FORT DE SOTO PARK, Fla. (AP) -- Picture this: You're sitting on a white sand beach, warm sun on your skin. Coconut-scented sunscreen wafts through the air. A splashing noise comes from the blue Gulf of Mexico. It's your dog, happily retrieving his favorite ball from the water.
This could be your vacation, with a bit of planning.
With miles of sandy beaches, endless winter sunshine and a laid-back vibe, there's no reason to leave your four-legged friend behind when you vacation in Florida. From lodging that offers special pet beds, to beaches with off-leash play, to theme parks with nearby kennels, many places around the state accommodate visitors with pets. Many Florida state parks also allow leashed dogs.
Lodging with your dog can be as rustic as a campground or as ritzy as, well, the Ritz Carlton. In places like Key West or Sanibel Island -- where all beaches are open to leashed dogs -- unique and funky pet-friendly accommodations are easy to find in various price ranges.
Most counties have their own tourism boards and many have specific pages on their websites about pet-friendly activities, restaurants and hotels. Visit Florida has lots of information at http://www.visitflorida.com/Pet_Friendly_Florida.
Jeannette Scott, a fashion blogger from Orlando, took her shih tzu-Yorkie mix named Bella on a three-day trip in June. Together, they drove three hours to Fort Myers, boarded a ferry to Key West, stayed at a Sheraton that offered a doggie bed for Bella, and posed for photos in front of a frozen yogurt stand that carried Yoghund, a froyo for doggies.
"She thought it was really fun to get away and go on adventure instead of staying at home," said Scott.
If your dog might enjoy the same, here are some dog-friendly destinations around Florida, along with lodging advice and general tips for traveling here with pets.
--Dog Beach and Paw Playground at Fort De Soto State Park. In 2010, Southern Living magazine named this spot in Pinellas County on Florida's West Coast one of the top five dog beaches in the South. You only need to set one paw onto the sugary sand to know why: It's a gorgeous and peaceful place. The Gulf of Mexico is usually warm and calm, and dogs of all sizes love to play in the soft surf. Dogs can run on the beach and swim off-leash, then enjoy a large, adjacent fenced-in grassy dog park area. There are water fountains, waste bags and a place to wash salt out of dog fur. Admission to the park area is $5.
--Dinosaur World in Plant City. Who loves dinosaurs? Dogs, that's who. Located halfway between Tampa and Disney, Dinosaur World is a park featuring 150 giant dinosaur statues and trails winding through the lush Florida landscape. Leashed dogs are welcome on the trails and it's a great opportunity to snap a photo of your pooch with a giant Stegosaurus (some intrepid bloggers have gotten shots of their dogs posing inside a dinosaur's mouth). Tickets are $14.95, dogs are free; open daily.
--Dog Wood Park, Jacksonville. This 25-acre, privately owned park is heaven for dogs. It's all off-leash and entirely fenced in, from the pond to the grassy knoll to the trails. A separate small area nearby has chairs where owners can sip coffee and chat. There are two ponds, Lake Bow Wow for the big dogs and Lake Fifi for little ones, plus doggie sand piles, shady areas and tires for dogs to climb on. Day visits are $11, including tax. Additional services, like use of the park's indoor dog wash area, are extra.
--The Fountain of Youth in St. Augustine. Spanish explorer Pedro Menendez de Aviles discovered this spring in 1565 and the Timucua Indians lived here for 4,000 years before that. You and your dog can sniff around and drink from the fountain. Tickets are $12.
--Downtown Naples. A great place to stroll with your pet while embracing tropical Florida, downtown Naples has lots of outdoor cafes, bars and restaurants where you can dine al fresco with your dog. Several stores -- Diva Doghouse, For Footed Friends, Pucci & Catana and Fergie's Closet Doggie Boutique -- specialize in upscale pet accessories, clothing and food.
--Lincoln Road, Miami. Located on South Beach, this pedestrian-friendly shopping area is the place to watch all of the beautiful people and their designer dogs. Outdoor restaurants and tropical drinks abound.
--Jonathan Dickinson State Park, Hobe Sound. This sprawling park on Florida's East Coast, north of tony Palm Beach, offers miles of trails that showcase how Florida looked before development. Dogs must be leashed. Admission is $6 per vehicle.
--Panama City Beach dog playground. This Florida Panhandle spring break favorite offers 400 feet of beachfront for leashed dogs and the new Panama City Beach Conservation Park with 12 trails (dogs must be leashed there).
--Miccosukee Canopy Road Greenway, Tallahassee. This park in the state's capitol is popular with local dog owners because of its beautiful trails and secluded grassy areas.
--Disney's Fort Wilderness Resort, Lake Buena Vista. Located on 750 acres near the theme parks, this campground allows RVs with full hookups and tent camping. Some spaces allow pets, but those spaces are limited and should be reserved well in advance. Leashed dogs are allowed on some trails near the campground. There is also an off-leash dog park, Waggin' Tails Dog Park, within the campground.
--Best Friends Pet Resort, Lake Buena Vista. Best Friends provides day and overnight care for pets (not just dogs) in the Orlando area. Discounts are available for Disney World Resort guests, but anyone can use the service, which starts at $27 for doggie daycare.
--Loews hotels at Universal Orlando Resort. All three are pet-friendly.
--La Quinta. This ubiquitous and affordable chain, found throughout Florida, is probably the best-known pet-friendly chain, with free stays for dogs.
--Aloft Hotels. This Starwood boutique hotel chain offers hip decor and sophisticated style and it's also pet-friendly. Aloft offers two locations in Jacksonville (one not far from Dog Wood Park), one in Tallahassee and several opening in Miami and Orlando in the coming year. A recent weekday room rate in Jacksonville was $69, not including taxes. Aloft policies vary regarding weight restrictions for dogs, fees and deposits.
--Luxury hotels. Pampered people have pampered pooches. For small dogs who need luxury (under 25 pounds) try Ritz Carlton hotels in Sarasota, Fort Lauderdale, Orlando and Miami Beach. Non-refundable pet fees vary, but hover in the $250 range. The Mandarin Oriental in Miami -- a swanky hotel frequented by celebrities like Jennifer Anniston -- also accepts pets up to 25 pounds. The Mandarin sells dog T-shirts bedazzled with Swarovski crystals in its gift shop and the concierge can book doggie boot camp appointments and dog massages.
While it might seem like you are in a remote area as you hike through jungle-like trails or play on deserted beaches with your dog, you're actually never far from civilization in Florida. There's usually a veterinarian, big-box pet store and pet-friendly hotel within a short drive. A quick Google search or sites like http://www.bringfido.com or http://www.dogfriendly.com can help locate them.
Larger theme parks such as Busch Gardens in Tampa offer kennel services; make sure to bring your pet's vaccination record along.
Other essentials for a Florida vacation with your dog: Drinking water, heartworm medicine and even sunscreen. With temperatures in the 70s and 80s in many Florida locations during the winter, dogs (and people) can easily become dehydrated. Specially-formulated sunscreen for dogs isn't a bad idea, especially if your furry friend has a short, fair coat and pink skin.
Take shady breaks, put ice cubes in the water dish and let dogs sprawl on cool tiles. Never, ever, leave your dog in a car in Florida, even for a few minutes. Temperatures inside cars can heat up to 120 degrees and kill animals quickly.
Heartworm, a disease transmitted by mosquitoes, is endemic to Florida. Plan to visit a vet before your trip to get a heartworm test and pills to prevent infection.
Many beaches in Florida allow leashed dogs on the sand, but check first. In some places, you can receive a heavy fine. Dogs are welcome in many places at outdoor cafes and along pedestrian malls.
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