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As part of a series on long weekend getaways, we’re showing you how to make the most of your summer Fridays, school breaks and the season’s extra-long days. Check back every week for inspired itineraries and easy city escapes.
Chances are the theme parks are what lure you to Orlando (or perhaps you just call this central Florida city home). But if you’ve had your fill of rides and character parades, consider checking out the great beach destinations within driving distance of the Mouse.
From surfing in the Atlantic Ocean to paddleboarding in the Gulf of Mexico, Orlando is close to a variety of beach towns — each one with its own distinct vibe. Just an hour-long drive away, for example, is Daytona Beach — home to a new Hard Rock Hotel and a delightfully kitschy aesthetic. Or if a half-day Friday is just the beginning of a long Florida vacation, tack on a trip to Amelia Island (three hours from Orlando).
No matter what stretch of Florida beach you find yourself on, you can always just dig your toes in the sand and call it a day.
Distance from Orlando: 1 hour
Best for: Parents who want to relive their spring break glory days.
Thanks to its 23 miles of white sand beach (and the thousands of college students who descended upon the city in the 1980s and 1990s), Daytona Beach has earned itself a rather rowdy reputation. But this beach town on a wide stretch of Atlantic shoreline is still cloaked in delightful Old Florida kitsch. During a weekend in Daytona Beach, explore old-school surf shops, ride a Ferris wheel at the Daytona Beach Boardwalk & Pier or catch a concert at the Daytona Beach Bandshell. For amazing beach views, climb the 175-foot Ponce de Leon Inlet Lighthouse & Museum, the tallest in the state. Sports fans can catch a game at the Jackie Robinson Ballpark, the site of the first integrated pro baseball game, or take a behind-the-scenes tour of the famous Daytona International Speedway.
Where to stay: The new Hard Rock Hotel Daytona Beach
With a guitar-shaped kids’ pool and Taylor Swift’s bikini hanging in the lobby (part of the resort’s renowned memorabilia collection), this new beach resort that opened in March appeals to music lovers young and old. Set the mood with complimentary vinyl records you can rock out to on your in-room turntable, take a dip in the oceanfront pool with its underwater sound system or simply collect seashells on some of the most famous shoreline in the world. Use the Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card and book at Hotels.com/Venture to get 10x miles on your stay. And don’t forget that the Hotels.com Rewards program gets you one free night for every 10 paid nights you stay, effectively boosting your return to 20% when you pay with the Venture card.
Don’t miss: All Hard Rock hotel guests have access to their choice of Fender instruments for in-room use. Headphones are included, so you can jam out without your neighbors complaining.
Anna Maria Island
Distance from Orlando: 2 hours
Best for: Families in search of the laid-back island dream — if only for a long weekend.
At just seven miles long and with a 35 miles-per-hour speed limit, this barrier island on the Gulf of Mexico comprises not one, but three, beach towns: Bradenton Beach, Anna Maria and Holmes Beach. It’s perfect for exploring on scooter or bicycle. Discover tropical boutiques and mom-and-pop ice cream shops in the island’s two primary villages, and rent a kayak or paddleboard from Beach Bums Island Latitude so you can glide along the island’s quiet bays and back canals, where you’re likely to spot dolphins and manatees.
Where to stay: Waterline Marina Resort & Beach Club
Featuring stylish suites and boat slips for guests who arrive by water, this new resort has no shortage of coastal charm. Rent a charter boat for a family outing, book a guided fishing excursion or pick up a kayak at Waterline’s Beach Club. You can also book unusual activities, such as the art of fish painting, that are open to locals as well as guests — making it easy to get to know the islanders. As the property is part of Marriott’s Autograph Collection of hotels, you can book it for between 35,000 and 40,000 points per night. If you need to stock up on points, consider the Marriott Rewards Premier Plus Credit Card, which is currently offering new cardholders 100,000 points after spending $5,000 in the first three months. If you have Starpoints, you can also transfer those over to Marriott at a 1:3 ratio.
Distance from Orlando: 3 hours
Best for: Couples in need of a relaxing getaway.
Only 18 miles long and three miles wide, this northeast Florida isle near the Georgia border has a quaint 50-block downtown, Fernandina Beach, that’s home to lovely Victorian-, Queen Anne- and Italianate-style homes and inns, many of them listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Peruse the boutiques on the main drag, Centre Street, and sample the sweets at Fantastic Fudge (be sure to buy extra for the drive back to Orlando). During your weekend on Amelia Island, drop by the Palace Saloon, billed as the state’s oldest bar, for a pour of the signature Pirate’s Punch. Wrap up your day with a narrated horse-drawn carriage tour at sunset.
Where to stay: Omni Amelia Island Plantation Resort
This massive resort is spread across 1,350 acres of beachfront. Rent a bike or golf cart from Amelia’s Wheels and explore nature trails as well as quiet marshes and lagoons, where the birds chirping are the only sounds you’ll hear. Stroll the Shops at Amelia Island Plantation, where you’ll find a fantastic French deli, Marché Burette, and the Natural Slice pizzeria — just two of the noteworthy restaurants and stores flanking a picturesque little pond. Golfers have their choice of three championship courses, while the plantation’s 3.5 miles of secluded beaches are perfect for loungers armed with a good book. Stay on the beach after dark and reserve a private campfire complete with s’mores. Book with the Capital One Venture Card to get 10x miles when you make the reservation at Hotels.com/Venture, or use the Citi Prestige Card to get a fourth night free when you book through the Citi concierge.
Don’t miss: Go horseback riding on the beach or inside Amelia Island State Park with the family-owned Kelly Seahorse Ranch.
St. Pete Beach
Distance from Orlando: 2 hours
Best for: Families trying to travel back in time.
Pink sunsets and gentle surf define this low-key, central Florida beach town on the Gulf of Mexico. Flip-flops and swimsuit cover-ups are the dress code of choice here, as lounging on the beach with a frozen cocktail tends to be the main attraction. When you’re ready to get out of the sun, hop on the free beach trolley to visit the eclectic shops in the historic 8th Avenue shopping district, reserve a spot on the Shell Key Shuttle for a 10-minute trip to Shell Island for snorkeling and shelling, or head over to the historic Merry Pier for excellent fishing.
Where to stay: The Don CeSar Beach Resort
This historic hotel, with its prime beachfront location and flamingo-pink facade accented by bell towers and turrets, has been hard to miss since it opened its doors in 1928. The Gatsby-like vibe is at once beachy and luxurious, all while being exceptionally family-friendly. The property boasts spacious suites, multiple oceanfront pools, a 1950s-era ice cream shop named Uncle Andy’s and all manner of water sports — Jet Skis, banana boats, paddle boards — available right on the beach. Check the kiddos into Camp CeSar and visit the spa for a massage on the rooftop terrace, complete with 360-degree Gulf views. You can book a paid stay through Chase’s Luxury Hotel & Resort Collection — available to holders of cards like the Chase Sapphire Reserve, Chase Sapphire Preferred, Ink Business Preferred Credit Card and United MileagePlus Explorer Card — to enjoy benefits such as complimentary daily breakfast for two, room upgrades when available and late checkout.
Don’t miss: The Don CeSar lobby bar has a resident piano player who fills the air with jazzy tunes every night. Order an Old Fashioned and take in the vibe as if Gatsby himself was about to arrive.
Distance from Orlando: 1.5 hours
Best for: Adventurous travelers eager to experience Florida’s surf culture.
A barrier island nestled between the Indian River Lagoon and the Atlantic Ocean, Cocoa Beach offers six miles of wide, sandy beaches. The hometown of world champion surfer Kelly Slater is also home to the flagship Ron Jon Surf Shop, the world’s largest surf store, which means there may be no better place to learn to ride waves during your Florida vacation. Stretching 800 feet over the ocean, the historic Cocoa Beach Pier is a hub for waterfront dining, live music and quirky gift shops. Pick up a rod, bait and tackle on site and cast a line over the side of the pier. On the other side of the island, take a guided tour through the Indian River Lagoon’s 1,000 Islands with Cocoa Beach Kayaking. Feast on fresh seafood on the tiki deck at Coconuts On the Beach, where you can watch cruise ships coming in and out of Port Canaveral and a beach volleyball game is almost always in session. Meet up with locals at historic Cocoa Village, a nostalgic riverside district filled with shops, restaurants and artist studios.
Where to stay: The Hilton Cocoa Beach Oceanfront
Smack in the middle of the action, the Hilton Cocoa Beach Oceanfront offers on-site surf lessons as well as boogie boards, bike and beach rentals. Spend some time on the shore before kicking back poolside at Longboards Tiki Beach Grille. Stretch your legs with a walk down the street to check out the Ron Jon Surf Shop and “I Dream of Jeannie” Lane, the backdrop for the popular 1960s sitcom. Use points from a card such as the Hilton Honors Aspire Card from American Express (currently offering new cardholders $100,000 after they spend $4,000 in the first three months) to book an award stay, starting at 40,000 points a night.
Don’t miss: Just 20 minutes from Cocoa Beach, curious kids and adults flock to Kennedy Space Center, NASA’s headquarters and the only place where you can tour launch pads, meet a real astronaut and perhaps even see a launch.
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