Topsail Hill Preserve State Park, A Perfectly Quiet Time
by Laura Spinale
My memory: A Sahara on the Gulf of Mexico? At Topsail Hill Preserve State Park, the sand dunes typically top 14 feet (with some reaching 25 feet), reminding me of all the Lawrence of Arabia movies ever made. It’s a rugged, dramatic landscape, this 3.2-mile shoreline fronting crystalline Gulf of Mexico waters. The sense of the beach being a destination getaway is enhanced by the wait for the tram at the park’s entrance – it runs hourly during the summer (these hours change in the winter), taking you through longleaf pine forests and pine scrub. (Miss the tram, and it’s a mile hike down to the water.) I meet some very friendly families from Alabama who are here with their RVs.
What you should do: Swim, fish, stroll along the shore – and remember to pack everything you’ll need, including sunscreen, food and drinks (the beach has no concession stands). Later, treat yourself to a nice dinner at Acme Oyster House at the nearby Village of Baytowne Wharf, part of the Sandestin Golf & Beach Resort. Try the crawfish etouffee and, for dessert, the New Orleans bread pudding.
What I’ll do next time: Check out the coastal dune lakes in the park. Found in Topsail and in surrounding Walton County, these lakes create an outfall that flows into the Gulf of Mexico. This leads to ever-changing levels of salinity in the lakes (and makes for great fishing). Topsail’s Gregory E. Moore RV Resort also will be on my itinerary. As the dents in my poor little Honda Civic attest, I will never think of handling an RV on my own. Instead, I’ll spend my time in the furnished cabins, available for weekly rental.
Cedar Key, A Tucked-Away Town
by Amy Nance
My memory: Driving 20 miles along a quiet state highway with untamed trees and palmettos growing thick and wild until finally I reach Cedar Key – a place rich in New England seaside ethos. I see art galleries and shops on Dock and 2nd streets, rusted roofs in the early morning sunlight and seafood restaurants, and I feel a small-town, slowed-down vibe. I love to take an Cedar Key Boat Rentals & Island Tours to Atsena Otie Key to see the site of the old Faber Pencil Mill.
What you should do: In October, go to Seahorse Key, an established rookery. You can also catch the annual Cedar Key Seafood Festival, held in October, when Seahorse Key’s historic lighthouse is open. And you can’t leave without sampling the blue crab and clams – try Tony’s Seafood downtown.
What I’ll do next time: Grab beer and burritos at local favorite Blue Desert Café. I’ll hang my hat at Mermaids Landing – nine kitschy Cracker cottages from the 1950s – and then scope out the books on/about/from Florida at Curmudgeonalia on 2nd Street.
My memory: It may have been the happiest moment in my dog Sassy’s life when she saw Flagler Beach. Not many Atlantic beaches welcome our water-loving canine friends. Our family, Sassy included, stayed at The Topaz, a small motel/hotel facing the beach. The hotel portion, a former 1920s residence, was filled with antiques and collectibles, and the dog-friendly motel rooms came with beach views.
I fell in love with Flagler’s unpretentious, small-town ambiance with limited high-rises and chain restaurants – just charming homes, a half-dozen shops, six motels and two bed-and-breakfasts along 11 miles of historic and scenic A1A.
What you should do: Walk the trails at the Betty Steflik Memorial Preserve. Then lunch with the locals at High Tides at Snack Jack, which serves buckets of bottled beer and mouthwatering mahi mahi reubens.
What I’ll do next time: Although I know Sassy loves water, she’ll stay on land while I kayak at the nearby Bulow Plantation Ruins Historic State Park.
Gulfport, A Feast of Color
by Samantha Crespo
My memory: Years ago, I stormed the karaoke stage at O’Maddy’s Bar and Grille. Now I rock the sleepy Sunday circuit, chasing butterflies through Veterans Memorial Park to adjacent Williams Fishing Pier. I study the town and its oak outline, interrupted by spindly palms that tell you they’ve been there for ages. Up close, yellow hibiscus and electric purple bougainvillea explode outside bungalows tinted coral and lime. Even the mailboxes masquerade as flamingos, flaunting pink next to picket fences.
What you should do: Walk Shore Boulevard South to feel the pull of two town signatures: water and watering holes. Then, let the two co-exist. Grab a patio table at any one of the bar-and-grills for drink specials with a view of Boca Ciega Bay. For dinner, pick from Italian, French, South American, Greek, British, Mexican and fusion. Head up Beach Boulevard for a different taste.
What I’ll do next time: I’ll convince my man to dance the tango with me at the historic Gulfport Casino. Then we may pretend we really are on vacation and stay at the Sea Breeze Manor, a bed-and-breakfast across the street from the beach.
Orlando, Again and Again
by Chelle Koster Walton
My memory: At age six, my son Aaron was tickled by the loveable E.T. Adventure ride at Universal Orlando Resort but terrified by the wild Back to the Future motion simulator. Fast-forward several millennia to age 18: Back to the Future has been replaced by The Simpsons Ride, and we could not get enough of it. Aaron’s all about the thrill rides now, and this animated one throws in humor as a bonus. I had to ride twice to make sure I caught all the great theme park-satirizing one-liners (in true Simpsons style). Of course, we had to do E.T. one more time.
What you should do: Aquatica, a one-of-a-kind waterpark that could only come from SeaWorld. Immersing guests in the playfulness of the sea, Aquatica blends up-close animal experiences, waters from serene to extreme, high-speed thrills and wide, sandy beaches to create an amazing family vacation.
What I’ll do next time: Eat once more at Emeril’s Restaurant Orlando in Universal Orlando Resort. Named for celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse, the restaurant dishes up his signature brand of New Orleans-style cuisine. I once had a rock shrimp and pineapple soup there – lick-the-bowl, ask-for-seconds incredible! Menu regulars come in kicked-up flavors, such as Creole-marinated calamari with smoked tomato sauce, andouille-crusted redfish and almond croissant bread pudding with amaretto crème anglaise. Is your mouth watering yet?
Pine Island, The Florida Time Forgot
by Cathy Salustri
My memory: I like to think about crossing over the Matlacha (matt-la-shay) drawbridge onto Pine Island and watching mangroves fall away to reveal an Old Florida fishing village. Instead of beaches, walls of state-protected red mangroves prop the 34-square-mile island up on green water, preserving the slow lifestyle of the 10,000 folks who call Pine Island home.
What you should do: Pine Island supports a thriving arts community, most evident along Pine Island Road, where you’ll find loose groups of art galleries and restaurants housed in shacks splashed in coral, yellow and pink and topped with corrugated tin roofs. Cast a line at the Matlacha bridge, known for almost a century as the world’s “fishingest” bridge, then celebrate your early morning catch at The Perfect Cup, where locals go for fresh crab omelets. Finish your morning browsing art galleries before stopping at Pork Bellies for a Porky Potato or piece of baklava.
What I’ll do next time: I’ll check out one of Pine Island’s Florida's Creative Coast Weekends (November to April); the next day, rent a kayak from Calusa Ghost Tours and paddle the Great Calusa Blueway.
Stuart, Small-Town Style
by Jenny Lee Allen
My memory: On my first trip to Stuart, I paddled through pristine waters, listening to frogs sing. Later, I dined on seafood caught just hours earlier. I remember thinking: This is Florida the way it used to be. Located on the Treasure Coast, Stuart is close to West Palm Beach but stands out for its small-town charm, simple pleasures and access to nature, including world-class beaches and parks.
What you should do: Stroll through the historic district, stepping into eclectic shops like Earthtones for one-of-a-kind finds. Settle into a wooden booth at The Black Marlin and load up on Caribbean conch cakes and fried soft-shell crabs. Hike, kayak and camp at Jonathan Dickinson State Park, where you can explore an old alligator trapper’s cabin and learn about his life as the “wild man” of the Loxahatchee River. When night falls, sip cocktails and dance to live music on the tiki-style patio at Wahoo’s Riverhouse, which overlooks the St. Lucie River.
What I’ll do next time: Splurge on a Key West-inspired room at the Inn Shepard’s Park Bed and Breakfast and unwind on the wrap-around patio. See a play at the Lyric Theatre, built in 1925 as a silent movie house and now headlining performances from around the world. Charter a boat and cast a line into the Atlantic to fight for a sailfish, the fierce gamefish for which the city is known.
Key West, Tropical Island Perfection
by Kara Chalmers
My memory: I like to muse about the morning when we hit the beach at Fort Zachary Taylor Historic State Park – this, after breakfast with mimosas (made with fresh-squeezed Florida oranges, of course) at Blue Heaven, where roosters walk among the tables. Later, we strolled around Old Town, checking out gingerbread mansions and cooling off with chocolate-dipped, frozen Key lime pie-on-a-stick from Kermit’s Key West Key Lime Shoppe.
What you should do: Celebrate the sunset, mojito in hand – whether aboard a vintage schooner with cocktails, hors d’oeuvres and a lesson in raising the sails, or seaside, from the bar on Ocean Key Resort’s Sunset Pier. Head to the Sunset Celebration, that nightly transformation of Mallory Square into a a nightly street carnival with buskers, or street performers, and vendors. Dine on authentic Cuban cuisine – after all, Key West is only 90 miles from Havana. My favorite: El Siboney Restaurant, where everyone speaks Spanish, and it feels as though you’ve left the States altogether. After dark, check out 801 Bourbon Bar for nightlife that’s a little out of the ordinary (the upstairs cabaret offers drag shows nightly).
What I’ll do next time: I’ll be excited to try El Meson de Pepe, a Cuban restaurant on Mallory Square that features great food and a local salsa band.