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America’s Sunshine State may be best known for its theme parks, but some of the country’s finest beaches can be found here and its subtropical wildernesses are home to numerous rare birds, mammals and reptiles.

Islands
Accessible only by boat, Cayo Costa State Park features 2,500 acres of parkland fronted by nine miles of snow-white beach. Dolphins and manatees frolic in the waters, and the island is rich in birdlife. Come on a day trip or camp overnight (ferry return £16, camping and ferry return £23).

Despite being just a 20-minute ferry ride from Honeymoon Island (one of Florida’s most popular beaches), Caladesi Island State Park is secluded and unspoiled. The island has three miles of palm-lined beach, a small marina and a good café. Hire kayaks to explore the mangroves or simply lie on the beach all day. You can’t stay overnight here, it’s day trips only (ferry return £8).

Dry Tortugas National Park, a 100-sq-mile park, 70 miles west of Key West, is mostly open water, with seven small islands. Accessible only by boat or seaplane, it’s best known as the home of the red-brick Fort Jefferson, which acted as a prison during the Civil War. There are no services on the island, so you must bring in all supplies for your stay (camping £2 per person, ferry £100 return).

Wildlife
South Florida’s Everglades is a unique subtropical wilderness supporting such rare species as the manatee, bottlenose dolphin, American crocodile and Florida panther. Boardwalks and viewing platforms penetrate the forests and mangroves making it easy to visit the various habitats. Kayaks and canoes are also available to hire (entry with a car £6, with a bike £3).

The 400,000-acre Ocala National Forest is a tangle of springs, sand-pine scrub and subtropical forest that is home to raccoons, flying squirrels, otters and black bears, as well as many species of bird. A section of the Florida National Scenic Trail spears the forest and there are campsites and recreation areas where you can buy food, firewood and rent kayaks. The crystalline pool of Juniper Springs is a great spot for swimming (Juniper Springs £3, camping £13).

Thirteen islands make up this windswept and fragile refuge in the Gulf of Mexico, called the Cedar Keys National Wildlife Refuge. Established in 1929 by President Hoover to protect a breeding ground for migratory birds, the sanctuary still ranks as one of the largest nesting areas in north Florida, for birds such as ibises, pelicans, egrets and double-crested cormorants. Tidewater Tours runs two-hour tours of the islands (tours £16).

Activities
There are plenty of hiking options in Apalachicola. The largest of Florida’s three national forests occupies more than 900 sq miles of the state’s laid-back north, the Panhandle. The Florida National Scenic Trail is a 1,400-mile walking trail, part of which cuts through the forest, and includes swamp tramping. The observation platform at Big Dismal Sink is a great viewing spot.

Enjoy a swim in Ponce de León Springs. This glowingly clear spring was named after Juan Ponce de León, who led the first Spanish expedition to Florida in 1513, and, as legend has it, came here in search of the fountain of youth. As well as swimming, other draws include fishing, snorkelling and walking. There are campsites and cabins for overnight stays (park entry with a car £3).

Much of Florida’s Atlantic Coast is built-up and crowded, which is why the 24 miles of Canaveral National Seashore’s unspoiled barrier island are so special. The best kayaking spot is Mosquito Lagoon – you may see inquisitive bottlenose dolphins and manatees, and even nesting sea turtles on a night tour (park admission £3, kayak rental from £18 per day).

Transport
Florida is a big state and some areas are not served by public transport – if you are visiting many different regions, your best option is to rent a car, from the airport or in Miami. You have to be 21 years or older to hire one (from £35 per day).

Where to stay
Yellow-painted Coombs House Inn has been restored to its original Victorian splendour, and includes black cypress wood panelling and carved oak stairs. Breakfast is a lavish affair (80 Sixth St, Apalachicola; from £85). Kona Kai has 13 large rooms dotted around extensive botanical gardens. There are also tennis courts, kayaks for guests and plenty of hammocks strung up on the white-sand beach (Key Largo; from £150, no breakfast served). The coral-pink 1925 Vinoy Renaissance is a local landmark. Rooms were recently renovated and feel luxurious. Expect granite countertops, leather headboards and sumptuous furnishings (501 5th Ave, St Petersburg; from £180).

The article ‘Mini guide to natural Florida’ was published in partnership with Lonely Planet Traveller.

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