Rides, Tides and Waterslides

When JILL NEILON recently tied the knot, she and husband Sean opted for the most magical honeymoon destination

When JILL NEILON recently tied the knot, she and husband Sean opted for the most magical honeymoon destination…

Well what can I say?!…I’m just back from the most incredible 10 day honeymoon a girl could ask for, I think I definitely found the right balance between excitement, adventure and most of all relaxation. Where do you ask is this wonderful place?…. FLORIDA.

I love America, after holidaying as a child in Orlando several times; I said I would love to take my husband Sean one day. I have to say he really fell in love with America like I did when we booked a big family trip to New York City last May for my dad’s 60th birthday. Little did I know and much to my surprise, it would hold such a special place for me as that is where my hubby got down on one knee on top of the Rockefeller centre, fast forward a year and a bit later and well the rest is history! So early on (hubby did get some say!) we decided we would spend the first part of our honeymoon in Orlando doing theme parks and getting some shopping in too and then we would finish off the holiday somewhere really chilled out and relaxed. So in the end, after much debate and A LOT of help from Google we settled on driving down to Clearwater which is only a 2 hour drive away. So, first of all, let me tell you about Orlando. We flew with Aer Lingus direct from Dublin. Our hotel in Orlando was the Double Tree by Hilton at the Entrance to Universal.

The main reason we chose this hotel was because of its close proximity to the Universal Resort and was less than ten minutes drive from International Drive, the main street in Orlando containing plenty of restaurants, shops and bars. There is a free shuttle bus operated by Universal that picks up and drops off at the hotel several times in the morning and evening that’s free of charge for hotel guests. Orlando is the theme park capital of the world, featuring Disneyworld, Seaworld and Legoland to name but a few. However, as we were a bit older (on our passports anyway), we opted for the Universal Resort. The resort is made of two theme parks that have been constantly upgraded over the years, Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure. You can buy individual tickets for both parks or a multipark ticket for both. Before we went on honeymoon, we purchased our multipark tickets through attractionticketsdirect.ie who offer various ticket options to suit everyone.

Our multipark ticket allowed us access the Universal Resort and Volcano Bay as many times as you like for 14 days (we didn’t visit Volcano Bay but if you’re into water parks this would definitely appeal to you!) The attractions in the parks cater for all ages. In Islands of Adventure, you have the likes of Marvel Superhero Island, Jurassic Park and the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, which has my personal favourite, ‘Hagrids Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure’! From the Harry Potter World, you can get the Hogwarts express which will take you directly to Universal Studios, dropping you off at Diagon Alley (one for Harry Potter fans)!

Universal Studios is very similar to Islands of Adventure, lots of great rollercoasters, 3D rides and other attractions such as Harry Potter’s Escape from Gringotts, The Simpsons ride and the Hollywood Rip Ride Rocket (Sean’s favourite)! The weather in Orlando was really hot (around 34 degrees some days) but the various types of rides, such as indoor ones, gave us the chance to take shade from the sun. There is also an area before entering the parks called Universal City Walk, which has lots of restaurants, cafes, bars and shops. It’s a great spot to hit at night whether you want to have a drink or grab some food, and it is free of charge to enter. There is also cinema located in citywalk and you can also, like we did, catch a performance by the Blue Man Group if you like (you can buy tickets separately at the box office). Another reason why we chose Orlando was for the great shopping!

There is loads of different malls and outlets located in the city such as Premium Outlet on International Drive. This is a good spot if you’re looking for some bargains (be sure to ask for a discount book at the guest services!) If you want something a bit more high end, you also have the Mall at Millenia, which has the likes of Louis Vuitton, Gucci and Prada. We also went to the Florida Mall, which is a mix of both, and also has some nice places to eat. Speaking of places to eat, I must say there is plenty of choice to cater for everyone’s taste in Orlando. Some of our favourites included PF Chang’s (Chinese) and the Cheesecake Factory at the Mall at Millenia (you can’t leave here without trying their cheesecake), Olive Garden (Italian) and Tony Roma’s on I-Drive (I’d recommend the ribs, they are to die for!). For breakfast, we would either grab something on the go from the Starbucks in the hotel, and if not, we found that you couldn’t beat IHOP (International House of Pancakes) for a great breakfast that would keep you full until dinner (their traditional buttermilk pancakes go down a treat). So after six days in Orlando of rollercoasters and shopping sprees, we made our way to Clearwater for some rest and relaxation. If the drive down to Clearwater was anything to go by (a beautiful drive across Tampa Bay), we knew we wouldn’t disappointed, and we definitely weren’t.

The best way to describe Clearwater is a beautiful beach paradise that is chilled out and relaxed, a perfect way to end a trip to Florida after coming from the craziness of Orlando! We stayed at the Opal Sands resort mainly for it’s located right beside Clearwater beach. We would highly recommend staying in a Gulf View room, which offers fantastic views of Clearwater Beach and the Gulf of Mexico. The hotel had a pool which looks right out onto the gulf, and also has direct access to the beach, so you could easily go for a walk along the white sand if you got bored of the pool. There is plenty of great places to eat in Clearwater, whether it be for breakfast, lunch or dinner. Some of our favourites included Marina Cantina (great for Mexican food), Columbia Restaurant (Spanish restaurant with great Paella) and our personal favourite, Clear Sky Café which has one of the best breakfasts we have ever had! There is also plenty of good seafood restaurants along Clearwater beach. Apart from chilling out by the pool or strolling on the beach, we did fit in some activities while we were there. One of the days, we went to Busch Gardens, another theme park located in Tampa (about an hour’s drive east of Clearwater).

If you love your rollercoasters, then Busch is a must, even better than Universal! There is also a zoo within the park with plenty of animals (elephants, rhinos and crocodiles to name a few). The day before we headed home, we took a boat trip around Clearwater Harbour and out to the Gulf of Mexico on the Sea Screamer. It’s a one hour trip that brings you dolphin watching and gives you great views of the harbour area. You even get to see some celebrity homes such as Lisa Marie Presley. We would definitely recommend this tour as its great value and you won’t spend all day long at sea. To conclude it’s a holiday of a lifetime. Its true when they say it’s the most magical place on earth! We couldn’t have chosen a better honeymoon destination, our only regret is we didn’t stay for longer…10 days just isn’t enough! Florida we’ll be back!

Tips and Tricks while you’re there:

  1. The best ways to get around is by car. Orlando is very spread out and you also have the option to drive around Florida if you wish. Driving is straightforward (the roads are big, the cars are all automatic and everywhere is well signposted). Be sure to have some change when leaving the airport as there a couple of tolls to go through depending on where you are going. There is a charge for parking in theme parks (around $25 per day). Also, you can turn right on red unless it tells you otherwise.
  2. For the theme parks, be sure to pack water as Orlando is very hot. Food and drink is very expensive in theme parks, so you may want to bring some snacks and have a big breakfast before you go.
  3. Try and go to the theme parks in the morning when the day is not at its hottest. It’s hard to queue for rides in the heat, even if they are air conditioned. To avoid queues, you may want to consider buying express passes, or going on rollercoasters as single riders. If you don’t have kids, you may want to consider going in low season, when kids are back in school, and also to avoid hurricane season, which runs from June to November.