Enjoying an Affordable Florida Family Vacation Despite the Poor Canadian Dollar

A couple of weeks before the 2016 March Break, my brother Marcel aka “Red’, his 21 year old son Josh, my son Tyler (30), my other son Izaak (28) and myself were sitting around at a family function discussing  how nice it would be to get down to Florida.  For the last several years we have spoken about a trip to Dunedin to watch some of the Blue Jay Spring Training games but with the Canadian dollar hovering near $1.35 US we didn’t think it was in the cards for this year. Until this: “What about if we drove down in our new car instead of flying?” Josh asked? “And we could camp instead of staying at a hotel!” he added. Then Izaak chipped in … “If we cooked our own meals instead of eating out – we’d save even more”.   “Hmm… and gas prices are even cheaper in the US than they are here … so that could reduce our costs even more,”  said Red - adding … “And Wil, you can make us a whole bunch of buns with cold meats and munchies for our drive, so we wouldn’t have to waste time or extra money stopping to eat either!”

Well, if it sounds like we were just trying to convince ourselves into going on this trip … then you’re 100% right … that’s exactly what we did. We all agreed then and there that we gotta make it happen. After examining several campgrounds on line, we pre-booked our campsite and chose Sherwood Forest Resort – less than a 15 minute drive from the ball park. Before we left, we ordered Blue Jay tickets for two games, and booked kayak rentals at Top Water Kayaks in Fort De Soto State Park about 45 minutes away. We also checked out various fishing opportunities off government piers, beaches to swim, golf course for some of our crew and other sites in the area to see. We would decide what else to do while we were down there.

First A trip to Snow and Ice:

As luck would have it, I also had off work the week prior to March Break, and my friend Gerry and I had long-planned an ice fishing trip up to his cabin. This secluded wilderness get-away in northern Ontario is just south of Gogama – about 7 hours from my home in Bradford. Up there we snowmobiled into several lakes to ice fish and had 2 ½ feet of ice and over three feet of snow to contend with… So the upcoming transition from one extreme destination and climate to another was enticing to say the least.

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Before Wil’s trip to Florida, he was way up north on an ice fishing vacation where he stayed in this cabin surrounded by over 3 feet of snow.

After a great winter trip up north, I got home, packed and the Wegman clan headed south to Florida … bright and early at 4am.  In total, the drive down to Dunedin via I-75 Hwy is about 22 hours nonstop – which we divided into two days, sleeping over at one of the many hotels along the way just south of Atlanta for around $75. With all of us taking turns at the wheel and the back seat crew typically relaxing by watching various shows and movies on the laptop, it was surprising to all of us how fast the drive went.

On the 2nd day, we drove straight to the ball park in Dunedin and even though the game was already in the 3rd inning we were hoping to get tickets– but it was completely sold out. So, off we went to our Sherwood Forest resort to set up camp and prepare supper.  We were impressed with the campground and the friendly folks who ran it and stayed there. The large tent sites were at the very back of the resort and the RV’s and trailers were up front. It was ironic that our only next door neighbors were also from Ontario … a retired couple from London.  We were delighted to learn from them that raccoons and skunks or other critters were not an issue at all … so that was a treat. Mosquitoes were almost non-existent. Besides the squirrels in all the trees and all the shore birds that were on site because of the pond, the only other critters we saw were these small, rather cute and harmless lizards that blended in so well with their natural surroundings.

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The lizards we saw around camp were called Brown anoles and were first introduced to Florida from Cuba and the Bahamas and are now found throughout the state. This one, is a male characterized by its orange throat flap.

We pitched the tents and then quickly filled up our new Coleman air beds with an electric pump and inverter hooked up to the vehicle.  Man these mattresses were about 18 inches high and it felt great to be so comfortable and that far off the ground. We then pulled out our cooking supplies and food. Although there is a misconception that you can’t take most foods across the border, we checked beforehand here so although some items were not permitted, others were and we brought some of those along for convenience and extra savings. That night we enjoyed a steak dinner over the BBQ with all the fixins along with some typically inexpensive American beer.

The next day the Blue Jays were off, so we had planned on a trip over to Fort De Soto Park about 45 minutes away.  At just $5 for a day use pass, entry into the park was a bargain, especially when we’re used to paying $20 at some of our provincial parks back home!

Kayaking at Fort De Soto Park:

When we arrived at Top Water Kayaks, the friendly staff there told us the dolphins hadn’t been in to the lagoons for a couple of days … but that if we saw fish jumping then it would be a good indication that they had come in from the Gulf, to feed.  If we were real lucky we would also catch a glimpse of a manatee. We were excited therefore not only for a chance to see dolphins and manatee but also to do some fishing in these saltwater canals. We were each supplied with an open kayak and provided instructions and a map on the route we would travel. 

Within a few minutes of paddling … all five of us saw fish jumping … that I figured would be mullets, so expectations to see dolphins chasing this and other forage were high.  Not long afterwards though, the skies opened up and a heavy downpour came upon us. Fortunately it didn’t last long and before we knew it, the sun was back out and we were in great spirits.

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The warm rain was soon followed by bright sunny skies and there was no need to head for cover.

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Here Tyler relaxes moments after the heavy rains.

My brother Red was the first one to hook into a fish not long after the rain.   He had several hits before that and finally connected with his first flounder ever … a nice ‘sammich-sized’ one of about 12 inches that we live-released instead of sticking it between two slices of bread.

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Wil’s Brother Marcel with his first flounder … and his son Josh looking on

After that fish, we all fished a little harder as we paddled towards the Gulf and mouth of the canals.  “Manatee … Manatee right down here!” Izaak yelled …. And almost simultaneously he turned around to do battle with a big fish that tore drag from his spinning reel.  We quickly paddled over to catch a glimpse of this iconic Floridian symbol of tranquility known as a ‘sea-cow’. While Izaak continued to try and catch his big fish, we all saw this marvelous creature in the same area.  After a couple of minutes Izaak’s fish suddenly came loose but as a more-than-adequate consolation prize, the manatee we saw headed right toward him and he ended up seeing it better than any of us!

At the mouth of the Gulf, we saw even more shorebirds, osprey and other waterfowl as we rounded a nearby island and headed back down the other side of the canal along the mangroves.

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Although I thought most of the fish would be hiding in the shade provided by the mangroves, my attempts to fish beneath them did not yield the desired results so on the way back I changed tactics and fished in the open.

Here I threw a jig and Storm swimbait on my economy-priced Rapala Griffin Baitcaster combo. I used this two piece medium heavy action rod and had 14 lb. Suffix Sege monofilament tied on. Eventually I hooked into a fish that surprised me by leaping three feet into the air!  I could see it wasn’t all that big, but you’d never know it by the battle it was giving me.  It may not have been the Redfish I was hoping for but it was fun none-the-less.  

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This ‘lady-fish’ sort of resembles our cisco back home in Ontario … but with a larger eye, and a more spirited battle at the end of an angler’s line.

It was not until our paddle back that we all began to have our own personal encounters with the marvelous dolphins we desperately wanted to see. We would typically catch a glimpse of one jumping and it didn’t take long to figure out which direction and the route it would take in its determined effort to chow down on all the fish available. They would swim under water for 20 meters or so, and then jump and head back down.  

My close encounter was of the jaw-dropping kind and came after my brother was about 75 meters ahead of me watching a dolphin of his own. “Wil … stay there, it’s coming your way!” I did and less than a minute later, that awesome 8-10 foot marine mammal jumped right in front of me and then dove down and swam directly below my kayak!  I could have touched her I was so close … and for a split second, thought it may tip my kayak – but recall thinking that “I really don’t care if it did- as I’d then have an even more awesome memory.”

Following that great kayak excursion, we headed for the famed Fort De Soto beach that stretched for miles and miles along the coast. This beach was recently named America's best family beach by Parents magazine. Here we caught a few quick rays and then jumped in and swam the salty seas.

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After relaxing on the beach we headed over to the most incredible fishing pier I have ever been on.

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There are actually two piers in the park and the Gulf Fishing Pier is the longest at more than 1,000 feet. A popular spot there is no charge to fish on the pier and thanks to Friends of Fort Desoto Park who purchased a ‘pier fishing license’, you will not need to have a Florida fishing license to fish from the pier. The pier closes at 11 p.m. and has plenty of lighting at night. Fish cleaning tables with running water are also available for cleaning your catch.  Although we didn’t carry our fishing rods with us, we saw several others catch fish of all sorts.  We thoroughly enjoyed watching more dolphins up close though and could see thousands of baitfish boiling beneath the pier.

Let’s Play Ball:

After an unforgettable day at Fort De Soto, most of the rest of our trip was focused on baseball and the Blue Jays Spring Training games. In total we saw three games … two of which were right in Dunedin that we pre-purchased tickets for, and the other was over at Steinbrenner Field to watch the Yankees play in Tampa.  This truly was a beautiful ball park and we bought tickets on line thru Stub Hub.

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At the Yankee Stadium there were still plenty of die-hard Canadian Blue Jay Fan’s … including these Wegman’s from left to right: Marcel … aka Red, his son Josh, Wil in the middle, Wil’s oldest son Tyler and Wil’s youngest son Izaak.

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Back at The Florida Auto Exchange Center in Dunedin where the Blue Jays play, Marcel and Josh met up with the familiar Jay’s mascot – ‘Ace’.

Getting in and out of both ball parks was quick and easy … in Tampa we actually found a spot 5 minutes away to park at no charge and in Dunedin we felt compelled to park at a local establishment that provided all five of us this incentive shown below to park there for just 10 bucks. With a ticket stub … drinks after the ball games were two for the price of one … and when beer was just a couple of bucks a can it lent itself well to our budget-oriented trip.

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Between ball games, Red, Tyler and Josh enjoyed a great game of golf over at the Wentworth Golf Club near Tarpon Springs about 25 minutes away from our camp. By checking on line for any deals first, they found the Tee Time specials and pre-booked as early birds.   The 18 hole course meanders through beautifully manicured, rolling terrain and they said each hole was challenging and fun, despite their different skill levels. 

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Josh Wegman, the youngest of the Wegman clan, showed his older cousin Tyler and his much older dad … how it’s done on the back nine. The front nine winds through a typical Florida woodlands and provides plenty of water and sand, long and short … all in all Wentworth and it's Mulligan's Irish Pub come highly recommended by all 3 Wegman’s.

While they golfed, Izaak and I drove to Clearwater to fish off another public pier.  This one was a little more commercial – as it charged $8.00 a head, but it also had a ‘pier fishing license’, fish cleaning stations and even a wonderful volunteer to help the younger kids catch fish.   Izaak and I soon found that our larger artificial baits were not the ticket to catch the smaller pan-sized pin fish, so we downsized our lures to small jigs – and squid or shrimp, both of which was graciously supplied by other visitors who were leaving.   I watched how the volunteer cut the bait for the kids and duplicated that for the two larger Wegman kids and before we knew it we too were catching one after the other.

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Pinfish like these came fast and furious once we got the hang of it off the Clearwater Pier 60

Other Notables About Our Economy Priced Florida Vacation:

  • On the Clearwater Pier, we met up with a nice family from out Chatham Ontario way. Carson … who was the avid young angler in the group didn’t have a fishing rod with him, so I lent him mine, gave him a quick run-down on how the pinfish were hitting, and he soon too started catching. 
  • To get the pesky pelicans off the pier, we were encouraged by the volunteer to dispatch the odd pinfish and throw it far and away. To everyone’s delight the pelicans would sense the easy meal and instantly swoop down and nab their next meal.
  • There’s another pier right in Dunedin on the way to the ballpark that we didn’t have a chance to fish but we did see sea turtles here.
  • After a long day out and about, it was great to relax under the lighted gazeebo by the pond at Sherwood Forest. Here we would re-charge our devices, plug in the laptop and watch taped TV shows and movies. We fished the pond on and off, as reportedly there were some big Florida strain largemouth in there, but never hooked up with any.
  • During all of the many hours the five of us spent in Red’s Hyundai Santé Fe driving to/from Florida and getting around Dunedin, we did actually make room for an additional passenger we all became very fond of.  “Mulva,” as we affectionately called her, was the magical Magellan GPS Navigator that not only kept us from being horribly lost and on track to our destinations, but provided us with the quickest route, each and every time.  This allowed us to see different parts of Florida, kept us off the interstates when there were accidents or delays, warned us when we exceeded the speed limit (a handy feature the dad’s really liked when their sons were driving) and she told us about upcoming landmarks (like gas stations) where we should turn.  Mulva definitely earned her keep amongst us five lads.
  • There are basically two routes from the Toronto area that most visitors choose from. We took the western route (I-75) on the way down that brought us across the border in Detroit.  The I-75 is actually about 100 km longer than ‘the other’ route because it west from Knoxville to Chattanooga in Tennessee, but then heads back south on the way to Atlanta, Georgia.  It is recognized however as being better ‘weather-wise’ because it avoids most mountain ranges.  For the drive back home we took the central mountain route (I-79 / I-77 / I-26 / I-95 / I-4). This one doesn’t have as many rest-stops, hotels and restaurants and brought us thru the gorgeous Appalachian Mountains where we saw plenty of deer, wild turkey and even a big black bear feeding on the green grassy side of a mountain. This route brought us thru Pennsylvania and New York so we crossed at Fort Erie.  By the time we reached home, we had travelled over 5,000km!
  • We had warm sunny weather during our entire stay and even at night all we really needed were sheets and a light blanket.
  • One of the ball games we saw was the Juniors from Team Canada who took on the Blue Jays and of course the pros won handily. The Yankees beat us in Tampa, and we saw an uncommon tie game against the Baltimore Orioles.
  • There are lots of great website for those visiting the Dunedin, St Pete’s Clearwater area but this local tourism site is your best start with plenty of links to various fun activities: visit St Pete’s, Clearwater

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Now that our trip is over, the Wegman clan can fully appreciate why so many Canadians visit Florida and the St Pete’s Clearwater area every winter. We had a great time, didn’t break the bank and look forward to future visits.