After last summer’s hugely successful trip to New England and Wisconsin, we decided that this year we would return to return to the States.
This time we planned to try out the family holiday hotspot of Florida. Although late summer is not the best time to visit, we took the risk. We experienced the humid heat and brilliant sunshine of the State, plus the tropical storms. Most fortunately we returned a week or so before Irma hit.
I knew Florida had much more to offer than the glitz of Miami and excesses of Orlando, so was determined to seek these out when we planned our itinerary.
After the simple and amazingly stress free flight to Miami, we picked up our hire car and drove up the East Coast to Boca Raton for a few days of R&R. We were staying at the renowned Boca Raton Resort & Club which is very popular domestically, but less on the radar for the UK market.
Photos: The Boca Beach Club and The Grand Estate from the Intercostal Waterway
Overall the resort was very impressive. The fact it’s also a beach and country club for the local elite, really adds to the ambience giving you the chance to watch and converse with the Boca Raton residents. It’s split into 3 hotels each connected by a shuttle bus (with a boat connecting the main hotel and the Beach Club on weekends).
The main hotel, or Grand Estate as it is known, has an “Andalucian Villa” feel to it, with all exteriors in the iconic mellow pink, there are rooms in the main building, some in the Tower Building which offer spectacular views and some on the waterfront overlooking the marina and waterway. With an upscale country club atmosphere, the vast scented main lobby is surrounded by the immaculate verdant golf course, elegant croquet lawns and the small harbour filled with impressive boats. Across the intercostal waterway is The Boca Beach Club, a hotel in it’s own right with a contrasting modern “beach chic” design. With elegant eating spaces, 3 pools including dedicated family and adult pools, kids club and a full serviced beach area, there is little need to leave if you are looking for some intensive R&R. The Bungalow building is about 5 minutes away from the Grand Estate in the shuttle bus, so very separate from the other hotels, they have a good communal pool but no other facilities, representing a much more affordable option whilst giving full access to all the facilities of the resort.
We enjoyed our time in Boca Raton, but after 4 days it was time to pack up the car and head to the very north of the State. We took the scenic route, through Palm Beach passing some amazing beachfront residences, as well as the historic town of St Augustine where the Spanish first settled in 1565. The route not only offered quite spectacular coastal scenery but also a chance to see contrasting sides of Florida, the ultra-wealthy areas and the small working towns.
Our destination was Ponte Vedra Beach, just outside Jacksonville, where we were visiting friends. Ponte Vedra Beach is home to the PGA Tour headquarters and the reason our friends settled here. It’s home to the TPC Sawgrass golf course which annually hosts The PGA Players Championship, regarded as the 5th Major. They say in Florida, the further north you go, the more Southern it gets, I would hold this true to Ponte Vedra; although a great place, it has a less cosmopolitan feel to it. With not many international flight connections this is an area neglected by the international traveller; no bad thing as this adds to the experience. The locals live a charmed existence in a near permanent summer, surrounded by beautiful golf courses and chic beach clubs. We visited the Ponte Vedra Inn and Club which is a private members country club with two luxury hotels, I was blown away not only by the hotel but also by the style, ambience and facilities of the beach club, not to mention the vastness and emptiness of the beach, a far cry from the busy beaches of the South. I would highly recommend visiting this area to anyone looking to get away from the tourist route and experience some real Florida charm. Not forgetting it’s also great for golf enthusiasts!
Photos: Ponte Vedra Inn and Club Mini Golf at Sawgrass
Our next stop was Orlando, which as far as our children were concerned was the only reason we were in the US. The past 3 months had been building up to this occasion, with a daily “when are we going to Disneyland”. I was beginning to feel the pressure of it living up to expectations.
Organising and planning a first-time trip to Disneyland can be a minefield, so I hope our experience will come in useful for future clients. I won’t get down too much into the nitty gritty in this post, but anyone who does want the nitty gritty please give me a call. One thing I will say is that Disneyland Florida is far bigger than I had ever imagined, you can barely scratch the surface in 1 day, I would advise a minimum of 2 days and 3 if you might also want to visit one of the water parks. In summary, the days in the Park exceeded the children expectations and they loved not only meeting their favourite Disney characters, but also the rides. For us the parents it was wonderful to share this with the children, though also a bit of an endurance test, managing the navigation, carrying the supplies and keeping the children hydrated in the humid heat. It was an eye opening experience, which should be planned precisely. I would advise booking early and staying in a resort hotel for many many reasons.
After a truly memorable time in Orlando, we set off for the Gulf Coast; our destination the island of Sanibel. This small island is just off Fort Myers and is connected to the mainland via a long causeway. As soon as you arrive onto the island, you immediately sense the relaxed “island vibe”, a unique atmosphere I’ve experienced on islands the world over. With one road dissecting the island and large cycle lanes, you get the feeling this is a place where people go to unwind, and this is exactly what we needed after a busy few days in Orlando.
Photos: Sanibel Island
The island is renowned in the US as a mecca for Sea Shell enthusiasts; being a barrier island huge numbers of shells are washed up on it’s fine sandy beaches throughout the year. The profusion of shells provided hours of entertainment for the children; collecting, washing and using them to decorate sandcastles. We stayed in the Sundial Resort, one of many “condominium” resorts on the island, essentially a group of privately owned 1,2 and 3 bedroom fully equipped apartments, with a communal “beach club” with restaurants, pools, bars and watersports facilities. This worked really well, giving us plenty of living space and the option to cook some healthy fare for ourselves. Most of these condominiums also have communal gas barbecues, should you like to have a “cook out” as the Americans say. We could have happily spent a week at Sundial, there was an excellent pool with a little water slide for the kids, a superb beach with kayaks and SUP’s, a shaded outdoor games area and a good range of bikes for exploring the island. Sadly though 2 nights was all we had as we had a date in the Everglades.
We took the scenic route through the charmingly rustic and colourful Fort Meyers Beach and then down to the popular holiday city of Naples. I made time to stop and check out a couple of popular beach hotels. The La Playa Beach Resort, which has always had good feedback from customers, was undergoing quite extensive renovations and will be looking great when they are finished in late Autumn. The much larger Ritz Carlton was looking in mighty fine fettle, this large beach resort is perfect for couples or families looking for some luxurious beach pampering. Overall, I liked the feel of Naples; easy to reach from Miami and certainly has a more relaxed feel to it with great protected beaches, so is especially good for young families. It’s within easy reach of Everglades and there is a day boat to Key West which makes for a great day out.
Photos: Everglades City
Having “city” in the name is a mammoth overstatement, Everglades City is in fact a small former trading outpost on the northern edge of the Everglades National Park. The town has immense rustic charm a complete world away from the vast luxuries of Miami and Naples; we compared it to an Amazonian forest trading settlement, seemingly remote and cut off from the rest of the world. As we arrived into Everglades, eagerly awaiting the arrival of my sister and her family, the heavens opened and we experienced a Florida storm for the next 2 days, with an excessive amount of rainfall. This was due to hurricane Harvey which was hitting Texas at the time. The rain definitely added to the “wetlands experience”. We took an Air Boat tour which was hugely exhilarating and very informative; our dare devil guide was “at one” with the Alligators and we got very close to these intriguing creatures. Everglades City was a captivating base and it was great getting back to nature. There is plenty to do in the area for a 1 or 2 night stay, there are nature viewing decks and visitor centres dotted throughout the National Park, from these you can enjoy good views inside the murky swamp waters and normally a glimpse of some of the fish, an alligator or two and some of the bird life; we saw lots of Egrets and a few Heron.
Our next stop was the Florida Keys, somewhere I was particularly keen to visit, having long looked at pictures and maps of the Overseas Highway, linking all the little islands or “Key’s”. We stayed on Key Largo, the first Key from Miami to cut down on the driving. Key Largo was slightly underwhelming, it’s proximity to Miami has made it quite over developed. On arrival, we visited The John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park for some snorkeling, the calm shallow waters were teeming with fish, so was a wonderful introduction to snorkelling for the children. The next day we ventured further to explore the outer Key’s, deciding to spend the morning on the beautiful Sombrero Beach, before taking the drive across the spectacular 7 Mile bridge to the Bahia Honda State Park which has a host of spectacular beaches. You can easily spend the day here exploring the different beaches, all of them renowned as some of the best beaches in America. They offer snorkelling tours and stand up paddle boarding as well.
Photos: Evening stroll on Key Largo and John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park
As our time in the Keys was limited, we however decided to make one little girls dream come true, and went to see some dolphins, at the wonderful Dolphin Research Centre on Grassy Key. It was the perfect spot to experience the beautiful dolphins, whilst avoiding the large “sea show” entertainment. The Dolphin Research Centre looks after a number of Dolphins born into captivity as well as rescued or orphaned dolphins. The facility is open to the public (entrance $28) and you are free to walk around the different lagoon pools and talk to the trainers and researchers, which was fascinating. The atmosphere is very relaxed so you are free to ask as many questions as you like, and learn about their training technique and the characters of the individual dolphins. The centre also offers swimming with Dolphin experiences and full day “researcher for the day” or “trainer for the day” programmes.
Photos: Dolphin Research Centre
After a final morning swim in the ocean and picnicking on Islamorada, we headed to Miami for a final 2 day city stop. It was early evening by the time we arrived, and as we were based on South Beach, we decided to head out for a walk. It was great to see some of the classic Art Deco buildings and the iconic South Beach hotels; The Delano, The Ritz, and The Betsey. We took a quick walk along the beach and came across some some very friendly police officers on quad bikes…the kids had a great ride!
Photos: Miami South Beach and Wynwood Arts district
For our only full day in Miami we took an open bus tour, to give us a good overview of the city in a short space of time. Our first stop was the Wynwood Arts district, famous for it’s great graffiti buildings as well as it’s huge abundance of contemporary art galleries. Even those with no interest in contemporary art, can easily be captivated by the creativity and vibrant colours. It’s full of interesting shops, cafes and galleries, and we wished we had more time to explore, but the rest of the City was calling. The next stop was Little Havana for lunch, we had been recommended a restaurant called “Versailles” which is widely acknowledged as one of the best Cuban Restaurants in the US. It certainly did not disappoint, inside the large restaurant there was a great mix of Cubans, businessmen, tourists and local miami residents. The menu was great for novices to Cuban foods as they offer selection sample platters with a little taster of their most iconic dishes like “Picadillo” ground beef, roast pork, sweet plantains, ham Croquette, cuban Tamale, and cassava with Cuban mojo. Recharged and with our bellies full we were back on the bus, and headed back to the marina for a sightseeing cruise around Biscayne Bay. This gave us a spectacular views of the Miami Skyline as well as all the stunning residences along Millionaires Row and Fisher Island. Then all that was left was a last dinner in the marina, before it was time to say goodbye to Florida and the holiday of a lifetime. We thoroughly enjoyed our time in Miami. As a city holiday destination it really does have it all; great hotels, beaches, amazing restaurants and nightlife, arts, culture, sports
I would highly recommend Florida as a year round destination for young, old and all in-between, the summer months are very hot and humid, but we did find it manageable, through November to April would be the ideal time to visit.