Two Tanks of Gas

Eight pretty cool staycation spots you can drive to without spending a fortune

 

You know you’re going to do it. Sure, times might be tough, airlines have raised fares, and there’s no knowing when gas prices will spike again. But the Constitution guarantees Floridians — like all Americans — the right to a summer vacation.

Okay, it’s not exactly squeezed between Freedom of Speech and the right to stockpile an arsenal, though it might as well be. Come war, famine, or pestilence, the American family will, in June or July or August, take time to frolic and bond.

Yet in these days of austerity, that vacation could be shorter, cheaper, and closer to home than before. In that spirit, Biscayne Times has come up with a few getaway suggestions, all within Florida, from the Keys to the Georgia border. We even included one right in our own backyard.

Many of these destinations offer discounts to Florida residents, along with summertime specials. All can be reached with two tanks of gas or less. (Our highly scientific calculations were based on how far a 2012 Chevy Tahoe SUV can take you with two fill-ups.)

An intrepid BT correspondent ventured in person to several locations, while the information on others was gathered by phone, Internet, and e-mail. Most were referred by people who have been there and done that, or who have special knowledge of the Florida hospitality landscape.

One particularly valuable resource is Sal Dickinson’s website FloridaVacationAuction.com, which is affiliated with VisitFlorida.com, the state’s official tourism organization. Dickinson, a veteran of the hospitality industry, used eBay as a model to design his site, in which hotels and attractions offer packages through a time-limited bidding process. Some of the deals are truly amazing.

So let’s pack up the car, grab the kids, and hit the road!

 

Westgate River Ranch Cowboy Theme Park Resort

3200 River Ranch Blvd.
River Ranch 33867
863-692-1321
wgriverranch.com

If you feel South Florida isn’t fulfilling your whoopin’ and hollerin’ needs, head up the turnpike to River Ranch. It’s roughly 175 miles northwest of Miami and 25 miles from anything else. This is about as close to the classic dude ranch as you’ll find in these here parts. River Ranch motto: “Unleash you inner cowboy.”

With pet-friendly accommodations that range from standard inn rooms to 1400-square-foot, one-bedroom cabins with wrap-around porches, the ranch offers horseback riding, skeet shooting, archery, airboat rides, dinner hay rides, a petting zoo, a big swimming pool, a full-service marina, and most impressive, a Saturday night rodeo that features acrobatic horseback tricks, barrel racing, and bull riding.

During a recent trip to the ranch, it’s clear that Ray Duncan, rodeo master of ceremonies, takes his job seriously, urging the hundreds of eager people in the stands to cheer for the riders — be they girls racing nimble pintos around a series of barrels or young men trying to stay on the back of a bucking bull.

“This is not a funeral! This is not the opera!” Duncan shouts to the audience from atop his own mount. “You have the ability to make electricity in the arena. If there’s any red in your neck, you can show it tonight!” And that just about sets the tone.

As the sun sets and the moon rises, the audience claps and yahoos when one of the bull riders stays on for more than a few seconds; groans when he is thrown off; and everyone laughs when the bulls, with names like Banana, Old School, and Gangster, decline to return to their pens, taking star turns around the grounds, snorting at the audience, charging and feinting at the attendant horsemen. Kids are especially entranced by it all.

The rodeo bleachers are filled with River Ranch guests — many from Tampa or Miami, others from as far away as South Africa — but also with quite a few area residents. One telling observation: No one, not a single person, was seen yakking on a cell phone or texting obliviously.

River Ranch is clean and well-kept, the grounds nicely landscaped under a canopy of majestic oak trees draped in Spanish moss, where you might glimpse a crested caracara, also known as a Mexican eagle. In fact wildlife abounds, thanks largely to a neighboring 7000-acre wildlife management area. A 13-mile stretch of the rustic Florida Trail is accessible as it winds through nearby wilderness. Oh yes, there’s also an airfield on the property — for the pilots among us.

The ranch animals seem relaxed, even in the petting zoo, with its little goats, donkeys, and other creatures to delight eager young children.

Sunday morning calls for riding, and the horses are also low-key during two hours on the trail. In pastures you can see grazing horses and their foals, cows, calves, and bulls, some of which had starred in the Saturday show. A thrilling airboat ride down the Kissimmee tops off the trip.

Many of the accommodations are time-shares, so the décor varies, though they are always spotless and well-equipped. You can dine at one of three on-site eateries or prepare your own meals at your cabin, a nice option for those who like to cook.

River Ranch has been around since the 1960s. Westgate Resorts bought it out of bankruptcy, about a decade ago, says Mark Waltrip, COO of the company, which operates a number of other resorts. “We dumped a ton of money into it and rebuilt the whole thing.”

Florida residents get ten percent off the best available rates. Add-ons are extra. The rodeo is $15.50 for adults, $8 for kids. Horseback rides are $40. And archery? Five buck for all the arrows you can shoot.

 

TradeWinds Island Resorts

5500 Gulf Blvd.
St. Pete Beach 33706
727-360-5551
www.justletgo.com

For some reason, many of us who live along the Biscayne Corridor need to cross Alligator Alley in order to feel like we’ve really gone someplace different. Call it the Everglades effect. There’s something transformative about passing through a wilderness ruled by alligator and egret, though Miami to Naples is only two hours.

One Gulf Coast vacation option worth considering is “Winter’s Dolphin Tale Getaway,” at TradeWinds Island Resorts on St. Pete Beach Island. The three-night package, beginning at $591, includes resort lodging at either the TradeWinds Island Grand or the sister property, Sandpiper. Also included: a dolphin watch cruise for two — and a plush toy dolphin, plus two tickets to the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, home to Winter, the dolphin that inspired the 2011 movie Dolphin Tale. Winter, whose fluke was damaged by a crab trap, was rescued and ultimately received a prosthetic tail.

An especially enticing draw for families is the TradeWinds Grand’s 15,750-square-foot water park and playground — for those kids who just have to spend all day in the water. The feature, unveiled last year, includes water slides, climbing equipment, the “Rockit” inflatable island, and many other slipping and sliding treats.

This year the resort, with 20 acres of beachfront, is luring guests with the JetLev, a water-propelled jetpack that lets you soar to heights of 30 feet at 30 miles an hour. You could be James Bond in Thunderball!

“Over the years, we’ve put in a lot of resources,” says Travis Johnson, vice president of marketing and a 12-year veteran of the resorts. The recent program additions — from partnering with the Clearwater aquarium to the new water park and electric surfboards, the JetLev, not to mention the Gyrosphere, a contraption that lets guests spin and twirl away their vacation days — are all part of creating an experience to remember, says Johnson: “We really want to make it, nationwide, noticed as a top family destination.”

Meanwhile the nearby Sandpiper will soon become the first Guy Harvey-branded U.S. resort. (Two others are located in the Bahamas.) Harvey, an entrepreneur who advocates sustainable sport fishing, sells shirts and other gear at many retail outlets. Harvey also funds ocean conservation and research, and in 1999 established the Guy Harvey Research Institute in collaboration with Nova Southeastern University’s Oceanographic Center. “He’s an international brand, and we were looking at ways to create a difference with Sandpiper,” Johnson explains.

Florida residents can take advantage of a 15-percent discount promotion. Both properties also feature a scratch-off ticket with prizes ranging from free beverages and a beach towel to a $500 gift card.

 

Hawks Cay

61 Hawks Cay Blvd.
Duck Key 33050
888-395-5539
www.hawkscay.com

For many of us, another gateway to that feeling of escape is the Overseas Highway. The Florida Keys take some of the ingredients in the Miami mix — sun, sand, boating, and fishing — and puts them at the top of the recipe.

For those who want a luxurious experience with an island flavor, Hawks Cay may be the place. It’s mid-Keys, at Mile Marker 61 on Duck Key, and boasts five swimming pools, a private lagoon, and an adults-only section — while also offering a variety of programs for kids. In 2007 Northview Hotel Group acquired the property, which dates from the 1960s. The company invested more than $35 million in renovations. “The hotel building was taken down to the studs and renovated,” says Hawks Cay marketing director Jennifer Dinan, giving the building a “Tommy Bahama feel. I always tell people from South Florida: Our island is like you have left the country and gone to the Caribbean. It’s a completely different world.”

At the 60-acre property, which includes hotel rooms and villas, the emphasis is on water sports, including diving, snorkeling, and fishing — not to mention paddle-boarding, kiteboarding, and kayaking. It also offers the JetLev. Hawks Cay’s Calm Waters Spa was ranked in the top 25 in North America by Travel + Leisure’s “World’s Best Awards” in 2009 and 2010.

Guests can also interact with four raised-in-captivity dolphins that live in an ocean enclosure at the resort. Dinan says that Hawks Cay’s dining options also set it apart. The upscale Alma is Hawks Cay’s signature restaurant. “It’s especially impactful for South Florida guests because it has a Latin culture and flavor, using European cooking techniques,” she says.

Hawks Cay always gives a discount to Florida residents — 15 percent in summer — and for the fourth year will host its Heroes Welcome program, from August 20 to November 18. This offers military, fire and rescue, law enforcement, and medical personnel rates starting at $99. Other visitors who donate $2, which goes to nonprofits benefiting first responders and those who serve the country, get 20 percent off the cost of their rooms. Says Dinan: “Every year it’s gotten bigger and bigger and more exciting for all of us.”

 

Parmer’s Resort

565 Barry Ave.
Little Torch Key 33042
305-872-2157
www.parmersresort.com

Staycationers willing to venture into the lower Keys will find a different experience altogether at Parmer’s, on Little Torch Key, between Marathon and Key West. The 46-unit resort is about 40 years old. “There really was a Parmer, a husband-and-wife,” says Parmer’s general manager Sandy Sledge.

Having been bought by Jay Marzella in 1998, Parmer’s remains a one-owner property, an increasingly rare status in the modern hospitality industry, and reminiscent of an earlier Florida. Rooms have been remodeled and updated, and the docks have been resurfaced and refurbished. Parmer’s proximity to a variety of parks and conservation areas attracts lovers of nature.

“We have a lot of naturalist types,” says Sledge, hastening to add she doesn’t mean that in the nudist sense, but in the outdoors sense. “Kayaking is big,” she adds, “and we’re a very big fishing spot.” Many guests take advantage of the kayaking tours offered by author and well-known Keys naturalist Bill Keogh.

Parmer’s is close to the renowned Looe Key National Marine Sanctuary (spectacular coral-reef snorkeling), and the Adolphus Busch Sr. and the USNS Vandenberg (popular with wreck divers). Parmer’s is also near Key Deer National Wildlife Refuge, Bahia Honda State Park, and the Great White Heron National Refuge.

Sledge says the magic of the area turns many guests into repeat customers, who love lounging around the pool or watching the sun set after an active day.

The rooms range from basic to one-, two-, and three-bedroom suites, most with kitchens. Visitors can book the luxurious presidential suite, which has a gourmet kitchen, an outdoor whirlpool, and “his” and “hers” titanium bicycles for the length of your visit. Then there is the waterfront, two-bedroom Lagoon Cottage, which is set apart from the rest of the resort. “It’s a great couples retreat, or good for a family coming down.” says Sledge.

Parmer’s, Sledge adds, is “quiet Keys comfort. We are not a Hyatt, we don’t put chocolate on your pillow at night. It’s old Keys, but clean and comfortable.”

 

Renaissance World Golf Village Resort

500 South Legacy Trail
St. Augustine 32092
904-940-8000
www.worldgolfrenaissance.com

Some people don’t think they’ve really had a vacation unless it’s all about teeing up. One option for such die-hard duffers would be Renaissance World Golf Village, near St. Augustine. It’s just down the road from the historic city, which has tons of attractions. It might be just the thing for the golfer, nongolfer couple.

Renaissance World encompasses two courses. One is the King Bear, named after Arnold Palmer (king) and Jack Nicklaus (bear). According to Scott Selvaggi, the resort’s director of sales and marketing, King Bear is “the only course ever co-designed by both legends of golf.” The other course, the Slammer Squire, was designed with input and inspiration from Slammin’ Sammy Snead and Gene “The Squire” Sarazen.

Slammer Squire “is just steps from the hotel,” Selvaggi says. “A chip shot away.” King Bear is not quite as close, so transportation is provided. Players enjoy such amenities as chilled apples at the first and 10th holes, cool towels, complimentary range balls, and each cart is equipped with a GPS. This place sprawls such that GPS could come in handy.

Meanwhile, there is the PGA Tour Golf Academy, which offers lessons from pros, and the PGA Tour Stop — the world’s largest golf store. Top that off with the World Golf Hall of Fame Museum. “It has a lot of fun, interactive exhibits,” Selvaggi says. One is the virtual golf simulator, where you can “play” on 22 of the world’s top courses.

The 301-room hotel offers a number of dining options, from the Villagio Italian Grille to Murray’s Bros. Caddyshack. Renaissance World also provides transport to downtown St. Augustine, 15 minutes away, and to the members-only Serenata Beach Club, to which Renaissance guests are given complimentary access.

Renaissance World also offers a special for Florida residents starting at $99. Selvaggi notes they have certainly seen an uptick in visits by Floridians over the past few years, and also people replacing the traditional two-week road trip with a series of smaller vacations. For golf fanatics, Selvaggi says, “There is no reason to go north — or anyplace else.”

 

Amelia Island

Amelia Island Tourist Development Council
102 Centre St.
Amelia Island 32034
904-277-0717
www.ameliaisland.com

If you’re considering north Florida but find St. Augustine too obvious, give a thought to Amelia Island. It’s 13 miles long, capped at one end by Fort Clinch State Park and at the other by Big Talbot Island State Park. Amelia is separated from the mainland by Nassau Sound and a maze of rivers and creeks.

It has a brace of golf courses, a jazz festival, a chamber music festival, a film festival, and something called the “Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance,” in which owners of vintage and super-cool cars — presumably a mostly well-heeled, Great Gatsby crowd — show off their prizes for charity.

In short, this is a tony island. It’s also a place with a fascinating history and an abundance of hotels and inns that offer pretty nice summer packages. “This one island showcases everything that people love about Florida — beautiful beaches, breathtaking natural beauty, great restaurants, golf, resorts — but has a colorful history and distinct charm all her own,” says Gil Langley, president and CEO of the Amelia Island Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Amelia Island is the only place in the United States to have been under eight different flags, he explains, “giving her a rather tumultuous past of pirates, pillaging, and plunder.” Visitors can learn more at the Amelia Island Museum of History.

Known in pre-Colombian times by the Timucuan Indians, Amelia Island’s modern history began in 1562, when Jean Ribault landed on its shores. It’s been one thing after another ever since — a smuggler’s haven in the early 19th Century, part of Civil War history, and by century’s end a haven for wealthy northern visitors. It has a treasure trove of Victorian homes and many independently owned stores in downtown Fernandina Beach.

It is also the home of American Beach, established in the 1930s for African-American vacationers, when black Americans were denied hospitality in most other beachfront resorts up and down Florida’s coast.

This summer a number of island hotels and inns are offering special deals. For example, the Amelia Hotel at the Beach is offering a “Sail Away” package that includes a two-night stay and private sailing lessons, starting at $545.

The Omni Amelia Island Plantation has a girls’ getaway package, “The Sand, Sun Soul,” that includes yoga classes on the beach, a $100 spa credit, and a basket of literary beach reads, starting at $265 per night.

On the other hand, the kid-friendly “Pirates and Princesses” package for $245 per night includes pirate patches and tiaras at check in, private in-room movies, and a parents-only dinner while the children are entertained at their own event. What’s more, 19 Amelia Island hotels and inns are offering a third or fourth free night for those who meet certain requirements.

Something seems to be working. “We already have more business on the books for June of this year than we had for all of June last year,” says Theresa Hamilton, innkeeper at Fairbanks House, a breathtaking Victorian in Fernandina Beach. “Advance bookings are up, longer stays are up, and last-minute stays are up.”

Sheraton Fort Lauderdale Beach Hotel

1140 Seabreeze Blvd.
Fort Lauderdale, FL 33316
954-524-5551
www.sheratonftlauderdalebeach.com

Some of us think just crossing the county line from Miami-Dade to Broward is a journey to a foreign land, complete with unfamiliar customs, different food, and strange music.

For anyone who really wants to stay close to home, Fort Lauderdale this season has some great options. The Sheraton Fort Lauderdale Beach Hotel, for one, is promoting its “Everyone’s Invited Escape,” for those who think summer vacation should be Spring Break with hotter weather.

Starting at $548 for two nights, it includes “Battle of the Sexes” beach volleyball, margarita-making lessons, a shopping trip to the Galleria Mall via water taxi, and tickets to the art museum (girls) and a round of golf and wave runner rentals (guys).

This is the first year of the promotion, says Anna Whiddon, from the Zimmerman Agency, which is running the campaign. “We know that staycations are really big in South Florida during the summer months,” she says, “and we wanted to create a campaign that piggybacked on the increasing popularity of friends group getaways.”

In addition, a program run by the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention and Visitors Bureau, offers to people who book hotel reservations on its site (www.sunny.org) a $25 American Express gift card. “It’s to help offset the price at the pump,” says Jessica Taylor, the group’s media relations director.

The sunny.org website also has a list of two-for-one deals, from catamaran charters to scuba diving.

Some purists maintain that the only real staycation is the one you build yourself. Fort Lauderdale might have some of the best ingredients for that, especially for kids. Since the movie Jaws, nothing says summer like sharks. Parents can keep their shark-mad kids happy with two exhibits. At the Fort Lauderdale Museum of Discovery and Science you can find the megalodon, a representation of the giant prehistoric shark that roamed the ancient seas. It’s part of the museum’s “Prehistoric Florida” exhibit, representing the Sunshine State some 65 million years ago. The museum also has several live sharks on exhibit.

Next, take the kids to the Fort Lauderdale Museum of Art, where sharks are also to be found — in drawings, photos, sculptures, and video — in an exhibition, “SHARK,” organized in collaboration with Nova Southeastern University’s Oceanographic Center and curated by Richard Ellis, an artist, author, and environmentalist. It addresses as well the impact of Jaws, which did so much to influence how people around the world feel about sharks, and speaks to efforts to protect shark species, many of which are now facing extinction due to overfishing.

Mandarin Oriental, Miami

500 Brickell Key Dr.
Miami, FL 33131
305-913-8288
www.mandarinoriental.com/miami/

We all know how wearing travel can be. How often have you said you need a vacation to get over the vacation? If that’s you, one option is to stay even closer to home, maybe at a place where you don’t have to put out too much effort, someplace that treats you really well. In fact, someplace like the Mandarin Oriental Hotel on Brickell Key.

This year it is offering the “I Love Marlins” package. It’s a two-night stay for two in a luxury suite; two therapeutic spa treatments; and a chauffeured trip to and from the Miami Marlins ballpark, where you’ll get great seats, plus two baseball jerseys and caps. At $2450 it may be considered a splurge.

While no one’s going to confuse the Mandarin Oriental with a value chain, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t offer specials. Through September 30, guests can take advantage of the “Insider Offer” from $249 a night, which includes breakfast, complimentary valet parking, and special extras at the spa.

And by the way, the spa at the Mandarin Oriental has it all, from a 50-minute aromatherapy facial to full-day programs that encompass everything from Ayurvedic Holistic Body Treatments to Thai Herbal Compass Rituals and lots more in-between. If both of you want the experience, never fear — there is also a couples suite.

The mood is set early by the spa’s location, overlooking Biscayne Bay. “We sometimes see dolphins from here,” says spa therapist Shavon Etan, as the elevator rises from the ground floor — where spa patrons have already been relaxed with a cup of cool raspberry hibiscus tea and an herb-infused Oshibori towel — to a treatment room so private and lovely it will make you think of the spa cultures of old Europe, though in modern translation.

There is the self-warming treatment table, and up a step, a chaise lounge with a Jacuzzi-type tub. The far wall is all windows.

Etan is a master at her craft, transporting clients to a relaxation zone where cares just drop away.

Later, lounging in the relaxation room, it may occur to you that the very best vacation might just be right here at home.

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