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Tall Pines Yurt

Lisa Meyers McClintik, Star Tribune

Omaha's Desert Dome at the Henry Doorly Zoo offers warm escape with arid skylit canyons and even an underground nocturnal swamp.

Lisa Meyers McClintik, Star Tribune

A part of Florida history for more than 50 years, the Weeki Wachee mermaid show is now part of a state park along Florida's western coast.

, Star Tribune

Now's the time to get away

  • Article by: LISA MEYERS McCLINTICK
  • Special to the Star Tribune
  • January 7, 2013 - 10:07 AM

The afternoon we chased pirates through St. Augustine's curving, cobbled streets was the day we vowed to thoroughly research our vacation destinations. We almost missed this gem-- a March re-enactment of Robert Searle's 1668 raid on the Spanish settlement (www.searlesbucs.com). It was far cooler than mannequins swinging hairy legs and singing "Yo ho!" on a Disney ride. • Our son plugged his ears and watched in fascination as pirates invaded, pursued villagers and fought across a battlefield clouded with black powder gun smoke. We paid for parking and car rental, but the daylong history lesson -- including an encampment with replicated coins, swords, attire and food from 1600s Florida -- was free. • In fact, many of our best Florida explorations have clocked under $5-$10 day. That's not to say we're anti-theme park, but with most tickets running $89 per person -- without food or parking -- a day or two maxes our budget. • Here are a few ways to make a warm-weather vacation more affordable -- plus a few favorite destinations if you're road-tripping through the Midwest or seeking a stellar staycation.

Done Disney? State parks offer exciting alternatives for families visiting Florida and California.

Swap theme parks for state parks

Our best breakfast in Florida arrived as a pottery pitcher of batter and a side of chocolate chips. De Leon Springs State Park -- long ago the site of a posh turn-of-the-century resort -- remains steadily popular for its Old Spanish Sugar Mill restaurant where you make pancakes at tableside griddles.

If there's a wait, you can stroll beneath live oaks dripping with Spanish moss, dip into 72-degree springs, take an eco-tour boat ride along the river or check out exhibits on the park's history. Among the more intriguing tales: Queenie, a 1950s elephant who water-skiied on the river.

De Leon Springs is about an hour from Orlando, as is another one of its quirkier, nostalgic attractions: the mermaid show at Weeki Wachee State Park. The natural springs were turned into an underwater theater where mermaid-costumed actresses have been performing since 1947 with the help of strategically placed air hoses. It's hokey, but that's part of the charm.

About 30 minutes north, Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park takes visitors by boat to an underwater manatee viewing area. Get there at the right time, you can toss lettuce to the gentle creatures that look like floating boulders

(www.floridastateparks.org).

If you want free wildlife watching (minus a few tolls on the road there), Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge an hour east of Orlando has a great birding drive and areas where it's easy to spot alligators and armadillos along the roadsides (www.fws.gov/merrittisland). A favorite place: the rarity of a pure, undeveloped beach along Playa Linda Beach Road. Be sure to pack a picnic.

Seek California's coastal wildlife

Winter can also be an ideal time to enjoy migrating wildlife in warm destinations such as Southern California. Pacific Gray whales can be spotted from San Diego's Cabrillo National Monument ($5/car entrance fee; www.nps.gov/cabr). The whales travel along the coast December through February as they head to Baja to give birth. The Point Loma location also is known for tidepooling. A short drive north to La Jolla offers a chance to watch the sometimes comical action and drama of a seaside seal colony. (619-232-3101; www.sandiego.org).

No plane tickets in the budget? Hit the road to check out some of the Upper Midwest's unique attractions.

Make it a man-cation

You hear a lot about girlfriend getaways, but Milwaukee stands out as a memorable man-cation. Look for exhibits on electric guitars invented by native Les Paul, the impressive Harley Davidson Museum, manly Iron Horse Hotel and the Grohmann Museum dedicated to art depicting men at work. You'll also find breweries galore, Great Lakes Distillery, killer cold cuts at Usinger's Meats, Miller Park (Brewers season starts in late March) and the secretive Safe House, a one-of-a-kind spy-themed restaurant hidden downtown and perfect for James Bond and Austin Powers fans (www.milwaukee.org).

Blend desert dome and darkness

Banish the winter landscape with a trip through the world's largest indoor desert at Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium, considered one of the best zoos in the nation (www.omahazoo.com). After wandering through desert terrain and slot canyons in this desert dome, head below ground for nocturnal exhibits that include a replicated cave with bats and an eerie indoor swamp where you can hear the frogs and try to spot alligators in the dark.

Tap your inner artist

What's been nicknamed "The Art Farm" in Door County, Wis., teaches walk-in guests how to do everything from making glass beads with a hand-held torch to slicing metal with plasma cutters and welding together whimsical garden sculptures (handsonartstudio.com). Hands-On Art Studio's two-story barn and outbuildings in rural Fish Creek also include kilns for fused glass, machines for spin-art T-shirts, painting areas, pottery and mosaics. Need inspiration? Pop into one of the many area galleries such as Edgewood Orchard, Dovetail Gallery or Fine Line Designs (www.doorcounty.com).

Seek a northern adventure

For a new twist on wintery adventures, go off the grid with lodge-to-yurt cross-country skiing along the Gunflint Trail (www.boundarycountry.com). Keep your eyes open for signs of moose or wolves in the wild (www.gunflint-trail.com). Another option: Stick to the southern shore of Lake Superior to explore ice caves along Apostle Islands National Lakeshore or volunteer at the annual dogsled races in Bayfield, Wis. (www.bayfield.org).

Splurge on a staycation

If leaving town isn't an option, claim a staycation. Enjoy local attractions you never make time to do, or splurge and find fresh ways to experience familiar favorites.

• Scuba dive and snorkel with Sea Life Aquarium's tropical fish, turtles and sharks: visitsealife.com/minnesota.

• Take a gangster tour or go swing dancing in Wabasha Street Caves: wabashastreetcaves.com.

• Tap your heritage with visits to museums such as the American Swedish Institute (www.asimn.org), which expanded in 2012, or the new kids-oriented "Then Now Wow" exhibit at the Minnesota History Center (www.mnhs.org).

• Have a Penguin Encounter or go behind the scenes at the Minnesota Zoo: www.mnzoo.org.

Minnesota travel writer Lisa Meyers McClintick wrote the guidebook "Day Trips from the Twin Cities" and the travel app "Minnesota Lake Vacations."

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