In Search Of A Laid-Back, Nature-Packed Florida Vacation

I was in desperate need of zen and sunshine, and I found it in three under-the-radar destinations.
In Search Of A Laid-Back, Nature-Packed Florida  Vacation

Treasure Coast Sailing Adventures’s Resolute sloop as seen during a sunset sail. (Photo: Maureen Halushak)

This past January, Toronto—where I live—recorded its cloudiest month in 11 years. On one of those endlessly dreary grey days, I was presented with an amazing opportunity: Would I like to visit the Sunshine State, a.k.a. Florida? Yes, yes, yes; I most definitely would.

Like many Canadians, my previous Florida experiences have often involved exhausting days spent at amusement parks. This time, I wanted to do something different: a laid-back vacay in small-town Florida—no roller coasters or life-size mice in sight. (Not that there’s anything wrong with those things; you do you!) During six days in April across three under-the-radar towns, I found some zen—and lots of glorious, glorious sunshine. Here are the highlights.


Destination #1: Sebring 

This central Florida lake town, a two-hour drive from Orlando, where I landed, is famous for its racetrack. (The Sebring International Racetrack was originally a training base for WW2 pilots.) When I visited, several buildings on Sebring’s charming main street circle—which could and should be the setting for a Hallmark holiday movie—were getting a glow-up thanks to HGTV’s small-town makeover show, Home Town Takeover. (The Sebring episodes will air in 2025.)

A photo of a wooden front porch with orange rocking chairs on it.The incredibly quaint porch at Maxwell Groves Country Story. (photo courtesy Visit Florida/Maxwell Groves Country Store)

On the way to Sebring, I stopped at the stately, circa 1920s Hotel Jacaranda in Avon Park, where I picked up a coffee at Sweet Water Coffee Company and briefly considered replacing my entire wardrobe with clothing from Tassel & Thread, a boutique full of breezy, beachy separates. I also made a detour to Maxwell Groves Country Store, where I enjoyed a divine cone of homemade orange ice cream while sitting in a rocking chair on the Groves’ shabby-chic front porch—the perfect kickoff to my vacation. 

Where I stayed in Sebring 

I’ve been lucky to stay in a few very nice hotel rooms in my life, and the suite I stayed in at Inn on The Lakes was up there with the best of them. I loved the water view, including that of a peninsula inhabited by elegant egrets, and the lake house-inspired decor, with its white shiplap walls and wicker accents. There’s a lakeside restaurant called Chicane’s on site; I also enjoyed the daily breakfast that was delivered to my door. During my stay, guests could choose between a yogurt parfait with homemade granola or a hot breakfast sandwich. Both were delicious. Rooms start at US $200.


The best thing I ate near Sebring

I had never had a beet burger, nor even entertained the idea of a beet burger, until the exceedingly friendly staff at Good Vibes Juice & Smoothie in Lake Placid, a 20-minute drive from Sebring, recommended I try one. I intended to take my order back to my hotel, but after one bite of the loaded burg’s crispy-on-the-outside, soft-on-the-inside patty and perfectly smushy multigrain bun, I ate the entire thing in my car. My only regret was not ordering a vegan chocolate chip cookie for dessert—they looked amazing.

A building painted with a postcard-like Lake Placid logo, in a post about Florida vacations.Lake Placid is home to nearly 50 outdoor murals. (Photo: Maureen Halushak)

While on Lake Placid’s quaint Main Street, I also enjoyed a flight of Italian reds from Wine Down Wine Bar and Shop, whose owner Chris Noel stocks an impressively large selection of bottles to try and to buy. (Prefer wine over beer? Chris’s husband Michael runs Wet Dogs Brewing across the way.)

The best thing I did in Sebring


While there are many ways to explore the absolutely wild flora and fauna of central Florida—including pontoon and airboat rides—I opted for a more lo-fi experience and spent two truly magical early morning hours on a guided tour of the Highlands Hammock State Park. I drove around on an ATV with a highly knowledgeable ranger named Laura, who had a sixth sense for pointing out alligators and identifying bird calls. 

A marsh with two small baby alligators, in a post about Florida vacations.Can you spot the baby alligators? If my guide at Highlands Hammock State Park hadn't pointed these two out, I never would have seen them. (Photo: Maureen Halushak)

Aside from countless gators—ranging in size from baby to XXL—we also encountered a soft-shelled turtle sunning herself at the side of the trail and several show-stopping species of butterflies. The Everglades-like landscape, an unruly mix of swamp, palm trees and gnarly oaks with grey streamers of Spanish moss, was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. The park offers daily tram tours; there are also nine trails to explore on foot.

Destination #2: Vero Beach 


This beach town, a two-hour drive from Sebring, has a bopping main street scene reminiscent of southwestern Ontario’s Sauble Beach. It’s located on the eastern tip of Florida’s Treasure Coast, named for a fleet of loot-laden Spanish ships that sank along the coast following a massive hurricane in 1715.

Where I stayed in Vero Beach


Island View Cottages is a small collection of incredibly comfortable, incredibly quiet cabins with cottage-y interiors on the Indian River, about 20 minutes from Vero Beach. I loved waking up each morning, making a pot of coffee and then drinking it at the end of the property’s massive dock, watching the sun rise and the pelicans frolic. (There are also kayaks available if you want to venture further out onto the river.) Cottages start at US $189.

The best thing I ate in Vero Beach

When I asked Carmen, Island View’s innkeeper, where the best place was to eat in Vero Beach, she immediately replied with the Ocean Grill. She was not wrong: This iconic beachside restaurant has been around since the 1940s and looks like the type of place Don Draper and Roger Sterling would bring their secretaries for dinner during a weekend “conference.” 


My friend Jenn, who joined me for this leg of the trip, and I waited for our table at the dark and moody oceanside bar, then walked over to the wood-panelled dining room. Bowls of crackers and gorgonzola butter greeted us upon our arrival, and it only got more decadent from there. I ordered crab-stuffed shrimp, which came with a gravy boat of hollandaise, while Jenn had a lobster roll as well as the best bacon, blue cheese and candied-walnut wedge salad that either of us had ever tasted. When our waiter came by with an old-school dessert platter filled with slices of triple-chocolate cheesecake and key lime pie, we were too full to even think about it.


Of course, there are more virtuous menu options to be had in Vero Beach. The green goddess smoothie I ordered from the no-frills, jam-packed Cravings café was ginormous and delicious. And I’m still thinking about the massive grilled Maryland crab cake that I sincerely wish I had eaten from the Vero Beach Farmers Market, which runs on Saturdays from 8 a.m. to noon and includes vendors selling local produce, citrus, seafood, kombucha and more. (Please do not sleep on the crab cake, as I did. By the time I decided to go back and try it, the market had closed.)

The best thing I did in Vero Beach

My knowledge of art is woefully inadequate. However, even I could tell that the permanent collection of contemporary art at the Vero Beach Museum of Art is impressive. Among its 600 pieces are works by Andy Warhol, David Hockney, Lee Krasner and more—many of which are donations from local residents. It was a delight to admire them in the cool, serene gallery, which also hosts visiting exhibitions.

The interior of a contemporary art gallery with a Campbell's soup can print by Warhol in the background.A glimpse of the permanent collection at the Vero Beach Museum of Art. (Photo: Courtesy of Vero Beach Museum of Art)

After the gallery, I purchased a bottle of funky French beer from the well-stocked Happy Girl Wine Co. (which, as the name suggests, also carries wine) on the main Ocean Drive beachside strip, and then walked along the pristine, expansive and nearly empty white sand beach. It was truly spectacular.

A photo of a Florida beach in a post about Florida vacations.The absolutely stunning Vero Beach, which we had largely to ourselves on a late Saturday afternoon. (Photo: Maureen Halushak)

Destination #3: Jensen Beach


Flanked by the Indian River and the Atlantic Ocean, Jensen is a gorgeous beach town with chill California vibes that’s a one-hour drive from both Vero Beach and the Palm Beach International Airport. If I was forced to choose only one of the destinations on this trip to revisit, it would be this one. (Since my return, I’ve repeatedly googled flights to West Palm Beach.)

Where I stayed in Jensen Beach


The oceanfront Hutchinson Shores Resort is situated on a stunning, sizable and relatively quiet slice of beach. We loved the luxe, nautical-chic decor and private beach access. One note: Be prepared to pay fees above and beyond the room rate. There’s a $40 daily resort charge, plus a $10 per-day fee for mandatory valet service. Rooms from US $240, plus additional fees.

The best thing I ate in Jensen Beach

Kai-Kai Farm—founded by former Montrealer Diane Cordeau and her husband, Carl Frost—supplies local restaurants and markets with produce, and also hosts a series of farm-to-table and demonstration dinners featuring the food it grows. Lucky for us, it was hosting one of the latter during our visit. We watched as chef Lindsay Autry prepared a stellar, southern-inspired four-course meal for us—including a decadent broccoli casserole and divine banana pudding—in the farm’s breezy, open-air pavilion.

A chalkboard menu at Hani Honey, used in a post on Florida vacations.There is *lots* to choose from on the menu at the Hani Honey café. (Photo: Maureen Halushak)

I had never drank mead—an alcoholic beverage made with fermented honey—until I visited Hani Honey Company, a cute, unpretentious and popular café on the outskirts of Jensen Beach. Run by Jennifer Holmes, a master beekeeper, Hani Honey features a menu of salads and vegetable-forward open-faced sandwiches, as well as coffee, bubble tea smoothies and more. We tried a flight of delicately sweet flavoured meads—the majority of which are made on-site by Holmes and her daughter, Kaija, from honey collected from Hani’s multiple local apiaries—including a strawberry-raspberry version that tasted like pure summer in a glass. We enjoyed our mead-tasting experience so much that we returned the next day for lunch.

The best thing I did in Jensen Beach


I had two excellent beach experiences in Jensen, both at the resort and also at the public access Jensen Beach. At the latter, we rented umbrellas and loungers for about $40 for the day and joined the crowd on the massive white sand beach. (FYI, for rental purposes “the day” ends at 4 p.m.). This was a Platonic ideal beach experience, complete with chicken fingers and fries from the beachside concession.

An overhead view of a massive saltwater lagoon at the Florida Oceanography Center, in a post about Florida vacations.It was absolutely mesmerizing to observe various schools of fish from the third-floor observatory deck at the Florida Oceanographic Center's Ocean EcoCenter, where this photo was taken. (Photo: Courtesy of Florida Oceanographic Center)

Anyone who loves Florida’s beaches, as I do, should absolutely visit the Florida Oceanographic Coastal Center to learn about the environmental challenges faced by its coastal ecosystems—and the innovative ways that scientists and volunteers are working to mitigate them. The centre features many interactive educational exhibits, a stingray pool and a massive saltwater lagoon that’s home to 20 different varieties of fish and four rescued sea turtles. Many of its exhibits are geared toward kids, but I am 46 and absolutely loved my visit. 

A sailboat on sunrise on the Indian River, in a post about Florida vacations.Treasure Coast Sailing Adventures’s Resolute sloop as seen during a sunset sail. (Photo: Maureen Halushak)

The ocean is far from Jensen Beach’s only draw. We spent an absolutely magical one-and-a-half hours on the Indian River, on a sunset sail by Treasure Coast Sailing Adventures. And on my last morning in town, I grabbed a coffee at The Bunk House Coffee Bar and made the five-minute drive to Savannas Preserve State Park for an easy hike on Hawk’s Bluff Trail. Observing the bird life over a vast swamp system in the near-empty park was an incredible meditative experience, and a lovely way to end my laid-back Florida beach vacation.

This trip was provided by Visit Florida. All opinions are the writer’s own.


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