Fly South

hammock beach: The lazy river and three-level slide are just two sections of this popular water park. The resort’s championship golf is just steps from the Atlantic, bottom.

hammock beach: The lazy river and three-level slide are just two sections of this popular water park. The resort’s championship golf is just steps from the Atlantic, bottom.

Gem of the southeast, Florida offers 825 miles of beaches and countless resort communities, each with a personality all its own. Whether you are seeking to unwind in a sanctuary like Captiva, keep the kids hopping in a family-friendly activity hub, or enjoy the laid-back scene in Key West, Florida’s got you covered. Here are a few of our favorite hot spots to consider:

Palm Coast

Palm Coast

PALM COAST
Word of Hammock Beach Resort, just south of St. Augustine in Palm Coast, Florida, hasn’t traveled as far north as New Jersey yet, but we suggest you pack your bags and book a suite before this six-year-old resort starts getting the recognition it deserves. With 207 one- to four-bedroom luxury suites and villas, this oceanfront gem is a unique find on the East Coast.

At your disposal are first-class resort amenities including nine pools and an incredible water complex with a lazy river, three-story slide, the largest hot tub you’ve ever seen, an expansive beachfront, two championship golf courses (one boasting five holes along the Atlantic and the other being the longest course in Florida), a rejuvenating spa, five restaurants, a nine-hole professionally manicured putting green perfect for the kids, bicycle rentals, sunset sails, a kids’ club, spinning and Zumba classes, and some of the yummiest room service you’ll ever order.

The best part, perhaps, are the suites themselves with up to 3,000 square feet of pure luxury—fully loaded high-end kitchens, whirlpool tubs, flat-screen televisions, Wi-Fi, designer furnishings, washer and dryer, and gorgeous views of the ocean. This is not your ordinary beach condo. The suites are so large you won’t mind having the grandparents along. With a Publix supermarket just a block away, you can literally arrive with snacks and favorite treats in hand to stock the Viking fridge.

While you’ll never need to leave the grounds, Marineland, just a few miles north, offers a variety of hands-on dolphin encounters, or journey south to Flagler Beach for more of the boardwalk scene. And its sister hotel, Reunion Resort in Kissimmee (866-880-8563; reunionresort.com), is equally enticing and just minutes from the Disney gate. The only amenity Reunion is lacking is the Atlantic Ocean. These are some of the best family-friendly resorts we’ve ever visited, and the kids are literally begging to go back. Rates start at $175 per night. (866-841-0287; hammockbeach.com)—Molly Tully

Fort Lauderdale

fort lauderdale:  The newly re-modeled Westin Fort Lauderdale captures the town’s sophisticated vibe in its lush lobby decked out with posh sofas and funky, leaf-textured lamps (left); the room décor continues the laidback luxury with a refreshing palette of blue and beige (bottom left); the Heavenly Spa (bottom right).

fort lauderdale: The newly re-modeled Westin Fort Lauderdale captures the town’s sophisticated vibe in its lush lobby decked out with posh sofas and funky, leaf-textured lamps (left); the room décor continues the laidback luxury with a refreshing palette of blue and beige (bottom left); the Heavenly Spa (bottom right).

Once a magnet for spring breakers, in recent years Fort Lauderdale has found its niche as a hip spot for singles, a kid-friendly escape for families, and a haven for an elite crowd of million-dollar manse owners (whose properties can be viewed during boating tours along the Intracoastal Waterway). There are miles of pristine beaches for soaking up sun, cutting-edge art museums and galleries, fine dining spots, and lots of upscale boutiques.

Start your day at a leisurely pace, relaxing in the sun or breakfasting at Starbucks overlooking the beach. Or, bike ride or jog through Hugh Taylor Birch State Park with its trails that wind through lush greenery and along the waterfront.

Spend your afternoon exploring Las Olas, a shopping and cultural hub located a short taxi—or, even more fun, water taxi—ride away from the hotel strip. You’ll find galleries and antique shops to peruse, along with lots of eateries. Lunch at one of the sidewalk cafés, such as Big City Tavern with its huge eclectic menu of Mediterranean, American, and Asian fare. Then, stop at the Museum of Art, which has a permanent collection of modern American and European works, including Picasso ceramics and contemporary Cuban art.

There are tons of opportunities for all the typical water fun—jet skiing, snorkeling, scuba diving, and sailing—which can be arranged with your hotel’s concierge or a private vendor. But, while you’re in shouting distance of mega mansions, take a boat tour of the grand homes of celebs and CEOs who own the posh properties of Millionaire’s Row. Your tour captain will be sure to regale you with “insider” stories.

Fort Lauderdale has a host of fine dining. One can’t-miss spot is Shula’s on the Beach. Former NFL coach Don Shula’s namesake steakhouse offers top-grade beef, and a menu of seafood options in keeping with the tropical location.

If your definition of R&R includes romance, stay at the Westin Fort Lauderdale (rates start at $209 per night). This newly revamped resort has 433 guest quarters with sleek contemporary furnishings, plush Heavenly beds, and, in most rooms, floor-to-ceiling glass windows with views of the Intracoastal Waterway.

Visit the resort’s Heavenly Spa for serious pampering. Try the Rollersage massage, which ups the ante on the tried-and-true hot stone massage—it uses heated crystal stones (selected for their energy-enhancing properties) to melt away tension. Or, try the lemon-verbena body polish, 50 luscious minutes of gentle, all-over exfoliating.

If you’re traveling with the kids, the newly remodeled Sheraton (formerly the Sheraton Yankee Clipper, famous for hosting guests such as Joe DiMaggio and the Yankees) is a good choice. The property has 490 guestrooms and eight suites, and is one of Fort Lauderdale’s few resorts set right on the beach. Rates start at $139 per night. (starwoodhotels.com)
Deborah Carter

Orlando

Portofino bay Hotel: Return from a hectic day at the Universal theme parks via water taxi to the sanctuary of this European-styled luxury resort. The buildings have been so cleverly built that you’ll feel like you’ve actually arrived in Italy.

Portofino bay Hotel: Return from a hectic day at the Universal theme parks via water taxi to the sanctuary of this European-styled luxury resort. The buildings have been so cleverly built that you’ll feel like you’ve actually arrived in Italy.

Harry Potter mania has taken over Central Florida, and if you’re caught up in the muggle madness, the Loew’s Portofino Bay Hotel is the perfect resort to hang your broom. Just minutes by boat from Universal’s theme parks, this 750-room high-end luxury resort, the most upscale of your choices in the area, is a world of sanity away from the amusement-park scene. Created as a replica of its namesake in Italy, Portofino Bay is as calm and comforting as it is beautiful. You’ll be thankful for the Mandara Spa, the eight restaurants (don’t miss Mama Dellas!), and nightly opera serenades, while the kids will enjoy the three pools. We’ve always been loyal Disney fans, but Portofino Bay’s room accommodations and quality of food has us rethinking the Grand Floridian. And the biggest perk is that guests of the hotel skip the theme-park lines simply by showing their room key. Just be prepared for crowds at the Harry Potter attraction, which aren’t likely to subside anytime soon. Rates start at $274. (888-430-4999; loewshotels.com/en/Portofino-Bay-Hotel)—Molly Tully

Sanibel/Captiva

sanibel: Scenic and serene, this island paradise has pristine white beazches and breathtaking sunset views.

sanibel: Scenic and serene, this island paradise has pristine white beaches and breathtaking sunset views.

Sanibel Island is known for its white sandy beaches and the treasures that line them. So abundant and beautiful are the island’s seashells that locals have been known to develop a condition called “the Sanibel stoop” (caused by constantly gazing downward to look for new specimens).

But visitors don’t need to be excited by mollusk or bivalve habitats to enjoy a Sanibel vacation. Resorts such as Casa Ybel, which sits directly on the Gulf of Mexico and overlooks its teal-green, gentle waters, extend guests the kind of services that, even without the salt air and gorgeous views, would make a week-long stay seem too short.

Casa Ybel’s 23-acre property, which has had the distinction of being named one of the 500 greatest hotels in the world by Travel + Leisure magazine, offers beachside or in-room spa treatments, a kids’ club with kids’ night out, bike rentals, yoga and pilates classes by the shore, tennis courts, a nature sanctuary with bird pond, an Olympic-size pool, as well as a kiddie pool. And then there are the rooms: each one, despite the excellent on-premises restaurant called Thistle Lodge (local seafood!), has a fully equipped kitchen and its own private balcony or terrace. You may not be able to spy the hard-to-find, coveted spotted shell known as Junonia from yours, but if you gaze horizon-ward in the late afternoon, you’re almost certain to see something equally pause-giving and beautiful: jumping dolphins. Rates start at $259 per night. (800-276-4753; casaybelresort.com)
Tammy La Gorce

KEY WEST: Each of the 35 luxury suites at the Santa Maria in Key West is designed as sophisticated and contemporary apartments, with a private terrace that opens up to an enclosed garden and pool sanctuary. The state-of-the-art kitchens are stocked with every culinary appliance and gadget imaginable. Ideal for those looking for a stylish rental-home alternative.

KEY WEST: Each of the 35 luxury suites at the Santa Maria in Key West is designed as sophisticated and contemporary apartments, with a private terrace that opens up to an enclosed garden and pool sanctuary. The state-of-the-art kitchens are stocked with every culinary appliance and gadget imaginable. Ideal for those looking for a stylish rental-home alternative.

Key West
This island crowns the Southernmost point of the continental U.S. and is a mere 90 miles from Cuba. Although surrounded by breathtaking views of the Caribbean Sea and Atlantic Ocean, the primary attraction isn’t the beach. The overwhelming allure is the lifestyle. After all, it’s the land of Hemingway and Jimmy Buffett—six-toed cats, wild chickens, open-air bars, and meandering through the quaint streets of Old Town. The most popular strip is Duval Street, where there’s something for everyone. It’s where cruise ship passengers in port for the day collide with a colorful variety of tourists, for shopping, dining, and strolling. At the north end of Duval is Mallory Square, where masses gather to watch the sunset.

At the southern end of Duval and just a block off the beach is the Santa Maria Suites Resorts on Simonton Street. It’s a bargain compared to most of the high-end hotels in the area. No expense is spared at this luxurious, ultra-cool boutique hotel that has a mid-century modern vibe. Rooms are one and two-bedroom suites, with kitchens and living rooms big enough to entertain. Complimentary perks include Dove ice cream bars, poolside fresh-fruit smoothies, chilled hand towels, and happy hour wine, beer, and snacks. Rates start at $199 for a one-bedroom suite. (305-296-5678; santamariasuites.com)

Opt for breakfast out at the Blue Heaven, a short walk from Santa Maria Suites. This is where Hemingway refereed boxing matches and onlookers cheered cock fights. You’ll find deliciously sweet local lobster benedict, with a key-lime hollandaise sauce.
Take an afternoon sail to snorkel and kayak aboard Danger charters. It’s pricey but worth the comfort and attention you’ll get from the knowledgeable crew. If you prefer a more leisurely ride, they offer a sunset wine and wind sail.

Interested in getting your hands on some gold trinkets? Visit the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum and grip a 16.5-karat gold bar worth about $550,000. There are also treasures to see, touch, and buy from the Nuestra Senora de Atocha, a sunken ship lost 40 miles off the coast of Key West during a hurricane in 1622.

A word of dining advice from a local: “the further from the water, the better the food.” Case in point, Mangia-Mangia, an intimate Italian restaurant known for its fresh pasta, would rival the best Jersey red sauce joints. If you don’t see what you want on the menu, no problem. They’ll cook to order.

Don’t leave Key West without a taste of its signature dessert, key-lime pie. The absolute best is the award-winning chocolate-dipped key-lime pie on a stick from the Blonde Giraffe. There are five locations around town, and they’ll even mail these treats back to Jersey for you. —Donna Ingram

Big Deal
Part of the fun of a cruise on one of the world’s two largest cruise ships—Royal Caribbean’s Oasis of the Seas and its twin, Allure of the Seas, which launches this December—is not getting used to how big it is. It’s so smooth I found myself looking over the rail (about 200 feet above the water) just to confirm that the ship (the length of eleven football fields) was moving. It was, and quickly (cruising speed: 22.6 knots). A signature activity is visiting all sixteen decks, one of which features an area called Central Park, open to the sky, with paths through a greensward of 56 trees and 12,175 plants. Then there’s onboard surfing, a huge rock-climbing wall, a full-size carousel with hand-carved horses, a zip line, a couple of theaters, and 24 restaurants, to mention just a few activities and features. Each of the two ships can accommodate 5,400 passengers. They sail from a special terminal in Fort Lauderdale, and their ports of call include St. Thomas, St. Maarten, Jamaica, Mexico, and Labadee, Royal Caribbean’s activity-rich private beach enclave in Haiti. Joggers will enjoy the cushioned track that runs around the ships’ perimeters—2.4 laps and you’ve run a mile. (royalcaribbean.com)—Eric Levin


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