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There's a lot to take in across the U.S., and sometimes, it's hard to know where to begin. That's why Canadian Traveller decided to look into the best all-access vacation destinations, where you can lay your head at night but enjoy day trips to great destinations within a short drive, should you decide to head out of town at all.
All-Access: Gilroy, California
Gilroy might be the most under-appreciated part of northern California, despite its prime real estate nestled between mountains and wine country. It’s got those low-key, outdoorsy vibes that city slickers from nearby San Francisco crave, but with plenty of surprises in between. Whether you’re here for the garlic or the redwoods, you’re bound to fall hard for Gilroy.
Must-see & do highlights in Gilroy:
Gilroy Welcome Center
Gilroy Garlic Festival
Is there anywhere else on the planet that takes garlic as seriously as Gilroy? Unlikely. There’s a whole festival devoted to it. Taking place annually near the end of July, the Gilroy Garlic Festival is a three-day extravaganza of food, drink, cooking competitions, live arts and crafts, and more. The main attraction centres around the “Pyro Chefs” putting on a flame-up show as they cook with garlic on enormous iron skillets. The Gilroy garlic shrimp was a smash hit at the last festival.
Wine tasting the Santa Clara Valley Wine Trail
Take a wine-fuelled journey through southern Santa Clara Valley and discover 26 different wineries, many of them family-owned for generations. The Gilroy Welcome Center has put together a nifty wine trail map to help you plan your route, and it’s important to note than each winery has different hours. Still, it won’t be hard to find somewhere to sit back with a cool glass of rosé overlooking the scenic vistas offered in northern California.
Get in touch with nature at Coyote Lake Park
Coyote Lark Park is a sprawling 6,695-acre recreation area, its focal point being a 449-acre serene lake. If you’re into fishing, take a boat out onto the lake and cast for black bass, Eurasian carp, and bluegill. If you’re more of a hiker or biker, the 56-kilometre network of trails winding through deep canyons and grassy ridge lines offers some of the best views of the Santa Clara Valley.
Explore Historic Downtown Gilroy
Gilroy Welcome Center
If you prefer your cardio to come in the form of shopping and sightseeing, Gilroy’s Historic Downtown District is the place to be. Downtown is the heart of the city, and it’s filled with antique shops and specialty boutiques selling jewelry, furniture, kitchenware, gifts, toys, and other hidden treasures. When you’re done with retail therapy, unwind with a cup of java at one of the quaint coffee shops, or grab a famous burger at the Milias Restaurant.
See the redwoods at Mt. Madonna County Park
Spend some time with the redwoods at Mt. Madonna County Park, and you’ll feel like you’re walking amongst giants. The entire 4,605-acre county park is filled with the redwoods that characterize the Santa Cruz Mountains. Further down in the valley, the forest turns to oak woodland and grassy meadows. You can hike the trails, but we recommend saddling up at Mt. Madonna Stables and seeing the park’s beauty from horseback.
Where to eat & drink in Gilroy:
We mentioned The Milias Restaurant once, and we’ll mention it again. This place is not just famous for its burgers, but also it’s seafood: fresh mussels, grilled mahi mahi, fish cakes on risotto, and everything in between. Visit the Old City Hall Restaurant while you’re at it. The place looks like a dive bar from the outside, but inside is all class. Order a Bloody Mary while you wait for your steak to arrive, grilled to perfection.
Get cafe acquainted
Gilroy does cafés really well, and it makes sense that such a garlic-loving place has an eatery titled Garlic City Cafe. You can’t stay just for the excellent coffee--you must order a garlic calamari steak sandwich or a garlic cheeseburger. At Cafe 152 Burger Co., the love affair with burgers lives on...but this time, with a strawberry milkshake. Not the kind of cafe you were looking for? Head to Fifth Street Coffee Roasters, where you can get your usual regular coffee, or dress it up a bit with an almond honey latte or a matcha latte.
Where to stay in Gilroy:
Olivia Christine | Hilton Garden Inn
There’s comfort in familiarity, and the Hilton Garden Inn delivers all the good stuff you’d expect from Hilton: plush, modern rooms; a heated outdoor swimming pool and whirlpool; and free WiFi. The same goes for the Best Western Plus - Forest Park Inn: expect the standard fabulous service.
We’re in love with Fitz Place, a cozy English-style inn right on Santa Clara County’s Wine Trail. Book the Notting Hill Suite for its stylish accents and wood-burning fireplace. Not rustic enough? The yurts at Mount Madonna County Park in the middle of the redwood forest ought to do it, especially if you’re looking for that unity with nature.
Gilroy's best-kept secrets:
Get to know your wines
Many people don’t realize how many wines are produced in the Santa Clara Valley, despite it being one of California’s oldest wine regions. There are 25 family-owned wineries on the Santa Clara Valley Wine Trail, which means plenty of wine samplings. The vintners love getting to know their visitors, and many offer picnics with scenic vineyard views. The fresh air complements the wine (or is it the other way around?).
Visit the Gilroy Welcome Center
Mayor Roland Velasco suggests making the Gilroy Welcome Center one of your first stops in Gilroy, especially to talk with the folks who know the area inside and out. You’ll be able to get your hands on helpful maps, timely coupons, and fun souvenirs.
Find some international flavour
Jane Howard from the Gilroy Welcome Center suggests heading just beyond Hecker Pass Highway, where you’ll find a surprising number of off-the-beaten-track international restaurants. Irish, Italian, Chinese, and Thai food are all yours for indulging.
All-Access: San Luis Obispo County, California
San Luis Obispo (SLO, for short) encapsulates all the perks of California living: it’s nestled between the Coast Range, the Pacific Ocean, and Central Coast Wine Country. Temperatures are always pleasant, and so are the views. Whether you spend your days perusing farmers’ markets or relaxing at the beach, SLO will leave its impression branded on your heart.
Must-see & do highlights in SLO:
Did you know that the beach at Oceano Dunes is the only beach in California where you’re allowed to drive vehicles on the sand? Rent an ATV or a small buggy, and have some fun speeding around the dunes! You can also camp out here. Don’t show up unprepared, though: for safety reasons, you’ll want to dress in layers and wear full-length pants, or else you won’t be able to ride.
Visit Hearst Castle
Hearst Castle on The Enchanted Hill estate in San Simeon is one of those rare architectural gems in modern America, known for its eccentricities. It belonged to Randolph Hearst in the mid-1800s. Hearst was a famous publisher, movie producer, and art collector. You can tour the elaborately decorated rooms, like the grand social rooms of Casa Grande with its Spanish ceiling dating from the 1400s, or the Upstairs Suites with its winding staircase and antique furniture. There’s also a museum in the Visitor Centre dedicated to Hearst’s fascinating life.
Get to know agri-tourism
Agri-tourism is big in SLO. If you’re a hands-on kind of traveller, you can pick apples at SLO Creek Farms, or peaches and blackberries at Avila Valley Barn. SLO’s ranches are worth your time. At the Bear Creek Ranch, tour the grounds and see the longhorn cattle. Head to Crossroads Ranch next, where you’ll want to spend some time getting to know the more than 40 gentle alpacas here that have been re-homed. If your timing is right, you might even get to watch the alpacas being sheared.
A classic Californian beach town on the Pacific Coast, Pismo Beach checks all the right boxes: white sandy beaches, vibrant sunsets, great nature, and an endless variety of shops, restaurants, and wineries. Take a horseback riding tour, or opt for a surfing lesson at the Sandbar Surf School. The 18-kilometre trail network at the Pismo Preserve is ideal for hiking and biking, with perfect ocean views to top off your day.
Thursday night Farmers’ Market
Downtown SLO Farmers’ Market is the largest farmer’s market in the region, but Thursday night is the best time to visit. You’ll find everything from strawberries to beets to kale and nuts from 37 small family-operated farms, and plenty of food stalls selling plates of BBQ ribs, desserts, and roasted corn on the cob (among many other dishes). The best part? You’ll have a soundtrack to accompany you for the evening. Wander between streets and take in some of the entertainment, including live music!
Where to eat & drink in SLO:
Locally sourced, wood-fired cuisine is all the rage at Ember Restaurant, where foodies get to eat in a rustic barn-like setting with a farm-to-table small plate menu. Steaks and pizzas are the usual go-to, and the chef focuses on simple but well-prepared ingredients. Otherwise, wine and dine at Novo Restaurant & Lounge right on San Luis Obispo Creek. When the weather’s right, hang out on the romantic deck with an antipasto plate or some duck confit stir-fry paired with your favourite wine.
Some of the hippest dining spots in SLO specialize in Asian cuisine, but they’re often tucked away. The Oki Momo Asian Grill in San Luis Obispo proper and Tao Asian Fusion in Pismo Beach both offer eclectic menus from various Asian influences, but mostly Chinese, Japanese, and Thai. Great for the indecisive traveller!
Where to stay in SLO:
Posh lodgings of all varieties
Spyglass Inn at Pismo Beach has 82 newly renovated rooms with Wi-Fi, bath robes, luxurious bath amenities, and flawless ocean views. It’s casual, but chic. Madonna Inn is modern with a touch of whimsy, located just outside downtown San Luis Obispo. Each room comes with enchanting, quirky décor, like rose-themed wallpaper and four-poster beds.The amenities include horseback riding and a terrace bar and pool. If you’re more of a traditionalist, you’ll love the San Luis Creek Lodge, a charming English tudor-style bed and breakfast with spacious rooms and bathrooms.
“Rough it” in Slo Co
San Luis Obispo County Parks has plenty of campsites with a wide range of facilities, including campgrounds and RV hook-ups. One of our favourites is Pacific Dunes Ranch RV Resort, considered to be the most unique in the region with its rolling sand dunes and trails leading to the beach at Oceano Preserve. You can actually park your RV at the beach. Waking up with the ocean literally at your doorstep? Yes, please!
SLO's best-kept secrets:
Edna Valley Winery | Flickr/Anita Ritenour (CCby2.0)
SLO is all about diversity
Did you know that in SLO you can hike or bike the trails around San Luis Obispo proper in the morning, go wine tasting at noon, and then enjoy a stunning beach sunset - all within a short drive from one another? SLO really is an all-access destination, and even the pickiest of travellers will find plenty of reason to stay awhile.
San Luis Obispo Museum of Art
The San Luis Obispo Museum of Art is a small gallery featuring the works of local painters, sculptors, photographers, and printmakers. It also has travelling California art exhibitions. The museum is essentially the perfect way to earn some cultural insight into the area! Check in ahead of time for docent-led tours as well as SLOMA ARTalks.
Flickr/David Fulmer (CCby2.0)
You won’t often hear the tourism boards touting Bubblegum Alley in downtown San Luis Obispo, but it’s still a sight to behold. It’s exactly what you think it is: an alleyway known for its incredible collection of used bubblegum plastered on the walls. The entire thing is 15-feet high and 70-feet long, and yes, it’s kinda gross...but the selfies are worth it.
See a movie...from your car
That’s right, SLO has an old-fashioned drive-in cinema: the Sunset Drive-In. It’s been around since the 50s, and there are about 500 parking spots for movie-goers. You’ll invoke that nostalgic sense of old America as you sit back in your car, and take in a new Hollywood hit.
All-Access: Yuma, Arizona
Yuma is located on the southwest corner of Arizona, just a stone’s throw from both the Mexican and Californian borders, with constantly pleasant weather and plenty of nature to appreciate it in (Colorado River and Martinez Lake are both beautiful options). Yuma is perfectly stocked with golf courses, museums, historic parks, casinos, and plenty of big nature to take advantage of- and take advantage you must!
Must-see & do highlights in Yuma:
See the Sanguinetti House Museum
E.F. Sanguinetti (1867-1945) was a penniless youth in Yuma who became a wealthy businessman with various enterprises, from electricity to ranching and everything in between. He led a fascinating life, and nowadays you can visit his deluxe home at the Arizona Historical Society’s Sanguinetti House Museum and Gardens in downtown Yuma. Opt for a historic walking tour, a trolley tour, or even a thrilling evening ghost trolley tour.
Make friends with camels
A petting zoo might not seem like an ideal way to spend your vacation, but we assure you that the Wild World Zoo & Camel Farm is anything but dull! This isn’t your average zoo: there are Fennec foxes and Coatimundis (funny raccoon-like animals), but the most popular animals of all are the real Arabian camels. There aren’t many opportunities to get up close and personal with camels in the middle of the Arizona desert, so don’t miss this stop!
Learn a little about Yuma history
Pivot Point Interpretation Plaza is the best way to get a quick history of Yuma, with an outdoor exhibit sitting on the exact spot where the first railroad train entered Arizona in 1877. Let the kids hang out with the 1907 Baldwin train, where an audio system recreates the sound of a passing steamboat and the swing-span rail bridge opening up as the train arrives. It’s a fun little touch of history, recreated.
Castle Dome Mines Museum
If you’re not done with your history fix, visit one of Arizona’s hidden gems: the Castle Dome Mines Museum. This place is a riveting history lesson combined with wide open desert vistas, but it’s more unique than most museums: it’s also a sprawling ghostly mining camp, at the foot of Castle Dome mountain. You’ll want to have your camera ready.
Where to eat & drink in Yuma:
Have ever been on a date date? (Sorry, we couldn’t resist.) Tour Martha’s Gardens Date Farm, with its 8,000 palms growing tasty Medjool dates. More importantly, the farm sells unique (and award-winning) date shakes, sandwiches, soups, hot dogs, and ice-cream. If dates aren’t your thing, head to downtown Yuma and visit Desert Olive Farms’ shop for locally grown olive oil and related products.
When in America, do as the Americans do. Diners and grills are beloved establishments around Yuma, and visiting Penny’s Diner is a must. This 50s-style hotspot serves massive burgers, and it’s open 24 hours. If you’ve got a soft spot for burgers, you’ll also love A&R Grill where they are served along with sandwiches and other bar fare. The kicker: 16 taps for tasty microbrews. Don’t forget Da Boyz, specializing in hand-tossed pizzas and giant plates of pasta. There are two locations: one downtown, and one in the Foothills.
Where to stay in Yuma:
Hitch up the RV
If you don’t believe there’s such thing as a posh RV park, the Palms RV Resort will change your mind. There are 453 lots here, with two pools, a fitness room, a golf course, and even a library. For a bare-bones version, dry camping in the desert at the Imperial Dam Long Term Visitor Area will better suit your budget. A 14-day stay can be purchased for $40USD.
High-end or historic
Treat yourself to a stay at the Hilton Garden Inn, built on the exact same spot where history was made in 1877 when the first train crossed the Colorado River and entered into Yuma. The Radisson Yuma also has comfortable rooms, and a complimentary shuttle right from the airport. Need more personality? Stay at the historic Coronado Motor Motel, first opened in 1938.
Yuma's best-kept secrets:
The West Wetlands
This family-fun spot has two distinct play areas for kids, including a community-built castle. There’s a pond full of fish, a garden, a burrowing owl habitat, serene walking trails, and sandy golden beaches. It’s not uncommon to see herons and egrets hanging out around the pond. You can even rent an inner tube and float down the lazy river with a cold drink in hand. At Yuma River Tubing, you’ll get all suited up with the right gear to enjoy the ride. All you have to do is sit back, relax, and take in the lush river scenery.
See the plane that set an endurance record
At City Hall, you can see “The City of Yuma”: the plane that set an endurance record for nonstop flying in 1949. Unbelievably, the plane took off on August 24 and didn’t land until October 10, thanks to volunteers that handed food and fuel to the pilots while driving alongside the plane in a convertible. You can also learn about the history of aviation in the area while here.
Bike the Colorado River
Over the past decade, the public parklands along the Colorado River have been undergoing a huge face lift, and has since been turned into a relaxed nature destination for folks and visitors to the area.The parkland has kilometres of paved biking and walking paths, with hundreds of acres of wildlife habitats.
Yoga on top of a prison
You can do yoga in plenty of strange places, but have you ever tried a downward dog atop a prison guard tower? During certain times of the year in Yuma, you can practice your poses at the Yuma Territorial Prison State Historic Park with Yogamour. The panoramic views just add to the ultimate namaste experience.
All-Access: Mesa, Arizona
Mesa is Arizona’s artistic epicentre, where artists leave their work all over the city in a makeshift treasure hunt for locals and visitors. You’ll love the quirky, entertaining vibes in this desert oasis just outside of Phoenix!
Must-see & do highlights in Mesa:
Mesa Arts Center
Did we mention that art is BIG here? So is this complex. It’s the largest arts and entertainment park in the Southwest and includes theatres, galleries, exhibits, and even classrooms where creativity is encouraged and fostered. It’s fitting that the architecture is just as stunning - for example, outside the building is a giant curtain of blue glass tiles that flows in the wind.
The glorious Superstition Mountains to the east of Mesa earned their name from the folklore surrounding them, and we can’t help but wonder if they’re partially to credit for Mesa’s astounding creativity. At the Superstition Mountain Museum, you can learn all about the mountains and their unique formation, and the story of the Lost Dutchman Gold Mine - a lost goldmine believed to be hidden around these parts. In the Lost Dutchman State Park, stretch your legs and take a hike right to the base of Superstition Mountain.
Explore downtown Mesa’s street artVisit Mesa
Being Arizona’s creative hub, Mesa is home to an eclectic collection of historic neighbourhoods and a Main Street filled with painted murals and sculptures. Look for the “Melting Pot” mural at the Eclectic Monkey Emporium, where the artwork creates an illusion of a store melting into the Arizona sun. (Look a little closer, and you might see hidden images.) Seek out the iconic artwork of Lauren Lee as well, including her work adorning the wall at the Mesa Urban Garden.
Cruise Saguaro Lake
Alluring Saguaro Lake gets its namesake from the many saguaro cacti surrounding its 35 kilometres of shoreline. You can rent boats, water skis, wakeboards, jet skis, stand-up paddleboards and kayaks, but the best way to see the lake is by guided tour. Hop aboard The Desert Belle for a live music cruise, and take in the towering canyon walls surrounding the lake.
Gaze at the stars
Mesa’s night sky is one of the most popular reasons to visit the area, and for good reason. In Mesa, you can get far enough away from the Phoenix city lights to take in an untouched, perfectly clear, starry sky. Arizona is reputable for its star-gazing opportunities: at one of the observatories here, Pluto was first discovered.
Where to eat & drink in Mesa:
South of the border
When you’re craving empanadas, Republica Empanada is a pan-Latin bistro that serves up the best South American style empanadas in the area. All the dishes are inspired by Latin American comfort food, and the restaurant itself is a lively place to hang out. Next, head to experience Mexico at Jalapeno Bucks, featuring new wave Mexican soul food and delectable BBQ. Don’t skimp on the salsa.
Whatever ales you
At the Beer Research Institute, craft beer with a focus on Belgian-style ales is all the rage. It’s brewed by Mesa locals and paired with a menu that suits the ales just fine (southern BBQ and green chili mac-n-cheese, for example). Don’t forget to sample the wares at Desert Eagle Brewing; it was one of the city’s first micro-breweries, and they do a mean IPA.
Get super local
We can’t end this piece without a shout-out to Worth Takeaway on Mesa’s Main Street, where every single item on the menu has a story to tell. Each and every ingredient is hyper-local, from Arizona’s favourites like Provision Coffee and Mesa’s Proof Bread, and the produce comes from Crooked Sky Farms.
Where to stay in Mesa:
Sheraton MesaLocation is key
The Sheraton Mesa at Wrigleyville West is perfectly poised between the Chicago Cubs’ Spring Training stadium and Riverview Park, within walking distance to plenty of shopping, dining, and entertainment options. The resort-style pool area is a bonus addition, as well as the two plunge pools and the hot tub. The Hyatt Place Phoenix/Mesa is also a favourite among frequent travellers, thanks to its fair prices and excellent location in the city’s entertainment hub. If you’re looking for something closer to the airport, try the new Courtyard Phoenix Mesa Gateway Airport.
Luxury and leisure
The Hilton Phoenix/Mesa is a modern, stunning atrium-style hotel with the feel of a luxurious resort in the middle of a desert terrain. All rooms have been recently renovated and upgraded, with balcony doors opening right onto scenic mountain views. The Phoenix-Marriott Mesa is also a comfortable option. Take advantage of the heated pool and spa area, as well as the 24-hour fitness centre.
Mesa's best-kept secrets:
Pack a picnic and take the Wind Cave Trail inside Usery Mountain Regional Park to see the Wind Caves - natural cave formations carved out by the wind. It’s a moderate hike stretching only five kilometres, but it’s an ideal way to enjoy fresh air and exercise. The best views overlook the valley floor below.
Yes, in Mesa there is a whole yoga community dedicated to taking yoga classes with goats. Arizona Goat Yoga is led by local Sarah Williams, a yogi with big love for these gentle creatures. As you strike a pose in downward dog or warrior, the goats roam the fields freely - or your instructor will place them on or around you for specific movements. Guests frequently report feeling less stressed out after practice, and who can blame them after spending an hour up close with baby goats?
Catch baseball fever
Starting in March, fans from all over come to celebrate baseball fever as two Major League Baseball teams start their month-long season of spring training. You’ll find the Chicago Cubs at the field in Sloan Park, and the Oakland Athletics at Hohokam Stadium. Even if you’re new to the sport, you’ll enjoy getting swept up in the stadium excitement!
Tonto National Forest
Few people know that Mesa sits right on top of Tonto National Forest, the fifth largest forest in the country. It’s rugged and extreme at times, but with 3 million acres of terrain covered in Saguaro cacti and pine-forested mountains, you’ll feel like you’re exploring an untouched part of the United States. At the Granite Reef recreation site, try some kayaking or stand-up paddling on the river - in the middle of the desert.
All-Access: Orlando, Florida
It’s easy to brush Orlando off as a Florida destination only appropriate for theme park enthusiasts and family vacations, but once you dig a little deeper into Orlando’s soul, you’ll see why it’s a repeat hotspot for so many travellers.
Lush resorts provide comforts for a much-needed vacation, while downtown Orlando overflows with trendy restaurants and boutiques. But, yes, we’d be remiss to pass up an opportunity to rave about visiting Harry Potter’s Hogwarts Castle at Universal Studios, or spending a day at Disney. Orlando is a fantasy-land for all ages!
Must-see & do highlights in Orlando:
The Coca-Cola Orlando Eye
Did you know that Orlando has its very own giant ferris wheel? The Orlando Eye lets you climb into the comfy capsule of a 400-foot observation wheel for a bird’s-eye view over Central Florida. The views go on forever over downtown Orlando and its theme parks and many lakes. On clear days, you can see straight to Cape Canaveral. Plus the ride is great for all ages!
Krakatau Volcano at Volcano Bay
Krakatau is Universal’s latest and greatest attraction, and it’s making quite an epic splash - literally. It’s an aqua coaster built specifically for thrill seekers who like the idea of riding a canoe up into the misty, twisty darkness of the volcano’s interior before plunging headlong into a glorious waterfall.
Hogwarts Castle, Wizarding World of Harry Potter
There’s a pretty good chance you’re a fan of Harry Potter; or at least, your travel partner is. Hogwarts Castle from the Wizarding World of Harry Potter lets you live out all your wizarding world fantasies, like drinking Butterbeer or roaming around Diagon Alley. You can even pop into Ollivanders to get fitted for a wand! And by no means are you permitted to leave without experiencing the Forbidden Journey ride. We promise you’ll love it.
Even if you’re not a theme park lover, we assure you that you’ll find something to love at Universal Citywalk. The entire place touts itself as the Epicenter of Awesome – a fitting description, really. Eat, shop, hop on theme park rides, and take in some incredible entertainment. Shop for souvenirs, or enjoy a performance from the Blue Man Group.
When you’re peckish, stop for tacos at the Bumblebee Man’s Taco Truck, or chow down at Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville. But maybe do all those things before hopping on the Incredible Hulk Coaster.
Mike Sharp | Visit Orlando
The tiny community of Celebration was founded (and master-planned) by Disney in the mid-90s, with all its building designed by famous architects like Robert A.M. Stern. It’s close enough for a visit from Orlando.
Celebration is the epitome of charming Americana: tree-lined streets, quaint shops and restaurants, and a picturesque lake right in its downtown core. Learn all about this historic town on a Segway tour or walking tour, or hop aboard a horse-drawn carriage.
Where to eat & drink in Orlando:
Prato | Visit Orlando
It’s called Restaurant Row for a reason, featuring some of Orlando’s top places to eat along Sand Lake Road. Try Slate, known for its wood grilled cuisine and open-air dining concept. Its guest favourite dish is the hearth roasted snapper served with cornmeal, zucchini noodles, and lemongrass. At Urbain 40, join the lounge-like atmosphere for seafood specials like crispy blue crab cakes and North Atlantic coastal mussels. There’s also Seasons 52, with excellent happy hour small plate specials and signature cocktails.
Get off the grid and head to Winter Park, where you’ll find some quirky restaurants like The Ravenous Pig. This place has a large menu with plenty of sharing plates (try the pork belly), and a great brewery and taproom to boot. 4 Rivers Smokehouse is the place to go for BBQ, while Prato takes classic Italian dishes and gives them modern twists.
Where to stay in Orlando:
Loews Sapphire Falls Resort
New in town
If you’re a trendsetter who likes checking out everything new and hip in town, book a room at Loews Sapphire Falls Resort. Bright, tropical-themed rooms await, but the real clincher is the beautifully landscaped pool with a water slide and cascading waterfalls. The Grove Resort & Spa is also an Orlando newbie, serving as a luxury resort with fully equipped suites. Even the one bedroom suites come with king-sized beds and balconies, and there are gourmet dining and spa services on site. The only downside: these places might actually make it harder to explore Orlando – why would you ever get out of bed?
For the budget-minded
Budget-friendly in Orlando doesn’t mean sacrificing quality, as these accommodations so aptly prove. Universal’s Cabana Bay Beach Resort is a classic family-friendly fun resort with retro-style rooms, with easy access to Universal. There’s also a lazy river, a bowling alley, and two giant pools (and plenty of places to grab a drink, for the adults). Walt Disney World Resort has a similar affordable option – the B Resort & Spa, but with more modern amenities. There’s also CoCo Key Hotel and Water Resort Orlando, located on iconic International Drive with an enormous covered waterpark serving as the star attraction.
Orlando's best-kept secrets:
Medieval Times Dinner
Ever wanted to drink wine from a chalice and eat a hearty meal fit for royalty while watching knights and warriors jousting on horseback? Maybe the idea never occurred to you, sure, but it’s possible in Orlando. The Medieval Times Dinner gives you a little historical glimpse into life in the royal courts of medieval times. It’s an interactive experience, and one you won’t soon forget!
Lake Eola Park
Lake Eola Park is near downtown Orlando, with a kilometre-long sidewalk circling the entire lake. Take a peaceful sunset stroll, or rent a swan-shaped paddle boat and feed the real-life swans. You can check out a concert at the Walt Disney Amphitheater or simply relax among the flower beds.
Most of Orlando’s major theme parks steal all the glory, but the smaller, kid-friendly spots like the Crayola Experience amount to a good deal of fun, too. There are 26 hands-on attractions, like a Color Playground and a place for kids to Melt & Mold their very own fun designs.
Gatorland provides a sanctuary for thousands of alligators, crocodiles, and other critters. There’s a free-flight aviary (where you can hang out with the birds), a petting zoo, and an alligator breeding marsh. Keep an eye out for the rare “white” alligators. Looking for a real thrill? Try the Screamin’ Gator Zip line over a bit of alligators. Seriously.
Kristen Manieri, founder of Orlando Date Night Guide:
It’ll take some pre-planning and a little sleuthing, but there are definitely ways to make your Canadian dollars stretch in Orlando while still feeling like you’ve had a five-star vacation. Look for bundle deals, such as the one offers at the Orlando Eye which saves you a ton of cash when you bundle tickets to The Coca-Cola Orlando Eye, Madame Tussauds, SEA LIFE Orlando Aquarium and Legoland Florida. Check out the deals and discounts offered to Canadian Citizens, such as those compiled by Visit Orlando. Spend a few days exploring the area’s free or very inexpensive options such as state parks, botanical gardens, museums or nearby beaches.
All-Access: Kissimee, Florida
Kissimmee is the best option for when you’d like to vacation next to the theme park action of Central Florida, but without actually being inundated by it all. There’s so much more going on here. From paddling through the Everglades to hot air ballooning at sunrise, your time in Kissimmee is time well spent. (But, naturally, you’ll want to clear some time at Disney or Seaworld too.)
Must-see & do highlights in Kissimee:
Mike Sharp | Visit Orlando
Take a sunrise hot air balloon ride
There’s truly no better way to greet the day than with a peaceful, quiet hot air balloon ride above Kissimmee. Orlando Balloon Rides will have you soaring for an hour over the breathtaking Central Florida landscape and theme park area as the sun rises, and your pilot will point out orange groves, forests, and untouched swamps. Following, you’ll be treated to a traditional champagne toast with the crew.
Walt Disney World® Resort
It might actually be illegal to talk about Kissimmee and not mention Walt Disney World. Children love getting to know their favourite characters and princesses at the Magic Kingdom, and getting up close with the animals at Animal Kingdom. Adults, you’ll love Epcot – the more adult-oriented theme park with Around the World attractions (yes, including imported beer). Stay for the spectacular fireworks show at the end of the evening.
Go airboating on the wetlands
Airboating is hands down the best way to experience the Florida wetlands, and you’ll have plenty of opportunities to do so in Kissimmee. Hop aboard an airboat with Boggy Creek Airboat Rides as you lightly glide over swampland looking for exotic birds, turtles, and alligators hanging out in their natural environments. There are several tours throughout the day, including a lovely sunset ride.
SeaWorld Parks and Resort Orlando
Another place for the animal lovers, SeaWorld has everything from killer whales to sea lions and marine life touch tanks. You can even add on a special visitor’s package to get to know the friendly penguins in person. It wouldn’t be a Florida theme park without a few good rides, however; try the epic Kraken Unleashed coaster, or Manta, a fast-paced coaster resembling a manta ray.
See the Epcot fireworks from a helicopter
Take a 40-minute helicopter flight with Max Flight Helicopter Services over Kissimmee’s theme parks and surrounding area, wrapping up with a gorgeous grand finale of Epcot’s fireworks show. If you thought watching the fireworks from the ground was cool, just wait until you’re in the sky.
Where to eat and drink in Kissimmee:
Off the beaten path
Reprise Brewing in nearby St. Cloud is a beer-and-music lover’s paradise, with most of the brews having musical names. Try the Soprano (the Russian Imperial Porter), or the Rockability (IPA). For dinner, chow down at the family-owned Catfish Place, where catfish is a prominent ingredient on the menu. Then there’s El Tenampa, an authentic Mexican restaurant known for its delicious guac and fresh limeade. There’s also a mariachi band on the weekends!
After a long day exploring downtown Kissimmee, make sure you stop to enjoy some local food at one of the restaurants. Savion’s Place is one, with high-end dishes emphasizing modern American flavour. You’ll want to start with the lobster mac and cheese before moving on to a house speciality, like the pork rib eye. Finally, for something entirely different, the 3 Sisters Speakeasy is a must visit for an evening tipple accompanied with live music (or maybe a round of trivia).
Where to stay in Kissimmee:
Champions World Resort
One of the best (and most affordable) rental options for visitors to Kissimmee is renting out a luxury vacation home – especially when you’re travelling with a group. Reunion Vacation Homes has accommodations near Disney, and rental types range from 2-3 bedroom condos to larger homes, including ornate 14-bedroom luxury villas. We also love Great American Vacations, a property management company renting out fully equipped Disney-area condos suitable for all budgets. Magic Village Resort does much the same, but is a gated community with concierge services, a pool, and even a restaurant. Some villas have BBQs and hot tubs.
Barefoot Suites is a resort hotel close to some of Kissimmee’s best attractions, like theme parks and prestigious golf courses. These condo-style accommodations come with a kitchen or kitchenette, as well as an in-unit washer and dryer. There’s a playground for the kids, and free shuttles to Disney. At Champions World Resort, take advantage of the four-acre nature park, complete with sandy beaches and a picnic area. There are even multi-purpose sports fields. Comfortable rooms provide great amenities, like refrigerators and microwaves. You’ll also love the upbeat, tropical decor at Flamingo Waterpark Resort, famous for its modern water park for both children and adults.
Kissimmee's best-kept secrets:
Catch a glimpse of how the founding settlers lived, at Forever Florida’s working cattle ranch. From horseback, you can literally partake in a cattle drive and round-up...or a leisurely trail ride, if that’s more your speed. You can also try their Zipline Adventure. Did you know Forever Florida has the biggest zipline in the state?
Clearly, we’re fixated on the sky! Want all the thrills of skydiving, but without actually jumping out of an airplane? iFly lets you simulate the experience of skydiving by using vertical wind tunnel technology, creating a wall-to-wall cushion of air on which you’ll float.
Learn to fly at Wallaby Ranch
Wallaby Ranch offers year-round hang gliding instructional classes for people of all backgrounds and skill levels. They pride themselves on using the latest tandem aerotowing techniques, and safety is a priority. If you’ve wanted to try hang gliding for awhile but couldn’t work up the nerve, here’s the place to do it!
Paddle the Everglades
The Paddling Center at Shingle Creek will have you suited up and paddling down the headwaters of the Florida Everglades in no time! Take in some of Florida’s natural beauty from a single or two-person kayak or canoe, or rent a stand-up paddleboard instead. When the time of year is right, the night paddle is a must-do, especially for the twinkling bioluminescence microorganism you’ll find along the way.
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