Staycations have their merits, but when family or friends come to visit, a change of scenery means you get to be on vacation, too.
Just a couple of hours away on the Atlantic Ocean is a pristine stretch between St. Augustine and Daytona called Palm Coast. With little in the way of development, the cinnamon sugar-colored beaches are largely bordered by dunes and hammocks — “hammocks” being the ecological term for elevated stands of trees in coastal wetlands, not the hammocks you take a snooze in.
But you may well find both at Hammock Beach Resort — the heart of the area since its construction in 2000. It’s an ideal destination for spending quality time with your extended family and friends, however big your group — a bit like being on a cruise, but with plenty of room to roam.
A resort with everything
Our Sunshine State is flush with oceanfront hotels, but Hammock Beach Resort stands out for its unique pairing of spacious condo-style lodgings with golf-and-beach-resort amenities including a spa.
Since the individual units are privately owned, about half (currently 327) are part of the rental program. They include one-bedroom suites with kitchenettes and a living room as well as three- and four-bedroom condos with fully equipped kitchens and comfortable living quarters. Want to have a family dinner “at home” but don’t want to cook? The resort’s executive chef can come and cook dinner for you (maybe the kids can help, too).
Slightly separate are the 20 hotel-style rooms at the Lodge, a boutique hotel within the hotel that is owned and operated by Hammock Beach Resort. The ocean-view and oceanfront rooms are above the picturesque Atlantic Grille (serving three meals each day) and the pro shop that serves the Jack Nicklaus-designed Ocean Course at Hammock Beach. The Lodge is a quieter experience and closer to the ocean, but with equal access to all of the amenities, including a tucked-away pool that feels private and has its own boardwalk to the beach.
The resort is a sprawling property, as expected when it offers so much: indoor and outdoor pools (multiple), fitness center, kids club, dining outlets, pro shop, activity lawn, putt-putt golf, beach club and more. The tennis club and marina are nearby at a sister property.
The tennis club offers another option for a fun family activity: the Cardio Clinic. It’s basically a fun way to get a little exercise, with music, and to find yourself laughing and playing with your family and friends. No tennis experience required. Join an existing clinic on Tuesday and Thursday mornings at 8 a.m. or schedule your own as a group lesson.
Even if golf isn’t the center of your group’s interests, the Ocean Course at Hammock Beach is the property’s crown jewel, especially since its $3.8 million, 13-month-long renovation after Hurricane Matthew.
There’s a full mile of oceanfront golf that juxtaposes crashing waves, pristine beaches and healthy dunes with the emerald green carpet of wall-to-wall, tightly mowed paspalum turf over the rise and fall of the sculpted ground. The last nine holes include some of the hardest: #15, #16, #17 and #18 are known as the Bear Claw (Nicklaus is known as the Golden Bear). They are also the most scenic.
Talk to the pro shop about how you can involve your whole group in a golf experience. The Family Fairways program offers free clubs and discounted greens fees after 3 p.m. Each hole now has a closer tee to make the game more approachable for beginners and juniors (kids). Honestly, most newbies will play “best ball,” which means that after every player takes a turn, everyone moves their ball to the position of the “best ball” — the one nearest to the flag. You can arrange for a group lesson or even to have a pro join your group on the course.
There’s also a putt-putt golf course included in the resort fee. Glow Golf, a chipping exercise set up with glow-in-the-dark targets, is a regular on the extensive Activity Schedule.
Ye Olde St. Auggie
Just 45 minutes north of the resort, cross the Bridge of Lions from Anastasia Island into the heart of historic St. Augustine. Find out what legions of Florida fourth graders already know: America’s oldest continually settled city (1565) offers something for everyone.
Grownups love the brick streets lined with historic buildings that house endless shops, restaurants, indoor and outdoor venues for live music and more. It’s like a little bit of Europe right here in Florida. Henry Flagler transformed this town from a sleepy swamp into a glittering, season-long getaway for America’s wealthiest families from the late 19th through early 20th centuries. His Ponce de Leon Hotel — whose interior designer was Louis Comfort Tiffany (of Tiffany lamp fame) — for the rich and famous is now Flagler Hall, a girls’ dorm (and more) for Flagler College. The dining room is said to have a “Hogwarts quality,” but the only way to see it is on the Legacy Tour, daily at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m.
Kids love to climb up the stairs to the top of the 17th-century fort, Castillo de San Marcos, where they can easily imagine soldiers — at various times French, Spanish, English and Confederate — firing cannons upon unwelcome ships sailing into the protected harbor. Kids also love pocketing 20 bucks to spend as they wish in the endless sweets shops along St. George Street (warning: it’s a bit of a cavity-fest).
Park at the city’s main visitors’ center and plan your day. The hop-on, hop-off trolley tours are a great way to see it all. Dog-ear a time slot to spend at Ponce de Leon’s Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park, where actors interpret the daily life of the Timucua Indian settlement as well as of the Spanish who arrived with explorer Pedro Menendez 42 years before the English founded Jamestown. You’ll definitely see the white peacocks and taste the famous mineral water. There’s a terrific barbecue joint called Smoked Southern BBQ near the entrance that will refuel your own troops. If you drove to the park, another end-of-day dining tip is to continue north on A1A another 10 minutes to Cap’s on the Water, directly on the Tolomato River. There’s a dock for boaters to tie-off and come in to eat, and it’s a great spot to catch a sunset.
Plan Your Trip
Visit Old-Florida attractions: Marineland Dolphin Adventure is near the resort and has an outstanding location beside the ocean. They offer various dolphin-interaction programs for the whole family at this park that is celebrating its 80th year. On the way to St. Augustine is the Alligator Farm Zoological Park that was founded in 1893; now you can also zipline across the zoo. Across the street is the St. Augustine Lighthouse & Maritime Museum, where a resident ghost has been the subject of an episode of Ghost Hunters and a regular ghost tour offered at the lighthouse.
Feed your crew: Most people take advantage of the full kitchens in the multi-bedroom suites at Hammock Beach Resort (there’s a Publix near the entrance off A1A as well as Hammock Wine & Cheese). There are several dining options on the property, but you can work with banquet services before your trip to plan daily meals or events to bring the whole group back together after full days of play. A nearby, low-key option is Captain’s BBQ, whose screened patio overlooks the Matanzas River and whose owners bring some delicious expertise: Cheesecake Mike makes all desserts in-house and Captain Chris runs fishing charters. The BBQ is fed and tended nearly 12 hours a day with kiln-dried blackjack oak and turns out an array of meats that taste like they were grilled with love.
Play on the beach: Hammock Water Sports sets up its tent just south of the hotel’s beach zone and is run by the Palazzottos, a father-son duo both named Peter, who are stoked to get everyone in the water whether surfing, or kayaking on the nearby river. Call in advance (386-795- 7873) and one of the Peters will help you create lasting memories for your entire group.
Snag a deal: Hammock Beach Resort is offering Florida residents 10 percent off the best available rate; complimentary self-parking and internet access; one-hour daily bicycle rentals; and pool and beach service, including lounge chairs and umbrellas.
Getting there: Hammock Beach Resort is about three hours from Tampa, one hour and 40 minutes from Orlando’s attractions, a similar distance from Jacksonville’s airport, and just 45 minutes from Daytona’s.