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Weekending With The Kids: little known florida beaches
While Miami’s South Beach and chic Naples get most of the attention when it comes to Florida beaches, two golden strands on either side of the Sunshine State warrant consideration from family travelers.
Ponte Vedra Beach, located between Jacksonville and St. Augustine in Florida’s northeast corner, is a stretch of soft, packed sand that extends as far as the eye can see. No high-rises here, just a series of rambling beach homes occupied by seasonal as well as year-round residents. The Atlantic Ocean is a calming presence and prone to washing what seems like millions of tiny seashells ashore. Toss the frisbee, take a walk or simply revel in the uncrowded nature of this unspoiled beach. And then there’s swimming, a real treat: there are no rocks underfoot as you enter the surf, just smooth, swirling sand. A maybe 50-foot walk takes you to a sandbar and you can easily walk another 150 feet and still be touching bottom. It’s an ideal swimming beach for kids and, on a recent visit, we were greeted by a school of what seemed like a hundred thousand silvery mullet, shimmering in the sun as they frolicked atop the waves.
Think of this beach as a serene queen and golf as her king, seeing as how the area is home to the PGA Tour and The Players Championship. Golf courses abound and families will love the Renaissance World Golf Village Resort, a sunny yellow hostelry nestled alongside two world-class golf courses and close by the World Golf Hall of Fame. The Renaissance wisely offers guests passes to the Serenata Beach Club on Ponte Vedra Beach and you’ll soon make this home base. As the name suggests, the Serenata is a seaside melody. The cream-colored structure is smack on the Atlantic and at its heart is a meandering pool that sparkles under a cloudless sky. Tall palms at the perimeter surround a sea of bright white lounge chairs, and the daily calendar of activities promises something for parents and kids. When hunger strikes, a menu of casual bites and seasonal fare is sure to satisfy. The restaurant, located on the Club’s upper level and adjacent to an adults-only pool, is known for seafood and shines in dishes like a lemon-pepper-crusted mahi mahi dappled with grapefruit and avocado and served on Tuscan bread.
Back at the Renaissance, a soaring lobby is foil for discrete seating areas in primary colors. Glass-box elevators whisk you to a balconied room that overlooks golf, trees and green. Choose a king with sofa bed, a medley of blond woods accented in coral and gold and possessing grown-up comforts such as a wet bar and stall shower big enough for two. A pool-in-the-round is splash-tastic for kids and set next to a playground and ping-pong table. The resort’s fine dining table, Villagio, feels fresh thanks to hardwood floors and plentiful elbow room and the menu includes pastas and flatbreads sure to please and a tiramisu that cannot be missed. http://www.worldgolfrenaissance.com/
On Florida’s west coast and a short causeway ride from Tampa sits Clearwater Beach, whose white quartz sand is akin to extra-fine flour. It’s downy soft under your feet and equally smooth as you enter the water, which is blissfully devoid of rocks. The blue-green seas of the Gulf of Mexico are clear as a bell and no sooner have I remarked on this that our son, Steven, tells me, “of course it’s clear, mom, we’re on Clearwater Beach!” Erect palm trees line a curvy path along South Gulfview Boulevard that’s used by bikers, strollers and bladers, and the condos and hotels catering to visitors and residents are spaced apart and do not overwhelm. A steady breeze is a respite from the heat, and the festivities on Pier 60, a fanciful wooden dock, extend to sunset celebrations attended by sun-tanned revelers. We body surf then take a walk en famille at the water’s edge, where seashells bleached by the sun and waves sparkle.
The coral-colored confection that is the Hyatt Regency Clearwater Beach Resort & Spa lords over prime beach front. It’s a splendid home-away-from-home and we repair to the eighth-floor pool, a rectangle backed by rows of chairs comprising a water-view sun deck. Poolside snacks including a handmade guacamole and chips are washed down with raspberry mint lemonade, and if the seagulls overhead are shrieking, it’s because they’re happy – or jealous. The hotel, opened two years ago, still feels brand new. A one-bedroom suite comes in at 900 square feet and its creamy walls showcase colorful island prints. Furnishings are rich as evidenced by a green velour couch and chocolate-brown-leather coffee table while a fully-stocked kitchen sports granite counter tops and an ample desk that does double-duty as a dining table. You can also dine alfresco on a four-top on the roomy balcony accessed from the master bedroom, where high-thread-count sheets ensure pleasant dreams. Kids won’t complain, since they get a roomy sofa bed in their living/play room. Best of all, this suite comes with two full bathrooms – how sweet it is!
A meal at SHOR on the hotel’s second floor is sure to be memorable. Blues and greens bring in the sea in a high-ceilinged dining room where palm fronds are the motif on high-backed banquettes and dark brown lacquered tables shimmer under wrought-iron chandeliers. Think seafood at the SHOR and begin your meal with Raspberry Point oysters flown in from western Alaska. Pan-seared scallops topped with an orange salsa are Florida in every bite, and locally-caught black grouper astride a sweet potato pure and broccoli rabe melts in the mouth. Kids will love the restaurant’s take on fried calamari: a pile of meaty strips (look, mom, no tentacles!) served with a lemon and jalapeno cocktail sauce. SHOR saves the best for last: a strawberry shortcake composed of lemon-thyme pound cake, fresh strawberries and a light whipped cream. Wake up the next morning and pad over to The Beach Shanty Cafe, an old-time Florida spot where the breakfast special of eggs, potatoes and toast is only $3.99 and can be enjoyed outdoors mere steps from the salty sea. http://clearwaterbeach.hyatt.com
Elaine Labalme is a food and travel writer based in Pittsburgh, PA . When she's not busy as a domestic goddess she's out traveling with husband Fen and ten-year-old son Steven. She hopes to be the next Charles Kuralt.