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Florida vacation
By Mark McCullough

The annual week off of school for spring break always prompts the question “Where to this year?” Well for this family vacation, pointing the minivan south to Florida does not have to be the predictable theme park experience! Traveling with our three children, I set a goal to visit the “real” Florida on a budget, learn a thing or two and have some fun. Here are some tips based on our family vacation.

Don’t overlook extended-stay hotels like Staybridge Suites which offers pools, free hot breakfast and full kitchens in each room. These accommodations allow you to save on meal costs plus have the kid-friendly amenities that make for a comfortable and affordable stay.

St. Augustine is America’s oldest city and is a perfect destination for a history lesson. Located just south of Jacksonville, the preserved and restored old Spanish city is old Florida come to life. The area beaches are great for shell hunters, and some even allow cars on the sand for a great tailgating experience.

Not all the water in Florida is on the coasts. Try one of the hundreds of natural springs that dot north central Florida. These hidden gems are perfect for a family dip. The water is a constant 72 degrees year ’round and so clear that you can see the caves that discharge these special waters 50 feet below the surface. Many of these springs are within state parks and offer nature trails, concessions and canoe rentals. Our family favorite for snorkeling is Ichetucknee Springs State Park northwest of the college town of Gainesville.

What is a trip to Florida without seeing some exotic wildlife? Alligators come to mind, but our favorite is the gentle manatee. At Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park on the Gulf Coast north of Tampa, they showcase native Florida wildlife, including manatees, black bears, bobcats, white-tailed deer, American alligators, American crocodiles and river otters. The kids delight in the manatee shows that allow them to feed and touch the gentle giants. A side trip to nearby Tarpon Springs highlights the sponge harvesting industry of the Gulf of Mexico and the Greek immigrants that came to Florida back at the turn of the 20th century. And for dining, we think Tarpon Springs is home to some of the best Greek restaurants this side of Athens.

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Mark McCullough, father of 3 children under age 6, often reminisces about his former life as a raft guide and rock-climbing instructor. Now his outings are more subdued, like canoeing along the tidal rivers in Virginia’s historic triangle of Jamestown, Yorktown and Colonial Williamsburg.

Tagged: Family time, Florida

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