Visit Florida - with Your Travel Pod

    By Kellilynn Hann

    Before COVID-19, the best way to de-stress and recharge was to take a vacation. But what about now? How do we get out of the house and get away with minimal risk?

    For many travelers, the solution is to form a travel pod — a group of people from different households who quarantine, travel, and lodge together in ways that minimize exposure and ensure safety and a good time. Florida leads any list of desirable nature vacations.

    Travelzoo’s Senior Editor Gabe Saglie told Lonely Planet: “Going as a pod ... will appeal to many intrepid COVID-era travelers simply because it affords them the ability to travel at all.”

    According to TripAdvisor, “61 percent of U.S. travelers are more likely to consider outdoor or nature trips” than before the pandemic started, with Florida topping the list of preferred destinations. “Key Largo, Key West and St. Pete Beach are among the fastest-recovering U.S. destinations since last year.”

    Stephen Ekstrom, pictured here, has taken two travel pod vacations in Florida since the pandemic began. “I traveled to Disney with a group of friends in March of 2020 and to the Everglades with family in August,” he said.

    Stephen Ekstrom, pictured here, has taken two travel pod vacations in Florida since the pandemic began. “I traveled to Disney with a group of friends in March of 2020 and to the Everglades with family in August,” he said.

    - Stephen Ekstrom


    Stephen Ekstrom has taken two travel pod vacations in Florida since the pandemic began. “I traveled to Disney with a group of friends in March of 2020 and to the Everglades with family in August,” he said.

    “To prepare, we each got tested 7-10 days before the trip and quarantined right up until the day we met. It was well worth it to be safe and spend time together.”

    When they started visiting attractions, Ekstrom said, the evidence of added safety measures put him at ease. “Everywhere we went, staff were cleaning, wearing masks, and guests had plenty of room outside to spread out while waiting. There was enough social distancing that we didn’t worry about being too close to others.”

    Ekstrom believed moving as a tight-knit group would be restrictive, but it turned out to be an advantage. “Traveling this way allowed us to have a much more intimate experience. It used to be that we would all go do our own activities, but because of the pandemic the focus was on staying together.”

    “There weren’t any issues,” he said. “Care for family and care for one another… it’s something we all have in common.”

    Travel-related businesses all over Florida have committed to extra steps to ensure visitors’ safety. Hertz has implemented a 15-point cleaning system, Airbnb is requiring hosts to agree to an enhanced cleaning policy, and attractions are limiting the number of guests allowed per day.

    Christina Soverns Schwartzman, owner of Sawgrass Recreation Park in Fort Lauderdale, said she and her staff are strict about following CDC cleaning and distancing protocols.

    “We’re a family-owned business, so the health of our team and guests is very personal, Schwartzman said. “There are hand-sanitizing stations throughout the park, everyone wears masks, we regularly wipe down surfaces, and we disinfect the boats before every ride.”

    Even though it’s been a long period of extra work for everyone, Schwartzman stressed she keeps her team vigilant. “We’re not letting our guard down. We want everyone to be safe.”

    When you’re ready to assemble your Travel Pod and get some much-needed R&R, here is some social-distance-friendly trip inspiration for your next Florida vacation.

    NORTHEAST FLORIDA


    Jacksonville -St. Augustine

    In St. Augustine, America’s oldest city, much of the fun and enlightenment occurs in the safe outdoors. Forts, colonial landmarks, and nature experiences highlight a trip to Florida’s Historic Coast.

    Start your tour at the Plaza de la Constitucion, the oldest public space in the country. Then head to Ponce de Leon’s Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park, Castillo de San Marcos, and Fort Mose Historic State Park.  St. Augustine also boasts Atlantic beaches and dozens of golf courses, so take the entire crew out for a round.

    In Jacksonville, visit Yellow Bluff Fort Historic State Park and Fort Caroline National Memorial. For nature adventures, head to Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve, Big Talbot Island State Park and Little Talbot Island State Park (known for uncrowded, driftwood-covered beaches), and Amelia Island, where you can ride horses on the beach.

    NORTHWEST FLORIDA

    Gainesville – Tallahassee – Pensacola

    Florida’s freshwater springs – glass-clear and a constant 72 degrees -- are natural playgrounds for swimming, snorkeling, or a lazy paddle. Around Gainesville, Gilchrist Blue Springs State Park, Ginnie Springs, and Ichetucknee.Springs State Park are well-known destinations to recharge in a serene natural setting. Devil’s Den and Blue Grotto are underground meccas for certified divers.

    This Country Estate on 44 private acres is close to the springs and has its own fishing pond.

    There are so many trails in Tallahassee (more than 700 miles of them) that the visitor’s bureau has created Trailahassee.com, a website that lets you search trails by activity, terrain, and difficulty. The Great Bicycle Shop rents bikes.

    To finish out your tour of northwest Florida, stop in Pensacola, a beach-lover’s paradise with miles of sugar-white sand and turquoise water. To avoid crowds, head to Perdido Key or Pensacola Beach within Gulf Islands National Seashore. The clear water attracts dolphins as well as people — book a private charter with Chase-N-Fins or Dolphin Express Charters to see them for yourself.

    Two vacation rentals on Pensacola Beach your group will love are this modern beachfront home that sleeps 30 and this Tuscan-inspired mansion right on the sand.

    CENTRAL FLORIDA

    Orlando – Kissimmee

    In the Theme Park Capital of the World, there are more than 34,000 vacation homes in the Kissimmee and Orlando area. there are more than 34,000 vacation homes in the Kissimmee and Orlando area. With that kind of selection, you will have no trouble finding the right fit for your group.  

    Magical Vacation Homes in Kissimmee offers more than 100 stand-alone homes with 6 or more bedrooms, (with names like Happily Ever After, You Only Live Once and Great Escape Manor).

    Bringing easily bored teens? Solterra Estate has an arcade-style game room plus Xbox system with gaming chairs.

    Want everyone to eat dinner together? Reunion Castle has a dining table that seats 25.

    Want your own private theater? Chef’s kitchen? Poker table in the living room? Beds with slides? If you can dream it, you can probably find it.

    Though your vacation home will provide plenty of entertainment, there are lots of outdoor activities in Central Florida that allow for social distancing. Try the KICCO Wildlife Management Area, Lake Kissimmee State Park, or stroll the grounds of Orlando’s Harry P. Leu Gardens.

    Westgate River Ranch Resort & Rodeo has luxury teepees and glamping tents as well as horseback riding, cookouts, bike rentals, and mini golf.

    Westgate River Ranch Resort & Rodeo has luxury teepees and glamping tents as well as horseback riding, cookouts, bike rentals, and mini golf.

    - Westgate River Ranch Resort & Rodeo


    Lake Wales - Sebring - Lake Placid – Okeechobee

    If you crave the quiet of nature, Florida’s central lakes area is the place to be. Spend lazy days fishing, stroll or bike along the 109-mile Lake Okeechobee Scenic Trail, and savor sunset cocktails as you swap stories.

    It’s easy to find a lakeside home your whole group will love. This Lake Clay home has a private sandy beach and boat dock. This Lake Placid home comes with fishing poles, paddle boat, game room, and hot tub.

    For the ultimate in back-to-nature relaxation, try the Sunshine Grove Lodge in Okeechobee, an 8,200-square-foot luxury lodge on 800 private acres that you’re free to roam.

    Westgate River Ranch Resort & Rodeo has luxury teepees and glamping tents as well as horseback riding, cookouts, bike rentals, and mini golf.

    CENTRAL EAST COAST FLORIDA

    Cocoa Beach - Merritt Island - Vero Beach - Fort Pierce

    The central east coast of Florida is a string of quiet towns linked together by hundreds of miles of sun, sand, and waves. With plenty of beach to go around, you’re almost guaranteed to find a quiet slice of paradise all to yourself.

    Stay in this historic 1937 Cocoa Beach home with panoramic ocean views, or choose Golden Sands Emerald vacation home which has a private beach and tennis court.

    Another jewel of Florida’s east coast is the Intracoastal Waterway, one of the most biodiverse estuaries in North America. With these vacation rentals, you’ll be walking distance from both the beach and the Indian River Lagoon. You’ll drool over Bella Vista (a luxury mansion with private beach and no neighbors), Eden Beach Retreat, La Dolce Vita, and Restoration Sands.

    If golf is your game, Perfect Drive Vacation Rentals at PGA Village offers Stay & Play Packages. Rent a villa or townhome and get a free round of golf per night of stay, plus other perks.

    CENTRAL GULF COAST


    Tampa - St. Petersburg - Clearwater

    With all the gorgeous waterways in the Tampa Bay area, it’s no wonder finding a boat to rent is a breeze. Get My Boat is the Airbnb of boat rentals, offering access to a variety of watercraft. If you’re in the mood and market for luxury, try Tampa Bay Yacht Charter or Sunburst Yacht Charters.

    Here’s a small sampling of boat rentals for large groups in the Tampa Bay area.

    Book a private tour along the Manatee River with seating for up to 44 people. Bradenton Beach Marina has a 30-person Playboat, or you can go fishing on a 56-foot Passenger boat with up to 49 people.

    For downtown Tampa night life, create your own bar crawl by renting a Pirate Tiki boat and see the lights and sights while enjoying your favorite drinks.

    Caladesi Island State Park, a perennial on lists of America’s best beaches, is accessible only by boat and relatively uncrowded. Paddlers will enjoy Hillsborough River State Park, Desoto National Memorial Park, the 7,400-acre Cypress Creek Nature Preserve.

    Spend hours photographing tropical plants at Marie Selby Botanical Gardens in Sarasota.

    Spend hours photographing tropical plants at Marie Selby Botanical Gardens in Sarasota.

    - Marie Selby Botanical Gardens


    SOUTHWEST COAST


    Sarasota - Naples - Fort Myers - Sanibel - Captiva - Marco Island

    Islands, rivers, and white sand beaches. World-class fishing and golf. Dozens of wildlife refuges, parks, and botanical gardens. Your group could explore this area for months and never run out of outdoor activities. Here are some ideas to spark your imagination.

    Enjoy a lazy day relaxing on the beaches of Siesta Key, Manasota Key, or Cayo Costa State Park, then treasure-hunt among the 250 types of shells you’ll find on Sanibel and Captiva islands.

    Spend hours photographing tropical plants at Marie Selby Botanical Gardens in Sarasota or take the family on a deep sea fishing charter.

    Get your birdwatching fix at J.N. Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge, kayak Estero Bay Preserve State Park, or take an Eco Endeavors tour around Ten Thousand Islands.

    SOUTH FLORIDA

    Fort Lauderdale - Miami - Everglades

    South Florida is a favorite for destination weddings, but since the pandemic began it’s become even more popular.

    “Couples had weddings planned overseas or with hundreds of people,” says Adrienne Sasson of Rubinsohn Travel. “Due to the pandemic, they’ve had to revise their plans by changing location and limiting the number of guests.”

    Sasson shared that Miami, in particular, has so many choices in venue. “Great weather means there are tons of outdoor spaces, from botanical gardens to rooftops overlooking the city.”

    Even for a travel pod being extra careful, Sasson says there are options. “For maximum social distancing you can rent a luxury yacht or book a beachside mansion that doubles as a venue and lodging. There really is no end to the possibilities.”

    Get your party-planning wheels spinning by checking out The Ancient Spanish Monastery, Redland Koi Gardens, and Vizcaya Museum and Gardens in Miami as well as Flamingo Gardens near Fort Lauderdale.

    THE FLORIDA KEYS

    Nothing could be more socially distant than being on your own private island. Surprisingly, you don’t have to be a rock star to vacation on one. East Sister Rock Island is a luxury home surrounded by its own coral reef for on-site snorkeling. Seabird Key is a cozy tropical paradise with a cypress lodge, swaying palms, hammocks, and an outdoor kitchen.

    If you don’t need that much privacy and would rather have drinks delivered to you on the beach, Sunset Key Cottages has 40 homes on a 27-acre island accessible only by ferry.

    Thinking Key West or bust? There are dozens of stand-alone home rental options like Palm Breezes with private pool and dock, or this classic Old Town Key West home.

    Sailors and snorkelers can rent a private sailboat, enjoy Fort Zachary Taylor Historic State Park and Key West National Wildlife Refuge, or make a day trip to can’t-miss Dry Tortugas National Park.

    An arial view of the BG ranch in Ocala.

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