Top Tips for a Culture Getaway in Florida

Casa Monica St. Augustine, built in 1888 and restored in 1999, is a member of the National Trust Historic Hotels of America.

A new report issued by Virtuoso indicates that immersive experiences are among the hottest travel trends for 2018. Advisors are noting that opportunities to meet locals, wandering neighborhoods and making spontaneous discoveries are the best ways to experience a destination.

Florida, more widely known for its luxury beach resorts and collection of theme parks, is also rich in history and culture, making it as good a destination as any in which to, as Virtuoso advisors suggest, check out at least one new place a year. Here just a few of the Sunshine State’s cultural gems, all of which, you could add as a selling point, are a short (or longer but scenic) drive to a beach.

In northeastern Florida, history buffs can explore St. Augustine, the oldest city in the U.S., dating to 1565. The Old City has a storied collection of homes, museums, forts and the lush, green park at the Fountain of Youth. The scarred walls of Castillo de San Marcos, a national monument, still stand witness to more than 330 years of history and culture. St. Augustine’s rich maritime history is represented by Florida’s first lighthouse. It doubles as a museum, with exhibits in the keepers’ house about the Coast Guard in WWII, shipwrecks, and the lives of the keepers and their families. Visitors can also climb the 219 steps to the top of the 165-foot tower for breathtaking views.

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For some contemporary fun, there’s the St. Augustine Alligator Farm Zoological Park, the one-of-a-kind exhibits at Ripley’s Believe It or Not! museum, ghost tours and more.

The area also has a great variety of accommodations, including an abundance of bed-and-breakfasts, several of which are converted Victorian-style homes dating to the late 19th century. One such B&B is Westcott House, which has made a rapid recovery from damage done to its first floor by Hurricane Matthew. From 6 to 7 p.m. every Monday and Wednesday, a professional storyteller hosts a social hour there, sharing St. Augustine stories.

For those clients who prefer the familiarity of a “name” hotel, a number of chains are represented, such as Best Western, Comfort Inn & Suites, Days Inn, Fairfield Inn & Suites, Hampton Inn, Hilton, Holiday Inn, Marriott and Courtyard by Marriott, Quality Inn, Ramada, Renaissance and Wingate by Wyndham.

For your luxury clients, consider Casa Monica Resort & Spa, part of Marriott’s Autograph Collection. Built in 1888 and restored in 1999, it is a member of the National Trust Historic Hotels of America.

If your clients are more interested in Native American culture, or if they really want to get off the beaten path, there’s the Big Cypress Seminole Indian Reservation. Nestled in the heart of the Everglades, the first stop on a visit here is the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum, home to more than 180,000 artifacts, archival items and experiences.  Here, your clients can learn about the Seminole people and their rich cultural and historical ties to the Southeast U.S., especially Florida. Big Cypress has been their home for thousands of years.

An art gallery displays priceless crafts, Seminole elders host a reconstructed village, and a research center preserves historical artifacts. Every November (2 and 3 in 2018), the museum hosts the annual American Indian Arts Celebration (AIAC). The agenda includes traditional and contemporary arts and crafts, dance and music of the Seminole, Southeastern and other tribes from across the country. Along with the Native American vendors, special presentations and wildlife shows, admission to the festival includes free parking and entrance to Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki.

Two miles down the road is Billie Swamp Safari; guests walk through a small gift shop and enter the land of the Seminoles. Here, airboats and swamp buggies drive through a primeval-looking landscape while guides describe the ferns and flowers, egrets and herons, alligators and deer.

Big Cypress is about an hour and 15 minutes by car from Naples, on Florida’s Gulf Coast,where the Naples Grande Beach Resort is set to reopen on December 15, following a three-and-a-half-month closure due to Hurricane Irma. The independent, luxury resort has undergone a multimillion-dollar refresh that is reflected in its guestrooms, public spaces, pools and lush outdoor landscaping.  

The Naples Grande Beach Resort has undergone a multimillion-dollar refresh that is reflected in its guestrooms. 

Already reopened is the Inn on 5th, which underwent a two-week project to restore portions of the hotel that sustained water damage. In the process, many of the Inn’s 119 rooms and suites were fully remodeled, as well as select common spaces. The hotel’s spa and fitness center was also upgraded and improved. The Club Level Suites, located across Fifth Avenue were unaffected by the storm.

The nearby Historic Palm Cottage is Naples’ oldest home (built in 1895) and a Landmark in the National Register of Historic Places. It is also the headquarters of the Naples Historical Society and has a museum where docent-guided tours are available. Also conducted throughout the year are Walking Tours of the Naples Historic District and Private Garden Tours.

Farther north along the Gulf Coast, historic Ybor City is Tampa’s Latin Quarter, a National Landmark Historic District. More than a century ago, it was home to thousands of new arrivals from Spain, Italy and, most notably, Cuba, whose emigrees helped build Ybor City into the cigar-making capital of the world. Today it builds on that rich past with a mix of history, heritage, entertainment and excitement.

The city’s 7th Avenue is full of history and character. A stroll through this beautiful neighborhood reveals a rich architectural heritage with roots to numerous immigrant countries that make Ybor City a cultural melting pot. Visitors are sure to smell fresh roasted coffee in the morning and the aromas from a variety of hand-rolled signature cigars. 

The Ybor City Museum, which occupies the historic Ferlita Bakery building, is a good place to get an overview and appreciation of the town’s history. It’s also the starting point for the guided cigar walking tour (approximately two hours), which includes a visit to a 19th-century cigar-maker’s house. 

Cigar aficionados, especially Millennials, the largest cigar-smoking demographic, should take the 45-minute tour ($15 per person) at Tabanero Cigars, where a small number (10 or fewer) of Cuban cigar rollers can be seen hand-rolling the product. Each tour includes a complimentary cup of Cuban coffee and 5 percent off on any purchase on tour day. Along the way, guests will learn the importance of the cigar industry to Tampa’s development, observe the quality control process at the factory, and step into a walk-in humidor to hear about the aging process and experience the different aromas by inspecting tobacco leaves. There’s even a brief PowerPoint presentation on how to cut, punch, light and set off the hand-made cigars the correct way.

The Ybor City Saturday Market in Centennial Park is the largest continually operating outdoor market in the Tampa Bay Area. It offers an opportunity for customers to meet the artists and see one-of-a-kind pieces created in their booths, as well as purchase locally produced gourmet foods.

The TECO Line Streetcar System — a fun way to get around — runs about two miles between Ybor City, downtown Tampa and the Channel District, home to the Florida Aquarium and Tampa Bay History Center.  A one-day unlimited ride card costs $5 per person or $12.50 per family.  Ybor City has a number of affordable rentals through Airbnb, as well as such familiar hotel brands as Hilton Garden Inn and Hampton Inn and Suites.

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