Travel — 11 May 2012
Perfect Florida getaways

A brief but comprehensive tour of Florida, from an escapist point of view

BY MARCIA LEVIN

One of Florida’s many virtues is its lack of age discrimination when it comes to escapism. Load your car or van or SUV with the kids, grandkids, grandparents or just the two of you and set the GPS for fun and relaxation or a romantic weekend no matter which direction you turn.

Not sure where to start or where to go? Let City & Shore take you on a brief but comprehensive getaway tour of the Sunshine State from north to south, from the Gulf of Mexico to the Atlantic Ocean, to destinations where you can peel away the stress and soak up self-indulgent pleasures for a day
or two or a week.

Naples, Marco Island and the Everglades 

Let’s begin our getaway with a stop in Naples-Marcos Island, these days being referred to chamber-of-commercely as the Paradise Coast (www.paradisecoast.com). It’s a straight shot across Alligator Alley. In an hour or so from your driveway, you can be frolicking on what the Travel Channel dubbed America’s “best all-around” beaches.

“Whether it’s for a weekend or a week or longer, the lure of our white sand beaches, spectacular sunsets over the gulf or outdoor adventure in Everglades National Park and the Ten Thousand Islands, a great diversity of activities keeps people coming back again and again to the Paradise Coast,” says Jack Wert, executive director of the Naples, Marco Island, Everglades Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Wert notes the growing number of top-rated family attractions, great shopping, golf, fishing, spas, excellent locally owned restaurants and “a laid-back atmosphere for those who just want to kick back and relax.”

The Waldorf Astoria (239-597-3232) and Marco Island Marriott Beach, Golf Club and Spa (800-438-4373) are two prime destinations for pampering and beaching with dining options for all tastes. Tourist attractions worth visiting include the 90-acre Botanical Gardens, the Children’s Museum in North Collier Regional Park and the Naples Zoo at Caribbean Gardens with its new herd of seven giraffe.

On your drive over to or back from the Paradise Coast, consider a stop at Sawgrass Recreation Park (www.evergladestours.com, see story facing page), just north of Interstate 595 at U.S. Highway 27. The family-owned park offers airboat rides and a chance to visit with rescued Florida wildlife. Fishing and camping also are available.

Fort Myers and the Beaches 

Just a bit farther north of Naples on Interstate 75, be on the lookout for abundant wildlife and white sand beaches along the Lee Island Coast (www.LeeIslandCoast.com). The most popular areas are Sanibel and Captiva islands, connected to the mainland by a three-mile-long causeway. Shelling and Sanibel go hand-in hand. There are lovely inns and restaurants, eccentric shops and a bounty of golf, tennis and water sports. Fort Myers itself, with its shopping malls and nightclubs offers a more sophisticated “city’ alternative after a day in the sun.

Two of the city’s most famous part-time residents were Thomas Edison and his pal Henry Ford. Their Fort Myers winter estates are adjoining properties and include historic homes, botanical gardens, research labs and a museum (www.edisonfordwinterestates.org). Edison received a gift of a banyan tree from tire baron Harvey Firestone in 1925. The tree, one of the most photographed of Florida icons, is approximately an acre in diameter with aerial roots sprawling over 400 feet. After Hurricane Charley struck Fort Myers in 2004, the city received numerous calls from people concerned about the tree’s condition, as well as that of the scenic Sanibel Lighthouse.

Tampa Bay 

Tampa Bay is home to a trio of tourist destinations: Tampa, St. Petersburg and Clearwater (www.visittampabay.com). Tampa, one of Florida’s largest cities and a business mecca for the state, offers a variety of accommodations ranging from the trendy Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Resort (www.seminolehardrocktampa.com) to the popular Tampa Marriott and Waterside Hotel and Marina
(www.marriott.com/hotels/travel/tpamc-tampa).

“Must” stops in the area include the Lowry Park Zoo, Busch Gardens and a broad variety of museums, sports attractions and the Straz Center for the Performing Arts (formerly Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center).

Nearby, you’ll want to visit Ybor City, founded by Cuban cigar manufacturers in the 1880s, which maintains much of its cultural clout more than a century later.

Rosemary Beach 

Far north from where we began, the Florida Panhandle is a 200-mile-stretch well known for its tourism and winter getaways of Panama Beach, Pensacola and Destin. A newcomer to the scene is Rosemary Beach (www.rosemarybeach.com), founded in 1995. This “neo-traditional” town sprawls over 107 acres, combining the ideas of community and convenience on the gulf.

Accommodations in the planned community range from cottages to villas accommodating up to 12 people. The elegant Pensione Inn (866-348-8952) is a European-style hotel on the waterfront.

Special thanks to Lisa Crawford of SitInMySeats VIP Tickets, Travel & Concierge Services for alerting us to this prime destination. Read more about Crawford and SitInMySeats on pg. 28.

Jacksonville and the Beaches 

It’s the ocean side of the Sunshine State you prefer? Then let’s cross over via Interstate 10 to Jacksonville (www.visitjacksonville.com), the northernmost city on our getaway tour. Jacksonville’s history and architecture recall the days of the Timucuan Indians, devastation from the fire of 1901 and incredible growth that has turned the city into a major center of business and banking.

Jacksonville offers everything from a prominent downtown to the eco-friendly trails of renowned resorts such as Amelia Island and access to 20 miles of some of Florida’s prettiest beaches.

Is golf your game? Don’t miss a visit to the World Golf Hall of Fame Museum (www.worldgolfhalloffame.org) just south of Jacksonville in St. Augustine. It’s the ultimate destination for golfers and fans of the game. A variety of vacation packages are available at the World Golf Village (888-641-8615).

St. Augustine, the nation’s oldest city, was founded in 1565. Be sure to visit the Castillo de San Marcos, the Spanish Quarter and the Pirates and Treasure Museum, more relics from North Florida’s early days.

Winter Park 

Let’s work our way along Interstate 95 down to Central Florida, best known as the home of Mickey Mouse and Harry Potter. Outside their formidable shadows is Winter Park (www.cityofwinterpark.org), a charming town all but immune to Orlando’s urban sprawl.

The chic Park Plaza Hotel (www.parkplazahotel.com) dates to 1922. A boutique offering, the hotel is close to wonderful shopping and outstanding restaurants along Park Avenue.

The Morse Museum of American Art (www.morsemuseum.org) is one of the jewels of Winter Park that features a world-class Tiffany collection. Along with work by Louis Comfort Tiffany, the Morse features other important pieces of 19th- and 20th-century decorative art.

Palm Beach 

What would a trip around Florida be without looking in on – and experiencing, a little bit anyway – the lifestyle of the rich and famous? Palm Beach (www.palmbeachfl.com), playground of the Trumps and Kennedys, is as elegant as it gets for a short getaway.

Consider The Breakers (www.thebreakers.com), a Palm Beach landmark now in its 116th year; the Four Seasons (www.fourseasons.com/PalmBeach), the Ritz-Carlton (www.ritzcarlton.com/Palm-Beach) or the boutique Chesterfield (www.chesterfieldpb.com) for a night, or more. Restaurants are equally sumptuous. And shopping? Worth Avenue, a classic shopping district for more than 50 years, rivals the famed Fifth Avenue and Rodeo Drive.

The Florida Keys 

Set along a stretch of 127 miles heading south from Miami along U.S. 1, between the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean, the Keys are home to some of the finest fishing, scuba diving, snorkeling, boating, sailing experiences in the world, all reached by a series of scenic bridges and causeways (www.floridakeys.com).

Hawk’s Cay (www.hawkscay.com) on Duck Key in the Middle Keys has been a delightful world-class resort for more than 50 years, attracting everyone from celebrities to families.

Originally the Indies Inn, Hawk’s Cay Resort underwent a $35 million renovation in 2007. The elegant West Indies-style buildings are a comfy home-away-from-home for those who love dining and diving and just about every other water sport. The resort features guest rooms and two- and three- bedroom villas.

Key West 

Once on the Overseas Highway, we might as well go all the way – to Key West. Set at the southern tip of Florida and the terminus of U.S. 1 and our getaway excursion, Key West (www.fla-keys.com) is a year-round party town. Home to the Ernest Hemingway legacy, the winter White House of President Harry S. Truman and sunset at Mallory Square, the island sets the bar high for laidback Florida sun, water sports, accommodations and dining options.

You can’t go wrong with the Hog’s Breath Saloon, Louie’s Backyard Restaurant and hotels that include the Pier House Resort and Caribbean Spa (www.pierhouse.com), the Parrot Key Hotel (www.parrotkeyresort.com) and the art deco Pegasus (www.pegasuskeywest.com).

This is the last stop on our getaway tour. Now it’s up to you to decide how long you stay getawayed.

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