Our top picks and tips for a Florida winter escape
If you’re seeking respite from Old Man Winter you may find your Leisure Travel Van pointing its nose toward Florida, with good reason. Lots of sunshine, pristine beaches, and challenging golf courses. Plus, fresh local seafood and saltwater fishing are just some of the reasons why people choose The Sunshine State as their winter destination.
Bill and I have traveled to Florida for the past four winters, each year refining our choices on where to stay, eat and play. We quickly learned a few lessons on how to plan a winter trip here, too. We’ll share some of our tips, as well as a few little-known facts and some of our favorite spots (such as Oscar Scherer State Park campground pictured above) to go.
For us, it’s all about the Gulf Coast, and most of the places we stay are located along Tamiami Trail (US 41). Yup, we’ve stayed in the Keys and several cities along the Atlantic, including Hollywood Beach, Sebastian Inlet, and St. Augustine. All those places are fine, but for us, we prefer the Gulf.
So, here’s our “Best of” list of campgrounds, beaches, eateries and more.
Lovers is My Key
Campground: We’ve found there’s no reason to stay any farther south than Koreshan State Park, north of Naples near Estero. Drive any more south to a state park on the mainland and you risk registering “run” on the mosquito meter that’s at the entrance to Collier-Seminole State Park, near Naples.
Campsites at Koreshan are nestled among the palms and palmettos, offering shade and privacy. The bathrooms are a little dated, but functional, and have laundry facilities as well. This past winter, we happened to be there during the park’s annual car and craft show, which also featured a small farmer’s market.
Coffee with the hosts on Saturday brought us a pleasant exchange with other RVers on why we chose Leisure, as well as tips on places to go as we head north. And if you like to paddle, bring your kayak – or rent one at the park. The Estero River provides a gentle, scenic trip.
A visit to the historic Koreshan Unity Settlement explains this failed cult and their belief in cellular cosmogony, or the hollow earth.
Best Day Trip: From Koreshan, it’s about 11 miles to Lovers Key State Park, home to one of our favorite beaches in Florida. The four barrier islands that make up this park provide a haven for wildlife, including West Indian manatees, bottlenose dolphins, osprey and bald eagles. RV parking is convenient in their big overflow lot. Concession stands offer food and kayak tours and also rent bicycles, canoes, kayaks, paddleboards, beach chairs, and umbrellas.
From the parking lot, walk or take the tram to the two-mile-long beach; from there, walk north along the shore to discover the shell-decorated tree stump, ospreys nesting, and shorebirds. Bring a bag if you like to collect shells. If you go a second time, walk south along the beach to get a different view.
Driving Tip: Avoid the traffic jams in Fort Myers Beach by taking US 41 south from Koreshan State Park, then west on Bonita Beach Road to the coast and then north to Lover’s Key. If you travel with a dog, your pooch might want to visit the dog beach south of the Lovers Key entrance instead.
Best Seafood Market: Skip One Seafoods, along with US 41, doesn’t look fancy, but it has the goods, as in fresh, local seafood. We picked up stone crab claws (in season) and a piece of red snapper to cook later. In addition to their market, they also have a small restaurant, which typically is packed.
Cape Coral/Fort Myers
Campground: Once we start to head north from Koreshan State Park, we like to stay a few days at Tamiami RV Resort on US 41. It usually has a few nights open if we call a week or two in advance, and it’s a convenient spot for us to stay when visiting friends in Cape Coral. The campsites are tight and there is not a lot of shade here, but kitschy decorations, like flamingo-themed campsites and lots of home-state pride, prevail here among this clean, well-kept, private campground with daily trash pickup. Most folks hang out at one of the pools in the afternoon, and potlucks, campfires, and pancake breakfasts bring this small community together. Statues honor veterans from Canada and the U.S. With our Good Sam card, our site was less than $30 per night, an unbelievable deal for a nice campground in Florida.
Day Trip: Head for Matlacha, west of the Cape Coral/Fort Myers area on Pine Island Road. Pronounced “Matt-LaShay”, this Seminole name is reputed to mean “big warrior, junior warrior or knee-deep water.” It’s a fishing town, a shopping town, but most of all, it’s a small town, population just over 700, with whimsical, brightly painted homes and shops flanking the main street. Park at the Matlacha County Park where it’s an easy walk to visit a few shops. Lunch at the Blue Dog Bar & Grill, sample their crab cakes and other delights, and then walk across the street to Barnhill Seafood Market for their fresh catch for dinner, along with Karen’s Key Lime Pie, made locally. YUM!
Day Trip: Plan to spend the day at the Edison & Ford Winter Estates in Fort Myers, where 20 acres of historic buildings, historic gardens, the Edison Botanic Research Lab and the Edison Ford Museum will open your eyes to hundreds of inventions, artifacts, special exhibits, and the award-winning Moonlight Garden. Picturesque banyan trees and tree-lined walkways give a glimpse into the winter estates for these two inventors who were winter neighbors.
Best Seafood Restaurant: If you don’t mind nixing a waterfront venue for some really great seafood, try Lobster Lady Seafood Market and Bistro, nestled in a shopping area on Cape Coral Parkway West. Reservations are recommended at this popular restaurant, where waits up to an hour or two are not unusual during peak season and peak times. We go there for lunch instead. A glass case filled with lobster, clams, mussels, fish and more will tease you with what’s about to be served; bring a cooler so you can also buy some fresh, local fish to cook later.
Campground: Continuing north along US 41, our next stop is Oscar Scherer State Park, near Osprey (Our campsite is featured in the top photo). By now, we are ready to park Lucky Us to settle in for a week or two while we ride our bicycles on the Legacy Trail, a 10.7-mile paved route linking Venice and Sarasota, with plans for expansion into downtown Sarasota.
Bicycle to the trail from the campground, and then travel north toward Sarasota or south to Venice. It’s an easy-to-pedal asphalt trail with one steep slope, encountered when you head south and traverse the US 41 overpass. We prefer the southern route, as it passes by more water, including Dona Bay and the Intracoastal Waterway near Venice. Look down from the Dona Bay bridge to see oysters, and maybe even a passing manatee. If you’re not up for cycling, the Friends of the Legacy Trail Surry is available, free, for a 45-minute guided tour along the trail. In 2018, it ran Tuesdays and Wednesdays, January through March.
Best Eats: Casey Key Fish House, 801 Blackburn Point Road, Osprey. This “Old Florida” waterfront restaurant offers a casual atmosphere where dogs are welcome to sit with their owners. Novelist Stephen King frequents this eatery, although we have yet to spot him. Grab a beer, crab cakes or a grouper sandwich at this moderately priced venue, as you watch boat docking and pelicans hoping for a morsel or two.
King’s Key: King lives on Casey Key, just a short drive from the Fish House. To almost see where he lives, continue west on Blackburn Road from the restaurant to Casey Key, then turn north and drive to the end of the road. He lives in the last house on the right, but plenty of “do not enter” signs will warn you to go no further. Heed the warning.
Sweet Treat: Nokomis Groves sells everything citrus – valencia and honeybell oranges, ruby red grapefruits, jellies, candies and some of the best, freshest orange juice I’ve tasted. You can order up to three flavors of soft serve ice cream in your cone, choosing from orange, lime, vanilla, and chocolate. Try the lime, my favorite. The store is open November – mid-April, but the ice cream cones are sold year round.
Campground: If you want to stay on the ocean on the Gulf, about the only place to camp is Turtle Beach Campground on Siesta Key. With a trolley running daily, once you park your rig, you can get just about anywhere on this Key. Their 39 campsites are pretty tight (they call it “intimate”), but if you want to walk to the ocean, during the day or for sunset conch shell blowing, this is the place.
Day Trip: Siesta Key Beach. Take the trolley to spend the day on the powdered-sugar soft sand, always cool on your feet. Rated the #1 Beach in America, plan for big crowds on hot, sunny days. If you drive there, arrive early to get a spot in their large, open parking lot.
Fort De Soto Park
Campground: Fort De Soto Park, made up of five interconnected islands (keys), south of St. Petersburg, almost looks like a mangled hook on a map. The campground, on St. Christopher Key, has good-sized sites with plenty of trees and bushes for privacy. Many are located along the water. Don’t be surprised if you encounter a gecko or two in the bathrooms and herons and egrets along the shore.
Day Trip: Once we arrive at Fort De Soto, we don’t leave the park until the end of our stay. Run by Pinellas County, you’ll find the historic Fort De Soto at the heart of the park where the Gulf meets Tampa Bay. It’s just a few miles along the flat, paved bicycle trails from the campground to three miles of pristine beaches; several parking lots provide ample space to park your rig if you prefer to drive. We were surprised to discover that fishing licenses are not required if you fish from either of the two piers, where we saw anglers catching yellowtail snapper, grouper, and other saltwater fish. Frozen squid and live shrimp bait are sold at the concession stand on the piers.
Go Fish? Go Salty
Each year, we typically book a half- or three-quarter day group charter fishing boat. This winter, we chose a trip out of Sarasota, which gave us a beautiful day on the water, with stunning views of the shore, and even a Portuguese Man O’ War sighting. And, some 20 fish to bring back for dinner.
When You Go
Plan Ahead: Although you may luck out and grab a last-minute cancellation, we plan our trip one year in advance. Florida State Parks accept reservations 11 months in advance, and Fort De Soto, run by Pinellas County, accepts reservations six months in advance for non-residents. Turtle Beach, run by Sarasota County, accepts reservations 12 months in advance. Florida’s State Parks offer an entrance fee discount to Veterans. Even better, disabled Vets are eligible for a free entrance card.