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Posts Tagged ‘florida’

 

 

 

 

 

One way to feed the travel addiction on a limited budget is to house/pet sit. It’s a great way to see more of the world, meet wonderful people and their amazing pets, and live like a local—all for a very reasonable travel cost. As retirees, it’s been a terrific way for my husband and I to travel to places we wouldn’t likely have gone to otherwise, and are so glad we did. One such trip was a house-sitting assignment in Atlantic Beach, Florida in February/March 2016. Having never visited that region before, we had no idea what to expect. Of course I did my usual online research about the area, and pinpointed a few places I knew we’d want to visit, but that’s as far as I went research-wise.

In the past I’ve always headed to either Orlando or the Gulf Coast of Florida. I’d never set foot in northeast Florida, so I was excited to learn more about this area, it’s people, and what it has to offer travelers working with a limited budget. I have to tell you, I was blown away! The house we were caring for was a rambling one floor ranch that was quite comfortable. We were house/pet sitting for a lovely lady with two senior dogs that needed caring for while she was away on a cruise. With the house being just two blocks from Atlantic Beach, it was an ideal opportunity to get to know the Atlantic side of Florida.

What I hadn’t expected was for the area to be so lush and full of tropical flora and fauna. Although northeast Florida definitely experiences cooler winters than its more southern siblings, it’s extremely green and inviting, with plenty of palm trees, palmettos, and flowering plants everywhere. The beaches are some of the widest and longest I’ve ever experienced, which was thrilling to discover. Because we were there from February 24th to March 15th, we certainly got a taste of the cooler and wetter temperatures (ranging from around 9C to about 21C, or 48F to around 70F), but having left Southwestern Ontario, Canada’s unusual winter to early spring cold to cool temperatures, we were happy to trade our heavy winter outwear for much lighter jackets and running shoes.

Atlantic Beach

We were required to walk the dogs first thing in the morning and around 4pm each day, which left us ample opportunity to get acquainted with the neighbourhood, traverse the expanse of sand on the beach, say hello to others passing by, and chat to some of the neighbours. On all but a few occasions, we walked the dogs on the beach to allow us to really experience the Atlantic ocean, and so I could pick up a few interesting shells along the way. It’s where we also saw our first beached jellyfish, and had to take a picture to show our young grandchildren back home. There were a few days when the fog came in and blanketed the coast, making our walks eerily silent, enveloping us in a grey shroud our eyes could barely penetrate. We loved it!

I’m mostly a fair weather girl though, so I admit I revelled in the days we were able to get out and soak up some sun. The small village of Atlantic Beach is lovely, but there wasn’t much to see or do in the town itself at that time of year. We did discover a unique and inviting pub though. Poe’s Tavern on Atlantic Beach is a welcoming place to stop in for a beer and a burger. With a well-rounded menu offering over fifty beers to choose from, its in-house- ground gourmet burgers and hand-cut fries, well, you simply can’t go wrong. Unfortunately, the day we were there the weather was overcast and rainy, so we were happy to sit inside and soak up the ambience of the cozy pub and admire the dozens of Edgar Allen Poe photographs and quotes posted to the walls. On a trip to the ladies’ room, I was surprised to hear a man’s voice coming from the overhead speakers reciting one of Poe’s works, rather than the usual muzak or radio stations one usually hears. The waitress was friendly and knowledgeable, the atmosphere was ideal for a cool, dreary day, and the food was excellent. Had the weather been sunnier and warmer, we’d definitely have sat outside on the large patio dotted with many tables and umbrellas. If you’re in Atlantic Beach, do stop in and check it out for yourself.

St. Augustine

Many days we explored the region by car, checking out the magnificent homes that line the winding waterways. One day we decided to visit Marineland Dolphin Adventure just south of St. Augustine, where visitors can actually purchase tickets to get right into the water with the dolphins (with handlers, of course) and interact with these incredible animals and learn more about the abundant sea life that lives in the ocean.

Another day we opted to wander the streets of beautiful, historic old St. Augustine. Although the day we visited St. Augustine was again cool and quite windy, I could well imagine how it would be on a warm day or summer evening. With its numerous historic buildings (many of which are now gift shops, which did ruin the effect for me a bit), narrow cobblestone streets, and people walking about in period costumes all contributed to the feeling of history. I loved learning about the long coquina walls (walls constructed of sedimentary rock and shells) by the Spanish settlers, and was entranced by the idea of touching stone walls that had stood for hundreds of years. Out on the water, replica pirate ships bobbed, where tourists can pay to take a tour and “be a pirate for a day”. Much as we’d have liked to take advantage of such a fun adventure, the weather was simply too cool. The smell of briny seas was strong that day, so I could easily imagine pirates and sailors of yore shouting to one another from ship to shore, while the sights of the town and the opportunity to read up on the early days of settlement of this iconic port made the trip from Atlantic Beach well worth the visit.

On other days we took leisurely day trips to explore the many incredible beaches ranging along the coast from Jacksonville Beach up to Little Talbot and Amelia Island, Georgia. In late February to March, most of the beaches we visited were either delightfully deserted, or inhabited by only a few other couples and families. Be prepared to walk though, since many of these beaches are accessible only by long boardwalks or paths leading from parking areas to surf. This of course is meant to protect the beach and wildlife from human interference as much as possible. On a hot day, the trek can be a bit of a challenge for anyone with mobility or breathing difficulties, but if you go, it’s well worth the effort once you get down to your destination.

TPC Sawgrass Golf Club

My husband loves to golf, so any opportunity to swing the clubs is a welcome one for him. For those looking to get in a little golf, there numerous courses to indulge your addiction for every budget. If you’re looking for a luxury golf vacation, executive retreat, or corporate event though, then the TPC Sawgrass is the ideal venue for you. Partnered with the Marriott Golf Resort and Spa in Pont Vedra Beach, it really does offer something for everyone; from fine dining, spa visits, lazy days soaking up the sun by the pool, to idyllic golf conditions at the world headquarters of professional golf.

All in all, we were extremely impressed with all that Florida’s northeast coast has to offer, and would certainly return in a heart beat. The main take-away for us was the fact that anyone can take advantage of the many free and low-cost options to explore, walk, and learn more about a destination, if they choose. Much as I love luxury living and accommodations, that trip will stand out as a truly memorable one, not because of a beautiful hotel, room, or hospitality service, but because we made the effort to get out and explore on our own, investigating the roads, beaches, and towns we’d read about back home, and are now part of our experiential travels we treasure.

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From the street The Sandpearl Resort in Clearwater, Florida looks lovely, but it’s really once I stepped through her doors that I got a true sense of what’s in store. Being greeted by warm smiles and a friendly “hello” sets a welcoming tone, but it’s the allure of the pool, palms, and ocean that draw me in. Now I’ve been to Florida countless times before, but the stately elegance, understated seashell decor, and cool air were balms to my soul on my arrival on the very humid August day we arrived. I was with a group of event planners from Strategic Incentive Solutions on a site inspection, and since this was my first foray into this arena, I was excited to see St. Pete’s/Clearwater from a whole new angle.

I certainly wasn’t disappointed with our host venue. The Sandpearl is a luxury five-star hotel, and after a day packed with visits to several other venues and destinations, dinner at The Sandpearl that evening was a special affair in the private wine room. Our waiter, Chris, kept us all laughing by regaling us with information and hilarious stories throughout the spectacular meal. Afterward, we wandered outside, drinks in hand, to take in the cooler breezes, many tiny lights strung everywhere, and groups of guests clustered around the pool and beachfront fire pits. The night was crystal clear, the moon hanging large and low in the sky. I couldn’t wait to walk the beach and dip my toes into what we’d been assured was bathwater temperature water, but that would have to wait till morning.

At first light, I made a quick cup of complimentary coffee in my room in the coffee maker set out for guest’s use, padded out to the balcony, and settled in to watch the hotel wake up. At first there was little light, other than those around the pool area directly below me. Stretching as far as my eyes could see was the Gulf of Mexico. I was at peace in the half-light, sipping my coffee alone. As the sun rose in the sky, signs of life became apparent, as workers came out and headed to the beach to rake and clean up for the day’s activities. On impulse, I decided to hurry up and headed out to walk the beach before gearing up for a day packed with activities with the group.

True to the staff’s promise, the water was as warm as a bath, and since I’ve always visited Florida in the March/April time frame before, it was a new experience for me. What followed was a whirlwind day of many personal firsts; exquisite meals and tours of two additional luxury area hotels, and an afternoon on a chartered catamaran, where we watched dolphins play and swim alongside our boat while we were treated to cool, refreshing drinks, snacks, and incredible waterside views of the marinas, resorts, and beaches strung out along the coastline. I quickly came to the realization that the St. Pete’s/Clearwater area I thought I knew had grown up. I must admit to being impressed with the vibrancy, elegance, and luxury offered in a place I’d always thought of as sleepy and perhaps a bit “old-fogey”. Let me tell you, there’s nothing sleepy or old about it! From upscale venues and restaurants, to wide expanses of sand and sea, we experienced some of the very best the travel and tourism trade in Florida have to offer.

That’s not all though. We were there to check out the venues as potential destinations for events, and were pleased to discover that this aspect of each venue exceeded any needs our clients might have. Even more impressive is The Sandpearl’s commitment to what they call, “green meetings”, where biodegradable products, energy efficient lighting, and resort-wide recycling is in full effect in an effort to help protect the Gulf Coast’s unique natural resources. For today’s travelers and event planners, that’s important, since more people are aware of the negative effects humans can and do have on nature.

For me, as it is with most travelers, whether for business, pleasure, or a combination of both, it’s always about the experiences and memories I take away with me. Whether engaging in exciting team building adventures, a sunset dinner cruise, or a must-visit to the nearby Clearwater Marine Aquarium and introduction to Winter, the dolphin (see my previous post, “It’s All About The Dolphin”), I came away with a tremendous appreciation for this incredible destination, venues, and the community’s commitment to conservation. For anyone seeking an exciting luxury Florida destination along the Gulf of Mexico, I’d highly recommend St. Pete’s/Clearwater and The Sandpearl.

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A few years ago I went on a company site inspection with S.I.S (Strategic Incentive Solutions) to St. Pete’s/Clearwater, Florida. The Convention and Visitor’s Bureau (CVB) hosted a top-notch site inspection for the entire S.I.S. staff for two nights, three days, that featured four fabulous luxury hotels and several exciting points of interest.

Having visited Florida many, many times over the years I’ll admit I had a preconceived notion that this particular area was primarily geared to geriatrics and snow-birders. As a child, my family and I used to frequent the area just to the south of St. Pete’s/Clearwater in our motor home, but I wasn’t as familiar with the town itself as I thought.

St. Pete’s/Clearwater is a bustling, upscale destination boasting some of the travel industry’s top luxury hotels. Facing pristine wide beaches are some of the most beautiful hotels I’ve had the pleasure to visit. With soft white sands underfoot, shore birds, and pelicans wheeling overhead, and the warm gulf coast surf lapping at my cold Canadian toes, I was enchanted.

On arrival we were met by Suzanne and Tina, our two escorts from the local CVB, who drove us to our host hotel, The Sandpearl. From the moment we exited the rental cars, our group was warmly welcomed by the sales manager, Wendy. After a quick change and freshen up, we were back in the car for a short 15 minute drive to meet Winter, the dolphin, at the nearby Clearwater Marine Aquarium. Winter and her friends became the heroes of a much loved, family-friendly film, Dolphin Tale, a movie I’ve enjoyed watching since my return home.

Winter the dolphin

For the next few hours we were given a personal tour by guide, John, who filled us in on all the small details we would have missed otherwise, and told us the heart-breaking story of Winter the dolphin. Winter was rescued from Mosquito Lagoon, near Cape Canaveral. At only two months old, she became wrapped up in a crab trap line, where her tail flukes lost circulation due to the lines. Overcoming extreme odds against survival, and after many trials of outfitting her with a new prosthetic tail, Winter made a tremendous recovery, proving she could overcome anything, and thrive. Once word got out about Winter’s prosthetic tail, people with varying degrees of their own disabilities began showing up at the Aquarium to see this miracle dolphin for themselves, and came away inspired to tackle their own personal challenges with renewed hope.

John told us many stories of marine wildlife in desperate need of the aquarium’s unique services, and I couldn’t help but be impressed by the passion, vision, and goals of this small facility and those who worked there. We were constantly reminded that, while open to the public, this is no tourist “show”. This is a working rescue, rehab, and release facility that helps the area’s marine life survive the sometimes brutal encounters with humans and other catastrophes. After the success of A Dolphin Tale, the Clearwater Marine Aquarium saw a tremendous influx of visitors, and much needed revenue. Although I haven’t been back since the new aquarium opened in 2011, I definitely want to return to see how they’re doing and the changes they’ve been able to make!

My personal take-aways from that trip were reminders not to prejudge an area. The hidden gems and less-known are often the very best experiences of an entire trip. Even though I know Florida fairly well, and I’m sure much has changed again since I last visited the area several years ago, I have a much deeper appreciation for the people who call this beautiful destination, home. They care about the land, beaches, and animals that share the waters and beaches we visitors take for granted. From the hotel staff who do their utmost to make a visitor’s stay memorable, to the guides who feel a real connection to the causes they believe in, it’s all about sharing a little of what they have with others. For those of us fortunate enough to visit and listen, sometimes the valuable take-away is the education we receive about the real threats humans pose to the environment and animals of this planet. It’s these kinds of experiences that stay with me for years after I’ve returned home, and remind me to pay attention to where I put trash, to respect the beauty of the places I visit, but also be mindful of the damage I might unconsciously do just by being there. Animals like Winter remind me that life is to be lived, and when we co-operate, great things can happen.

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