Florida's northeast coast has plenty to thrill kids, but you don't have to be a youngster (or sip from the Fountain of Youth) to have a blast.
"Let's find treasure," says my 3-year-old son, William. Holding a map of Amelia Island's Fort Clinch State Park, he leads me up winding staircases, past rows of cannons, and into the dark barracks of the park's Civil War-era structure. As far as I know, Fort Clinch was never a hiding place for anyone's gold, but we're having too much fun to worry about historical accuracy. "I think I see a pirate ship!" I say, picking Will up so that he can peer at Cumberland Sound through an opening in the brick walls.
When traveling with kids, it's often wise to follow their leads--even if that means rarely sitting still. Keeping an eye open for moments to relax is also smart. While Will and I are at the fort, my wife, Jessica, and Owen, our 1-year-old, take a late-morning nap in our room at Amelia Hotel At The Beach. Soon enough, I get a break, too. Will and I sit under a canopy of trees at a playground across from the fort and share a banana and some Oreos.
Following the treasure hunt at Fort Clinch, the four of us regroup atBarbara Jean's, a regional mini chain that has a reputation for outstanding Southern food. The location--in a shiny new development--doesn't seem at all down-home. But the porch is pleasant, and lunch is delicious: pot roast, meat loaf, green beans, squash casserole, three types of homemade bread. Naturally, we also order Chocolate Stuff, a bowl of half-cooked brownie mix covered in whipped cream.
Dinner doesn't go as smoothly. At a Mexican place in downtown Fernandina Beach calledPablo's, Owen grows fascinated with a blond baby girl across the courtyard. He proceeds to fling rice and beans while trying to escape the high chair. Jessica and I each gulp down two of the strong margaritas as we attempt to get everyone fed without too much disturbance.
Fernandina Beach, the lone town on Amelia Island, is a charming old port. Victorian homes, brick buildings, and palm trees drape Centre Street. It feels genuinely Southern, more akin to Charleston than to Miami.
As the sun fades, the four of us splash in the hotel pool before turning in for the night. We're all asleep by 8:30 p.m.
- Amelia Hotel At The Beach 1997 S. Fletcher Ave., Fernandina Beach, 877/263-5428, ameliahotelandsuites.com, from $119
- Barbara Jean's960030 Gateway Blvd., Amelia Island, 904/277-3700, barbarajeans.com, pot roast $10
- Pablo's12 N. 2nd St., Fernandina Beach, 904/261-0049, fajitas $8
- Fort Clinch2601 Atlantic Ave., Fernandina Beach, 904/277-7274, floridastateparks.org/fortclinch, $5, $2 extra for fort
Our first destination is theFountain of Youth, in St. Augustine. It bills itself as a "national archaeological park"--a tourist trap too irresistible to pass up. (An earlier Google search revealed that there's no proof Ponce de León ever set foot on the grounds. It also yielded a link to a plastic surgery clinic in Tampa.) There's a diorama of Spanish soldiers and a frilly, blue, rolling mechanism meant to resemble ocean waves. In the center of the room is a brown stone well. The guide hands out cups of the famed water, which smells and tastes of sulfur. If you have to drink a lot of this stuff to live forever, forget it.
Further proof of Florida's eccentricity is in Vilano Beach, where there's a medieval-style castle built as a really big work of art. The castle is the turnoff point forCap's on the Water, a wonderful seafood restaurant where we have an early lunch under some old oak trees that overlook marshland and the Tolomato River.
We then head over to theSt. Augustine Alligator Farm Zoological Park, where we find parking alongside three school buses. "This place is a zoo," I say, before realizing the pun. Will and Owen don't mind the crowds or the broiling heat. They watch in awe as a staffer entices Maximo, a 15-foot-long crocodile, to leap out of the pool and munch on some rodents.
TheSt. George Innis at the north end of St. Augustine's historic district. Rooms are divided among four adorable buildings. Ours has a view of the city gates and theCastillo de San Marcos National Monument, a 17th-century fort that protected Spanish, British, and American soldiers--in that order. As Owen naps, Will and I search for irates and then play hide-and-seek at Project SWING Park, a world-class playground. The slides, bridges, and stairs are so intricate that I worry about not being able to find him.
In the early evening, we all walk along St. George Street, lined by 18th-century buildings now home to bars, ice-cream parlors, restaurants, and souvenir shops. There are scores of T-shirts using the wordbootyin creative ways. Jessica and I consciously avoid pointing out the creepy figure staring out from the Oldest Wooden Schoolhouse, a small museum that, thankfully, is closed.
- St. George Inn4 St. George St., St. Augustine, 888/827-5740, stgeorge-inn.com, from $109
- Cap's on the Water4325 Myrtle St., Vilano Beach, 904/824-8794, capsonthewater.com, fish sandwich $9
- Fountain of Youth 11 Magnolia Ave., St. Augustine, 800/356-8222, fountainofyouthflorida.com, $7, $4 kids
- St. Augustine Alligator Farm999 Anastasia Blvd., 904/824-3337, alligatorfarm.com, $20, $11 kids
- Castillo de San MarcosSt. Augustine, 904/829-6506, nps.gov/casa, $6, kids free
"Have you seen any ghosts yet?" a man sweeping across from our hotel asks Will. Jessica quickly says that the man is just being silly. "Oh, no," responds the man, who clearly either doesn't have kids or is a total sadist. "They're out there. You just have to keep your eyes open."
I jerk Will's hand and we continue on down St. George Street to eat breakfast at theBunnery Bakery & Café, which we'd passed--or, to be honest, drooled in front of--the day before. After eggs, pancakes, and French toast, I order a cinnamon roll to go, which comes with its own little container of icing.
Even though our children aren't old enough to take part in most of the interactive programs atMarineland, the park is worth a visit. At the dolphin preserve, we watch as grammar-school-age kids hold canvases over the pool and tell the trainers which color they'd like next. The dolphins, with brushes in their mouths, spin and nod to produce artwork that the kids can keep as a memento.
We drive through pouring rain alongside the seemingly never-ending stretch of grandstands of the Daytona International Speedway before pulling up to theDaytona 500 Experience, an exhibit dedicated to auto racing. Will's shouts of "Wow!" and "Lookit!" draw stares from a family reverently viewing a Daytona 500 highlight reel. Our admission includes a 3-D IMAX movie, and it's a great--if rather loud--spectacle. Will, in goofy 3-D glasses, gropes the air in a fruitless attempt to touch the driver hovering in front of him. I come away with a deep respect for pit crews.
After a few nights of the whole family's sharing a room, Jessica and I are ready for our two-bedroom condo atAtlantic Plazain New Smyrna Beach, a low-key town south of Daytona. We head directly to the beach. The waves are nice and small, and the water remains shallow hundreds of feet from the shoreline.
- Atlantic Plaza425 S. Atlantic Ave., New Smyrna Beach, 386/427-4636, atlanticplaza.net, from $100
- Bunnery Bakery121 St. George St., St. Augustine, 904/829-6166
- Marineland9600 Ocean Shore Blvd., St. Augustine, 904/471-1111, marineland.net, $5, programs from $65
- Daytona 500 Experience386/947-6800, daytonausa.com, $24, kids $19
As we drive down Route 1, lovebugs--so called because they fly in pairs--fill the sky, sounding like hail as they splatter on the windshield. Every car atJohn F. Kennedy Space Centerhas a five o'clock shadow of lovebug guts on its grille.
I figured that since the Center charges for kids 3 and up, there'll be stuff for Will to do. But we make it through only 10 minutes of an IMAX movie, and checking out the shuttleExplorerdoesn't take long. No way can we deal with a two-hour bus tour.
The new Shuttle Launch Experience is off-limits to kids under four feet tall, but it's included in my admission, so I decide to give it a go. After a former astronaut on a video screen preps riders with astro-jargon, the ride turns us on our backs and I feel a pressure on my cheeks reminiscent of being on a roller coaster. The launch ends with a peaceful view of the earth.
Will, Owen, and I pose for a photo with our heads poking through a cutout that makes us look like astronauts, and then we walk toward the Rocket Garden, where real rockets are standing upright. Will has been completely jazzed about the rockets from the moment he spied them. But first, we make an important detour: There's a fantastic playground on the way.
- Kennedy Space Center321/449-4444, kennedyspacecenter.com