Discover the Sunshine State as never before, from the Art Deco in Miami and alligators in the everglades, to white quartz beaches and old-time fishing towns.

See the Sunshine State and discover magnificent Art Deco edifices in Miami Beach, alligators in the marshy Everglades, literary tradition at the southernmost point of continental USA, white quartz beaches and an old-time fishing town on the Forgotten Coast.

Miami Beach: Best for Art Deco
Whimsy is the substance of South Beach. ‘Some say that everyone here gets Botox or takes steroids,’ says architectural tour guide Mat Ruiz, standing before one of the city’s great restored Art Deco edifices. ‘The buildings are the same way – plain, rectangular boxes dressed up with fancy ornamentation.’ Ruiz is a volunteer with the Miami Design Preservation League, the organisation that in 1979 won federal preservation of Miami Beach’s Art Deco district and in turn saved the city from the demolition ball.

Decked out with swooping curves, racing horizontal bands, wraparound windows, needle-like towers and candy-coloured neon, the architecture was designed to remind visitors that they 0 200 400 600 800 1000 were on holiday. Even the beach’s lifeguard towers are unique, each one fancifully decorated. Some buildings look like wedding cakes, others like pyramids, and others – such as the Beach Patrol Headquarters, with its brushed-aluminium railings and porthole windows – conjure up the great transatlantic luxury liners.

Design permeates public space in South Beach. The post office features a 23-sided Art Deco dome with a fountain at its centre. Come twilight, the streets glow with neon from famous landmarks like the Colony Theatre.

Though not the finest examples of Deco design – these squat boxes are nothing compared with New York’s Chrysler Building – their value lies in the ensemble: it’s the world’s largest collection of Art Deco architecture, some 1,200 buildings, and the entire district was designated on the National Register of Historic Places, becoming America’s first historic district comprised entirely of 20th-century buildings. Most appealing is the scale – each building is just a few storeys high, keeping the pedestrian-friendly streets filled with that bright sunshine for which Florida is so famous.

It’s hard to imagine Miami Beach was a slum in the 1980s. It was built in the 1920s as a modest holiday destination for blue-collar workers arriving by train from New York, but by the time of the jet age, the city had fallen into complete disrepair. Violent criminals ruled the streets and the beaches were empty.

Enter the artists, who came for the cheap rents and warm sun. Then, in 1985, fashion photographer Bruce Weber shot an iconic perfume advert for Calvin Klein Obsession, of bronzed, muscled nudes draped atop the Breakwater Hotel. Soon every major American modelling agency had an office in South Beach.

Today, Miami Beach has the strongest preservation laws in the whole of the US, tourism is thriving and the fabulous architecture defines the skyline in all of its buzzing neon glory.

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Where to eat
Local celebrity chef Douglas Rodriguez creates classic Cuban dishes at his restaurant, De Rodriguez Cuba. Standouts include the lobster and mango ceviche (mains from £14).

Where to stay
Impressive for its understated style, the Shore Club’s white-on-white rooms occupy a mid-20th-century tower hotel, adjoining an Art Deco lobby opening onto sprawling Miami Beach. Rooms sport the requisite high-thread-count linens and top-end bathing amenities, but are most appealing for their total lack of clutter, keeping your attention squarely on the sun and sky (from £170).

Key West: Best for literature
At least 18 Pulitzer Prize-winning novelists have had a postal address in Key West. Ernest Hemingway wrote 70 per cent of his lifetime works during his nine years here. Wallace Stevens argued with Robert Frost over lunch at the Casa Marina waterfront resort and Tennessee Williams drank to excess at La Concha hotel. Margaret Atwood is holding a free reading at the local public library this coming January. You never know who you might run into in Key West. Longtime resident and fine artist David Schofield quips: ‘Miami is for nobodies pretending they’re somebody. Key West is for somebodies pretending they’re nobody.’

What is it about this tiny island that draws such great talent? ‘Key West is the very end of the world,’ remarks Dave Gonzales, manager of the Ernest Hemingway Home & Museum, the Key West home where Hemingway penned, among others, To Have and Have Not, set entirely in the area. ‘A writer performs in solitude, and Key West is definitely good for solitude,’ adds Dave.

Once you escape the garishness of Duval Street there’s a frozen-in-time quality to Old Town. Ramshackle houses stand beside grand colonial homes – a mishmash of styles drawing equally on the Caribbean and New England. Hibiscus flowers spill over rickety picket fences and jasmine perfumes the air after rainfall. The night sky blazes with stars. Life unfurls slowly. It’s hardly a stretch to imagine crafting the great American novel in such a lazy, liberating environment.

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Where to eat
Blue Heaven has a Caribbean-influenced menu, but no reservations means long waits, especially for breakfast. Save room for the Key lime pie (mains from £7).

Where to stay
Key West Inns: Historic Key West Inns operates five properties in the Old Town, and Key Lime Inn is the collection’s top-end draw – an estate dating back to 1854, with guestrooms in several satellite buildings that surround an expansive pool deck. Rooms feel fresh with an uncluttered design, sunny colour palettes and up-to-date amenities (from £100).

Everglades National Park: Best for nature
Florida is incredibly flat – like a saucer jutting off the edge of the North American continent. Water creeps in vast, shallow sheets across marshy limestone. An elevation change of a few inches yields an entirely different habitat. That’s what makes the Everglades so remarkable – nine distinctly different ecosystems in an area once dismissed as swamp.

‘The story of the Everglades is a story of water,’ says national-park ranger and naturalist Sue Reece before swatting a mosquito from her face. ‘This was the first national park set aside for its biological diversity and not its geological wonders. It’s not a swamp; it’s a very slow-moving river – at least it used to be.’

Much of the flow has been diverted for agriculture and development, but there’s a 40-year restoration plan under way to undo the damage caused by canals.

Plants and animals that live nowhere else in America thrive in abundance – from strangler fig trees to the elusive Florida panther. And birds are everywhere – great herons and snowy egrets wading through the mudflats, pelicans and cormorants in treetops, and large flocks of ibis taking wing in billowing blankets of white.

No species sparks as much fascination as the alligator, the park’s top predator. They’re easy to spot, too. ‘We’ve had ’em laying out under the picnic tables,’ says Sue. These beasts play a key role in the park’s ecology by burrowing ‘alligator holes’, which fill with deep water that benefits other species in the dry season.

To draw people into the various habitats, the park has built boardwalks and viewing platforms – the lazy man’s alternative to hiking or canoeing. Wooden decks penetrate jungle-like forest, dense with spiky ferns and palms, along with mangroves draped with vines and Spanish moss. Birds and tree frogs chirp and creak, unseen in the thicket.

Walking just inches above murky brown water teeming with ’gators can feel unnerving; no matter how much one remembers that the only thing likely to bite are the mosquitoes.

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Where to eat and stay
For good, rustic accommodation, Miller’s World rents out pine-panelled cabins. There’s an on-site pool and marina, with kayak and power-boat rentals (from £80). The hotel’s restaurant, Oyster House, capitalises on the area’s crop of seafood. For the adventurous, there’s even alligator on the menu (mains from £6).

Siesta Key: Best for beaches
Finding a Florida beach isn’t as easy as you may think. Much of the state’s coastline has now been privatised, swallowed up behind the bougainvillea-covered walls of gated communities. And although it’s legal to wander anywhere below the high-tide line, finding a beach access point in the Sunshine State can sometimes prove to be difficult. Yet somehow, in the face of so much development, the little village of Siesta Key, on an island within the city of Sarasota, has managed to retain its old-Florida spirit. It has a low-rise centre scaled to suit pedestrians, with a kickback crowd of locals that prefer wearing flip-flops to high heels. And this community’s biggest point of pride? Its spectacular public beach.

What’s so extraordinary about Siesta Key Beach is the powdery-soft, alabastercoloured sand, which fairly glitters in the light. Unlike most other Florida beaches, whose sand is composed of shards of shell and bits of broken coral – brutal on the soles of your feet – here it’s composed of 99 per cent pure white quartz, which is a joy to walk upon. Even in the summer, when the searing sun heats the water in the Gulf of Mexico to 32˚C, the sand never seems to feel too hot. Pelicans bob on the rolling waves, which are normally measured in inches, not feet. No thundering surf, just the gentle ‘hurrahhurrah’ from the mellow emerald waters. Sandpipers dart about the flat terrain, pecking at the margin between land and sea while hunting their dinner.

Siesta Key residents colonise the beach at all hours of the day, some practising yoga and tai chi, others swilling cocktails from plastic cups. Rarely does a weekend go by without some form of organised activity taking place – whether it be sandcastle competitions or professional volleyball games.

Local girl Stephanie Strahlman spent her childhood here, and though she left to study in New York and England, she keeps coming back to Siesta Key. ‘There’s something really calming about this beach,’ she says. ‘Some say it’s a spiritual place of healing. I don’t know about that, but when I walk on the beach, I do know I leave feeling at peace.’

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Where to eat
Locals hit Siesta Key Oyster Bar for fresh fish tacos, cold beer and live classic rock. Right on the village’s main strip, the outdoor deck and bar get packed every night with revellers. Call ahead to put your name on the list or you might have to wait for a couple of hours (mains from £7).

Where to stay
The Inn on Siesta Key has the perfect beach aesthetic, its apartments decorated in bright colours, each with a comfy living area and fully stocked kitchen. If it’s booked up, the charming innkeeper can recommend other nearby rentals, all within walking distance of the village and beach (from £90).

Apalachicola: Best for fishing villages
Most people don’t make it this far north. Locals call it ‘the Forgotten Coast’ – which is ironic given its unforgettable role in history. Perched at the edge of a wildly productive estuarine reserve that’s famous for its oysters and shrimps, the little fishing town of Apalachicola is also the birthplace of manmade ice, invented here in 1851. Suddenly, chilled fish could be shipped inland by rail, which gave rise to the modern seafood industry.

Modelled in 1830 after colonial-era Philadelphia, with village greens, Gothic churches, salt-box cottages and grand, turreted Queen Anne mansions, the little town has a frozen-in-time quality like a Norman Rockwell painting come to life, a portrait of Americana unspoilt by development. In a state that prides itself on its manufactured environments and theme parks, Apalachicola stands out for its sheer authenticity.

TJ Ward is a fifth-generation oysterman and seafood distributor. Sitting on the fishing docks, in the shadow of skiffs moored outside 13 Mile Brand Seafood, his family’s seafood shop, Ward munches on smoked mullet and speaks with pride of Apalachicola. ‘It’s kind of amazing, a small town doing this well so far away from civilisation,’ he says. ‘We’re 90 miles from the closest interstate – the nearest Walmart is more than an hour’s drive away – and the shops here are doing well.’

Last year’s BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico narrowly missed the city. ‘Something saved us – it’s called the Gulf Stream,’ explains TJ. ‘It runs a good 40 miles offshore, and it carries water away from us. That helped us out a lot.’ Apalachicola Bay provides much of Florida’s oyster catch, as well as an abundance of shrimp, crab and grouper. Had the oil crept into the bay, the results would have been devastating.

The town’s waterfront looks largely as it always has, thanks in large part to TJ’s father, Tommy, who refused to sell the fishing docks to developers. And though fallout from the oil spill has diminished business, the ordeal has only made him more resolute. ‘People came by offering us money to sell this waterfront and I told ’em, “I’m not for sale at no price”. So I get millions of dollars, and then what am I gonna do? Hunt and fish and lay around the rest of my life? I enjoy what I do.’

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Where to eat
For oysters on the half shell, Creole-inspired seafood dishes and cold beer, head to Hole in the Wall Seafood Market and Raw Bar (mains from £8).

Where to stay
The Coombs House Inn comprises three Victorian mansions, each styled with plush fabrics and European antiques. The vibe is pure b&b, with guests mingling over breakfast, and afternoon wine and cheese, served in the parlour. All three mansions are ideally located in the middle of town. Extras include bikes for exploring the pretty streets (from £82).

The article 'The perfect trip: Florida' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet Magazine.