For those who live in northern climes, Florida takes on an almost mythical stature. Long before visiting the state, travelers are regaled with tales of its warm sun, exotic creatures and golden beaches.

Once they actually visit Florida, visitors tend to find that these ideas are oversimplified. Golden sand there is, but mangrove thickets, barren coral islands and reedy estuaries are just as common.

Reality matches the myths in many ways, though. In the middle of the state, Orlando stands as the undisputed capital of fun, at least when it comes to theme parks. Along the Atlantic coast, Miami simmers with Caribbean and Latin American flair, and sights such as alligators in the Everglades and rocket launches at the Kennedy Space Center allow you to combine education with vacation.

Anyone convinced that Florida's history commenced with NASA, NASCAR and Mickey Mouse need only head to St. Augustine or St. Marks to find living proof that the state's historical roots are some of the deepest in the U.S. On the Gulf coast, a stop in Tampa and St. Petersburg will provide all the comfort and entertainment you would expect from a booming metropolis. Yet just a few hours down the highway, on Sanibel Island, you can explore a region of wild Florida that has changed little over the past few centuries.

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