Beach by Fort Pickens
1400 Fort Pickens Rd., Pensacola Beach
Like some of Florida’s other parks, Fort Pickens began as a military fort on Santa Rosa island in the 1800s and remained in use until 1947. These days, the old fort still stands, but it’s the surrounding beach that’s the real draw. This tiny corner of the Gulf Coast is comparatively underdeveloped (no towering buildings or hotels) and the seven-mile stretch of white sand is as pristine as you’ll find. Bicycle lanes run parallel to the beach and separate picnic areas mean settling in for the day is no problem.
The Ritz-Carlton Fort Lauderdale
1 N Fort Lauderdale Beach Blvd., Fort Lauderdale
The Ritz-Carlton gets it right in Florida, and the Fort Lauderdale property deserves its own—from the rooftop—shout-out. This hotel is as close to perfect as a big, showy resort gets. First of all, rather than going over-the-top, the Ritz is understated with a gentle blue-and-cream nautical theme throughout. There are no loud, dazzling colors competing with the view. The swimming pool is elevated on the seventh floor, so all you see while swimming laps is the turquoise ocean, not a parasol in sight. The Everglades are just twenty-five minutes away, and there’s a kids’ program to keep the littles entertained, while parents can grab a drink on the balcony or settle into the (incredible) spa for a lazy afternoon.
Old Fort Lauderdale Breakfast House
333 Himmarshee St., Fort Lauderdale
One of the many pleasures of vacation is the breakfast. The leisurely kind. The kind you roll up to after 9 a.m. and order the waffles, the French toast, and too many cups of coffee. Old Fort Lauderdale Breakfast House—the OB House in local-speak—serves one of the best breakfasts in town. And better yet, serves it until 2:30 in the afternoon. The owners take provenance seriously—the maple syrup drizzled on the skillet pancakes is from Vermont, the milk is from a nearby farm, the eggs are free-range, and so on. We loved the signature Dutch baby pancake, served with a thick dusting of powdered sugar and a proper cup of Earl Grey tea.
Hugh Taylor Birch Park
3109 E Sunrise Blvd., Fort Lauderdale
Between the Atlantic and the Florida Intracoastal Waterway is a sliver of wilderness that will take your breath away. This park was gifted to the state by Hugh Taylor Birch to preserve the lush greenery and animal habitats that have long existed on this historic piece of land. Every acre is packed with ancient palms and birch trees, long branches dipping into and trailing in the water, gopher tortoises, and the sound of birds and other wild things. It’s almost Amazonian. Rent bikes and ride the many tree-lined trails, cruise through on a kayak, or just hang on the beach with a book or a picnic with the kids.
Bonnet House Museum & Gardens
900 N Birch Rd., Fort Lauderdale
The Bonnet House is an eccentric slice of Americana. It’s the kind of rambling, historic property you hope to stumble upon on a spur-of-the-moment road trip. The 1920s home belonged to artists Frederic and Evelyn Bartlett, who made the house their own by filling the shady palms outside with live monkeys and the interior with murals and other artwork. The house itself is magnificent, each room full of curiosities and sculptures. And the grounds—one of South Florida’s last surviving native barrier island habitats—are worthy of their own visit: Five ecosystems exist on the land, including mangrove wetlands and a maritime forest. Don’t miss the orchid house; Evelyn Bartlett, who lived on the property until 1995, was an enthusiastic collector.
Kennedy Space Center
An hour east of Orlando, the Kennedy Space Center is, forgive us, out of this world. The place has justifiable widespread appeal—exhibits are as thronged with first-graders and tweens as they are with senior citizens. On the center’s grounds you’ll find the space shuttle Atlantis, the Saturn V rocket, simulated lift-off experiences, and rocks from the moon that you can touch. Set aside a full day to explore the fascinating exhibits, which chart all the historical moments of the race to space, up to the developments of today. Book in a lunch with one of the astronauts on-site—the enquiring minds of your mini explorers will thank you.
Ritz-Carlton Grande Lakes
4012 Central Florida Pkwy., Orlando
“Less than twenty minutes from Harry Potter World” isn’t our typical opener for a hotel, but in Orlando, every minute in the car is a minute wasted. The city’s Ritz-Carlton is a classic, splashy, sophisticated resort done well. Really well. Within the fourteen floors and 500 acres that make up the property are a pond for fly-fishing, vegetable gardens (much of which ends up on your plate at dinner in one of the eleven restaurants), tennis courts, a golf course, and a 40,000-square-foot spa. There are also activities especially for kids, like arts and crafts and nature walks (free for each child for the first two hours). Service across the board is flawless, and guest rooms are airy and relaxing in quiet creams and pastel blues.
Black Rooster Taqueria
1323 N Mills Ave., Orlando
You’ll work up an appetite at Universal Studios. An appetite for hearty, flavorful, slightly spicy food specifically. Black Rooster is—in our humble opinion—the best taqueria in Orlando. Slow-cooked chicken tinga, crispy fish, and marinated carne asada piled into handmade tortillas taste incomparably bright and fresh, speckled with a dollop of salsa for some kick. For those looking to up their greens, the kale salad, loaded with vegetables and a (small) handful of cheese, is excellent. If you’re with hungry kids, order extra.
The Wizarding World of Harry Potter
6000 Universal Blvd., Orlando
You can’t visit Orlando with kids and not hit up Universal Studios. Specifically, the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. A few tips: Buy the Universal Express Unlimited Pass and allocate a solid two days to see everything. (Hogwarts and Hogsmeade are in one park, while Diagon Alley and its rides are short bus trip away—if you don’t get these references, you might want to hit the bookstore first.) While the kids will stare at every magical detail in open-mouthed, wide-eyed wonder, skipping the lines is a godsend for the adults. Arrive early and try to avoid bringing a backpack (they’re not permitted on many of the rides). Highlights include having your wand choose you at Ollivander’s (just like Harry’s did), slurping goblets of impossibly sweet butterbeer, and the Forbidden Journey ride. This ride is the equivalent of flying across the pages of the books, through Dumbledore’s office, into the Room of Requirement, and hanging out in every child’s fantasy—the Gryffindor common room.
Ariola Dr., Pensacola
There are plenty of hotels in Pensacola, but we would argue a beachside rental is the way to go. The options here are easy, family-friendly, and luxurious. Ariola Drive faces the emerald surf of the Gulf and is home to several picture-perfect beach homes with private pools and rooftop decks for blasts of that warm, salty air. We loved this one with its classic white clapboard exterior and huge dining area for family feasts. A few doors down, this three-story, modernist property has floor-to-ceiling windows and a porch that runs the length of the house—convenient for keeping one eye on the kids on the sand below without having to leave the house.
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