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May 13, 2009

The Great Known: Top Three Reasons to Become a Serial Vacationer

LEADER OF THE PACK: On the go at Amelia Island Plantation Resort (Alistair Wearmouth)

My mantra for travel has always been pretty simple: experience as many places as I can and have as much fun as possible while there. So it felt like a total cop-out this year when my wife and I decided to go back to the same beach resort, northeast Florida's Amelia Island Plantation, that we visited with our two kids last April. So much for the mantra. As it turns out, though, there are some easily compelling reasons for returning to a place you already know. Here are the three that stood out most on our recent trip.

1. A Savvy Traveler Is a Penny-Saving Traveler: The down economy is kicking up unreal savings throughout the travel marketplace. We scored a package that shaved $40 off the nightly rate on our two-room condo, plus the resort threw in complimentary bike rentals, kids' club activities, kids' meals, and on-property nature tours. Just knowing what we paid the year before made the decision to book a no-brainer. We also learned from other budgetary missteps last year, including organizing a local taxi service to get us to and from the airport instead of the more expensive hotel shuttle ($60 savings) and doing one big shop at the nearby grocery store instead of shelling out for overpriced lattes and breakfast in the resort eateries (mucho dinero saved).

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Related Topics: Beach Vacation · Family Vacation · Florida Vacation · Travel Tips

May 07, 2009

Greater Fort Lauderdale Really Is Greater

Pompano Beach Pier (courtesy, Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention & Visitors Bureau)

Have you ever been to Pompano Beach? It's one of those waterfront towns, perhaps the quirkiest and most colorful of a string of beach communities that make up Greater Fort Lauderdale. And it is pretty great. It's the kind of Atlantic seaside community that put Florida on the tourism map. It's the kind of place that hard-working Americans with families travel to on vacation and then vow to one day retire in. It's like Miami’s South Beach—in 1960.

It’s also one of the great, warm-water dive destinations (80-plus degrees) in the continental United States. No, the coral reefs are not as rich as they used to be, not by any means, but there’s still some biological diversity below the surface. And it’s a great, non-threatening place to learn to dive. The folks that run the dive shops are cool and fun to hang with.

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Related Topics: Beach Vacation · Florida Vacation · Scuba & Snorkeling

April 28, 2009

My Top Five Surprises About Miami

By Karen Chen

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Miami Beach, surprisingly devoid of other people (Karen Chen)

For some reason (wait, I know why—it's portrayed this way in all of popular media) I imagined Miami to be the East Coast equivalent of Las Vegas, minus casinos, plus the beach: a celebrity playground with lots of bright lights, and people throwing money around as if it was chump change.  But I was in Miami this past week and I was pleasantly surprised by what I found there: a convenient beach locale not very far from home with beautiful public beaches, decent dining options, cool art spots, and an interesting "scene"—all for a rather affordable price, which equal the right ingredients for a good beach vacation if you ask me.  Here are some of the nice surprises I found when I visited Miami:

1. The beaches there are awesome.  Granted, they might not compare to the "most secluded" or "most exotic" slices of heaven they call beaches in the Caribbean or the Pacific Islands, but for a place you can get to for about $160 round trip, they aren't bad.  In fact, they're better than just "not bad": The soft, nearly-white sand is edged by clear, bright teal Atlantic waters. For families, or people who aren't as fond of the ocean as they are of the beach, the warm shallow tide is perfect to play around in, and you don't have to worry about cutting your feet on rocks, coral, twigs, or other debris (not to mention the absence of sea critters that have always contributed to my fear of the deep blue). A nice cooling sea breeze also keeps you from roasting in the sun—though I can't say the same would be true come summer.

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Related Topics: Beach Vacation · Budget Travel · Florida Vacation · Food and Drink

April 17, 2009

Top Ten Places to Live Like a Pirate

AHOY, MATEYS!: The Flying Dutchman at Disney's Castaway Cay (courtesy, Disney)

The office has been abuzz with pirate talk this week after the somewhat surreal events off the coast of Somalia, no doubt pleasing one of our staffers who is one of the world’s biggest pirate-philes judging from his yearly Halloween pirate fest. But beyond all our swashbuckling pirate wit, it got us thinking about where to travel for some good old-fashioned pirate action—without getting in the crosshairs of AK-47-wielding Somali sea bandits (or indeed sharpshooting Navy SEALs). Here are our top ten picks; tell us if you know any other good pirate hideouts in the comments section below.

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Related Topics: Beach Vacation · Caribbean Travel · Disney Vacation · Family Vacation · Florida Vacation · Top 10 Lists

April 16, 2009

Florida's Top Ten Roller Coasters: Kids' Picks

By Guest Blogger

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Dueling Dragons at Adventure Island, Orlando (courtesy, Orlando Tourism)

As any parent knows, children can be the worst critics and the best judges.  So when it comes to judging roller coasters, my two boys, ages seven and ten, have become quite the experts.  With mom as a travel writer, my lucky kids have put some of Florida’s “biggest and baddest” coasters to the test.

Here’s a list of their Top Ten Florida coasters, in no particular order.  I’ve included height restrictions, which I suggest you check before getting in line.  Note that this simple task has been known to avert major tantrums thrown by younger (usually shorter) would-be roller coaster riders upon arrival at the gates.

So, read—and ride—at your own risk:

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Related Topics: Family Vacation · Florida Vacation · Theme Parks · Top 10 Lists

March 04, 2009

Paddle the Suwannee River

By Johnny Molloy

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The Suwannee River (Wikimedia Commons)

“Way down upon the Suwannee River”... Everybody’s heard of it, but have you paddled it? The Suwannee is Florida’s contribution to the great rivers of the world, and one of the South's last examples of "Old Man River”. Made famous in folklore by Stephen Foster’s classic song “Old Folks at Home”, it flows some 235 miles from Georgia’s Okefenokee Swamp before emptying into the Gulf of Mexico at the town of Suwannee. The Suwannee is one of the finest touring rivers around and a first rate adventure when paddled in its entirety.

Mostly flatwater, one portage is required of sea kayakers at Big Shoals via a marked portage trail. None of the other shoals are sufficiently challenging to cause a problem, even for touring sea kayaks. Canoeing is a great option as well. Boat ramps and canoe launches are frequent along the river, allowing trips of varied lengths possible. The town of White Springs makes for a great base camp.

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Related Topics: Florida Vacation · Outdoor Adventures

February 03, 2009

SeaWorld Orlando: Much More than Shamu

Walkabout Waters at Aquatica water park in Orlando (courtesy, SeaWorld Orlando)

Disney World and Universal might get much of the acclaim, but if you’re headed to Orlando this winter, you might want to check out what’s been happening lately at Sea World.  Last March, SeaWorld Orlando opened Aquatica, the first major water park in Orlando since Disney World’s Blizzard Beach in 1995. Bring the kids to take the Dolphin Plunge, and then go on a far mellower ride, like the Lazy River, to spot the real dolphins.  Or go for a spin down Tassie's Twisters or let the little ones climb around the multilevel water playground, Walkabout Waters.  This coming summer, SeaWorld will unveil a new roller coaster just inside the main entrance called the Manta.  Strapped face down in a horizontal position, you'll glide like a manta ray as you sweep above the park in this flying ride. Just make sure to check the website for vacation packages before you go so you can get a good deal on a place to get some rest after all the fun.

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Related Topics: Family Vacation · Florida Vacation · Theme Parks

January 30, 2009

Tampa Beyond the Super Bowl

By Karen Chen

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Tampa has lots of options if you get footballed out (Guy Vanderelst/Photographer's Choice RF/Getty)

This year, the mack daddy of all American sporting events—a little something we call the Super Bowl—is being held in Tampa, Florida. Whether or not you're a football fan, the Super Bowl always provides a good excuse to gather with friends and eat unhealthy amounts of chili, nachos, pigs in a blanket, or any other delicious meat concoctions you can think of (a certain football stadium made entirely of snack food has been making its rounds on the blog circuit lately). But to give yourself the peace of mind to freely consume snacks for six hours straight, first get out and explore the city. Or, if you're visiting Tampa for the big game this weekend, don't make Raymond James Stadium the only place you see.  

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Related Topics: Florida Vacation · Holidays, Events, & Festivals · Trip Ideas

December 05, 2008

Snacks on a Plane: Orlando-bound with Three Kids Over Thanksgiving

By Guest Blogger

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MISSION: To make it onto the plane with all kids and belongings (Corbis)

Though I write about family travel for a living, my preferred mode of transportation involves wheels on the ground. So when my in-laws invited us to spend Thanksgiving with them in Orlando, I was excited but hesitant. I'd only flown with one of my three sons at a time, and nearly always with my husband along as our luggage sherpa. But because he had to work late the day before the holiday, it was up to me to get the kids to Florida on my own.

A large suitcase, four day packs, two car seats, a booster seat, and a purse later, we were packed and ready to go. Each backpack held precious carry-on cargo: stuffed animals, books, and a portable game system for the older boys, ages nine and six. The four-year-old went low-tech, bringing his entire collection of Thomas the Tank Engine books. I carried my own travel must-haves: a digital 35mm camera and a laptop. Every travel-savvy parent knows to pack plenty of snacks, and this trip was no exception: Each kid's day pack held individual packs of bear-shaped graham crackers, grapes, and gummy bears.

My challenge was to get all of that stuff and three excited boys into the airport and through the security checkpoint.

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Related Topics: Air Travel · Family Vacation · Florida Vacation

August 13, 2008

The "Other" Key West: Beachside Resort

FIREWALKER: Key West busker at Mallory Square (Bob Krist/Florida Keys News Bureau)

Typically, families stay in the heart of a destination to minimize car-seat maneuvering and travel time to top sights. But sometimes a hotel off the main drag is best. For family vacationers in Key West, bunking far from Duval Street makes sense. Sure, Duval has its charms. During the day. Come night, the emphasis is on partying, and it's more in your face than "family-oriented." A relatively new Key West hotel is Beachside Resort, a 15-minute drive from downtown. It's not like you'll miss out on Duval; the resort's free shuttle to the anything-goes mecca runs hourly until 10 p.m. Honestly, much about Beachside says "convention" rather than family, but accommodations, ranging from king bedrooms to three-bedroom, three-bath suites, are spacious—some with full kitchens—and there are family packages. There's also a small beach, laze-the-day-away hammocks, and poolside private cabanas for shade. Oddly, most guests must walk through a parking garage to reach the water or (excellent) restaurant. Downtown, check out the very cool (if pricey) Pirate Soul Museum and Butterfly and Nature Conservancy. The Hemingway Home with its 50-something resident cats is great for older kids, too. Sunset sail? Definitely.

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Related Topics: Family Vacation · Florida Vacation · Places to Stay

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