It has been some time since my last post. I took a quick sabbatical to Florida after a hectic month in January at my full-time job. I have been planning my trip since early November and I am so thankful I was able to take some time to enjoy time away. About two weeks prior to boarding the plane, we had a huge winter storm that dumped about a foot and a half of snow right outside my door. So, it was a welcome change to head south for some R&R. I have to tell you guys I have tons of great tips to share with you to make the most of your west-side trip to make the most of your time there.
PLANE TICKETS - I was searching for tickets about three months prior to vacation. Since Florida is a big vacation destination, I made sure to search for the best deal as early as possible. February is right before the tourist season is in full-swing so it made it ideal for ticket purchasing. *Tip: If you can, take the early flight and leave during a Monday- it will save quite a bit of dough! I was able to find a fairly inexpensive flight to Fort Myers, Florida from 2/1-2/5, round trip for about $210. This is a HUGE savings since leaving during the week is cheaper than on a weekend. I suggest pricing out as early as possible to ensure you can find an ideal price range. We chose Southwest simple for the best price but also we could carry a lot of luggage if we wanted: a checked bag, a carry-on and a personal item (purse or backpack) per person without any additional baggage fees. At the end, we opted to not do a checked bag since we knew we would not be bringing back so many souvenirs as we could have. Choose the right airline for you based on your needs!
COUPONS AND ADVENTURES - For my birthday and Christmas in lieu of normal gifts, find something we can use for our trip. Since our flight tickets became our big Christmas gift, we found Groupon's for activities we wanted to do while down there. Always look for budget activities via Groupon or LivingSocial that will allow you to still enjoy your trip but can save you a few bucks. We signed up for email alerts to the area's we would be visting just incase the website had something to do we did not think of ourselves. Every dollar counts on vacation. I found experiences gave you the biggest bang for our bucks so we opt to go cheaper for meals and budget more for activities we want to do. We found two Groupons from two highly-reviewed places to spend our dollars prior to leaving. Our first was a Snorkeling trip for two (similar here) from American Pro Diving Center. The second was a kayak trip for two (similar here) at Lover's Key State Park. Finding a way to save and yet spend the time exploring is a way to make the most of your time filling it with experiences that will last a lifetime.
RESEARCH OTHERS EXPERIENCES - Research is key to find activities you can do in your area. And, between Pinterest and fellow bloggers, we found tips that helped us find fun activities others have done they enjoyed that we would like. Fellow vacationers are often times the best vouchers of places to stay and visit they enjoyed that you may find just as enjoyable. A lot of hidden gems can be found easily with just a search where you will be staying. Since we knew the cities we were going to visit, we searched those spots. Also, if you will be getting a rental car, if you are a AAA member, a TripTik can help you plan your road trips and stays as well. They are free and are very useful if you are new to the area you will be traveling to!
THE EVERGLADES - Once we landed, we knew it was the best opportunity to explore the Everglades (specifically the State Park), since it was only a hour South of the Ft Myers Airport. We found a great local Airboat company (who had a $10 off coupon on the website for an airboat ride). As the most expensive adventure of our entire trip, we could not leave Florida without an airboat ride. It was so much fun! We had a airboat guide who was from the area and was super knowledgeable about the area. We spotted gators, fish, birds and even raccoon's along our hour journey. Post airboat ride, we got to hold a baby gator. A fun experience for first timers like myself. If you have time to spend, go visit Big Cypress National Preserve (gators spotted on the side of the road), Ten Thousand Island Wildlife Refuge, and Collier Seminole State Park for a lot of amazing places to walk, see wildlife and explore the beauty of the Everglades. Most are also handicap accessible.
|Raccoon's in the Everglades|
|Chic Decor of 7th Avenue Social|
BRUNCH SPOT (NAPLES, FL) - Getting to enjoy brunch during the week is a rare for me but one of my favorite spots along the way was right in the heart of Naples. I had found this place on Pinterest and after reading so many reviews I put it on my list. However, I was unaware my sweetie had already enjoyed this spot during his last trip down to Naples to visit friends. This was the perfect spot for sitting out on a patio, enjoying a croissant or sandwich with a glass of wine and pie. Which is exactly what I did. While they have indoor seating, Three60 Market is a favorite of locals and visitors alike and many take to the patio to enjoy the warm weather and delicious bites. There are a variety of dishes available but no matter what you enjoy, this local spot is a true must visit spot for a perfect lunch.
|Wine and water - Florida Style!|
|Manatee spotting at the Tampa Electric Co - Manatee Viewing Center|
|Shrimp & Corn Chowder - Dinner!|
|Plantation Inn, Crystal River, FL|
SNORKELING WITH MANATEES (CRYSTAL RIVER, FL) - Prior to our trip, we did get a Groupon for American Pro Diving Center and I would recommend this again and again! Our tour guide was fantastic. Our snorkeling gear was included and while you could take a camera or GoPro, the guide also brings a camera where you can purchase a DVD afterward for $30. We had such a blast snorkeling with our group. After getting all our gear, our group drove to Pete's Pier Marina ($5 parking fee) we would leave out of. For about an hour and a half we snorkeled with a group of Manatees at Jurassic Springs. It was such an amazing experience- we were able to touch Manatees. It was a very hands-on experience that was worth our trip out there. We loved our DVD so much I purchased it as a souvenir.
|Snorkeling with Manatees|
|Redfish Sandwich with lemon wedges, seasoned fries and a rum bucket!|
|Mom and Baby Manatee- still taken from our GoPro video!|
|Lu the Hippo at Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park|
|Howard Johnson, Fort Myers, FL|
KAYAKING TRIP AND DOLPHIN SIGHTING (BONITA SPRINGS, FL)- Our final Groupon (and my birthday gift) was for a 1/2 day Kayaking trip at Lover's Key State Park ($8 Parking Fee). After parking and a quick walk around the area, we grabbed a few bottles of water and took our tandem Kayak out for a stroll. We saw so many birds and wildlife but our favorite was watching a Dolphin hunt for fish right beside us. It was such a wonderful experience and we were glad we were stopped and did this. She got really close to our kayak, about 2 feet away and looked right at us but our GoPro was not as fast as she was! Since this is a great park to catch a free ride to South Beach area of Bonita Springs, we got there super early for a good parking spot. Thankfully, after a boat ride, we were able to change in their bathrooms and head to lunch!
|Dolphin fishing at Lover's Key!|
|Media Noche (cuban on sweet bread)|
|Stump Pass Beach State Park|
|Sun Life Beach Motel - Unit 6|
BREAKFAST (ENGLEWOOD, FL)- We found the cutest little mini coffee shop on the way to Boca Grande, FL called Manatee Beans & Brews. This little coffee shop is in this mini strip mall on the side of the road and if you flew past you would never know it existed. But, the locals give high reviews of this place, so we had to stop in. I enjoyed a latte and a sticky bun that was phenomenal. While the key lime muffin was too dry for my taste, my man enjoyed it a lot.
|Manatee Beans & Brews, Englewood, FL|
|Boca Grande Lighthouse|
|Sitting on millions of shells at Gasparilla Island State Park|
|Patio Style Lunch at The Loose Caboose|
|The Inn Bakery|
PROS- I can tell you a great deal of the success of this trip was due to a lot of local spots. We saved a great deal of money by going to State Parks and enjoying all they had to offer. With the exception of a very cheap parking fee (skip a Starbucks coffee for one parking fee), and there was so much to be found. We found a lot of our favorite trip adventures across the board tends to be places where we spend the least amount of money. While you can spend money on adventures, if you can find a coupon or a way to only pay half, do so! But, put a good chunk of your budget to outdoor activities. You will have the best memories as a result of them. Nothing can replace a once-in-a-lifetime adventure.
Some of the best food we had was in Florida and we found a lot of review online to compare. We compared a place on Yelp, UrbanSpoon, and Google and found an average rating based on it. We looked at photos others posted, menus and even asked locals we were around for suggestions. Most people will give you a few options to choose from, so trust a local. They know their neighborhood well and can point you in a good direction.
CONS- One thing we really found we hit short was some of our Hotels. With the exception of our first night (we stayed with friends) and our last night, our other hotels were mediocre and gave us a less than restful nights sleep. We planned well and did a great deal of research but sometimes you just hit a few duds. While you do often get what you pay for, budgeting hotels is always a big chunk of any vacation budget. If you find a really good one and plan to be in the area, stick with it. While we opted to go all the way up to Crystal River and then all the way down to Bonita Springs, it made it difficult to stay in one hotel for the duration of our trip.
Time frame is always an issue on trips such as this one. You will not have time to do all you want and that is okay. We wanted to hit up Ocala National Forest and Key West but time did not allow us to do that in the short time frame we had. While our original 12 day trip would have allowed that, we had to adjust our time since we could not stay with a friend of ours (they had construction on their house at the time). Shortened time frame and budget can restrict what you do but overall, you can make the most of your trip by figuring out what you really want to do most and make sure you hit those first if you can. That way you can estimate what you can get done in the time you have. And, there is always next time!
Unlike the more heavily populated east coast of Florida (Miami, Daytona Beach, Fort Lauderdale, and Melbourne), the west coast side provides a more relaxing vacation feel I suggest visiting. For a more relaxing trip, travel between Horseshoe Beach and Marco Island. These areas provide a more family-friendly side as well as providing a great place for couple to enjoy a leisure and casual Florida without the hustle and bustle of the busy and overcrowded east coast. Prices are a lot easier on the budget and there are more experiences to be had without the 'chains' you see at home. Opt for local spots as they seem to have a more cozier feel that vacationers are looking for. Florida is a great vacation destination and hopefully some of these tips will help you on your travels.