“Isn’t that just so nice?” The woman’s upbeat voice pulled my attention away from my Kobo.
Smiling over at me while she and her husband took their seats at a table across the way, she motioned to where I was sitting by myself on the restaurant patio, lunch placed in front of me with my e-reader in hand and the view of the ocean to my right. “Being by yourself and all, getting to take some time to read and be uninterrupted.”
I smiled back at her, “It was a bit weird at first, actually, but I’ve come to like it.” I took a sip of my drink — a delicious signature, rum-based concoction my waitress recommended — as she winked at me, hiding her face from her husband, “Oh trust me, you’ll learn to love it. I do it all the time.”
That weekend, I had taken a trip to Fort Myers, Florida by myself, for work. Within a day’s time, I was (to my surprise) feeling more present than I had in ages. With my phone tucked away in my bag, I couldn’t have been more content to sit by myself, catch up on some reading and appreciate the ocean scenery and the (especially) hot weather that I had been deprived of in Toronto this summer. Not to mention, the trip came while I was in the middle of yet another apartment move, and there was no denying that I had been wearing my stress and anxiety for weeks. I needed to unplug and reset now more than ever, so what better place to do it than on a beach surrounded by those signature Florida palm trees?
It’s easy to assume that Florida is a vacation destination reserved for the Baby Boomer generation, content to fill their days with consistent sunshine and rounds of golf by the beach. This isn’t a fair stereotype though, when you consider the widely sought after party scene that is Miami, the white sand beaches of Fort Myers and the (now MTV famous) luxury that exists within Siesta Key. After a few delayed flights and a night of much too little sleep, sinking my feet into the sand surrounding the Pink Shell Resort couldn’t have been any more welcome of a feeling. My eyes scanned across the families and couples soaking up the last of that day’s sunshine, taking advantage of the off-season calm that had seemingly settled over the resort. Not too peaceful, but just peaceful enough. It felt like a much needed paradise.
My room faced onto the ocean, a villa layout that was almost obnoxiously big for a single occupant like myself. The covered deck gave me direct access to the sound of waves crashing onto the beach as the nightly summer storm began to materialize in the sky. Perched at the table, I poured myself a glass of wine and watched the first streak of lightning shatter across the now-purple sky… “I could definitely get used to this”, I thought.
If there was one thing that immediately struck me about my weekend, it was the people. I grew up in the US (Dallas, specifically) so I’ve always been privy to the way in which Americans can get a bad rep in comparison to the Canadian crowd, often times assumed to be unfriendly or ignorant. And yet, over the course of 4 days, I found myself engrossed in conversation with my Uber drivers and strangers that quickly became friends, enthusiastically trading stories about our lives, what we do for work, the Florida landscape and real estate market… you name it. Their inherent warmth and willingness to make me feel welcome was honestly beyond compare. “I think I might ask my wife if we can adopt you” called out an elderly Uber driver, grinning at me as he dropped me off at Lovers Key State Park early Saturday morning, for my kayak tour.
Not only that, but my last night there I was quite literally stranded 45 minutes away from my hotel on Captiva Island (apparently Ubers will drop you off there, but not pick you up). Lucky for me, after bonding with some locals and the bartender at a beloved watering hole on the beach called Mucky Duck (known for the best sunset view on Captiva Island) over a few IPA’s and some fresh calamari, one of them even insisted on driving me all the way back to where I was staying. If that isn’t Southern Hospitality at it’s finest, I don’t know what is.
People/Uber Driver Experience: 10/10
As aforementioned, I grew up in the unforgiving heat of Dallas and even vacationed in Bali, Indonesia last year — so heat isn’t exactly foreign to me. But after wandering Lover’s Key State Park for over an hour and 5 kilometres (I am lost more often than I’m not) and finally stumbling upon the kayak launch, I knew I was in for an unforgiving day of heat and sunshine on the clear, open water of Lovers Key. My guide motioned to my kayak bobbing on the shore before loading his Beagle pup onto a paddle board with him, instantly earning extra points in my mind for bringing along our four legged companion. And I might be a trainer, but there’s something to be said about the (admittedly intense) ab workout that a few hours of kayaking in Florida provides, while gliding past mangroves and, perhaps even, the occasional crocodile. Talk about a workout upgrade.
Kayak Tour: 8.5/10
By the time my sunburn set in and I had been told the extensive, Pirate-rich history of Lover’s Key (yes, Pirates are a very real concept in Florida) while spotting some manatees and snow crabs, I was exhausted and ready for some food.
Following recommendations from my itinerary, I wandered over to Flipper’s on the Bay, a local favourite known for their fresh seafood. I ordered some blackened mahi mahi tacos and one of their signature, tropical cocktails before settling into my seat to take in what turned out to be a perfect day on the water.
I quickly learned that Florida is a hot-spot destination for those with a penchant for fishing or shelling, as I watched countless locals and tourists spill out across beaches each day to try their luck. And if you’re like me and harbour a secret, unhealthy obsession with HGTV House Hunter type shows, Florida also has plenty to gawk at in the real estate department. Each day, we seemingly drove past an even more impressive stretch of vacation homes (and by homes, I mean less-than-modest mansions) as I found myself wondering who might live there and if they, too, would care to adopt me. Florida also has incredible Key Lime pie, a very worthwhile reason my diet took a major hit over the course of 3 days (totally worth it). Calories don’t count on vacation, right?
House Watching (Gawking) and Key Lime Pie: 10/10
Following my full day of kayaking, State Park exploration, sunshine and food, I was treated to a spa experience at the Hyatt Regency Coconut. Nursing my sunburn in the relaxation pool within the spa, I was soon retrieved by my masseuse. “Where do you hold your tension?” She asked me, smiling warmly. “Well, I’m a kickboxing coach, so my upper back is always tightly wound.” Whatever she did for the next 45 minutes felt absolutely magical (I’m pretty sure I might have blacked out in a state of complete relaxation) and I essentially glided out of the Hyatt feeling like a brand new woman.
Hyatt Spa Experience: 9/10
Next on my itinerary was a full-day tour of Cabbage Key, requiring me to board a spacious ferry with a handful of other tourists and cut across the water to the history-rich, Gulf Coast island. Aside from spotting dolphins criss-crossing through the wake of the boat, the scenery was gorgeous — featuring a seemingly endless landscape of shallow, blue water, sprawling homes and vibrant greenery lining the shore. The island itself was incredibly small, boasting just one hundred acres of tropical vegetation, along with a historic restaurant, inn and rental cottages. Cabbage Key has no cars or even so much as a paved road, instead offering it’s guests a series of winding trails, various animals and a small, eclectic group of people who live and work on the island. Once we climbed off the ferry, we were free to explore as we pleased before making our way to the restaurant for lunch.
The open-air Cabbage Key restaurant and Inn has an especially interesting story, it’s walls covered (literally every available inch of them) with signed dollar bills. This was a tradition borne from local fisherman, who would tape a dollar bill to the wall following good days on the water, to be saved for another night when they might be tight on cash (due to having a much less stellar day of fishing). Now, the tradition has been passed on to hoards of tourists who make a point of coming to the “restaurant with all the money taped to the wall” and the place rumoured to have been the inspiration for Jimmy Buffet’s “Cheeseburger in Paradise”. And I can, in fact, confirm that the cheeseburger is the best on the island (because, well, it’s the only one).
Cabbage Key Tour: 8.5/10
By the time my weekend getaway came to a close, I was entirely relaxed, rejuvenated, tanned (just kidding – I was definitely burnt) and admittedly sad to leave the white sand beaches and charming Florida locals that had been so good to me the previous 3 days. And any previous notion I might have held about Florida’s vacation potential being limited to the over 50 crowd, was totally squashed.
I will definitely be back (and sooner, rather than later).