Florida: From ancient realms to the Magic Kingdom

More a part of the Deep South than most Florida cities, Tallahassee is a charming mix of Indian, Spanish, French and English heritage. Today visitors can enjoy a thoroughly modern capital city that takes pride in its colorful history. For a real feel of the era when cotton was king, drive down one of Tallahassee’s five canopy roads. These narrow lanes, which are lined with oak trees covered with Spanish moss, offer a chance to see antebellum mansions in picture-postcard rural settings. The restored Old Capitol houses a museum of Florida political history. Exhibits at the Museum of Florida History explore 12,000 years of the Sunshine State’s past cultures. See a display of major furniture styles – including Federal and Arts & Crafts – that were used in this region during the 19th and 20th centuries. Admire Florida-made quilts and see memorabilia from movies filmed in Florida. See military artifacts from the Civil War through the present. Take a trip down memory lane by looking at displays of china, jewelry, spoons, postcards and other souvenirs sold to tourists from 1890 through the present. Don’t miss more than 2,000 Florida citrus labels and hundreds of baskets made in Florida from the late 1800s through the 1980s.
Goodwood Museum & Gardens began in the 1830s as a 2,400-acre cotton and corn plantation, and today showcases original furnishings from its wealthy owners. The heirloom garden is preserved as it would have been in the early 1900s. Recipient of a 2006 “Preserve America” presidential award, Mission San Luis is the only reconstructed mission out of more than 100 settlements established in Spanish Florida during the 16th and 17th centuries. Noteworthy specialty museums include the John G. Riley Museum of African American History and Culture, the Black Archives Research Center and Museum, and the Tallahassee Antique Car Museum.

Daytona Beach
Take a guided tour of the legendary Daytona International Speedway with stops at Pit Road and Gatorade Victory Lane. Sign up for the Richard Petty Driving Experience and drive around the racetrack at 150 mph. Adjacent to the Speedway is Daytona USA, a 60,000-square-foot interactive attraction with NASCAR films and challenging motion-simulator rides. Then take life in the slow lane and visit the Museum of Arts and Sciences (MOAS), located in 90-acre Tuscawilla Park. The largest private collection of Coca-Cola memorabilia is on exhibit in the newest part of MOAS. Chapman J. Root designed the distinctive Coca-Cola bottle at his bottling plant in Terre Haute, Ind. When Root died, his son, Chapman S. Root, took over the company and moved it to Daytona Beach in 1951. Rare bottles, advertising, Coke trucks and Coca-Cola soda-parlor items are on display. The Root collection also houses china, silverware, glasses, and other decorative arts gathered from the nation’s finest railroads, restaurants and hotels. Visitors can also see rare American furniture, art and silver, rare Chinese and African art, plus the largest collection of Cuban art outside of Cuba. Special exhibits include pre-Columbian art, on display until Feb. 25; and American Modernist paintings that can be seen here through Jan. 7.

Key West
Artist John James Audubon visited the Florida Keys in 1831, where he sighted 18 new species for his Birds of America folio. However, he never visited the 19th-century home known as Audubon House and Tropical Gardens. Built by harbor pilot Capt. John Geiger, this home remained in the family for 120 years. Today it is filled with furnishings typical of an upscale Key West family of 200 years ago. The home also features first-edition works by Audubon and a rare collection of porcelain birds by Dorothy Doughty. Historic herb gardens and a lush tropical garden surround the home. The Ernest Hemingway Home was the Spanish Colonial residence of the prolific author from 1931 until his death in 1961. Its eclectic furnishings were purchased on his trips to Cuba, Spain and Africa. Tours include the study above the carriage house where he penned such classics as For Whom the Bell Tolls and A Farewell to Arms. The 19th-century brick Key West Lighthouse Museum offers a spectacular view of the islands for visitors who can climb the 88 steps to the viewing balcony. At ground level, the restored lighthouse keeper’s quarters house a museum of lighthouse and nautical memorabilia.

A small trading post a century ago, Miami is now known as a hip destination. The South Beach District has more than 800 preserved buildings in the world’s largest concentration of Art Deco structures from the 1920s and 1930s. It took 1,000 craftsmen five years to complete the Italian Renaissance-style villa now known as Vizcaya Museum and Garden. When completed in 1916, it became the winter residence of International Harvester co-founder James Deering and his family. Today visitors see 34 rooms furnished with the finest European furniture, sculpture, textiles and ceramics. Ten acres of Italian- and French-style formal gardens and fountains surround the mansion.

Palm Beach
Considered an American castle, the Henry M. Flagler Museum is often compared to North Carolina’s Biltmore Estate and Hearst Castle in California. Flagler founded Standard Oil with John D. Rockefeller, and later developed railroads throughout Florida. In 1902 he built Whitehall, a 55-room, 60,000-square-foot home for his third wife, Mary Lily. It was designed in the Beaux Arts style made popular at the 1893 World’s Columbian Expo at Chicago. Following the deaths of the Flaglers, it was a hotel from 1925 until 1959, when a granddaughter obtained it and restored it to its former grandeur. Throughout December, Whitehall is decorated for Christmas in grand style. The focal point is a 16-foot Christmas tree adorned with lights and traditional ornaments in the Gilded Age style.

Fort Myers
After vacationing here in 1884, Thomas Edison liked the area so much he bought land for a winter home. The Edison home had prefabricated sections made in Maine and shipped on schooners to Florida. The Edisons spent winters here until his death in 1931. Across the palm-lined street is his laboratory, showcasing hundreds of his inventions, including a talking doll and phonographs. The Edisons’ good friends, the Henry Fords, visited here in 1915 and a year later bought the house next door, known as the Mangoes. Tours of the Edison & Ford Winter Estates allow visitors to see original furnishings, Edison’s lab and Ford’s garage. The December event called Holiday House at the Edison & Ford Winter Estates has been a Florida tradition for more than three decades. This year, an estimated 30,000 visitors will enjoy Treasures of the Sea as they stroll the riverside setting of the estates, celebrating a tropical “old Florida” holiday.

St. Augustine
America’s oldest continuously occupied European settlement was founded in 1565 by Spanish explorers. Spanish Quarter Village is a living-history museum with costumed interpreters explaining the world of 18th-century colonists. The Government House Museum showcases the complete history of St. Augustine through archeological artifacts excavated in the area and from shipwrecks off the coast of Florida. The exhibits of the Spanish Military Hospital provide a glimpse into early medical care and treatment. The Oldest House, also known as the Gonzalez-Alvarez house, named after two earlier occupants, began as a crude thatched home in the 1600s. After a fire in 1702 a limestone block home was constructed. A wooden second story was added in the mid-18th century when the building was used as a tavern and boarding house. Today, each room is furnished to reflect a period relevant to the dwelling’s history. Built more than 200 years ago while Florida was under the rule of Imperial Spain, the Oldest School House displays books and related artifacts once used by students. In 1946, Chicago publisher Otto C. Lightner purchased the Hotel Alcazar to house his Victorian decorative arts collection. After massive renov ations, this museum opened in 1948, after which Lightner gave it to the city of St. Augustine. The second floor showcases glass, including the largest collection of American cut glass, and a stained-glass room filled with works by Louis Comfort Tiffany. Other floors showcase furnishings, costumes, and mechanical musical instruments.