The other Florida

Most people visit Florida for its theme parks and party beaches, but there is another side. The state is a place of incredible natural beauty and home to some of the most powerful and influential people of the 20th Century. If you’re looking for something beyond the “usual Florida vacation,” keep reading for some of our favorite outdoor spaces and hidden cultural treasures.

John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park
The Florida Keys have always been one of our favorite places, and John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park is one of the reasons. The coral reef encompasses 70 nautical square miles off the coast of Key Largo, and the park includes mangrove forests, tropical hammocks and numerous beach habitats. 100-feet offshore from Cannon Beach there are remnants of an early Spanish shipwreck, and with sailing, diving and snorkeling tours leaving several times a day, it is a great place to experience the magic of the Keys.

St. George Island State Park
In a state known for its white sand beaches, St. George Island State Park is one of the most pristine. A long barrier island between Apalachicola Bay and the Gulf of Mexico, St. George is a place of sand dunes, sea oats and sunsets. It is tranquil and unspoiled. There’s also no shortage of activities, with boating, fishing, swimming and all the things you want from a beach minus the crowds and high-rise condominiums.

Keep reading below for three more Florida favorites…

Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park
It would be a shame not to see manatees while in Florida. The Homosassa Springs have always attracted them, and today the park is a key part of the state’s manatee rehabilitation program.

In addition, the park has many of Florida’s other native wildlife species. The rangers offer wildlife encounters and presentations throughout the day, and the freshwater springs and cypress swamps offer a beautiful environment for kayaking.

Edison & Ford Winter Estates
Located in Fort Myers, the Edison & Ford Winter Estates were the winter quarters of Thomas Edison and Henry Ford. The grounds, gardens and houses, including Edison’s workshop, are open to the public. This is a chance to go back in time and see how two influential men lived a simple yet elegant lifestyle in the days before air-conditioning.

The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art
Situated on the shores of Sarasota Bay, the grounds of this unique Florida attraction is much more than a circus sideshow. Though John Ringling was one of the seven siblings who created the Ringling Brothers Circus, his former Florida estate includes lavish gardens, an art museum with several large paintings by Rubens and yes, even a circus museum. Ringling had an opulent lifestyle. From the imported marble floors to the exquisite furnishings, this is the place to see just what money could buy.

From lavish estates and art to beautiful natural scenery, Florida has lots to offer the visitor sick of roller coasters and mouse ears. Chart a course for the “other Florida” on your next visit.

Undiscovered New York: All the way to Coney Island

Coney Island is New York City’s very own magical land of Oz. Just about everyone has heard about it – a derelict Brooklyn resort and amusement park stacked with ramshackle rides, Nathan’s hot dogs, sashaying mermaids and Vaudevillian freak shows – a seaside Gomorrah of fading glories and sandy cigarette butts. It is a place that is at once alluring and repulsive…drawing you in with its mysterious and nostalgic charms but never leaving you fully satisfied with what you’ve seen.

Unless you live in New York, there’s a good chance you’ve never made the trip out to the very last stop in Brooklyn at Coney Island-Stillwell Avenue. There’s a good reason why – Coney Island tends to be a polarizing place to visit. Some people hate it – stacked with second rate fried clam shops, indigestion and bad carnival rides. Other people visit and can’t get enough – it’s an area steeped in quirky history, unique stories and amusement park nostalgia. Love it or hate it, word has it that Coney Island, a seaside resort that has persisted since the 1860’s, may be on its last legs. The property was purchased in 2006 and the developers have plans to turn the area into a giant Vegas-style shopping mall.

If there was ever a time to go and visit one of New York’s more offbeat attractions, this would be that time. While each year has brought another 11th-hour reprieve, the strange sights of Coney Island are not destined to last forever. Where else can you gawk at contortionists and sword swallowers at one of the country’s last remaining circus sideshows? Or get tossed around on a rickety old roller coaster? Or eat some of New York’s best pizza? Step right up, ladies and gentlemen, Undiscovered New York is going all the way to Coney Island…
Getting Freaky
Coney Island is among the last places in the U.S. to see a real circus sideshow, complete with a man who hammers spikes into his skull, a fire and glass eater, and a snake charmer and contortionist, among others. It’s a bizarre show that somehow manages to be strangely beautiful in its oddity. Entrance fee is $7.50 for adults and just $5 for children.

Perhaps though you’re not satisfied just looking at circus curiosities? Perhaps you would actually like to try swallowing a sword or two yourself? Never fear, the Coney Island Sideshow School is here to help. Sideshow “professors” Donny Vomit and Adam Rinn teach eager students the fundamentals of fire eating, glass walking and “sticking foreign objects up their noses.” Grab your preferred foreign object and $600 and sign yourself up today.

Old-School Amusements
If old wooden roller coasters are your thing, consider the Coney Island Cyclone to be the grand dame of them all. It’s by no means a large coaster – in fact it’s dwarfed in size by wooden giants like The Beast or American Eagle, but what it lacks in size it more than makes up in sheer exhilarating surprise. The tiny coaster cars creak and groan, whipping around hairpin turns and threatening to splinter and shatter apart at any moment. If you have no other reason to come to Coney Island, this alone will make a trip worthwhile.

The other great amusement worth noting is Coney Island’s iconic Wonder Wheel. The wheel has become something of a celebrity having appeared in a number of movies and commercials, including The Warriors, First constructed in 1920, the iron giant has managed to weather more than 80 years of harsh New York weather, coming through with a perfect safety record.

Classic Charm
Clearly if you’re still reading by now, you’re interested in coming to Coney Island not for its modern conveniences, but instead for its creaky, dilapidated old glories. There’s a couple key spots for drinking and for relaxing that truly bring this point home.

Boardwalk regulars like to stop by Cha Cha’s, one of the many al fresco restaurants dishing up drinks and fried foods along Coney Island’s fabled boardwalk. But unlike the others, which can seem a bit mediocre, Cha Cha’s boasts its own stripper pole, neon day-glo murals of Coney Island and a collection of old junk that would make any landfill proud. Just the spot to down a few fried shrimp or a frozen margarita.

If you’re feeling a bit more energetic, then dust off those old roller skates. It’s time for an retro roller disco party at Dreamland Roller Rink. The rink makes its temporary home inside the majestic 1920’s era Childs Building, where skaters of all ages can come on Friday nights, gliding along to retro funk and soul music. The club will be reopening for the 2009 summer season on May 23rd.

[Thanks, Kendra]

Circus with its roots in helping refugees is in its sixth year

If a trip to Cambodia is in your future this coming March or April, here’s an event to look for. Tini Tinou 2009 is a megawatt circus-type festival that has its roots in doing good works. The non-profit group Phare Ponleu Selpak, started in the l980s to help Cambodian children in Thai refugee camps by using the visual arts, has been putting on the Tini Tinou Circus Festival for the past five years.

This spring for the sixth year in a row, a bevvy of professional artists and performers from around the world will come to entertain and teach. This is a two part venture. The first part takes place in Phenom Penh from March 10-28. Along with two-weeks of workshops where artists from countries ranging France to Japan teach young Cambodian artist some tools of the trade, on the 28th, the public can enjoy the action. There will be a parade, a light show and a cabaret.

From April 2 to April 5, the festival circus moves to Battambang where Pare Ponleu Selpak (meaning Light from the Arts) is based. Here, 120 different acts from 10 different countries will dazzle and delight throughout the event.

If you want to find out more about the circus and how to pair a visit to Cambodia with a trip to this event, there are two tour operators to check out for the details. One, Asia Adventures Ltd who sent out the press release about Tini Tinou 2009 is planning tours that will take in the circus and other sites in Cambodia.

The other I found is asia trails. As the CEO of this company states in a letter posted last year, going to events and places helps boost the economy and sustain people. Tourism, then, is like a non-profit circus when you think about it.

Circus Camp in Vegas

I’ve never been one to fantasize about running away to the circus, but I certainly do understand the fascination, especially for children.

If your child is suffering from circus envy, you’ll be happy to know that there is a temporary solution. And you’ll even be happier to learn that it involves Las Vegas.

The Sandou Theatrical Circus School in Las Vegas, Nevada serves primarily as a training gym for Circus Circus and Cirque du Soleil. A few hours a day, however, it also doubles as a circus camp for kids.

While the real pros are training high above on the trapeze, kids are taught juggling, tumbling, fire breathing, aerial skills, gymnastics, and balancing. Oops, just joking about the fire breathing. They do, however, get a real taste for the circus life and the difficulty of performing such acrobatic stunts.

Kids can come in for a couple of hours while mom and dad take a break from gambling, or they can come back in the summer time where a five day camp (9 a.m. to 1 p.m.) costs just $125. But be careful; if you do enroll your kids and they later grow up and really do run away to the circus, don’t blame me!