3 Sunshine State destinations to add to your vacay wish list

I know, I know. Orlando is awesome. But there are so many other fabulous destinations in the Sunshine State that don’t involve Mickey Mouse. Here are three spots your family might not be familiar with, but should definitely consider adding to your vacation wish list.

St. Augustine

Go there for: a healthy dose of history in a sunshiny setting

Vibe: charming, historic

Highlights: dolphin adventures, Colonial Quarter

St. Augustine is the nation’s oldest city, and it’s full of life. The historic district is packed with attractions from the Castillo de San Marcos to a Pirate & Treasure Museum. The Colonial Quarter features countless shops, tasty restaurants, live music and gourmet popsicles (so many unique flavors to try at The Hyppo!). O.C. White is a great restaurant to share a feast on the water before enjoying a scenic Victory III cruise, where you can see wild dolphins swimming in the water. 

Marineland Dolphin Adventure has been attracting families for decades. Against the magnificent backdrop of ocean waves splashing ashore, you can rub dolphins’ bellies and feed them fish (the more squeamish can plop pink Jell-O in their mouths). Into crocodilia? Check out 24 different species at the St. Augustine Alligator Farm Zoological Park, where they also house a Wading Bird Rookery with so many magnificent feathered friends that photographers come from all over the world to photograph them. Beacher’s Lodge Oceanfront Suites are perfect for families—steps from the water and with kitchens to whip up your own breakfast. It’s so quiet and peaceful at night, families were exploring the beach with flashlights, making memories under the stars.

Amelia Island

Go there to: be spoiled beyond belief

Vibe: serene

Highlights: delectable food, uncrowded beaches

Fly into Jacksonville and head north for about 45 minutes to a lesser-known destination that you’ll never forget. This barrier island with 13 miles of beautiful, unspoiled beaches is a place that captures your heart and renews your soul.

Stay at the Omni Amelia Island Plantation Resort. All the simple pleasures you could possibly imagine for a memorable vacation are on their vast, luxurious property. Breathtaking views of the Atlantic Ocean can be enjoyed from your balcony or by the 10,000-square-foot pool. A water playground, award-winning kids’ camp, nature center and mini-golf course are just a few of the options to keep kids entertained. Delicious delights, like doughnut walls and milkshake bars, pop up in the lobby. Who doesn’t love that? 

Omni Amelia Island offers unparalleled cuisine, spearheaded by Chef Daven, formerly of Omni Hotel Chicago. He runs an aquaponic garden and harvests honey (delicious in everything from breakfast to bourbon). Want an elegant dinner with simple, exceptionally seasoned ingredients? Head to Verandah Restaurant on the resort property. Even their kids’ meals are amazing, served with fruit, veggies and a granola bar.

If you must leave the hotel, do it to go to downtown Fernandina Beach. Centre Street is packed with cute shops in a Victorian Village setting. Take an Amelia River Cruise  past Cumberland Island where wild horses roam. Or visit Fort Clinch State Park, where you can scour the beach for shark teeth. Timoti’s Seafood Shack is the place to go for fresh shrimp in almost every tasty form you can imagine (tacos, poor boys, poke bowls). My kids’ love for calamari was cultivated at España Restaurant. They serve a shrimp dish so good it made my husband’s eyes roll back. 

Crystal River

Go there to: snorkel with manatees

Vibe: low key

Highlights: manatees, airboat rides

Visit Crystal River, the Manatee Capital of the World, to snorkel with the gentle, gigantic creatures. What an absolutely incredible experience! Captain Ed with the Plantation Adventure Center went above and beyond when he brought our 5-year-old up close and personal to see manatees munching and swimming in the warm, spring-fed waters. Three Sisters Springs (threesisstersspringvisitor.org) is another breathtaking place to enjoy manatees. The blue waters are so unbelievably beautiful you’ll think you’re looking at a postcard.

Wild Bill’s Airboat Tour glides you over the everglades and gives you a chance to see alligators in the wild. We stayed at The Plantation on Crystal River, which features a lively pool, Tiki bar and lawn games like horseshoes and shuffleboard. On-site West 82 Bar and Grill has a friendly staff and relaxing view.

Crab Plant LLC is not to be missed for seafood aficionados. Fresh crabs can be cracked on the table and the shrimp dip is delectable. Cody’s Original Roadhouse serves steaks, ribs and chicken and is fun for the kids with a big tub of peanuts to crack and toss. Parents love Kids Eat Free on Mondays and Tuesdays and 2-for-1 Happy Hour. Motor City Pasta Company serves an Eggplant and Baby Bella pizza that’s phenomenal. Visit the Heritage Village Shopping and Café District for souvenirs sure to please. Sweet and salty cookies at Tea House 650 are a treat. 

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