Stretching some 600 miles between the Georgia border and Key West at its far southern tip, Florida offers something for everyone, from unsullied nature to the tackiest tourist traps in the land, and everything imaginable in between. More than anywhere else in the United States, the Florida landscape has been designed for tourists, and no matter what your fancy or fantasy, you can live it here, under the semitropical sun. The many millions who visit Disney World or flock to fashionable Miami Beach each year are doing exactly what people have come to Florida to do for over a century—enjoy themselves.
In the 1930s, when car travel and Florida tourism were both reaching an early peak of popularity, the roadside landscape was, in the words of the WPA Guide to Florida, lined by
signs that turn like windmills; startling signs that resemble crashed airplanes; signs with glass lettering which blaze forth at night when automobile headlights strike them; flashing neon signs; signs painted with professional touch; signs crudely lettered and misspelled. They advertise hotels, tourist cabins, fishing camps, and eating places. They extol the virtues of ice creams, shoe creams, cold creams; proclaim the advantages of new cars and used cars; tell of 24-hour towing and ambulance service, Georgia pecans, Florida fruit and fruit juices, honey, soft drinks, and furniture. They urge the traveler to take designated tours, to visit certain cities, to stop at certain points he must see.
Despite the modern gloss of golf course estates and sprawling retirement communities, which tend to overshadow the substantial stretches of wide open beaches and coastal forest, Florida has a lengthy and fascinating history, with significant Native American cultures and, in St. Augustine, some of the oldest signs of European presence in North America, including the legendary Fountain of Youth. At the other end of the state, on the fringes of the Caribbean, Key West is a tropical paradise, founded by pirates four centuries ago and still one of the most lively and anarchic places in the United States. In between, our road-trip route passes through such diverse places as Daytona Beach, mecca for race car fans and a magnet for college kids on spring break; the launch pads and mission control centers of the Kennedy Space Center; the multicultural melting pots of Miami and Miami Beach; and, of course, the “Happiest Place on Earth,” Disney World.
There are three main routes running north-south along Florida’s Atlantic coastline, and your travels will likely make use of at least a little of each one. The fastest route is the I-95 freeway, which races uneventfully along, linking the major cities. The most scenic route is Hwy-A1A, a mostly two-lane highway that runs as close as possible to the shoreline, linking many gorgeous beaches but, because of the flat topography and the extensive beachfront development, offering only rare glimpses of the open ocean. In between I-95 and Hwy-A1A runs historic US-1, part of the old Dixie Highway, which is lined by reminders of Florida’s rich roadside heritage but which also passes through some of the state’s less salubrious corners, especially in and around the larger cities. Our suggested route primarily follows coastal Hwy-A1A, but directions from other, faster routes are also given, so you can alternate freely and easily among them all.
Two men who made millions in the automobile industry have had immeasurable influence over the evolution of the Florida coast. Standard Oil baron Henry Flagler constructed the first railroad and built a chain of deluxe resort hotels from St. Augustine to Miami, while Carl Fisher, the developer of car headlights, promoted Florida’s “Route 66,” the Dixie Highway, and later helped to found Miami Beach. Their names reappear frequently wherever you travel along Florida’s Atlantic Coast.