Hidden Gems in Florida
With 1,197 miles of coastline, a bounty of national parks, and those ever-charming Keys, it's easy to see why Florida attracts tens of millions of tourists every year. The Sunshine State, nestled between the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico, offers some of the country's most beautiful attractions—and we're not just talking about its white sand beaches. From Renaissance mansions to manatee preserves, here are some of the best places to visit in Florida.
Ancient Spanish Monastery (St. Bernard de Clairvaux Church) , Miami
This monastery was originally built in northern Spain between 1133 and 1141 AD. It was inhabited by monks for nearly 700 years but after a revolution in the 1830s, the monastery was taken over and sold. William Randolph Hearst purchased the monastery and cloisters in 1925, when they were dismantled stone by stone and shipped to the U.S. The structures were eventually reassembled in Florida in the 1950s, a project Time magazine dubbed "the biggest jigsaw puzzle in history." Gorgeous gardens decorated with colorful flowers remain virtually untouched by the beach city it neighbors. Stone statues, wooden-cast doors and stain-glass windows will ignite your imagination about the history of this Monastery.
Boneyard Beach, Big Talbot Island
Don't let the name scare you – it's not full of bones – just salt-washed skeletons of towering ancient oaks and huge fallen cedar trees that litter the entire beach. Some, half-buried, rise out of the sand; some merely sprawl on top of it. Some of their limbs oddly twist, others arch into the sky, ramrod straight. It's a unique, eerie and strangely striking stretch of sand. Centuries of wind and water have eroded the island creating a twenty-foot bluff along the shore. Archaeologists have also found fossilized mammoth bones on the beach nearly as big as the trees. You could be forgiven for thinking that the beach resembles the aftermath of a bloody battle.
There's a simple explanation for the phenomenon: Live oaks and cedars, some a century old, grow on Big Talbot's dunes. As the dunes erode, the trees tumble onto the beach below. The driftwood is protected (driftwood is a big understatement) and remains there until the tide takes it out or it has become fully eroded.
Dry Tortugas National Park
Nearly 70 miles west off of Key West, this remote national park comprising seven islands is accessible only by boat or seaplane. The name of the islands comes from the Spanish word for turtles. The park is known for its blue waters, marine and bird life, and stately, 19th-century Fort Jefferson. The fort is the largest masonry structure in the western hemisphere, with over 16 million bricks. The fort became a remote prison after the Civil War, most famously for Dr. Samuel Mudd, who innocently set the broken leg of John Wilkes Booth following the latter's assassination of President Lincoln. He was held here from 1865 to 1869, when he was pardoned.
This is a great place for snorkeling as there are many wrecks and patch reefs in relatively shallow water here. The Florida coral reef stretching from here to near Miami is the world's third largest, after the Great Barrier Reef of Australia and reefs in Belize. You may even see a turtle or two, the few descendants of a once huge population of them.
Ca' d'Zan (Ringling Mansion) , Sarasota
The home of the circus king and his wife, a couple from humble mid-western origins, Ca' d'Zan stands as a testament to the American Dream of the Roaring Twenties. Inspired by and designed in the Venetian Gothic style of the palazzos that ring the Venice canals, this dazzling palatial mansion perfectly captures the splendor and romance of the Italy the Ringlings so loved. To honor its owner, they named it Ca' d'Zan, "House of John", in the dialect of their beloved Venice.
This exquisite mansion of 32 rooms, 15 bathrooms, and a 61-foot Belvedere Tower was completed in 1925, and today is the crowning jewel at the site of the Ringling Estate. Its 8,000-square-foot terrace overlooks the dock where Ringling's wife, Mable, moored her gondola. Allow some extra time to wander around in Mable Ringling's Rose Garden, a lush labyrinth surrounded by towering banyans and full of rare roses and haunting statues. The enormous Art Museum was originally built to house Ringling's mindblowingly expansive art collection.
This Ringling estate attraction offers a colorful glimpse into a most wondrous element of a bygone era: the traveling circus.