ORLANDO – I've visited Florida more times than all the other U.S. sun destinations combined. Growing up in Southwestern Ontario, it was the go-to holiday spot for my family. We loaded up the car and headed down I-75 once or twice a year, usually at Christmas or spring break but even in the summer, too.
I've continued that into adulthood, visiting at least once a year, and have seen most of state, from Key West to Jacksonville to Orlando and Tampa. I honeymooned there; I've taken my wife and kids often.
I've always enjoyed Florida, its warmth, its beaches and its golf courses. It's always been a dependable, accessible place to find some sun, especially during the long, cold Canadian winters.
But it's always struck me as a one-dimensional experience, with the exception of perhaps Key West and Miami's South Beach. Yes, I know the state has multiple layers deep down, as anyone who's read a Carl Hiaasen novel or spends more than a week at a time knows. But Florida can be a never-ending series of theme parks, plazas, outlet malls, highways, chain restaurants, souvenir shops and flat golf courses for the casual tourist.
After a recent visit, however, I'm happy to say that I've found some nuance in Florida.
On a January trip with my family, from our base in Orlando, we hit all the usual hot spots, including Disney World and Universal Studios. But we also discovered that not everything, whether it was the accommodations or the golf, is cookie-cutter.
HILTON: My family stayed for just five of the 10 days I was in Florida. (School beckoned for the kids.) We split our time between the Sheraton Vistana Villages Resort in western Orlando and the impressive new Hilton that's near the Orange County Convention Centre.
The Sheraton offered a perfectly practical and comfortable stay – a reasonably-priced, two-bedroom suite nicely accommodated our group of five.
But it was the three-year-old Hilton that seemed out of – and above – the norm. The three-winged white tower, which is within walking distance of the convention centre and hyper-busy International Drive, managed to somehow feel like a retreat.
This apparently was by design.
As Hilton rep Lisa Cole and PR consultant Laura Phillips Bennett told me over breakfast one morning, co-owner RIDA Development Corp. (Hilton owns a portion and manages the property for Rida, who also owns the ChampionsGate public golf facility in Orlando) didn't want just another boxy hotel on the strip to serve the business people who use the convention centre.
He wanted, Cole said, more of a resort that told visitors: "Bring the family."
So the hotel is decked out with features you don't see in most Orlando hotels that cater to a business audience: a luxurious spa, a massive pool complex and a variety of dining options.
(Hat's off to executive chef Louis Martorano, whose many delicious concoctions include his "screaming cupcakes," which contain one unique ingredient – ice cream.) "When you drive up front, it feels like business," Bennett said. "When you go out back, it's all play."
From my south-facing window, I could see the entire pool complex, which includes a main pool, a private pool for adults, water slide and "lazy river." Behind, there's a nine-hole putting course on real grass.
It seems to me this sort of hotel represents a new thinking in the industry: Hotels realize that families nowadays often come along with the spouse who is there on business.
From a golfer's perspective, the Hilton would be an excellent base. There are more than 80 courses in the three counties that comprise Orlando and area, and all would be easily reachable from the Hilton.
BAY HILL: After the kids went home, I continued exploring Orlando with a stop at Arnold Palmer's Bay Hill Club & Lodge.
Talk about a different Florida experience.
The lodge is a throwback to another time – and place. Although luxuriously appointed after a 2007 renovation, the 70-room lodge has a quiet, homey and understated feel – so much different than the glaring artificial world of plazas and multi-lane roads just outside the gates.
On the second morning of my stay, I was half way to the dining room for breakfast when I realized I was wearing on my feet just socks. Feeling so much at home, I'd forgotten my shoes.
The look and tone of the place is a direct result of Palmer's influence and presence. He lives on the property, plays golf regularly on the Bay Hill course, frequents the dining room (he eats at the same table in the Bay Window dining room) and saunters about without fuss or fanfare.
On the day I arrived, I was looking around the property and about to enter the men's locker room at the golf course. He pushed the door open and walked out. There I was, face to face with one of golf's true living legends. (We exchanged pleasantries and I shook his large, calloused hands before he headed to his golf cart, which carried two tour bags brimming with probably 30 or more clubs.) I later saw Palmer at dinner, on both nights I was there.
I don't mind admitting it was a thrill to meet Palmer in person, just as it would be to any lodge visitor, no doubt. "It's like little kids seeing Mickey Mouse," Bay Hill marketing director Leigh Anne Huckaby told me. "Grown men seeing Mr. Palmer are the same way."
Guilty as charged. But it is worth noting that mob scenes do not surround Palmer despite his fame, which is refreshing. This is his home after all. We are all just his guests.
(The only nod I saw to his celebrity came when he exited the dining room each night – he gave a subtle little wave to the dining room, just as he would have in his playing days when he left a green to applause.) It's certainly a special feeling to be at Bay Hill. The low-slung lodge, with its dark wood furniture and earth-tone colour scheme that make it feel so much more northern than southern (no pastels here), looks out on to the putting green, range and a few holes of the golf course.
In other words, there's no commute time from the bedroom to the first tee.
I played the course with Globe and Mail colleague Lorne Rubenstein. We headed out early, the second group on a spectacular cloudless warm morning, and zipped around the layout that challenges the best PGA Tour players each year at the Arnold Palmer Invitational.
Neither of us played well but I loved the course. Although it is dotted with water hazards, which claimed more than a few of our shots, it's an entirely playable course that is free of gimmicks and trickery. Just solid hole after hole.
We got to see the course in its typical winter condition, which was superb but not fully toughened yet for the Arnold Palmer Invitational, which begins March 21.
The course will be at its busiest with visitors as the tournament approaches. "Everyone wants to play the course in tournament condition," Huckaby said.
For those with Bay Hill on their bucket list, here's the nice part. It is possible to play the course without being a member or a guest of a member.
The only catch is, you must stay at the lodge. You can't just drive in the gates. But that in itself shouldn't be a concern. The lodge is as much of a treat as the course itself.
STREAMSONG: This is Florida? That's the question that came to my mind when I visited the stunning new Streamsong, which is 90 minutes west of Orlando.
The 36-hole public facility, which officially opened Jan. 26. is built on an old phosphate mine site owned by Mosaic Co.
It's a stunning piece of land, even if it is a manufactured landscape. Very un-Florida-like. Nebraska maybe?
The two courses (the Red, designed by Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw, the Blue by Tom Doak), wind through massive sand dunes and around small natural lakes.
Although nowhere near the ocean (or anything else, for that matter), the courses play like links and bear the same kind of look, feel and shot values as, say, the Bandon Dunes courses in Oregon or Cabot Links in Nova Scotia.
A luxury resort is under construction on the property. For now, it's just about the golf – but definitely worth the effort to reach. (Staying in Lakeland, 45 minutes west of Orlando, is probably the best option.) It's safe to say there is nothing else like it in the state, or even the U.S. Southeast.
Personally, I preferred the Blue course – it's generous (to put it lightly) off the tee, fun and playable, although some might question the extreme, slopey, quick greens. But the Red course would likely be seen by most as the stronger of the two. (In my case, with my 15 index, it was too strong – far more demanding, far more penal.) The smart visitor would not make a choice – just play both. They have a similar feel but are different enough to offer different golf experiences.
WINTER GARDEN: As much as I enjoy a coffee break and book browsing at a Barnes & Noble, or a dinner at the Outback Steakhouse, there is something to be said for a more, well, authentic travel experience.
I saw a different side of the Orlando area when Lorne and I made a quick side trip to the nearby quaint city of Winter Garden.
With its bricked streets, well-preserved heritage buildings and residents who are more likely to ride bikes than drive, it is quintessential small-town America. Socially-conscious Axum Coffee of W. Plant Street (the main street) is a must-visit.
INNISBROOK: With just a few days remaining at the tail end of my trip, I headed to the Tampa area to decompress. I "checked into" the trailer where my parents spend their winters. Not quite the Hilton or Bay Hill, but still comfortable.
Not planning to play golf, I settled into snowbird living – a barbecued dinner, a nice bottle of red, some cable TV. I even took a yoga class at Karma Yoga & Fitness in Valico, south of Tampa near Brandon.
But then, realizing I'd be heading back soon to Canada and another two months of winter, golf started calling my name.
A couple of e-mails later, and I was booked onto the Copperhead course at Innisbrook Resort and Golf Club in Palm Harbor, just north of Tampa.
It's a course I had played before, maybe six or seven years ago, while I was on vacation with my family. I remembered absolutely loving the course and was eager to see if the magic was still here.
Happy to report: Yes. Copperhead, one of four courses at Innisbrook, is the venue for the PGA Tour's Tampa Bay Championship so it has big-league chops. (It's among the tour players' favourite regular stops.) What I really like, and remember, is that the Copperhead course is atypical of many Florida courses in that it features surprising elevation changes and tree-lined fairways.
Minus the palm trees and Bermuda turf, it's easy to imagine the course in the northeastern United States.
Despite the six-plus years since my last visit, all the holes were fresh in my mind as I went around again. I always figure that's the sign of a good course.
As much I enjoyed the Streamsong courses and Bay Hill, not to mention iconic tracks such as Seminole on previous trips to Florida, I'd have to rate Copperheard as my favourite in Florida. Good holes, everything in front of you, good vibe, demanding, but still fair and fun.
OUTSIDE THE ROPES: Can one go to Orlando without visiting Disney World? I think not. It was our first visit in 10 years but its magic is timeless. (Differences include a new Fantasyland.) Our group, however, was just as turned on by the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, a new section of Universal's Islands of Adventure park. Hogsmeade and Hogwarts are meticulously recreated. My little muggles, who adored the Harry Potter book and movie series, were in their element and are still raving about the ride inside the Hogwarts castle. Must admit, that ride was unlike I've ever experienced before.
Jeff Brooke has written about golf for The Globe and Mail since his first assignment at the 2007 Masters.
Some of the accommodations on this trip were provided by Hilton Hotels and Arnold Palmer's Bay Hill Club & Lodge.