Jacksonville, Amelia Island, St Augustine, Orlando, St Pete/Clearwater, Tampa, Naples, Florida Keys, Miami
Total approximate miles: 886 miles (1,503 km)
Total fuel: US$347.84
Total groceries: $291.12
How many times can we go to Florida? This was our fourth trip in 2016 and we still discovered new places each time. Wonderful places. Places dedicated to relaxation, entertainment, nature and education.
This time we wanted to cover the entire state and were so grateful when Visit Florida offered to help us. If you’re looking for a warm beach vacation in winter, our 2-week road trip is packed with plenty of fun family friendly ideas.
We’ve included everything you need to know, from attractions to restaurants to hotels. It doesn’t matter if you choose the north-to-south route (like we did) or the other way around, one thing is certain… you won’t be disappointed in The Sunshine State!
Tip: If you have a few more days up your sleeve, you could start in the state’s capital, Tallahassee, and then drive east to Jacksonville.
It was already early evening when we flew into Jacksonville and collected our SUV rental car, so we drove straight to our hotel under the cover of darkness. It was only the following morning when we realised what beautiful beachfront awaited.
I loved the hotel room. It featured 2 queens in the bedroom, but also a separate lounge room with sofa bed - ideal for putting the kids to sleep and still being able to stay up a little later without disturbing them.
We opted for dinner across the road at Sneakers Sports Grill as a quick and easy end to the day. Our kids were in awe of the giant screens playing numerous American sports from football to basketball to ice hockey. The food was hearty and portion sizes generous.
With so many dining options around Jacksonville we didn’t want to waste one opportunity. So we started our day with a breakfast at the Maple Street Biscuit (several locations). Like Starbucks, they require some type of name to call when your order is ready. Unlike Starbucks, the question changes daily. On the day we visited they were asking for each customer’s bucket list destination, so we heard places called out like “New Zealand” and “Iceland”.
Obviously they served biscuits. As a non-American I’ve never been a fan of the biscuit and gravy concept, or chicken and waffles for that matter, but the families we were eating alongside seemed to gleefully devour those options.
The sweet cinnamon glazed biscuits stole the show for me, while Josh’s bacon and egg biscuit (the local favourite dish, “Five and Dime”) was a hit too. Out of my comfort zone (and with a temporary disregard for my cholesterol levels) I tried fried chicken for breakfast. I have to admit, it was really good… just not for breakfast, lol! I’d skip the dish I ordered next time, but thankfully those iced biscuits were more than enough eatin’.
After stuffing our faces with southern comfort cookin’ a wander around Jacksonville was in need, so we took a water taxi ride to downtown’s Northbank. You can catch that several times a day from Friendship Fountain.
If you’ve got the time, I recommend a quick visit to MOSH (Museum of Science & History), which is across the road from Friendship Fountain. Travelling exhibits change on a regular basis, and during our visit “Body Worlds RX” was located on the top floor. Core exhibits cover topics like health, nature, energy, local history, space, flora & fauna, and the ever-popular Kidspace play area.
Our kids will tell you the next stop was by far the best place on earth. Sweet Pete’s is a locally owned and operated candy factory. The intricate décor and building are incredible, with thought injected into every detail, covering all three floors of candy magic. Dare I say, it’s better then Dylan’s Candy Store in New York City.
We got to meet Sweet Pete himself as he held a candy-making class for us, where he demonstrated how to craft a hard candy lollipop and we followed along. Oh, how sweet that room smelled! In fact, the whole building smells so good that leaving empty handed is near impossible.
Your stomach is bound to start whispering walking through the store, especially when you see oompa loompas, I mean regular humans, crafting chocolate and preparing candy apples. Thankfully we didn’t have to wait long because we stopped for lunch at the Candy Apple Café located inside Sweet Pete’s.
I was ever-so-slightly disappointed that chocolate did not rule the menu, but once the food came out it was quickly forgotten.
You must try: Popping Rocks Margarita for a fun twist on candy.
Next, it was time to work off all that deliciousness so we headed to Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens. Rated #18 in the United States, I was pleasantly impressed by its well-conceived design and shady walkways (very important in the Florida sunshine). Home to 1900 animals, the zoo’s Tiger exhibit is one of the best in the country and impressed us all.
Our highlight was the baby gorillas playing with other monkeys. I could have stayed for hours watching their cute antics.
For dinner we enjoyed Safe Harbor Seafood Jax Beach on the water. You can’t go past the fish and chips in baskets, and sauce is free (unlike in Australia). Delicious food, perfect location… only one thing, watch out for pesky mosquitos if sitting outside.
Today we started with breakfast at Metro Diner in Jacksonville Beach (multiple locations). You’re familiar with the adage “when in Rome do as the Romans…”, well, I had to try the breakfast pizza, as crazy as it sounds. Americans do it so well.
After that we were onto our next destination, Amelia Island, playground for the rich and famous. But you’ll also find there’s plenty of room for the average family.
We were visiting the island for a family travel conference held at Omni Resort. So while I checked in for the conference and attended sessions, Josh and the kids got to play onsite in the awesome games centre, swimming pool, and the picturesque beach.
I spent the day with the Travel Media Showcase Family Travel Summit, while Josh and the kids relaxed at the Omni. Delicious meals were enjoyed in the on-site restaurants. And nights were spent around the fire pits with friends, talking into the wee hours of the morning.
As you wouldn’t be here for a conference like we were, make the most of the relaxing beach atmosphere. The next week of this road trip will be non-stop action packed!
The drive to St Augustine was quick and easy. We arrived by early afternoon and parked downtown by the Castillo de San Marcos. Parking can be hard to find, especially on a busy weekend, so be prepared to take some time. We found a little back alley street offering parking for a flat rate of $10.
Downtown St Augustine was beautiful, ancient and historic. I must admit I hadn’t researched much about St Augustine beforehand and was pleasantly surprised. What a destination! It’s the oldest continuously inhabited European settlement within the borders of the contiguous United States, founded in 1565 by a Spanish admiral.
First stop was the St Augustine Pirate & Treasure Museum. This museum is filled with over 800 pirate artefacts from the time when ruthless men ruled the seas with an iron fist and a lust for gold. The place is laid out for easy navigation and there are loads of hands-on activities for the kids to do, including a treasure hunt on paper that resulted in earning a piece of gold (plastic gems) from a treasure chest.
There is a small closeted gallery, with an audio show on the life of pirates. My kids aged 6 and 7 did not want to do it, so I did it alone. I wouldn’t recommend it for young ones; it was quite scary as the room gets dark and filled with sounds.
I swooned at the last section of the museum dedicated to pirate movies. You can find movie memorabilia like Captain Hook’s hook from “Hook” the movie, as well as swords from “Pirates of the Caribbean” and even items from “The Goonies”.
Next, we crossed the street to visit the Castillo De San Marcos National Monument, an old fort ripe for exploring. The views from the top of the fort are phenomenal and after seeing those pirates, the kids spent a good hour protecting St Augustine from imaginary pirates on the battlements.
Exhausted, we decided to stop in at a Publix supermarket before driving to our hotel. Beacher’s Lodge offer cosy apartments right on the ocean. Ours featured one main bedroom, bathroom, kitchen/dining and living room. In the living room 2 beds folded down from the wall for the kids to sleep in. Beyond the living room sliding door a balcony offered views of beautiful sunrises over the ocean.
We ate breakfast in our apartment’s kitchen and then set off to the St Augustine Alligator Farm. The highlight of this park is the boardwalk across dozens and dozens of alligators. Bring a few quarters to put in the food machines and feed the gators.
If you are scared of alligators, then this place may just cure you. Take a walk down to the enormous Australian crocodile named Maximo, weighing in over 1,200 pounds!
Having hurt my foot on the bed the evening before we decided to catch the Old Town Trolley around St Augustine to get a lay of the land and learn more about its rich beauty. As we passed down one street we spotted The Kookaburra - a café selling Aussie meat pies and we hastily got off at the next stop. Well, the pies weren’t as authentic as we had hoped, but they were a close taste of home.
If you love history then you might find the entry fee worthwhile, however it is just a quick look inside, and a small wander through the gardens so do not expect too much bang for your buck.
Nearby the Spanish Bakery café was a yummy place for a quick lunch. It features a traditional Spanish style kitchen layout and plenty of outdoor picnic tables.
Just a 7-minute walk north along San Marco Ave, we visited the holy grail of weirdness – the original Ripley’s Believe It Or Not. We’ve visited several of these attractions around the world, but this was the very first and the only one Ripley himself visited. As always, our kids loved taking in all the strange facts, stories, oddities and interactive exhibits.
We ate dinner at South Beach Grill next door to Beacher’s Lodge. The food wasn’t anything to write home about, but location on the beach couldn’t be beat.
Before we departed St Augustine we had one more stop at Marineland Dolphin Adventure. After 75 years these guys know a thing or two about dolphins. And as the world’s first oceanarium, this used to be Florida’s #1 tourist attraction (before Disney World).
I realise that dolphins and large sea creatures in captivity is a very controversial topic but it’s worth mentioning that this facility is responsible for saving the lives of thousands of wild dolphins through world-class research and care.
Then it was onward to Orlando where our first stop was Gatorland. Our whole family adored this place, especially since you can zip line right over the gators - a thrilling way to get a bird’s eye view of the entire park. This attraction is ranked as the #1 zip line in the United States and one of the top 10 in the world!
A walk through the breeding marsh will get you closer to gators than ever before. You must see their star attraction, “Bouya”, a leucistic alligator (white skin and blue eyes) – one of only 15 in the world.
After a quick play on the playground and dash through the splash pad, we were ready for a short rest before our next few days at Universal Studios!
The morning started off early in an attempt to beat the crowds. We were excited to return to Universal Studios because previously the Hulk ride was under renovation and Skull Island was being built. Both were now ready and open!
The only way you can top off a magnificent day at Universal Studios is with a meal in City Walk. And the brand new Toothsome Chocolate Emporium & Savory Feast Kitchen was a dream. You must order a shake… although you may not eat your meal afterwards, which would be a shame, because the food is delicious. Doggie bags are essential.
We spent the morning enjoying our hotel swimming pool before another day of Harry Potter, Transformers and ET. Our whole family is a big fan of Universal Orlando and you can read our complete guide here.
From Orlando it was time to continue to the west coast of Florida, and St Petersberg/Clearwater.
By the time we pulled into the carpark, our hotel was covered in night’s darkness so it was with pleasant surprise when the ocean greeted us with its calm whooshing sounds in the morning.
That evening we enjoyed dinner at RumFish Grill, home to a 33,500-gallon aquarium that was featured on Animal Planet’s “Tanked” TV show. Not that the kids noticed, because the restaurant offered them complimentary iPads during dinner. Oh, and did I mention the food was incredible?
The next morning, we went back to Rumfish Grill to swim in the aquarium. That’s right, you can snorkel in the tank with all the friendly fish. Josh donned the outfit and jumped right in. We can safely say this was a first in more ways than one.
After snorkelling we decided to spend some time down at the beach. Tradewinds offers plenty of beach activities to keep you busy, but none compared to the The High Tide Slide. This is a three-story-high, 200-foot-long inflatable water slide right on the sandy beach.
And with lounge chairs and umbrellas nearby, us parents watched in awe as our youngsters climbed and slid down, squealing with happiness, over and over and over again.
What an incredible story! Winter is an inspiration to humans who have lost a special part of them. We will be writing about this Aquarium and her story in more detail later. But this is a must-see attraction while in Florida!
Not far from Clearwater Aquarium we enjoyed sunset on the beach at Frenchy’s Rockaway Grill. It’s the perfect place to enjoy a casual dinner, while the kids play in the sand and the golden sun melts into the ocean. Bliss!
Finally, we ended the day by checking into the nearby Marriot hotel.
After a delicious breakfast at French-inspired Cassis American Brassiere we ventured into the heart of St Petersberg to check out the urban art scene. We picked up a Mural Walking Tour at Florida CraftArt and our guide was one of the featured artists. He led us around the hipster-esque neighbourhood with its incredible, colourful street art splashed across all manner of buildings, sharing fascinating stories along the way.
Then it was on to Tampa Bay and nothing could be more welcoming than lunch at the Oxford Exchange. It’s a historic building that combines a restaurant, coffee shop, bookstore and home décor store. The beautifully presented dishes featured a very creative range of flavour combinations.
Next stop – Busch Gardens! This theme park has been around since the 1950s, but is home to some of the scariest roller coasters we’ve ever been on such as “Falcon’s Fury” which dropped my daughter 335 feet (102 meters). It is the tallest drop-tower in North America!
The kids could not get enough of this theme park and we stayed until the night set in and the gates were closed. Ride queues were pleasantly short, and I’d recommend exploring the park in an anti-clockwise direction.
The food in Tampa was outstanding and we could not get enough of it, including our breakfast at the best spot in Tampa, Datz. You must try the sticky “monkey bread” (soft cinnamon roll) - it’s devilishly delicious. Our normally quiet son exclaimed, “I love this stuff!” but beware of the portion sizes - they are enormous! Our leftovers served as snacks later in the day.
It was time to walk off all that sugary goodness, so we drove to Tampa’s Lowry Park Zoo. Ranked as one of the best zoos in the US, it requires at least 3 hours to explore but a whole day is preferred. As it was hot that day we couldn’t pull our kids away from the Australia-themed splash pad.
Feel-good fact: this zoo is also a rehabilitation site for injured manatees.
Before long we had rumbling tummies again and it was time to eat our way through Tampa again, so we headed to the Tampa Museum of Art to try Sono Café. The café is located in the middle of the city along the Tampa Riverwalk. There is a large playground within eyesight so while we waited for our tasty organic lunch the kids happily played.
A quick walk along the Tampa Riverwalk helped the food go down. It’s a 2.4 mile (4km) stroll along the Hillsborough River and Garrison Channel. The highlight for adults is that you can drink alcohol during your stroll if it’s purchased from any of the 8 approved vendors.
Josh and I were ready to nap, but we all know kids have seemingly limitless energy, so we kept going to the next attraction - Glazer Children’s Museum. We couldn’t stop them - they were running from one floor to another, piloting a freighter, running a weather TV show, performing on a stage, and immersing in water play.
To end the evening, we headed to Ulele, a restored public water works facility that now holds the private art collection of Richard Gonzmart. The food quality was disappointing considering the rave reviews we had heard and ranking amongst the top 100 restaurants in the United States, but the art was not. Go have a look.
Florida Keys & Key West
Up early for one last taste of Tampa Bay at the Le Méridien Tampa and their restaurant, Bizou. The highlight of this brasserie is its history. What used to be the Beaux Arts-style federal courthouse has been renovated into the city’s newest boutique hotel. Ask the staff about a complimentary tour - there are so many hidden features from the judge’s old desk to original terrazzo tile floors to gold elevator doors. And keep your head up for the continuous art feature on the roof of the entrance… all the way out the door.
With another full day ahead of us we kept driving south towards The Keys. But before our final destination we planned on a stopover in Naples to try the Dolphin Explorer. At the Marco River Marina we boarded a boat for a guided tour of the 10,000 Islands Dolphin Project.
These guys are incredible. This is far from the typical dolphin watching tour. The Dolphin Explorer is run by a master naturalist and wildlife photographer who has been tracking and surveying dolphins for many, many years.
Our guide knew the exact spots these resident dolphins played in, he knew their names and they knew him. On top of a wonderful dolphin tour, you will also have access to beverages, sunscreen, snacks and a walk along an island beach on the Gulf of Mexico to hunt for seashells. Our kids were in paradise!
We finished our time in Naples with dinner on the beach at Quinn's on the Beach within JW Marriott Marco Island before hitting the road for the rest of our drive to The Keys.
Florida Keys & Key West
We started our day with more animal love at the Turtle Hospital. Tours run every hour and provided an educational insight into the world of sea turtles. This facility has been running since 1986. They treat injured sea turtles and, when possible, release them back into the wild.
We sat down for a fairly lengthy seminar which caused a little restlessness for our kids, but if you are really into turtles you’ll love it. After the presentation we met the resident turtles and saw all their illnesses and conditions first hand. Several suffered from “bubble butt” syndrome, which while making the kids giggle a little, certainly was no laughing matter, those poor turtles.
After a quick lunch we were back on the water for a snorkelling tour with Sundance Watersports. They supplied cold water on board and you are allowed to bring your own food and drinks. The catamaran, ‘Blue’, offered plenty of space for everyone and sailed smoothly out to the reef, “Coffins Patch”. Once all guests were supplied with masks, snorkels and flippers, we dove into the cool, fresh water to get up close to the fish. We swam amongst dozens of colourful fish, with vivid sea life in every direction.
We finished our beautiful day with dinner at the Tarpon Creek Bar & Grill where the kids enjoyed a game of beanbag toss, and we marinated in the beautiful views.
Tip: You must try the Island Cuban rice balls, they were to die for!
Oh, and if you really want to end the evening the right way, then don’t miss Sweet Savannah’s delicious key lime pie, cupcake or ice cream… or all three! You can read more about our Key Lime adventure here.
Florida Keys & Key West
This morning we relished our final hours at the incredible Hawks Cay Resort. The kids enjoyed several pools, as well as a pirate splash pad before heading down to the resort’s natural lagoon to try stand up paddle boarding.
After our relaxing morning we were ready to hit the water again and drove straight to Key West for an island jet ski tour with Barefoot Billy’s. The little shack-on-the-beach promised great fun and the staff were super laid back and friendly. Josh and I both hopped on our own jet skis with one kid each before hitting azure Caribbean waters for a 2-hour guided tour. The open sea got a little bumpy, but the bays close to the islands were as smooth as glass. In addition to the oodles of information provided by our guide, beautiful sights, and warm ocean breeze, we couldn’t get enough of the “free time” to carve out water donuts and crank all the possible speed out of our watercraft.
Since we were nearby, we took a walk to the famous Southernmost Point, lying roughly 90 miles north of Cuba. We decided to skip the queue for a photo with the monument and snapped a selfie from a distance instead.
Next, was a hunt for the perfect key lime pie before a sunset stroll at Mallory Square Dock. This plaza located at the northwest end of Key West, in the historic Old Town, adjacent to the cruise ship port. In the late afternoon we ambled through the crowds, watching street performers and listening to live music. The breathtaking amber sunset was a perfect way to wrap up our epic Florida road trip.
The following morning, we were up early to drive 160 miles (257 kms) to Miami International Airport just in time to board a flight to Los Angeles. Making the most of every moment, we took in the relaxing ambiance, soaked in the sunshine, and admired the impressive Seven Mile Bridge… and of course, stopped one last time to devour key lime pie!
The Bottom Line
This road trip had everything that encapsulates the essence off fabulous Florida – beaches, alligators, dolphins, turtles, theme parks, pirates, jet skis, warm weather, southern cooking, and key lime pie. All in just 15 days. 15 extraordinary days.
Now it’s your turn… where will you go on your dream Florida road trip?