What? You say that the Fountain of Youth in St. Augustine is a "tourist trap" and that Juan Ponce de León may have never visited the place during his 1513 voyage to Florida? Authors Lesley Abravanel and Laura Miller got that right, along with the fact that "the fountain's water smells and tastes awful." That it's a tourist trap cannot be disputed, but this reader thinks that the authors missed the boat by not including a photo of one of the red and yellow on black signs for the place that to long time Florida residents typically indicates that it's a tourist trap.
And that's not the only omission, as the Gamble Rogers Memorial State Recreation Area in Flagler Beach isn't even given mention in the pages, even though it's only thirty miles south of St. Augustine. The late Gamble Rogers was a folk artist known for the recurring theme in his songs and stories about characters and places in a fictional Florida county, and he died a truly heroic death and was honored by his native state with this park on the Atlantic Ocean. A Florida native, Rogers influenced musicians such as Jimmy Buffett, who dedicated his 1994 album Fruitcakes to him.
As a former Florida resident for years, was looking forward to Frommer's Florida 2012 (Frommer's Color Complete) as a way of updating my own knowledge of a state that I used to call home for many years. It does an adequate job of covering the various tourist highlights for those first-time visitors to the Sunshine State, but beyond that, there wasn't nearly as much depth that I might have expected from such an experienced publisher as Frommer's, a company that offers guides spanning the globe.
This book is broken down logically into fifteen sections, and each one has chapters and topics within, as follows:
1. The Best of Florida
For the average first-time visitor, this section will be the best for quick references, as it covers Florida's best of the following: beaches, snorkeling & diving, golf courses, luxury resorts, romantic hideaways, family attractions, offbeat travel experiences, spas and local dining experiences. There is enough here to keep any tourist quite busy.
2. Florida In Depth
This section details such topics as Florida today, Florida's history (with just enough for the casual tourist), the state in pop culture, eating & drinking, When to Go, the weather, holidays, a calendar of events, the "Lay of the Land," and responsible travel. Of particular interest is the Special-Interest Trips section, as it has noteworthy suggestions and also contains useful phone numbers.
3. Suggested Florida Itineraries
Starting with The Regions in Brief, this section offers journeys for the first-timer broken down into suggestions for those who want to explore the various areas with time schedules in mind. It's well thought out with good itineraries. It also offers a small section entitled South Florida Literary Tour, mentioning such writers as Elmore Leonard, Harry Crews, Damon Runyon and others. But strangely missing were such well-known native Florida authors such as Carl Hiaasen (Stormy Weather), Tim Dorsey (Florida Roadkill), Randy Wayne White (Key West Connection) and a few others.
4. Where To Stay & Eat In Miami
After an Orientation, this section covers the Miami neighborhoods, getting around, some fast facts and places to stay and eat in Miami. This will be more than adequate for the first-timer, and there are maps, which seem to be up to date.
5. What To See & Do In Miami
From its celebrated beaches and its South Beach Art Deco District to its museums, art scene, historic homes and sites, there's something for all here. Worthy of note is Coral Castle (page 153), which even in its somewhat seedy state of repair, it truly unique. The Vizcaya Museum (page 154) is truly magnificent, as are its gardens, and it has provided the setting for many films and TV series over the years. The Nature Preserves, Parks & Gardens section is excellent, and there's coverage here on tours, watersports, spectator sports and the animal parks. If you're into animals, Zoo Miami (page 174), formerly known as Miami MetroZoo, is the largest and oldest zoological garden in Florida, and the only tropical zoo in the continental U.S.
* Not covered in the book: if you're lucky, the Zoo Miami's communications director, wildlife expert and photographer Ron Magill, might be presenting one of his programs, so call in advance.
6. The Keys & The Dry Tortugas
From the Upper & Middle Keys to the Lower Keys, there's a lot to see and do. Worth noting is the Two Exceptional State Parks section (page 204), especially for those into snorkeling and diving. This section will take you to Key West, also known as the "Conch Republic" and the multitude of things to see and do there. Photo opportunities abound here, especially for people photographers. The Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum (page 232) will appeal to the literary minded and cat lovers alike, as the descendants of the author's openly roam everywhere.
This section ends with the Dry Tortugas, where there is excellent snorkeling, and a visit to the historic Fort Jefferson (page 261) is worth it for history buffs. This decaying fort is where some of the "Lincoln Conspirators" were imprisoned.
7. The Everglades & Biscayne National Park
The Everglades National Park is covered fairly well, and it's a wildlife photographer's dream, especially for those into photographing wild birds and other native wildlife. First time visitors should read the section on entrance fees, permits and regulations, and above all, watch where you walk. There's a lot of good and reliable information here, including suggestions for airboat tours, biking, canoeing, bird watching, camping, and eco-tours.
* Not included in the guide: The Glades are the home of legendary Florida wildlife photographer Lucky Cole, a real character who is featured in the final chapters of Tim Dorsey's novel Electric Barracuda. It's said that he welcomes visitors to his Loop Road compound most weekends when he is not shooting pictures.
Biscayne National Park (page 278) is well worth the visit if you're truly adventurous.
8. The Gold Coast: Hallandale to the Palm Beaches
From Fort Lauderdale, to Boca Raton & Delray Beach, and on to Palm Beach & West Palm Beach, there are plenty of maps and suggestions. Some of these are good; others may be marginal. The beaches here are for many what a trip to Florida is all about. Donald Trump watchers can get a glimpse of his Mar-A-Lago residence (page 330) among the Palm Beach properties.
9. The Treasure Coast: Stuart To Sebastian
Simply put, a car is required to explore this region, running from Hobe Sound up to Sebastian. There's wildlife exploration that can be done, from alligators to Manatees to turtles, and a side trip to Lake Okeechobee might be worth it if one is in Florida long enough.
10. Southwest Florida
From the primitive to the luxurious, this section covering Fort Myers Beach, Sanibel & Captiva Islands, Naples and Marco Island is given reasonably adequate coverage for first time visitors. There are some real gems in this section, and again, you'll need a car.
11. The Tampa Bay Area
Broadly covering Tampa, St. Petersburg, St. Pete & Clearwater Beaches and Sarasota, there's much to see and do in this area besides Busch Gardens. Ybor City is fascinating from a historical viewpoint, and I can personally vouch for the Columbia Restaurant (page 442) as well as Bern's Steak House (page 430) as being two of the absolute best in Florida. The Dali Museum (page 445) houses some of the best of the Spanish surrealist's works. There are ancient burial mounds to visit, and one can swim and snorkel with the manatees (page 450) in this area. If it fits your budget, a visit to the Don CeSar Hotel (page 461) is truly memorable, and it's a great place to kick back on their beach for a few days. Clearwater Beach is nice as well, and the guide is good with their recommendations of places to stay and eat.
* Not mentioned in the book: if your grandparents stayed at the legendary old Fort Harrison Hotel in downtown Clearwater years ago, you probably can't. The building is there, but it's now the headquarters of the Church of Scientology.
Sarasota and its environs are here, and worth mention are the beach at Siesta Key and the various art museums (page 476) in the area.
12. Walt Disney World & Orlando
No guide to Florida as a whole would be complete without a section on the Orlando area, and again, a car is highly recommended. The essentials are covered, along with getting around, where to stay, where to dine and the other area attractions. There are maps galore, but be aware of frequent travel delays here.
13. Northeast Florida
Here you'll find the Space Coast, with the J.F. Kennedy Space Center (page 560), which is well worth the visit and for many (of us) a highly viable alternative to the apparent madness of the Magic Kingdom in Orlando. You can also have lunch with an astronaut (page 561), which kids never seem to forget. The main attraction to Daytona Beach is obviously the Daytona Speedway (page 570) and the various NASCAR activities. If you want to drive on the "World's Most Famous Beach," it's now going to cost you. Personal highlight: visit the historic Ponce de Leon Lighthouse (page 575), the second tallest in the U.S., and you can climb the 203 steps to the top for one of the most breathtaking views of the area.
Ocala is horse country and the home of both Silver Springs and the amazing Ocala National Forest (page 580). North of Ocala is the picturesque small town of Micanopy, and the Paynes Prairie Preserve, a state park that's a bird watcher's delight.
* Strangely absent from this guide is Gainesville, the home to Florida's largest and oldest university, and known for its preservation of historic buildings, cultural events and the beauty of its natural surroundings. It's is one of the most attractive cities in Florida.
St. Augustine is covered surprisingly well within this guide, a historic city with some amazing highlights worth a few days there. Some are touristy and some historic, but it's a great place to visit. Jacksonville and beautiful Amelia Island are here as well.
14. Northwest Florida: The Panhandle
This area is made up of Pensacola, Destin & Fort Walton Beach, the famous Panama City Beach, Apalachicola, Tallahassee and numerous small towns. If you like beaches (think Spring Break) this is one of those areas of Florida worth considering, and if you like canoeing (page 637) the area is hard to beat. Pensacola's National Museum of Naval Aviation (page 640) is almost a pilgrimage for Navy and Marine Corps vets, and there are more than 100 aircraft on exhibit there.
15. Planning Your Trip
This final section covers getting there, getting around, tips on accommodations and fast facts about Florida. It may seem boring, but if you're planning a trip to any of the regions listed above, make it required reading.
This Frommer's Florida 2012 had a lot of initial promise, and authors Lesley Abravanel and Laura Miller both have the right credentials. Ms. Abravanel is said to cover nightlife in her weekly column, Velvet Underground, and has been in Miami since 1990. Ms. Miller is a freelance writer who has "spent countless hours scouring Central Florida's various theme parks, hotels, resorts, and restaurants over the years," so between the two of them, this should be exceptional. But it leaves a bit to be desired, so perhaps it's not the authors but the editors who are responsible for where this one falls short in places.
Some of the shortfalls are listed above, but there's more. The index is seems at first to be good, but there are far too many holes in it. For example, why is the Blasé Café listed (page 489), yet Bern's Steak House is not? I had to flip back and forth through my bookmarks to page 430 to find it. There are other Frommer's guides that have detailed index sections on accommodations and restaurants that follow the general index, yet this one is sadly lacking that feature, and it can be frustrating.
When one looks at what makes a good guide versus what makes a superb one, it takes comparisons. I had read and reviewed Frommer's New York City 2012 in April 2012 and found it to be a 5-star offering in comparison. Again, I suspect that the shortfalls may be the collective faults of the editors, and not the authors themselves.
On the plus side, the color photos are generally good and go well with the topics, and the frequent maps are well done and up to date. There is a full-color foldout map inside the back cover, and it can be unfolded removing it from the book itself if one is careful. There are tiny perforations on the back, and gently inserting a standard dinner knife inside and carefully lifting enables the map to be folded out without removing from the book and losing it. It's quite good, complimenting the smaller maps within the book quite well.
This guide is a good one for first-time visitors to Florida. There's plenty of information here in this one book to offer enough for those making their initial visit to the Sunshine State. Long-time Florida residents and repeat visitors to some of the areas covered may find some of the information lacking, but for those who live in Florida and may have out of town visitors who want to explore on their own, this might be considered a decent resource. Personally I find this to be a 3-star offering, but for the first time visitor, which is usually the primary target for such a book, it's worthy of a solid 4-star recommendation.