Pack the kids and all of your bags in the car and head out on a journey south to Florida. My family recently did just that — leaving in the wee hours of the morning when it was still dark — bound for Amelia Island. It’s about a nine-hour drive from Nashville and just minutes north of Jacksonville, Florida. Yes, you can bring your iPads, kids. Let's go!

— 1st Stop: Amelia Island —

With 13 miles of uncrowded beaches on the Atlantic coast, abundant native wildlife and pristine waters, the historic Amelia Island is a place you won't forget. It's charm says it all, too.

GET TO KNOW THE AREA

Sit around the pool, play tennis or golf at one of the high-end resorts on Florida's northernmost barrier island. You can also explore by taking a Segway tour — it's a great way to get around via Amelia’s Wheels (Omni Amelia Island Plantation Resort; 48 Amelia Village Cir., Fernandina Beach, FL 32032; 904-277-5120). My 13-year-old was a little hesitant about riding, but our adventurous 9-year-old was an instant pro. The Junior Segway Tour is the way to go for beginners as it’s only 45 minutes long. Kids may appear a bit intimidated at first, but they'll soon got the hang of it — it’s surprisingly easy. Segway tours are for ages 8 and older and prices are $45 - $90 depending upon age and chosen tour.

BEACH TIME

Sunscreen, hats and bathing suits on, it's beach time! To help you transport your gear, Amelia Island allows visitors to drive on the beach. If you're worried about getting stuck, just park nearby (free) at one of the many little beach access points or public parking areas. The seaside is great for digging and castle building, but be sure to refill the holes you dig once you’re done. This helps prevent sea turtles from getting stuck on the beach as they make their way to nest their eggs. The area is known for sea turtles and everyone takes pride in protecting them.

A marked sea turtle nest on the beach.

TOP ADVENTURE

Explore the area’s marine life with a kayak excursion for your family. Be sure to apply tons of sunscreen before you go (reapply hourly or more if you get wet); sun rays are harsh here and they reflect off the water for a higher likelihood of sunburn. Kayak Amelia offers Bar (sand bar) Hopping Tours which are great for little ones who can’t stand to be in a boat too long. Land on a sandbar and a guide like CJ Hetchka will show your kids various creatures along the way — it's great for sparking educational conversations. Cost for BarHopping Tour is $65 adults, $55 ages 12 and younger.

You’ll love the views during your kayak excursion with Kayak Amelia.
CJ chats up young Seth about a creature discovered
during a kayak trip with Kayak Amelia.

FAVE PLACE TO STAY

Drop your bags in your spacious apartment-like rooms at The Residence Inn Amelia Island (2301 Sadler Road, Fernandina Beach, FL 32034; 904-277-2440) and head out for provisions. Stock up on snacks and goodies for any meals you want to do on your own. There are gas grills by the pool deck if you’re inclined to fire it up for burgers or what not. Everybody can enjoy the heated outdoor pool, corn hole, giant Connect 4, and a mini putt putt course.

FAVE PLACE TO EAT

If you’re not going to eat dinner at your room, then try Timoti’s Seafood Shak (21 N 3rd St., Fernandina Beach, FL 32034; 904-310-6550). I’ve never seen my 9-year-old devour a shrimp basket like he did here. The Mahi-Mahi loaded nachos special was superb, too.

The Mahi-Mahi loaded nachos (when available)
at Timoti’s Seafood Shak is great for summer days.

There’s little room inside for dining, but there are several picnic tables outside. With sun showers threatening, we grabbed our meal to go and loved every bit of it. Timoti’s is a popular place to eat, so plan ahead!

— 2nd Stop: Crystal River —

Hop in the car for a three-and-a-half-hour drive from Amelia Island over to your next destination, Crystal River. It’s a peaceful little area on the Gulf of Mexico that's chock full of nature. In fact, it's the only Refuge in the United States dedicated to the preservation and protection of a single species: manatee.

MANATEE ADVENTURES!

Plantation Adventure Center at Plantation on Crystal River offers manatee tours, kayaking, boating, scalloping and more. Book a magical manatee snorkel tour (pictured at top, photo by Plantation Crystal River) while you’re here so you can swim with the gentle giants. Morning tours are $65 per person and include equipment, wet suits, masks, snorkels, towel service, hot chocolate, coffee, hot showers and a heated changing facility with no parking fees.

If you’ve never snorkeled before, purchase a cheap set and practice in the pool before you go. Guides provide instruction and offer assistance, but they can’t prepare you for the experience of trying to breathe with your face in the water. Our 9-year-old panicked and scrambled back onto the boat. 

It took me several minutes to get the hang of it. The suit kept me afloat, but you have to remain calm, straight and still in order not to scare the manatee off; the moment you enter the water, one may be beneath you. We were able to experience a rare moment with a mother and her young calf. Lying as still as I could, the mother swam in my direction. I was told not to move and she would go right under me. As she did, she brushed against my leg. When it was alright to move again, I popped my head up to see my husband. He was completely still when the curious calf popped it’s head up out of the water right next to him. It was hard to contain our excitement!

Our 13-year-old quickly got the hang of
snorkeling … with the help of a pool noodle.

Keep your animal enthusiasts intrigued all day with a visit to Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park (4150 S. Suncoast Blvd., Homosassa, FL 34446; 352-628-5343). There are three resident manatee to see in the Fish Bowl Underwater Observatory just steps below the water. It’s a dry chamber that’s also refreshingly cool. The big mammals swim about in the clear water without a care in the world and even come to the call of their names when it’s time for the presentation. 

See three manatee at Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park.

We were surprised to see so many species in a state park. The wildlife walk features a 56-year-old hippopotamus, black bear, Florida panther, cougar, red wolves, bobcats, Key deer, alligators, gray fox and otters at close range. Admission is $13 ages 13 and older, $5 ages 6 - 12, free ages 5 and younger.

SAVOR THE FLAVOR

Call ahead and reserve your table for a fabulous dinner at Vintage on 5th (114 NE 5th St., Crystal River, FL 34429; 352-794-0004). It’s a fine-dining experience inside a renovated 1940’s church tucked away in a corner of Crystal River — it’s only open for a few hours each day. The staff is friendly and on top of it. 

Be sure to order an appetizer, because meals are prepared fresh and may take some time. My kids loved the hearty Mac & Cheese. It’s a gourmet meal big enough for three little ones. Pasta and seafood dishes are to be savored ... enjoy.

You’ll love the home-like feel of this restaurant
and just check out the Mac N Cheese!

TIME TO SLEEP

Plantation on Crystal River (9301 West Fort Island Trail, Crystal River, FL 34429; 352-795-4211) offers families simple accommodations. Enjoy the outdoor heated pool by the river — and enjoy the Tiki Bar (open to the public)! 

— 3rd Stop: Cocoa Beach —

Just a little more than two hours away from Crystal River is Cocoa Beach — back over on the Atlantic Coast and close to Cape Canaveral, home to Kennedy Space Center and the popular Port Canaveral. Your go-to place for space exploration, animal encounters and more. Of course, the beach is pristine, too, and it’s only 45 minutes from Orlando ... if you know what I mean.

ANIMAL ENCOUNTERS

See Bald Eagles up close without a net blocking your view, reptiles, Black Howler Monkeys, exotic birds, cheetah, giraffe, tamarins, jaguar and so many more animals at Brevard Zoo (8225 N. Wickham Road, Melbourne, FL 32940). The zoo has lots of shade covering the paths that lead to each animal habitat. The kids are sure to love seeing the baby giraffe and feeding the adult ones, too. They come right up to the outpost for a leaf of lettuce and gently take it out of your hand with their giant purple tongues. General admission is $19.70 adults, $14.70 ages 3 - 11.

Get up close with giraffes and feed ‘em, too, at Brevard Zoo.

They also offer a TreeTop excursion for an additional cost. Explore 35 elements and 14 zip lines through the trees. This zoo also offers a unique kayaking tour (ages 5 and older only; $9.95 each). You float past giraffe, rhinos, lemurs and more in Expedition Africa, or take a self-guided tour in the restored Wetlands in the Wild Florida section. Cool off from the Florida heat in the zoo’s play lagoon.  

BEACH TIME

It’s nice to just walk right out to the beach from your hotel room at The Resort on Cocoa Beach (1600 N. Atlantic Ave., Cocoa Beach, FL 32931; 321-783-4000). There doesn’t seem to be as many beach goers right behind the resort, so it’s easy to find a spot to set up. With your condo-style room so close to the beach, lunch is an easy fix. Stock the fridge and take what you need in a small cooler.

If you tire of the heat and sun, head back inside and enjoy the arcade room and playroom for smaller kids. They even have family movie nights in their own little theater.

Kids can play for hours on the indoor climbing play structure.

SPACE EXPLORATION

The night sky lit up with the launch of the SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket early morning Tuesday, June 25. One of the many launches you can view from the Kennedy Space Center (Space Commerce Way, Merritt Island, FL 32953). It’s here that rockets, satellites and kids’ imaginations take off ... into space.

Step inside a building full of history. Inside the newest attraction — Heroes & Legends — is an exhibit that chronicles the first space suits, astronaut memorabilia and more. At the end, you’ll see the faces of American astronauts in the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame. Then, head back outside to view several real rockets in the Rocket Garden.

The Rocket Garden at Kennedy Space Center.

There’s also a children’s climbing structure nearby, too. Keep up with the time and don’t miss out on an astronaut encounter. Different astronauts give live presentations with a short Q&A and photo op following. Learn what it’s like to live and work in space from someone who’s been there and done that!

There’s so much to see and do here that you need a full day to really soak it all in. From Behind the Gates bus tours to launch sites, see the actual space shuttle Atlantis, enjoy a shuttle launch experience and more. All ready to inspire a love of space. Admission is $57 adults, $47 ages 3 - 11.

Want to see a real launch with your own eyes? Visit the space center’s website for the next launch date/time and plan your Florida visit around it.