It was the moment I had been waiting for. Fully vaccinated, I set out on a long journey, timing my visit to pick him up at school on his 7th birthday. And there he stood, waiting along the curb clutching balloons from a classroom party. He looked so much older, so tall, as he climbed into his car seat. “Hi, Grandma.” That sweet smile, and later those long-awaited hugs from him and his little brother at my daughter’s house, made the 13-hour drive from suburban Chicago to Virginia worthwhile. So was my next drive to see family and friends wrapping up winter in Florida. I was not alone, particularly in Florida where restaurants and hotels filled in late March and traffic slowed to a crawl as seniors merged with spring breakers bent on escape from COVID-19 isolation. Even before the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention proclaimed travel free of restrictions for the fully vaccinated, it appeared the over-65 crowd had begun breaking free, perhaps leading a wave of pent-up demand for a vacation.Where to go first? For my husband and me it was Charlottesville, Virginia, for a mix of family time and historical attractions. Then where? Some place warm. Some place with a beach.Florida flingThe Sunshine State wasn’t my first choice. I’d been there many times and longed for something new. We nearly pulled the trigger on an all-inclusive resort in Punta Cana when we reconsidered. Was it safe to fly yet? What if the virus flared up in the Dominican Republic making it difficult to return home? And as appealing as tropical drinks on a Caribbean island sounded, what we both wanted after a year of being holed up together was our friends. Different faces. Different conversations. Three couples we’d sorely missed during our pandemic-induced separation happened to be staying along the Gulf Coast. So we embarked on another road trip, this time a 15-hour drive from Virginia to Fort Myers, Florida. Although signs at restaurants, gas stations and hotels indicated a need for face coverings, they seemed to be worn less frequently the farther south we drove. By the time we reached Florida, masking became a mixed bag; prevalent in tourist areas, not so much elsewhere. Of course, no one wore masks while dining in restaurants serving Florida favorites — grouper, red snapper, shrimp — along with those colorful, tropical cocktails I’d been craving. At Prawnbroker in Fort Myers, we snagged one of the last parking spots. Inside, a sea of gray-haired diners packed tables. Thank goodness our Cape Coral friends made reservations well in advance. Friends in Marco Island also wisely booked weeks ahead at Campiello in Naples. Social distancing proved nonexistent on the crowded patio. Our courtyard table seemed safer, important to our dining companions who had spent months in Florida and hours online without getting an appointment for the vaccine. We walked off an excellent dinner with a stroll past chichi shops, dodging fellow mask-wearers on busy sidewalks. The Fish House Restaurant in Bonita Springs would not take a dinner reservation, so my brother-in-law suggested Plan B: Do what local seniors do, go early. Friends from nearby Estero joined us at 4:30 at a table overlooking an inlet to the bay where fishing boats motored past. No wonder our entrees tasted so fresh. Enjoying a day on the sand in Fort Myers Beach proved problematic. Traffic quickly backed up and when our GPS indicated the last 2.4 miles would take 24 minutes, we doubted we’d find parking. We made a U-turn and spent the afternoon at our hotel pool. After some online research into less popular beaches nearby, we set out earlier the next morning for Newton Park and found parking steps from the sand, a bargain at $3 an hour.
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