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To find Florida getaways for lovers, ask romance writers

A date with history

Linnea Sinclair's science-fiction romance novels take place in distant galaxies, but when she and her husband want to escape for the weekend, they head to Mount Dora's Lakeside Inn (toll-free 1-800-556-5016; lakeside-inn.com). There, the author of interstellar romances like An Accidental Goddess and The Down Home Zombie Blues trades cyborgs and spaceships for old-fashioned relaxation.

"It's brain-cleansing and soul-cleansing," she said. "At home, you're dealing with instant messages, texts, our whole high-tech world.

"In Mount Dora, even though it's not far from the hustle-bustle of Orlando, it's like a time machine."

Sinclair touts the 1883 inn's vintage details: "footed tubs, pedestal sinks, even the creaky floors: It's just awesome."

Visitors can use the inn's pool, tennis court and boats, but Sinclair and her husband are more often found combing the town's antique shops for treasures to add to their collection of Fiesta dishware. After a day spent browsing downtown's shops, bistros and pubs, she suggests staking out a rocking chair on the inn's wide, lakefront porch to watch the sunset.

"Just sitting on that porch with the birds chirping and the inn's cats purring is hugely restorative. The martinis help, too," she said.

For Darlene Marshall, whose swashbuckling romances take place on Florida's Atlantic coast, driving to St. Augustine from her home in Gainesville is a perk of the job. When she heads to the former Spanish colonial city to research a book, she never misses a trip to St. Augustine Beach.

"It's less developed than some of the South Florida beaches," said Marshall, the author of four novels, including The Bride and the Buccaneer and Captain Sinister's Lady.

Marshall recommends staying on the beach and visiting the historic district for a look at one of the city's many museums and a meal at the Casa Monica Hotel's 95 Cordova. ((904) 810-6810; casamonica.com).

"My husband and I went there for his birthday," she said. "It's a very romantic evening."

Like Marshall, bestselling novelist Heather Graham has set books in St. Augustine, including the paranormal romance Unhallowed Ground.

Graham, a Miami native and theater arts alumna of the University of South Florida, seconds Marshall's vote for St. Augustine, recalling a visit when she arrived late at night and felt transported.

"The streets were absolutely empty in the historic section, and I realized that what I was seeing could have been a couple hundred years ago. It's amazing to be able to preserve that kind of history."

She also loves Key West, where "gorgeous architecture, the best music venues and the most creative artists" set the mood, along with historic inns like the 1890s Artist House (1-800-582-7882; artisthousekeywest.com).

Can't make it all the way to Key West? Just leaving the mainland can reignite sparks dampened by everyday life, Graham says.

"As soon as you go over the 18 Mile Stretch into the Keys, it's a different world," she said.

"People are more relaxed. The world slows down just a shade, and you can stop and look at things and take the time to appreciate them in a way you don't normally.

"You can ask each other questions, talk about things and laugh about the things that usually drive you crazy."

Outdoor adventures

While she acknowledges the appeal of a cozy fire on a cold day, Graham greatly prefers the romantic possibilities of exploring the outdoors sans puffy jacket. A favorite spot is the Everglades' Shark Valley Visitor Center ((305) 221-8776; nps.gov/ever), which offers guided tram tours, bicycle rentals and a 45-foot observation tower with sweeping views in all directions.

"I see couples out there all the time," she said. "You can really get a feeling of what Florida was like, and the birds are amazing."

A scuba diver, Graham frequents John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park ((305) 451-6300; pennekamppark.com), and recommends learning to dive as an out-of-the-box couples' activity. You don't need to dive to explore Pennekamp together, however. Daily snorkeling and glass-bottom boat tours offer access to the reef.

For an adrenaline rush, Marshall recommends soaring through the trees on Florida EcoSafaris' zipline tour ((407) 957-9794; floridaecosafaris.com). The seven ziplines rocket through the treetops at 25 mph, either by day or during starlit night tours.

"It really gets your endorphins flowing, which could lead to a romantic encounter," Marshall said.

For nature lovers, Marshall recommends hiking the banks of the Santa Fe or Suwannee river in north Florida. A favorite spot for kayaking and hiking is O'Leno State Park ((386) 454-1853; floridastateparks.org) on the Santa Fe, which boasts historic cabins and a suspension bridge built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s.

"It's a little jewel of a park. The river there is so untouched and natural," she said.

Given her fascination with space travel, Sinclair naturally puts Kennedy Space Center among her top romantic spots in the state, but she says you don't have to be a sci-fi fan to appreciate its appeal.

"When you take the bus tour and to see the launchpads from the observation platforms, you're looking at a vista of mangrove swamps, the river, the birds. The combination of nature and the gateway to the stars is so romantic to me. There's even a nesting pair of eagles that have been coming back to that spot for 25 years."

The luxe life

Orlando's theme parks are usually thought of as a family getaway, but Graham says couples shouldn't overlook the resort area's romantic potential.

"Talk about fairy tales: You can have Cinderella's golden carriage for your wedding. I know it's made-up romance, but I still like it," said Graham, who set her novel The Séance in the area.

She recommends the restaurants of Disney's Dolphin and Swan resorts ((407) 934-4000; swandolphinrestaurants.com) or a stay at the Victorian-style Grand Floridian ((407) 939-6244; disneyworld.disney.go.com/resorts).

For a chic city weekend, however, Graham likes the riverfront Epic Hotel in Miami ((305) 400-7399; epicmiami.com).

"The views of the Miami River are amazing," she said.

Sinclair, who lived in Pass-a-Grille before moving to Naples, misses slipping out to enjoy live piano music at the Don CeSar Beach Resort ((727) 360-1881; loewshotels.com), where she and her husband inevitably request As Time Goes By.

"We live in such a high-tech environment where everything is so impersonal: canned music, canned announcements. The personal touch of someone playing live music is so romantic," Sinclair said. "When they're playing your song and the two of you hold hands and look at each other across the table, it just adds something."

For Marshall, the secluded setting of the Ritz-Carlton Amelia Island ((904) 277-1100; ritzcarlton.com/ameliaisland) is the ultimate in posh romance.

"It's pricey, but it's perfect for a special day. I've been nudging my husband to go back for our anniversary," she said. Guest access to an Arnold Palmer-designed golf course could help Marshall get her wish.

"He'd like me to find golf courses romantic," she said, "but I'm not there yet."

Alisson Clark teaches feature writing at the University of Florida and blogs about family travel at outtherewithkids.blogspot.com.

To find Florida getaways for lovers, ask romance writers 02/09/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, February 9, 2011 11:45am]

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