Dry Tortugas: from seaplane to snorkeling

TradeWinds Island Resort, flying over the Dry Tortugas, surfing lessons - family vacations with teens can be fun!

By Aaron and Chelle Koster Walton

It begins well before the official teenage milestone, 13. The "do I have to go along?" pre-vacation whine.

I started hearing it from Aaron as a 'tween-ager. Gone were the days when I could excite him with visions of swimming pools and slides, sandcastle beaches, amusement park rides and the mere thrill of staying in a hotel.

These days, it takes strategy and cunning, but I have learned the secrets to making family getaways teen-irresistible. At least I believe I have.

My son's views may differ from my mom-vision of photo-album family vacations. It wouldn't surprise me; they differ on nearly everything else.

Sticking firmly to my delusions that I know Aaron, however, I designed three Florida teen vacations. I'll tell you about them; then he'll weigh in. See for yourself how my scheming and orchestrating pan out.

Check out the view from TradeWinds Islands Resort

TradeWinds Island Resorts on St. Pete Beach

Mom's View

Teens. They're always perched on the brink of boredom. In mother's vision, that means a mere skateboard ride or basketball game keeps them separated from that cigarette or beer to tempt them down the wayward path. In terms of vacation, the more imminent threat is driving parents crazy.

Aaron, having a travel writer mom, is more susceptible to dreaded teenage vacation ennui (TVE) than most. He's had to help research kid-friendly resorts, water parks, interactive museums, scuba courses, space camp and Caribbean islands all his life. It's brought on early onset TVE.

Recently, however, we found a place practically in our backyard that hedges against TVE. TradeWinds appeals to kids of all ages and is perfect for Florida teen vacations. Those tiny ones are easy. Give 'em some glue and glitter or let 'em loose on the beach with a bucket and they're entertained for hours. Every resort does that - well in Florida anyway, it seems. Most of them, however, blanch and stick their fingers in their ears like a willful child when you mention the dreaded T (as in "teen") word.

TradeWinds Islands Resort seems to realize that teens still like to do some of that crazy kid stuff as long as you have other teens doing the same.

Also important for teens: Lots of options. They tend to jump from one thing to another and then back again. In addition to dive-in movies, bungee trampoline and Splash Island water park, there's glow-in-the-dark volleyball and miniature golf. And there's the beach. At this resort, there are plenty of fun things to do in Florida with teenagers.

But the big attraction: The High Tide Slide. It's like a bounce house and a three-story slide in one. Because it's inflatable and soft, it's safer than regular water park slides. Two kids can go down together, bounce off each other, crash at the end, and come up laughing. I didn't hear Aaron and Grady complain once of boredom. They did resort to bouts of TV and in-room video games however. Word of advice: Turn on parental controls so they can't order costly games and movies unbeknownst to you.

Some other pluses for teens: Pizza Hut Express with an ice cream shop right on property, paddleboats around the property's quarter-mile canal, parasailing, kayaking and other beach activities. All proven cures for TVE.

Teen's view 

I'd say TradeWinds is not a "sit around and watch TV" hotel. It's more of a "get out and do something besides becoming a mold or a fungus or something" place.

Snorkeling at Dry Tortugas National Park

Key West and Dry Tortugas National Park

Mom's View

Our last night in Key West, Aaron plopped on my bed and gave me a big hug. "Thank you for a great trip," he told me. "I didn't really want to come but I had a great time." This, from the mouth of my teenage son! I was more shocked than you, but stay tuned and you'll learn the secret of a happy mother-teen weekend together.

Begin with Key West. Yes, it's a party town and I don't believe we saw another teen. But I decided pre-driving was the perfect age because they're still too young to get into any trouble, especially if they're with you. Nonetheless, traveling on vacation with a teen is something like playing darts. (Well, for me - a hopeless failure at the game - anyway.) Sometimes you miss the board completely; other times, when you're really trying to hit 19, you score a bull's-eye.

So when Aaron and I headed off to Key West alone together, I assembled suggestions. Sitting in the co-pilot's seat on Cape Air's eight-seater Cessna 402 from Naples? Not cool, evidently. Aaron declined. The haunted night tour? Thumbs down, although he did want to see the Old Cemetery I'd described. I scored some other points as well. The Conch Cruiser, for instance: we rode around in one of these fancified electric cars for three hours and it was a great way to see the Old Town area on our first day there. (The Conch Tour Train: definitely for the single-digit set.)

We spent the rest of the day shopping and eating our way down Duval Street, Old Town's storied main drag. Many teens love to shop, especially if you're buying for them. (Do you see a pattern emerging here?) Aaron got a surfing T-shirt, mom got custom-fit toe rings. We ate fudge at Mattheessen's. Then we collapsed for a siesta in our room at Ocean Key Resort & Spa. One must rest up for Key West after dark.

Our balcony gave us the perfect view of Mallory Square and its Sunset Celebration, but eventually we just had to trade in roles as spectators for participants. Conch fritters and Key lime shakes, a human statue and a paint bucket drummer: it's touristy but nonetheless quintessential Key West. Not a big score, but not a loser suggestion in any case. Aaron was more anxious to hit Ripley's Believe It or Not! (rating an inner ring score on the dart board) and afterward do Duval, which became his favorite pastime. Why not? Food, shops and perhaps the best people-watching in the world, if you're a fan of the bizarre. It gives Ripley's a run for its money.

Saturday morning, after a room-service breakfast (a luxury Aaron adores), we caught a seaplane flight to the Dry Tortugas. Perfect! We especially loved the flight and Aaron, who is quite good at this sort of thing, spotted sharks, rays and one sea turtle from 500 feet up. We toured Fort Jefferson and Aaron took pictures, then we grabbed our snorkeling gear and plunged into the November-chill waters. Saw lots of fish around the wall of the fort's moat and Aaron spotted a huge barracuda. Stone crab, Aaron's favorite, for dinner at Ocean Key's popular and populated Sunset Pier, and it was back to Duval, where I bought Aaron a second surfing T-shirt he'd been begging for. And thus the hug. This Florida teen vacation idea was a smash hit. It has taken me a couple of years to figure this out, but if you want quality time with your can't-be-seen (no less TRAVEL)-with-you teen, it's gonna cost you. Because hugs from your teen are charge-card-commercial priceless.

View of the docks in Key West


Teen's View

Southernmost Point? Mile 0? Party Town? It all comes down to one island, Key West. There are tons of adventures to embark upon while visiting Key West. I took advantage of this island starting right when we got there.

First, we rented one of those hyped-up golf carts and rode around for an hour or two. We drove all around Duval Street. It didn't take us too long before we ended up going through a busy one-way street going the wrong way. Credit goes to Mom. Then we decided to visit the local graveyard where there are supposedly funny headstones, but to my disappointment we had no luck in finding them.

After we returned the cart we decided to walk around a bit to shop and dine. We checked into our room and took a little break. Then, after I woke up from my endless slumber, we went to Ripley's Believe It Or Not!, which was fun. There were some pretty wacky exhibits. We walked around some more, and after I grabbed a sandwich, we headed to our room at Ocean Key Resort & Spa.

The next morning, we arrived at the airport to board a seaplane that would fly us to the Dry Tortugas, which I totally recommend. First we explored the fort, taking pictures and enjoying the views. After our journey through the fort, we decided to take a snorkel break. Since it was November, the water was freezing!!! Well, I'm from Florida, so Mom tells me I'm spoiled that way. But I guess it paid off because we got to see some spectacular marine life along the moat walls of the fort.

Then we piled into the seaplane to head back. Later, we took off to eat some food and watch the sunset. When we were finished, we walked on the pier seeing all the performers doing strange but cool tricks. One dude was bangin' on some plastic buckets as drums; he was pretty good. We enjoyed our last night out on the town.

The next day (our last) we ate the best meal I had on our vacation at Pepe's. It was an old, off-beat restaurant with very tasty breakfasts. Then we packed up, got on the plane, and took off to come home. Southernmost Point, Mile 0, party town: yep, they all define Key West.

Jensen Beach - just steps to the surf

Surfing the Treasure Coast

Mom's View

I have learned in the past three years the three magic words to raise my son's excitement level toward vacationing with us: 1) friend (as in "you can bring one along"); 2) East Coast (as in Florida); and 3) surfing (as in waves, not the Web).

Our favorite place to surf is the Treasure Coast, particularly St. Lucie County, so that's where we headed. Aaron, who has been surfing since age 11, needed his technique tweaked, although he'd never admit it. I suggested a lesson. He disputed. I signed him up for a lesson. He protested. I wanted to gauge the school's abilities with beginners as well as "seasoned" surfers such as Aaron, so I suggested he bring along a friend with "dry feet" (an un-anointed surfer). He suggested Brittany. I balked; I wasn't sure she had "the stuff." He insisted that she was dying to learn. And that's how the three of us landed on Jensen Beach in Dad's pickup with two surfboards sticking out the tailgate.

Because Florida teen vacations include staying up late and sleeping in, it's always best to book accommodations that thusly accommodate. Vistana Beach Club, with its roomy two-bedroom suites, fit the bill. Best of all, it was as close as you could get to the water and the rolling, booming waves looked awesome right off our balcony, teasing the teens into a frenzy when we arrived.

Vistana Beach Club is near a number of small, family-appropriate restaurants, and more importantly, to Sunrise Surf Shop. For, as I have discovered, the greatness of a surfing destination depends on more than the size and glassiness of the waves. The number of quality surf shops figures importantly. So after a visit to Sunrise and tasty pizza at Brock's Surfside Grill & Pizza, we rested up for early (by teen standards) 9 a.m. lessons.

Geoff, owner of the surf school and Brittany's instructor, and Jason, Aaron's intermediate instructor, met us in the parking lot of Waveland Public Beach, appropriately named for our surfing safari. The kids were as pumped as the waves and once fitted with wet suits, began their individualized lessons. On the beach, Brittany learned about types, shapes and dynamics of surfboards while Aaron learned what mistakes he was making waxing his board. Brittany practiced springing up on the sturdy foam board Geoff had provided; Aaron and Jason hit the waves, using the ocean to carry them out to the big breakers.

Brittany and Geoff worked with shore break and my qualms about Brittany's zeal soon washed away as she took a beating and went back for more. A couple of hours into the lesson, she made it to her feet. When the two and a half hours were up, both were tired and exhilarated. Jason had helped Aaron, one-on-one, to pop up more quickly on his board and improve his timing. Brittany, triumphant, had proved to all those disbelievers (evidently I wasn't the only), that she could do it. "It's hard!" she told me, "but that's what I respect about it. Not everyone can do it."

The success of the day called for a visit to another surf shop, Surf Central in Stuart, and a nice dinner on Fort Pierce Inlet at Mangrove Mattie's. We toasted a great day of surfing. It's definitely one of the most fun things to do in Florida with teenagers. I went to bed, exhausted, while they who actually physically exerted themselves stayed up and relived the day until it turned to the next.

Hydrobiking in Stuart

Teen's View

I was counting down the minutes 'til I was called out of class for my surfing trip. When the announcement came I sped out of school - who wouldn't? I was waiting for this trip forever. It had been postponed over and over but it finally came true. It was about four hours before we finally reached our hotel, Vistana Beach Club. Once I got in our room, I checked the surf from the balcony and I was stoked. I wanted to get at those waves as soon as possible. Tomorrow I would finally get a turn. I hadn't been surfing for weeks because we don't often get big waves on the west coast.

The next day we woke up fairly early, for me at least, and we got into the truck and headed off for "Waveland," which didn't really match its title; the waves had been bigger at our hotel. When our surf instructors arrived we hopped into our wetsuits and we were ready to hit it off. We walked south toward Vistana.

Of course there was some preparation, for Brittany more than me. I learned how to apply wax correctly; apparently I wasn't doing it right. Then we dove into the surf. Jason (my surf instructor) and I chatted awhile 'till a set came and we took off. I had fun, I learned a lot, and I couldn't wait to go surfing again.

While we were in Jensen Beach we also checked out a lot of surf shops and Mom bought me a cool new Volcom rash guard. I had my doubts about surfing lessons but it turned out for the best and I had fun.

Surfing at Sebastian Inlet State Park

Bonus Teen View

By Brittany Speakman, 15

(And now we hear from a teen girl point of view...)

"Are you ready for this?" Geoff (my surf instructor) said. "Um - no!" I replied. "Here's your wave, take it!" and the next thing I remember happening is wiping out. It was so awesome!

It started out on a Friday afternoon. My best friend Aaron was taking me on a trip I would never forget. We stayed in a way-cool hotel called Vistana's Beach Club. The view was so amazing; I had to take pictures because the beach on the east coast seemed so different from ours on the west. That first night was so much fun, I remember being so stoked about having my first surfing lesson the next day. Being there with my best friend and having this opportunity of a lifetime was more than I could ever have asked for.

The next morning it wasn't hard for me to get up and get ready, I was way too excited to be tired! We drove to a place on Jensen Beach called Waveland. When our surf instructors got there we had to put on wet suits, which sure was an interesting adventure for me! My instructor Geoff was so understanding and patient with my lack of balance and agility. After he taught me a little surfing history and some of the basic knowledge needed to surf, we headed out for the waves. He made me take every "baby" wave that came, and I'm glad he did. After many attempts to stay on the board and actually ride a wave I did it. Well, for a few seconds anyway.

I had so much fun that whole weekend. I learned the basic techniques to surfing, I learned how truly brave and courageous surfers are, and I learned how to face my fears and have fun. It was definitely something I will always remember and take with me for the rest of my life.

Family day at Cocoa Beach