I admit to my bias. I love Florida. The sun, the fun, the beaches, the people, the food, and the amenities. It really doesn’t get any better for a family vacation. Our children are between 10 and 13 so exploring and doing different things is a big part of what we look for when we go on vacation. Our most recent trip took us to Florida’s beautiful St. Pete’s/ Clearwater (http://www.floridasbeach.com) a pristine sandy peninsula located on Florida’s West coast, bordered by the Gulf of Mexico to the west and by Tampa Bay to the east. It is home to both Caladesi Beach, America’s No. 1 beach in 2008 and Fort De Soto Park, America’s No. 1 beach in 2005. There are 35 miles of white-sand beaches on some eight major barrier islands. Many popular Florida attractions such as Busch Gardens in Tampa, the Walt Disney World Resort, Sea World and Universal Studios Escape in Orlando are just a short drive away. For our stay we wanted to do local things in the Clearwater and Tampa area. Having briefly toured Tampa in 2005, we wanted to revisit its historic cigar manufacturing section called Ybor Village. But that would come later. First St. Pete’s/Clearwater.
The town is truly a beachfront location. There is a great pier jutting out from the beach that is a central attraction both day and night. The town organizes nightly themed events on and around Pier 60. You can also fish off of Pier 60. Fishing poles and bait rent for about $15.00. One of the highlights of the trip was spending two nights on the well lit Pier 60 with my son as we cast our lines trying to catch greenback fish. The local anglers were pros. Part of the fun is just chatting with them and watching their technique. Strategically placed lights underneath the pier allow you to watch the fish swim. That evening my son and I felt as though we owned the Pier, especially as he managed to wrangle up a stone crab in front of a crowd of impressed spectators. A popular but very expensive meal in Florida and one not usually caught on a fishing pole! We managed to get the stone crab off the line with our fingers still intack and toss it back into the sea. My son was pretty excited about all the attention. One of those “Kodak moments.”
There are all kinds of neat activities in Clearwater for families with kids. Spend an afternoon at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium (http://www.cmaquarium.org/cms/), the world’s most-watched marine life rescue and environmental education center. The CMA works to restore and preserve Florida’s marine life & environment. Its stranding response team is one of the United States most successful. Many of the sick or injured animals they rescue are released after rehabilitation but some become permanent CMA residents due to the extent of their injuries. Residents include Winter the dolphin with her prosthetic tail, sea turtles and river otters. As a nonprofit organization the CMA has a dolphin show that helps raise money for the centre. They also rely on public generosity for funding. The majority of the facilities staff are volunteers. The highlight of the visit was a two-hour boat trip aboard the Sea Life Safari on Florida’s beautiful intracoastal waters. We saw dolphins, sea birds and other marine life while a CMA staff member narrated the scenic ride. The kids were able to assist the guide as he dropped a net into the water and pulled it out. It was full of shells and different species of fish and other marine life. Each item in the net was removed and the kids got to touch, feel and gently pass around the sea critters before releasing them back into the bay. Our children absolutely loved this experience. (And so did we!)
Accommodations are the highlight of any good trip. If you visit Clearwater it really doesn’t get any better than the beautiful Sandpearl Resort (http://www.sandpearl.com). Situated along 700 feet of pristine beachfront property in the heart of Clearwater, the Sandpearl Resort is the first new resort to be built on Clearwater Beach in 25 years. It has exceptional modern amenities while capturing both the tradition and historical glory of old Florida. The entrance to the sprawling yet comforting lobby features spectacular high ceilings and beautiful artworks worthy of a fine art gallery. There are dozens of big comfy classy chairs and a wonderful coffee bar off to the side. The grand lobby windows look directly out onto the Sandpearl’s ocean beaches and poolside amenities. The mezzanine is filled with the low key but wonderful omnipresent sounds of a grand piano. We were guests in a beautifully decorated self contained family suite that featured high ceilings, two bedrooms with ensuite baths, a living room, dining area, a snazzy kitchen with all the amenities including a washer and dryer – great when travelling with kids. The floor to ceiling windows overlooked the shoreline and made for spectacular sunsets. All rooms and suites are nonsmoking. The Sandpearl staff is very friendly and knowledgeable about both the Sandpearl and the St. Petersburg/ Clearwater area. Whether we made dinner in our suite or ate at one of the Sandpearl’s restaurants, we could always count on a spectacular sunset to set the ambiance as we dined. The Sandpearl Resort has two wonderful restaurants. The Caretta on the Gulf is a world-class culinary experience featuring an array of South American, Caribbean and other international inspirations. If you enjoy sushi, The Ceviche, Sushi and Raw Bar offers a fresh daily selection of local seafood. The resort also features an extensive collection of wines from around the world. The Caretta on the Gulf is two levels above the beach with indoor and outdoor seating — a wonderful culinary experience. We loved the Tate Island Grill which is poolside and opens on to the beach. It has a laidback and casual cuisine which is great for lunches and snacks while basking in the Florida sun. At dusk, the staff light up the Sandpearl’s beachside fire pit. There are enough chairs for everyone to sit around and recover from the day’s activities.
The hotel website says that “Sandpearl is a comfortably elegant beachfront retreat that enriches the spirit and inspires the soul.” I don’t think I could describe it any better! You know you are in a great spot when you don’t want to leave!
After 4 days in St. Pete’s/Clearwater we hopped into the van and headed 30 minutes east to the beautiful city of Tampa. Tampa Bay is a lush sophisticated city with a rich history, wonderful people, spectacular beaches, piers, golfing, cultural attractions and sports facilities. If you’re an Ottawa Senators fan, arrange a trip to Tampa during a week when the Senators are playing the Tampa Bay Lightning. There are so many great things to do in Tampa that you may wish to plan ahead to get the most out of your trip (http://www.visittampabay.com). We wanted to visit the Tampa Aquarium and the historical city within a city called Ybor City (pronounced EEbore). Situated in the heart of Tampa Bay Ybor is a small city rich in history and culture. Don Vicente Martinez Ybor, an influential cigar manufacturer and Cuban exile, moved his cigar business from Key West to Tampa in 1885. Other cigar factory owners quickly followed suit and before long “Ybor City” was the cigar capital of the world, populated by thousands of Cuban, Spanish, Italian and German immigrants. That reputation endured until the emergence of Fidel Castro and the embargo on Cuban tobacco. It is now designated as one of three National Historic Landmark districts in Florida. Today, Ybor City is a fusion of Tampa’s past and present where the majestic architecture of cigar factories, wrought iron balconies and brick-lined walkways, meet modern-day galleries, shops and restaurants to form a unique and extraordinary entertainment district. Ybor City is a walking city and has an array of restaurants, bars and nightclubs. The Ybor City Museum has a vast collection of riches and information that celebrates the fascinating heritage of Ybor and provides insight into the history of Florida. It was well worth a visit as we were able to better understand the linkages between race, culture and wealth in 19th century America. Afterwards, we walked down the street for lunch at the wonderful Columbia Restaurant. Owned and operated by the same family since 1905 the Columbia is Florida’s oldest restaurant and the world’s largest Spanish restaurant. The Columbia received the “Distinguished Restaurants of North America (DiRoNA) Award of Excellence” in 2005 and also earned a Golden Spoon award as “One of the Top 25 Restaurants in Florida” in 2005 from Florida Trend magazine. Decorated in beautiful wood, brass and tile, it features several sprawling yet intimate dining rooms, a world class wine list and a menu that presents a delicious array of culinary delights. One of our waiters had been with the restaurant for 50 years. Make sure you go back for dinner to see the nightly Flamenco Dance show. This restaurant and Tampa Bay landmark is a must-see on any trip to Tampa.
We also recommend that you visit the Salvador Dali Museum (http://www.salvadoredalimuseum.org) and the Henry B. Plant Museum (http://www.plantmuseum.com). Built by railroad magnate Henry Bradley Plant, in the midst of the sand swamps that was Tampa; Plant constructed the most astonishingly magnificent hotel of its day and filled it with treasures from around the world. With its splendid Moorish architecture, opulent furnishings, and spectacular tropical gardens, Plant’s Tampa Bay Hotel attracted a host of celebrated guests, from Teddy Roosevelt to Sarah Bernhardt to Babe Ruth. A visit to the Henry B. Plant Museum and the authentically restored rooms of the Tampa Bay Hotel is like a trip back in time.
For our tip to Tampa however we wanted to have accommodation from “modern times” and we stayed at the Saddlebrook Resort, which is just 30 miles north of Tampa International airport, and easily accessible from downtown Tampa. Home to the Arnold Palmer Golf Academy and a world renowned professional training center for both tennis and golf, The Saddlebrook features phenomenal golf and sports facilities, luxury accommodations, spa getaways, a kid’s camp, and golf and tennis lessons and vacations. It is also the home of 45 tennis courts, a half million gallon swimming pool, and multiple facilities for business conferences, weddings or other family celebrations. It is fully wired and has a business centre. The resort has over 800 deluxe guest rooms and we chose suite accommodations of two- bedrooms and kitchen. Our room was situated in a lush area close to the pool and other amenities with internet connectivity and every other modern convenience you would wish. Our children spent most of our two days at The Saddlebrook in the pool. We did venture out for a Canoe Escape on the Hillsborough River (http://www.canoeescape.com). Canoe Escape is located only 12 miles from downtown Tampa and 10 minutes from Busch Gardens. It was founded in 1991 by the Faulk family. Canoe Escape offers both self-guided and interpretiveguided paddling adventures.
Our 2-hour canoe experience was all downstream, which meant less time paddling and more time enjoying the surroundings. As we coasted our canoes through this cypress swamp full of Florida’s unique flora and fauna, I was very much focused on the alligators that were at times feet from our canoe lazing away on logs or on the nearby shore. Apparently they don’t bite or eat humans because they are not fed by humans and are quite full from eating other things! Still I was, well….petrified. But the guides were experienced and had all the safety precautions in place and my kids loved the whole atmosphere. As the river bends and turns it is hard not to be lulled by its beauty and abundant wildlife. From our canoe we sighted white ibis birds, deer, turtles and hundreds of songbirds.
To cap off our trip we headed across Florida’s world famous Everglades toward Fort Lauderdale. Highway I-75 east, aptly named Alligator Alley, is a fascinating drive. Not unlike a drive across the Canadian Prairies except there are tropical wetlands on either side of the highway which are home to many unique species. Our kids were glued to the windows counting alligators as we drove.
Fort Lauderdale is Clearwater’s larger, hip cousin. Known as the Venice of America, it is a major yachting centre with marina’s seemingly in every direction. We stayed at the beachfront Pelican Grand Beach Resort (http://www.pelicanbeach.com). With 156 suites, it is a sophisticated, luxury, colonial retreat. The beach is so close that you feel you can reach out and touch it. And yes, there are pelicans. We delighted in their low flying diving shows. The kids spent their days between building sand castles and swimming on the beach to tubing on the poolside lazy river. Our daughter was particularly proud of her 100 simultaneous tubing loops. Meals at the hotels’ North Ocean Grille on the beachfront veranda were a definite highlight. The atmosphere was magical and the menu featuring local favorites and American classics pleased both the children and us. The staff were magnificent. — very family friendly.