If you’ve lived in Florida long enough, you know it doesn’t take much driving to hit a beach, we have three of the most extraordinary national parks in the system, walking in the steps of a Spanish conquistador or surrealist is equally accessible and just a few hours is all you need to get to “The Most Magical Place on Earth.” We are truly spoiled for choice…which is why we sometimes crave something different. The rest of the world may be just a flight away, but when a vacation abroad isn’t logistically — or financially — possible, this is the kind of place that eternally renews itself, where the familiar can easily morph into the wonderfully new.
Going to theme parks is a Floridian rite of passage. Whether we go as eager kids, reluctant teens or giddy adults, you’d be hard pressed to find a single one of us that hasn’t been to at least one park, at least once. It’s a testament to our good fortune that heading to Orlando — where most of the bigger parks are concentrated — is often considered an inexpensive alternative to a trip elsewhere. Plus, the parks are high on nearly any family’s to-do list, and Walt Disney World, in particular, remains one of the most popular destinations on the planet.
So what do you do if you’ve been there, done that, but are still hankering for a little magic of the wholesome variety? Disney has made it simple by combining your conventional theme park experience with another of Florida’s wildly popular travel offerings: the cruise.
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Step aboard any of Disney Cruise Line’s lavish ships, and you are immediately struck by the sophistication. A nod to early-20th-century design invokes the golden age of ocean travel. Steering away from the overly cutesy, the whole fleet is downright stylish. From the awe-inspiring 13-foot Art Deco-style chandelier hanging from the lobby atrium — which boasts a total of 88,680 Swarovski crystal beads — to the luxuriously leisurely ambience, this isn’t your standard theme park adventure. Still, it’s Disney, so it never feels inaccessible. They have seamlessly combined child-friendly with elegant, making the atmosphere at once refreshingly stylish, welcoming and playful.
The basic three-day trip to the Bahamas offers a quick getaway and an easy introduction to the Disney Cruise Line experience. Sailing from Port Canaveral, the ship makes stops in Nassau and Disney’s private island, Castaway Cay. But if you’re sold on the idea, other more exotic options include Alaska, the Mediterrenean and a transatlantic cruise.
While family entertainment is the big draw, an unexpected treat is the wealth of adults-only spaces. During the day, adults can retreat to the adults-only Quiet Cove or Satellite Falls pools. Cove Café services these areas, so you can easily get a coffee or cocktail without having to leave your lounger.
Senses Spa & Salon is the full-service pampering center. It features everything from trainer-led classes, such as the Body Sculpt Boot Camp or Pure Form Pilates, to holistic therapies. As with many spas, booking a treatment means you get access to the facilities for the rest of the day. At night, an array of bars and lounges that includes everything from Pink: Wine and Champagne Bar and Pub 687 to the urban-hip Skyline offer yet another enclave for the 18+ crowd.
And then there are the dining options. Nine themed venues serve up varied fare that is not just several notches above park grub, it’s included in your ticket (take that park experience!). The two specialty adults-only concepts, Rémy and Palo, are unexpectedly outstanding.
Rémy is the Ratatouille-inspired French restaurant with menus created by Chef Arnaud Lallement of Michelin three-star restaurant L'Assiette Champenoise and Chef Scott Hunnel of Victoria & Albert’s — an award-winning Walt Disney World Resort restaurant. It offers some of the finest dining out at sea.
Palo is slightly more casual — no jacket required — but also offers an upscale setting. It specializes in exceptional Northern Italian dishes. Both restaurants are located on the topmost aft deck, offering sweeping ocean views from virtually any table.
Most of the staterooms offer magnificent views, too. More than 80 percent of the cabins feature either ocean views or verandas. The playful Disney-themed accents take a backseat to the natural views. In fact, other than the ubiquitous silhouette of Mickey’s profile, finding the cleverly incorporated character-themed design details becomes something of an Easter-egg search.
Vast areas of the ship are understandably devoted to children’s activities, but the AquaDuck — a 765-foot-long water coaster that funnels riders up, down, around and over the side of the ship — is fun for all ages, and the Buena Vista Theater offers large-scale, Broadway-style productions, as well as current movies.
With everything there is to do on the ship itself, getting off at the port is an option you might not take.
Another quintessentially Floridian experience is taking a trip down to the Keys. And while you could easily throw on your most comfortable shorts and flip-flops and head to one of the many storied bars that abound throughout the island chain, there is a more stylish approach to the Keys, too. You can trace the footsteps of Ernest Hemingway and Tennessee Williams and also treat yourself to fine dining and a decadent spa retreat.
Located right in the heart of Old Key West, the legendary property that is now La Concha Key West has been inspiring guests since it opened its doors in 1926. Recently updated with tropical, Colonial architecture accented by peacock-colored ceilings and dark wood plantation shutters and furnishings, the celebrated landmark has become decidedly more chic without losing its sense of place.
Step out onto Duval Street, which offers a hearty dose of what the island is about. Popular sites like the Ernest Hemingway Home & Museum or the Key West Aquarium are just a walk away. But creativity abounds in places like the Key West Contemporary Art Gallery. If you want to visit one of the more unusual Florida gems, hop on a ferry or a sea plane to the Dry Tortugas National Park, where Fort Jefferson has been fully restored.
Then head back to La Concha for one of the island’s premier culinary experiences at 430 Duval. The sophisticated restaurant located in the grand lobby of the hotel brings a city-chic vibe to Key West with a menu of enticing island-inspired small plates.
If you want a few drinks and some interaction with locals, walk over to Bourbon St. Pub, which is always a riot. But if you’re an oenophile, Wine-O, the wine bar at the hotel features a wine shop, tasting room and lounge. It’s well stocked with a carefully curated collection of international wines.
Farther north, a few other properties have also leveled up their island vibe, making a chic Keys getaway less of an anachronism. Take Islamorada, commonly known as the Sport Fishing Capital of the World. Its laid-back style and wide offering of water adventures — beyond fishing — have made it an increasingly popular Keys destination. It is now home to the elegantly understated Amara Cay Resort. Resting along the Atlantic Ocean, its lush lawns and palm-peppered landscaping complement graceful views. Like the island, the resort is a place of pure relaxation, inviting guests to curate their own non-scripted journey, whether that involves lounging in a hammock or diving in a nearby reef.
On Holiday Isle in Islamorada, the oceanfront Postcard Inn Beach Resort & Marina is an iconic Florida Keys escape. The recently renovated resort offers retro accommodations that harken back to a classic Florida beach vacation. Four dining options, including the legendary Holiday Isle Tiki Bar — an iconic Keys stop made famous for its creation of the original Rum Runner cocktail in 1972 — and Ciao Hound Italian Kitchen & Bar, offer inspired dining options that stay true to the setting. With its myriad water activities — including inshore and offshore fishing, non-motorized water sports, boat slips, beachside games and pool diversions — guests are treated to a destination within a destination.