Planning the perfect family vacation is often an exercise in compromise or the art of the deal, as one former president once wrote.
But it’s hard to go wrong in the North Florida haven of Hammock Beach, the history of St. Augustine and, of course, a nearby side trip to Orlando and Mickey Mouse. Enough to keep everyone happy and engaged, and with plenty of attention to the golf-playing members of the family.
Hammock Beach, which is your first stop on this three-legged trip, certainly fulfills the ocean and golf part of this, along with great fun and lodging. As the name would suggest, the large resort is located directly on the Atlanta Ocean coast, with plenty of scenic views, plus challenging golf holes on a par-72 Jack Nicklaus layout apply named the Ocean Course.
In 2016, when Hurricane Matthew decided to play through, it was a bit too close and scenic for comfort and a total re-do was in order. But those who have played the course before and after the hurricane say the latest version is the best.
Along with the new turf installed after the large hurricane and a smaller one in the summer of 2017, each of the holes on the Ocean Course include new forward or executive tees, which play about 4,000 yards total, which is a great distance for kids or golf beginners who want to experience beauty and the challenge of Hammock, but not be frustrated from the outset.
The course can be played as far back as 7,200 yards, more than any vacationing golfer should every experience. Now, at the Ocean Course there are fewer trees, plus the six holes along the ocean have even more dramatic views. Additionally, the renovation included the installation of new Platinum Paspalum grass, a type of salt-water resistant/tolerant turf that turns the entire course into an emerald green color. The turf, which was first used in Hawaii more than a decade ago, got an on-course test when Hurricane Irma hit the same area, but it passed with flying colors.
In addition to the new turf, all the bunkers were filled with brilliant white Angle-G sand, which, combined with the new green grass and the ever-present ocean in the background, makes for a feast for the eyes, if not the scorecard at times.
After a fairly simple par-4 start to the course and a few inland lakes on the front nine, the ocean makes its first appearance just behind the eighth green and continues on the left side of the par-4 ninth. There is either ocean or lakes on every hole of the back nine, capped by a spectacular par-5 18th hole which ends at the clubhouse with the water tee to green down the left side.
Another part of the fun equation at the new Ocean Course is the revamped practice facilities, with a large grass range, short-game area and putting greens … and you’ve got a great golf experience.
In addition, you have a grass putting green next to the multi-story resort where you can practice to or from the large resort pool, the Oceanside grass chipping areas and the large, covered spa. Such decisions in this Atlantic Ocean paradise!
Not to mention the hundreds of rooms with balconies that look out over the beach, the water and the golf course. The Atlantic Grill sits on the second floor with a great view of the closing hole.
Further inland is the Tom Watson Conservatory Course, a fun test of golf for vacationers and serious players alike. There are no ocean views, but plenty of manmade water to test your driving skills, dozens of bunkers and some narrow driving alleys.
So far on your vacation trip, you covered golf, spa, sand, views, so now it’s time for history and shopping (and more golf).
St. Augustine, Florida, just north on the coastal highway, claims to be one of the oldest cities in the U.S., with plenty of Spanish colonial architecture as well as Atlantic Ocean beaches, like sandy St. Augustine Beach and tranquil Crescent Beach. Not to mention plenty of shopping at various shops and outlets, something the Spanish certainly weren’t thinking about when they landed here more than 400 years ago.
But fear not, golf family vacation members, St. Augustine is the home of the World Golf Village and site of two of the most unique courses anywhere: the King and the Bear, co-designed by Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus, and the Slammer and the Squire, co-designed by Sam Snead and Gene Sarazen. Both are unique for their collaborations.
The massive World Golf Hall of Fame is no longer here, having returned to its Pinehurst, North Carolina roots. But the two golf courses are still alive and well, along with a huge World Golf Village Renaissance Hotel and the iconic Murray Brothers (of Caddyshack fame) diner.
The Slammer & The Squire, the last courses those two golf legends ever worked on, plays to 6,939 yards from the back tees, but the course layout forces you to concentrate on your short game. There are plenty of water and trees on these North Florida layouts, but lots of pitched greens and chipping areas … demonstrating what made these golf legends great before the days of super-sized club and golf materials.
You tee off under the tower of the former Golf Hall of Fame, where both men resided, and you’re close to the Renaissance Hotel, where you can walk to your room or the pool after your round.
The King and the Bear is the longer of the two courses, 7,279 yards from the back tees, as both men were known for their golf driving abilities in their prime. As you would expect on this par-72 layout, there are holes you can go for broke with plenty of risk and reward (Palmer), and holes you can drive the ball in an open fairway with the chance to reach the green in regulation with a premium on clutch putting (Nicklaus).
Each of the 36-hole tee boxes on both courses carries a small sign talking about the hole and the legends who inspired it. It’s literally a walk in golf history, or Florida history if you’re just back from your shopping tour of historic St Augustine.
For the third stop of the trip, you need a nod to the youngest members of your group (or the young at heart), and that means hopping on I-4 and heading southwest to Orlando and its many vacation attractions. While there are enough choices to keep you busy for days (or weeks), you need a total package like Hilton Grand Vacations to make sense of the time you have here.
Headquartered in Orlando, HGV counts Orlando as one of its biggest markets, along with Hawaii and Las Vegas, but has plenty of places to stay, enjoy and relax.
“Our goal is to treat people and to create an experience which is private, special and stretches the overall value,” said Mark Wang, CEO of Hilton Grand Vacations. “People want a magical experience with great hospitality to see new places and do new things.”
There is plenty of magic in the ever-expanding Magic Kingdom at Disney, where you can stay and play for days without ever leaving the grounds, but since compromise is the order of the day, stay in the nearby ultra-modern, multi-story Wave Hotel, which will certainly make the adult members of you group happy.
Anything you used to do by hand during your hotel travels – from opening the blinds, lifting the bathroom seat, even turning on the lights – are computer-automated at The Wave. You can make coffee by hand if you want the old-school approach, but all requests can be handled quickly by turning on the I-pad sitting by your huge TV.
You’re also within walking distance of Lake Nona Athletic Club, which comes free with your stay at The Wave, if the stress of Mickey and Minnie, golf, shopping and sand puts you in the mood for a good workout.
Wang, who has been with Hilton for decades, certainly understands the Florida compromise vacation better than most.
“People want to vacation in their lives. You can’t take that away from them,” he said.
With Ocean Hammock, St. Augustine/World Golf Village and Orlando/Hilton Grand Vacations, you get a true art-of-the-vacation deal.