How the pandemic gave me a newfound appreciation for my hometown — and home state
I've lived on the Treasure Coast of Florida since June 2009, although my wife's family has called this area home since the late 1800s. And during our time together in the small town of Fort Pierce, we generally left the state whenever we could.
A typical year would see us head out of the country three times — once in March for our daughter's spring break, again in late-May to celebrate our anniversary and a third time in November to escape the domestic travel mess that often accompanies Thanksgiving. We'd also take advantage of long weekend getaways to spots including New Mexico, Vermont and Washington, D.C.
Needless to say, the last year hasn't been "typical" by any stretch.
As I type, it has been 483 days since we set foot on non-U.S. soil. This is the longest stretch for me and my wife since we were in college in the early 2000s. It's also the longest time my six-year-old daughter has ever stayed in her home country — her first foreign country was at six months old, and she hit her twentieth just before her fifth birthday.
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Sure, we've taken a handful of domestic jaunts this year, including road trips to North Carolina and Savannah. But mostly, we've stayed local — and that's turned out to be a major blessing. Here's how the pandemic's shrunken travel opportunities have reinforced our love for both our hometown and our home state.
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Exploring the outdoors
Early in the pandemic, with a preschooler at home and two full-time jobs to manage, we began to go a bit stir crazy. In an effort to get us outside and maintain a healthy lifestyle, my wife began insisting on taking early-evening walks. This started around our neighborhood, but we soon grew tired of doing the same loop.
Enter county preserves and local parks.
I had no clue just how many of these were in my county — 24 of them (to be exact), covering more than 11,000 acres of nature. Many of them include picnic facilities, so we soon developed a regular Saturday routine: Submit an online sandwich order and head to a local preserve to enjoy a family lunch outside.
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Getting out of our home offices and away from the stressors of lockdown life was an immense boost to our happiness levels. We've continued visiting these spots in 2021 and have no plans to stop, even once life returns to normal.
Relaxing at the beach
Despite living in St. Lucie County for over a decade by the time the pandemic hit, I wouldn't describe us as frequent beachgoers. In fact, before 2020, I would've guessed that my cumulative time spent on Florida's beaches was actually eclipsed by my time on foreign sand — including past trips to St. Kitts and Nevis, the Seychelles, Mauritius, Moorea, Bali and Playa del Carmen.
That all changed during the pandemic.
Over the last 12 months, we've spent countless hours at the beach — a socially distant activity that provided significant relaxation. The beaches of the Treasure Coast are not only beautiful; they're also devoid of the massive crowds than can plague other Florida locales. Even when parking lots are at (or near) capacity, it was always easy to claim a spot in the sand that was well more than six feet away from others.
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Visiting new areas of Florida
Prior to the pandemic, most of our Florida-based travel centered on the major cities — especially Orlando to visit Disney World and Tampa, Fort Lauderdale or Miami to attend concerts. We'd frequently use hotel points to stay in properties near these venues, but our time in other parts of the state was quite limited.
Once again, this pattern was upended by COVID-19.
The last place we wanted to be over the last 12 months was in large crowds, but we were still craving escapes from our daily grind. We thus began investigating other spots in Florida to visit, utilizing Airbnb to minimize our time in shared spaces.
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Our first foray out of Fort Pierce came over Memorial Day 2020, when we booked a gorgeous house in Dunedin — a small town just north of Clearwater. The property included a golf cart for driving around town to pick up take-out meals along with bicycles for hitting the Pinellas Trail. The food was outstanding and the area was beautiful, so we plan to return in the future.
Then, over Labor Day Weekend, we decided to head all the way to the Gulf Coast and booked an oceanfront vacation rental in Indian Rocks Beach — and discovered an absolute hidden gem of a town. Most of the well-known beaches on the west coast of Florida feature large high-rises along with overly-touristy shops, dining and nightlife.
Indian Rocks beach is the exact opposite, with low-slung cottages and a relaxed atmosphere that belies its beautiful sand and terrific eateries — not to mention stunning sunsets.
We've actually gone back four times since our initial trip, and each time we fall more in love with the area.
Would we have visited either one of these areas in a "normal" year? Most likely not. In this sense, the pandemic has opened our eyes to the wonders of our home state of Florida — and will likely have a long-term impact on our approach to trip-planning.
In the past, we were very quick to jump on a plane to head to another state for a weekend. However, with flights, lodging and a often a rental car, this becomes a pricey proposition — especially when compared to hopping in our car and driving just a few hours to a new area. We're already planning to head back to Indian Rocks Beach at least twice this summer, and we've flagged other spots in the state to visit as well.
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What does this mean for you?
No matter where you live, there are things to be discovered in close proximity to your house or apartment. Never underestimate the positive impacts of getting out and exploring a new place. It may be as simple as grabbing takeout and enjoying a picnic in a local park, or it could involve hopping in the car and spending a night or two in a nearby town that you've never visited.
Even with vaccine administration expanding across the country and airlines seeing a notable increase in demand for flights, that doesn't mean you should stop exploring your local area. The world is (hopefully) on the cusp of returning to normal, but until borders are fully reopened, take the opportunity now to stay local.
Sure, this may not be as enticing (on the surface) as hopping on a premium-class flight to the other end of the world, but it can still be a valuable change of scenery from the monotony of your routine.
And you never know when it may lead to the discovery of a new favorite spot — or a newfound love of the very area in which you live.
All photos by the author