Great Vacations—Right Here
Ah, sweet summertime.
Bright Florida mornings give way to gentle afternoon showers followed by sultry evenings. Life moves at a slower pace this time of year as the days lazily tick by.
And then suddenly you realize it’s time for a summer vacation and packing and driving and flying and hotels and resorts and theme parks and museums—and it’s all just too much.
This year, there’s no secret the big trend is the so-called “staycation.” For a multitude of reasons including the economy, flu fears and more, people are choosing to get away while staying closer to home.
With this in mind, Gulfshore Life set out to discover ideal subtropical itineraries to help you kick back in our own backyard.
The Haas family of south Fort Myers are staycation pioneers of sorts. When Linda and David and their two children want to get away, they head just a short drive from their home—to the renowned South Seas Resort on the northern tip of Captiva Island.
LindaHaas says South Seas is the perfect place for her kids—ages 12 and 20—with plenty of things to do. This year, the resort introduced H2Whoa!, a new children’s pool area with a corkscrew slide and a 16-foot plunge slide.
“It’s a beautiful addition,” Linda says. “Our daughter loves it. Our son loves it. Our son’s girlfriend. Even my husband loves it.”
Nearby, families will find the popular Scoops and Slices ice cream parlor and candy shop. Parrots Arcade is filled with the latest virtual reality video games and arcade action. Finally, there are kid and teen clubs where the younger set can go off and have adventures while mom and dad relax.
For a great daytrip with the kids, head across Alligator Alley to Wannado City at the Sawgrass Mills mall in Sunrise. Geared primarily for the four- to 14-year-old set, Wannado City is unlike any other theme park you have visited. It’s an entire child-sized city where kids can try out a huge variety of “jobs.”
Watch them thrill at the Wannado City Fire Station, where they dress up in fire gear, board a real miniature fire truck, roll through the city streets and spray real water with real hoses on a building fire. (Don’t worry, mom—it’s just a smoke machine and orange, flickering lights imitating a fire.)
Your children can try their hand at anchoring a TV newscast, go digging for gemstones in a mine, take part in a circus act and play cashier at a tiny pint-sized version of a Publix. The list goes on and on.
Florida is known for its fauna as much as its flora—and many wonderful zoos and nature parks abound with animals as the main attraction. Our own Naples Zoo at Caribbean Gardens is the first that pops to mind.
But other interesting wildlife options are close at hand. Gatorama, an alligator and crocodile farm in Palmdale, about an hour’s drive from Fort Myers, offers a small but amazing variety of reptiles and other animals. The highlight of this classic, old roadside attraction comes at the start, as visitors tread across a wooden bridge over a lake filled with gators and crocs. Kids and adults alike will thrill as they drop hunks of bread into the lunging, gaping maws below.
On the far side of the bridge, a long path leads past tank after tank filled with various species of reptiles and a menagerie of other animals, too. Don’t miss the far end of the path, where an ominous creature named “Old Goliath” awaits. This absolutely gigantic crocodile is the thing of nightmares.
“It’s the whole predator thing,” says Patty Register, who owns Gatorama with her husband, Allen. “They are so powerful. They hearken back to a prehistoric time, and people are fascinated by them. They love the thrill of a huge animal.”
For a different kind of nature experience, head to the beaches around Venice for a day of shark tooth hunting. Sharks produce thousands of teeth in a lifetime, and they are continually falling out as new ones replace them. This has been happening for millions of years, and many ancient shark tooth fossils are waiting today to be found along Florida’s gulf coast.
Venice Beach and Casperson Beach have the best reputation, known for having a large number of shark tooth fossils washed ashore. They call the area the “Shark Tooth Capital of the World.”
Sometimes they are easy to find, but more often, people stop, stoop and sift through the sand as they hunt for these natural treasures. For even more adventure, go diving in the waters just off these beaches. Often, enormous fossil teeth from the extinct Megalodon shark are found on the sandy bottom some 20 feet down.
Step back in time and visit the Florida of a hundred years ago when you venture out amongst the various barrier islands and backwaters along our coast. Far from the maddening crowds and traffic of mainland Lee and Collier counties, the islands are a world apart.
Tropic Star Cruises leaves from Bokeelia on the north end of Pine Island and offers a variety of ways to explore. They have a narrated sight-seeing cruise on a boat reminiscent of the African Queen. The ride includes stops for lunch at the famed Cabbage Key Inn and then an afternoon on the beaches of Cayo Costa. Or charter your own water taxi and visit hard-to-reach spots like Gasparilla Island, Upper Captiva or Don Pedro Island.
For something different, spend a day tracing the footsteps of the ancient Calusa Indians by taking a kayak tour through the waters around Matlacha. Paddle through an aquatic preserve of mangroves, home to manatees, ospreys, great blue herons and bald eagles. Gulf Coast Kayak on Matlacha offers morning and sunset tours.
If you prefer a weekend trip, consider the historic Tarpon Lodge. This 1926 property offers beautiful waterfront accommodations. It also boasts the four-star Tarpon Lodge Restaurant, famous for its artful cuisine, such as Skewered Bronzed Gulf Shrimp served with a mild cilantro crème fraîche and double-thick-cut pork chop char-grilled and topped with mango chutney.
Living in Southwest Florida, there is nature all around us. Just a few miles from our homes and condominiums lay thousands of acres of wilderness. Panther Crossing signs dot our highways, and black bears occasionally venture into the center of town.
Nonetheless, few of us really have any idea of what it means to spend time deep in the swampy backwaters. So why not consider a visit to the famed Billie Swamp Safari, 20 miles or so north of Alligator Alley.
Explore 2,200 acres on the Seminole Tribe’s Big Cypress Reservation. Elevated swamp buggies and airboats take visitors on tours through wetlands and cypress heads where sightings of eagles, hawks, deer, bison and wild hogs are common.
The truly adventurous can dine on traditional Seminole dishes, including gator nuggets, frog legs and fry bread with honey. If you want to really experience life like Florida’s native people once did, you can even bed down in a true Seminole chickee hut overnight.
For a different kind of experience with Mother Nature, take a daytrip to the Myakka River State Park, near Sarasota. There’s plenty to do at this beautiful park, but perhaps the most exciting is a visit to the Canopy Walk. One of only a few in the world and the only in a subtropical forest, this walk takes you 25 feet into the air where you clamber along a suspended bridge through the treetops. From this unique vantage point, you’ll get up close with fascinating epiphytes, or air plants, that make their home amongst the park’s foliage.
For good measure, there’s also a 74-foot observation tower providing great views across a nearby prairie filled with grasses and wildflowers.
“You can see forever up there,” says Tad Cranfield of Fort Myers, who has visited the park with his family. “It’s like old Florida back in there—so unspoiled. All you can see is wilderness, not a bit a civilization.”
Resorts around Southwest Florida are offering many elegant and romantic stays, but few can top the amazing deal found at The Ritz-Carlton, Naples. The five-star beachfront resort has a “Spa Escape” package for $299 per night. It’s available through October. With the package, you get overnight accommodations, a $200 spa credit that can be used on services or in the spa shop, plus a $50 gift card to use at Waterside Shops. In other words, you ultimately are just paying $49 for a room at one of the top hotels in the world.
In the Ritz’s exclusive spa, couples can enjoy the “Sea of Love” treatment, which includes an intriguing sounding “healing cranial still point hold” as well as a facial, a hand and foot massage and a body massage.
“It’s a great time for couples to reconnect,” says Lauren Rotchford, the director of public relations for the property. “They get to spend time together, relax and feel closer to each other.”
A little farther but worth the trip is the Little Palm Island Resort & Spa in the Florida Keys. Among the top-ranked luxury destinations, guests arrive at Little Palm Island by yacht or seaplane. Thirty oceanfront bungalows provide the perfect tropical setting—one not interrupted by televisions, telephones or children.
Besides water sports and relaxing at the spa, the dining at Little Palm is world class. Wake up with breakfasts such as French toast served with almond mascarpone, linger over lunches of sugar cane-skewered chicken tenders with a jalapeño pesto, and savor dinners including a Kobe rib-eye steak served with a yucca and bacon croquet and green and white asparagus salad.
Now that’s a getaway.
STAY ... AND PLAY
Been There, Haven’t Done That
The folks at the state’s tourism office have come up with an interesting list of off-the-wall things to do around Florida. Some of them were things we covered in the accompanying story in this magazine. However, there are many more quirky, fun things do around the region and the state. Check out the full list at www.visitflorida.com/beenthere.
Florida Backyard Card
Launched this spring, the Florida Backyard Card is a push by state officials to help people find deals in their own backyard, i.e. their own communities. When you log onto the free program’s Web site, you enter your zip code and up pops a long list of local businesses offering special bargains. Many, if not most, of them are deals for lodging and/or attractions. Check out www.floridabackyardcard.com.