Archive for June, 2012

Add a Cup of Sugar-White Sand

Recipe for Summer

Start with sugar-white sand beaches ground from ancient quartz rock, and add sparkling emerald-green waves, tranquil bay waters, rich habitats for fish and underwater marine life. Bake it under Florida sun and ta-da! There you have a delicious summer vacation that feels as though you’ve escaped to an entirely different world.

Inspired by Nature

Summertime is all about playing outdoors, and the Emerald Coast makes for a backyard adventure as relaxing or active as you like.

Take to the Gulf of Mexico on a sailing or fishing charter, or rent a Hobie Cat, powerboat or pontoon boat to captain your own adventure.

Destin is known as the World’s Luckiest Fishing Village because of its close proximity to deep, fish-fertile waters, where you can reel in snapper, grouper, marlin and sailfish. Keep your eyes peeled for dolphin playing in your boat’s wake. Some local charters specialize in spotting the mirthful creatures.

Or, if you prefer, rent a kayak to paddle the calmer waters of Choctawhatchee Bay and Santa Rosa Sound. In the backwaters and shallows, cast for sheepshead, channel bass and bluefish. {pullquote}

Then it’s time to hit the downy-soft beach. Take a walk on the welcoming sand, build a sandcastle, frolic in the waves or just get horizontal and contemplate the clouds. If you’re still in fishing mode, station your beach time at the Okaloosa Island Fishing Pier. Next to it, The Boardwalk has all your beach supplies, seafood, pizza and ice cream, plus a playground.

There’s also a playground and nature trail at Henderson Beach State Park in Destin. Beach accesses all along the Emerald Coast provide picnic venues and a wide lap of sand for playing beach games or stretching out under the sun.

Extremely Yours

If you’re looking to kick the excitement into high gear, try out a new water sport or perfect your skills at one of your favorites. Stand-up paddleboarding, also known as SUP, appeals to all ages and athletic abilities. On Florida-made YOLO boards, even first-timers are up, paddling and loving it.

Always wanted to scuba dive but not sure you’ll like it? SNUBA diving, a scuba-snorkeling hybrid, is another activity anyone can master with little training. It gives you a taste of scuba by allowing you to breathe air from a floating tank at the water’s surface. Thanks to the Emerald Coast’s proximity to the 100-fathom curve, you can snorkel and dive in deep, clear waters a short distance from shore.

Want something more extreme? Take a waterskiing lesson in the bay, learn to windsurf, try out kite-boarding or take to the sky on a parasail ride for two. Why not do a WaveRunner nature tour? Or rent a board at The Boardwalk and practice skim-boarding? When the waves swell, it’s time to surf. There’s no limit to the fun you can cook up outdoors when you add a cup of sugar-white sand to your summer escape.

This article was brought to you by the Emerald Coast Convention and Visitors Bureau. To plan your trip to the Emerald Coast, visit www.emeraldcoastfl.com.

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Seminole Museum Celebrates Milestone Anniversary

At the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum on the Big Cypress Reservation, you can catch a rare glimpse into the culture of the Seminole Tribe and its members, who hid out in remote camps there at the start of the century. Learn about marriage ceremonies and camp life through exhibits, stroll nature trails that wind through a cypress dome and experience firsthand an authentic Indian village.

Located 17 miles north of Interstate 75, the museum is celebrating its 15th anniversary in August. In honor of the milestone, you can tour the museum for free that month.

Culture and Tradition

Descendants of the Creek people, the Seminole Tribe of Florida can be traced back at least 12,000 years. In 1997, under the vision of then- and current-Tribal Council Chairman James E. Billie, the museum opened; 12 years later, it became the first tribally governed museum to be accredited by the American Association of Museums.

In the Seminole language, Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki means "a place to learn."

Begin your educational adventure in the 5,000-square-foot gallery. Enjoy a hands-on tour with touchable artifacts and admire life-like dioramas that detail camp life and ceremonies.

In the West Gallery, view two traveling exhibits on display through August. “The Seminole Wars” timeline depicts the tribe’s resistance against the government’s removal policies in the 19th century, while “At Home: Seminole Reservations” explains the history of each reservation.

In all, the museum is home to more than 20,000 artifacts, as well as interactive computers and a theater.

Before you leave, hit the Museum gift shop. Don’t miss the Seminole dolls, crafted of palmetto husk fiber. {pullquote}

Natural Splendor

Nestled on a 66-acre cypress dome, the museum is surrounded by natural beauty.

Hike the winding, one-mile boardwalk and see bobcats, bears and birds such as the Gray Catbird. Stop at interpretive panels to identify local flora like St. John’s Wort and Spanish moss, and learn how the Seminoles used them medicinally.

At the boardwalk’s midpoint, you can tour the recreated ceremonial grounds. Stroll through various chickees, see how Seminole canoes are carved and explore the grounds where stickball is played.

The boardwalk leads to the Living Village, which is a recreation of a Seminole camp that existed from the turn of the century. Here, tribal elders tell stories, answer questions and demonstrate arts and crafts. Guided tours are available.

The outdoor area is also home to an amphitheater, where storytelling and activities, such as arts and crafts workshops, take place.

Special Events

Throughout the year, the museum hosts an array of events, including the Seminole Archaeology Day and Annual American Indian Arts Celebration.

This summer, you can listen to tribal member Moses Jumper Jr. read from the book Legends of the Seminole, which was written by his mother, Betty Mae Jumper. At the June 26 event, Moses will also read poetry from Echoes in the Wind.

Also in June, the museum is participating in Broward Attractions and Museums Month, which is a month-long reciprocal program that allows members of any of the participating organizations to visit the others for free.

The Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum belongs on your must-visit list this summer. It is a place to learn – and a place you won’t soon forget.

This article was brought to you by the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum. To plan your trip, go to www.ahtahthiki.com.

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Discovery Cove Now Includes Admission to SeaWorld and Aquatica

A day at Discovery Cove now includes unlimited admission to SeaWorld Orlando and Aquatica, SeaWorld’s water park! That is one incredible deal.

The three parks, Discovery Cove, SeaWorld and Aquatica, are now known collectively as SeaWorld Parks & Resorts Orlando, and they each offer families an unforgettable vacation experience. And now that you’ll get unlimited admission to SeaWorld Orlando and Aquatica for 14 consecutive days, well, this is one amazing all-inclusive package deal.

What’s more, Discovery Cove is a dream-come-true in itself. It provides every guest with the perfect day: swim with dolphins, snorkel with rays, feed exotic birds, relax at their beautiful beach… and that’s only the beginning. And everything is provided from sunscreen to food and beverages.

A Dolphin Swim Day Resort Package at Discovery Cove starts at $229 and now includes:

  • Reserved dolphin experience
  • Unlimited access to The Grand Reef, free-flight Explorer’s Aviary, Serenity Bay, Wind-Away River and coming soon Freshwater Oasis
  • Breakfast and lunch plus snacks throughout the day
  • Beverages all day long, including sodas, water & alcoholic drinks
  • All gear,  towels, locker, sunscreen
  • All day self-parking at Discovery Cove
  • A souvenir photo of you & your crew
  • A pass for 14 consecutive days of unlimited admission to SeaWorld & Aquatica

This 14-day unlimated admission pass to SeaWorld and Aquatica is good before, during or after your visit to Discovery Cove. For reservations and to learn more, visit DiscoveryCove.com or call 1-877-434-7268.

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Florida's Favorite Family Beaches

Fabulous family-friendly beach getaways share some qualities. The beaches are gradually sloping, so your little ones can wade in and out of the water easily, and the waters are shallow. They feature ample restrooms and showers as well as attentive life guards. They offer plenty to do, for everyone from tiny tots and teens to mom and dad – and it’s as obvious as fins on a fish that affordable accommodations are a must.

These Florida beaches offer all of this and more. Read on to see which ones sound like your family’s perfect cup of sunshine.

Clearwater Beach

Lively Clearwater Beach, on the Central West coast, greets you with parasailing adventures, rides on Captain Memo’s Pirate Cruise and stunning views from Pier 60. Its luscious, sugar-soft sand and clear, shallow waters make for the perfect family playground – and, not to mention, a great place for mom and dad to relax. Nightly sunset celebrations at Pier 60, countless water sports and family-friendly resorts promise to keep your whole crew entertained.
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While you’re in the area, make sure to splash over to Clearwater Marine Aquarium to see Winter the Dolphin, star of the movie Dolphin Tale

Siesta Key

Farther south on the Gulf, award-winning Siesta Key boasts activities like water sports, snorkeling and beach volleyball; a charming village brimming with affordable restaurants and shops; and the convenience of a trolley. Erin Duggan, communications director for the Sarasota CVB, says, “Siesta Key is a great spot for families because it offers such a variety of things to do, right at their fingertips.”

In addition to the charms of the town, the public beach area features a concession stand, an ice cream shop and a playground, and it’s one of softest, whitest beaches your toes will ever encounter.

Amelia Island

In northeast Florida, historic Amelia Island is a laid-back destination that boasts miles of wide, quiet, Atlantic beaches. The whole gang will love kayaking the pristine waters, horseback riding on the beach and discovering history firsthand at Fort Clinch State Park. Accommodations range from affordable hotels to quaint B&Bs to upscale resorts. As Gil Langley, president and CEO of the Amelia Island TDC, points out, “Both the Ritz-Carlton and Omni Amelia Island Plantation offer amazing children’s programs, giving parents quality, guilt-free time to explore on their own.”

Make sure to visit Fernandina’s Beach’s unique shops and eateries – and don’t leave without indulging your sweet tooth at Fernandina’s Fantastic Fudge.

Panama City Beach

This vibrant, affordable northwest Florida destination is home to 27 miles of stunning, white-sand beaches, which mean there’s a Gulf-front room with your family’s name on it. President and CEO of the Panama City Beach CVB Dan Rowe says, “We offer something for everyone – from our array of family-friendly restaurants and enriching eco-adventures to exhilarating water sports and interactive attractions.”

There’s more: Pier Park offers a staggering 1 million square feet of shopping and entertainment, including the kid-friendly Miracle Strip at Pier Park featuring classic amusement park rides and a butterfly garden. Plus, the city’s event calendar is overflowing with family-friendly happenings.

Daytona Beach

The family atmosphere of this famed Central Florida destination is just as exciting as its car racing tradition. Throw your gear in the car and drive out to snag your perfect beach spot. Or, opt for the car-free beach. Recreational vendors here are often located right on the beach, making for ultimate convenience. As Daytona Beach CVB spokeswoman Tangela Boyd explains, “They offer everything from snacks to sunscreen and experiences that include bicycle, scooter, boogie board and ATV rentals, and even surfing lessons.”

Other family favorites include the Daytona Lagoon water park, the Marine Science Center, Ponce Inlet Lighthouse & Museum and, of course, Daytona International Speedway.

Continue reading Florida's Favorite Family Beaches »

Ritz-Carlton Naples Packages For Famiies

The legendary Ritz-Carlton, Naples beach resort and top-rated Ritz-Carlton Golf Resort, Naples, are offering a series of special summer packages with irresistible room rates starting at $179 at the golf resort and $299 at the beach resort. First up, the Ritz-Carlton Golf Resort, Naples has a Family Escape Package with Two Rooms, starting at $419 that includes:

  • Overnight accommodations in two rooms, with free upgrade to Golf View
  • Daily American breakfast for two adults and two children
  • Complimentary valet parking
  • In-room wireless Internet access
  • Guaranteed 2 p.m. late check-out 

This is PER Package not per room, so this is a great offer!

There is also a Family Package where Kids Dine Free at both Ritz-Carlton Resorts of Naples, starting at $269 with:

  • Overnight accommodations
  • One children’s menu item free with purchase of adult entrée
  • Daily American breakfast for two
  • $50 nightly resort credit

These summer vacation packages and rates are valid through Oct. 31, 2012 so you can enjoy them all summer long. And if you haven't been, they have a really special kids club here that features a marine science and nature focus. I've heard all positive things. See you at the Ritz this summer. We'll be checking out these deals – get 'em while they're hot!

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Summer Survival Kit For Florida

It's no secret that Florida is hot the summer. And yes, mosquitos can be quite annoying. It's also easier to get dehydrated in the heat. So, every year I create a Summer Survival Kit to keep in my car. This way, we're prepared for wherever the road may lead, even it leads to the middle of the Everglades (which it frequently does).

Summer survival kit items:

Blanket
Impromptu picnics are made in the shade. I found a great one at Kohl’s for $20 that zippers into a nice square and it's waterproof on one side.

 
Beach towel
Different from a blanket! You never know when one of the kids will jump in a pool, need to be dried off from rain (or sweat!) or you need a napping pillow.
 
Bug Repellent
Since I keep this kit in the car, I buy the plastic container where sheets pop out like baby wipes. You can easily stick a sheet in your pocket, too. Our pediatrician recommends that you never use bug repellent that contains more than 30 percent DEET and never put insect repellent on an infant.
 
Chap Stick
This one stays in my purse, not in the car, as they will melt. If you keep one in your car, purchase the lip balm in a small, round container, not a stick.
 
Cooler
So many shapes and sizes – some don’t even look like coolers – mine looks like a beach bag (that orange striped bag in the photo is my cooler)! And I love that it can double as a beach bag. I keep the contents of my Summer Survival Kit inside my cooler. Plus, you never know when you’ll stumble upon the best smoked fish dip, or the tastiest key lime pie and you just have to bring lots home.
 
Hats
A must-have in sunny Florida. Keep several handy.
 

Snacks
Goldfish, crackers, granola bars – anything that won’t melt in the heat.
 
Sunscreen
I love the sticks but they melt in the car so I keep one in my purse. They’re small, only .47 ounces, so it’s like a fat lipstick. You can keep a bottle of sunscreen lotion in your car kit too.
 

Tweezers
My boys tend to get splinters frequently in summer. If you don’t have a pair in your purse, keep tweezers in your car.

 
Fold Up Umbrella
Be ready for those summertime afternoon 'thunder boomers.' I also keep a few of those Disney rain ponchos handy. (Of course I never have them when I'm at Disney World, therefore I have 4,000 of them.)
 
Water Bottles
Even if the bottles get hot, warm water is better than no water. Juice boxes, too.
 
Ziploc Gallon Bags
One-gallon or two-gallon size, keep a few for wet or dirty clothes.
 
In addition to these essentials, I'll have band aids, a football, snorkel and mask in the trunk (those stay year round)! What’s in your summer survival kit? Tell me on Facebook!

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National Get Outdoors Day Is June 9, 2012

Saturday, June 9, 2012, is National Get Outdoors Day (GO Day), and our national park service is offering free entrance to all the 397 parks – and, of course, that means you can visit any National Park in Florida for free tomorrow!

National Get Outdoors Day is a brand new annual event that was created to encourage healthy, active outdoor fun. Many Americans don't get outside to get exercise so this is a great way to get outdoors, see something wild and get moving!

To get you in the mood, check out this catchy little ditty by Joe Reilly, the official Troubadour for Get Outdoors Day. His song "Let's Go Outside" will be played at GO Day sites across the country.

If you have to be cooped up inside tomorrow, mark your calendar for the next free admission day on Sept. 29 (National Public Lands Day).

Continue reading National Get Outdoors Day Is June 9, 2012 »

Blastaway Beach Now Open at Orlando’s Wet n’ Wild

Perfect for Florida and perfect for summer – a sandcastle-themed water playground has just opened in Orlando. It's called Blastaway Beach™ at Wet n' Wild. This place is known for its crazy thrill slides so it's nice that they've added a huge area for familie with younger kids. Now, everyone can be happy.

As soon as you walk in, head to the left. You'll notice a giant sandcastle rising 60 feet in the air. Around it are two pools, slides of all shapes, sizes and intensity, and kids can climb up and down stairs, get soaked and soak others with 160 soakers, jets and water cannons. Listen for the bell – that means a huge bucket of water is about to dump. Kids love it!

Best of all, it's EASY for parents to relax. There are hundreds of chairs and the water is no more than 1.5 feet deep.  I love that it has a single entrance and exit, too.

Blastaway Beach™ is now open daily during regular water park operating hours. Purchase a one-day ticket for $48.99 general, $42.99 ages 3-9. Florida resident discounts are provided, and they have a come-one-day, come-back-for-rest-of-year offer.

For more information about Blastaway Beach, visit www.wetnwildorlando.com.

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Discover Hidden, Unspoiled South Florida Beaches

Hidden beaches are the stuff of vacation fantasies. They combine the joy of discovery with the appeal of having something special all to yourself.

Once upon a time, South Florida was full of hidden beaches. But then we moved here – millions and millions of us.

So now it takes effort to find a wild, secret, uncrowded beach in South Florida.

I’ve found seven special hidden beaches in South Florida over the years, and as I walked the sands at each one, I admit, I have been tempted to keep the discovery to myself. (So these will be our secret, OK?)
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Three of these beaches are an adventure to reach (they can be accessed only by boat or by wading across a lagoon). Three involve county or city parks and are unknown outside the region. All are that rare thing in South Florida: a wild place that hasn’t been spoiled.

Cayo Costa State Park

The hardest to reach of these beaches is Cayo Costa, even though all it takes to get here is an hour boat ride. Cayo Costa State Park, located just south of Boca Grande and west of Pine Island, ranks not only as the remotest of these hidden beaches, it’s also the most expansive – more than nine miles long. The sand is laden with shells and dotted with bleached driftwood. It’s unforgettably gorgeous.

You can explore Cayo Costa on a day trip, or stay overnight if you like roughing it. There’s boat service from several locations. You can take a Tropic Star ferry from Pineland, a small town on Pine Island, which is west of Cape Coral and Fort Myers. (Fares are $25 for daytrippers and $35 for campers.)

There’s also the Island Star ferry run by the King Fisher Fleet out of Punta Gorda. The King Fisher docks sit a few minutes off I-75 and offer free parking. The day trip gives you three hours on the island; tickets costs $29.91.

Cayo Costa is remote and wild: There are no snack bars, no diversions; just the beach, nature and you. You can camp on Cayo Costa or stay in a tiny rustic cabin without electricity or running water. Evenings on the heavily wooded island are magical; although in summer, that magic is likely to include lots of mosquitoes and no-see-ums, so be sure to bring insect repellent. November to April nights are sought after, so book ahead on ReserveAmerica.

Highly experienced kayakers can paddle to Cayo Costa, but it’s a long way over open water. Paddling over is recommended only for those camping on the island, who don’t have to make a round trip in one day.

Cayo Costa State Park
Physical location: Four nautical miles west off the coast of Pine Island
941-964-0375

St. Lucie Inlet Preserve State Park

St. Lucie Inlet is also on a barrier island. This inlet faces the Atlantic coast, and it’s a little easier to reach than Cayo Costa. To find St. Lucie Inlet Preserve State Park in Stuart, you do have to paddle a kayak or arrive by boat. But it’s only a third of a mile across the Intracoastal. (Want more paddling? There is a great kayak trail through and around the island.)

The beach, though, is the reward. A shaded boardwalk crosses the island from the Intracostal and opens to a wide, wild and pristine beach that goes on and on. The state park’s beach stretches across 2.7 miles. But the southern boundary is the Hobe Sound National Wildlife Refuge, so the beach actually continues uninterrupted for a total of five miles. Because it’s hard to reach, this is a beach where you’re likely to find a section you don’t have to share with anyone.

Rangers will zip you across the island on a golf cart if you have beach gear. A large covered picnic pavilion and restrooms occupy space near the beach.

To reach the island by kayak or canoe, go to a beach-like launch site directly across the Intracoastal from the park at the end of Cove Road in Stuart. There’s also a large dock at the St. Lucie Inlet Preserve to serve power boats on the Intracoastal.

St. Lucie Inlet Preserve State Park
4810 S.E. Cove Road, Stuart
772-219-1880

Clam Pass Park

We discovered Collier County’s delightful Clam Pass Park in Naples because we were staying at the Naples Grande Beach Resort for which this is the hotel beach. Though it’s little known, Clam Pass Park is public. It provides a parking lot (parking costs $8) and a tram that crosses a boardwalk through a mangrove swamp.

Clam Pass boasts fine sugary sand like all Naples beaches, but what makes it especially fun is that Clam Pass is the smallest, shallowest pass on the Gulf Coast. The pass offers a narrow, river-like opening in the mangroves, shallow enough an adult can stand at the center, except at the highest tide. As you float in the waters of the pass, the tide gently sweeps you away. If the tide flows in, you float into a shallow, mangrove-fringed lagoon. If the tide goes out, you float into the Gulf, which remains shallow for a great distance. It affords a natural "lazy river" adventure, where the pull and depth of the water is safe but still fun. (The currents in larger passes can be extremely dangerous.) If you swim or wade across Clam Pass, the beach extends north for miles, lined with seagrape trees and foliage.

Clam Pass Park

Seagate Drive & Crayton Road, Naples
239-252-4000

Barefoot Beach Preserve County Park

Travel a little farther north to Bonita Springs, and you’ll find another spectacular county park: Barefoot Beach Preserve County Park. You wind through a lush residential neighborhood of million-dollar homes to reach this beach. When you arrive at Barefoot Beach, it feels like a private enclave.

Stephen Leatherman, aka Dr. Beach, has named Barefoot Beach to his top 10 list in past years, but fortunately, it remains relatively unknown. 

Barefoot Beach covers 342 acres of natural land. You can walk a mile along the beach to the end, where you reach the swift currents of Wiggins Pass. Across the pass lies Delnor-Wiggins Pass State Park, another very nice beach. 

Barefoot Beach Preserve County Park
Barefoot Beach Road off Bonita Beach Road, Bonita Springs
239-591-8596

Tigertail Beach

Marco Island’s Tigertail Beach is another Collier County Park, and it’s quite the adventure to reach. Less than 10 years ago, this beach was an offshore sandbar. Hurricane Wilma’s winds in 2005 piled sand on the southern end of the sandbar, and today Sand Dollar Island is now connected to the mainland.

The park is popular with locals for its split personality. On one side of the lagoon, you pay $8 to park at a clean, well-kept park with changing rooms, a first-rate snack bar, picnic tables, a playground and a concession stand that rents kayaks, stand-up paddleboards and other beach gear.

On the other side of the lagoon, you leave development behind. A wild sand spit extends three miles north, offering a beach with soft, white sand, scads of shells, dolphins swimming off-shore, ospreys squealing overhead and so many shore birds that it’s a stop on the Great Florida Birding Trail.

But the adventure comes when crossing the lagoon itself.

It stretches about 50 yards across, and a buoy that marks the crossover point. At high tide, the water comes up to about your waist or chest. Squishy, grassy sand covers the bottom of the lagoon. You don’t sink, but you do have to overcome the "yuck" factor.

People hold their belongings over their heads as they cross the lagoon, laughing as they feel the ooze between their toes.

If that’s not your idea of fun, you can walk about 20 minutes around the lagoon to the south to reach the beach. If you bring small children, consider pulling them on a beach float, or renting a kayak or paddleboard.

Tigertail Beach
Hernando Drive, Marco Island
239-252-4000

Hobe Sound National Wildlife Refuge

I felt like I had won the lottery when I discovered Hobe Sound National Wildlife Refuge.

We were bicycling the beachfront road on ritzy Jupiter Island, which dead ends into Hobe Sound National Wildlife Refuge. Nothing on the signage indicates there’s a public beach at the end of this road, and after 30-plus years of exploring Florida’s southeast, I had never heard about this beach. So when we got there, we were stunned to discover we had stumbled onto the entrance to more than five miles of wild, broad and unspoiled sandy shore.

The Hobe Sound beach extends north more than two miles where the equally pristine St. Lucie Preserve beach begins.

Parking costs $5. There are no picnic tables or amenities (other than portable restrooms), but you will find miles of beauty and solitude.

Hobe Sound National Wildlife Refuge

End of North Beach Road, north of Bridge Road, Hobe Sound
772-546-6141

Lovers Key State Park

Some of the most famous beach islands on Florida's southwest coast are Sanibel and Captiva. But just south of Sanibel sits Estero Island, home to Fort Myers Beach. Most travelers take I-75 and pass six miles east of here. County Highway 865, or Estero Boulevard, however, offers a slower, scenic route. The reward for taking it is finding Lovers Key State Park, just south of Fort Myers Beach.

Lovers Key got its name because it was once an island so remote only lovers went to the trouble to seek its privacy. Today, you don’t need a boat to get to the beach. It’s easy to reach, but still not as well-known. The 2.5-mile beach is lined with natural vegetation and is perfect for beachcombing and birding. There are even two bald eagle nests in the park. The park’s mangrove-lined waterways are also major draws for both manatees and kayakers.

Lovers Key State Park
8700 Estero Boulevard, Fort Myers Beach
239-463-4588

Continue reading Discover Hidden, Unspoiled South Florida Beaches »

Now, This Is Sweet: Tour Florida's Largest Chocolate Factory Near Lake Worth

In 1974, Paul Hoffman borrowed $1,400 from a friend to buy a small chocolate shop in the South Florida town of Lake Worth. He wasn't looking to make a lot of money or to become an entrepreneur; his goals were much more modest. He was just looking to buy a business in which he could make a living, and in which he and his family could all work together.

He had no idea that this 1,400-square-foot shop would grow into the largest chocolate company in Florida. He had no idea that he'd one day move his operation into an open-to-the-public, 15,000- square-foot, Bavarian-castle fantasy in nearby Greenacres, with a factory, a restaurant, an enormous chocolate shop and 120 employees. He had no idea he'd eventually open up five more shops in South Florida. And he had no idea that his creations would become so popular that he'd begin franchising new locations.

"Paul was an accomplished cook," says Fred Meltzer, president and chief executive officer of Hoffman's Chocolates – and Paul Hoffman's son-in-law. "He wanted his little shop to be the best. He wasn't happy with the quality of most chocolates he found, so he took courses from noted chocolatiers. Then, he traveled around the world, looking for the best ingredients and the most reliable suppliers. He put all these ingredients and all this knowledge together and came up with his own unique creations. And word spread like wildfire."

It didn't take long before visitors from neighboring communities were stopping in at the little shop in downtown Lake Worth, lured by tales of these handmade chocolates with a singular texture and distinct tastes.

Before long, Paul Hoffman – and family – developed a growing following of devotees. Customer by customer, the small store became a local legend. And, after a while, thanks to coverage in national news media such as the Wall Street Journal and Bon Appetit, the legend was no longer just "local."

Today, there are five Hoffman's stores in Palm Beach County and the first franchised shop in Stuart in neighboring Martin County. But growth hasn't changed the philosophy of Hoffman's Chocolates. Each piece is still designed and created in-house. And the recipes are still closely-guarded family secrets.

"Paul's still involved in a big way, especially with new product development and strategic planning,"  Meltzer says. "In fact, our unofficial title for him is ‘Chief Chocolatier.'"

In addition to buying chocolates, visitors also can watch them being made, gazing hungrily through a window that looks out onto the factory floor. The company doesn't keep statistics on total visitors, but executives know that more than 50,000 people come just during the winter holiday season, many of them by tour bus. When they walk in, they're greeted with chocolates of every size and shape – miniature pianos to bird nests, numbers to roses, antique cars to bunnies to banks, from dime-sized to basketball-sized – and filled with every conceivable type of nut, cream, jelly and candy.

Hoffman's produces nearly 4 million pieces of chocolate a year. It produces more than 1,200 products, including more than 150 types of truffles. During South Florida's winter travel "season," production mounts into the thousands of pounds – daily. Every year, the plant uses more than 100,000 pounds of almonds and 100,000 pounds of pecans. And it can bring in 10,000 pounds of block-chocolate in a week.

Bon Appetit called this "one of America's finest chocolate shops." And the Wall Street Journal, a few years back, said Hoffman's had the best Easter basket in the nation.

"Right now, we're on the verge of something very special," Meltzer says. "This summer, we're opening a new store in downtown Lake Worth, the place where we started so many years ago. For us, it's like going home again."

Meltzer is a living encyclopedia of chocolate, from its beginnings 2,000 years ago, when some called it  "the food of the gods," to the Mayans who made a drink from ground cocoa beans, to the Aztecs who offered it to the Spanish conquerors who would soon decimate them, to the best rainforests in which to find cocoa today, to the fermentation process that turns pods into beans.

"For us," he says, "it's a never-ending process. We're always trying to find better ingredients and to create unique new products. And we're always trying to package them in creative new ways."

Trust us: You won't leave without a couple of boxes in your hands. And it's a good bet those boxes will be half-empty by the time you make it back to your hotel.

"We're now seeing the second and third generations of the same families coming in to buy chocolate," Meltzer says. "When you see the looks on peoples' faces when they bite into a piece of chocolate, well, that's why we do it. We make something that brings joy to people."

If You Go

Hoffman's Chocolates
5190 Lake Worth Road, Greenacres
561-967-2213
hoffmans.com

Steve Winston has written/contributed to 17 books. His articles have appeared in major media all over the world.

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