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Northeast Florida is filled with hotel retreats, family fun

Staff Contributor

The wind was picking up as the sun was going down. I was grateful that we brought jackets for this sunset cruise. In hindsight, I found it hard to believe that my wife, daughter and I needed such gear on an 84-degree day. After all, this was St. Augustine, Fla., where the sun always seems to shine.

But when it disappears on the palm tree-laden horizon, that warmth dissipates. The breeze that greeted us on the 72-foot cruise boat felt good, but after a half hour, more attire was required, so we put on the sweatshirts.

The two-hour Schooner Freedom cruise was our introduction to St. Augustine. Viewing the Spanish architecture set against the sun set us off on the right foot for our journey through northeast Florida.

My 8-year-old daughter Caitlin, myself and several others assisted the crew in hoisting the ship's heavy sails once we got farther away from shore. After our workout, we were treated to spectacular views of the Matanzas Bay as we nibbled on snacks and sipped wine. At times the water got choppy, but for someone like me, who gets seasick, this journey was no problem. Perhaps the wine helped.

After the cruise, we found our way into St. Augustine's historic district. This community is dedicated to preserving the Spanish architecture in its churches, storefronts and even hotels, such as the Casa Monica, where we stayed for this trip. The Casa Monica Hotel is a restored, centrally located historic structure. A grand lobby, beautifully appointed rooms, a heated pool and a modern computer facility are just a few of the hotel's amenities.

The Casa Monica's star attraction is 95 Cordova, a 164-seat restaurant. The food at this eatery can be described as New World eclectic cuisine. The restaurant's signature dishes include mouthwatering lump crab cakes, and even children give their pizza rave reviews.

St. Augustine has scores of restaurants that offer just about any type of food. Locals say the standout among the crowd is Harry's Seafood Restaurant. The eatery's patio is a spectacle, with fun patrons, an energetic wait staff, live acoustic music and of course, the food. Some of Harry's signature dishes include seafood eggplant pirogue and fresh catches like mahi-mahi. For libations, Harry's Rajun Cajun and Hurricane drinks bring Bourbon Street to Florida.

After eating and shopping, we caught a ghost tour, which started at the town's Spanish Military Hospital Museum. Dubbed "A Ghostly Encounter," the tour takes guests through the city's landmarks. Our guide stayed in character as he told us haunted tales of the country's oldest city.

We later hopped aboard the city's Old Time Trolley, which whisked us to the Fountain of Youth. After I dared to taste the fountain's somewhat nasty waters (in my opinion), Caitlin had a blast feeding the property's birds.

Since we devoted the day to children's attractions, we needed balance. Our next stop was a visit to the San Sebastian Winery. After an extensive tour of the facility, we participated in a wine tasting. Caitlin observed from a few feet back.

Picturesque Ponte Vedra

After all that walking in St. Augustine, we decided to take it easy with a visit to the Sawgrass Marriott Resort and Spa in nearby Ponte Vedra. The parent company gave this 20-year-old property a facelift that has paid off. Aside from refurbished rooms, guests are presented with a choice of activities. Swimming, biking, golfing, putt putt and more are offered. Guests who want to take it easy may check into its premier spa.

The kid-friendly options are plentiful at Sawgrass. Caitlin took advantage of their Grasshopper Gang program, a camp for kids ages 5-12.

"The best part was swimming and collecting shells," she recalled. When we went to pick her up, it was tough to tear her away from their outdoor pingpong table.

Spoil yourself

With Sawgrass in the rearview mirror, we headed north to Amelia Island, where there are excellent lodging options. If you are ready to splurge for first-rate service and top-quality food, then check into the Ritz-Carlton, Amelia Island.

Lately, the Ritz has much to boast about with its high-end spa and new restaurant, Salt. Salt has earned rave reviews for its mouthwatering dishes such as salmon with fried kale, and halibut with fava beans. Top that off with a creme brulee or a chocolate souffle and you're in heaven. Breathtaking ocean views and impeccable service heighten the experience.

If you think this resort is "too ritzy" for kids, think again. There are almost as many kids on the property as there are well-dressed staff.

"Over the years our customers have changed," said Farley Kern, Director of Public Relations. "They travel more and are more casual."

At the Ritz Kids camp, kids make cookies and create artwork. Even if you opt out of the half or full-day camps, kids are never bored. From S'more-making on the beach to its pools, this resort caters to the little ones. An easy drive

The trip to northeast Florida is nowhere near as painful as getting to other popular destinations in the state. Most of the drive is interstates. If you are traveling with young ones in the car, this is good news.

My neighbors urged me to come to northeast Florida for years. I resisted. The last place I wanted to go was another overdeveloped Sunshine State strip. After coming here, they proved me wrong. I fell in love with this place.

More info

•Casa Monica Hotel

www.casamonica.com

•Sawgrass Marriott Resort and Spa

www.sawgrassmarriott.com

•Ritz-Carlton, Amelia Island

www.ritzcarlton.com/en/Properties/AmeliaIsland/

Did you know?

•The Casa Monica Hotel opened in 1888. The opening room rates were $3 a night.

•After lying dormant from the 1930s to the '60s and operating as the county's courthouse, the Casa Monica reopened in December 1999.

•The Spa at the Sawgrass Resort offers Bindi and Shirodhara treatments, customized East Indian-inspired body massage.

•The Ritz-Carlton's Salt restaurant is presided over by renowned chef Jordi Valles, a native of Barcelona.

•Guests of the Ritz-Carlton may upgrade to club-level room access, which provides scrumptious food throughout the day.

Sources: The Casa Monica Hotel, Sawgrass Resort and Spa, the Ritz-Carlton, Amelia Island