Thursday, February 11, 2016

West Coast Florida & The Beauty of the Gulf of Mexico - Tips and Advice (Crystal River to The Everglades)

Hey All!

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!

DAY 1:
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
FOOD TIPS (NAPLES, FL) - One thing we relied heavily on was websites like Yelp, UrbanSpoon, TripAdvisor and Hotwire for some of our best hidden gems. Our first night, we were able to stay with some friends in Naples, FL who treated us to 7th Avenue Social, one of the best spots for local seafood and the perfect atmosphere for a night out with friends. After so many great reviews on websites and a new favorite by fellow locals, it was the perfect spot to get true local fare. One of my favorite meals, the Red Snapper Dish, was the perfect meal after a long day of traveling. Another favorite we enjoyed Kilwins Ice Cream (famous ice cream joint from Michigan). While I opted to skip it, my man said it was definitely a stop worth talking about. A must stop for any family or ice cream lovers!
Chic Decor of 7th Avenue Social
DAY 2:
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!
LOCAL PARKS AND MANATEE SPOTTING - One of the easiest things to do around the early months in Florida is to see the Manatees come in from the ocean to seek warmer waters, which makes Febuary an ideal time to visit the west coat of Florida. You can find them in many, many spots. There are tons of parks, like Manatee Park (Fort Myers, FL - $5 parking fee, Free Admission and Manatee Viewing Center (Apollo Beach, by the Tampa Electric Co - Free Admission). Manatees love warm water so they can be found anywhere where the power company has a huge plant - with the warmer waters, the Manatees come to spend the colder Ocean water days more inland to these spots. Colder water is very harmful to Manatees so they seek warmer waters and these spots are great for seeing large populations.
Manatee spotting at the Tampa Electric Co - Manatee Viewing Center
DINNER AND SUNSET ON THE GULF OF MEXICO (HERNADO BEACH, FL) - I wanted to see a beautiful sunset on the Gulf of Mexico and as we made our way North to Crystal River (to use our snorkeling Groupon), we were seeking dinner on the water. We found ZigZag Scallop for dinner and a patio view for sunset. Since Hernando Beach is such a small town, eating options were limited but this little local gem was a great spot. From the fish tacos to the Shrimp & Corn Chowder, there were a ton of options for enjoying a great variety of good seafood, caught by the local fish monger next door!
Shrimp & Corn Chowder - Dinner!
SLEEP/HOTEL (CRYSTAL RIVER, FL) - We finally made it to check-in at a Hotel we had found from fellow bloggers and highly-rated online reviewers: Plantation Inn & Golf Resort. Thanks to Hotwire, we were able to get a killer deal on our night here for under $100/night. After a long day of driving and exploring small spots on the way, we were ready for sleep. Unlike our fellow vacationers, we had a horrible experience with a case of bedbugs in our bed (We stayed in Jasmine 126, if you are curious). While this may be an isolated issue, we took the issue to Hotwire to resolve the issue. I still support local spots over chains, but we found with other visitors we encountered they had a better stay at Crystal Cove B&B and King's Bay Lounge so you may want to try those options instead.
Plantation Inn, Crystal River, FL
DAY 3: 
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
LOCAL LUNCH (CRYSTAL RIVER, FL)- Our Manatee tour guide suggested Crackers Bar, Grill & Tiki as a great local spot for lunch. This gem sat right on the water and was obviously a local favorite as many locals were enjoying lunch. However, we were seated immediately outside on their patio. We had locally caught Gator Bites, Shrimp Tacos and Redfish Sandwich (my absolute favorite). I can see why so many locals were fans of this spot. Fresh food and you can easily pull your boat right up to the dock for lunch, which so many did. We enjoyed our lunch, a couple of rum drinks, and watched the Osprey's above on a nest perch right near our table. It was an idea way to try new dishes and enjoy some locally caught fish. A must stop and the prices were perfect for lunch time. If you have the opportunity to get Redfish, do so as it is a local Florida fish favorite, and a lighter fish compared to Grouper.
Redfish Sandwich with lemon wedges, seasoned fries and a rum bucket!
KAYAKING TRIP TO THREE SISTER SPRINGS (CRYSTAL RIVER, FL)- We were not yet ready to leave Crystal River fully yet, so we decided to go visit Three Sisters Springs. As much as we would have enjoyed visiting the park, we felt a more "hands-on" experience was just what we wanted. We did a quick search online and found for the same price as a trolley ride to the park (not accessible by car yet) we could kayak for the same price. We found Crystal River Kayak Co and realized renting a tandem kayak for two for 2 hours was $35 ($10 off since we stayed at The Plantation - AAA and Military Discounts too), a much better option than the trolley we would only possibly see a Manatee. We immediately grabbed a Kayak and headed out to explore the Three Sisters Springs and we were so glad we did. Using our GoPro, we spotted a ton of Manatees enjoying the warm water in the springs. Since we could not fully access the springs by boat (you can only go by swimming or snorkeling), we opted to enjoy the view from the Kayak. We filmed a lot of Manatees, but our favorite was a mom and her baby enjoying the Springs all by themselves. It was well worth the trip, as we spotted fish, turtles, and other wildlife hanging around as well.
Mom and Baby Manatee- still taken from our GoPro video!
WILDLIFE VISIT AND A HIPPOPOTAMUS (HOMOSASSA, FL)  - On our original research, we found there was one animal unique to Florida (and a citizen) we knew we had to see, Lu the Hippo at Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park (Free Parking). For $13/adult, you get a lot of access to so many amazing animals, like the underwater view, the aviary, as well as Lu. This is a great stop for anyone looking to get up close with some of Florida's wildlife and a great way for kids to see these amazing animals close up.
Lu the Hippo at Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park
HOTELS AND SLEEP (FORT MYERS, FL) - As we made our way back to Fort Myers, FL, we had run out of finding a good place within our $100/night budget as many were full. But, we did manage to find Howard Johnson that was available and immediately took a smoke-free room. While it was not the most fancy of spots, we were able to grab a quick shower and crash for the long day ahead of us.
Howard Johnson, Fort Myers, FL

DAY 4:
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!
AN AUTHENTIC CUBAN AND A MOJITO (NAPLES, FL)- I knew I wanted to eat a really great Cuban and enjoy a good Mojito. Since we knew we would not have enough time to get to Key West, I knew I had to find some place before we left. I found great reviews on Yelp for Fernadez the Bull in Naples and I knew we had to go. Luckily, I was also able to get some visiting time in with my brother and sister who drove from Miami to have lunch with me! If you want a good authentic Cuban, go here! Trust me on this - the prices are stellar, they have great servers, an outstanding patio and some of the best Cuban I have ever had. As my siblings are from Miami, they know good Cuban and they were raving about this place. It was heavenly. I ordered the Media Noche (think cuban on sweet bread) and a classic mojito and was super impressed.
Media Noche (cuban on sweet bread)
SUNSET ON THE GULF OF MEXICO (ENGLEWOOD, FL)- As I had missed my sunset the last two times, I had the opportunity at the last night of vacation to get my sunset! The best spot in the area of Englewood, FL has to be Stump Pass Beach State Park. For a $5 parking fee, and a truly small spot to visit (only about 10 parking spots), this cute park was ideal to watch the sunset and the storm rolling in. There were a few benches available to sit on and I enjoyed watching the afternoon roll away with each wave crashing on the shore. This is a great place for couples to come and enjoy some quiet time together. This park may be small, but there are quite a few great trails along this quiet beach to also enjoy during the daytime!
Stump Pass Beach State Park
THE BEST SLEEP I HAD IN FLORIDA (ENGLEWOOD, FL)- I was lucky while eating lunch earlier to find one of the best hotels with the best sleep I had on vacation. Not only was this local motel one of the best prices but the couple that owns the motel are some of the nicest people I have dealt with. Sun Life Beach Hotel was the perfect little spot to crash. If we were staying in this area for the week, I would have chosen this place hands down. For $120 a night, it was a bit higher than the budgeted $100/night we were aiming for, but they had a pool, one car spot per room, and each room was like a mini apartment (each equipped with a  ton of amenities: fridge, microwave, dishes, dining room table, living room couch and TV, as well as a kitchen sink). The over-sized queen bed was so comfortable and it was the best sleep I had on the entire trip. We stayed in Unit 6 and it was the perfect nautical themed room. And, with Free Wi-Fi, we were able to upload our photos from our trip! We were exhausted and did not want to go out in the pouring rain, so we ordered pizza from Bobarino's Pizzeria (free delivery within 5 miles - our hotel was less than a mile) and watched a movie before crashing!
Sun Life Beach Motel - Unit 6
DAY 5:
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 MUSEUM- After paying the $6 toll (one way pay only) to cross into Boca Grande, FL (aka Gasparilla Island), we found ourselves enjoying this beautiful mini island for quite some time. Our first stop was to Boca Grande Beach & Lighthouse Museum. A lot of history can be found in the Museum and it provides a lot of hands-on to families and you get a glimpse of life on the island. Free admission to the museum, but $5 parking fee. Check out the large shells and corals found right on the island by locals who have donated them to the museum. Some are bigger than your head!
Boca Grande Lighthouse
SHELL COLLECTION (GASPARILLA ISLAND, FL)- On the same island aka Boca Grande is one of the best places for shell collection around, Gasparilla Island State Park. Just a quick walk past the Lighthouse Museum, you can find the beach.  After the museum, you can explore the beach as long as you wish. We found pounds upon pounds of shells. Thanks to our little rum bucket from Crackers at Crystal River we saved, we used that to carry our shells back home. We collected so many different types of shells, and even saved a few sea slugs at the same time (who were tossed out of the ocean by the waves). It was a shell collectors heaven and one place I suggest anyone going, even if you just visit!
Sitting on millions of shells at Gasparilla Island State Park
LUNCH AT THE LOOSE CABOOSE (BOCA GRANDE, FL)- Tip: While Gasparilla Island is a great place to visit, I dare say the price tag to stay in the town is quite hefty a night so our suggestion is stay in Englewood and drive there for the day! After all the shells collection, it was time for lunch. After strolling through the various shops for a few family souvenirs, we found The Loose Caboose was the best spot for lunch. After the storm the night before, it was quite chilly on our day but the patio was still the best seat in the house! I had a glass of wine with my TBA (Turkey, Bacon and Avocado sandwich) but the man choose a Landshark beer (he went to college in FL so it is his favorite local FL beer) and a grouper wrap! The food was amazing but their key lime pie is where it is at. It is huge and big enough to share between two people. It was a great spot to people watch and enjoy truly what Florida life is all about.
Patio Style Lunch at The Loose Caboose
BAKED GOODS (BOCA GRANDE, FL)- Right across the street from The Loose Caboose is the best bakery in town, The Inn Bakery, which boasts the best baked goods on the island. And, they are not kidding! I enjoyed the best chocolate croissant on the flight back (a true treat and a favorite local spot). They have everything from danishes, donuts and cakes to coffees and even ice cream.
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.

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