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.

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