I’m an explorer by trade, and I haven’t clutched a boarding pass in so long it feels like another lifetime. I’m resigned to the reality that the Japanese shrines and fairy tale castles on my wish list must wait till next year. But here’s the thing: I don’t have to give up the kinds of breathtaking scenery and experiences that I crave to refresh and renew body and soul. It turns out that there are some pretty unique and satisfying options within driving distance of my Florida base. Plus, by their very nature they’re a social distancing dream. I can choose from glamping in a mountaintop yurt to houseboating on a river that runs through a national forest and icy clear springs, to a beach resort I never have to leave (because the world-class pampering and wild adventures come to me). No matter where you live, you’ll find your own awesome options. Here are my first three picks. All three are family friendly, too.
Houseboating on St. Johns River
I’ve plied the waters by zodiac, river barge, Nordic icebreaker, sailboat, seaplane, cruise ship, and once even a shrimp boat, but one vessel missing is a houseboat. Luckily, one of America’s most picturesque houseboat destinations is a scant four hours from my driveway. Bordering the Ocala National Forest near Orlando, The long, lazy St. Johns River flows north (true!) through stunning ecosystems of bird-populated marshes, swamps, quiet coves, oak and cypress forests, and sites of ancient Timucuan Indian mounds. There are Old Florida fish camp restaurants and even a fancy marina restaurant. Houseboaters can catch freshwater bass and catfish to grill right from the deck. At Blue Springs State Park, a large population of West Indian manatees winter in the crystal clear water. At Holly Bluff Marina houseboats from 38 to 63 feet have living rooms, queen beds, full baths, and all the essentials, starting at $1100 for 4 days/3 nights. Houseboating.org/St-Johns-River-Houseboats-for-Rent.
Yurt Glamping atop Lookout Mountain
Two stunning waterfalls plunge down 1,000 feet to the canyon floor. Sunrises and sunsets paint the sandstone cliffs in brilliant hues. Hiking trails both gentle and strenuous wind through dense hardwood forests. If you love mountain ambience but prefer a teeny bit of comfort to the cold hard ground (you can guess where I stand on this), a yurt is ideal. The round, high ceilinged wood and canvas Mongolian-style structures have hand-carved furniture, heaters, ceiling fans, lockable doors and even electrical outlets. You have a deck, picnic table and fire ring, and hot showers nearby. There’s also horseback riding, mountain biking and more. Take the 600 steep stairs down to the canyon floor but beware: what goes down must climb back up! Rates are $100 per night. Regular campsites and cabins are available. Gastateparks.org/cloudlandcanyon.
Beach Luxe in the Ten Thousand Islands
To have equal parts of adventure and nurturing, I’m heading straight to the JW Marriott Marco Island Beach Resort to envelop myself in the secluded luxury of en suite spa services and gourmet dining. I’ll stroll down to the beach where spectacular adventures literally come to me. I can take the Calusa Spirit for an eco-tour into the habitat of wild Atlantic bottlenose dolphins, hop aboard a Waverunner on my own or join a guided tour, do some stand up paddleboarding, or try a parasail ride. I can park myself under a cabana and sip cool tropical beverages or check out the famous shelling beach and bird-watching sanctuary around the bend. From here at the western edge of the untamed Everglades, I could also book a range of guided adventures from airboat rides to kayaking beneath dark and mysterious mangrove tunnels. Or, I may just read my book under the cabana and order another frozen something. https://www.marriott.com/hotels/travel/mrkfl-jw-marriott-marco-island-beach-resort/
These and other awesome escapes first appeared in Neapolitan FamilyMagazine. https://neafamily.com/digital-issue/readtheaugust2020issue