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Brochure images of tanning flesh and Mickey Mouse give an inaccurate
and incomplete picture of FLORIDA . Although the aptly nicknamed
"Sunshine State" is indeed devoted to the tourist
trade, it's also among the least-understood parts of the US.
Away from its overexposed resorts lie forests and rivers, deserted
strands filled with wildlife, vibrant cities and primeval swamps.
In many respects Florida is still evolving. Seven hundred people
a day move to the state, now the fourth most populous in the
nation. Changing demographics are eroding the traditional Deep
South conservatism: the new Floridians tend to be a younger,
more energetic breed, while Spanish-speaking enclaves provide
close ties to Latin America and the Caribbean - links as influential
in creating wealth as the recent arrival of the movie industry
in central Florida, fresh from Hollywood.
The essential stop is cosmopolitan, half-Latin Miami , from
where a simple journey south brings you to the Florida Keys
, a hundred-mile string of islands known for sports fishing,
coral-reef diving, and the sultry town of Key West , legendary
for its sunsets and anything-goes attitude. North from Miami,
much of the east coast is disappointingly urbanized, albeit
with miles of unbroken beaches flowing alongside. The residential
stranglehold is lessened further north, where communities such
as Daytona Beach have become subservient to the local sands.
Farther along, historical St Augustine stands as the longest
continuous settlement in the US.
In central Florida the terrain turns green, though it's no
rural idyll: this is where you'll find Orlando and Walt Disney
World , one of the world's leading tourist destinations. From
here it's just a skip north to the forests of the Panhandle
, Florida's link with the Deep South, or to the towns and beaches
of the west coast . To the south, and also easily accessible
from Miami, stretches the Everglades , a swampy sawgrass plain
filled with camera-friendly (but otherwise unfriendly) alligators.
Finally, although Florida has struggled with its reputation
for crimes against (and even murders of) tourists, the state's
been very successful in reducing such attacks. It's definitely
no longer the den of "Miami Vice" it once was, but,
as when visiting all big cities, it pays to be wary.
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