Like most everyone else, we hadn’t traveled as a family for over a year. We were steeped with wanderlust and longing for our next adventure. So, as soon as we were vaccinated, I started to make plan.
But, a yearlong hiatus from traveling, a global pandemic, and enough stress and anxiety to last a lifetime had changed me. I was no longer footloose and fancy free, snagging the first flight to anywhere so long as it was a good deal.
I used to be up for anything.
Paris with a five-year-old with food allergies? Oui!
Rome in a heatwave so hot the gelato melted before it was passed over the counter? Ciao!
Iceland during an arctic windstorm so strong it'll blow your car door off? Halló!
London public transport with a pack-n-play, jogging stroller, and car seat in tow? Bloody fantastic!
Vacation Planning Paralysis
After a year out of the planes, trains, and automobile loop, I'd lost my carefree, my que sera sera, my cool.
Instead, I found myself in vacation planning paralysis.
Would a city be too busy?
Would the beach be bustling with bikinis and board shorts?
Would there actually be people?
On a plane?
No really, would there actually be people?
Living, breathing, people in 3D that I’d need to sit near? Stand beside? Talk to?!
I obsessed over the pros and cons of each option.
Hawaii? Too humid. Too tropical. Too far.
California? Too crowded. Too Covid-y.
Caribbean? Too risky. Too touristy.
Just before I closed my tabs, called it quits, and began to mourn the death of my cool, accepting the fact that I’d never travel again and start to say things like, “those were the good ol’ days,” I paused. I heard a call to a place that felt like home. I’d gone there every year growing up until I felt like I’d outgrown it, seen all there was to see. But something told me to look back, examine it from a different angle. Maybe those were the good ol’ days.
So there I was, finding my flatlining free-spirit in... Florida.
Indian Rocks Beach
First, though, I had to decide where in that gorgeous gator-filled state we would land.
Ft. Myers Beach? Been there a hundred times.
Miami? I’m not sure I’m allowed back.
Clearwater? I heard it was nice when the beer bonging spring breakers are gone.
Indian Rocks Beach? Now, wait just a second.
With a few clicks and a credit-card, we were on a flight to Tampa where we rented a car and drove the 30 miles over to Indian Rocks Beach, a quiet stretch of sand just south of Clearwater. To say it was the perfect location for a low-key beach retreat would be an understatement. The sand is sugary white and soft. The waves are gentle and the waters warm and shallow. And, with hardly any crowds (and not a high-rise hotel in sight!), we often felt like we had all that glorious shoreline to ourselves, and the stingrays and dolphins.
While the beach alone is enough to get you there, our accommodations would be enough to make you want to stay. Forever. Our Gulfside Pavilion at Indian Rocks Inn was a two bedroom one bath poolside beach house just steps from the sand. We literally couldn’t get any closer to the ocean if we tried and the heated saltwater pool shared with only a handful of other people on the property was the perfect break from the beach. We spent most our days in a breezy current consisting of beach house, pool, beach, repeat. With just six units on site and a strict no-partying rule, the Inn was never noisy or full of knuckleheads—a pleasantly surprising side of Florida I’d never explored when I was one of the said knuckleheads.
Indian Rocks Inn
For families, the Indian Rocks Inn has everything you need. Full-sized kitchens with all the necessities, beach towels, sand toys, a sea kayak, fat-tire bikes, beach loungers and cabanas, and pool floaties. There’s even a beer fridge in the office they keep stocked with local brews, a shuffleboard court, and FREE laundry! Parents: you know how huge this is. Parking is easy and onsite and the folks who work there could not be nicer. Corey and Janet make sure your trip is special starting with an initial call before you even get there to learn about your family and your needs. They even left us a bottle of wine in the refrigerator, t-shirts, beer koozies, and eco-friendly cups upon our arrival!
I’m not sure we would have left the beach house at all, but on the two days the weather took somewhat of a drizzly turn, we did venture out beyond the paradise bubble. One of the days, we hit up Clearwater Marine Aquarium, home of Winter the tale-less dolphin. We were with a legit Dolphin Tale fan, so this was a must for us. While there are better aquariums out there when it comes to captive sea life, this one focuses on dolphin rescue which made it unique and educational. Just don’t go expecting to see a big, black-lit tanks. For that, you’re better off at the Florida Aquarium in Tampa.
On the other rainy day, we did the two-hour drive to Orlando to explore the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Yup. We did Universal during Covid-19. Clearly, the Gulf had washed away my paranoia and I was game for rolling the dice with the weather and the crowds. I’ll save that adventure for another post!
If you’re on the fence about traveling now or lost about where you’ll go on your first trip post-pandemic, I cannot recommend Indian Rocks Beach and the Indian Rocks Inn enough. It was exactly what we needed to ease back into our old travelling routines without having to worry about a thing once we got there. Honestly, it was the most my family had relaxed since the start of the pandemic and I’m already dreaming of going back. This time, I won’t hesitate for one second.
Where to stay
Gulfside Resorts: You can’t go wrong with Gulfside Resorts. If you want to hear the waves from your window or have your feet in the sand within seconds of shutting your front door, stay at Sarah’s Seaside, Indian Rocks Inn, or the Narrows. We stayed at the Gulfside Pavilion in Indian Rocks Inn where we went from beach house to pool to sand and surf all within a stone’s throw of one another.
Where to eat
Kooky Coconut: This tiki hut looking, laid back, grab-and-go, was walking distance from our beach house. They serve up a mean Cuban (they say it’s the best in Clearwater and we would agree!) and the tuna stuffed avocado hits the spot after a day in the sun.
Guppy’s: A bit more upscale than Crabby Bills or PJ’s Oyster Bar, this seafood restaurant did not disappoint. We tried the coffee-dusted sea scallops and bacon-wrapped swordfish with cheddar grits. With our family food allergies, going out can be difficult, especially at a seafood restaurant, but our waiter made sure we were safe without ever seeming annoyed.
Tropical Ice Cream: Across from the beach with 70 flavors, this place was a much needed treat after a hot day! The best part: an allergy menu is posted in a couple of locations inside the parlor so we knew exactly what was safe to eat before ordering. Superman ice cream for the win!
What to do
Clearwater Marine Aquarium: Home of Winter, the tail-less dolphin! This aquarium is less full-fledged aquarium (i.e, the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago) and more of an educational center for dolphin rescue. Don’t go expecting to see tons of fish and sea life. But, for what they lack in large, beautiful displays of tropical fish and ocean wonders, they make up for in large, beautiful dolphins, each with its own inspirational story and incredible journey. For Dolphin Tale fans, it’s a must. For the rest of us, it’s still pretty cool. Bonus: They offer free admission to teachers and one guest Monday-Thursday!
The Florida Aquarium: This aquarium is what you’d expect: coral reefs and jellyfish; stingrays and sharks; seahorses and octopus. Albeit on the smaller side, we did this aquarium before our flight out of Tampa and easily killed a couple hours. Perfect for littler kids, this aquarium also comes with a huge outdoor area with playground, splash park, bayside picnicking, and restaurant onsite.
Indian Rocks Beach: A short drive south from busy Clearwater Beach, this beach is so chill that there were even a few days where we felt we had it all to ourselves. Gently waves and shallow waters make it awesome for ocean first timers.
Our stingray friends just outside our beach house!
We received a complimentary upgrade at Indian Rocks Inn in exchange for this post. This did not influence my opinions.
We were still buried in feet of snow in Colorado although ski season was dwindling. Without an end to the cold in sight, Spring Break was upon us. Now, I am a Midwest girl of the mindset that all Spring Breaks should be spent somewhere warm, basking in the sun and brushing off the sand. In fact, it’s one of the reasons I first became an educator in my adult life--so that I could continue to have that glorious week long stretch of days applying sunscreen, fending off heat stroke, and adjusting my wide-brimmed hat.
Not many career paths detour and frolic to allow you to keep this sacred ritual. No, after almost 17 years of celebrating Spring Break, the workforce is the first official party-pooper to rip Spring Break away from our tanned hands, laugh at our sun and dolphin tattoos--beachside badges of honor hailing from Daytona and Myrtle beaches--and spike a beach-ball sized dose of adulting in our faces.
But I am not a quitter. So, I have held onto the miracle of Spring Break as long as humanly possible.
And while the days of Spring Break past had taken me to popular daiquiri-drenched places like Miami, Fort Myers Beach, and Cancun, the mom in me was now looking for more family-friendly options without the beer bong or American Flag bikini.
Mexico seemed to be the perfect solution for sun and serenity, and we decided on Playa del Carmen because of its easy access from Cancun Airport and its location along the Carribean Sea. The ability to take day trips to nearby Cozumel and Tulum was also a huge plus.
Playa del Carmen is one of the Quintana Roo’s largest coastal cities. It’s about 35 miles from the Cancun International Airport and an hour-long ferry ride to the island of Cozumel. Known for its reefs for world-class snorkeling and diving, Playa del Carmen attracts active tourists and adventurers. The Playacar beach runs along the southside of the ferry dock along the Playacar residential area, where we stayed. It’s sands are pretty and water is blue. Aside from the occasional seagrass, it’s what you would expect from a Carribean beach. Quinta Avenida, or Fifth Avenue, is located just off the beach and is jammed-packed with restaurants and shops.
We opted to stay at an Airbnb single family home in Playacar, Casa la Loma. With seven of us, this offered the most space and ability to cook and come and go as we pleased. The home was located in Playacar fase 1, a gated community a few steps from the private beach that offered 24 hour security. The villa was directly next to the Mayan ruins and short walk into town.
With four bedrooms, 4.5 bathrooms, a pool and large kitchen, the villa gave everyone their own space and had ample room to cook and eat together. While the pool was rather small, the kids didn’t seem to mind. The property manager, Nazario, was more than willing to help us figure out where to go and what to do and even did the first grocery run for us! (Although, now that I think of it, it may have been to make-up for the enormous scorpion we found in one of the showers when we arrived!)
Outside of playing at the beach and exploring town, we spent one day in Cozumel sailing on a private catamaran and another at Xcaret, an enormous water, theme, and amusement park in Playa del Carmen. There, we toured the underground rivers by floating with life vests through the fresh crystalline waters and around the massive maze of caves and fossilized coral. After the underground rivers, we ventured off to discover dolphins, sharks, crocodiles and flamingos. We snorkeled in a safe, enclosed area that was easy for the kids to exit in and out. We ate lunch at a buffet that turned out to be pretty good (included in our Xcaret plus package) and wrapped up our day at the Children’s World where the kids could climb up suspension bridges and slide down water slides to calm cenotes. You could spend days at Xcaret and never get bored. In fact, I think we only scratched the surface during our 8-hour excursion. While I can see how it could get very crowded, Xcaret is still well worth the trip if you're traveling with kids.
Our Mexican vacation ended in Cancun with our flight back to the states. Just as we were about to board the plane, we realized we’d forgotten to keep hold of the TOURIST CARD--a small slip the flight attendants give you upon arriving to Mexico. There is both an entrance and exit portion of the tourist card, and you are to keep the exit portion for your departure. We didn’t do that. What happened next resulted in a lot of tears, all-out sprinting, and cold, hard cash. But, after what felt like an eternity when a flight is being held for you, we were able to take our seats--sweaty and flustered--and head back home.
Where to Stay
Playacar is safe and central to everything you’ll want to explore--the beach, town, and the ferry to Cozumel.
What to Do
Take the ferry to Cozumel for a day and rent a private catamaran
Drive to Tulum for ruins and turtles
Visit Xcaret for family fun
Explore Fifth Avenue and all the shops
Where to Eat
El Fogon- hands-down the best taco joint in all of Playa del Carmen. Recommended by just about every local we met. We went twice.
Don Chendo- good for pizza and other Italian dishes.
Grab your groceries at WalMart. One of my favorite parts of traveling is visiting the grocery stores. While this mega-mart is a lot like the ones in the states, you’ll still get a sense of Mexican fare through what’s on offer.
I may have mentioned my fear of open water a couple of times. I’m sure it came up in my review of our Disney Cruise and again in my post on Elba Island. However, as a mom trying to do my damndest to be a brave, adventure-loving role model, I continue to try to conquer this fear. And what better way to do it than a catamaran cruise around Cozumel?
Isla de Cozumel is a 185 square mile island off the Yucatán Peninsula, opposite Playa del Carmen. It’s a popular destination for cruise ships and divers wanting to discover the wonders of the sea. The MesoAmerican Barrier Reef (the world’s second largest) surrounds the island and is ideal for snorkeling and exploring underwater life.
Our journey started with a ferry ride from Playa del Carmen to the island of Cozumel. We chose WinJet, a fast ferry that ran just about every hour and promised to be an easy, 45-minute jaunt to Cozumel. The first tipsy step I took onto the boat signaled to me that this ferry would be different from the other slow-moving ferries I’ve been on before. A little voice inside told me to take the Dramamine before it would be too late. I’m so happy I did.
As we took our seats and watched the ship start to push back from the dock, we tried to get comfortable. The boat was clean and mostly empty. The crew was friendly. The skies were blue. However, about five minutes into our journey, the rocking of the ship became almost unbearable. The kids started to turn green. The grown-ups estimated the time it would take to make it from their seats to the restroom. The crew calmly began to pass out barf bags like it was no big thing.
Through the boat’s bobbing and the passengers puking, we somehow made it to Cozumel only a little traumatized. But the last thing anyone wanted to do was get on another boat. Unfortunately, that was the only plan we had for the day and everyone had toughen up.
A quick taxi ride from the Cozumel port allowed us to air out and took us to our next destination: Marina Fonatur to board our private catamaran.
There are several options for a boat tour around Cozumel, most include rowdy twenty-somethings and yard-stick sized daiquiris. Since we were a group of three children and four (old and grumpy) adults, we wanted to avoid the booze cruises and crowds. Instead, we opted for our own private 35’ catamaran through Exclusive Cozumel Sailing that took us on a five-hour round trip ride to a sweet snorkeling spot in the reef and then to El Cielo, a heavenly crystal-clear sandbar accessible only by boat.
At the dock, our captain met us and took us to our ship. She was a new 35’ catamaran with two cabins, two bathrooms, and a dining room--plenty of room for our party of seven. In addition to a captain, we also had two first mates who tended to our every need. Life vests, paddle boards and all snorkeling equipment (for both kids and adults) were also provided.
The first hour was spent cruising along Cozumel to our snorkeling spot. The captain was informative and friendly while the first mates did everything from making drinks and delicious snacks to helping the kids get out into their snorkeling gear. As it was the first real snorkeling experience for most of us, there were some tears, but the crew made it so much fun that everyone eventually dove in...except me. The Jaws theme music played in my head every time I thought about dipping more than a toe.
After thirty minutes or so of snorkeling (I heard it was amazing!), we continued our journey. On our way to El Cielo, David, one of the first mates, jumped into the ocean after a beach hat that blew overboard. He snatched it in seconds flat. I’m telling you, these guys were amazing!
El Cielo is a sandbar accessible only by boat where the water is no more than waist deep and the sandy bottom is velvety soft. This was more my speed. I hopped on the paddle board with a couple of kids, cruised around our anchored ship and watched the stingrays slide by underneath. It was as close as I was willing to get to the sealife, and it was magical.
With the boat anchored and everyone enjoying the sandbar, the crew made lunch. We had fresh fruit, chips, guacamole, and quesadillas. The open bar included soft drinks, water, beer, liquor and wine.
We all complained on the way back that we didn’t want the day to end, but after five hours on the catamaran, we had to say goodbye. It was the perfect place to conquer my fear, a gorgeous boat surrounded by friends, family and knowledgeable experts. But, the fear lives to see another day and I don’t regret it. While I didn’t make it into the open waters this time, I still had an amazing adventure that no one in our party will soon forget.
What to do:
Take a private catamaran around Cozumel with Exclusive Cozumel Sailing
What to pack:
You won’t need anything else; Exclusive Cozumel Sailing has you covered.
I received an extra hour of sailing from Exclusive Cozumel Sailing in exchange for this post.
After scorching on the streets of Rome, falling in love with Florence, and being attacked by bugs outside of Siena, it was time for the beach. We’d heard about Italian beaches--banana hammocks and big umbrellas packed like sardines on small stretches of sand. I’d researched the hell out of where to go with Skinny Jeans looking for a sandy spot, not too touristy and not too sharky. (Any vacation that includes the ocean would be amiss without an irrational fear of shark-infested waters.)
Enter in Elba Island.
Elba, located in the Tuscan Archipelago, is the third largest island in Italy. Its claim to fame dates back to 1814 when it was home to Napoleon during his exile. But its crystal clear, blue sea and beautiful beaches are Elba’s true treasures. A mix of leafy land and serene sea makes Elba the perfect destination for diving, snorkeling, mountain biking, or soaking up the sun (apparently Elba is exempt from sunscreen or skin cancer) like the rest of the Italians.
To get to Elba, we took a ferry from Porto Piombino. It was a slow-moving gigantic rig that allowed us to take our car with us and gave us gorgeous views of the island’s shores. From the port in Elba, we made our way to the southern end of the island, Lacona, where we’d rented a one-bedroom apartment from Mini Hotel. The fine, golden sand of Lacona beach was the perfect spot for Skinny Jeans to build a sand castle and the clear, warm, calm waters were perfect for me to keep an eye out for sharks. With no current or undertow, we spent hours splashing in the sea and floating on our newly purchased blow-up raft. With our toes danging off the edge and the warm water lazily lapping, I almost forgot we were in the ocean.
It wasn’t until a tanned man in a Speedo emerged from the waters holding a leggy octopus by its head that I remembered we were most definitely still in the sea. We gawked as he carelessly walked his catch to the shore, plopped it in a sand bucket full of salt water, and saved the creature for supper.
After a few days at Locona, we headed West to Fetovaia and spent a day at the stunning beach and at Hotel Montemerlo - Campo nell'Elba, a sister resort of MiniHotel. While much smaller than Lacona beach, the beach at Fetovaia is surrounded by cliffs that contrast with its blinding white sand and the water looks fake it’s so blue.
The thing about Elba that had me enthralled wasn’t the beach, wasn’t the grilled octopus I’d eaten for dinner (don’t worry, I didn’t take the one from the sand bucket), wasn’t the dangerous cliffs or the local aquarium highlighting just some of the strange sea creatures.
No, the thing about Elba is the women. The women walk the beaches in bikinis no matter their age, no matter their size, no matter how the tiger stripes stretch across their bellies or the dimples dot their thighs. In my stylish black one-piece suit, I stood out like a sore thumb. While I covered all my imperfections, they unapologetically put theirs on display. Sure, there were picture-perfect women wearing thong bottoms and nothing else, but for every one of them, there were three women--young, old, thin, thick--baring it all without a blink. And after a couple of days, this normalizing of bodies became so empowering that even I started to care less about what mine looked like and more about how beautiful and interesting the shapes and sizes made an already stunning shoreline look. As I watched Skinny Jeans skim the small waves, I couldn’t think of a better place for her to learn to love her own body and for me to appreciate mine.
Thank you, women of Elba, for showing this American how beautiful we all are.
Where to stay:
Mini Hotel, Lacona- all the necessities, large fully equipted kitchen, no pool, but close to beach and beachside parking available. The BEST hospitality from check-in (informative with loads of island discounts) to check-out (sent us with a parting gift of homemade jam).
Hotel Montemerlo, Fetovaia - with our stay at the Mini Hotel, we had access to this hotel’s amenities which included parking near the beach and a pool. The lunch we ate poolside was incredible.
Where to eat:
Bagni Orano di Enzo e Francesca- On Lacona beach. I recommend the grilled octopus!
Il Gelato Dell'Artista- great Lacona beachside gelato
Hotel Montemerlo - Campo nell'Elba did a great lunch next to the pool
What to do:
The Elba Aquarium- fascinating look at what lurks beneath
Lacona Beach- golden sand, calm waters, huge crowds
Fetovaia Beach- white sand, dramatic cliffs, blue waters, big crowds
Both the Lacona and Fetovaia beaches are great for small children!
I received a media rate stay at Mini Hotel in exchage for this post.
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