Go Wild

Desperate to Get Back to Nature? These Five Camping Experiences Suit Any Outdoor Enthusiast

Whether you're a camping novice or a tried-and-true pro, you've got options.

By Su Byron November 30, 2018 Published in the December 2018 issue of Sarasota Magazine

Fancy Camps transforms nondescript tent into a glamorous campsites.

Fancy Camps: Camping in Comfort

Ah, there’s nothing like camping in the great outdoors. But setting up tents and buying expensive camping gear can be as much fun as decoding Ikea instructions. Fortunately, there’s an alternative. “Glamping” (short for “glamorous camping”) is a way to get close to nature, sans the fuss of owning camping gear, erecting tents or abandoning the comforts of home.

That’s the concept behind Fancy Camps, the brainchild of Josh and Megan Langan, a husband-and-wife team who are also wilderness adventurers and nature lovers. Megan’s father was a Florida state park manager, and she came of age living in state parks and camping. But she realizes not everyone shares her passion. 

“Roughing it is second nature to me,” she says. “But it can be tough for people who lack the gear, time and experience. Fancy Camps offers the same experience without the hassle. For some of our guests, this is the first time they’re experiencing being out in nature, sleeping under the stars, and falling in love with the wild, wonderful world.”

What exactly does Fancy Camps offer? Picture a posh hotel room—in a tent. Is there air conditioning and heating, depending on the climate? Check. A luxe pillowtop, queen-sized bed with luxe linens? Check. Area rugs, intimate lighting and outdoor seating? Firewood for the campfire? Check, check, check and check.

The company, headquartered in Panama City Beach, is authorized to set up camps in state parks across Florida, including Myakka and Oscar Scherer. The company can also create camps on a wide range of private properties. The level of creature comfort? That’s your call.

“We’ll create the ambiance you want,” says Josh. “From primitive to luxurious, it’s up to you.”

The glamping experience has been a hit with a long list of clients. Fancy Camp hosts yoga retreats, weddings, bridal and birthday parties and other special events. They also offer a complete culinary experience, thanks to collaboration with local catering companies and restaurants.

What to expect? Fancy Camp’s 200-square-foot canvas tents have abundant space for sleeping and lounging. The company can work with off-grid situations and hook up to available electricity. For larger events, they can arrange to have a staff member onsite; for smaller set-ups, the Langans and their staff are only a phone call away.

According to Megan, city slickers have no excuse to snub Mother Nature.

“We’re here to make your camping dream come true,” she says. “Your close encounter with nature has never been so civilized.” 

Need to Know

What to bring. Pack whatever you’d bring to a hotel, including toiletries.

Cooking with fire. Fancy Camps offers options to provide everything you need for the ultimate cookout, including firewood.

Bathroom. There are no bathroom facilities in the tent. Most state parks and private properties have facilities, but Fancy Camps can easily set up luxury portable facilities, if needed.

Kids? Fancy Camps offers “little camper packages” that include a sleeping pad, sleeping bag and pillow at no additional charge. They also do “kids camp” birthday parties.

Pets? If you want to bring Fido, that’s great. Just make sure the state park allows dogs.

Handicapped accessibility. If electricity is available, the Langans will happily help clients plug in any medical devices. “We’re always honored to help people with disabilities enjoy camping in nature,” says Megan.

Critter warnings. “Although our tents are nearly hermetically sealed, you might spot the occasional insect,” says Josh. “You’re still camping.”

Megan’s favorite anecdote. “We hosted a large wedding party flying in from New York City. Most of the people had never camped before. As the weekend progressed, so many people told us how wonderful it was to slow down, connect and be with people they love. Just hearing the sounds of nature, feeling the fresh air and sitting under a starry sky completely uplifted their attitude. One woman in her late 70s told me she’d never camped before and had a profound, eye-opening experience. Stories like hers are the reason we love what we do.”

ThE DIRT: (850) 628-9696; fancycamps.com.

Image: Barbara Banks

Myakka Cabins: A Civilized Escape

Myakka River State Park and its 58 square miles of natural splendor shelter a lazy stretch of the Myakka River, two lakes and a host of habitats. This unspoiled slice of Eden is a magnet to wildlife—and human visitors, who can hike (38.9 miles of loop trails), camp (three campgrounds with 90 campsites), birdwatch, paddle, fish and observe wildlife. Too much of an AC junkie for tent camping? Book one of the park’s five log cabins, nestled in a secluded setting of oaks and palms. According to park manager Steve Giguere, they’re a civilized escape from civilization. Built in the 1930s by Civilian Conservation Corps workers, each of the five rustic cabins can accommodate up to six guests in comfort with a kitchen (stocked with basic cooking necessities, including coffeemaker, microwave, stove and fridge), bathroom, bedroom and a spacious common room with a fireplace. Did we mention the air conditioning? Yep, you can chill out here. The cabins also come with linens, blankets and bath towels. What’s missing? TV and internet, so bring plenty of books and board games. Above all, don’t forget to bring your sense of wonder.

Need to Know

Best time to stay. December through April. Conditions are typically drier, and the weather cooler.

Bring waterproof footwear in the summer months. These cabins are not immune to Mother Nature’s whims. They were built in a floodplain and are vulnerable to flooding. After summertime rains, the water can reach the back steps, or even surround the cabin.

Handicapped accessibility. Cabin No. 1 was reconstructed to be wheelchair accessible. (Keep in mind you’ll need to walk a short distance from the parking area to the cabins.)

Close encounters with insects. The cabins are comfy, but you’re still out in the middle of nature, so bring bug spray.

Light up your night. Myakka is dark at night. We’re talking pitch black unless the moon is full. Bring flashlights and solar- or battery-powered lanterns.

Outdoor seating. Pack camp chairs so you can sit on the outside deck and commune with nature.

Cooking with fire. Bring charcoal for the firepit if you plan to grill outside.

Dining. If it’s too hot to grill or you want something fast and tasty, try the Pink Gator Café, perched on Upper Myakka Lake. Here you can dig into good old Florida grub including gator stew and seafood gumbo. The menu also offers sandwiches, hot dogs, veggie wraps, ice cream—and even a veggie burger. Wash down your meal with ice-cold craft brews on tap.

Wildlife spotting. With luck, you’ll spy deer, owls, herons, egrets and other critters in your back yard.

Your own wildlife. Sorry, no pets allowed.

The DIRT: Cabins at Myakka River State Park rent for $70 a night or $490 per week. Reservations are only at reserveamerica.com; (800) 326-3521. Park staff might know of last-minute cancellations or openings. Myakka River State Park is at 13208 S.R. 72, Sarasota; (941) 361-6511.

Horses are welcome on Myakka’s 15-mile trail; make sure to bring all the supplies you need.

Horsepower: Equestrian Camping at Myakka River State Park

Feel like horsing around? Myakka River State Park is a true Eden for equestrian enthusiasts. Its 15-mile, four-loop trail meanders through prairie, flatwoods and hammocks, and hooks up with trails in Sarasota County’s T. Mabry Carlton Preserve in case you want a longer ride. Your horse-powered odyssey is the ideal, leisurely way to experience the park’s sunny prairies, small marshes, shady cabbage palm hammocks and towering oak trees. Don’t worry about getting lost. Helpful directional trail markers point the way at each junction or turn. After a lazy day on the trails, settle down for the night in the park’s Primitive Horse Camp. Your hard-working horses can take it easy in two enclosed paddocks next door. (There’s room for up to six horses.) This backcountry section of the park is far from the madding crowds.

Need to Know

How to get in. Riders need to check in and check out at the State Road 72 ranger station. Bring proof of a current negative Coggins test for each horse.

Keep it safe. Wear a properly fitting helmet. (It’s good advice, and Florida state law for riders under the age of 16.) Ride at a reasonable speed and keep your horse a careful distance away from other horses and trail users.

Keep it clean. Carry out or dispose of litter properly. Leave the trail, parking and camping areas as you find them.

Do your homework. Check out trail rules in advance. Make sure there’s enough water for you and your horse. Prepare for weather changes and carry adequate food and supplies.

Timing is everything. The trails can get soggy with spring rains, and completely flooded during the summertime. The best months to ride are usually December through May, but there are no guarantees with Mother Nature. Take note of the weather before you go, and call the park to make sure the trails and campsite are open.

When they say “primitive” camping, they mean it. Forget modern conveniences like Wi-Fi, air conditioning, electricity, running water and bathroom facilities, apart from a composting privy. Here, you’re definitely roughing it.

Vehicle access. The campsite is located between the power line and State Road 72 on an all-weather road. It’s seasonally accessible by a four-wheel-drive vehicle. Registered campers will receive a gate combination for vehicle access.

If you want to keep riding. The Myakka River State Park horse trail connects to the Carlton Reserve in Sarasota County. For more info, click here.

The DIRT: Myakka River State Park is located at 13208 S.R. 72, Sarasota; (941) 361-6511.

Campers catch speckled perch, largemouth bass, bluegill and more at Lake Manatee.

Image: Matt Kreisler

Gone Fishing: Lake Manatee State Park

Looking to get some fishing in while you’re camping? The fish are definitely biting at Lake Manatee State Park, a 2,500-acre reservoir. This angler’s paradise is bursting with speckled perch, largemouth bass, shellcracker, bluegill and catfish. You can fish from your boat or one of the park’s fishing docks. Best of all? You’re on a camping trip, and you can take your sweet time fishing. (More time = more fish!)

Just a short stroll from the lake, the park boasts 60 campsites, which can accommodate both tents and RVs. Each campsite has a table, fire ring and grill, plus a 30-amp electric and water hook-up. Campers get access to showers, restrooms with flush toilets, drinking water and a recycling center. (Pssst. There’s also a dump station at the campground entrance if you’re in an RV with a full black tank.)

What to do when you’re not fishing? If you feel like swimming, there’s a beach with restrooms and a picnic pavilion. The placid lake is also ideal for canoes and kayaks, with two boat ramps to accommodate them. If you want to explore on foot, Old Florida’s natural landscape awaits, with hiking trails meandering in and around sand pines, pine flatwoods and wetlands. These ecosystems are home to alligators, bobcat, deer, egrets, gopher tortoises, herons and quail. Keep your eyes peeled and bring your camera.

The DIRT:  Lake Manatee State Park is located 15 miles east of Bradenton on State Road 64. The campsite charges $22 per night. Florida residents 65 or older receive a 50 percent discount on campsite fees. Reservations can be made up to 11 months in advance through Reserve America. Call (800) 326-3521 or visit reserveamerica.com.

Airstreams come packed with modern luxuries.

Image: Shutterstock

Living the Airstream Life: Guest Wings

Often referred to as a “silver toaster on wheels,” the iconic, aluminum-skinned, teardrop-shaped Airstream trailer has made a huge comeback in American RV living. Airstream was the brainchild of inventor Wally Byam, who launched the company in the 1930s, and after ceasing production during World War II, it roared back into popularity in the late 1940s. Lovers of Byam’s retro-futurist design keep his dream alive.

In honor of the Airstream’s allure, St. Petersburg entrepreneur Terri Shapiro and her partner, Michael McNutt, started GuestWings in 2016, a company that rents classic Airstream trailers (aka “mobile guest suites”) tricked out with 21st-century conveniences. While clients can’t drive them off into the sunset, they can park the trailers on their own properties. GuestWings will also happily set up your Airstream in Oscar Scherer, Little Manatee River State Park, and other Florida state parks that offer RV camping.

So, what’s it like inside?

These 2016 Airstream travel trailers are 23 feet long, with 10-foot ceilings and plenty of luxe accommodations, including a full bathroom, queen-sized beds with high-end linens, cutting-edge technology, stainless steel appliances and marble countertops. The space can comfortably fit three adults or two adults and two children, since the dinette can be converted into a bed. According to Shapiro, no detail is overlooked. “We use natural cleaning products with no lasting odor,” she says. “We even wash the linens in scent-free detergent.” 

Shapiro and McNutt bought their first Airstream in 2015, and then hit the road for a four-month odyssey through the Great American West. “It was an amazing trip,” she says. “We both fell in love with the casual, flexible lifestyle. Since then, we try to take an extended Airstream camping trip every year. We both love the iconic design. We love the quality of construction even more.” 

Need to Know

Cost. $179 per night with a two-night minimum.

Off-site requirements. The company needs to ensure that the site can accommodate the trailers. Deed-restricted or gated communities may not be eligible.

Drop-off and return. Stay put, and they’ll do the work for you. GuestWings will drop the trailer off, and then pick it up at a specified time.

Pets. Service animals only are allowed. The company plans to purchase an Airstream this year that will be dog-friendly.

The Dirt: (727) 314-1201; guestwings.com

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