February 2005 issue

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Florida's fascination

Sunshine, beaches and Disney World may be Florida's most famous attractions, but it has much more to offer including laid-back cities, a unique national park and plenty of history. Gillian Evans finds out more.

Students and tourists alike flock to the Sunshine State because of its wonderful beaches, world-famous tourist attractions and, of course, the weather. ''Florida has hot summers [and] the winters are very mild and comfortable,'' asserts Ingrid Powers, Director of Rennert Miami (formerly Accent on Language). ''Moreover, it has a lot of attractions and is one of the number-one spots for tourism in the States.'

Marco Pinna from The Language Academy (TLA) in Fort Lauderdale adds that the great weather means students can make the most of the area's natural attractions. ''With average temperatures of 25 degrees Celsius, low humidity and warm waters, students attend classes and enjoy the beach, while most of the world has frigid temperatures,'' he says.

Apart from the weather and beaches, says Richard Hitt, Director of Studies at Language Exchange International in Boca Raton, there are lots of other reasons for studying in Florida. ''We offer the excitement of Orlando and the 'Space Coast', the romance and laidback nature of Key West, and the history of St Augustine [the oldest city in the USA],'' he says. ''More and more, this area is becoming known as the gateway to the Caribbean and all of Latin America.''

The state capital, Tallahassee, sits just 14 miles from Georgia, in an area known as the Big Bend, straddling the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains and at the juncture of Florida's Panhandle and peninsula. There, ''students can experience the 'real' Florida of swamps and alligators at Wakulla Springs State Park,'' says Patrick Kennell, Director of the Center for Intensive English Studies at Florida State University. With a population of 150,000, Tallahassee is a relatively small city, but is home to two major universities - Florida State University and Florida A&M University - which means plenty of cultural opportunities, shops and restaurants, as well as a lively nightlife. ''We, in Tallahassee, pride ourselves on our friendliness, hospitality and Southern charm,'' asserts Kennell, adding, ''We are more 'Southern' than south Florida! Unlike south Florida, the influence of the Spanish language in Tallahassee is not seen.''

Further west from Tallahassee is the city of Pensacola, which is on the border with Alabama. ''The northwest Florida gulf coast is known for its beautiful white sand beaches and emerald green water,'' enthuses Michael Yots, Director of International Programs & Education at the University of West Florida. ''Pensacola lifestyle is laid back and relaxed.'' As well as enjoying the local geography, Yots points out that New Orleans is within reach for a ''weekend of fun''.

In contrast, Miami in southern Florida is some way away from other US states and is in fact closer to the Bahamas. The city has a sizeable Hispanic population, giving it a decidedly Latin flavour. ''Miami is a very diverse city that brings together people from all over the world,'' says Powers. ''Spanish and English are spoken throughout [the city].'' Each district has its own flavour, from the beach life of Miami Beach to the Art Deco district of South Beach and the endless nightlife of Coconut Grove. The people in Miami have a reputation for being easy going and relaxed, and students at Rennert Miami have ample opportunity to use their English. ''Our school organises mall quests where students have to ask and locate information. We arrange tours of the airport and the courthouse to listen to proceedings,'' explains Powers. A short distance from Miami are the Florida Keys, well known for their vacation appeal, while the waters around the islands contain the only living coral reef in the USA.

Situated just one hour's drive away from Miami and exclusive Palm Beach is Fort Lauderdale. Nicknamed ''the Venice of America'' because of its network of waterways, Fort Lauderdale has canals, lakes and rivers on one side and an ocean beach on the other. ''Fort Lauderdale is right in the middle of south Florida with miles and miles of fantastic beaches, water sports, a casual lifestyle and world-famous nightlife,'' enthuses Philip Sherman from Fort Lauderdale-based Florida Language Center. Pinna claims that Fort Lauderdale is one of the safest cities in the USA. ''The average age of the Fort Lauderdale population is 45, making it one of the 'younger' cities in the country,'' he asserts. Every spring, the city's population swells with American students, who make it their favourite ''springbreak'' destination. Natural attractions are also close by, as the city is surrounded by the Everglades, one of the USA's largest natural parks and the only subtropical reserve in North America.

Just north of Fort Lauderdale is Boca Raton, home to Language Exchange International. ''Boca offers the security of a small urban environment with all the amenities of a larger urban area,'' says Hitt. He continues, ''We have also evolved Florribean, a style distinctly our own, and our lifestyle is decidedly less hectic than other places you might visit.'' Activities organised by the school include, Hitt says, ''the usual South Florida attractions in Orlando and Miami, as well as boat 'Cruises to Nowhere' and airboat rides into the Everglades looking for alligators in the wild''.

Close to the Gulf coast as opposed to the Atlantic coast, is Dunedin, where students can study at Schiller International University, just a short drive from the city of Tampa. Here, students can experience a small-town Florida atmosphere against an idyllic backdrop. ''Students can look to the west through swaying palm trees on to St Joseph's Sound, which is part of Tampa Bay of the Gulf of Mexico, [and there are] nature trails everywhere in the area,'' says Robert Lawrence at the university. With over 1,400 acres of unspoilt parkland, Dunedin is a popular Florida getaway destination. ''Museums, cultural environments such as Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center and many other attractions make this one of the nicest areas in the world to live!'' says Lawrence.

Agent viewpoint

''Our customers choose Florida for the tropical climate and the sandy beaches. Florida has got a very good image and is one of our top destinations in the USA. Florida is recommendable for sports enthusiasts of all ages. Another advantage is the good flight connections between Europe and Miami. We send our students to Fort Lauderdale. It is a relatively small place and so young students find their way [round it] easily. The beaches are clean and beautiful, [and] there is a pretty good range of restaurants, shops or cinemas. Our students are most surprised by the friendliness of the locals.''
Michael Eck, STA Travel, Switzerland

''Our students come from Quebec mostly, a cold country in winter. Through our website, we also have more and more [French-speakers], especially French and Swiss. Their dream is to discover America. Everyone is looking for a sunny destination and Florida is one of these destinations. In general, Florida schools are a little bit less expensive than Californian ones. We send students to study in Miami, Orlando, Fort Lauderdale, Boca Raton and St Petersburg. Among all requests for Florida, Miami remains the most popular for its cosmopolitan atmosphere (especially Cuban) and the art deco area in Miami beach. Students are most surprised by the very diverse people living [in the region], and the year-round 'holiday' atmosphere. They say, 'People don't seem to work there.... they seem to be always on vacation'. They like the unstressed behaviour of the population. For Europeans they like the contrast with their own cities and way of life. For Canadians the first motivation is sunshine, then the relatively close proximity (a three-hour direct flight) from Montreal. And, some parts of Florida are called 'le petit Quebec'.''
Philippe Beaudaux, Unique Tours, Canada

''America is a dream for Italian students, not only for tourism but most of all for study. Studying in Florida means [experiencing the] wonderful palm tree-lined beaches, a tropical climate throughout the year and a Caribbean atmosphere. What also attracts students is fashion, shopping and natural attractions. We send students to Fort Lauderdale, which we think is a safe town, and to Miami. Our students are surprised by the willingness of American people to talk to students and spend some time with them. Thanks to the good mix of young international students that live and study there, it is very easy to improve one's English and get to know other cultures and different ways of life.''
Vittorina Pravato, Valmondo Viaggi, Italy

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