Why wait for Valentine's Day to enjoy a getaway with your honey? After all, what's more romantic than twinkling holiday lights and cuddle weather? • A quick December getaway is a lovely way to celebrate the season, especially for grownups who don't have to wait around for Santa Claus. Perhaps shopping, wrapping and baking aren't your things and you need to shake, rattle and roll at a cranking nightclub. Well, put on your dancing shoes, South Beach awaits. Does a game of golf sound good right about now? How about a stroll on one of the world's best shelling beaches? • If you can get away a deux, consider some of these places to exhale during this hectic time. All are driving distance from the Tampa Bay area and are suitable for a long weekend, even longer if you can get the boss to give you an extra day off. Most of the lodging suggestions we've made are at independent hotels or inns, but you can likely find cheaper accommodations at chain hotels such as Hampton Inn or Holiday Inn Express. Janet K. Keeler, Times Lifestyles editor
Mileage is from Tampa International Airport, courtesy of Mapquest.com.
Lights in St. Augustine
The nation's oldest city could also be called one of its most romantic. Millions of twinkling lights strung in the old town during Christmas punctuate its charm. Take a horse-drawn carriage ride along Avenida Menendez at night and head across the Bridge of Lions during the day toward the black-and-white striped St. Augustine Lighthouse. Work off whatever delicious food you've eaten by climbing the 219 steps to the top. Beyond the lighthouse is the ocean and that's good for a workout, too. There are lots of B&Bs in the historic district. For more information about Nights of Lights, which runs through Jan. 31, go to getaway4florida.com/nights. Accommodation information, including a list of B&Bs, can be found at oldcity.com. Or stay at the refurbished Casa Monica; rates start at about $170 a night (casamonica.com; toll-free 1-800-648-1888).
Downtown Winter Park
Just north of Orlando, the tiny town of Winter Park is possibly the cutest spot in Florida. The streets of the city's core are lined with trees and shops, some you know (Ann Taylor, Restoration Hardware, Williams-Sonoma) and some you don't (Golden Rabbit, Bliss on Park Avenue, Fairy Tales). It's very dog-friendly with many shops offering water and biscuits for your pooch. Sit in the park and watch the train come and go. Stop by Houston's on S Orlando Avenue for a house-made veggie burger and don't miss a big breakfast at Briar Patch on N Park Avenue. The Park Plaza Hotel, built in 1922, is convenient for a downtown stroll. Rates start at $142 a night for the boutique hotel (parkplazahotel.com; (407) 647-1072).
Disney decorations and golf
Stay at the Ginn Reunion Resort in Orlando for golf and spa treatments then drive to the Disney resort hotels to look at the pretty lights and have dinner. Check out the California Grill on the top floor of the Contemporary, Citricos at Grand Floridian or Jiko at the Animal Kingdom Lodge. The lobby of the Grand Floridian is good for an hourlong stay of cushy-chair people watching and soaking in the decorations. Get priority seating at the restaurants (Disney doesn't call them reservations) or you might not get a table. Call (407) 939-3463. At Ginn Reunion (reunionresort. com; toll-free 1-888-418-9611), you can play on courses designed by the greats: Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson. Golf and spa packages start at $402 a night for two.
Shell hunting on Sanibel Island
Lee County's tiny Sanibel Island is considered the third best place in the world for shelling behind Australia and the Philippines. The island juts out east-west from the mainland and the shells get swept onto the beach as the water flows north. Whelks, jingles, cat's paws, tulips, olives, all sorts of cones and the prized junonia can be collected while doing the Sanibel Stoop. Lots of places to eat dot Periwinkle Drive, the island's main thoroughfare. We like Island Cow for breakfast, lunch or dinner, though perhaps not all on the same day. Consider staying at the Seaside Inn on E Gulf Drive (sanibelcollection.com; (239) 472-1400) or even off the island for cheaper rates. Rates at Seaside start at $190 a night. For more information on accommodations in nearby Fort Myers, go to fortmyers.com.
Miami's restaurant scene
It's always hot in South Florida, and we don't just mean the temperature. Beautiful people, beautiful sites and beautiful scene. Restaurants to check out include Michael's Genuine Food & Drink (www.michaelsgenuine.com; (305) 573-5550) in the Design District, Azul in the Mandarin Oriental Hotel (mandarinoriental.com; (305) 913-8288), Michy's (michysmiami.com; (305) 759-2001) and Wish in Miami Beach (wishrestaurant.com; (305) 674-9474). Go clubbing for a night or two in South Beach. Hotel suggestions include the Park Central (www. theparkcentral.com; (305) 538-1611), where rates start at $225, or the pricier Angler's Boutique Resort (www.theanglersresort.com; (305) 534-9600) with rates starting at $325.
Old Florida on Anna Maria Island
Just a hop, skip and jump from the Tampa area, Anna Maria Island is the place to get away from it all. No high-rises and not much to do but fish and walk on the beach. Bring bikes if you have them and pedal all around the island, stopping for ice cream at Dips Ice Cream on Gulf Drive. Walk down the Rod & Reel Pier for a bite to eat at the old Florida restaurant that's one flight up. Get a window seat and watch the boats bob and the cars glide along the Sunshine Skyway. If you're lucky, you'll be there for a thunderstorm. Not a lot of places to stay unless you're renting a condo or a beach home. For short stays, we like the Harrington House on Gulf Drive (harringtonhouse.com; (941) 778-5444). Have a dinner date at the Beach Bistro next door, one of the best restaurants in the state, with a lovely view of the beach (beachbistro.com; (941) 778-6444).
The Gasparilla Island- Boca Grande Bike Trail
Boca Grande isn't just about tarpon even though the annual fishing tournament draws anglers from all over the country. There's bike riding, too. A former railroad has been turned into a 6.5-mile paved bike trail that runs the length of Gasparilla Island into the town of Boca Grande. You'll pedal by stately homes and get a look at how the other half lives. Katharine Hepburn was a frequent visitor to the island and the Bush family spent several Christmases here. Watch out for gopher tortoises crossing the flat trail. Or stop, and watch them go by. At the south end of the trail is the Boca Grande Lighthouse Museum. Rates at the grand old Gasparilla Inn & Club (the-gasparilla-inn.com; toll-free 1-800-996-1913) start at $245. There also are many lodging options, from other hotels and motels to house and condo rentals. Information at the Boca Grande Area Chamber of Commerce (bocagrandechamber.com; (941) 964-0568).
Homosassa Springs/ Crystal River and the manatees
If you've only seen the gentle giants behind glass at an aquarium, it's time to head to Citrus County to see the manatees in their natural surroundings. At Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park (manateecam.com; (352) 628-5343), you can stroll on a boardwalk along the Homosassa River and check out the wildlife. There are programs by naturalists plus manatee viewing areas. If you want to get even more up close and personal, swim with the big beasts. Excursions, which include the equipment, are offered by River Safaris & Gulf Charters (riversafaris.com; (352) 628-5222) and Snorkel With Manatees (www.snorkelwithmanatees.com; (352) 257-8687). Rates start at about $50 and increase for daylong trips on the rivers. It's a day trip from St. Petersburg and Tampa, but if you want to stay overnight, consider Plantation Golf Resort and Spa (plantationinn.com; (352) 795-4211), Kings Bay Lodge (kingsbaylodgefla.com; (352) 795-2850) or Best Western Crystal River Resort (bestwesternflorida.com; (352) 795-3171). Rates start at $119.
Drive A1A from Port Canaveral to Port Everglades
* It's 136 miles from Tampa International to Port Canaveral.
Put the top down and head to the East Coast to drive A1A from one port to another as the state road skirts the Atlantic Ocean. Or if you want to get ambitious, you can drive along the coast from Key West to the Georgia line. If you've got that kind of time, it's a fun trip. For the shorter trip, connect with A1A just north of Cocoa Beach and head south to the surf town then on through Satellite Beach, Melbourne, Palm Bay, Sebastian, Vero Beach, Fort Pierce, Port St. Lucie, Jensen Beach, Hobe Sound, Jupiter, Palm Beach, Delray Beach, Boca Raton, Pompano and Fort Lauderdale. Stop and look around anywhere you'd like. There are lighthouses in Jupiter Inlet and Hillsboro Inlet, lots of shopping in Palm Beach and Boca, plus plenty of hotels and restaurants along the way. Take a right at Port Everglades on I-595 to connect with Alligator Alley (I-75) and come on home.
Get your fortune told in Cassadaga
Let the spirits move you to the Volusia County town of Cassadaga where you can have a Tarot card reading, be regressed to a past life and get your aura photographed or drawn. If your chakra is dirty, this is where you go to get it cleaned. Bookstores overflow with spiritual books, some familiar, some a bit more out there. It may be the oldest joke in the book, but the psychics don't know you're coming. It's good to make an appointment. For information about a variety of psychic readings and other services, go to www.cassadaga.org, www.cassadaga.com or www.cassadagahotel.com. There aren't a lot of places to stay in Cassadaga so consider a B&B in Mount Dora, about 30 miles southwest. There are a lot of antique shops there, which add another activity to the trip. Go to mountdoralodging.com for suggestions.
Information from Times files was used in this report. Janet K. Keeler can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8586.