My family has been vacationing to Florida every year since I was born. We’ve been to the Gulf Coast, the Atlantic Coast, and many dolphin-mailbox-dotted counties between. The annual Florida trip was usually our only vacation of the year, so we dutifully checked all the boxes: family photos on the beach, souvenir seashell-collecting missions, dinners at the pirate-themed restaurants paid for in travelers’ checks. I always came home to New Jersey sun-tired and happy.
Some of our Florida destinations felt more overtly touristy than others, but my overall impression is that Florida is a state kept afloat by medical centers, citrus production, and novelty T-shirt sales. After high school, as I grew more interested in food and travel, I wanted more out of these trips. I wanted to visit the hyped craft breweries, the under-the-radar cocktail bars, the most legit Cuban sandwich places. I began to turn these trips into expeditions, researching new destinations in food magazines and pestering my well-traveled acquaintances for recommendations. I even dragged my Oma on a tour at Cigar City Brewing.
This year, I did none of that.
My family spent a week on an island outside Jacksonville recently, and I did not do one minute of research beforehand. I didn’t plan to visit a sleek distillery, or to drive 90 minutes to find the micro-batch coffee roaster. I leaned in to the Tommy Bahama-washed Floridaness of it all, embracing the Jimmy Buffet soundtracks at the fried seafood shacks where the servers all wear neon tank tops. I drank multiple overly sweet pina coladas from clunky, frozen machines. I had chips and Sysco guacamole at the crusty beach bar. I drank a lot of koozie-wrapped beers with lime. They all tasted exactly right, right where I was.
Maybe it’s an age thing. Maybe I’m just way more exhausted than I was at 22 and a week on the sand with a paperback and no culinary goals is the height of bliss. Whatever its cause, this year I accepted myself as a tourist. I didn’t come back with any new favorite seafood recipes. I ate the fried shrimp and washed it down with cocktails called Tipsy Turtle and Lazy Parrot, and guys—it ruled.
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I freed up so much time that I would have spent driving and navigating and Instagramming to prove I went to the “right” places. I had time to catch up with my family, read a few books, and go kayaking and fishing. Standing on the bow of a boat at 9 a.m. reeling in a 22-inch red fish isn’t something I could do at home. Distilleries, upscale restaurants, craft beer bars, and artisan ice cream places? Those are a dime a dozen.
This is not to disparage restaurant and bars and wineries as travel destinations at all. Those are 90% of the reason I travel the rest of the year. And maybe that’s what made this Florida trip truly feel like a vacation: I turned off that switch, let myself sit it out. So much has been made of my generation’s preference for experiences over things, but those experiences can be become just as acquisitive. It sparks a race to see it all, to go to all the places you’ve been pointed toward. “Oh, you were on ABC Island? Did you make it to that cocktail bar?” The desire for experiences create their own pressure.
You know what didn’t feel like pressure? Eating seafood chowder at a paper-tablecloth restaurant called Hammerheads or Hungry Pelican or Sandbar while a guy in Bermuda shorts plays steel-drum classic rock covers. That’s something I truly couldn’t find anywhere else.