Looking for where Florida is still authentic

In search of the real Florida

The Sunshine State is Mickey Mouse’s home and has been attracting hordes of tourists for many years. Does the state also have something authentic to offer?

The engines howl. From the top of the grandstand, spectators have an excellent view of the cars weaving along the Daytona International Speedway. The terrain of the race track is large, like everything else in Florida. Anyone who takes part in a tour visits the press room and can take a seat where otherwise big-name racing drivers answer questions from journalists. The exhibition – also huge – shows masses of vehicles such as the Hudson Hornet. Here the history of the races in Daytona, which used to take place over the beach, is documented in great detail. Even today, there are many beaches on Florida’s east coast that you can drive to, preferably a pickup truck. But is this the real, authentic Florida? Is there in the state where Disney
World competes for attention against other amusement parks, the state, which more than 100 million tourists visited in 2019, still has anything authentic or just Mickey Mouse?

If you want to get away from big shows and superlatives, you have to search. But there are those places where you get a real sense of Florida. For example, at Crabby Joes, a restaurant on the pier in Daytona Beach. This is where the locals go to have breakfast, you can see the sea between the wooden floorboards, and further along the pier the fishing rod is cast. The catch is fried if desired.

  ...or the traces of history in St. Augustine?

…or the traces of history in St. Augustine?
Photo: Lara Hunt

About a half hour drive south of Daytona
Beach is the Ponce Inlet Lighthouse, at 175 meters the tallest lighthouse in Florida. 203 steps lead to the top where you can see the Atlantic, Daytona Beach and Ponce de Leon Inlet, that darn inlet whose currents are so treacherous it has claimed several lives. When the Spanish conquistador Juan Ponce de Leon discovered Florida in 1513, he did not land here.

Current or not, there are enough boats out there, vacationers can book eco-tours and hope to spot a dolphin among the mangroves that thrive on the shore. The boat trip is worthwhile even without a dolphin. There, where the estuary begins, you can watch the foaming of the Atlantic from the calm waters, examine the houses along the inlet that stand directly on the water, and imagine moving into a domicile here yourself. After all, Florida is an immigrant state. True Floridians, who have lived here for several generations, are rare. Everyone has a story about how they ended up here.

Florida explorer Ponce de Leon is said to have first set foot on American land in 1513 in St. Augustine, about 70 miles north of the Ponce de Leon Inlet. The city itself celebrates its long history by American standards. At Fort Matanzas, the bloody battles between Spaniards and Huguenots are relatively soberly reported (Matanzas means something like massacre), but if you want a little more Mickey Mouse, you can book a tour in the city center to learn more about the oldest continuously populated city in the USA. Particularly popular: the ghost tours. Because even if you don’t necessarily associate Florida with it: We are here in the southern states, where extremely sweet iced tea is drunk and strange events are reported. Ghosts are everywhere. If you want spooks, you can find them in Ripley’s Odditorium. The Museum of Curiosities, which used to be a hotel, has a murky past of its own. Ripley’s is now a franchise itself, but so what? The museum in St. Augustine is the oldest.

In addition to spook and old architecture, the city offers a fountain of youth. Ponce de Leon is said to have discovered it at the time. Anyone who tries it knows: the supposed secret of eternal youth tastes of sulphur.

  Florida also offers a lot of untouched nature.

Florida also offers a lot of untouched nature.
Photo: Lara Hunt

Florida probably doesn’t get any more original than St. Augustine when it comes to history. The Ponce de Leon show can be a bit too much for the Europeans on every corner. So he best travels a little further up the coast to Amelia Island. The motto of the island is “Make Memories”, tourism is also important here, but somehow it all seems a bit more real than the shows in Daytona Beach and St. Augustine. Visitors should and can relax here. Among them, for example, author John Grisham, who visits here regularly and is said to have even dedicated a book entitled “Camino Island” to the island in Nassau County. From time to time he gives readings in the small bookshop in the island’s capital of 11,000 inhabitants, Fernandina Beach. It’s worth a visit, as are the other shops along Center Street. Chain stores are banned on the island, so everything here has its own personal character. For example the Eight Flags Antiques Market, which is jam-packed with antiques, antiques and odds and ends and invites you to browse for hours.

However, Amelia Island is famous for the beaches, where you can not only bathe in the sun, but also go horseback riding and – like everywhere along Florida’s Atlantic coast – look for shark teeth. The only thing that shakes the feeling of paradise a bit is the cardboard box factory, which you can glimpse every now and then on a trip around the island. But that’s not really annoying. Because somehow the island looks more real.

The editors were invited to the trip by Visit Florida.

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