IF YOU’VE BEEN putting off celebrating that special occasion because favorite venues are closed or limited in capacity, plus you’d rather not have pictures for posterity showing signs of these challenging pandemic times, then consider heading to the great outdoors. Not just anywhere. Notch it up by choosing a wow venue near or on the water that is so iconic that the festivity will be one to tell the grandkids, or include the grandkids if it’s a family reunion. The Sunshine State offers exceptional places to host a gala for weddings, anniversaries or a milestone birthday, bar or bat mitzvah, or quinceañera. Here are eight great, memory-making destinations.
St. Augustine, schoonerfreedom.com
Just imagine literally tying the knot on this circa 1800s replica of a 72-foot gaff-rigged topsail schooner. The bride, groom and guests can help the crew hoist the sails and take the helm, weather permitting. Charter the vessel for two-hour day, sunset or monthly full moon charters for special occasions with up to 35 guests. Only beverages are offered aboard, so pack a picnic or contract a caterer. Tune up the schooner’s sound system or bring your own musician. Don’t be surprised to see dolphins, manatees or sea turtles alongside for the ride.
Ponce Inlet Lighthouse & Museum
Ponce Inlet, ponceinlet.org
Nothing says nautical history or modern-day memory-making (especially for marine buffs) than a lighthouse. This active navigation aide for over a century, located 12 miles south of Daytona Beach, is a national historic landmark. Ceremonies and celebrations are hosted in the shadow of the 175-foot-tall tower. For weddings, a docent minister dressed in a circa-1930s U.S. Lighthouse Service keeper’s uniform can perform the honors. Photographs on the grounds and up in the light’s gallery as well as mellow music are allowed. Head to one of many nearby restaurants for a meal to memorialize the momentous event.
The Breakers Palm Beach
Palm Beach, thebreakers.com
Dream ‘I do’s’ and more can come true at this spectacular Italian Renaissance- style beachfront resort founded by oil tycoon and railroad magnate Henry Flagler, and still frequented by today’s rich and famous. This lush legendary property is truly a one-of-a-kind venue that elevates every occasion, be it an intimate seaside gathering with stunning vistas of the Atlantic Ocean, to a grand affair in a magnificent ballroom with windows overlooking the sea, to al fresco settings such as terraces, courtyards or expansive lawns of relaxed elegance. Best of all, stress-free soup-to-nuts event planning can be handled in-house.
Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden
Coral Gables, fairchildgarden.org
Less than a mile from Biscayne Bay is this amazing arboretum. Named for famous plant explorer, David Fairchild, the nearly century-old 80-plus-acre garden south of Miami is the singular place in the continental United States where tropicals can grow outdoors year-round. Tie the knot overlooking Glade and Royal Palm Lakes with a lily pond in the foreground or by the Amazonica Pool where the sound of a waterfall serenades. Toast birthdays and anniversaries outside of the Garden House where iconic palms flank the manicured lawn. The gardens event team organizes everything from weddings to children’s birthdays, and for two-footed and four-footed guests alike.
Key West, southernmosthouse.com
Thomas Edison oversaw the wiring of the house for electricity. Ernest Hemingway, Gloria Swanson and Truman Capote all partied here in the 1940s when it was a nightclub. John F. Kennedy slept here. This two-story Victorian-style, waterfront property is today an 18-room bed and breakfast. Four-post mahogany king and queen beds, stained glass windows and a small collection of historic documents (such as a copy of Kennedy’s inaugural address and some of Hemingway’s personal writings) keep the history alive. It’s the perfect place to start a new life together or for history-lovers to revel in special birthday and anniversary weekends. True to name, the house is less than a block from the Southernmost Point in the Continental United States.
If you want your special event to feel like the greatest show on earth, then book the grounds of the 1920’s mansion, Ca’ d’Zan, built for John (The Circus King) Ringling and his wife Mable. Try the terrace along the Bayfront Promenade at sunset or a more intimate setting in the Ca’ d’Zan’s Belvedere Tower. Both offer incredible views over Sarasota Bay. Throw your party inside the Historic Circus Galleries, where guests can relive the nostalgia of the big top complete with sideshow posters, circus wagons and dazzling costumes on display. Food and drink are catered on property.
Lovers Key State Park
Fort Myers Beach, loverskeybeachweddings.com
Select your spot anywhere on two miles of white sand beach on this barrier island once reachable only by boat until a bridge was built in the 1960s. Even with easier access, Robinson Crusoe would feel at home getting hitched or saying happy birthday in this natural setting. The park’s nature recreation manager and preferred vendors set up tables, chairs and more to suit each occasion and leave nothing but footprints behind the next day. A wooden gazebo on the southern end of the beach is ideal for small parties and dancing.
Book any or all of the more than two dozen one-, two- or three-bedroom cabins at this family-style, riverfront, event-ready retreat. It’s located among Spanish moss-draped oak trees three miles upstream from the Gulf of Mexico and offers an Old Florida ambiance. Walk down the aisle to the Dancing Waters’ Chapel, with its Gothic architecture, 12-foot-tall stained-glass windows and high vaulted ceilings. When the formal attire comes off and a more casual mood sets in, book a guided fishing trip on the Steinhatchee River and take family or college friends on an outing seven miles north to see one of the few natural waterfalls in the state.
The Grand Marlin
Pensacola Beach, thegrandmarlin.com/pensacola
Any celebration is extra special for fishing aficionados at this waterfront restaurant themed on the dream of catching a 1,000-pound-plus blue marlin or something even bigger. Sit outside and overlook Santa Rosa Sound or inside the Grander Room, with its floor-to-ceiling windows and life-size painting of a massive blue marlin on one wall by marine artist Steve Goione. Just-caught seafood, including freshly shucked oysters, shrimp cocktail and Florida tuna, mahi-mahi and red snapper, are on the menu for any occasion.