Archive for July, 2012

Amelia Island Serves Up HUGE Deals for the Great Southern Tailgate Cook-Off

Sure, BBQ is great. And Third Annual Great Southern Tailgate Cook-off, sizzling onto Amelia Island Aug. 24-25, 2012, promises a platter-full of fun.

It offers free entertainment by the famed Little River Band and Rockit Fly, plus more than 60 professional and backyard (amateur) teams cooking up their best barbecue to win more than $20,000 in prize money and trophies.

Sounds like a blast. Sounds tasty.

But this, this is positively delicious. Area hotels and inns are serving up are amazing deals for the event. We’re talking free nights at one place and $79 for rooms at another, and lots more. Check it out:

  • Addison on Amelia offers a free night on reservations of four nights or more during the Great Southern Tailgate Cook-off weekend. 
  • Amelia Island Hampton Inn at the Beach is offering a $99 rate for a double room, plus tax, during the cook-off.
  • Amelia Hotel at the Beach is offering standard rooms (king or double) for $79 per night for visitors attending the cook-off. The rate is only available through phone reservations and includes free parking, free Hot & Healthy breakfast daily, an afternoon warm cookie service and the new “Lobby Lounge” featuring a variety of beverages. Make sure to use rate code COOK when booking the deal.  (This is one of the places I’ve stayed on Amelia Island. It’s really comfy, and right across the street from a lovely beach.)
  • Beachside Motel will offer a third night free during the Great Southern Tailgate Cook-off. For visitors who can only stay for two nights, the property is offering a 20 percent discount. Only one discount is allowed per room.  The offers are valid August 22-27, 2012. You must call (877) 261-4236 to receive the discount.
  • Elizabeth Pointe Lodge is walking distance from the event and offers a Third Annual Great Southern Tailgate Cook-off Package starting at $578.  The package includes a king bed, sunset guest room for two nights, bike rental for two, hor d'oeuvres  reception each evening, complete breakfast each morning, newspaper, Wi-Fi, beach equipment and parking. (I’ve also stayed here. The location is a ‘ten,’ and the staff is wonderful. They offer lots of wonderful little details, like warm, fresh baked cookies.)
  • Fairbanks House is offering a bottle of Roasted Raspberry Chipotle Sauce and a bag of Southern Slush Mix to guests staying three or more nights for the Cook-off.  Guests will also be treated to gourmet breakfasts and evening social hours with adult beverages and hors d'oeuvres.  This offer is available for new bookings only, and one offer per room.  Mention code STC12 when making your reservation.
  • Omni Amelia Island Plantation is offering their “Beach and Breakfast” package during the Great Southern Tailgate Cook-off. The package includes accommodations, breakfast for each registered guest, and use of the health and fitness center. Prices start at $179 per night. You must use code LEISBF when booking.
  • Residence Inn, Amelia Island is the official host hotel of the Great Southern Tailgate Cook-off and recently received the Diamond designation, Marriott’ Highest Level of Distinction. The property offers rates starting at $109 per night, which includes free hot full breakfast, evening social, and shuttle service to the cook-off. Mention Tailgate Cook-off to get the rate. 
  • The Ritz-Carlton, Amelia Island is offering the Comfort You package during the Great Southern Tailgate Cook-off weekend. The package includes accommodations, breakfast for two and a $75 resort credit. The package starts at $379 per night.

Event details: The Great Southern Tailgate Cook-off is a Kansas City Barbeque Society sanctioned event and is a fundraiser for the Gator Bowl Association.  The event begins at 3 p.m. on Friday, Aug. 24, and 10 a.m. on Saturday, Aug. 25.  BBQ lovers will be able to enjoy free entertainment throughout the two-day event.  Additional regional bands will also perform during the cook-off. 

Continue reading Amelia Island Serves Up HUGE Deals for the Great Southern Tailgate Cook-Off »

Video of Singing Sunshine State Sand

Sunshine State Sand: it’s the stuff dreams are made of. It’s soft. It can be golden-brown or shimmering white or even orange or grey. It makes our toes happy. It makes us happy.

But it has another attribute, too – one that you might not know about.
Sunshine State sand can sing!

I’m as serious as a stingray. Check out my video of this particularly squeaky section of beach I found on Amelia Island. Is that fun, or what?

Continue reading Video of Singing Sunshine State Sand »

Forever-Beach-Hotel: Pay now for Hutchinson Island Escape & Save Big

I thought ‘forever stamps’ were a good idea.

But ‘a forever beach hotel,’ well… that’s genius!

The Hutchinson Island Marriott Beach Resort & Marina—an AAA Three Diamond Resort escape, nestled in the heart of southeast Florida’s Treasure Coast—is offering a fab discount to guests who are willing to book early and pre-pay their vacations in full.

The resort’s “Book Early and Save” offer is available through Aug. 30. You can save 27 percent with their nightly rate of $109. That snags you a getaway at the serene, 200-acre island oasis, complete with unspoiled beaches, deluxe accommodations and a relaxing atmosphere. Just book your vacation to Hutchinson Island Marriott in advance, pay now (in full) and forever hold your price at $109 a night. For reservations, call 1-800-228-9290 and mention the package name or visit www.marriotthutchinsonisland.com and use the promotional code ADV when booking.

The fine print: The deal is available on Sundays through Thursdays only, through Aug. 30, 2012. Cancellations and refunds are not be permitted. Reservations must be booked a minimum of one day in advance to get the deal. Additionally, there are a limited number of rooms available for this offer, which cannot be combined with any other promotion. Blackout dates, along with other restrictions, may apply. 

Continue reading Forever-Beach-Hotel: Pay now for Hutchinson Island Escape & Save Big »

FREE Sandestin Music Festival Features Top Country & Rock Talent!

Let’s keep things simple.

You should boogie over to the Third Annual Sandestin Music Festival because:

  1. It highlights some of country and rock’s most acclaimed songwriters and performers, such as Jeffrey Steele, Thomas Rhett, Lari White, and too many more to list.
  2. It’s in Sandestin. You know, sugar-sand, emerald waters, lots to do and great shopping and dining. Yup, that’s the one.
  3. It’s free.

I’m as serious as a stingray! The festival dances into South Walton’s Sandestin Golf and Beach Resort Aug. 10-12, 2012. Entry to the festival is free and open to the public with a ticket printed from the festival website.

You can’t miss with this one!

Continue reading FREE Sandestin Music Festival Features Top Country & Rock Talent! »

Experience 360 Degrees of Paradise in Pensacola Beach!

Want to see what 360 degrees of paradise looks like?

Then check out Pensacola Beach’s brand-spanking-new Ferris Wheel, 360 Pensacola Beach!

You’ll snag spectacular views — from the Gulf of Mexico to Pensacola's beautiful bays, to Pensacola Beach’s crystal white sands and emerald green waters – when the attraction lifts you 200 feet high above it all in fully enclosed, air-conditioned gondolas. You can enjoy this every day from noon – 11:30 p.m.

Smells like fun to me!

Insider’s Tip: If you’re a romantic searching for an extra snuggly experience, flying first class is the way to go. The VIP gondola features all the amenities of the regular gondolas as well as leather bucket seats and a television.

Continue reading Experience 360 Degrees of Paradise in Pensacola Beach! »

Bowling for Rhinos Stampedes into Jacksonville July 27

Are you a beach bunny who likes to bowl—or just wants to hit a strike for endangered animals?

Then I’ve got an event that’s right up your alley!

Bowling for Rhinos stampedes into the Batt Family Fun Center (1838 Cassat Ave.) in Jacksonville on July 27, 2012. Each year the Jacksonville Zoo AAZK chapter — a local branch of the national American Association of Zoo Keepers organization — sponsors this bowl-a-thon, designed to raise funds to help endangered rhinos and their sanctuaries. Only a few rhinos survive outside reserves and sanctuaries, so they absolutely need your help.

Last year the Jacksonville Zoo chapter raised $5,012. With your help, this year they can raise even more! It all adds up: Over 50 chapters nationwide hold BFR events and raise over $250,000 annually.

How much of the money actually goes to help the rhinos?

All of it. That’s sweet! 100% of the money goes to help endangered rhinos and their ecosystems.

Bowl for Rhinos and you’ll benefit:

  • Lewa Wildlife Conservancy (LWC) in Kenya Africa
  • Ujung Kulon National Park in Java, Indonesia
  • Bukit Barisan Selatan National Park in Sumatra, Indonesia

The money sent to these parks not only helps to protect the rhinos, but entire ecosystems. Knowing you contributed will make you feel as good as a day on a Sunshine State seashore.

Register now! There’s not a moment to spare!

Check out the great video to learn more.

Continue reading Bowling for Rhinos Stampedes into Jacksonville July 27 »

Horsing Around in Florida

Florida and horses go together like the beach and sand. Like Minnie and Mickey. Like puppies and cuddling. Like . . .  oh, you get the idea.

The state’s year-round moderate climate, mineral-rich water and soil, coupled with its exceptional facilities and support industries make Florida the perfect place for breeding, training and racing, for horse shows, polo and rodeos, and almost every other kind of equine activity.

In fact, with more than 900 farms contained within its boundaries, Ocala/Marion County boasts more horses and ponies than any other county in the nation (according to the United States Department of Agriculture census).

If you’re a horse lover like I am, get in on the action. Here are some top-notch facilities that feature a regular stream of events, and some places where you can climb in the saddle yourself.

  • Florida Horse Park is a dandy place to begin. Situated on 500 acres in central Florida, this world-class facility offers Olympic-level equine sports competition. Its schedule of world-class events draws top competitors and spectators from every horse sport discipline, from three-day eventing to dressage to driving. It also offers fun family events like the Festival of the Horse. Visitors can ride through the hundreds of miles of unspoiled trails that curve through the luxuriant Florida Greenway.
  • The Horse Shows in the Sun Florida show series (more commonly known as “HITS”) runs out of the 450-acre Post Time Farm in Ocala, a fabulous facility nestled amid ancient oak trees. Each winter, you can watch some of the country’s best equine athletes and riders compete.
  • At the 400-acre Florida Carriage Museum & Resort in central Florida, you can admire their collection of carriages, one of the finest in the world, but I’d recommend you try a carriage ride (you’ll need a prior appointment). You’ll traverse the roads through tall oaks draped in Spanish moss, around the Qin Dynasty Gardens and past the Japanese koi pond. You can stay there, too – and even bring your horse.Their equestrian "Bed and Barn" invites you to vacation and train with your own horses or with theirs.
  • Rocking Horse Stables is a 150-acre, world-class training facility that features over 100 cross-country fences scattered throughout its scenic pastures and woodlands, and in the winter months, it’s a favorite location for Olympic hopefuls to train and compete. The farm is a great place to camp with your horse. It has 40 RV hookups as well as showers and bathrooms, but even better, while there, you can explore the 70,000 acres of unspoiled Ocala National Forest that’s adjacent to the farm.
  • Besides offering one-, two- and five-hour guided rides, Fiddler’s Green Ranch hosts hayrides, campouts and bonfires. There are villas, a heated pool, a lake and tennis courts, though the main focus is horseback riding. The Ranch borders the 400,000-acre Ocala National Forest, which offers endless miles of scenic trails to explore.
  • Orange County’s Clarcona Horseman's Park (3535 Damon Road, Apopka, FL 32703) offers weekend horse shows throughout the year and possesses plenty of space for practice and lessons. These facilities feature show rings with bleacher seating, judging towers and horse stalls. Also home to the Mid-Florida Quarter Midget Race Track and Association, this public park offers car races on most Friday evenings.
  • Horse World Riding Stables, just south of Orlando in the Walt Disney World Resort area, offers 3 levels of guided trail rides, depending on your riding experience. If you’re tempted by the idea of a good horse beneath you, a blue sky above, and hundreds of acres to explore on horseback, check them out. This family-owned and -operated facility is geared toward healthy fun and a love for land and nature. Yes, I’ve been there. They are friendly and the horses are well cared for.
  • Florida Eco-Safaris, at Forever Florida and the Crescent J Ranch, presents 4,700 acres of pristine Florida wilderness and a working cattle ranch. Forever Florida offers an overnight ride (ride all day, camp at night). Camping is available if you want to stay.
  • If you have a yen to experience the natural charm of North Florida, I’d suggest the Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park. With 20-plus miles of trails to ride, much of it along the banks of the historic Suwannee River, it makes for a great family outing. The park offers cabins, camping, concerts and events, as well as hiking, canoeing, and even miniature golf.
  • Grand Cypress Equestrian Center offers countless options to guests interested in combining top riding instruction, a luxurious and relaxing getaway, and superb fine dining. They’ll personally design your equestrian vacation for your needs and level of equestrian expertise.

Want to horseback ride on the beach? It's awesome! Check out these Sunshine State destinations where you can get some sand in your boots.
 

Continue reading Horsing Around in Florida »

Where to Horse Around in Florida!

Florida and horses go together like the beach and sand. Like Minnie and Mickey. Like puppies and cuddling. Like… oh, you get the idea!

The state’s year-round moderate climate, mineral-rich water and soil, coupled with its exceptional facilities and power-house support industries make it the perfect place for breeding, training, racing, horse shows, polo, rodeos and almost every other kind of equine activity.

In fact, with over 900 farms contained within its boundaries, Ocala/Marion County boasts more horses and ponies than any other county in the nation (according to the United States Department of Agriculture census).

If you’re a horse-lover, like I am, you should get in on the action! I’ve included some top-notch facilities here that feature a constant stream of events, and some places where you can climb in the saddle yourself.

  • Florida Horse Park is a dandy place to begin. Situated on 500 sumptuous acres in central Florida, this year-round, world class facility offers Olympic-level equine sports competition. Its jam-packed, exciting schedule of world-class events draws top competitors and spectators from every horse sport discipline, from three-day eventing to dressage to driving (and much more). It also offers fun family events like the Festival of the Horse. Visitors can ride through the hundreds of miles of unspoiled trails that curve through the luxuriant Florida Greenway.
  • The Horse Shows in the Sun Florida show series (more commonly known as “HITS”) runs out of the 450 acre Post Time Farm in Ocala, a fabulous facility nestled amongst ancient oak trees. Each winter, you can watch some of the country’s best equine athletes and riders compete over awe-inspiring fences.
  • The 400 acre Florida Carriage Museum & Resort is located in central Florida. You can admire their collection of carriages, one of the finest in the world, but I’d recommend you try a carriage ride (you’ll need a prior appointment). You’ll traverse the roads through tall oaks draped in Spanish Moss, around the Qin Dynasty Gardens and past the exotic Japanese Koi pond. You can stay there, too – and even bring your horse, if you’d like! Their equestrian “Bed and Barn” invites you to vacation and train with your own horses or with theirs.
  • Rocking Horse Stables is a 150-acre, world-class combined training facility that always has something going on. It features over 100 cross-country fences scattered throughout its scenic pastures and woodlands, and in the winter months, it’s a favorite location for Olympic hopefuls to train and compete. The farm is a great place to camp with your horse. It has 40 RV hookups as well as showers and bathrooms, but even better, while there, you can explore the 70,000 acres of unspoiled Ocala National Forest that’s adjacent to the farm.
  • Besides offering one, two and five hour guided rides, Fiddler’s Green Ranch hosts many events like hayrides, campouts, and bonfires. It features Ranch-style villas, a heated pool, a lake, and tennis courts, though their main focus is on horseback riding.  The Ranch borders the Ocala National Forest, which encompasses an astonishing 400,000 acres and offers endless miles of scenic trails to explore.
  • Orange County’s Clarcona Horseman's Park (3535 Damon Rd, Apopka, FL 32703) offers weekend horse shows throughout the year and possesses plenty of space for practice and lessons. These superior facilities feature show rings with bleacher seating, judging towers and horse stalls. Also home to the Mid-Florida Quarter Midget Race Track and Association, this public park offers car races on most Friday evenings.
  • Horse World Riding Stables, just south of Orlando in the Walt Disney World Resort area, offers 3 levels of guided trail rides, depending on your riding experience. If you’re tempted by the idea of a good horse beneath you, a blue sky above, and hundreds of acres to explore on horseback, check them out. This family owned and operated facility is geared towards healthy fun and a love for the land and the nature that lives on it. Yes, I’ve been there. They are friendly and the horses are well cared for.
  • Florida Eco-Safaris is located at Forever Florida and the Crescent J Ranch, 4,700 acres of pristine Florida wilderness and a working cattle ranch. Forever Florida offers an overnight ride (ride all day, camp at night). Camping is available if you want to stay.
  • If you have a yen to experience the natural charm of North Florida, I’d suggest the Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park. With twenty-plus miles of trails to ride, much of it along the banks of the historic Suwannee River, it makes for a great family outing. The park offers cabins, camping, concerts and events, as well as hiking, canoeing, and even miniature golf!
  • Grand Cypress Equestrian Center offers countless options to guests interested in combining top riding instruction, a luxurious and relaxing getaway, and superb fine dining. They’ll personally design your equestrian vacation for your needs and level of equestrian expertise.

Want to horseback ride on the beach? It's awesome! Check out these Sunshine State destinations where you can get some sand in your boots.
 

Continue reading Where to Horse Around in Florida! »

From St. Augustine to Amelia Island on Scenic A1A

One of the hundreds of reasons I love living in Florida is that I can hit the road any time of the year. When I have a desire to ride a remote two-lane that blazes through a tunnel of trees, I go. If I want to scale the rolling hills in Ocala horse country, they’re waiting. Then there’s A1A, the road that favors Florida’s Atlantic Coast. This would be a short 65-mile journey between St. Augustine and Amelia Island and so, for convenience, I started at Point A.

The Ancient City

You’d think at more than 400 years old, St. Augustine would show signs of slowing down, but America’s oldest city looks like it’s just getting started.
{pullquote}
For the best overview of the city, the sightseeing trains (Ripley’s or Old Town Trolley) will pique your interest with the history and layout of St. Augustine as you note places to return. The historic district, where most visitors spend their time, is accented by dozens of beauty marks that create one of the loveliest cities in America. Stroll the promenade along the broad waters of Matanzas Bay, hear the steady hoofbeats of horse and carriage, explore sturdy Castillo de San Marcos, and peruse the shops of St. George Street, the extremely popular pedestrian mall that is lined with gift shops, art boutiques and restaurants. That evening, walk to the marina where gleaming yachts from around the world sparkle under starlight.

En Route

Between St. Augustine and Amelia Island, A1A sticks to the Atlantic Ocean for a fair share of the way. On the north end of America’s Oldest City, leap over the Vilano Causeway to reach the waterfront community of Vilano Beach then simply follow A1A north along the shoreline, either resisting or giving in to the temptation to stop along the way and enjoy the solitude of this quiet shoreline.

Mile after mile, you can ride or drive and enjoy the sight that draws people from around the world to Florida, where the Atlantic Ocean meets the sands of the Sunshine State. Approximately seven miles north of Vilano Beach, Guana Tolomato Matanzas National Estuarine Research Reserve is a 73,000-acre sanctuary for hiking, biking, fishing, kayaking, canoeing and birdwatching among the hammock, scrub and flatwoods, with convenient parking areas on the west side of A1A providing access to the ocean across the street. For many miles opposite the reserve, you’ll find beach houses, some ostentatiously grand and hidden behind walls of foliage, others small and rustic and open.

Too soon, A1A leads away from the ocean, becoming a wide commercial avenue through planned communities and business districts. If you have time and curiosity, at the intersection of A1A and Mickler Road turn right to reach Ponte Vedra Boulevard, followed by Duval Drive and Ocean Drive, which do their best to keep you close to the shore although rows of homes and hedges may limit your view. If you choose to follow these roads less traveled, you'll be able to stick close to the ocean past Jacksonville and Neptune and Atlantic beaches (see the Jacksonville Beach Pier) while staying within easy reach of A1A.

Either way you go, there’s a payoff ahead. When you arrive in Mayport, a sign tells you the village was established in May of ’62.

That’s 1562.

In addition to longevity, Mayport’s known for a most interesting feature: the St. Johns River Ferry that carries pedestrians ($1), motorcycles ($3), and cars and trucks ($5) on a five-minute journey across the waters. On the opposite bank, turn right and Amelia Island is only 10 miles away and the island’s only city, Fernandina Beach, 17 miles distant. With wide swaths of open marshland spreading east and west, the surrounding scenery places you in the middle of a Florida Highwaymen painting, offering a sense of the state’s magnificence and a gathering place for migratory fowl that follow the Great Florida Birding and Wildlife Trail. Through Little Talbot Island State Park, one of the few remaining undeveloped barrier islands in northeast Florida, and Big Talbot Island State Park, A1A consistently delivers incredible views.

Soon, manicured landscaping lets you know that elaborate resorts are somewhere along the waterfront, but as you cross the bridge onto Amelia Island the destination’s true character is seen in produce stands and canopy roads that open to a row of homes fronting the broad ocean. It is all part of a most extraordinary place.

The Isle of Eight Flags

You could search from Key West to Anchorage, but you’ll never find a place like Amelia Island, which, in its history, has been ruled under eight flags. In its 450 years, Amelia Island was controlled by the French (1562-1565), the Spanish (1565-1763), the English (1763-1783), the Spanish again (1783-1821) with interruptions by the "Patriots" (1812), Green Cross of Florida (1817), Mexican Rebels (1817), United States (1821) and the Confederacy (1861).

Things have calmed down since, and if you’re not relaxing on the waterfront, you’ll likely be exploring Centre Street, which is the island’s most active commercial district with antique shops, art galleries, bookstores and gift shops. Downtown, the old train depot is now the community visitor center and the historic Palace Saloon, which opened its doors in 1903, is still welcoming visitors despite a fierce fire in 1999.

Take time to explore. A few miles east of the shopping village, turn left on 14th Street and you’ll find Bosque Bella, a cemetery established by Spanish settlers in 1798. A short distance beyond, Old Town was platted in 1811 as the island’s original town. Now more than 200 years old, a small number of homes are still here, perched on a small rise above the Amelia River.

It may only be a short distance between St. Augustine and Fernandina Beach, but when you add in 450 years of history, 65 miles of scenic Florida and the charm of A1A and other oceanfront roads, this is a journey of historic proportions.

Gary McKechnie is VISIT FLORIDA’s Off the Beaten Path Insider. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

Continue reading From St. Augustine to Amelia Island on Scenic A1A »

Getting the Most Vacation Bang-for-your-Buck!

You can thank Janet for this blog.

She recently asked me a question that I think many folks can relate to: How do you go about getting deals for a limited income family?

It occurred to me about mid-answer that everyone should know these tips, so I’m sharing them here.

My advice:

  • Pick destinations with LOTS of lodging, or that are off-the-beaten track. Daytona Beach and Panama City Beach are two examples of destinations with lots of lodging (including oceanfront); Indialantic (by Melbourne Beach) is an example of a tiny town where you can find deals.
  • Use the 'hot deals' tab on VISIT FLORIDA's homepage, on the upper right hand corner. It will give you all kinds of specials, which you can filter by destination.
  • Use the visitor's services website — and the personnel staffing the visitor’s services– of wherever you're considering going. To use Daytona Beach as an example again, there website has all kinds of specials you can find online. (At least half of the destinations offer online specials.) And absolutely call them. Ask if there's a better time of year or week and what they would suggest for your exact needs.
  • If you are military, a senior, a Florida resident– or whatever — ask if you can get an extra discount.
  • Use free events and low-tech activities. Many destinations offer free events all year long. For example, Pensacola, St. Augustine, Panama City Beach and Amelia Island are only a few of the destinations offering free concert series this summer. Likewise, an activity doesn't need to involve a lot of expensive equipment to be incredibly fun. Kayaking, hiking, and exploring parks are all examples of inexpensive, fun activities. One of my favorites is a night sea turtle walk, where you go out with a guide and hopefully watch a mother sea turtle lay her eggs. These walks are usually either free or very low cost, like $8 a person or so.

Now grab your flip flops and start packing!

Continue reading Getting the Most Vacation Bang-for-your-Buck! »