Category Archives: Florida

Florida Part III: The Keys

Our drive between the Tampa Bay area and Key West was the longest road trip we had taken since we started our adventure. Our plans were directly on schedule, which meant we had reservations to check out of our Ozona cottage on the 21st and reservations to check into Bluewater Key RV Resort on the 22nd. The drive was going to be over 7 hours so we decided to break the trek into halves and stay overnight in a Casino parking lot at the midway point in the Everglades.  Our water pump and tank sensors were all freshly repaired, or replaced, and we were finally able to “camp” somewhere self sufficiently without hooking up to any exterior utilities.

As it turns out, the repair costs to the Monaco were drastically less than we had guesstimated. The way we saw it, we had a little extra money left in our savings account after we paid Creative Coach because we were expecting to part with so much more in the repair payments. Mike’s solution was to take our good fortune and try to double it. He went to the money machine and pulled out $1,500 for us to gamble with while we spent the night in the casino parking lot. He was going to try and make something at the craps table with $1,000 to start with, and he was going to give me $500 to take to the black jack table. It was a perfect plan: drive four hours on a scenic trip through The Everglades, stay the night for free, have a nice dinner and make a fortune at the tables.

The drive was fine, the parking lot was free and had lots of security, and we didn’t lose any money. We stayed at the Miccosukee Tribe of Indians of Florida Resort &  Casino at the cross roads of Florida Highways  41 and 997. We found a wide open space in the back parking lot so we could walk the dogs and open the slides. When I went to “register” us with security inside the casino I learned there were no craps or black-jack tables, only a poker room and slot machines. Oh well, now we had “extra” money to play with in Key West! We had dinner that night in one of the nicer restaurants on the property… it was “open air” situated up on a platform looking down at one of the casino slot floors with slot machines encircling the boundaries of the restaurant. It was in a smoking section. Since smoke rises, we got to breathe anyone’s exhaust that was under or near us. Mike’s frog legs were soggy, my pasta was gummy. They did have a nice piano player contributing to the “lounge” ambiance. We really couldn’t get out of there fast enough.

We went back to our bus after dinner and continued putting all of our belongings back into their proper places. We had loaded all of our stuff from the cottage to the bus, but we had yet to put everything away.  The place was a wreck. After a good night’s rest, we got up in the morning and continued chores before hitting the road. Mike spent at least 2 hours cleaning the windshield after our rainy drive through the everglades. It was filthy with mud and bug splats.

The drive down the Keys was not what I expected. Highway 1 is basically a 100- mile two-lane highway with the average posted speed of 45 miles per hour. It seemed like we were so close to our destination for so long, but it just took us forever to get there. Of course between all the roadside restaurants, resorts, and ocean vistas there is plenty to look at as you crawl down the road. Bluewater Key Luxury RV Resort is at Mile Marker 14 so we enjoyed a great view with plenty of sites to see all on the way down.

We ended up on Sugarloaf Key just a few keys down from the Mecca of Key West. I had never been there before, so I was very excited to explore the area. I had always wanted to take a trip to Key West, and now I know the future holds many other trips back to the quirky tropical wonderland. The RV Resort itself was a private establishment and each RV pad was privately owned. This meant that each site had its own landscaping, furniture, etc. The spot we were given was #11.  One side of the resort faced open waters and our side of the park opened up to a canal. There was a one-street neighborhood on the opposite side of the tiny key so our neighbors across the canal were local residents. We had a tiki hut with lights and fans, a deck facing the water, a big wicker table and matching bar set, brick pavers, and dense landscaping that blocked our view from each of the neighbors. I could see why this place took reservation APPLICATIONS. Just because you want a reservation here doesn’t mean you are going to get one. I was very thankful that Mike had made this reservation for us even before we owned the Monaco. It had coincidentally turned out to be Memorial Day weekend, so the place was full during our stay.

Mike hooked up my hammock to support posts in the Tiki structure. We moved a television out to the bar and hooked it up to the free cable. We plugged in the iPad and used the resort’s free Wi-Fi to stream island music  from Pandora. Piper stood guard protecting us from the multitude of iguanas that roamed the area. I took frequent naps in my hammock. Mike fished off the back deck for mangrove snapper. We walked the dogs around the resort and along a biking path just outside our gate. We did swim in the resort’s pool one time. Our week in Key West flew by as we did a lot of nothing for many days in a row.

Don’t worry, we did actually leave the resort and see other parts of the area. On our second day we didn’t know what to expect from Key West. At the time, we had no idea how incredibly dog friendly and completely car unfriendly the last key really is. We left the dogs at home and went into the center of Key West with no parking plan – both of which we did not repeat again during our visit. Our plan was to go have breakfast at Blue Heaven, a restaurant that was recommended to us by our friends Amy and Blaine. Then we could cruise around and see the layout of the town. We would get a general feeling for where everything was on the way back to the bus. This way we could figure out what all kinds of things we wanted to do while we were in town. We had a great tour of the historic town center during the hunt for a place to dump our car, and finally found a parking spot for $15 around the corner from the restaurant. We had a scrumptious breakfast in an enclosed open-air patio under an enormous tree while we listened to live music and watched roosters and hens peck for leftover scraps by our feet. I ordered the Lobster Benedict and Mike had the ‘everything’ breakfast platter with the most delicious banana pancakes I’ve ever tasted. We decided it had probably been a good thing we visited this location without the dogs. Piper and the yard birds would not have made for a pleasant dining experience.

That evening we came back into town for the Sun Celebration at Mallory Square (complete with dogs and a parking plan). We roamed through the crowds and looked at the art booths that were set up around the perimeter. We watched characters in costumes meandering, sword eaters swallowing blades, musicians strumming instruments, fortune tellers giving guidance, and a black cat repeatedly jump through a flaming ring of fire. We found a spot on the water in front of The Westin and waited for the sun to set while we had some drinks and dinner. Our waitress brought the dogs bacon to eat as a treat. I told her unfortunately they couldn’t eat the bacon, but they could eat a carrot if she wanted to give them something. She was back in five minutes with a bowl of chopped carrots, so the dogs were happy too. We spent the rest of that evening watching the chartered and private boats return to their marinas at dusk, then we headed back home.

Another day we went back into town with the dogs and parked for FREE at a hidden parking lot behind the Truman Annex near Ft. Zachary Taylor. From there we walked through the fabulous neighborhoods crowded with vintage architecture, a history that incorporates presidents and hoodlums, lush gardens, wacky charisma and other tourists. We found our way to the Southernmost Point – where I heard a tour bus driver say we were closer to Cuba than we were to the nearest Wal-Mart. There was a long line of people waiting to take their picture by the official marker, so we just skipped the line and took pictures of other people we didn’t know standing by the official marker. After we checked the marker off our list of things to see, we went to eat beachside at the Southernmost Café just down the street. Although dogs were not allowed on the beach or in the restaurant, they had a small section of tables with umbrellas near the entrance where we could sit with the dogs and order TO GO plates off of the menu. It was basically self-service, but that was fine with us. Mike had tried the Mojitos at The Westin, so I tried them at this place. I don’t like rum, but I had two! After lunch we strolled down Duval Street on the way back to the car. If we had wanted to buy anything at all, we could have. We passed shops and stores that sold everything from t-shirts, to cigars, to fine art and jewelry. Every imaginable thing in between was displayed in the retail windows of the shops that lined the narrow streets . The only thing I think they had more of in Key West than shops was bars. I wanted to go into each one that we passed, but we had 14 miles to drive home so we just gawked and kept walking.

As we had discussed our plans to visit the Keys with others in the previous months, several of our friends had recommended we go to Little Palm Island while we were in the area. Little Palm Island is a private resort, but they do allow “guests” to visit their dining room with advanced reservations. High End. Lifestyles of the Rich and not necessarily Famous. We decided to make a date and scheduled reservations for Sunday Brunch with a 10:30 departure time on their ferry. Little Palm is a private island on the Atlantic side just off of Torch Key. They have two sleek teak motorboats that take their guests from the dock near the Overseas Highway Mile Marker 28 to the resort.  It was about a 20-minute boat ride. As our boat, “The Truman”, approached the island we circled around it to where the dock was located on the opposite side. There were about 20 or so private cabanas with indoor/outdoor designs and thatch roofs. Each one was set off from the next one with world class landscaping and natural foliage in-between. They each had their own fire ring and their own private mini-dock outfitted with giant teak couches and loungers under massive umbrellas. Each cabana also had a little patio area that had outdoor linen curtains surrounding the boundaries, so the guests could have extra privacy if necessary. Before we docked the boat and made our way to the restaurant area, I told Mike we were coming back here to stay for our 30th anniversary.  It would take us that long to save enough money to afford to spend more than a couple of hours in this paradise.

For brunch our white linen- covered table was located in the sand. The mimosas and bloody Mary’s were free-flowing. Most of the food offerings were available on a buffet and we could also order little mini- plates off the menu. The buffet had pastries, fruit, cheese, crackers, breads, shrimp, oysters, salmon,  carved pork roast, and dozens of fresh salads. From the menu I ordered Salmon Benedict and the Chilled Avocado Soup. Mike ordered a grilled fish and Kobe beef.  At the end of our meal they brought out a little sampler dessert platter with about 6 different choices of goodies to taste.  We were so lucky that our table sat in the shadows of a clump of palm trees, so the weather was pleasant and the view was gorgeous during our entire meal. It was a great date.  I would recommend the splurge to anyone who enjoys delicious food and romantic surroundings.

We went on a morning snorkeling trip on Memorial Day. Our Catamaran, The Marquesa, left the harbor at 9am. There were 20 passengers and 3 crew members, our captain Eric assisted by Jill and Carol. We heard the afternoon cruise was booked for 80 people, so once again we were lucky with how things played out. The ride out to the reef was about an hour. We snorkeled for about an hour and then enjoyed free beer and wine on the boat ride back into port. The wind was pretty strong and the water was fairly choppy, which made seeing fish and plants in the protected barrier reef a little tricky… but it was a great excursion.  After we got back on land we wanted to eat some lunch and realized a Carnival Cruise Ship was docked down the street.  Rather than go toward the “extra” crowds of tourists, we drove out of the city center and went to a local dive called Hogfish on Stock Island.  It was about half- way between where our car was parked in the parking lot and where our bus was located back at Bluewater Key.

It started raining that evening after we got back home and didn’t really stop until we left on Wednesday morning.  We spent our last day in the Keys getting ready for a mammoth road trip to the northeast. I went to the grocery store and got the kitchen all stocked up. Our vacation was over and the chores needed attention, but it was okay because we were all chilled out from our time in the tropics. We were so busy relaxing during our stay that we didn’t get to see and do everything on our list. They say once your feet touch the Key West Sand, you will return again and again. I think I believe the lore. I certainly plan to be back.

 

Leaving the harbor to go snorkeling.

Leaving the harbor to go snorkeling.

This is the dog walking area at our RV Resort.

This is the dog walking area at our RV Resort.

The marina where Hogfish Bar is located. We came to eat with this view after our snorkel trip.

The marina where Hogfish Bar is located. We came to eat with this view after our snorkel trip.

This was our back yard for the week. Piper was always on guard for iguana protection. One snake did crawl up on our deck also, but the dogs and I scared it back underneath.

This was our back yard for the week. Piper was always on guard for iguana protection. One snake did crawl up on our deck also, but the dogs and I scared it back underneath.

The view from our table during our brunch date to Little Palm.

The view from our table during our brunch date to Little Palm.

From the ferry landing waiting to go back to Little Torch Key. It was a spectacular Sunday.

From the ferry landing waiting to go back to Little Torch Key. It was a spectacular Sunday.

hee hee

hee hee

A view of the tables behind us during brunch. One other couple was at a table beside us, but we basically had a private dining area to ourselves.

A view of the tables behind us during brunch. One other couple was at a table beside us, but we basically had a private dining area to ourselves.

The water was a bit rough for snorkeling, but it was beautiful never-the-less.

The water was a bit rough for snorkeling, but it was beautiful never-the-less.

Fun in the sun.

Fun in the sun.

Our ferry boat ride to Little Palm Island.

Our ferry boat ride to Little Palm Island.

The canal behind our site.

The canal behind our site.

Good Night.

Good Night.

Sun Celebration Sunset

Sun Celebration Sunset

 

Florida Part II: The Pinellas Trail

When we first bought the Monaco in October of 2012 we had some cosmetic and mechanical repairs made to it. Usually when someone needs home repairs, they schedule the appropriate person or company to come out and fix whatever is wrong. When you live in a motor coach, you take the vessel to the repair shop and find somewhere else to reside while you wait.  The first time we experienced this logistic we were camped at an RV park on Lake Conroe. Finding somewhere to stay worked out great thanks to my in-laws. They have a fifth wheel camper that they use for vacations and hunting trips. We packed up what we needed for the 2 weeks were going to be homeless and put our bus in the shop. Then Mike and I drove to his parent’s house. Mike and his dad drove the 5th wheel back to our spot at the RV park, parked it and set it up. After another road trip for my father-in-law and me to trade places,  Mike and I were set while the motor coach work was completed. After the work was done, Mike’s parents drove down to pick up the fifth wheel, and we brought the Monaco back to the same spot at the RV park. It was a smooth transition all the way around.

As our planned departure date of February 1, 2013 approached, we determined we had some new but minor electrical and water pump issues that would require another stint in the shop. Although our water pump issue would not allow us to “boondock” on our trip, we would be fine as long as we always camped somewhere with full hook-ups. This way we would have water from the campground’s utility infrastructure and not our self-contained water tank.  Mike decided we would get on the road as planned and then figure out what to do next about putting the bus in the shop again.

We had tentatively planned to spend the month of May in Florida. In fact, we had planned long ago to splurge on a stop at a ritzy RV park in Key West. Mike has submitted his application for a reservation months ago, so we knew the dates of May 22 – 29 were definite. Everything else was flexible. Mike’s solution was to schedule the necessary repairs with the shop where he took possession of the Monaco in October. Creative Coach is located in Lakeland exactly mid way between Orlando and Tampa.  They specialize in body work, painting and mechanical repairs We decided to schedule the repairs beginning May 1st, and beg the guys at Creative Coach to have it ready in time for us to get to Key West by the 22nd. The next obvious question… where were we going to live for three weeks while our house was surrendered to the mechanics?

I was not staying in a hotel for that long. We needed a furnished and fully equipped one bedroom house or condo that allowed dogs somewhere between Orlando and Florida for less than $100.00 per night. There was really only one place to start looking: a website called www.vrbo.com (vacation rental by owner).  Mike and I had stayed in many vrbo properties on travels in the past. The only problem was that I had vowed I would never do business with this company again. I have to stray from this original story for a second so you will know just how hard it was for me to bite the bullet and start researching somewhere for us to land while we were in limbo during our time in Florida.

Several years ago a group of my tennis buddies decided we would take a girl’s trip to The Cincinnati Western & Southern Open Tennis Tournament. This is the “warm-up” tournament for the pros before the U.S. Open in New York. This means “everyone” is always there, the venue is wonderful and small, and the price is much less expensive than a trip to New York and tickets to the Grand Slam tournament. About 10 of us planned to go. The group elected me to be the organizer of the trip. My friend Donna got us our tournament tickets and rental car, so all I needed to do was research airfare and find us somewhere to stay.

During our trip I thought it would be more fun to stay in a big house than it would be to stay in a hotel – so we could all stay up late into the night laughing and gossiping in a central living room or kitchen. Since we always had such wonderful luck with www.vrbo.com in the past, I started my search for lodging at their website. I found a wonderful huge house out on some acreage with a private lake about 20 minutes from the tennis center. We were so excited, I booked the reservation and sent the deposit. Several months passed and we were all finalizing the details of our trip (what to wear, etc). Just as everything was all lined up, I got an email from the homeowner in Cincinnati telling me that he basically got a better offer on the house so our reservation was no longer valid and he would be sending me back my deposit. What? I was so ticked off, I couldn’t even believe it. My friend Deann had to step in and become the leader and organizer. She booked us a set of hotel rooms at a nice and convenient location, so everything worked out fine – but I was still so mad that some jerk could screw up our travel plans after we had signed a contract and sent deposit money.  Keep in mind this jerk homeowner had 10 pissed off women on his bad side, so we did some investigating to see what we could dig up on the guy. Turns out he was in the soft porn business out in L.A., so who knows what kind of movies and scenes had been filmed at this charming Ohio country estate. Yuck. Okay, maybe it is a good thing we didn’t stay at that house and sleep in those beds, but I still never wanted to do business with www.vrbo.com EVER again. So now my reluctance to utilize this service is understandable, but I had no choice. Where else was I going to find exactly what I needed? I didn’t know where else to look.

We did, in fact, find exactly what we needed. We rented a charming cottage from a lovely couple (who did not cancel our reservation at the last minute… even though I checked in with them frequently during the months and weeks prior to our arrival) in Ozona – an unincorporated section of Palm Harbor on St. Joseph Sound to the northeast of Tampa. The boundaries of our little area stretched along Pinellas County with Clearwater to our south and Tarpon Springs to our north. Our cottage had a fence for the dogs, a front porch for happy hour, a washer & dryer for my obsession with clean laundry, a fully equipped kitchen, cable, wi-fi and a comfy bed. We were about an hour and 15 minutes from where we would leave the Monaco, so we were set for our three-week homeless stint in Florida.

Our little home was located on Bay Street which was about three blocks long and ended at the Gulf of Mexico facing west. We witnessed spectacular sunsets every evening that we walked to the end of our street. Just one block to the east of us was a collection of family-owned eccentric restaurants. We were within walking distance to Ozona Pizza, Molly Goodheads Raw Bar, The Ozona Pig, Ohana Café and Ozona Blue – each showcasing their own unique atmosphere and menu. We ate at least one meal at each of the spots, but we were regulars at Molly’s. They had a big gravel parking lot across from their restaurant and, conveniently, also across from our cottage. We were lucky enough to be able to pull the Monaco into the spare lot on our way in and out of the neighborhood – which made moving in and out of the temporary rental much easier.  They allowed dogs to hang out on the patio and we felt obliged to contribute to their bank in return for using their parking lot for our convenience. Not to mention their martinis were excellent and only 5 bucks. There were a couple of nice antique stores and the Conscious Connection around the corner too.  At the Conscious Connection you could get a facial, a life reading, a massage, or get your chakra balanced. I had my chakra balanced years ago in Melbourne while visiting my BFF Janet during her stint in Australia – so this trip I just opted for a massage and facial, followed by 20 minutes in the sauna.

The absolute best thing about our cottage in Ozona was its proximity to the Pinellas Trail. The Fred Marquis Pinellas Trail is a 47-mile linear park and recreation trail currently extending from St. Petersburg to Tarpon Springs. The multi- use paved trail is easily accessible at dozens of spots along its corridor. It was created along an abandoned railroad corridor and provides a unique and protected green space for walking, jogging, skating, and biking. We hopped on this trail by foot with the dogs, or on bicycles, to get to just about anything we needed. We could walk to buy groceries, eat out, exercise the dogs, visit area parks, check out neighborhood festivals and community concerts  – all by traveling along this linear pedestrian thoroughfare. It was so convenient, we almost never got in our car for three weeks. My favorite daily task (on the days I cooked dinner) was to walk the dogs to the wonderful produce market about 4 blocks from the house and select the fresh fruit and veggies I needed for my menu.

Situated about a 45-minute bike ride to our north was the Greek community of Tarpon Springs. The Gulf waters off the west coast of Florida north of Tampa Bay comprise one of the few areas in the world where the species of natural sponges suitable for commercial use are found.  The natural sponge industry in Tarpon Springs dates from about 1890 when the first sponge fishing boat was launched. Sponges were retrieved by hooking until the technique of diving for sponges was introduced by a Greek immigrant in 1905. In his native land the practice of sponge diving was common. Within a few years many Greeks had arrived in the area to work in the sponging industry. Today the quaint town is still peppered with mom & pop businesses touting Greek names I cannot pronounce or spell correctly. The bustling area of the sponge docks has a market atmosphere that made me feel like we were on one of the Greek islands instead of in central Florida.  Vendors, restaurants and pastry shops lined the sidewalks along the narrow streets bordering the water. Shrimp boats, diving boats and sailboats lined the docs from the other side.

We went over to Tarpon Springs three times during our stay. One day we road our bikes over and checked out the area, but a storm was approaching and we didn’t linger so we could get home and still be dry.   Another evening we rode our bikes back and did a bit of shopping before eating at an excellent restaurant called Dimitri’s On the Water. Our table was on the edge of the dock and the scenery was wonderful as we tried the Greek sampler platter during sunset. Mike had some Ouzo – so we got to say “Opa” a lot. The last time we rode the bikes over we did a bit more shopping and had a couple of drinks at some waterfront restaurants. Then we ate a feast at an age-old restaurant called Mykonos. It was delicious! That night around 7:30 PM while we were eating we watched about 10 fire trucks pass in front of the restaurant heading to the end of the docks with sirens blaring and lights flashing. It turns out a shrimp boat had caught fire. Fuel was leaking into the water and other neighboring boats were in danger. After dinner as we rode off on our bikes in the other direction the dusky sky was very dramatic with plumes of black smoke billowing into the air. Luckily, we learned the next morning that no one had been injured in the fire. Two boats were completely destroyed and a massive hazmat clean-up was underway when we moved out of our cottage.

To the south of us via a 30-minute bike ride was another quaint town of Dunedin (pronounced Dun-EE-din).  The city shut down a section of the downtown Main Street on Cinco de Mayo for a street festival. We went over to enjoy the food booths and live musical performances. About a week later we rode our bikes to another park in the city that was bordered by the Pinellas Trail and the gulf. They had a free music and sunset series every Friday night in May from 7pm until 9pm. We took a little picnic and enjoyed  the music from a local band while we watched people watch the sun go down. On another day we walked down the trail to a city Park called Hammock Park. They had a butterfly garden at the park so we took the dogs and Mike got some good photos for me. Dunedin had a ton of cute restaurants and shops also, but we only ended up having cocktails at the Chica Boom Room during the 5 de Mayo Festival.

Since we were parked in Ozona for such a long time of three weeks, we took the opportunity to get caught up on routine doctor appointments and other errands. Mike and I both went to the dentist for a cleaning, I had my eyes checked, he went to the dermatologist, the dogs went to the vet, the Honda got an oil change – everyone got service. I even got brave enough to try another local salon for a haircut and color, which turned out to be a very pleasant experience. I even went back on another day for a manicure and pedicure.

We spent a couple of days visiting local beaches. Honeymoon Island State Park was just about 4 miles away. We went over to explore the beach there one afternoon, but a cold front was approaching the area. We didn’t get to stay very long because the weather arrived just about the time we got ourselves situated. The most interesting thing about our spot on Honeymoon Island was that there wasn’t really any sand. The surface was sort of scraggly rock with a layer of broken shells scattering the surface. It was a very rugged beach. One Saturday we drove to Clearwater Beach for an afternoon in the sun. We lounged on the beach and then ate fresh grouper at a beachfront restaurant behind our spot.

Mike has an inflatable kayak that got lots of use during our time on Bay Street. He put it in the water at the edge of our street every chance he got.  He caught about a fish a day, so we had speckled trout for dinner two times during our stay, and we stored more in the freezer for future meals. One night I broiled it in the oven at our house. Another time we brought 6 filets over to our restaurant neighbor Molly Goodhead’s, and let them blacken it for us. The only bad part is that I’ll never be able to prepare it as well, so the next batch I cook for us will probably be a let down after the treat at Molly’s.

My high school friend and college roommate, Janet, has parents that live a little over an hour from where we were staying. One Sunday we drove over to their house for a visit. We had a great time trading stories and enjoying a wonderful lunch outside by their crystal clear pool. It is so much fun when we get to schedule visits with old friends and family members as we pass through nearby locations during our trip.

All in all, our homeless time in Florida was very enjoyable. We had a great time exploring our neighborhood, feasting on seafood and Greek fare from local restaurants, watching the sunsets, and passing the evenings on our front porch. We hardly ever even thought about the coach repairs or had time to worry if they would be finished in time for our Key West reservations. In the end, we ended up getting the Monaco back exactly when we expected to, and the bonus was that the repair costs ended up being drastically less than we had anticipated. I think we should thank our travel angels for the good fortune yet again!

 

This is one of the best sunsets we saw. It happened on one of the first night's we were on Bay Street.

This is one of the best sunsets we saw. It happened on one of the first night’s we were on Bay Street.

Tide's out.

Tide’s out.

This was at the butterfly garden in Dunedin.

This was at the butterfly garden in Dunedin.

Spent our last evening at Molly's Raw Bar.

Spent our last evening at Molly’s Raw Bar.

Two chores with one walk: dogs are exercised and we have groceries for dinner!

Two chores with one walk: dogs are exercised and we have groceries for dinner!

Watching the cold front approach Honeymoon Island State Park.

Watching the cold front approach Honeymoon Island State Park.

This was the sunset on our last night in Ozona.

This was the sunset on our last night in Ozona.

A view of our cottage from the street.

A view of our cottage from the street.

Sunset during the May Music Series at a Park in Dunedin.

Sunset during the May Music Series at a Park in Dunedin.

The marina in our neighborhood.

The marina in our neighborhood.

Crossing the Sunshine Bridge outside of St. Pete.

Crossing the Sunshine Bridge outside of St. Pete.

We had to pause from our walk while the turtle crossed the sidewalk.

We had to pause from our walk while the turtle crossed the sidewalk.

The view from our front porch.

The view from our front porch.

Florida Part I: Emerald Coast

When we were exploring options on places to stay in Florida we had a hard time making reservations in the State Park system. Some states allow you to make reservations for a specific amount of time, and the actual spots are not assigned until your arrival time – you get the best spot that is available at the time you are ready to check in. Conversely, the State of Florida assigns your actual spot in the park when you make the reservation. There were plenty of spots available at St. Andrews State Park for the time we wanted to spend near Panama City Beach – but no one slot was available on all the days we wanted to be there in a row. We decided it was time to bust our budget a bit and see what the fancy private RV parks were like.

We narrowed our search to two possibilities. From what we could tell by looking at a map and reading online reviews, our first choice was Emerald Coast RV Beach Resort… a Family and Snowbird Paradise. When I called the office to ask about availability, the lady said they did have slots open for the time we wanted to come stay with them. She informed me that the longest (82′) and most sought-after spot was #61. It was during this conversation that she casually mentioned they were next to a zoo and we might hear some tigers and lions roaring at meal times. I told her I would talk to my husband about this and get back to her. Mike and I discussed this interesting tidbit and decided nothing could be terrible for a week, so we should just book it and see what happened. I called back and arranged our reservation to begin our month of May (a few days early) in the sunshine state at “the highest rated resort in north Florida”.

A few weeks later our travel from Gulf Shores to Panama City Beach was routine. We left around 11:30 and arrived to our designated spot around 3 in the afternoon. Mike was happy because, as we were getting settled, he saw two F21 Raptors fly over us on final to somewhere. They were low and loud and fast. It turns out we had our own personal airshow the whole week we were there. Several times a day we got to see Blackhawk helicopters, F18’s or those F21’s zooming over us while practicing maneuvers.

Another interesting thing we discovered about our new home was that the park wasn’t near a zoo… it shared an 8-foot residential fence with the establishment. Spot #61 was indeed a long private spot tucked into the corner of the RV park. We were inside a 90-degree angle fence line. The barnyard animals, monkeys and peacocks were behind us, while the lions and tigers were next to us on the driver’s side of the bus. I now realized the nice front desk lady mentioned the lions and tigers because they sound exotic and majestic – something we thought would be fun to hear a couple of times a day during our visit. She left out the fact the roosters crow ALL the time except for a few short hours in the middle of the night. Turkeys say gobble gobble frequently and forcefully. Peacocks loudly whine eerie noises that sound like “mmeeoouuwww” and “nnnooo”, or just plain screams. Monkeys are not loud all the time, but when they get worked up – it is a real symphony of grunts and screeches. The funny thing is, we never actually heard the tigers during our stay at the “cleanest and friendliest resort with spotless grounds and facilities and friendly, helpful staff who treat you like family”. It was a hoot, no pun intended… that is what the owl outside the window by my desk said over and over the last couple of nights we were there. As we camped at Zooworld we learned that the animal species start stirring around 4am and a few party animals don’t shut it down until around 10 or 11 at night. Earplugs.

A couple of guinneas roamed around our corner of the park each morning, which drove the dogs insane. One morning after we walked we tied them to their leash on the patio so they could enjoy outside while we had coffee. The guinneas were not interested in this plan. They planted themselves on top of the fence line and squablled at all of us. The dogs were even behaving and not barking. Piper and Cessna were just staring at them trying to decipher what they could be carrying on about. We finally gave into the birds and brought the dogs inside the coach. Then the small turkey birds flew down and began their ritual of scanning the grounds.

Piper had a stand-off with a couple of peacocks on another morning in Zooworld, I mean at Northwest Florida’s Finest Resort. I was inside with Cessna when Mike told me a peacock was on the fence. I went out with my camera and a female was about 10 feet away perched on the top of a post. Piper was sitting and trembling with a cement stare aimed at the creature. Just then the male bird flew up to the top of the fence, a little closer to us. I talked to him for a minute and asked him to show me the feathers on his tail. He stared at me for a minute and then turned around. I asked him to spread them out, but I think it would have been too much for my dog, so I’m glad he didn’t. I took a couple of pictures of the peacock couple, and then the male flew up onto the top of our coach. Mike was not interested in him scratching up or pecking sections of the roof on our “house”, so he sprayed him with the water hose and it flew away. All told, I thought it was a very cool experience and Piper was flabbergasted.

We didn’t really clue into the fact that the area is called the Emerald Coast until we saw the beach. Guess what? The water is the color of emeralds against the white soft sugar sand. As the depths change, so does the intensity of the clear blue green water. There was one section of the beach where dogs were allowed, so we packed up our chairs and coolers one day to check it out. We had a fun time soaking up some rays and watching a man with two labs throw a bumper into the waves for them to retrieve endlessly. One of the dogs would actual get the toy, but then his partner would grab the other half in its mouth so they could present this gift back to their owner simultaneously. They were quite a duo. Our dogs tested the water, rolled in the sand, and barked at seagulls or other dogs. Clouds showed up after about an hour in the sun, so we let the dogs wait in the car while we explored a retail/entertainment establishment across the street from the dog beach. We had a couple of drinks and a monstrous order of volcano nachos from Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville Café before heading back home. Another day we left the dogs in the coach and went to a section of beach on the other end of the strip in front of a bar called Schooner’s. We took in the sun and sand for a couple of hours, and then made our way to the patio for a cheeseburger and some fried seafood.

Panama City Beach is a small place so we got around on our bikes about half of the time. We rode over to the State Park (where we were unable to make a reservation) to check out the beach and jetties and campgrounds. We rode to dinner and lunch a couple of times. It was fun getting around with something besides a car. On one of our outings we were at a place called The Boatyard in a marina at the East End of the island at the entrance to the Grand Lagoon. We were there late in the afternoon on a Sunday so we got to watch all the boats come in after a day on the water. The most impressive was a cigar boat with a cabin and a t-top called BAD BOY. It had FOUR 300 HP Mercury engines on the back. We have a 500 HP engine in the coach that powers 44,000 LBs and tows a 10,000 LB car. That boat had twice as much power as we do. I’m pretty sure it could fly if necessary. A single guy with his black German Shepard got off of it before they hoisted it to its dry dock spot. Even the deckhand boys were taking pictures of it as they hosed off the salt water on its way up.

On our last day in Panama City Beach we ran errands and packed up for the upcoming long road trip to the Tampa Bay area. After stopping at Target, Dillard’s, GNC, Walmart, Goodwill, and Home Depot, we drove over to St. Andrews in Panama City for dinner at a local spot called The Capt. Table. I tried to ascertain wisdom from the owl as I fell asleep listening to him that night… and made sure my earplugs were within reach in preparation for my last 4am in Zooworld.

This is the boat the certainly lives up to its name.

This is the boat that certainly lives up to its name.

Our view from St. Andrews after we finished browsing the Saturday morning Farmer's Market.

Our view from St. Andrews after we finished browsing the Saturday morning Farmer’s Market.

Enjoying the beach on a beautiful day.

Enjoying the beach on a beautiful day.

We rode our bikes to Pineapple Willy's one afternoon, and then ate at a great Cajun dive called Dee's Hangout.

We rode our bikes to Pineapple Willy’s one afternoon, and then ate at a great Cajun dive called Dee’s Hangout.

A peek through a knothole in the fence revealed some exotic neighbors.

A peek through a knothole in the fence revealed some exotic neighbors.

A male and female peacock visited us one morning. I asked it to show me his tail, and he turned around for me!

A male and female peacock visited us one morning. I asked it to show me his tail, and he turned around for me!

There were two swimming pools at Emerald Coast RV Park - this one was the salt water pool.

There were two swimming pools at Emerald Coast RV Park – this one was the salt water pool.