GRAYTON BEACH: A FAIRY TALE STATE PARK
Once ranked as America's top beach, this 2,000-acre state park on the Florida Panhandle has sugar sand beaches, pine flatwoods and stands of scrub oak and magnolias, bent and twisted from the salt winds, that look straight out of a fairy tale. The beach itself has great surf fishing and locals say the best sunrise and sunset in Florida. But it has something you won't find on our local barrier islands — a 100-acre coastal dune lake, ideal for canoeing and kayaking. Pitch a tent in a full-service campground, or rent a cabin nestled in the pine woods. The two-bedroom, one-bath duplexes come equipped with a gas fireplace (available November through March), a kitchen and screened porch and an outdoor grill. Linens, pillows, blankets and towels provided, but be forewarned, there's no television or phone, which is why Grayton Beach is a good place to get away from it all. Go to floridastateparks.org.
GET CAMPY: FUN AND INEXPENSIVE
With spring break right around the corner, why not make some plans for a family getaway? Growing up in a family with nine children, my parents only had one option when it came to family vacation: camping. These forays into the wilderness were fun and inexpensive. You might need to make an initial investment in some basic equipment, but campsite fees are cheap. Most campsites in state parks come equipped with a charcoal grill or fire pit. You can prepare meals over an open fire, but you are better off to buy a good twin-burner propane stove. Put together a "camp cook kit" containing at least one pot, one frying pan and the necessary utensils, and you will be able to fix everything from linguine and clam sauce to beef stroganoff. When it comes to shelter, all it takes is one long, wet night in a cheap tent that leaks to make you wish you had spent an extra $50 for a quality product. Tents come in all styles, sizes and prices, and you can usually find a model that sleeps four people at one of the big-box stores. But remember, any tent will perform well in good weather. The question is, how will it do when a storm hits? Most families find that a lightweight dome tent is most practical. Ease of setup is a big plus, especially when you get to the campsite late and have to cook dinner. Be sure to buy one that has a separate rain fly, which gives you the option of just setting up the tent when the weather is good. A separate ground cloth will add years to the tent's floor, as will posting a sign that says "no shoes inside."
A BIG ONE:THE FOX SQUIRREL
This animal looks a little like your typical park squirrel, only bigger. A lot bigger. While a gray squirrel weighs about 1 to 1 ½ pounds, a fox squirrel can weigh up to 3 pounds. The first time you see one in the wild, you may mistake it for another animal altogether. Maybe that's why some outdoor folk also call this creature the raccoon squirrel. These squirrels vary in color from gray to black, and have long, bushy tails. They are fast and can leap from place to place, like a fox, hence the name. Fox squirrels can live throughout Florida. Sherman's fox squirrel, a species of special concern, is found primarily in Central and Northeastern Florida. Another species, the Big Cypress fox squirrel, is considered threatened, and found primarily in South Florida.
ORION COOLER: STURDY, WITH GOOD INSULATION
High-tech coolers are the rage, but what sets this ice box apart is the ability to use it with accessories in your kayak or canoe. The box on an Orion cooler is sturdy, which makes a good seat, or with the larger sizes, a stable casting platform on SUPs, Gheenoes or flats skiffs. But this premium cooler also comes equipped with YakAttack gear tracks on each side, which allows you to add holders for fishing rods, phones, cups, fish finders and GPS. Don't worry about rough weather, because this cooler has six tie-down points, four of which also serve as bottle openers. The Orion cooler has a rugged, roto-molded polyethylene shell and at least 2 inches of insulation to keep your root beer ice-cold. $369. orioncoolers.com.