When there doesn’t appear to be an end to those cold winter days, wrap yourself in the feelings of warmth that always arise from thoughts of a spectacular Florida summer vacation. It is, after all, called the Sunshine State, and sunshine is the perfect answer to getting rid of those winter blues.

Florida also offers fun—fun for everyone, whether you’re traveling alone, or with family or friends—and you’ll find more to see and do here than virtually anywhere in the world. An ambitious boast to be sure, but just look at some of the many things you can experience on a Florida summer vacation.

The Beaches

Family fun at Panama City Beach. Photo by VISIT FLORIDA.

For starters, Florida is home to many of the best beaches in the country, including Hawaii. Over the past few years, many of the state’s beaches have appeared in various Top Ten lists issued by magazines, environmental groups or by others such as Dr. Stephen Leatherman, known as “Dr. Beach,” who is recognized as a rating expert. In 2005, Fort De Soto Park in St. Petersburg was rated America’s number one beach, and nearby Caladesi Island was listed as number two in 2006. But those are only two of the many that border Florida’s shores. Other beaches of note include many in the northwest area of the state, such as Pensacola, Panama City, Destin/Fort Walton Beach and the beaches of South Walton. The seaside attractions feature a variety of accommodations, quirky shops and unique restaurants and activities including snorkeling, parasailing, fishing and shelling.

Making your way down the coast from Northwest Florida, you’ll encounter a multitude of places that offer a beachside escape, such as Cedar Key and the Crystal River area. St. Petersburg and Clearwater sport 35 miles of powder-white barrier island beaches on the Gulf of Mexico. From isolated island hideaways to wide stretches of city beaches, you’ll find everything you need for a fascinating summer getaway.

Clearwater’s fine sand is a magnet for sun worshippers, swimmers and volleyball players, both amateur and professional. Pier 60 Park is a favorite recreation center on the beach that contains covered playgrounds, concessions and the opportunity to fish. During the year, the Pier is home to festivals, concerts, entertainment, and also is a great spot to watch the sunset.

Further south along the west coast, the Gulf Islands beckon with enticing cities such as Bradenton and Sarasota. This “cultural coast,” where the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico kiss the tranquil shoreline of Anna Maria Island, Siesta Key and Venice, is a favorite destination of local, national and international travelers. Anna Maria Island is a quiet refuge, with sugar-white sand and not much in the way of theme parks and water slides. There are no lines to worry about except tan lines.

Florida rivers are ideal for exploring nature. Photo by VISIT FLORIDA.

Siesta Key is your typical beach community: relaxed and casual. Outdoor cafes dot the streets amid beach boutiques, art galleries, salons, ice cream parlors and gift shops. In Venice, comb the beach for sharks’ teeth and you won’t be disappointed. The teeth may be black, brown or gray, depending on the minerals in the soil where they are found.

There are a great many reasons to visit Fort Myers, and beaches are only one good one. It’s hard to imagine Fort Myers Beach as a remote stretch of green edged with white, soft sand and accessible only by boat. However, that’s just what it was until the first “Little Bridge” was constructed to bring tourists and locals alike to the seven-mile Estero Island through Bunche Beach on the mainland. By the late 1920s, a new bridge was installed near the current San Carlos Bridge.

Little by little, Estero Island’s attractive features, including miles and miles of white sandy beaches, have captured the imagination of visitors from near and far. Boating, fishing and spectacular Lovers Key State Park make this island a real recreational playground.

In addition, there are a great number of family-friendly resorts, quaint cottages, restaurants serving fresh seafood and an annual Shrimp Festival. It’s a beach vacation paradise with Old Florida charm.

A bit more remote, but still a well-known vacation spot, are the islands of Sanibel and Captiva. Sanibel and Captiva are barrier islands connected to the mainland by a three-mile-long causeway that stretches from the southern reaches of Fort Myers out across Pine Island Sound, where the Caloosahatchee River empties into the Gulf of Mexico.

Created by nature to protect the mainland, the palm- and pine-tree lined islands are famous for their beaches and the incredible variety of shells on their shores. And also for their reluctance to allow too many intrusions of the modern world: there are no stoplights on either island, and buildings on Sanibel are “no taller than the tallest palm tree.”

Sanibel and Captiva have been used variously as stopovers for Spanish explorers and resorts for the rich and famous, including one very special cartoonist, Jay Norwood Darling, who helped create the more than 6,400-acre national wildlife refuge that bears his name.

Visitors to both islands enjoy not only the natural, ungroomed beaches, but also the languid pace of island life, great restaurants, theater, small museums and, of course, abundant native flora and fauna.

There are plenty of water sports available along the beaches. Photo by Naples CVB.

Naples’ pearl-white beaches help define the appealing escape from work-a-day doldrums. Just steps away from the storied streets beckon beaches made for basking leisurely or trolling for seashells. At the municipal beach, the Naples Pier juts into placid Gulf waters, a perfect place for sunset strolling or daytime casting. Lowdermilk Beach is family friendly, with volleyball and public facilities. Delnor-Wiggins Pass State Park remains in its most natural state, where loggerhead sea turtles nest in the summer and an observation tower surveys indigenous vegetation. Across the pass, Lely Barefoot Beach also combines the purposes of preserving nature and providing beach leisure.

Naples is the west coast access to the Everglades, a world of wetlands, salt and freshwater marshes, and tangled mangrove islands. Several wildlife refuges and parks protect the unique ecosystem, the largest being Everglades National Park, Big Cypress National Preserve and Ten Thousand Islands National Wildlife Refuge. Marco Island heads the vast area known as Ten Thousand Islands and is the largest island of all. It is made of three communities; the main one, Marco, is most well-known for its wide-coved beach and the fine resorts that are located along its shores.

Situated between Miami and the Caribbean­—both geographically and philosophically—the Florida Keys are altogether someplace else. Just as cleanly as they break from the mainland, they depart from mainstream tempos. Their easy-going attitude, renegade spirit and vibrant coral reefs make them a favorite destination for families, couples, watersports enthusiasts and escapees of all kinds.

The Overseas Highway interconnects the chain of keys, and it consistently gets named among the nation’s most scenic drives. While there are no top-rated beaches in the keys, there are many small beaches from Key Largo in the north to the veritable Key West at the southernmost point of Florida. In between, you’ll find pleasurable places to play in Islamorada, Big Pine Key, Marathon and many more. On Florida’s East Coast, beaches are just as abundant, but the characteristics—like Florida itself—vary enough to make it a tough choice where to vacation.

In the northeast section, just below the Georgia line, you’ll find peaceful, wide beaches lined with high sand dunes. Much of the coastline is rustic and untouched by development, and you can keep your days busy swimming, surfing or fishing, or simply snatch a beach chair and enjoy the view.

A string of beaches fronts Jacksonville, where restaurants, parks, shops and a variety of family-priced hotels keep the sands action packed. Jacksonville Beach runs into Neptune Beach, where the spirit is youthful and giddy. Explore local history at Pablo Historical Park, an interesting gathering of vintage structures. Adventure Landing attracts families with water park features, batting cages, go-karts and miniature golf. To the north, Atlantic Beach is quieter, with a fashionable hotel and a town center holding one-of-a-kind restaurants and shops.

The gentle manatee inhabits the state’s waterways. Photo by Palm Beach CVB.

Kathyrn Abbey Hanna State Park provides an out-of-the way beach where kayaking, freshwater fishing and hiking are popular sports. Where the St. Johns River meets the Atlantic Ocean, Mayport earns the city’s naval reputation as one of the busiest military ports in the country. To the casual traveler, it represents an interruption in Route A1A, the famed ocean-side drive of Florida’s East Coast. Instead of bridging the wide river, a car ferry system remains as a bit of Old Florida. The ride offers a glimpse to a once less-rushed time.

Time continues to peel away the years as you travel north along the Buccaneer Trail, the name Route A1A adopted to remember the region’s swashbuckling years. In the more recent era, Fort George was devoted to cotton, and Kingsley Plantation Historic Site chronicles those tales. Little Talbot Island State Park reaches to the bridge crossing onto Amelia Island. Tall white dune beaches and bayside sweeps of marshland where kayaking is popular, characterize the two waterfronts on long Amelia Island. Its historic American Beach is an important African-American heritage site. More beach accesses lie off Route A1A, including Main Beach, the center of waterfront activity, and Fort Clinch State Park, site of a Civil War-era fortification where rangers dress as Union soldiers. Through this pass, pirates of yore to shrimpers of today have made their way into a busy Victorian seaport known as Fernandina Beach. The town protects 50 blocks of its keepsake architectural gems. Many have been turned into exquisite bed and breakfasts and downtown shops and restaurants.

Step back in time to St. Augustine, America’s oldest settlement, and feel as if you are caught in a time warp. The town dates back to the Spanish conquistadores of the 16th century. Outside the Old City walls you still will encounter historic sites along with St. Augustine’s natural treasures, and across the Intracoastal Waterway is St. Augustine Beach. The beach is home to Anastasia State Park, where beachcombers, fishermen and surfers gather. Fort ruins round out the attractions.

One of Florida’s new “hot” destinations is Flagler Beach and the Palm Coast area. This 20-mile stretch of coastline and its sportsmen’s haven inland are just being discovered by visitors who value its proximity to resort and culture centers. Guests also appreciate its distant location from the stress and fast pace of urban centers. A1A Ocean Shore Scenic Highway spans a seven-mile stretch of Flagler County’s beach between quiet Flagler Beach and Beverly Beach. A bicycle/pedestrian path parallels the scenic corridor and provides recreation for the cyclist, jogger and peace-loving stroller.

Mammoth sea turtles nest along this all-natural coastline. Anglers catch fish from Flagler Beach Pier, and surfers catch waves. Two state parks line the beach. Gamble Rogers Memorial State Recreation Area is cradled between the Atlantic Ocean and the Intracoastal Waterway for the pleasure of campers, picnickers, swimmers and shorebirds. Huge coquina boulders and peaceful ornamental gardens distinguish the beach and Matanzas riverfront at Washington Oaks Gardens State Park. Once a plantation, its pedigree can be traced back to our first president’s family.

Cars still are allowed on Daytona Beach. Photo by VISIT FLORIDA.

Think Daytona Beach, and cars and beach immediately come to mind. Here the two meet to create a reputation for speed and good times. The reputation began more than a century ago, when car manufacturers tested and raced their horseless carriages on the hard-packed sands of Daytona Beach and neighboring Ormond Beach. In time, racing moved to Daytona International Speedway, home to the Daytona 500 each February. Daytona Beach is one of the few places left in Florida where you can still drive on the beach. The pace is quite a bit slower these days, and portions are designated pedestrian-only. Upscale hotels are bringing Daytona Beach into the 21st century, but the scene is purely boardwalk-beach classic, with carnival rides around the Main Street Pier, water sports and golf cart rentals, and surfing waves that would make Gidget swoon. The best surfing, however, is at quiet Ponce Inlet, where a salty village of casual restaurants and visitor attractions has gathered.

A drive-on beach like Daytona, New Smyrna Beach is quieter, with the feeling of a historic hometown off the beach. Its Apollo Beach is part of the extensive Canaveral National Seashore that continues to the south, all natural and minimally developed.

Cocoa Beach and environs have two well-publicized obsessions: space exploration and surfing. It’s commonly known as a part of the Space Coast, but lesser known assets round out the destination’s standing as a multi-dimensional and affordable place to visit. For starters, there’s vast protected wilderness and the fauna it attracts. City-side, museums, theater, orchestra and historic downtown villages where character rules over cookie-cutter all add to the vivid beach scene the coast paints.

The U.S. Government staked claim to a huge parcel of land for NASA’s John F. Kennedy Space Center and a buffer to surround the zone. This creates on Merritt Island a land of startling contrasts, where eagles soar within view of spaceship launchings. Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge protects not only bald eagles in its massive 140,000-acre embrace, but a host of endangered, threatened and other local natives including the manatee, wood stork and loggerhead turtle. It abuts Canaveral National Seashore, a lightly developed world of sand dunes far from civilization, save for the launching pads one can spy in the distance. Playalinda Beach is the easiest to reach; Klondike Beach requires a hike down the beach.

Visitors can take airboat rides into the Everglades. Photo by VISIT FLORIDA.

Melbourne Beach continues the coast’s reputation for gnarly board rides and carefree beach play. Accommodations here are mostly of the name-brand variety, and surf and beach shops make sure you’re ready to hit the sand and the waves. Fishing, kayaking, airboating, horseback riding, miniature golf and go-karting complete this picture of year-round outdoor pursuits.

There’s treasure in the seas around Ft. Pierce and Vero Beach, and it goes beyond the booty that lies at the ocean’s bottom, the result of the 18th-century wreckage of a Spanish plate fleet. It comes also in the form of quiet beaches, small-town charm, fragrant orange crops, and waves that make surfers skip work and forget to eat. The nickname “Treasure Coast” describes a lovely, untarnished stretch of coastline from St. Lucie Inlet to Sebastian Inlet that indeed earns the name in the figurative sense. But also in literal terms: The Treasure Coast is one of Florida’s least commercial, most affordable, less-crowded shorelines.

Sebastian Inlet State Park begins a natural stretch of beach and protected wilderness to the south that includes Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge. The nation’s first wildlife refuge, it is a rookery accessible only by boat in the middle of the Indian River. Island-side, Route A1A makes a gorgeous drive, alternating clean-shaven, upscale housing communities with natural, rugged beauty. Beach accesses along the way are family-friendly with playgrounds and facilities. Vero Beach is the only true metropolis on this island known as North Hutchinson. South of Vero Beach, nature takes over once again. Parks on the beach and leeward sides of the island protect sea turtles and mangroves, while Pepper Park in Fort Pierce is a favorite access for the beach. Bathtub Beach, located on the southern end of Hutchinson Island, is another great beach frequented by locals and visitors alike. A small reef about 100 feet offshore creates lagoon-like shallow waters that make this a favorite for families with small children.

Sea turtles come to nest on Florida’s coastline.

North of Fort Lauderdale, the coast continues with a stimulating metropolitan dynamic, but the level of exclusivity, wealth and cultural offerings jump up a notch. Perhaps that’s how it earned its nickname as the Gold Coast. Or perhaps it’s the golden sands that line 47 miles of beach. Palm Beach and West Palm Beach are all that glitters, but there are pristine places to get away from the jet setters. In Juno Beach, Loggerhead Park and The Marinelife Center of Juno Beach are committed to nesting sea turtles during the summer months and host turtle walks and exhibits. Jupiter Island and Hobe Sound become yet more withdrawn from the metropolitan world and more entrenched in the natural. Environmental champions include Blowing Rocks Preserve, Jonathan Dickinson State Park and Hobe Sound National Wildlife Refuge.

South of Palm Beach, the beachfront stretches to encompass a litany of upscale communities new and old, including Lake Worth, Manalapan, Boynton Beach and Delray Beach. Even the scuba diving in these parts is upscale, including the “wreck” of a Mercedes-Benz. This road to riches ends at Boca Raton, a beach community with much to offer families as well as lovers of the fine pleasures of shopping and dining. Visit the Gumbo Limbo Nature Center, Coconut Cove Water Park, Little Palm Family Theater and Children’s Museum. Try Mizner Park for shopping and Boca Raton Museum of Art for something more grown-up.

The fun in big-city Fort Lauderdale starts at the beach. The beach action centers along Atlantic Boulevard and Beach Promenade, popular with walkers, cyclists and inline skaters. At its heart, Atlantic Boulevard meets up with Las Olas Boulevard, the chic strip for shopping and noshing. Hollywood Beach presents an entirely different beach scene from Fort Lauderdale, with its so-called Broadwalk lined by beach shops and sidewalk cafes with a French-Canadian flair.

Vibrant and charged with the energy of Caribbean rhythms, Miami means big-city sophistication and seductive beaches. A few works of modern engineering made Miami Beach a sudden hotspot of the 1920s. With a colorful arts scene, world-class shopping, water sports splendor, professional sports and a load of family attractions.

For some extraordinary experiences, book a Miami-Dade Eco Tour. Tours include the signature ecosystems of the Everglades. Also available are tours to Big Cypress National Preserve, airboat rides, and Old Florida pioneer-style meals (including frog legs and alligator).

Many celebrities here live on islands along MacArthur Causeway, which leads to South Beach, a.k.a. SoBe, Miami’s noted district for entertainment. Ocean Drive, SoBe’s much-photographed street, faces a wide beach lined with historic Art Deco gems. Trend-setting Bal Harbour Village, at the northern tip of Miami Beach, is home to two oceanfront resorts and the Bal Harbour Shops, with 100 flagship stores and a number of eateries.

Back to top

The Attractions

Equally important to Florida vacationers is the opportunity to enjoy world-class attractions. Theme parks and other recreational pursuits make the state one of the most desirable playgrounds in the world.

The buzz about Florida’s theme parks all began in Orlando with the advent of the Magic Kingdom, the dream child of Walt Disney. Walt Disney World created the town of Lake Buena Vista, where its empire of fantasy continually grows. From Magic Kingdom in the beginning, the wonderful world has expanded to include futuristic Epcot, entertainment world’s Disney-MGM Studios, and nature’s Animal Kingdom. Throw in a couple of water parks, some miniature golf, a high-tech video arcade, golf and a huge sports complex with a Richard Petty racecar driving experience, and you have just about every entertainment base covered.

Finding Nemo—The Musical is new at Disney’s Animal Kingdom. Photo by © 2006 Disney.

Located inside the Walt Disney World Resort, The Buena Vista Palace Hotel and Spa offers guests special privileges, such as access to Disney golf courses, complimentary transportation to all Disney theme parks and dining with Disney characters.

Downtown Disney complexes provide the ultimate in shopping, nightlife and dining, using the same special effects and magic found in the parks. Resorts have kept up with the growth and many have themes spanning motifs from Caribbean to western lodge and from sports to music.

For a twin delight, experience the Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin Resort. Not only are the rooms spectacular, along with dining options and amenities, but guests can save time by using the waterways and walkways that take you to Epcot, the Boardwalk and nearby resorts.

When you become a Disney Vacation Club Member, you’re buying a real estate interest in an exceptional Disney Vacation Club Resort. You can enjoy the comforts and benefits of all seven Disney Vacation Club Resorts, and you also can vacation at dream destinations around the world.

SeaWorld Orlando brings a marine attraction element to the scene, but not without its own sense of drama and adventure. In addition to shows and exhibits starring Shamu the killer whale, dolphins, otters, seals, manatees, penguins, sharks and other denizens of the deep, SeaWorld thrills visitors with high-heart-rate rides and simulations. Its sister attraction, Discovery Cove, is the ultimate dolphin interaction experience, including a full day’s regime of snorkeling and private beaching. Water parks, dinner show attractions, hot-air balloon rides, an alligator farm, and an assortment of amusement parks keep up the momentum of non-stop fun in Central Florida.

Universal Orlando has transformed from a single theme park to a sweeping destination complete with two theme parks, an entertainment complex and three on-site hotels. Islands of Adventure and Universal Studios offer some of the most popular and family-friendly entertainment anywhere in the state.

Are you ready to be slimed? Then get set for an action-packed Orlando family hotel vacation like no other. Interactive entertainment is the name of the game at Nickelodeon Family Suites by Holiday Inn®. So put on your shades and be prepared to be blown away by the fun.

Less than an hour away, the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex is a gateway to the past, present and future of the nation’s space program. Daytona USA, the official attraction of NASCAR at Daytona International Speedway, keeps visitors grounded with simulator rides and IMAX Theater presentations of racing experiences.

Island One Resorts is a premier collection of themed condominium accommodations with complete resort recreation. There are seven resorts: Bryan’s Spanish Cove, The Cove On Ormond Beach, Liki Tiki Village, Orbit One Vacation Villas, Parkway International Resort, Crescent Resort & Spa On South Beach and Charter Club Resort Of Naples Bay.

In nearby Tampa, Busch Gardens Tampa Bay, Adventure Island, The Florida Aquarium, Lowry Park Zoo and the Museum of Science and Industry have been attracting visitors in droves for years. Busch Gardens is famous for its exotic animals, but to keep tourists coming, the park refuses to be content with the status quo, frequently adding new rides, shows and other adventures.

Shopping is a popular vacation pastime. Photo by St. Petersburg/Clearwater CVB.

For families who want a little more adventure and a little more togetherness on vacation, Florida delivers. To explore the outdoors together, Florida has another great destination awaiting you. The only subtropical preserve in North America, Everglades National Park is nature’s playground. With its luscious wetlands and more than 150 miles of canoeing and walking trails, this reserve will excite a family of nature lovers. Bring the kids and take part in a slue of outdoor activities, from hiking and bicycling, to camping in the wilderness.

Shopping continues to be a top family-friendly activity, and Florida is known for its enticing stores, malls and outlets filled with merchandise. For some of the best shopping, travel up the west coast to Northwest Florida. With both Destin Commons and the Silver Sands Factory Stores, Destin is a true shopper’s paradise. Located just a half-mile from the emerald green coasts of the Gulf of Mexico, both the mall and the outlet factory feature plenty of shopping.

For the perfect match of history, culture and beauty, visit Florida’s east coast and St. Augustine. St. Augustine amazes visitors with its ancient cobblestone streets and its quaint cafes. Charming bed and breakfasts enchant families with their relaxing atmosphere and almost-like-home feeling. A host of historical landmarks and attractions allow the kids to travel back to the early Spanish empire in the New World. St. Augustine also offers families a host of contemporary attractions.

So pack the car and gather the kids, grandparents and even your in-laws for a fabulous, fun-filled Florida vacation. Whether it’s the beach, a park, theme park or mall, go to an.VISITFLORIDA.com for great ideas so you can plan the perfect destination to suit all of your family’s needs.

Back to top

For information regarding change of address, tours, cruises, tickets, or merchandise, please contact the AAA branch office nearest you or visit www.nyaaa.com. Comments regarding the functionality of this site should be directed to webmaster@aaagoingplaces.com. All content copyright ©2007 AAA Going Places Magazine.