Tag Archives: vacation

Taking “Long Distance” Off the Bad Rep List

For any of you who have ever planned a wedding, you know it is a LONG process filled with dozens of appointments, more email and phone correspondences than you probably want to count, and decisions on details you never even thought actually mattered (or existed). Now don’t get me wrong, all the planning and time is definitely worth it (if you can keep your sanity), but it is extremely and painfully understandable that the whole idea makes some couples want to just run off to Vegas and never look at another fabric swatch again. But before you go to that extreme, there’s another option: Destination Wedding.

You might think I’m crazy for having just said that, because it honestly makes zero sense that planning a huge, life-changing event like a wedding would be less stressful long distance. But hear me out. You’ve got tons of friends and family at home that want nothing more than to come to your wedding and support you. And while that’s wonderful, that’s also the cause of a lot of stress. The more people in attendance = the more planning you need to do, and on a larger scale. A destination wedding makes it very easy to say that it’s just going to be the two of you and immediate family (and maybe a couple of particularly close friends). And what’s more, when it’s completely impractical for you to go meet with a bunch of vendors and be physically present for every single detail, you can relax. Skype and picture messages suddenly become perfectly acceptable means of communication and approval.

And I haven’t even gotten to the best part yet. Florida business people and wedding planners have actually realized that coming here from all over for a simple, beautiful wedding is not a trend – it’s here to stay. So, it’s quite easy to find full-service wedding planners and coordinators who will take care of darn near everything for you. They find and book the venue, reserve a block of rooms at a reputable and near-by hotel, take care of all the decorations and flowers, find you an officiant or justice of the peace, take care of the music, cake and food… you name it, they do it. You might think just anyone can do this back where you’re from. But that’s unfortunately just not the case. If you’re working with a company and/or an individual who is used to working face-to-face with their clients and taking them around to places, they are going to find it quite trying and difficult to give you the same results when you’re hundreds or thousands of miles away. It’s just the way it is. On the other hand, many of the companies here deal mostly with destination weddings, and have found their niche in how to get you just what you’re looking for without ever physically meeting you (until the big day, at least).

Now, let’s talk budget. Another thing in favor of this Florida destination wedding idea. Like I said before, less people = less stress. But it also means less MONEY. It’s not unusual for a wedding to cost a couple hundred dollars per person in attendance. But aside from that, how fancy you want your venue and decorations to be will determine a lot of the rest. I know I’ve probably said this a hundred times on this blog, but the military is a good thing for you. Given the shear number of bases we have here, most wedding planners have worked with their fair share of military couples. Sometimes, they go the extravagant wedding route with the typical length of engagement (like my parent’s checking account will tell you I did), but more often that not, small and simple is the way they go. And on a limited budget. Which means that these wedding companies are quite experienced in pulling off beautiful events on budgets of literally all sizes. All you have to do is tell them what you have in mind, and how much money you have to do it with. It’s amazing what they’re able to come up with.

You don’t even have to stick to just getting married on the beach (although our beaches here are phenomenal and you really can’t go wrong). You can do a yacht wedding – think about how amazing it would be to actually be on the water; pick a theme park – yep, your chance to take a walk in the shoes of a Disney princess; or pick one of the countless really cool historical sites – the Sundy House in Delray Beach, for example, is crazy charming and has everything you could ever want.

So, de-stress, enjoy your moment, and don’t let the planning overwhelm you. Have input from your own Florida destination wedding? What more ideas of specific beaches or places to go? Need to know how to find a great planner? Comment away or catch us on Facebook (facebook.com/explorefl) or Twitter (twitter.com/explore_fl)!

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Who Cares About a Wedding?

First of all, I’d like to apologize for not posting anything for the last couple of weeks. As it turns out, almost single-handedly planning a parade with over 4,500 trinkets and beads to attach stickers to is WAY more time consuming than I could have imagined. Go figure. But, I am happy to say it was a TON of fun and there was a phenomenal turnout. Thanks to everyone who came on Saturday; we hope you had fun!

 

Now, on to the next thing!

 

So, it’s now March. And before any of you ask, I have NO idea how that happened. I’m still trying to process the fact that it’s 2014. Just like I’m pretty positive I only started complaining about it getting dark early like two weeks ago… only to have my calendar tell me that THIS coming Sunday is time to “spring ahead” already. Seriously? I mean, I’m excited, but I feel like the calendar in my head is about six months behind where it should be.

Anyway, what March means is that we are now dangerously close to wedding season. And especially here in Florida – where the scenery is beautiful, the weather is generally gorgeous, and there is seemingly no end to the miles of insane coastline – our destination wedding traffic is way higher than average. Now I understand a lot of you are probably not planning on getting married and are wondering why this is relevant to you. Don’t worry, I’m getting there.

Whether you’re the bride, groom, family member, friend, or completely unrelated in any way to anyone getting married right now, wedding season affects you. Maybe you’re a photographer, florist, decorator, dress or suit shop owner/employee, etc. Maybe you like the beach. Or maybe you just live here and go places and/or work somewhere. Any way you look at it, the people involved in these weddings will either be visiting your business for something related or unrelated, dining at the same restaurants you work or eat at, taking over the beaches and hotels you enjoy, and increasing traffic. Basically, at the very least, they’re bringing their dollars into your local economy and their presence into your world.

Now let me clarify: it’s hard to convey tone in a blog, so please know I did not mean any of that negatively. The end of the “winter” slump and the beckoning in of lively towns is a great thing, even if you don’t like the added traffic. And weddings are great! They bring lots of (generally) happy people into one place – something we have an unfortunate shortage of more times than we’d like to admit.

So why am I telling you all of this? Well.. this might sound bad, but I’m prepping you. I’m using this blog post to tell you about tomorrow’s blog post. And before I start writing that, I want you all to weigh in. How do you feel about wedding season? Have you ever been to or planned a destination wedding? Did you get married in Florida, or have you been to a wedding here? And finally… if you have experience with any of the former, who was your all-time favorite, saved the day, couldn’t have done it without them, vendor? Because if they’re that awesome, we want to to tell people about them.

So put on your dancing shoes (or flip flops), folks. Explore Florida is walking down the aisle (or beach sand made into a make-shift aisle), and we’d love to see you all at the end of it.

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Beachin’ Ain’t Easy

Ready to have your mind blown? Are you sitting down? Ok, here it goes…

Florida has great beaches.

Actually, that’s an undersell. They’re some of the most beautiful in the world. And yes, I know you’ve heard that. But no matter how common knowledge it is that people come here to lounge on the sand and play in the water, you’d be lying if you said you didn’t want to know more about it. As someone who has spent most of my life on one coast or another, I know just being in a town surrounded by great beaches doesn’t mean you’re going to find that great beach. My all time favorite beach back up where I’m from in Narragansett, RI is one which is off the radar unless someone tells you about it. I promise, you won’t find it on Google.

While I may not be willing to give up that secret, I’ve been compelled to give you the inside scoop on each region’s must-visit beach here in sunny Florida. Some might be hidden gems, some might not be hidden at all. But I promise, take my advice and you won’t leave disappointed that you didn’t find what you’ve spent months imagining in your head. Grab your sunscreen, folks.

North Florida:

James Lee Park

Destin

This beach is about as good as it gets. While you really can’t go wrong with a Destin beach, this one is my favorite. It’s a little ways of a drive from the bridge and down Scenic 98, but it’s well worth it. Trademark of this area, you are almost certain to find crystal clear, blue-green water and powdery, white sand beaches. The beach is kept up very well and seeing trash on the ground is few and far between. There is ample parking, convenient pavilions and picnic tables, and several dune walkovers that allow for a great view. The beach will get busy in the summer months, but I have never seen it to the point that there isn’t hardly any room to move. The water is perfect for surfing, paddle boarding, skim boarding, body surfing, snorkeling, etc. And when you get hungry or could go for a good libation, there is a local seafood restaurant right on the beach with a tiki bar and open-air deck. It is quite literally the perfect beach to lose track of the time on.

Central Florida:

Maximo Park

St. Petersburg

St. Pete is a treat in and of itself, but this beach is really something to talk about. Aside from the beautiful, soft white sand beach characteristic of the Gulf Coast, crystal clear, warm water and litany of water-related activities, this place has it all. First of all, it has seven boat ramps – things which are for some reason shockingly tough to find. Second of all, it has beachside, covered playgrounds for the kids, picnic areas and restrooms. But what makes Maximo Park really unique are all the extras that give you an unexpectedly fun break from basking on the shoreline. Bring a bike along and take advantage of the trails, or talk a walk along the nature trail and enjoy some of life’s simple beauty. For you history buffs, there’s a 70-acre archeological site to take advantage of. I won’t spoil the story for you, but Maximo Park has an intriguing backstory that most won’t find themselves yawning through. And then there’s my personal favorite non-water attraction – the 18-hole disc golf course. For those of you that haven’t played, it’s not necessarily easy, but it’s fun regardless of how terrible you may or may not be. And to finish it all off, take a hike to the top of the 50-foot observation tower that will help you soak in all the beauty and excitement you just experienced.

South Florida

Sombrero Beach

Marathon

This hidden gem on the Florida Keys island of Marathon may not have all the bells and whistles of the other beaches we’ve covered, but it is worth a day of your time. This is one of the most pristine, unspoiled beaches you will find anywhere in the world. Not your usual white sand beach, picking up a handful will reveal to you what makes it unique. You’ll find interestingly shaped grains, shells and characteristics of the special environment that exists in the area’s warm waters. Speaking of the water, it is calm, warm and almost unbelievably relaxing. Lay down on a raft for a bit, and watch in amazement of what is around you. You’ll see dolphins playing, unusual fish swimming the world below and people with a level of enjoyment on their faces you just don’t see anywhere else. There is a playground for the kids and an expansive stretch of land that won’t leave you feeling claustrophobic. Sombrero Beach is not filled with vendors, however, so bring a cooler and plan accordingly. Even if you always need action and to be on-the-go, take a chance on this beach. I promise you won’t regret it.

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There Is No Hotel Deal Fairy

It has to be one of the most Googled phrases in recent travel history: how to book the best room for the best rate. And while I wish I could say I hadn’t wasted my time doing this… a lot… I have. And the outcome is almost always one of two things. Either the information is completely useless and makes searching “cheap hotel rooms” seem like a revolutionary, Nobel prize worthy idea; or the results are achieved by nothing short of calling out sick from work for two weeks straight, developing a masterful spreadsheet, and probably getting put on some sort of government watch list. But don’t worry, you’ll get the room five dollars cheaper per night (maybe).

So, in response, I’m going to try to give you my version of it. Part of me thinks this is futile, but the other part of me tells me this: I’m better with technology than your average person, but I’ve also had to teach people how to use it. I work full time and I work on a Master’s degree part time. And I will fight you if you think I’m going to waste time doing anything else when I could be watching football. Why should you care? Because that means I’m not going to suggest something so painfully obvious your great grandmother would know to try it, or something so complicated you need a doctorate in engineering to do it. I’m also not going to suggest things that “ain’t nobody got time for”. I welcome your criticism (or loving praise) after you read this.

  1. It’s already time for the tough love.

No matter how good you are at this, how far in advance or last minute you’re looking, or if it’s a Tuesday and the weather is bad – you are not going to get a stellar deal every time. Sometimes, all your tricks and research just lead you to the sad realization that the cost is what it is. But hey, at least you know you’re not getting ripped off by whatever hotel or site you book through.

  1. Analyze your circumstances.

Ask yourself a few key questions before you start looking. Is your trip soon or in the distance? Do you need a specific neighborhood or will anything in the general area do? Do you have the funds to pay up front, or do you need to be able to pay when you check out? Is your trip flexible enough that you’re comfortable booking something the same day you want to check in? These are all important questions, and I will address them in the “Tips” section at the bottom.

  1. Use more than one website. But don’t go crazy.

I know, there’s websites like Kayak and Priceline, as awesome as they may be, that insist you only need to search their site to find the best price. But only trying the deal sites just tells their marketing departments that they’re as brilliant as they think they are. I generally pick one deal website, and then Google something like “hotel specials February 7-9 in Fort Walton Beach”. Sometimes, a coupon or something will pop up. More often, though, I get a big old list of hotels across the top of the page. And now, I compare. Go through your deal site and try to find a price you like. If you don’t see one, find a hotel you like that might be more money than you’d like to spend, but isn’t so far gone you can’t find a better deal.

  1. Compare Simply.

Baby steps here. Let’s assume you’ve now picked a hotel or two (or three or four) from the deal site. Next, go to the hotel’s website itself and run a search. Sometimes, the deal site is better. Sometimes, it’s the same. But other times, you might find that if you select a AAA rate or military rate (from the search box when you’re typing in your dates and number of people…typically in a drop down menu or under “advanced search”), the price ends up being lower than the deal site. Think about it: the deal site can’t assume everyone booking qualifies for a discount. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Refer to point #1.

  1. Compare Creatively.

Don’t get stuck in a rut. I know you’re probably thinking I’m breaking my time rule here, but the above two steps shouldn’t take you more than five minutes (ten if you’re researching a lot – but you should save that for the end). Quickly skim through and cross reference the deal site’s list with your Google list. Just like Southwest Airlines tickets can only be purchased from their own website, not all hotels allow deal sites to work with them. When you see some on Google that you didn’t on the deal site, do a new search for that hotel. Here’s the best part: quite often, since the hotel is not participating in a deal site, they’ll have some pretty great deals. Especially for multi-night stays.

Tips:

Now that I’ve given you some ideas, back to those questions I asked you to evaluate in point #2. The best way for you to treat the following bullet points is like a matching quiz in school. Figure out what applies to you based on your answers to the questions, and then take my advice accordingly.

  • If you’re in a situation where the deal site and hotel site are the same price, consider this: deal sites require full payment up front and are rarely refundable; direct hotel sites typically do not actually charge you until check out and have pretty lenient cancellation policies
  • Monitoring the price of a hotel you like over a period of time can typically lead to a decreased rate. If you see it drop, grab it.
  • Many hotels have last minute deals. I don’t mean the week before, I mean the same day you want to check in. You can use the hotel site, deal site, or an app like Hotel Tonight
  • Unless you really can’t afford a hotel at the initial price you find it, don’t play the bargain game if it’s going to really put you in a bind to stay anywhere else
  • Pick up the phone after you’ve found a hotel you like. The vast majority of the time, their best deals are online. But some offer secret promotions you’ll never find out about if you don’t call and ask

The bottom line here is establishing your priorities, then doing what you need to do to achieve them. There might be a lot of stuff here, but if you ask those key questions first, you shouldn’t need to spend more than 15-30 minutes finding the best deal possible for you. Any tips or tricks of your own? Post them here and share the wealth!

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Truth or Dare (But It’s Really Just Dare): Airport Edition

The idea of traveling is really exciting. That’s because when we are planning a trip, we tend to think of all the great things we’re going to do once we get there: where we’re going to go, how relaxed we’re going to be, how tan we’re going to get… It’s wonderful. So wonderful that we often forget about the necessary evil required to get to that vacation – the airport.

Unless you almost never fly or are the world’s luckiest person ever, you’ve had the misfortune of dealing with a long layover, a delay and/or a cancellation at least once. Or basically every time you’ve flown, if you’re anything like my sister. I’m willing to bet you’ve tried the usual time-passers: Facebook obsessively, live Tweet about your boredom (some lady just sat down next to me…. great she smells funny… awesome she has terrible taste in music and even worse headphones), watch shows or videos on your phone, listen to music, read a magazine, get a drink at the bar, stare into space, strike up a conversation with a stranger you wish you hadn’t…. blah blah blah. And what makes all this worse is that you feel like you’re stuck with these mind-numbing options because, let’s face it, the airport isn’t exactly the place to do daring, out-of-the-box things. Unless you feel like hanging out in interrogation and spending some time on the “no fly” list, that is.

Well, lucky for you, I have spent more time in an airport than I would like to admit – a misfortune that has allowed me to create a pretty reliable list of things to do when you’re bored at the airport. A list which I have decided to share with you. Just remember, like I said, airport officials aren’t big on having a sense of humor in the workplace… so amuse at your own risk.

  • Greet passengers at a random gate as they disembark the plane.

Stand to the side of the door, and be a little creative. Say things like “I knew you could do it”, offer high-fives, or try to start a slow clap and see if it catches on.

  • Become a character.

Grab a seat at the gate or at the bar and start talking to a stranger. But don’t do this like you normally would. Invent a completely different personality and back story for yourself that seems ridiculous. See if they believe you.

  • Make a baggage claim sign.

Use a generic last name, like Johnson or Clark. Then just stand by baggage claim, holding it up and see if someone approaches you.

  • Work out.

This could be a legitimate way to get some circulation going. Or, you could be fun and get really into it. Stretch out, sprint around the moving sidewalk, do crunches, use water bottles as dumbbells – the more ridiculous the better.

  • Go on a scavenger hunt.

You can do this whether you’re alone or traveling with someone. Make a list of things: the most absurd thing for sale in a gift shop, the least practical novelty shot glass, someone dressed like they forgot they were going into public, a pay phone (good luck), etc. Happy hunting!

  • Walk backwards on the moving sidewalk.

This is one of those “do at your own risk” things. Trust me, it’s fun. But not everyone thinks so.

  • Pick up an accent.

Try out your accent skills while talking to a stranger. See if they call you out on it.

  • Try to figure out who the Air Marshal is at each terminal.

It’s harder than you might think.

  • See if you can talk your way into an airline club lounge.

Challenge accepted.

 

We’d love to hear your input! Please comment, like our Facebook pages, follow us on Twitter. And share with your friends! We return the favor!

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Sleep is for Suckers. But so is Powdered Creamer.

Vacations, day trips and long weekends are some of the greatest treats in the world. Way more decadent and exciting than a piece of fudge (I’m not knocking fudge.. I could write a whole story on it. I’m just saying). Going out and having all sorts of adventures that develop into great stories to tell is one of my favorite things to do in life. But, on the contrary, the call to relax while on vacation is loud and clear. So what do I do?

Oh, that’s right – coffee. I am absolutely addicted to coffee.

But here’s the problem on vacation: I don’t know where I am. And while I genuinely enjoy finding local coffee shops with their unique blends and homey touches that combine to make everything just phenomenal, I enjoy doing this AFTER I’ve had my iced coffee I know I can rely on. Because otherwise, who has the energy for that? So, you can imagine my panic when I travel that I’m not going to be able to find a satisfactory cup of coffee to hold me over until I find a fantastic cup of coffee. Just the thought of those places that don’t have iced coffee but think they can trick me by putting hot coffee over ice (worst thing ever) makes me want to stay home and set up shop in the Dunkin drive thru.

While you may find it easy to Google the nearest Dunkin Donuts (no offense to them… I’m a die hard fan), you should live by my rule while you’re on vacation: you can’t go anywhere you can go at home. So, without further adieu, here are a few of the best places to get a coffee when you’re traveling in Florida. Warning: caffeine jitters may occur.

Fort Walton Beach:

Region: North, Panhandle

  • Maas Coffee: This gem in the heart of downtown Fort Walton Beach has a great atmosphere, free WiFi, and truly delicious coffee. Boasting hand-roasted Arabica beans from more than twelve countries, you can really taste the quality and care in your cup. They specialize in everything from regular to snazzy, and even perfected the iced coffee. The only thing that might top the coffee is the gorgeous view of the bay you can get from the relaxation of their outdoor patio. Because as we all know, what good is coffee without something pretty to look at?

Miami:

Region: South, East Coast

  • Eternity Coffee Roasters: If you love social responsibility and great coffee, this is the place to be. Eternity Coffee has some of the highest quality coffee you can find anywhere, and the taste leaves no doubt! The coffee is roasted in house and customers absolutely rave about the divine scent that fills the shop as a result. Get your coffee to go, or decide to enjoy the atmosphere. Eternity is warm, inviting and comfortable – great for some relaxation, studying or meeting business associates. And for those of you wanting to feel a little fancy (but just a little), try ordering a latte and see what cool design you get in the foam.

Tampa Bay:

Region: Central, West Coast

  • Buddy’s Brew House: With an ambiance as friendly and inviting as its name, it comes as no surprise to patrons that this awesome coffee shop started as a hobby of owner, Dave Ward. With passion comes excellence, and this coffee is truly amazing. They even have a cool refill program that allows you to buy a mason jar for $4 (be honest, you would buy a mason jar even if it didn’t have perks attached to it) and get discounted refills every time you bring it in. We love it!

Orlando:

Region: Central, East Coast (ish)

  • Drunken Monkey Coffee: Ok, clearly we’re a little transparent on this one… we explored it for the name. But, come on, they nailed the whole marketing thing. And they didn’t disappoint. This coffee shop has a distinct feel that is welcoming, free-spirited and enjoyable. The coffee is incredible, top shelf and roasted in-house. And if that wasn’t enough, their food rivals in taste and quality. A great spot for everything from chatting with friends to taking advantage of their free stand up comedy night on Fridays.

Jacksonville:

Region: North, East Coast

  • The Coffee Grinder: If a regular old coffee shop bores you no matter how great the coffee is, this place is for you. Not one to be considered boring, The Coffee Grinder jams to live music from local DJ’s five days a week. And if you need some visual appeal to go with the treat your ears get, they have some really cool, intriguing art hanging up. Not that we’re professional art procurers, but we don’t seem to be alone in this thought. Of course, not to be outdone, the coffee is delicious and satisfying. With a coffee of the day keeping things interesting, you’ll never get sick of this place.

What’s your favorite? Leave us your comments, questions or input below. We’d love to hear it!

 

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Sandy the Snowman? (Magical Top Hat Not Included)

This could go one of two ways: either you are an absolute weirdo like me and actually like the snow and cold weather… or you hate that stuff, but still secretly want the fun parts of it. I don’t care how you feel about temperatures under 70 and bundling up, but I really think everyone wants to have a snowball fight, build a fort or make a snowman at some point in their life. Am I right?

If I’m wrong, I kindly ask of you to re-assess your version of fun. Building a fort and then using it as a fortress to protect myself from rocketing snowballs is one of my favorite pastimes. It’s seriously awesome no matter how old you are. That being said, if you are reading this because you’re thinking of taking a trip to Florida, you probably think I am out-of-my-tree crazy right now. But I have a point, I promise.

Welcome to ‘Pretending the White, Gulf Coast Beach Sand is Really Snow While Tanning In Your Bathing Suit and Sipping a Pina Colada’ 101. Here, I will teach you all the joys of laughing to your friends and family at home about how warm you are while still texting them pictures of your glorious snowman… with a palm tree in the background.

Step 1: Get yourself a bucket of sand, and a bucket of that emerald green gulf water.

Step 2: Add small amounts of water to the sand until you are able to roll some into a ball

Step 3: Make three balls: Big, Bigger, and Biggest

note: you might not be able to make them quite as large as you can with snow

Step 4: Stack them on top of each other – biggest on the bottom, smallest on the top

Step 5: Decorate! And have a little fun. You can use the traditional materials, or find small seashells for the eyes and mouth, and use one of those long spiraly ones for the nose. Or anything else your creative self comes up with!

Now see, who said you couldn’t have your cake and eat it too? They were clearly wrong. And just to make them more wrong, why don’t you bring some cake and eat it while you look at your snow(sand?)man? Bonus points for sending pictures my way.

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