In need of a summer getaway? Here are some gems to consider within a few hours’ ride of Polk County. You don’t have to go far to get away!
BY MARIA IANNUCCI
The city of Sarasota is home to a variety of attractions appropriate for the enjoyment of the entire family. Go on a weekend to enjoy free art and live music at the First Friday Palm Avenue Art Walks or the third Friday Towles Court Art Walks. Palm Avenue is lined with galleries and Towles Court, an artists’ colony, opens its galleries and studios to the public.
The John & Mable Ringling Museum of Art is a treasure trove of history, accounting for decades of circus activity. The grounds are extensive for walking and are dotted with shaded benches. A stroll around St. Armands Circle, an island shopping area separated from the mainland by Sarasota Bay, brings visitors past a variety of fine shops and restaurants set in a tropical paradise.
Consider a day of relaxation at the Warm Mineral Springs Spa, where guests can enjoy the benefits of year-round, 87-degree water at this natural spring site. The lake area covers 2.5 acres and flows with over nine million gallons of warm water daily.
Sarasota Opera House on Pineapple Avenue lights up the night when there’s a ballet, opera, or other program on the stage. Scores of restaurants are scattered around the immediate area of the theater, so those with a need for dinner and a show can have an evening of fine cuisine and entertainment.
There’s a lot to do in the Treasure Coast area; Sebastian, with a population of about 22,000, lies in the heart of it. Sebastian is midway between Melbourne and Vero Beach, and is the home of Pelican Island.
Pelican Island holds a unique place in American history. In 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt designated it as the nation’s first National Wildlife Refuge to protect brown pelicans and other native birds nesting on the island. This was the first time the federal government set aside land for the sake of wildlife. Pelican Island is made up of 5,375 acres of protected land. Birdwatching tours are available as are boat rides, kayaking and canoeing.
Mel Fisher’s Treasure Museum, open since 1982, is home to a large collection of treasures he has successfully salvaged over the last few decades, including that of the Nuestra Señora de Atocha. This is the largest underwater treasure find in history. Mel’s family continues the search for the remaining cargo of the Atocha today.
If you are an aviation enthusiast, Pensacola can make a great holiday escape. The area is home to the National Naval Aviation Museum, a military and aerospace museum that features over 130 warbirds, beautifully restored. Admission is free. In addition to being the “Cradle of Naval Aviation,” the Pensacola Bay Area is proud to call itself home to the renowned Blue Angels, officially known as the U.S. Navy Flight Demonstration Squadron. On Wednesday mornings at 11:30 a.m. from March through November, visitors and locals have the opportunity to meet the pilots, take photos with them and even ask for their autographs at the National Naval Aviation Museum.
If you’re a history fan, Fort Pickens is a must-see. A military fort built in 1834, Fort Pickens is rumored to be haunted, with several ghost sightings being reported over the years. The Pensacola Lighthouse & Museum, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, offers climbing tours of the 1859 landmark. They offer indoor and outdoor history exhibits, Blue Angel and Light of the Moon Tours, ghost hunts, and special events.
As home of the largest man-made reef in the Gulf, Pensacola is a big attraction for scuba divers. The USS Oriskany, a retired 911-foot aircraft carrier, has sat upright in 212 feet of clear Gulf water 24 miles southeast of Pensacola Pass. The wreck is only one of many that divers can enjoy.
Situated about halfway between Key Largo and Key West, Marathon is an ideal place for a getaway while still within driving distance to major sights and attractions. Finished in 1912, Old Seven Mile Bridge is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and runs parallel to the modern bridge. It has been featured in such films as “License to Kill,” “True Lies,” and “Mission Impossible III.”
Curry Hammock State Park covers a small group of islands in the Marathon area, offering public access for swimming, grills, picnic areas, and a playground. The hardwood hammocks located on these islands, paired with mangrove swamps, seagrass beds and wetlands, provide vital habitats for the tropical wildlife in the area. A 28-site campground lies within sight of the Atlantic Ocean and is open year-round.
Coco Plum Beach faces the ocean. A small, sandy, natural beach, it’s quiet and dog-friendly. This beach is a sea turtle nesting area for Atlantic Green turtles, Loggerheads, Leatherbacks, Kemp’s Ridley, and Hawksbill turtles.
There are plenty of small motels, resorts and B&Bs in Marathon. Consider keeping some distance from the crowds during downtime. Marathon is less than 90 minutes from both Key West and Key Largo, making day trips very manageable.