With its bounty of beautiful beaches, Florida has always been the go-to for rest and relaxation. But the Sunshine State overflows with attractions and events worth a special trip.
Yearn to escape into the world of James Cameron’s “Avatar”? Travel back in time to Old Florida? Dress — or undress — like a fantasy character? Fetch that calendar and start planning.
New exhibit at Dalí Museum in St. Petersburg
The Dalí (thedali.org), pictured, gives you extra reasons to come to St. Pete before April 17. Its Frida Kahlo sideshow features 60 works by the Mexican artist and flower beds inspired by her Casa Azul garden. The museum’s optical illusions start outside with its fanciful architecture and bayside Avant-garden, where you can daydream on a trippy warped bench inspired by Salvador Dalí’s 1931 painting of melting watches.
St. Petersburg (visitstpeteclearwater.com), nestled between the Gulf of Mexico and Tampa Bay, has become a top art destination. Morean Arts Center (moreanartscenter.org) boasts cool exhibits; the Chihuly Collection displays dreamscapes of Dale Chihuly’s glass sculptures.
An artsy place to stay is the Vinoy Renaissance resort. Restored to its 1925 opulence, it’s steps away from the Mainsail Art Festival (April 22-23), one of America’s top juried art fairs.
Okeechobee Music & Arts Festival
Groove to Kings of Leon, The Lumineers, Waka Flocka Flame and other performers in an old Florida setting March 2-5 at the Okeechobee Music & Arts Festival (okeechobeefest.com). Swim at Okeechobee Lake beaches, do yoga and chill and mingle by moonlight. Tips: Order tickets in advance, and consider camping at this beloved locals haven. Pictured: The crowd watches Mac Miller at the 2016 fest.
Bike Week and Biketoberfest in Daytona Beach
You don’t have to ride to have a blast at Bike Week (officialbikeweek.com) and Biketoberfest in Daytona Beach (daytonabeach.com). Steps from the Atlantic Ocean, Main Street becomes a nearly 24/7 parade of cruisers, choppers, baggers, touring bikes, sport bikes and trikes.
Bike Week, pictured, takes place March 10-19 and Biketoberfest Oct. 19-22. Typically, the weather is perfect for riding and sunning on the city’s wide, hard-packed sand beaches, which allow motor vehicle traffic. Boot Hill Saloon, Main Street Station and other bars attract congenial all-age crowds with free live music and contests spanning hot bikes to hot bodies. Daytona International Speedway (daytonainternationalspeedway.com) hosts motorcycle events during Bike Week, too.
Beerfest, Gasparilla Pirate Festival and Riverwalk in Tampa
Completed last year, Tampa’s 2.4-mile Riverwalk hosts an array of great events such as the Big Tampa Beerfest (bigtampabeerfest.com), April 21-22. Tickets get you unlimited tastings of 200 craft beers, many brewed in Tampa. Come back to party like a pirate at Gasparilla, pictured, a free family-friendly fest that has rocked Tampa (visittampabay.com) every January since 1904 with a spectacular re-enactment of José Gaspar’s fabled invasion.
Riverwalk’s bike-friendly path is edged by the world-class Tampa Museum of Art, Glazer Children’s Museum, Straz Center for the Performing Arts, Tampa Bay History Center, Amalie Arena, new and revamped hotels, event-filled parks, a supercool playground and hip eat-drink spots.
Pandora -- The World of Avatar opens in Orlando
Opening at Walt Disney World’s Animal Kingdom this summer, Pandora — The World of Avatar (disneyworld.disney.go.com/destinations/animal-kingdom/pandora-world-of-avatar) includes two expedition-style rides through a land of floating mountains and bioluminescent rain forests imagined by director James Cameron in his film “Avatar.” Avatar Flight of Passage whisks you on a winged banshee above the massive, lush landscape. Na’vi River Journey’s boat, pictured, floats past mysterious creatures, dazzling plants and a shaman. This spectacle raises the bar for man-made marvels.
Nearby, dive into Volcano Bay (universalorlando.com/theme-parks/volcano-bay.aspx). Debuting at Universal Orlando Resort in June, it combines innovative thrills, tropical island settings and technology that eliminates long lines.
'Ding' Darling Days on Sanibel Island
Go back to nature during “Ding” Darling Days (dingdarlingsociety.org), held Oct. 15-21 on Sanibel Island (fortmyers-sanibel.com), a pristine barrier island on Florida’s southern Gulf Coast. For the fest, J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge (www.fws.gov/refuge/jn_ding_darling) offers tram tours, wildlife talks, craft-making and expeditions by boat, kayak and paddleboard. Can’t make the event? The refuge, pictured, is part of 8,000-acre complex acres of critical habitat for animals, including 245 species of birds, hosts activities year-round for adults and kids.
Fantasy Fest in Key West
Key West turns into a carnival of free and ticketed events Oct. 20-29 for Fantasy Fest (fantasyfest.com), an annual extravaganza held since 1979. Pack a costume and makeup for adult-oriented events such as a superhero/supervillain 5K, Halos & Horns, Roaring Twenties and Plaid parties, Wharfstock (come as a hippie chick or groovy dude), a Sea Creature VooDoo costume contest, burlesque shows, the Living Art Expo and the grand finale parade, pictured. (Families can play at the Bahama Village Goombay Festival and Children’s Day.)
Sand Sculpting World Competitions in Siesta Key, Fort Myers and Treasure Island
At The Siesta Key Crystal Classic (siestakeycrystalclassic.com), held Nov. 10-14, master sculptors from around the world turn powdery white quartz sand into forms up to 10 feet tall. The festival, pictured, also features sand-sculpting lessons, an amateur competition and live bands. Located near Sarasota, Siesta Beach has become a mainstay on “best beach” lists.
Nov. 18-26, Fort Myers Beach (fortmyers-sanibel.com) hosts one of the world’s largest sand festivals. The 31st annual American Sand Sculpting Championship (fmbsandsculpting.com) draws master sculptors from as far as Russia to work solo and in pairs. Other activities include Quick Sand speed sculpting, amateur contests and a kids’ zone.
Treasure Island (visitstpeteclearwater.com/communities/treasure-island), a haven of fun bars where locals toast Gulf of Mexico sunsets, hosts the Sanding Ovations Masters Cup Sand Sculpture Competition (sandingovationsmasterscup.com) Nov. 15-19. The free event pairs world-class talent with live local bands.
Art Deco Weekend Festival in Miami Beach
South Beach has long been an art and architecture powerhouse. It hosts the contemporary art confab known as Art Basel (miamibeach.artbasel.com) Dec. 7-10. Reserve event tickets and lodging in advance. Mid-January, the Art Deco Weekend Festival (artdecoweekend.com), pictured, celebrates architecture and culture of the era with tours, concerts, dance lessons, a dog parade, and a Jazz Age Lawn Party.
Year-round, the Miami Design Preservation League (mdpl.org) offers walking tours of art deco architecture that begin at its welcome center on Ocean Drive. You can lodge in architectural gems, too. The Colony Hotel, built in 1935, still sports its shimmering blue neon sign. Al Capone played cards at the Essex House, which has been restored to its 1938 nautical moderne splendor.
Florida Manatee Festival and Crystal River Parks
Citrus County’s (discovercrystalriverfl.com) Manatee Festival (gomanateefest.com) takes place mid-January, but it’s easy to spot these gentle marine mammals in the “Manatee Capital of the World” November to April. Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge was created to help protect the endangered Florida manatee. You can swim near manatees with certified guides who make sure the animals remain safe, pictured. Three Sisters Springs and Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park are manatee magnets.
This haven along Florida’s northern Gulf Coast is an ideal place to hike, pedal and paddle away from it all. Withlacoochee State Trail runs 46 paved miles. At Crystal River Preserve State Park, hike forest and marshland paths, paddle quiet waterways — and snorkel and dive in underwater caves.