We love visiting Orlando and all the theme parks, it’s one of our guilty pleasures. Some travellers can be a little pretentious, looking down at the popular tourist attractions and resorts. However, I (Mr W), like many people, often have two answers to the question of ‘favourite’, the sophisticated one and the real one.
For example, if I was being asked by the Sunday Times magazine what is my favourite film. The sophisticated answer would be “Citizen Kane” but my real answer would be “Nutty Professor II: The Klumps”. It’s the same for destinations, my favourite answer would be Lake Como, Italy but I would still drop everything for a sneaky trip to Orlando, Florida.
Although we do enjoy our days in the parks, sometimes the ‘Happiest Place On Earth’ can get a bit too much. Maybe it’s our British temperament but we get the urge to escape Mickey’s vice-like grip and visit somewhere not made of plastic.
If you are staying near the parks or on International Drive, it is easy to get around Orlando without a car using the free park transportation or Uber. We usual rent a car which gives us the option to get out of Orlando and explore central Florida.
We have visited a number of Florida destinations and they can be very different. We were not too keen on Miami but really loved the laid back atmosphere of Key West. However, in this post, we will be looking at places close to Orlando. Towns and beaches within a couple of hours drive, well depending on that I-4 traffic.
St Augustine has been on our must-visit list for years. Somehow, we still haven’t got there but in the next few weeks, we will actually be visiting. It is the “The oldest continuously occupied European-established settlement within the borders of the continental United States.” Yes, that was a bit of a mouthful, basically, St Augustine is old and packed with really interesting early American history.
As well as the Castillo de San Marcos and the St. Augustine Lighthouse we will be making a trip to the Fountain of Youth, an archaeological site and famous spring. It supposedly restores the youth of anyone who drinks the water, we’ll wait and see…
Where: St Augustine is about a 2 and a half hours drive north of Orlando. One of the longer drives but definitely worth the trip.
Cocoa Beach on Florida’s Space Coast is one of the closest beaches to Orlando and being on the Atlantic coast, it does get a bit of a swell. Although it does get waves, the water is generally calm and the water is shallow making it a great place to learn to surf.
Cocoa Beach also has a historic 800ft wooden pier stretching into the Atlantic. Some people say it is ‘too touristy’ well it is, but what do you expect from a classic seaside pier. What it does capture is the sense of old-style Florida.
Although we’ve never been lucky enough to experience one, from Cocoa Beach you can see the rocket launches from Kennedy Space Center.
Where: Cocoa Beach is just over an hours drive directly east of Orlando, it’s quite close to the busy cruise ship departure point of Port Canaveral.
You can’t be a true motorsport fan if you are not familiar with Daytona Beach. In the early days of motoring, the hard-packed sand of Daytona Beach was a venue for land speed record attempts. At the end of the 50’s the Daytona International Speedway was built which hosted the classic Daytona 500.
If you want a bit of old-style seaside fun take a walk along the pier and the Daytona Beach Boardwalk.
If motorsport or crowds aren’t to your taste, the area’s 23 miles of white sandy beach is certainly big enough to escape the crowds and relax.
Where: Daytona Beach is about 1 hour 15 minutes north-east up the I-4
Sitting on the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico, it’s not hard to see how the white sands of Clearwater Beach have frequently been ranked as one of the best beaches in the US. We found Clearwater Beach had a very relaxed atmosphere with some great places to eat and drink, perfect in the evening as you watch the sun go down over the pier.
With its location on the Gulf Coast, it not surprising that the area is also a mecca for boating and fishing.
If you fancy meeting a film star take a trip to the rescue and rehab centre of Clearwater Marine Aquarium. This is where you can meet Winter the tailless Dolphin, the star of the movie Dolphin Tale.
Where: Clearwater Beach is a 1 and a half to 2-hour drive south-west along the I-4
The historic town of Mount Dora is still on the water but instead of the sea, Mount Dora overlooks the pretty Lake Dora which is part of the Harris Chain Lakes.
The charming little Floridian town is over a hundred years old. It is only 45-minutes from International Drive but feels a million miles away. For all you fisherman, why not go fishing on Lake Dara, the “Bass Capital of the World”.
Where: Mount Dora is only a 45-minute drive north-east from I-Drive, Orlando.
Do you have a favourite place within driving distance of Orlando? If you want to share it, let us know below but we understand if you want to keep your hidden gem secret.