Vacation. It's the time to relax, recoup and reconnect with friends and family. After becoming a mother of two, relaxing is rarely in the equation, even on vacation. Our greatest attempts at crafting an enjoyable family experience usually leave us exhausted. I've been longing for the days of simplicity: casual strolls with no particular agenda, sidewalk cafes, friendly faces, and unmistakable joy. A modern-day Mayberry, if you will. This year, vacation will be different. This year, we go to Sebring.
Located in south-central Florida, Sebring is the quintessential small-town community just a few hours from our Jacksonville home. Miles of greenery intersect with historical charm and fresh local culture in the "The City on the Circle" - a nickname given in reference to Sebring's circular Downtown Historic District. With a late arrival, we settled into our room at the Inn on the Lakes, just outside of downtown, and called it a night.
We awoke to a beautiful lakeside view. This, alone, made my kids leap out of bed in record time. Dressed and ready to explore, we circled the property, admiring the view and pool we hoped to experience later.
Once parked downtown, we started our morning with a tall dose of caffeine and breakfast at The Coffee Vault. Housed in a grand, historic bank building, we fueled up with a delicious morning meal, a full inspection of the "very cool" original bank vault and started to wander the Circle.
A friendly game of Rock, Paper, Scissors concluded I had dibs on our first stop: Highlands Art League. The walls were lined with handpainted pieces all crafted by local artists and available for purchase. They also offer hands-on classes for all ages, which perked the ears of my curious 8-year-old. Just behind the league is access to Pier Beach. Unable to resist the allure of soft sand, we dipped our toes in the refreshing water and took in a beautiful view from the pier.
I was only successful at pulling my girls away from the water by reminding them they got to choose where we went next. My playful 5-year-old's pick: Children's Museum of the Highlands. A room full of fun greeted us at the door. Both my girls immediately ran to explore the variety of kid-sized play exhibits. A grocery store, post office, firetruck, airplane, farm, doctor's office, and plenty more were all open and ready for their imagination to run wild. They role-played and giggled while I took too many pictures and sighed a breath of ease. This. Was. Awesome.
Unsurprisingly, my shop-til-you-drop eldest decided retail therapy was up for our next stop. The Grateful Hearts is a fabulous boutique with gifts, jewelry, and clothing. While they gawked at sparkly jewelry on display, I strolled through their home decor. In true form, we left with bracelets, earrings, and a gift for my mom. Okay, I may be a bit of a shopaholic myself but don't tell anyone.
My husband opted for lunch at Faded Bistro & Beer Garden for his pick. The open-air restaurant is surrounded by greenery-morphing us into a whole new world. Meandering walkways and large swings the entire family could fit on thrilled the kids, while their divine dishes and tasty cocktails thrilled my husband and me.
Relaxed and refueled, we walked to Sebring Soda & Ice Cream Works, where we were all wildly impressed by their selection of over 200 vintage bottled sodas from around the world. We crafted a personal six-pack of the most exciting flavors we could find for a family taste test that night. We learned they now have a second location in Lake Placid-which we'll be visiting tomorrow-so we'll have to pop in for some ice cream!
A planner at heart, I jotted down notes of spots we didn't hit on this trip but must do the next time we're here:
We arose the following day to explore Lake Placid, an equally adorable town just 20 minutes south of Sebring. Known as Florida's Lake Country, Lake Placid is dotted with 27 lakes known for excellent bass fishing, leisure, and competitive water sports. Lake Placid is also the Caladium Capital of the World. They have dozens of Caladium farms and even an annual festival every July, which is one more reason I'll be returning to this area.
On the way into town, we stopped by the Welcome Center for a copy of The Murals of Lake Placid magazine that details the artists, location, and background of nearly 50 outdoor murals throughout the area-a scavenger hunt my kids we're entirely on board with. We immediately marked five murals off the list, complete with "me-at" family photos.
Making our way to Main Avenue, we parked and wandered around the quaint downtown. Lined with shops, cafes, and greenspaces, we strolled the avenue, popping in and out of locally-owned shops like The Blueberry Patch, The Perry Co. Boutique, and Bella Gusto Olive Oil Co. We left with bags of cute apparel-gifts for friends and family-plus little-somethings for ourselves.
Poking into Good Vibes Juice and Smoothies, I chatted it up with the friendly owners while the kids made selections for their to-go fruit smoothies. Somehow I managed to leave without a handful of freshly-baked goodies as well. Stepping outside, I spotted my husband through the open, rolling doors of Wet Dog Brewing. With two locally-brewed craft beers in hand, he winked and motioned to a shared outdoor courtyard between the brewery and Wine Down, a wine bar and boutique full of varietals, which of course, I wandered into after our foursome took a rest, enjoyed the live musician and our frosty beverages.
The feel-good community was such a pleasant experience. Friendly locals and adorable shops helped my soul relax. As we continued to wander, we discovered the second Soda Shop location and passed several signs for businesses opening soon. Another mental note made: Owl & Otter Espresso Co. and Local Yocal General Store and Novelties, we'll be back to explore you, too!
That afternoon, we landed in Morty & Edna's Craft Kitchen to refuel with delicious sandwiches and salads. The bustling counter made it clear this was a local favorite. Judging by the flavor of my spectacular lunch, I couldn't argue that. Full and happy, the girls decided to explore a local clown school they had seen coming into town. Yes, a clown school! I, too, was dying to see this.
Circling the building of Toby's Clown Foundation and School, we marked another mural off our list, took our obligatory silly-posed-picture, and headed in. The gift shop was stocked with costume pieces and the museum was filled with memorabilia: pictures, souvenirs, collectibles, and more. Even the ceiling tiles were painted with faces and names of friendly clowns. We browsed in awe and were told about the history and the foundation's work. What a fun experience. It was heart-warming and silly all rolled into one. Plus, each girl left with their clown name: Tickles and Toodles.
Adding to my "Next Trip" list:
Just 15 minutes north of Sebring is Avon Park, the oldest city in Highlands County. While the city is reminiscent of the simpler days, the streets are lined with up-and-coming businesses and modern-day culture, a beloved juxtaposition of mine.
Struck by the pure grandeur of The Hotel Jacaranda, we made our way into the lobby for a sneak peek. Built in the 1920s and once a hostess to Babe Ruth and Clarke Gable (swoon!), the hotel emanated comfort and class just as I had expected. Adjoining the lobby is Tassel & Thread, a fashion boutique full of modern flare.
On our way to lunch, we made friends with Dave, owner of Eighteen East Restaurant & Bar, who I'm sure has never met a stranger. He stood outside, waved at passers-by, and greeted us with friendly hospitality knowing we weren't locals. This really was a place where everyone knows your name.
Settled in at Diving Girl Diner for lunch, we inhaled delicious burgers paired with incredibly witty names. We learned the restaurant's name is an homage to a neon girl who graced a historic, local hotel for decades. A beach motif and colorful stripes put this restaurant on the "favorites" list the girls had crafted. We followed up lunch with scoops of creamy dessert from Avon Park Ice Cream Company. It took a while to choose from their 48 award-winning flavors, but alas, sweet goodness!
Walking off our meals, we went to The Avon Park Depot Museum. Housed in the original 1926 Seaboard Coastline Depot, the museum is filled with photos, articles, and knowledgeable volunteers telling the story of the city's history. Imagining a life before cell phones was mind-boggling to my kids more than anything else. Outside, a 1948 Silver Palm Dining Car is used for luncheons, where guests are treated to a tour. Simply remarkable.
Across the way is the Peter Powell Robert Museum. The art collection of Peter Powell contains paintings of plants from nearby Highlands Hammock State Park. The kicker? These pieces were painted on wood-the talent, the beauty... wow.
We decided taking in more of the area's natural beauty was on the agenda for the rest of the day. Just a few minutes drive, we landed at Donaldson Park on Lake Verona. The lake was a perfect spot to take in some of the downtime we recently learned to appreciate. The sandy shoreline, playground equipment, and fun sculptures made for an incredible play experience for the kids and, better yet, more time for me to go crazy with the photo ops.
While the girls splashed in the water, I added more to my list:
This was it. This was the vacation I had been craving. We soaked in the sun. We sang, we laughed, and we explored. There was no timetable, no lines, and no stress. We discovered friendly and welcoming communities still exist that we'll definitely be returning to.
As our car turned towards home, I couldn't help but whistle that tune. The one from my childhood that I now had such an appreciation for. This modern-day Mayberry had made my ideal vacation a reality.