If you've sunned and surfed Florida's beaches, it's time to explore some of the finer things in the Sunshine State. Here are insider tips for a day or night on the town.

By Kristine Hughes

I am a self-confessed shopping enthusiast, so let’s start there. I have been shopping in Florida for
20 years, and I look at shopping as a grand adventure. It’s not unusual for me to make a day or a weekend out of something that takes others just an afternoon.

What’s more, I expand the entire process to include overnight stays at a hotel. Take International Plaza in Tampa, for instance. Adjacent to Tampa International Airport, International Plaza includes more than 200 specialty stores and restaurants. And, after shopping till I drop (it’s a horrid cliché, but I do), I fall into my room at the nearby Renaissance Hotel. The venerable Safety Harbor Resort and Spa isn’t far away, so you can rest there after shopping – and then spend the next day recovering at their world-class spa. Isn’t Florida grand?

Shopping Options

Speaking of malls, Florida has some of the country’s biggest and best, and they’re located all across the state, from the northwest to Miami and points farther south. Far from dark and dingy, our malls, both indoor and outdoor, have “Florida” written all over them.

For example, The Shoppes at Ocean Walk Village in Daytona is a 110,000-square-foot oceanside shopping and entertainment complex complete with a six-level theater and party room. I always break up my shopping day there with a stop at the Mai Tai Bar, which has great views overlooking the Atlantic Ocean.

Pier Park Mall in Panama City Beach is located across from the Boardwalk at Front Beach – directly on the Gulf of Mexico. The mall offers 1 million square feet of open-air shopping with a sea view.

The Aventura Mall in Aventura may not be located surfside, but with more than 300 stores, it’s one of Florida’s best shopping destinations and one of my personal favorites. Bloomies, Macy’s, Nordstrom, Stuart Weitzman, and the largest Apple store in Florida – it’s all there. Having grown up in New Jersey, I get the same feeling when I go to Aventura as I did venturing into the city.

Florida is also known for its outlet malls. Orlando’s two Premium Outlets are high-end outlet centers offering discounts on some of the best-loved name brands.

Sawgrass Mills in Sunrise (literally on the edge of the Everglades) is the largest outlet mall in the U.S., with more than 350 shops and restaurants. Stop in at the Rainforest Café for a martini. Are you starting to see a pattern here?

Malls aside, Florida offers every sort of shopping venue, from casual beach shops to designer boutiques. You can shop at any one of the world-famous Ron Jon Surf Shop’s locations in Cocoa Beach, Orlando, Fort Lauderdale, Fort Myers, Panama City Beach or Key West.

At the other end of the shopping spectrum, Worth Avenue in Palm Beach and Third Street South in Naples both offer upscale shopping that rivals the shops in Milan or Paris. Both locations also offer upscale resale boutiques – I have found many a designer bargain on
their racks.

If you like antiques, many Florida towns boast antique districts that offer great antiquing, as well as character and charm. Here’s a secret I am not supposed to reveal: Because, ahem, many folks who retire to Florida or downsize here once they arrive, often offload some of the best finds from across the nation.

For antiques, historic Lakeland offers many dealers in one location. I also love Mount Dora, with the Lakeside Inn Hotel nearby. I’ve been there on a girlfriends’ weekend and with my honey, and they were both equally amused. Make sure to eat dinner in their Beauclaire Dining Room, which boasts French windows overlooking the gardens.

For those with truly discriminating taste and an unlimited budget, a visit to the Auction Gallery of the Palm Beaches, Inc. might be in order. Located in the historic Gatsby’s Building across from the Norton Museum of Art, the gallery holds 10 major sales a year, featuring artwork, sculpture and fine furniture.

Bibliophiles won’t want to miss the Book Fair held every March by the Florida Antiquarian Booksellers Association at the Coliseum in St. Petersburg. I’ve gone for the past six years.

Nightlife Made Right

Moving on to Florida nightlife, the choices are, again, almost limitless. From the traditional to the eclectic, Florida’s got it all – and I’ve sampled a good portion of it.

If you want your night to begin with a special dinner, as I’m fond of doing, you can select from hundreds of restaurants, many of which have been voted to be the best, either by national reviewers or by visitors to Florida like yourself.

Take Stumps Supper Club in Tampa. Stumps mixes down-home Southern cooking with a six-piece band every Saturday night, playing everything from Motown, soul, rock ‘n roll, Elvis, KC & the Sunshine Band and Abba to Outkast and the Black Eyed Peas.

For something a bit more traditional, there’s the much-lauded Palme D’Or, located in the Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables. Steeped in luxury, La Palme D’Or is where the beautiful people go to sample dishes. I highly recommend the lobster bisque and the foie gras.

Less lauded, but only because it’s still something of a secret, is Escargot 41 in Naples. Located in a strip mall, this intimate French eatery offers the best French food this side of Paris, which is no doubt why there’s sometimes a line of limousines outside the door. Now that you know about Escargot 41, don’t tell anyone else, or we’ll never get in. Yes, they serve escargots and, yes, they’re to die for.

After dinner, it’s time to move on to one of Florida’s celebrated nightspots. Conga’s Nightclub in Sunrise offers the best music from rumba, meringue and bachata. Open Thursday through Saturday.

If you’re not up on the latest Latin dance steps, stop by the second-floor Yuca Lounge on Lincoln Road in South Beach and take some salsa lessons. Personally, whenever I’m on Lincoln Road at night, I love to look up at the floor-to-ceiling window and watch the action inside for a few minutes. Only in South Beach, and only for the kids.

When I want to become part of the entertainment, I often check out Miami’s Studio, the biggest karaoke club in the world with more than 100,000 songs in 20 languages. Open seven nights a week until 5 a.m., the venue has a giant dance floor with lasers, strobe lights and smoke, and Studio offers the chance to jam with a live band and to take home a professional CD of your performance. Don’t be surprised if you see celebrities jamming on stage.

In Orlando, Cowboy’s offers a 15,000-square-foot country music nightclub with a state-of-the-art sound and light show with DVD video technology and one of Orlando’s largest dance floors. The atmosphere is friendly – if you don’t know how to two-step at the beginning of the night, I can guarantee that you will before the night is over.

When in St. Pete Beach in Pass-a-Grille, stop in at The Hurricane, where you’ll find three stories of fun, including live music ranging from reggae to rock and plenty of room for dancing on the roof-top deck (Fri. - Sun. nights, weather permitting).

Music Festivals and Comedy Clubs

Florida also has excellent annual music festivals. Every October, the Clearwater Jazz Holiday brings in 90,000 spectators. I’ll be going again this year and will be sure to tell you all about it. The Sarasota Blues Festival is held every November, Orlando’s Bob Marley Reggae Fest happens every February and the Vans Warped Tour takes place each July.

If comedy is your thing, check out The Improv in Miami, Side Splitters Comedy Club in Tampa or McCurdy’s Comedy Theatre and Humor Institute in Sarasota.

Florida will always be best known for its sunny beaches, but I hope these shopping and nightlife suggestions have you thinking about some of the many other options Florida has to offer. They’re all here, all waiting to be discovered the next time you vacation in Florida.