Fancy Free Florida: Summer’s Surprisingly Affordable Last Hurrah

This is a sample from a 15-page advertorial insert I wrote for VISIT FLORIDA.  It required researching and incorporating a multitude of advertisers from each region of the state into seamless copy and reached 3 million households throughout the U.S. Southeast.

With the economy tightening and summer coming to a close, families everywhere are looking for stimulating–and affordable–destinations close to home for summer’s “last hurrah” fun.

Time taken for vacation is good for your health, relationships and career. According to a survey by the Travel Industry Association, after just a few days in a new setting, blood pressure and stress hormone levels measurably decline. Most Americans say they return from vacation feeling reconnected with their family and are more productive and creative at work.

So now the question is, “Where can you go to reap those benefits without breaking the bank?”

Florida has much to offer those looking for a quick getaway, from the undisturbed beaches of its Northwest region to historic St. Augustine on the Northeast Coast; the thrills and off-the-beaten path attractions of Central Florida to the elegance of Key West. It’s more affordable than you may think. And the best part is, you can take what you experience with you when you go. It’s all a state of mind.

The Simple Pleasures of Northern Florida

For those looking for a destination close to home, Northern Florida fits the bill. The pristine beaches of Pensacola and Fort Walton Beach have long been favorites. Their powder-white sand and easy proximity for northern travelers are a big pull. And Panama City Beach has St. Andrews State Park and Shell Island, which provide plenty of simple pleasures like hiking, camping, exploring, watersports and, of course, shelling.

Beachfront Rentals

But if you desire more privacy in a natural setting, nestled between Apalachicola Bay and the Gulf of Mexico lies St. George Island, a 29-mile stretch of unspoiled beach running roughly a mile wide. It’s perfect for a multi-generational jaunt or family reunion.

Staying on the island is surprisingly affordable. Resort Vacation Properties offer island rentals that vary from stylish beachfront condos and quaint cottages to spacious multi-storied luxury homes. Managed by five women, Resort Vacation Properties offers great accommodations in any price range. Many of the beachfront cottages and stilt homes run between $500 and $700 for a three-night stay. The larger homes can house two families at modest weekly rates and are perfect for a family reunion, complete with private beach access and pool. Rates include use of complimentary linens and trip insurance.

Olde World Intrigue

If you’re a history buff, there is no better place to visit than America’s oldest continuously occupied city, St. Augustine, on the northeast side of the state. A jaunt to this historic landmark offers a little bit of everything. The city proper can be experienced on foot or by trolley, horse-drawn carriage, boat or train. Hop aboard a helicopter and get an aerial view–the options are endless.

A number of tours will acclimate you to the sights and offer little-known facts about life in the city dating back as many as 500 years ago. The Colonial Spanish Quarter is a feast for the senses. Feel the heat of a working blacksmith’s fire, take in the pungent smells of a kitchen herb garden, and watch as a colonial housewife cooks up a stew using the garden’s harvest. Children can help spool yarn and talk to any number of costumed characters from history.

Among the more than 60 attractions held within the city limits, kids especially will love the Old Florida Museum, where they can interact with history–both European and Timucuan Indian–with such hands-on activities as writing with a quill pen, milling corn and carving a canoe from a tree as Native Americans did long ago. Other kid-friendly attractions include the Old Schoolhouse, with its animated depiction of a typical 18th-century school day; the weird and wacky exhibits at Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Museum and the Alligator Farm and Zoological Park, featuring a bird rookery, art and, of course, reptiles of every imaginable size, shape and form. Not to be forgotten is The Fountain of Youth, which has long held its position as the pièce de résistance for tourists of every age. Shoppers and art lovers will enjoy poking around the galleries and antique shops that line the St. Augustine’s quaint streets.

The city offers dining options to suit a variety of palates. Stop in at the Florida Cracker Cafe for a bit of lunch, or the Columbia Restaurant for dinner (be sure to try the 1905 salad!). The Old City House Inn & Restaurant is an award-winning favorite, as is the Victorian-styled Raintree Restaurant.

When you’ve had your fill of history and shopping, cross the Matanzas River onto Anastasia Island, where you can stroll the beach, camp, bicycle, surf and paddle. The Atlantic side of the island is perfect for swimming, shelling and surfing, and surrounding waters welcome canoes and kayaks.

St. Augustine accommodations range from budget to resort luxury on the outskirts of town, to quaint bed-and-breakfasts and historic landmark hotels in the heart of the city. On Anastasia Island, campers can have their pick of 139 sites equipped for both tents and RVs.

Off-the-Beaten Path Fun in Central Florida

A little farther south along Florida’s East Coast is Daytona Beach, self-proclaimed home of the World’s Most Famous Beach. But don’t expect to see classic Spring Break scenes now. Daytona Beach has evolved. No longer the exclusive playland for the party crowd or the ready-to-rumble biker set, Daytona Beach is now one of the top destinations for families searching for fun in the Florida sun. Shopping, sun and good old-fashioned play await. Golf is a mainstay, as the Daytona Beach area has more than two-dozen championship golf courses. Golf Digest recently ranked Daytona Beach among the top 15 places to play in the U.S.

Boundless Amenities

Ocean Waters’ host of hotel properties is committed to creating the perfect family vacation experience for every member of your family, no matter what age. There are 22 Daytona properties total, with several standouts–each one steps away from the rolling surf of the Atlantic and offering something special.

If you crave some pampering, look no further than the luxurious Plaza Resort & Spa. The Plaza’s European-style Ocean Waters Spa offers a full array of indulgences at surprisingly affordable prices. Detoxify in a hydrating seaweed bath or rejuvenate your skin with a full-body wrap or a relaxing facial. In addition, its highly trained and attentive staff offers Swedish, stone, reflexology and deep-tissue massages, as well as special services for expectant and new mothers. After your pampering, retreat to your spacious oceanview room, with its thick pillowtop bed, and listen to the sound of the rolling surf outside your window.

If a pit stop in Daytona Beach revs your engine for adventure, you may want to check out the Boardwalk Inn & Suites. This three-diamond accommodation is close to the speedway and its white-knuckle attraction, Daytona USA, home to the Richard Petty Driving Experience, which is sure to get the family’s pulse racing. On July 4 weekend, the Daytona International Speedway is host to three races, most notably the Coke Zero 400 powered by Coca-Cola Race on July 5.

Situated right on the beach, The Boardwalk Inn & Suites has a SoBe Art Deco feel with its expansive white-tile lobby and grand curving staircase straight out of a 1940s film. A water-play area overlooking the shore has an Olympic-sized pool, hot tub and fountain wading area for little ones. Each spacious room carries the beach deco theme, with large windows to augment the gleaming décor. Supervised activities for the kids and facilities for the physically challenged also are available. Book a suite with a kitchenette for in-room convenience or dine on one of several balconies overlooking the beach at Iguana Sam’s Beach Bar and Grille, famous for its spectacular view. A free continental breakfast is served there seven days a week.

Another showstopper is LaPlaya Resort & Suites, which features a comedy club and is located right across the street from one of the most popular shopping centers on the beach.

Have lunch at LaPlaya’s Tiki Bar and watch the beachcombers frolic in the sand. Relax poolside or in the whirlpool while the kids play in the kiddie pool. Spend an afternoon shopping at the Belleair Shopping Center’s more than 300,000 square feel of marketplace storefronts, and end your day by taking in a show at Bonkerz Comedy Club on the top floor of the hotel, featuring acts from Comedy Central and HBO.

If privacy is what you desire, check in at the Acapulco Hotel and Resort. Each room has its own private balcony from which you can enjoy an expansive ocean view and refreshing salt air. Pour a glass of wine to enjoy while you take in the scenery, chilled in your very own complimentary fridge.

The Acapulco is minutes away from the vintage 1937 Daytona Beach Bandshell, which hosts a summer-long concert series featuring music from blues and Dixieland to R&B and folk–a perfect after-dinner diversion. It’s also close to the Boardwalk, another throwback to the days of yesteryear, with arcade games and ice cream shops a-plenty.

For those families who would not be complete without their four-legged members in tow, the Plaza Ocean Club is the perfect accommodation. Pets under 30 pounds are always welcome here, and furry family members can enjoy the ocean breezes with their humans from each room’s private balcony. Relax and sunbathe poolside on the property’s expansive sun deck while the staff keeps the kids busy with treasure hunts on the beach and games in the pool.

Cartoon Fun

To the southwest along Interstate 4 from Daytona is Orlando, the state’s undisputed leader in tourist attractions. Amid the mouse ears and movie icons sits the Nickelodeon Family Suites, a tribute to television’s most popular kids’ network and its colorful cast of characters.

The Nick Hotel is a real treat for kids and their parents, full of surprises and the little things that make a family vacation memorable. And the best part is, you don’t have to leave the property to stay fully entertained.

The hotel boasts dawn-to-dark activities, including poolside games and entertainment, character breakfasts, kids’ spa and a crafts workshop. A state-of-the-art studio theater provides live entertainment nightly for the whole family.

Dive into a sea of family fun at The Lagoon, featuring a four-story interactive water tower, seven slides and flumes, and a 400-gallon water dump tank. Climbing nets and water jets keep little ones busy, while giant-sized whirlpool spas will melt away everyday stress from Mom and Dad. Play a game of miniature golf or compete on the basketball court, which offers a hoop for every height. And because this is, after all, Nickelodeon, you don’t want to miss the “slime of your life” during the daily mass sliming at 4:45 each afternoon, when those who wish can sit under a deluge of green, slippery slime–just like on TV! A snack bar is nearby to provide plenty of kid and adult refreshments.

The Oasis pool area features an Olympic-sized swimming pool with more slides and flumes, and both a dry play area and splash zone for the little ones. Two smaller whirlpools are available for  Mom and Dad, complete with snack bar.

An arcade and shopping mall containing a restaurant, bar, shops and food court round out the amenities.

But the really cool thing, aside from all that, is the accommodations. Nickelodeon was one of the first to offer kid suites, which give kids their very own room and amenities, connected but separate from their parents’ room. The two- or three-bedroom suites provide kids with bunk beds or a pair of twin beds, their very own television, radio and video games, a table and chairs and closet space. Parents have their own bedroom with television, vanity and closet, and the whole family can gather in the living room area, with a kitchenette on the side.

Elect to eat meals in the comfort of your suite or make a reservation to join favorite Nick characters like SpongeBob SquarePants, Dora the Explorer, and the Rugrats for breakfast in the Nicktoons Cafe. Healthy meals and menus for the allergy-sensitive also are available.

West Coast Eclectic

Further southwest on the opposite coast lies the St. Petersburg/Clearwater area, which is several vacation experiences rolled into one. Spend the day on the beach and then rock the night away at a downtown club. Spend an afternoon wandering a museum, and dine at a gourmet bistro. Take in a baseball game and return to the beach to watch a breathtaking sunset while the kids explore a sandy playground. Kite-surf, parasail or catamaran across emerald-green waters on a gulf breeze. The choice is yours.

From Clearwater Beach all the way down south to Pass-A-Grille, you will find pristine sand and welcoming 80-degree Gulf waters in summer. Sea oats and sand dunes dot every beachscape–Pinellas County beaches consistently rank among Dr. Beach’s (Stephen Leatherman) Top 10 Best Beaches each year.

Active Pursuits

Who says you have to have Atlantic-sized waves to have fun?

Rent a Waverunner at John’s Pass on Madeira Beach. Windsurf or parasail in bay waters in the shadow of the majestic Sunshine Skyway Bridge courtesy of any one of the area’s ample rental businesses.

For those in need of assisted fun, land and surf wheelchairs are available at Clearwater Beach and St. Petersburg’s Treasure Island. Eco-conscious adventurers can rent an electronic, wind- or human-powered watercraft just off 2nd Avenue in downtown St. Petersburg at the Electric Marina. Get the lay of the beachfront by hopping aboard the Beach Trolley, which runs the length of Gulf Boulevard.

Of course, the mac daddy of all beaches in this part of the state is located at the southernmost end of the Pinellas Peninsula: Fort De Soto Park. In addition to its spectacular beaches, visitors to Fort De Soto can wander a fort originally built to protect the Tampa Bay area from attack during the Spanish-American War. The fort’s gunpowder storage cells provide tons of space for kids to crawl around and explore. The adjoining museum houses photographs from more than 100 years ago. And a lighthouse still directs sea traffic entering and leaving Tampa Bay.

In addition to its breathtaking beach, the park offers more than 1,136 acres of pure Florida wilderness. Rent a bike or inline skates to see the landscape, or a canoe or kayak to tour the waterways. Make a reservation to camp overnight. It’s all here and up to you.

A little ways north, the Clearwater Marine Aquarium is fast becoming a landmark center for ecology. Primarily operating as a rescue, rehab and release facility, the aquarium offers up-close encounters with dolphins, otters, sea turtles, stingrays and other sea animals. The center enjoyed national publicity when the movie Dolphin Tale filmed there in 2011. The movie’s star attraction, Winter the dolphin, continues to greet loyal fans.

In addition to its celebrity status, the aquarium offers a two-hour Sea Life Safari Eco-Tour. Guests enjoy a hands-on experience with sea life alongside working staff members going about their daily rounds.  If your kids love animals of all shapes and sizes, this is a must-see stop.

Dining and Entertainment

But enough about nature. Let’s talk nightlife. Live music and a beach vibe can be found after a glorious sunset up and down Gulf Boulevard on any given night. Shephard’s on Clearwater Beach is popular with the tourist set, and offers dance, techno and reggae by night, and a mean breakfast buffet come morning.

At Caddy’s on Sunset Beach, revelers can dance in the sand to the beach sounds of an acoustic duo or play volleyball steps away from the bar deck. Romantic moonlit dinner cruises launch from Clearwater and St. Petersburg beaches, as well as pirate cruises with a loot full of music and games along with a colorful band of pirates sure to keep the kids seized with laughter.

In general, dining costs in the Tampa Bay area can be as little as $3 for breakfast, to as little as $20 for a gourmet feast. Stop in at Ted Peter’s Famous Smoked Fish on St. Pete Beach’s Pasadena Avenue for some smoked fish and German potato salad. An absolute must before leaving the St. Petersburg/Clearwater area is a grouper sandwich at one several Frenchy’s restaurants along Clearwater Beach.

Eclectic downtown St. Petersburg is a multi-block bonanza of museums, shopping, dining and nightlife, all within a 10-minute walk. Take a stroll through an oasis of azalea bushes and banyan trees on the bayfront to the elegant 1920s Mediterranean-style Vinoy Resort and Golf Club, which boasts a private marina, 18-hole golf course and 12-court tennis complex.

The Dali Museum houses the largest collection outside of Europe of works by Spanish artist Salvador Dali. Just a few blocks from the Dali is Great Explorations, a hands-on children’s museum that encourages kids of all ages to investigate the science of sound, electricity, weather and other disciplines. Other museums in the immediate area include the Science Center, the Museum of History and the Florida Holocaust Museum.

If you’re still stuck for something to do while in the area, take in a baseball game at The Trop–Tropicana Field. There usually are good seats available and plenty of interactive games for the kids–they can even pet a live stingray at the touch tank located in center field seating.

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