Travelogue: Southern Road Trip – Part 1 (Florida)

Since my husband started a new job with parental leave last fall, we decided to postpone a “babymoon” until¬†after our newest addition’s birth so that we could avoid taking vacation so soon after his start date, as well as taking advantage of flexibility in travel dates because we weren’t bound to weekends or holidays. We wanted a domestic trip, preferably seeing his family along the way (they’re spread out throughout the South), and to see some new sights, while visiting old favorite destinations. I planned the trip in small increments over my pregnancy, guessing at things that might be doable with a small family and a newborn.

Born March 14 at 9 lbs 1 oz, we literally booked James’ first flight from the hospital. I follow a policy of booking cancellable accommodations way ahead of time, but waiting to book flights until closer to our trip in case anything goes wrong. Yes, I could probably buy travel insurance for this, but it doesn’t cover everything, and having a baby would definitely be a pre-existing condition, so we waited to make sure he was healthy before buying flights.

On to the travelogue!

Days 1-4: St. Petersburg, FL

We flew from Seattle into the Tampa airport to spend the first part of our trip on a mini family reunion with Peter’s family in St. Pete. James slept basically the whole flight – whoo hoo! One of the many advantages to starting off the trip near family is that we had a locals’ perspective on where to go. After a long flight and a day that started at 2:30 a.m., we were so excited to just be told where to go and what to do. After checking into our 2 bedroom condo at Westwinds Waterfront Resort, we met everyone at Green Bench Brewery in St. Pete and ordered Cuban food from Bodega on Central, which is basically across the street. The family-friendly brewery had tons of space for the kids to run around on an artificial turf, Adirondack chairs for us all to sit on and mill about, and the food from Bodega was perfect for a variety of family members’ food preferences and dietary restrictions. We meant to call it an early night, but we were having so much fun that we went to bed at a normal East Coast time.

We woke up leisurely the next morning and made our way to the beach to stick our toes in the soft white sand and clear water. Our resort (which felt like a great mix of nicely renovated, but still like staying with family in a small apartment complex) had beach toys, umbrellas, and beach towels to borrow, so we didn’t have to worry about schlepping any of those things with us on the plane. After beach time, we met everyone for lunch at Rumfish Grill. The restaurant is a little on the pricier side, but the setting was perfect to celebrate Peter’s aunt’s 90th birthday (and James’ birth!). We feasted on grouper while the kids were entertained by the huge fish tank we sat next to (there’s also a small area just outside the restaurant where you can view the tank without eating there).

RumFish Tank
Admiring the fish at RumFish Grill

We spent the rest of the day enjoying family time at Peter’s cousin’s adorable beach bungalow, which was walking distance to the beach (and they had stand up paddle boards and a small catamaran).

On our 3rd day, many of the people in town had already left to go home, so we visited the Dali Museum with Peter’s parents. The space is beautiful, but it’s one of the least child-friendly museums I’ve been in (and it’s relatively expensive, so isn’t somewhere I’d want to go and bail if the going got too rough). Despite looking like a really large museum, the art is very closely spaced and there are some massive pieces that really need space to view properly, plus it’s extremely quiet, so having energetic kids running around would have been challenging. Luckily, Julia and James decided it was time to nap, so we were able to follow a free docent tour around for a bit until one of them woke up.

For the last full day in St. Pete, we went to the beach in the morning (right across from our hotel, which made it easy) and then made our way to the Saturday Morning Market. We were there towards the end of the market time, so things were cooling down, but we got some great Ethiopian food (all vegetarian options and really tasty) and frozen lemonade, as well as some cherry tomatoes to take on our trip the next day. We walked leisurely through downtown St. Pete while the kids napped and then met up with the local portion of the family for dinner at 400 Beach. The kids’ menu was surprisingly good (real fish and veggies rather than frozen fish sticks) and we were able to sit outside in the shade with a little curb space behind us where the cousins could play. Plus, there’s a big green space across the street where they ran off post-dinner steam, so it was a great end to the St. Pete portion of our trip.

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James dipping his toes into the clear water of St. Pete Beach


Day 5: Crystal River, FL

When we first started planning the road trip, I asked my mother-in-law for suggestions on possible destinations between St. Pete and Thomasville, GA (where Peter is from) and she checked with her friends. One of them recommended Crystal River and it was a great destination for us. On our drive from St. Pete, we stopped for lunch at Rusty Bellies in Tarpon Springs (a town where Greek immigrants used to dive for sea sponges) and then made our way to the Plantation on Crystal River. Prior to our trip, I optimistically envisioned us taking an early morning Swim with Manatees tour with the on-site Adventure Center. However, when Julia decided this was the year to just cling to us during swim lessons, and James was, well, a typical newborn, we decided the afternoon scenic river cruise was a much better choice for our little family. At $15/person ($10 for kids; they didn’t count James), it was also significantly less expensive. The cruise wasn’t anything to put on our top 10 best ever travel experiences, but it was shaded and peaceful and we saw 5 manatees from the boat, as well as some osprey nests and a nice view of the river. In short, a great little afternoon activity.

Mom & baby manatee having a snack

After our tour, we checked in and spent some time in the outdoor pool. This was the highlight of the day – there’s a bar right next to the pool, as well as lounge chairs and some pool toys (e.g., pool noodles), so all of us enjoyed relaxing and splashing around. The pool vibe was family-friendly – no one was extremely rowdy, but they all seemed to expect “family noise.” I’m willing to call it a win anytime I can hold a sleeping baby on my chest with a strawberry daiquiri in my hand.

We went for dinner at one of the better rated restaurants nearby (Seafood Seller & Cafe), but the food was just alright. In hindsight, I would have eaten at the hotel restaurant and just enjoyed more pool time. We returned to the hotel a little before sunset, so we took advantage of the lawn games (corn hole and giant chess) before heading up to bed.

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Enjoying the lawn games before bedtime

The next morning, we checked out on the early side to pick up snacks for the day and then headed towards Manatee Springs, where we had visited with Julia nearly 3 years ago. This little gem of a state park has a campground, a playground, clean restrooms, and springs you can walk around. We’ve never seen manatees, but there are turtles, snakes (they didn’t approach us, don’t worry), sturgeon, and we even saw a gator and an armadillo on our last trip. There’s a beautiful boardwalk through the springs area that’s a perfect length for a toddler to run down with a mostly covered pier at the end. It’s made a great stop between Florida and Georgia for us on two road trips now. We wrapped up our visit to the park and headed north to Thomasville, GA to see Peter’s parents.

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Watching for turtles in the clear water of Manatee Springs State Park

Florida highlights: