John Bartus

Now that we have passed Memorial Day, now that school is out and the warm months are truly upon us, it is time to consider that greatest of American traditions: the summer vacation!

As one who spent a good bit of his youth in the Sunshine State, I can truly say that Florida has always offered the best summer vacations. As a family, we would frequently travel to different Florida destinations. Gulfport (near St. Petersburg) was where my maternal grandparents lived, and I loved when we would spend a few weeks there. My grandfather had a cool (small) tropical Florida house, and he decorated the backyard to resemble something right out of Africa — with a healthy dose of Polynesia thrown in. It was so tropically cool and amazing to a young kid. He had palm trees and tropical plants, a backyard grill, and the edges of the property were lined with a bamboo fence. It really was a great Florida backyard. 

My grandfather was a real character. He was a foreman and supervisor for many of the Tennessee Valley Authority projects in the post-Depression era, and he had traveled the world throughout his amazing life. In the politically incorrect days of the 1960s and 1970s, he would smoke unfiltered Pall Mall cigarettes, cursed like a sailor, and he introduced me to Manhattan cocktails before my 10th birthday. Like I said, he was a character.

His retirement home in Gulfport was one of my favorite vacation destinations. I learned how to swim in the Gulf of Mexico near Fort DeSoto … I saw my first red tide … I chased lizards and ate fruit right off the trees in the neighborhood … I collected baseball helmet cups from different major league teams that we could get with Icees in the Li’l General convenience stores … I watched retirees pedal giant tricycles around the town … I got to ride over the old Sunshine Skyway bridge. I lost a fishing rod on the Gulfport pier when something big took my bait (and my pole) … I was bitten by a small bonnet shark on that same pier … It was between my grandfather’s house in Gulfport and our home in Merritt Island on the Space Coast that seeds of my lifelong love affair with Florida were sown.

My introduction to Florida island life was our family’s vacation to Sanibel Island in the mid-1960s. Between Apollo/Saturn IB launches, my father took us all to Sanibel and Captiva Islands for a beach break. And Sanibel’s beaches were wonderful. Clear Gulf waters lapping onto a sandy shore under Sanibel’s lighthouse were the perfect playground for a Florida youngster. I kept the seashells I collected on that beach for years. And I became aware of the importance of environmental preservation because of the Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge on those islands.

During that visit, my father had the chance to buy five Gulf-front lots on Sanibel for a grand total of $15,000 — $3,000 a lot. Hindsight being what it is, he never quit kicking himself for turning those down. Still, $15,000 in 1966 money was a lot of cash. I don’t blame my Dad … too much!

There were other family vacations that weren’t as pleasant. Take the driving vacation we took to my Dad’s father’s house in western Pennsylvania. There were five family members (and luggage) stuffed inside a small Toyota Corolla wagon for nearly 550 miles. The one thing I took from that trip was if you could flatten the state of West Virginia, it would be bigger than Texas.

But it was living in Florida and our Florida vacations that started me plotting toward my eventual life as an adult Floridian. There are so many great local destinations and so much history, even right here in the Keys. A summer staycation is a great way to explore the Sunshine State, even if you never leave the Keys. We have, right in our own backyard, all the things people travel hundreds and thousands of miles to experience. For all our Keys families, I say this: cherish the Florida days and the island time you have together. Your best family vacation could be right under your nose!

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