It’s springtime, the weather is great and the kids are out of school – time to take that Florida vacation you’ve been fantasizing about!
Before packing up the family, your mind wanders again to the calendar. Spring is a popular time to travel, and you’re concerned about running into Spring Break party crowds along the way.
That’s certainly understandable. Each year, dozens of U.S. colleges release thousands of stressed students for spring vacation beginning in mid February. Vacation schedules run throughout April and countless young folks flock to Florida, flooding beaches and hotels.
Many travelers have heard about (or experienced) Florida’s traditional Spring Break revelry. However, the Sunshine State is not as wild as it used to be. You may be surprised to discover how easy it is to side-step the crowds and have a relaxing trip.
I can recommend some smart destinations to get you started. The rest depends on your whim for adventure, but good times are guaranteed.
Daytona Beach Alternative: Merritt Island and Cape Canaveral
If you’re thinking of hitting Daytona Beach around Spring Break time, consider Merritt Island instead. It is an excellent place for families to visit and is the largest barrier island in the state.
While Daytona’s party reputation has relaxed over the years – a modern Spring Break pales in comparison to the scenes of the 1980s – it is still popular with college students, but there is a nice mix of families, seniors and couples around March and April. (Got your heart set on visiting this classic Florida beach town? Try coming in the fall, when weather is mild and crowds are thin.)
Merritt Island is situated about 70 miles south of Daytona, and nearby, at Canaveral National Seashore (which you must drive through to get to Merritt Island), the beaches are less crowded.
Merritt Island and nearby Cocoa Beach welcome a brisk tourism business, so there are dozens of hotels and vacation rentals in the area – you’ll have no problem finding a place to lay your hat. Together with surrounding regions that make up the state’s Space Coast, the area is brimming with natural beauty and cool things to do.
Looking for a peaceful retreat during your stay? Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge is the perfect place to reconnect with Mother Nature. Its 140,000 acres of marshes, dunes, scrub oaks and pine forest are inhabited by more than 500 species of wildlife, many of them threatened or endangered.
Stop by the manatee observation deck, and keep your eyes peeled for a glimpse of the southern bald eagle.
See the space program up close by touring the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, where kids and adults alike enjoy IMAX films and science exhibits.
When you’re ready to hit the water, try Cocoa Beach for sun and surfing lessons. Take a peek at VISIT FLORIDA’s own Cocoa Beach surf lesson video and get ready to hit the waves.
Port Canaveral, one of the largest scallop fisheries, will entice you further into the ocean with its boat ramps, fishing docks, charter services, great restaurants, marketplace and nightlife to be found in the Cove area of the Port.
Slow things down a bit at Merritt Island’s Grove Street Shopping District, or visit Historic Cocoa Village. Both are ideal for strolling, shopping and dining.
Pack a picnic with goodies from the Cocoa Beach Sunday Farmer’s Market, and savor the simple memories.
Panama City Beach Alternative: Destin
Over the past decade, the northwest Florida region of Panama City Beach has made great strides in changing its image from Partiers Paradise to Family Retreat.
But when colleges start to let out each February, PCB still buzzes on the lips of some pent-up students.
If you’re looking at northwest Florida for Spring Break, swim upstream and try Destin instead. This attractive coastal area feels miles away from the springtime rush. Excellent seafood and fun on the water will dominate your memorable family vacation.
Any other time of year, Panama City Beach is a tropical oasis. Consider visiting in summer instead. You’ll find refreshing Gulf waters and budget-friendly travel incentives such as the Summer White Sale.
In Destin, cozy inns vie with grand resorts to offer lodging that suits every budget and taste. Begin your stay with a visit to Henderson Beach State Park or Fort Walton Beach, where you’ll wander across powdery white sand that began its journey as quartz rock in the Appalachian Mountains.
Get closer to Destin’s fabled emerald water and with a fishing boat charter, dolphin cruise or glass-bottom boat tour. Or simply sample the day’s catch (grouper, mackerel or wahoo perhaps?) in one of many seafood restaurants lining the harbor.
Hikers will enjoy hitting the trails at Fred Gannon Rocky Bayou State Park, some 20 minutes north of Destin. Rocky Bayou connects to the Choctawhatchee Bay under the shade of beautiful long leaf pines, some more than 300 years old.
Blow off steam with the kids at one of several area amusement parks, such as Big Kahuna’s Water & Adventure or the Track Family Recreation Center. Each one is packed with different fun activities such as mini-golf, go-carts, arcade games, water slides and more.
Children may also enjoy getting a glimpse of local wildlife at Gator Beach, the area’s free alligator attraction. For more grown-up offerings, consider a parasailing adventure or hit the links at the acclaimed Kelly Plantation Golf Club.
Fort Lauderdale was a Spring Break destination as far back as World War II, and the 1960 film “Where the Boys Are” (in which college girls met boys while on break there) strengthened that reputation, as well as the fact that it is a college training area for swim teams from the Northeast.
By 1989, the local government had toned things down quite a bit, and bans on partying lowered the tally of spring breakers to 12,000 students, down from about 350,000 just four years earlier.
Today, Fort Lauderdale beach brims with upscale shops, restaurants and luxury residences. It’s a beautiful city … but 12,000 extra people on the beach each spring can still make for a heavy crowd for some folks. Consider traveling in early fall – September to November – and you’ll get the best deals while avoiding the rush.
Just a two-hour zip across Alligator Alley (I-75) from Fort Lauderdale, Marco Island is a secluded tropical alternative on Florida’s Gulf Coast. The island hosts four beachfront resorts, as well as smaller hotels and vacation rentals to suit any traveler’s needs.
The largest of Florida’s Ten Thousand Islands, Marco is the western gateway to the Everglades. It’s adjacent to hundreds of secluded outlying islands, so you’re just a quick boat ride away from undisturbed, shell-studded shores. Sailing and fishing trips are easily arranged, as are boat and kayak rentals.
The Naples Zoo at Caribbean Gardens are both just a short jaunt north, and an Everglades airboat tour awaits you to the south. Watch the airboat adventure video of VISIT FLORIDA’s Adventure Expert to get a taste of what you might encounter.
Day tours can reconnect travelers to forgotten Florida in Everglades City, or provide a window into wildlife and nature at Big Cypress National Preserve.
Get in some serious beach time at Tigertail Beach Park, popular with families for its tidal pools, offshore sandbar and playground.
Restaurants abound in Olde Marco, a shopping district where quirky boutiques nestle alongside historic buildings. Along the waterfront, discover even more ways to dig your teeth into seafood fresh from the boat.
As spring rolls into summer, Florida beach towns continue to welcome tourists with special incentives and hotel deals. Come back any time.