Cold nights in southern Ontario; time to think about some winter getaways
Good forecast for the next few days here in Toronto, but it's cold enough overnight that I had to bring my bougainvillea and croton plants into my sunroom for the season. Which means it's time to start thinking about our Canadian rights to winter travel.
It's not QUITE enshrined in the Canadian charter, but for many Canucks that winter trip to sunnier climes is certainly as de rigeur as eating and breathing and hockey.
In the interests of spicing up the blog a little and offering some advice after four years in the editor's chair here at Toronto Star Travel, I thought I'd start the occasional series on great spots you might want to think about for that fall-winter-early spring sunshine/vitamin E/beach time getaway. I haven't been to enough places in the world to do any kind of exhaustive list; my resume is sadly lacking, for instance, in South America and Central America experience. But I've been to almost every state in the U.S. and to southeast Asia, Australia and New Zealand, as well as most of Europe and a fair bit of the Caribbean (although not as much as I'd like), so I think I can safely pass along some general ideas. We'll start with something nice and easy, but also with a few surprises you didn't know about.
Yeah, I know you know about Florida. But like most Canadians you probably park yourself in the same condo complex each year and go to the same beaches and same restaurants each year. Nothing wrong with familiarity and finding a comfort zone, but it's a HUGE state with all sorts of variety and it'd be a shame not to experience more of it.
I had a chance last year to make a brief visit to Amelia Island on the Atlantic side near Jacksonville. It was spectacular in the fall and the weather there is usually quite good year-round. January might not be swimming weather for some as it's reasonably far north. But it's still closer to Orlando than it is to Myrtle Beach, so you're in pretty good shape year-round. The average high in January in Jacksonville is a very solid 18 degrees, so we're not exactly talking about having to wear a hoodie and gloves, guys.
There are some stunning resorts on Amelia, including the Omni Amelia Resort. It sits right on a long, terrific stretch of beach and there's a golf course right on the water; a beauty. They're spending about $85 million on renovations (they call it a "re-imagination") so check before you book.
There's also a Ritz Carlton if that's more your thing. There are also Comfort Inn's and Residence Inns and Hampton's for folks on more of a budget or who might want a unit with some extra sleeping or cooking space.
The town of Fernandina Beach is a little-known beaut; with a small town feel featuring fun galleries, great shopping and outstanding restaurants such as 29 South. Lots of places to dine alfresco in the nice weather in town and, of course, poolside at the resorts. The backside of Amelia, away from the beach, features lovely marshes that are great for a solitary walk or a canoe/kayak ride.
You know about Clearwater and Dunedin and all that. And I recently wrote a blog about the Space Coast in case you weren't up to speed on places like Canaveral State Park, with its dunes and bird life. One area you might not have heard a lot about but that I really loved on a trip a couple years ago was Everglades City, which is about as far south as you can go without hitting the Keys. There's a great, outdoors vibe to the place as it's a staging ground for fabulous fishing, birding and boating in the remarkable Everglades. I'm not a great kayaker but I had a wonderful trip with a guide who was extremely helpful, and we spotted everything from gators to bald eagles during a two-hour expedition, not to mention dolphins and egrets and lots more.
I had a great meal at the Camellia Street Grill, a funky spot with a wildly decorated VW bug out front and terrific seafood. Try the stone crab in season, or just munch on some fresh-caught grouper and watch the boats roll by while you sit on a casual patio overlooking the river (see photo). Old-time Florida at its best.
Down the end of a short dusty road at the southern tip of Chokoloskee Island, just south of Everglades City, you'll find the fabulous Smallwood's store, which opened in 1906 as a local trading post and lived on for 76 years before it finally shuttered its doors.
As I mentioned in a story in Star Travel, it was reopened as a museum and recreation of the store about 20 years ago and it's as entertaining an hour as you're likely to spend in a part of Florida where where locals post Confederate flags in their yards or the windows of their trailer homes and where they don't have to put alligators in a fake pond to give visitors a taste of nature.
You walk into Smallwood's today, and it looks pretty much like it must have at the turn of the century, with bare wood walls, displays of native American culture and row upon row of fascinating cures for ancient and modern ailments. They say that about 90 per cent of the original goods in the store the day it closed are still on display.
There are highly entertaining displays of local history, including tales of murder and community cover-ups. Dynamite stuff.
I stayed at the Parkway Motel and Marina on Chokoloskee, which had chairs under a covered veranda out front of the rooms for chatting with neighbours and a fridge and free Wi-Fi and was just fine. The Ivey House B and B in Everglades City gets fine reviews and is worth checking out. Or you could make it an easy day trip from Naples or Miami. Either way, it's a charming, old-time part of the state that I just loved.