a good choice for us for a quick lunch. But in the end I could hardly bear Subway anymore either as we went there nearly every day! There wasn't really much of an alternative that didn't involve cheap burgers and fries. I don't like fastfood burgers, but I do like the juicy big burgers with fries which you get at family restaurants. Grouper was the most common fish on the menu.
You don't get good coffee at a café or restaurant. For good coffee you have to go to a coffee bar such as Starbucks. Unfortunately they are not very frequent.
It is a complete mystery to me why they have to turn the air-conditioning in the restaurants and especially supermarkets so high that it feels like you are stepping into a fridge!! So it's always advisable to bring a jacket!
Between May and November you should expect to get eaten alive by mosquitoes, but wherever or whenever you go bring mosquito repellent. We heard that the mosquitoes would be even worse if the state of Florida didn't regularly spray against them.
And beware of no-see-ums, a sort of tiny mosquitoes also known as sand fleas or sand flies. They are especially troublesome in coastal areas or in the vicinity of mangrove swamps and they can make a morning or late afternoon at the beach quite unbearable, especially in the summer and early fall. They appear in large numbers when the spring warming trend begins. Any insect repellent with DEET, e.g. Off! Deep Woods should keep them away.
For most beaches you have to pay, either a
parking fee or $5 admission if it's a state park. It can be a bit much to pay $5
every time just to have a quick look around and take a photo. At least the restrooms
are free, clean and you will find one nearly everywhere!
http://www.key-west.com/ Key West
http://www.beachdirectory.com/ Florida Beach Directory
http://www.southwestfloridabeaches.com/ Southwest Florida Beaches
http://www.evergladesvillage.net/sat/everglades/ Florida Satellite Image – Map by Sections
http://bailey.aros.net/nature/Florida%20Birds.htm Florida Birds
http://floridatraveler.com/travel_articles/manatees.htm Best Places to meet a Manatee
Snorkelling and/or dolphin watching at the Florida Keys: