On April 6, 2022, Visit Florida hosted an exciting event in Chicago, a top market for Florida tourism, at the Blue Door Kitchen and Garden 52 West Elm. Representatives from the Northwest Florida Panhandle to the southernmost tip of the continental United States, the Keys were on-hand to promote Florida tourism. They shared the delights, insider tips, and hidden gems of a vacation trip to Florida. Immediately upon entering Blue Door, the personable hostess welcomed us and walked us out to an enclosed patio with propane heaters, that are probably not needed in Florida. The space was decorated with a neon pink flamingo and a neon green palm tree. We were graciously offered beverages to begin our journey through Florida from the Panhandle to the Keys. The star beverage was an apropos punch bowl of fresh strawberry mojitos served with a mint and strawberry garnish. Red and white wine were available as well as sparkling water.
Dipika Hernandez promoting Orlando was a fountain of fascinating facts. Orlando is the theme park capital of the world with more than a dozen theme parks including Walt Disney World, Universal Orlando, Universal Studios, Islands of Adventure, the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, and Sea World. Disney’s Epcot offers two amazing festivals. From March 2 to July 4, 2022, there is the International Flower and Garden Show. Following that extravaganza is an International Food & Wine Festival with an Eat to The Beat Concert Series from July 14-November 19, 2022. A new addition to this fantasy land is Cirque Du Soleil. They have recently partnered with Disney to create Drawn to Life, a seminal collaboration that premiered on November 18, 2021, and continues until December 31, 2022, in Disney Springs, Orlando, Florida. This is a celebratory production suitable for all ages. An animator’s desk becomes the stage and through the magic and mastery of Cirque du Soleil acrobats, the drawings come alive. I personally loved Disney Springs with its 103 high-end shopping experiences. Dining ranges from comfort fast food, to food trucks, international cuisines, and fine dining familiar restaurants owned by Chicagoan famous chefs Art Smith and Rick Bayless. My personal favorite was the Coca-Cola Store where you can take a picture with the polar bear mascot and on the rooftop, you can sip on sodas from around the world.
Next, I met Joey Bell who knew everything about Florida’s agriculture and introduced me to Pineberries, an ivory blush strawberry with pear, apricot, and pineapple tropical notes, from Wish Farms. This is a third-generation family farm in Plant Florida started by Grandfather Harris Wishnatzki an emigree from Kyiv, Ukraine. Harris started off as a pushcart peddler in 1904 in New York City. Then in 1922, he created an international strawberry, blueberry, raspberry, and pineberry farm that gives back to his community. Every year in March for 11 days they host The Florida Strawberry Festival, the sweetest time of the year for their little town of Plant City, Florida. They also offer farm tours year-round
Close to Plant City is St. Petersburg, a city on Florida’s gulf coast, part of the Tampa Bay area. It has much to offer in terms of nature activities and fine arts culture. It’s known for its pleasant weather (hence its “Sunshine City” nickname), making it popular for golfing, boating, fishing, and beachgoing. Its waterfront park hosts The Dalí Museum which is home to an unparalleled collection of over 2,400 Salvador Dalí works. The Museum of Fine Arts opened to the public in 1965 and provides outstanding examples of world art in an elegant inviting setting. Artworks range from ancient to contemporary. The Mahaffey Theater Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts is a concert hall and home to the Florida Orchestra. It is a 2,031 European Box-style seating space with scenic views of Tampa Bay only a two-minute walk from The Dalí Museum. The newest of the St. Petersburg Museums is the Museum of the American Arts and Crafts movement. It is a stunning building designed by its philanthropist founder Rudy Ciccarello with Alfonso Architects. It is the only museum in the world dedicated exclusively to the American Arts and Crafts movement. St. Petersburg believes in the power of public art and has created over 100 vibrant, colorful murals across the city through its art alliances.
If you are more of a sports fan nearby Tampa Bay is the city for you. They have three professional sports teams: the 2020 Superbowl Winners, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the back-to-back winning Tampa Bay Lightning Hockey Team, and a Major League Baseball Team the Tampa Ray Blue Rays. Tampa is described as a cosmopolitan city with a retro vibe. Tampa Bay has Busch Gardens with its thrilling rides. Southwest Airlines flies direct from Midway Monday through Friday 4 times a day with five flights on Saturdays and four on Sunday.
Mackenzie Comerer filled me in on the fascinating unique history of Tarpon Springs. Tarpon Springs was named for the giant Tarpon fish that jump and splash in the bayou. The area boomed when wealthy Northerners built Victorian residences on the banks of the bayou once railroad access from New York was initiated. in the early 1900s Greek sponge divers settled here and the area became known as the “sponge capital of the world”. It has the largest percentage of Greek Americans in the United States. Of course, that means they have excellent Greek Restaurants and bakeries. It is a beautiful city filled with culture and family-friendly fun.
Staci Mellman shared secrets about the incredible nature experiences in the Florida Panhandle. She described the Emerald Coast Beaches and the sugar-white sands of the Destin, Fort Walton, and Okaloosa Island famous across the world for their beauty. The area is also a fabulous fishing destination. This is a family-friendly environment sparking curiosity and discovery on both land and water. Jayna Leach also clued us onto Shell Island, part of St. Andrews State Park, and only reachable by watercraft from Panama City. It is a must-see for pristine beaches; the swimming and snorkeling are awesome. There were so many sites we did not get to chat about like Homosassa Springs with its Florida wildlife and the gentle elephants of the sea the Manatees. Sarasota Ringling Museum or my favorite Gilded Age Villa Vizcaya which is now a museum with exquisite gardens on Biscayne Bay are all must-see spots. We did not even touch on the Kennedy Space Center and a host of other exciting excursions around Florida.
Suzie Sponder shared her love of the magic of Miami. We learned where to get the best Cuban food, insider information on the art and music scene, and the treasures of a hip, diverse cosmopolitan city with Latin Flair. Miami sports two National Parks, the Everglades, and Biscayne National Park. The biggest news of the evening was that Florida is being recognized for upscale cuisine by receiving its first-ever Michelin Guide covering restaurants in Miami, Orlando, and Tampa. Florida also had five nominees for the 2022 James Beard Award. Zak Stern, Zak the Baker, from his kosher bakery in Wynwood, Miami is a finalist for the prestigious James Beard Award. It is open to the public and held at the Lyric Opera of Chicago on Monday, June 13, 2022.
Capping this wonderful evening of sharing Florida love we sat down for a lavish meal prepared by Chef DeJuan. Interestingly enough when I told my friends about this event serving Florida food they quipped what are you going to eat, oranges? I looked over at the tables and don’t you know the place setting was graced with gorgeous oranges among the fresh hydrangea and daisy floral arrangements. Our first course was deviled eggs with mustard seeds. The Waldorf Salad was a bounty of Florida’s strawberries, raspberries, and blueberries with pecans on tender bibb lettuce. Our entrees were either Shrimp & grits, Art Smith’s Fried Chicken, a succulent Chicago Cut Strip Steak, or a vegetarian option Cauliflower Steak. Sides offered were savory, creamy Cavatappi Mac N’ Cheese, garlic potatoes, and seasonal vegetables along with warmed cornbread topped with raspberries preserve & whipped butter. For dessert, we had a choice of delicious Key Lime Pie or triple-layered chocolate ganache. During dinner, Erin Cramer told us a must-try are the sub sandwiches and key lime pie at the Publix Grocery Stores. It was a most informative and delightful evening and left us satiated with luxury food, but hungry for a Florida excursion.
Photos: Courtesy of The Greater Miami & Visitors Convention Bureau
Photos: Courtesy of Visit Florida