Cheryl S. Grant is a Spy contributor and travel writer. As a Florida resident, she put together a list of must-visit Florida destinations for Summer 2021. Check out the Florida vacation ideas below and then discover exclusive vacation home rentals near each destination, courtesy of Homes & Villas by Marriott International.
Florida is primarily known for its theme parks, specifically Disney. And while Disney is certainly a fun place to visit, the Sunshine State has so, so much more to offer. There are 825 miles of crystal clear waters to choose from, museums, zoos, world-renowned golf courses, historic districts, the Everglades, manatees and some of the most amazing springs that feel like bathwater. There are countless reasons to visit the Sunshine State in the best of times, but after living through the past year, we’re guessing you could really use a vacation.
That’s why we want to help you plan the perfect Florida vacation, all without setting foot inside Disneyworld. We aren’t knocking Disney, and we love all that it has to offer. The roller coaster rides, the food and, of course, Mickey and Minnie. We can safely say that everyone should try and visit Epcot at least once and that the Disney parks are so magical that you need at least two to three days to take it all in. However, now that you’re vaccinated and the summer is officially here, it’s time to plan an adventure.
The snowbirds head south every winter season for a reason. So if you’re planning a Florida vacation this summer, we’ve put together a list of all that Florida has to offer besides the House of Mouse. From beaches and world-class restaurants to national historic sites and the Everglades, Florida has something for everyone. Keep reading to find our favorite Florida vacation ideas, as well as some great places to stay along the way.
1. Visit Tampa Bay
FOR THE FOODIE
Tampa may not be your first thought when it comes to taking a foodie trip, and we can understand why because you never really hear about it the way you might, say, Charleston or Austin. But we have two areas that foodies must visit during their Florida vacation, Ybor City and Hyde Park. Ybor City was once considered the Cigar Capital of the World, and some of its architecture still reflects that, and you can still get hand-rolled cigars there. The main strip feels like it has a secret that only the folks who live there know. The food still reflects the immigrants that initially inhabited the area from Cuba, Asia and Europe.
For the perfect Cuban sandwich, go to La Segunda Bakery. The Cuban bread recipe they use is the original from 1915. Or you can head to the oldest restaurant in Florida, Columbia. The Columbia original “1905” salad is one of the restaurant’s better-known items, but the Cuban Black Bean Soup and maduros (sweet plantains) are also good reasons to pull a chair there. And if you want a mix of cuisine from Spain, Italy, and Cuba, Carmine’s is the place for you. Give the Grilled Chicken Italiana a try.
Hyde Park is a historic, walkable neighborhood in Tampa that boasts excellent shopping — West Elm, Sur La Table, and Anthropologie — and delicious foods. If you’re in the mood for unique drinks and yummy apps, Bar Taco fits the bill. Order up the gauc + roja + verde + chips, or the fried plantains tossed with salt and cayenne pepper or the ceviche. For an adult beverage, try the Ernesto en Jalisco, a Margarita and Hemingway Daiquiri mash-up, or the Nojito, a Mojito sans the rum. Or, for a fancy meal, book a table at the well-loved Bern’s Steakhouse. Yes, the dry-aged steaks are a terrific choice. Yes, they have one of the largest wine collections in the world. But it’s the restaurant’s Harry Waugh Dessert Room that we suggest you reserve right after booking your trip. There are dozens of choices, but we dare you to choose between the Tiramisu and the Twelve Layer Chocolate Cake, layers of dark chocolate cremeux, chocolate fudge frosting and moist chocolate cake.
Tampa Bay is also home to our favorite non-Disney theme park in Florida, Busch Gardens Tampa Bay. Busch Gardens is home to incredible roller coasters and rides for visitors of all ages, but it’s also one of the most impressive zoos in the country. Perfect for families that don’t want to spend their vacation waiting in insanely long lines at Disney, don’t miss Busch Gardens during your Tampa Bay trip.
Instead of staying in a hotel or taking a risk on a private home rental, check out this exclusive vacation home, part of the new Homes & Villas by Marriott International program. Every home and villa in this service is professionally managed and handpicked by Marriott. On top of that, every listing boasts top-notch amenities like deep cleaning, full kitchens, washers and dryers, air conditioning and 24/7 support by Marriott guest services. Located in the Seminole Heights neighborhood, this charming house has two bedrooms and a gourmet kitchen, plus a private one-bedroom guest suite and a patio where you can grill.
2. Stay At Anna Maria Island
FOR BEACH LOVERS
Florida’s Siesta Key Beach has routinely been named the best beach in the United States, which means it’s always a bit crowded. Fortunately, with hundreds of miles of coastline, there are plenty of other Florida beach communities where you can unwind and relax on white sugary sand that feels like you are walking on cotton. Venice Beach, St. Pete’s, Clearwater and St. Armands on the Gulf side of Florida are just as magnificent. However, if you want to be surrounded by beautiful water on all sides, then hit up one of the islands in Florida like Singer, Sanibel or San Marcos.
However, for the ultimate Florida beach vacation, we recommend heading to Anna Maria Island. It’s all about relaxation and enjoying sunrises and sunsets cast against crystal clear waters. Anna Maria Island is located just south of St. Petersburg in Manatee County Florida. This quiet barrier island in the Gulf of Mexico is a popular Florida vacation spot for travelers who want to spend as much time as they can at the beach.
For those who want to wake up to the sea rushing to the shore and fall asleep to a warm breeze that the trade winds in the Caribbean would be jealous of, then book a stay at this beach apartment home, one of the many Homes & Villas by Marriott International getaways on Anna Maria Island. This luxurious condo accommodates up to six guests in three bedrooms and is close to the beach. If you can pull yourself away from the private pool (yes, there’s a private pool), visit the Historic Anna Maria City Pier and Restaurant, and grab a sweet treat at Two Scoops Ice Cream Shoppe. There is also a free island trolley to Bradenton Beach or Holmes Beach for more fun in the sand.
3. Things To Do in Kissimmee
Located in central Florida, Kissimmee is a great destination for both families and golfers thanks to its proximity to both famous golf courses and Disneyworld. (While the family goes to Disneyworld, you can go golfing.) And if golf is your game, then you know some of the best advice on enjoying the sport came from one of the greatest that ever played the game. Arnold Palmer once said, “Golf is a game of inches. The most important are the six inches between your ears.” In other words, it will test you, but in a good way.
Kissimmee, Florida is home to three memorable golf courses designed by golf greats. The Jack Nicklaus course will challenge you with its long horizontal lines and elevated tee boxes. The Arnold Palmer is around 6,916-yards of hilly terrain with elevation changes that challenge even a pro. Tom Watson is a challenging 7,154-yard course for those working on their short game. Surrounding those great courses are suites, condos, multi-room villas and vacation homes, many of which have their very own private pools, aka a place to lick your wounds after a demanding day avoiding bunkers.
The Kissimmee area boasts about 50,000 vacation homes that range from larger-than-life estates that have hosted celebs to mellow and more laid-back accommodations with a golf course view. For those who want to play golf but do not necessarily want to stay on the course, check out this modern Encore Resort Home, available via Homes & Villas by Marriott International. This spacious house sleeps up to 17 people, has a huge yard and a private pool and hot tub. You are 10 minutes away from Disney, but you don’t have to leave the property because there are many amenities at your fingertips, such as an on-site waterpark, multiple restaurants and bars, sports courts, a fitness room and a kid’s area. And if you’re looking for Florida vacation homes with pools in Kissimmee, this is just one of the incredible options available from Homes & Villas by Marriott International.
But you may not want to want to keep your feet on the ground all day long and want a better view of Kissimmee. May we suggest that you head up and away on Bob’s Balloon Rides or Maverick Balloon Adventures. A view from 1,000 feet above ground in a hot air balloon adventure may just give you the breathing room to figure out how to get your golf ball to fade instead of hooking your shot.
For more fun and adventure, head to Orlando Tree Trek with its more than 97 aerial challenges. There are four separate courses for every elevation and skill level and three separate courses for kids, including a 425-foot zip line to the end.
4. Visiting Orlando
Now we know that an automatic response to hearing Orlando is to think Disney, but there are other family fun activities to try. The Crayola Experience Orlando offers 26 hands-on attractions for kids. The SEA LIFE Orlando Aquarium introduces guests to over 5,000 creatures from oceans across the globe. If you feel the need for speed, there is Andretti Indoor Karting & Games, which gives you a chance to pretend you are a fast-driving car racer plus, it has laser tag, ropes course, and classic arcade games. For those who like a good scare, the Screamin’ Gator Zip Line at Gatorland takes you 1,200 feet above live alligators and crocodiles. Or you can take it up another notch and go hand-gliding at Wallaby Ranch Hang Gliding Flight & Park. Or head to The Wheel at ICON Park, where you and your family can enjoy a 20-minute ride 400 feet high above the city. If you can do it at sunset, it will be a treat that you will never forget. And, of course, there’s Disney, but you already know that.
Though you may have gone to Orlando because you wanted all the hustle and bustle, having a serene lake view penthouse to retire to at the end of the day is what you need to regroup. Homes & Villas by Marriott International’s Vista Cay Resort home has a full master suite, and even the second bedroom has a king bed. In total, this vacation rental sleeps up to 8 people.
5. Florida National Park Adventures
FOR ADVENTURE SEEKERS
The Sunshine State has 11 National Parks and each unique with something fun to offer. And while we won’t highlight them all here, we wanted to mention our favorite three. First, of course, is the Everglades National Park, which extends through Miami, Naples, and Homestead. It is home to thirteen endangered and ten threatened species like the manatee, American crocodile and Florida panther. It is the largest mangrove ecosystem in the western hemisphere and the largest designated wilderness in the eastern U.S.
Next, visit the Dry Tortugas, which are a cluster of isolated islands 70 miles west of Key West. The location is primarily water, and you can only access it by boat or seaplane. But its blue waters, coral reefs, and marine life make it worth the trip. Finally, there’s the historic Fort Matanzas in St. Augustine, which boasts a fortified coquina watchtower, from 1742. It offers a beach, trails, fishing and protects about 300 acres of the coastal environment. Check out the park’s calendar of events to find out when they will re-enact how soldiers once lived in the 18th Century, as well as demonstrations of weapons from back then.
After visiting Fort Matanzas, relax and enjoy St. Augustine by booking Homes & Villas by Marriott International accommodations. A great choice is Sea Renity, a condo that allows you to experience the calming effects of the ocean breeze. When you’re not exploring Florida’s many national parks and wild attractions, you can enjoy the pleasures of St. Augustine itself. Explore all that the historic city offers, such as Castillo de San Marcos, the Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park, St. Augustine Distillery or San Sebastian Winery.