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THE OPEN ROAD: 7 Weekend Florida Road Trips

As Floridians, we’re lucky: We live in a beautiful state. So take time this summer to explore it. No need to consult TripAdvisor – we’ve researched, planned and tracked down the hidden gems to prepare seven itineraries for you, outlining where to stay, what to eat and what to see. 

So pack your bags, get in your car and just escape.

For the history buff: St. AUGUSTINE

Travel to this city in northern Florida for historic charm and “Old World” European flair – cobblestone streets, forts and all.

GET THERE: Take Interstate 95 north for four hours to land in St. Augustine, just south of Jacksonville.

Usually, you’d be hard-pressed to find a hotel in Florida that’s older than a few decades. Enter the Casa Monica Hotel in St. Augustine, a hotel with more than a century of staying power – it was built in 1888 and restored in 1999. Guests can opt for a suite with a Jacuzzi and a private, walk-out balcony overlooking the historic district and Matanzas Bay. Make sure to peruse Grand Bohemian Gallery, the hotel’s on-site art gallery (95 Cordova St.).

Stroll through the Historic District to find Michael’s Tasting Room, an intimate, romantic Spanish-inspired tapas restaurant. Executive Chef and Owner Michael Lugo changes the menu monthly using the freshest ingredients to create dishes like the marinated mussels and the Moorish Quinoa Paella. Live guitarists perform on Friday and Saturday nights (25 Cuna St.). For a casual lunch and afternoon beer, stop by The Backyard at Meehan’s – Island Café and Tropical Bar. Try the perfectly seasoned island wings (20 Avenida Menendez). For something cool after a trek through the historic city, check out The Hyppo for gourmet, fresh fruit ice pops (48 Charlotte St.).

Don’t leave without a tour of Castillo de San Marcos – it’s popular for a reason. The monument site consists of 20.5 acres and includes a walled, stone and mortar defense line that weathered numerous attacks during the colonial wars. Take a tour of the fort to learn about its durable history and to see stunning views of Matanzas Bay (1 S. Castillo Drive). In the mood for more history? Sign up for a tour of Flagler College, the former Hotel Ponce de Leon, built by millionaire developer Henry Flagler in 1888. The campus showcases Spanish Renaissance architecture and houses the largest collection of in-use Louis Comfort Tiffany stained glass windows (74 King St.). Peruse antique shops on San Marco Avenue or take a short drive to shop at the St. Augustine Premium Outlets (2700 State Road 16) and St. Augustine Outlets (500 Outlet Mall Blvd., Ste. 500).

For the foodie: TAMPA

Most tourists to the middle part of the state head straight to Orlando. Good – you’ll want to keep Tampa all to yourself. This city is a cultural gem, and it gets better daily, with rapidly growing food and arts scenes.

The journey will take between three to four hours by car. Get there via Interstate 75 or Florida’s Turnpike and Interstate 4.

 Foodies will fall in love with the brand new Epicurean, a boutique-style, food-themed hotel in Tampa’s SoHo district. With cooking and mixology classes at the hotel’s Epicurean Theater, a fine wine store, chocolate and pastry shop, and world-class restaurants, guests will never go hungry. Just six months old, the hotel has already achieved the AAA Four Diamond distinction (1207 S. Howard Ave.).

 The Cuban sandwich is such a local staple that the mayor declared March Cuban Sandwich Month and there’s an annual Cuban Sandwich Festival in Tampa. Locals heatedly debate where to find the best one, but Michelle Faedo’s On the Go food truck’s sandwich has won top honors at the festival twice (813.784.6933). Make a reservation for a classy night at Bern’s Steak House, one of the most revered steakhouses in Florida. In addition to sublime steak, the menu boasts a selection of artisanal international cheeses and 7,000+ wines. Be sure to tour the wine cellar, kitchen and head upstairs to the dessert room after dinner. (1208 S. Howard Ave., Hyde Park).

Tampa has so much art and culture to offer. It has 143-times more zoos and aquariums per capita than New York City, according to a WalletHub study. Take in the sights at the Tampa Museum of Art, Tampa Bay History Center or The Florida Aquarium. Afterward, unwind with a drink and a tour of Cigar City Brewing, an award-winning craft beer brewery (3924 W. Spruce St.). In the evening, see a flick at the beautiful and historic Tampa Theatre, built in 1926 (711 N. Franklin St.). The next day, put on your suit and drive to Fort De Soto Park, which in the past 10 years has been crowned the country’s top beach by both TripAdvisor and Dr. Beach (3500 Pinellas Bayway S., Tierra Verde). Before leaving town, animal lovers will want to stop by Big Cat Rescue – one of the world’s largest wildlife sanctuaries of its kind – for a glimpse at the 150+ exotic cats (12802 Easy St.).

Call: 813.784.6933

For the nature lover: SANIBEL & CAPTIVA ISLANDS

Nature reigns on neighboring islands Sanibel and Captiva, where you won’t even find a stoplight. Travel here for a relaxing weekend of bike riding, bird watching and beach lounging.

It’s about a twoto three-hour ride to Sanibel Island via State Road 80 or I-75.The Sanibel Causeway toll is $6 round trip. Captiva Island is just to the north of Sanibel, accessible by bridge.

South Seas Island Resort, on the tip of Captiva Island, offers laidback luxury with a seaside golf course, marina, spa, wildlife sanctuary, water sports, and dolphin, shelling and sunset cruises (5400 Plantation Road). Casa Ybel Resort occupies 23 acres along the Sanibel Island beach and features a spa and plenty of children’s activities (2255 W. Gulf Drive).

 The restaurant locals and tourists alike rave about is Sweet Melissa’s Café in Sanibel. The seafood is fresh and the dishes are flavorful. Entrees come in full or smaller portions, which is great because you’ll want to try everything on the menu (1625 Periwinkle Way). For fine dining, the historic Old Captiva House – open since the 1930s – is a must (15951 Captiva Drive). The quirky Bubble Room Restaurant in Captiva offers up the most unique dining experience. Open since the 1970s, it’s known as the restaurant that hosts Christmas year-round and is decorated with three floors worth of toys. Every meal is served with sticky buns and gooey, cheesy bubble bread, but it’s the cakes that the restaurant is revered for. Don’t leave without trying the signature orange crunch cake (15001 Captiva Drive). Keylime Bistro, famous for its Key lime pie, is also worth a trip (11509 Andy Rosse Lane).

About one-third of Sanibel is occupied by J. N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge, a 7,000-acre gem that is ideal for bird watching and kayaking (1 Wildlife Drive). For those intent on photo-documenting their trip, the Sanibel Lighthouse makes a pretty picture and offers nearby hiking trails and bird watching Sanibel is known for the “Sanibel Stoop” – it’s a world-renowned spot for shelling, home to more than 250 types – and The Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum celebrates that (3075 Sanibel-Captiva Road). The island shops are stocked with unique local treasures – stop by Jungle Drums gallery (11532 Andy Rosse Lane, Captiva) and She Sells Sea Shells (1157 Periwinkle Way, Sanibel). Head to the shell-scattered Alison Hagerup Beach Park in the evening – it’s the best spot to watch the sunset (14790 Captiva Drive).


Eau Palm Beach Resort & Spa

To put it simply, the Eau is what dreams are made of. The beachfront resort captures the charm and beauty of Palm Beach paired with incredible amenities, like the stunning 42,000-square-foot spa. This summer, the resort offers AquaNuts, a weekly summer camp for kids featuring Go-Pro videomaking, modeling and photography, spa treatments, surf lessons and more. (100 S. Ocean Blvd., Manalapan)

Boca Raton Resort and Club

This spot’s roots date back to 1926, when Addison Mizner opened it as the Cloister Inn. It was eventually renovated into the iconic, 356-acre, 1,041-room resort it is today. The Boca Resort offers a 50,000-square-foot, Natura Bissé spa, access to a half-mile of private beach and a taste of South Florida’s historic luxury. (501 E. Camino Real)

PGA National Resort & Spa

This Palm Beach Gardens resort is home to five of the top golf courses in Florida and is famous for hosting the annual Honda Classic Golf Tournament. PGA National offers great restaurants, a spa and even its own food truck. The hotel also hosts several family events in the summertime, including a summer concert series and a two-day Independence Day celebration featuring glow-in-the-dark golf, a 5K, pool party, golf cart parade and more. (400 Avenue of the Champions)

Pelican Grand Beach Resort 

The boutique-style hotel on Fort Lauderdale beach is uber-romantic, offering a zero-entry pool with lazy river, oceanfront dining, and beachside suites that allow guests to wake up to the sounds of rolling waves. Guests will fall in love with the resort’s quaint, Southern style. Be sure to relax in a rocking chair on the hotel’s giant porch. (2000 N. Ocean Blvd.)

For the adventurer: THE FLORIDA KEYS

Travel to this archipelago of 1,700+ islands where the drinks are good, the culture is rich, the nature is abundant and most importantly – the living is easy.

GET THERE: Take U.S. 1 south and just drive. In two to three hours you’ll hit Islamorada; about an hour later you’ll arrive in Key West. Enjoy the view from the Seven Mile Bridge. Watch out for Key deer crossing the roads – they’re endangered, and police officers are always on the look-out for speeders.

CHECK IN: The uber-adventurous will want to check out Jules Undersea Lodge, an underwater hotel only accessible by scuba diving (51 Shoreland Drive, Key Largo). If you’re looking more for R&R, The Moorings Village and Spa in Islamorada, about 80 miles north of Key West, is your spot. The resort features 18 cottages on a former coconut plantation. The oneto three-bedroom homes are steps from private, white-sand beaches (123 Beach Road). Continue on to Key West to check into La Mer Hotel & Dewey House, a charming, oceanfront, 19-room bed and breakfast (506 South St.).

EAT: Grab an early lunch in Islamorada at M.E.A.T. Eatery & Tap Room for divine burgers and freshly smoked meats (88005 Overseas Highway). Get dinner in Key West. The tapas and wine at Santiago’s Bodega are sublime – try the sangria, skewers, quesadillas and bread pudding (207 Petronia St.). Finish the night with drinks at the Speakeasy Inn’s rum bar (1117 Duval St.). The next morning, relax over an al fresco breakfast at the artsy Blue Heaven. Try the homemade pancakes – choose from banana, pineapple, pecan or blueberry (729 Thomas St.). Later, head to Better Than Sex dessert restaurant – the drinks and dishes live up to the restaurant’s name (926 Simonton St.).

EXPLORE: On the drive down to Key West, stop at Bahia Honda State Park and Beach for hiking and snorkeling and arguably the best beach in the Keys (36850 Overseas Highway). Once in Key West, head for Mallory Square and grab a “Green Thing” cocktail at Mr. Mojito’s bar cart to sip as you watch the sun set. At nightfall, sign up for a ghost tour, a – non-gimmicky, we swear – walking tour of the island and its history On day two, wake up with Barefoot Billy’s action-packed, two-hour, 26-mile Jet Ski tour. Spend the rest of the day exploring Duval Street and the island’s shopping – head to Key West Island Bookstore for an impressive and eclectic selection of books (513 Fleming St.) and Kino Sandal Factory for handcrafted leather goods (107 Fitzpatrick St.). At night, have a drink at Sloppy Joe’s Bar, which has been a Key West staple since 1933 (201 Duval St.).

For the family: SARASOTA

This Gulf city blends a casual lifestyle with sophistication to create a beach scene brimming with culture and the arts.

GET THERE: Follow I-75 for three hours through the Everglades, and then north along the Gulf Coast to arrive in Sarasota about three hours later.

For a secluded resort-feel try the The Resort at Longboat Key Club just off the coast of Sarasota. Guests can enjoy private balconies, eight restaurants and lounges, golf and water sports (220 Sands Point Road). Or, for a city hotel with a relaxed, resort vibe, stay at The Ritz-Carlton, Sarasota that overlooks the Sarasota Bay and the downtown waterfront (1111 Ritz-Carlton Drive). It’s just around the corner from the city’s restaurants, shops and downtown area.

Try the Jack Dusty at The Ritz for a hand-crafted cocktail and great views (111 Ritz-Carlton Drive). Stop by the Artisan Cheese Company downtown for a small lunch (and a fresh cup of coffee) while perusing the store’s selection of specialty cheese, gourmet jams, nut butters, oils and vinegars and pastas (1310 Main St.). Make the short drive to Siesta Key for Ophelia’s on the Bay, a local, romantic favorite that blends American, Asian, Italian and Floridian cuisine to create outstanding seafood dishes (9105 Midnight Pass Road).

Spend a day at Siesta Beach on Siesta Key, a white-sand haven that has a reputation as one of the most beautiful beaches in the world. The fine white sand at this beach is composed of 99 percent pure quartz, meaning it stays cool even on a hot, sunny, summer day (948 Beach Road). Block off a few hours to visit The Ringling, Sarasota’s famed circus and art museum formerly owned by John Ringling of the Ringling Brothers (5401 Bay Shore Road). Take a tour that includes the history of the tented circus, a walk through the rose garden, views of sculptures, baroque paintings, galleries and more. Also, if your visit falls on the third Friday of the month, attend the monthly Art Walk that takes patrons on a stroll down the artsy Adams Lane (1938 Adams Lane).

For the arts & culture enthusiast: MIAMI BEACH

Take the short drive south to Miami for a creative, energetic and thriving international metropolis that’s always heating things up.

GET THERE: Take I-95 South until bright lights from the Magic City appear on the horizon.

If there is one city in Florida to associate with art, it’s Miami. The James Royal Palm is an ode to that. The hotel is decorated with a selection of pieces created specifically for the property, has an Artist in Residence program and often partners with local art institutions to produce events and programs for guests. The historic hotel was built in 1939 and renovated in 2012, and was soon after named one of the “Hottest New Beach Hotels” by Travel + Leisure (1545 Collins Ave.).

Feel free to lounge in before grabbing brunch at Yardbird Southern Table & Bar. If there’s one place that lives up to the hype, this is it. The cozy restaurant consistently serves up good, Southern food like Mama’s Chicken Biscuits, the fried green tomato BLT, and the macaroni and cheese. Save room for one of Yardbird’s strong, specialty cocktails (1600 Lenox Ave.). When you’re ready for dinner, head to Catch Miami. The cuisine by Top Chef winner Chef Hung Huynh will blow your mind. The seafood shines here – you can’t go wrong with the octopus, sushi or crispy whole snapper – but you will absolutely want to save room for a Key lime donut for dessert (1545 Collins Ave.). Later, find your way to Foxhole Bar (look for the red light marking the door), for a late-night cocktail that doesn’t involve strobe lights, a dress code or a cover charge (1218 14th Court).

Shop and peruse fine art, fashion and food at the flourishing Miami Design District that includes designers Marni, Dior, Céline and more (3841 NE Second Ave.). Rest over lunch at Egg & Dart (4029 N. Miami Ave.) or grab coffee and a scone at Michelle Bernstein’s Crumb on Parchment (3930 NE 2nd Ave.). After lunch, drive to Vizcaya Museum & Gardens, the stunning Miami estate of agricultural industrialist James Deering that has become a National Historic Landmark (3251 S Miami Ave.). Spend the next day at the nearby new Pérez Art Museum Miami, a contemporary, modern art museum that features world-renowned exhibits and architecture, as well as stunning views of the Biscayne Bay (1103 Biscayne Blvd.). End the day with a cocktail or light bite at the museum’s waterfront restaurant and bar, Verde (1103 Biscayne Blvd.).

For the beach babe: NAPLES

Plan a quick trip to Southwest Florida for picturesque sunsets, Gulf views, pristine beaches, and sophisticated relaxation.

GET THERE: Fill up the gas tank before making the tranquil two-hour drive across I-75. Watch out for gators lurking in the canals that flank Alligator Alley.

Spend the weekend at LaPlaya Beach & Golf Resort where turquoise water beckons guests out of their hotel rooms and onto the beach. The resort, situated on 6.5 acres of private beach next to Vanderbilt Bay, offers a laid-back luxurious escape that exudes classic, Old Florida with blue cabanas, rock-waterfall pools, a beach fire-pit, a tiki bar and more. Unwind at the exotic SpaTerre or play a round of golf at the 18-hole Bob Cupp golf course (9891 Gulf Shore Drive).

For the best beachfront dining, make a reservation outside at LaPlaya’s Baleen. Try the fresh tuna tiradito with a light avocado mousse, shaved grapes, taro chips and pineapple salsa, and splurge on the rich and decadent broiled lobster risotto with black truffle (9891 Gulf Shore Drive). The next night, drive 15 minutes south to watch the sun dip below the horizon at the Naples Pier (25 12th Ave. S.). Then, meander along Third Street South or up Fifth Avenue to find a place to dine. We like Barbatella (1290 3rd St. S.), Sea Salt (1186 3rd St. S.) and The Mangrove Cafe (878 5th Ave. S.). Before driving back across the Alley, stop by Sunburst Café, a Costa Rican-inspired breakfast joint that serves great coffee and even better homemade Nutella muffins (2340 Pine Ridge Road).

If the beach isn’t enough, make the 30-minute drive to seek solitude at Audubon’s Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary. Here, along a winding, 2.25-mile boardwalk visitors find a gentle, pristine wilderness that dates back more than 500 years. Walk thought pine flatwoods, wet prairie, around a marsh and finally into the largest, old growth Bald Cypress forest in North America, where the trees tower 130 feet into the sky. The forest is also home to hundreds of alligators, otters, white-tailed deer and red-bellied turtles (375 Sanctuary Road W.). For boutique shopping, walk along Fifth Avenue South and for high-end brands head to the Waterside Shops (5415 Tamiami Trail N.) for Kate Spade New York, Tory Burch and Saks Fifth Avenue.