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Snorkeling the Western Caribbean

It’s mid-October in Atlanta and the temperature has finally dropped from 97 degrees to a more fall-like 65 degrees with 40’s overnight.  Jeans have replaced shorts, shoes replaced sandals and it is cold enough to use the firepit. Yet here I am at the pool bar, sipping a fruity frozen drink as a warm breeze blows ripples across the water.  What just happened? Maybe I better back up the story a bit …

You see, since our last great cruise on the Harmony of the Seas this summer, Jackie and I stated rather firmly that we would not be cruising again for a year or so, since we had plenty to do back home with grandson-sitting, beer festivals, maybe a fall camping weekend and such.  But it was just fine if Dad and the family wanted to head out to the Caribbean once again, we would wish them well. So plans were made for Dad, my brother Jeff and wife Vickie – even my sister Linda and husband Norman – to head out to the Western Caribbean on the Harmony of the Seas for a fall cruise.  Good stuff – wish you well.

But things got complicated when Norm’s family announced a trip to the Canadian Rockies and suddenly Linda was a single cruiser and gosh she needed a way to get to Port Canaveral via Atlanta (from California) and wouldn’t it be nice if Doug picked her up from the airport and drove her to the port and heck, he could even be her cabin mate.  Hey, Doug, whatcha think? Well it seems that, being retired, Jackie and I go where we are needed: so that meant cruising as a plus-one with my sister.

Turns out it was a great time.  We drove to Orlando and spent the night, checking out two breweries of course.  Hourglass Brewing had a lot on tap so of course we had two flights between us. Then a return visit to Rockpit Brewing meant another pint to try before returning to the hotel. 

 

Up early in the morning and off to the ship! We parked, checked in and were on the ship by 10:30 – just minutes before Jeff, Vic and Dad arrived. This trip Jeff arranged a scooter for Dad, so we had to practice getting him in and out of the room and around the ship.  Turns out it was the BEST move, as he was soon zipping along on his own.  

 

How about some highlights from the ports and sea days aboard ship you ask?  

Perfect Day at Coco Cay

The scooter made a world of difference for Dad, who was down the gangway and on his way across the dock to the Oasis Lagoon pool in no time.  We found lounge chairs by the huge pool and were soon sloshing around with drinks in hand. The weather couldn’t have been more perfect, as you can see from the pictures.  

The only disappointment was the snorkeling reef.  Over the years we have been coming here, the area to snorkel has been corralled in closer to shore and the last hurricane seems to have damaged the reef enough that you really didn’t have much to see.

Cozumel Snorkeling

The three reef excursion Linda and I took certainly was a change from Coco Cay.  We walked around and through the maze of shops on shore to find a taxi to the departure marina to meet our guides. 

Turns out there were only four of us on the small boat, which was awesome. Snorkeling in Cozumel is usually a float over the reef with the water current moving you slowly along.  We saw triggerfish (Queen and black), angelfish (Queen and French), parrotfish, yellow snapper, blue tang, butterfly fish, scrawled filefish, trunkfish and a couple of black and white eels.  

 

 

We had a photographer along who kept attracting the yellow and black Sergeant Majors in front of us to get photos – nice at first, but a bit annoying if you were looking at something else on the bottom.  Overall, it was amazingly clear and a great snorkel. A float vest I purchased worked out perfect, along with a rashguard shirt that substituted for sunscreen (they are serious about protecting their reefs – no sunscreen).  Fish identification was much easier thanks to some waterproof cards I bought from fishcards.com. Thanks to Michael Greenberg for all his help getting us these essential cards. We had a few cold Coronas on the way back to the marina while sharing what we saw. 

Roatan Snorkeling

 

Getting to the reef in Roatan from our dock in Coxen Hole was much more of an ordeal than in Cozumel, where the reef was in sight of the ship.  Jeff, Vic, Linda and I made our way ashore (where they are in mid-construction of a second big dock), wound through the maze of shops once again and found our excursion driver.  Into a van with four other divers and we were off to the northeast coast. It was an hour’s drive up and over the mountains along a busy 2-lane road that was surrounded by small houses (barely one-room shacks by our standards) and market stalls.  Despite all the happy house hunters I have seen on HGTV, I can’t say that I would have chosen to retire to the island. Not exactly prospering.

   

But once we reached our destination at Turquoise Bay Beach and Dive Resort it all changed.  The small marina had several dive boats and we were soon joined by 5 others with Subway Watersports to head to the reef and snorkel.  Next to us was a beachside resort that we would be able to enjoy after the snorkel. Not far off shore we were moored and ready to slip in the water in a sandy spot that was maybe 6 feet deep with a few sea stars.  There was a bit of wind chop as we were directed ahead to find an underwater oasis of coral, sponges and fish that were just amazingly beautiful.  

The “wall” was covered with sponges, fans and corals of all sorts.  The fish were much like what we saw at Cozumel, darting in and around the corals.  A lionfish was pointed out to us along with a yellow trumpetfish. Our guide took my gopro down to get a shot of the lionfish (which was stunning, although destructive to many native fish on the reefs).  Again, my vest was a big help, since we were probably snorkeling the reef for an hour. The sponges and corals (thanks to my ID cards) seemed to be sea whips, sea fans, tube sponges (blue and yellow), sea fingers, vase sponges, staghorn coral, brain coral, star coral … gosh so many colors and shapes.  Video link click here.

As I mentioned, we were able to hang out at the beach resort until our taxi arrived to take us back to the ship.  Totally gorgeous spot on the water – dreamy. But since we would be leaving port early and Roatan was 2 hours behind ship’s time, we were a bit anxious when it had not arrived. We were told we would be waiting for the divers in our party to return, but when they were overdue and in fact were choosing to continue their dive, the excursion owner opted to have one of his staff drive us back to port.  We made it with time to spare, but grumbled about the decision by our fellow passengers to have extended their dive at our expense.

Costa Maya Shopping

We were surprised to hear Dad say he wanted to go ashore in Costa Maya to buy a shirt, but once again the scooter made that possible.  He was down the gangway and speeding along the dock ahead of all of us, making a beeline for the cluster of shops on shore. He found his shirt while shopping, as did the rest of us, and soon we were all back aboard.  Costa Maya is pretty much the shopping arcade, a water park and some nearby excursions and nothing else for miles around. But the coastline is very pretty and our sail away was beautiful. 

Around the Ship and Sea Days 

Now this is a big ship and you have a few of your close friends with you – about 6,000 of them, with about 3,000 crew members.  So finding a lounge chair on sea days can be challenging. You have to first get your Irish coffee at the Park Cafe, find something good for breakfast (waffles with strawberries, whipped cream and chocolate syrup maybe?) then grab a mimosa or bloody mary and head for the towel check.  Maybe some sunscreen gets slathered on and you are all set – until Jeff says “hey let’s go do the waterslides!

   

So we climbed the stairway to the waterslides for the highest view aboard ship and zipped down.  The “toilet bowl” slide was a first time for Linda and she screamed the whole way down. I did the dark Abyss dry slide again; we bobbed in the pool and Jeff and I decided to brave the Flowrider kneeboard.  The board took a moment to get the hang of, what with all the water shooting at you, but soon we both got up on our knees and … well, we took a few falls and scooted around the fast-moving sheet of water. Totally fun and a real blast – I definitely got better as the week went on, but neither of us felt confident enough to do the stand-up wakeboards.

 

Dinners were in the main dining room, except the night that three of us ate at Jamie’s Italian (oh my gosh was it a lot of delicious food!).  A plank of meats and cheeses, garlicky prawns, lasagna, pasta and lamb chops washed down with a delicious red wine and followed by a huge plank of desserts. We had a delightful serving staff at dinner, with special after-dinner shots to toast the day (thank you Mikayla).  Late nights involved pizza slices and Octoberfest beer and lunch involved the famous Royal Kummelweck roast beef sandwich in Central Park. We all lunched at the Sabor Taqueria one day and had a fabulous and filling meal – so much so that we skipped the dining room and just did nibbles for dinner.

And of course we had to spend time in the casino.  The odds were not in our favor on the craps table and as the week went on, fewer folks were playing it.  But Dad had pretty fair luck at the roulette wheel, so he spent more time there than we did. He also seemed to attract his share of women who became helpful friends.  One couple adopted him as their good luck charm and we ran into them several times around the ship. Actually, everyone he met was very accommodating and helpful as he navigated his scooter.

   

     

We were naturally concerned about Dad on the days that he remained on board and we went ashore for excursions.  When we returned from Cozumel he told us that he had found the spa and toured the gym and made an appointment for a haircut and shampoo.  Then when we returned from our Roatan excursion he shared how he drove around the buffet with a plate of food and a bowl of soup, driving one-handed.  And to think we were worried about him!

       

The shows were also well done – we all watched Columbus the musical, the Fine Line aqua show (twice) and Linda and I saw the ice show 1887 (very good).  Headliner show was the Company Men, which Dad declared all “yelling and screaming – I don’t recognize any of the music” but the rest of us thought their mash-ups from the past decades was well done.

       

But aboard this huge ship, you can just sit somewhere and relax, maybe in the Central Park gardens while a guitarist plays.  Or people-watch on the Promenade on formal night. Or ride the elevator with the piano player. Or watch the sunset from the Mast Bar on deck 16 or even better from the “King of the World” overlook.  Maybe create your own drink from the robots in the Bionic Bar or discover the quiet Wonderland Bar for a martini. Watch the street parade from the Schooner Bar with a coconut mojito. It is easy to forget you are cruising off the coast of Cuba or Honduras.

Meanwhile, somewhere in the Canadian Rockies . . .

 

… Norm was enjoying a beer in a hot tub in the midst of a snowstorm – – while his replacement was lounging by the pool in the warm Caribbean sun.  Ahhh, Life is Good.

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The BIG Cruise

Some time after the holidays this year my brother told me that he and Dad were planning their next cruise in April and I enthusiastically wished them well. Jackie, John, Dad and I had done a Carnival cruise over Halloween to Nassau and I was just fine passing up any cruise for the next year. But things evolved and the cruise choice was no longer a 5-day out of Charleston but a 7-day out of Port Canaveral aboard the Oasis of the Seas, the first mega-ship by Royal Caribbean. Jackie and I still felt we were just fine sitting this one out and, again, we wished them well.

During a late January visit with Dad, he and my brother leaned on me to join them on the cruise — Dad pulling a bit of a guilt trip “I just want both my boys with me .. not sure how many cruises I have left in me” .. so I agreed to think it over, which meant of course we booked ourselves on the cruise shortly afterward. Heck, it should be fun on the Oasis class ship.

Then an accident happened while the ship was docked in Nassau for maintenance. A crane fell into the stern AquaTheater, the ship slipped and the (new word) azipods were damaged below. We kept our fingers crossed, but two weeks before sailing we learned the cruise was cancelled, refund was on the way, future cruise credit to be applied. Oh well.

But we would not be deterred. Since that meant that 3 cruises of 6,000 passengers each were now looking to re-book their cruise, Jeff and I jumped on the phone to contact our travel agents and find some options. The solution was the next ship scheduled to leave from Port Canaveral, the newer Harmony of the Seas, which was the same Oasis class of ship that hosted 6,000 guests and 2,000 crew. We booked the second week of June for an Eastern Caribbean cruise and hoped for the best.

So our most recent adventure just completed was an amazing cruise aboard a floating hotel/mall. Seriously, this ship had everything and really felt like you weren’t even on a ship most of the time. Not sure I can fully describe the wonderful time we had and all the available amenities the ship had to offer, but I will certainly try. I also have some videos that will take a bit longer to edit, but I promise to post them soon. I was having fogging issues with my 35mm camera aboard ship, what with the cold AC in the room and the warmer, tropical air out on deck, but the GoPro was good with the underwater shots and such.

Pre-Cruise Orlando
We drove to the Orlando airport area the day before, since it is about 7 hours (8 if you drive through rainstorms like we did) and stayed overnight. That meant we were less than an hour from the ship’s terminal and would have no problem arriving before Jeff, Vic and Dad (oh no, I am not competitive at all). So after checking in at the Best Western we searched for “breweries near me” and found several choices.

 

Since Rockpit Brewing also served barbecue, that was the choice for dinner, followed up by Dead Lizard brewing. I enjoyed Rockpit’s Yudu Yuzu, a sour Berliner Weiss, Jackie liked Nudge, Nudge golden ale and we both liked a mango beer that neither of us can remember the name of.

Slipping in the door of Dead Lizard we were immediately asked if we had a lighter – it seems they were having a birthday celebration going on and no one brought matches for the birthday candles. Sorry, we are just here for the beer (and the sticker), so we moved to the bar and ordered a flight. Pretty funky vibe to the place and we enjoyed a Hefeweizen Orange Ya Glad I Didn’t Say Banana and Key Lime Chameleon Cream-Sic-Ale. On the way out we got totally drenched in a downpour before heading back to our amply-air-conditioned room to chill for the night.

All Aboard!
Up and out and we were on our way through the Florida sunshine to the Cape and our ship. No traffic, no problems, parked close to the ship, breezed through check-in and we were in the boarding area by 10am. Within 20 minutes we were joined by the rest of our party and, gosh we were onboard in no time. Kudos to Royal Caribbean for a very smooth check-in and embarkation process. Now, where is that first drink??

We explored the ship, got lost and turned around more than once, found our way to the Solarium Bistro for lunch, found several bars, stood for the safety lesson, checked out our room and settled in for fun. As I have said before, the first day aboard ship is the most exciting and the sail-away is exhilarating. As you stand on the rail watching the shoreline pass by and disappear into the distance, all the stress of the trip and worries back home just slip away. It’s party time!

So what exactly did we do?
I’m not sure when we did just what onboard, mostly on the three sea days, but I can share the activities. And we had three ports of call, so hang on, it’s a busy schedule.

Perfect Day CocoCay
This was a totally different experience from our last visit to the private island. The investment of over $250 million to transform this island into a waterpark with a new dock (no tenders!) was fantastic. We didn’t pay the extra fee to ride the waterslides, zipline or splash in the wave pool, but we did enjoy the upgraded food service, bars, huge Oasis Lagoon pool with swim-up bar and the snorkeling off Chill Island beach. It is a clean, lush landscape that just opened officially and it is a game changer.

 

 

After snorkeling and lunch we were enjoying the pool while a film crew used drones to capture the crowd for an upcoming promotional video. Perfect Day got a little less perfect when thunderstorms moved close and everyone was whistled out of the water. The rain made it easier to find a lounge chair, but I am guessing that thunder-rumbling, rain-soaked footage won’t make the “perfect day” video. Darn, and I was looking pretty good in those fly-by shots!

St. Thomas
We cruised into the port at St. Thomas about noon, a beautiful approach to this island. We were keeping it pretty casual that day and decided not to fight our way to a beach or snorkeling location, since we had a nice excursion planned for the next day.

So it made for a good day of having fun around the ship without the crowds. We never really felt like there were 6,000 other people crowded around us anyway – except on the pool deck on sea day afternoons – which is to Royal Caribbean’s credit for having so many places to hang out.

St. Maarten
This was our first time to the French/Dutch island and we were lucky to be the only ship in port at Philipsburg. Another gorgeous green-mountain island with a broad curve of beach along the harbor.

We had booked a snorkel excursion on a small-boat tour, hoping to avoid the disappointing experience in Nassau where we were overloaded with 60+ folks on a kayak, paddleboard, snorkel, party boat. Jackie and I walked the half-mile along Great Bay to the boat dock to check in and were told that once the other party of 2 arrived we would be good to go. That meant that all four of us had the boat to ourselves for a fabulous private tour along the coast.

First stop was snorkeling in Little Bay, a cove below the pelicans of Fort Amsterdam with clear water and some reef fish. The bottom was mostly rock and not much in the way of fans and corals, but there were fish around and some sunken artifacts (canon, helicopter, small sub, grocery cart?).

Back onboard and we zipped along the coastline, noticing the remaining damage from previous hurricanes (two Cat 5 within 10 days). Captain passed around a bowl of french bread, cheese and apple slices and we washed it all down with a cold beer. Hey, snorkeling is hard work. We stopped in the path of approaching aircraft as a jet passed overhead to land at the airport. This is the famous Princess Julianna airport with an over-water approach where people get blown around during jet takeoffs. Just Google Maho Beach. Then we crossed to the French coastline and hopped out for a swim in a turquoise water cove, Baie Longue, surrounded by villas that rent for thousands a night (Belmond La Samanna). Ahh, and we got to enjoy the same beautiful waters that they did. Time to head back to the ship and across some choppy water that made for a bouncy ride on a beautiful afternoon.  Snorkel video is posted here.

The excursion was really a treat. Back at the dock we stepped out of the boat with our gear, except that I was so focused on my footing that I completely missed the overhead metal rail of the bimini and “klunk” I hit it hard with my head. Had I been watching earlier, I would have noticed Jeff do the same thing as he was getting out. Ah … what’s a little blood in the scalp?

Aboard Ship
When we weren’t lounging by the pool or slipping down the waterslides, we might have been walking down the indoor Promenade (just like a mall), sitting at an outdoor cafe in the garden areas of Central Park listening to Spanish guitar, having a drink at an Irish Pub with a folk guitarist, watching robots fix our drinks or trying our luck at the casino. Our rooms were upper level balconies that overlooked the Central Park “canyon” so it was also nice to sit with a drink and listen to the music or wake up with a cup of coffee out on the balcony and people watch.

 

 

 

The casino was a destination for Dad most evenings, as he loves to play roulette. Jeff and I sat with him and played a few times – actually we donated to the casino, but our game is the craps table. We had our ups and downs and some nights were just wild at the table with some good runs, but in my case I came away just less than even for the week. Actually that is great, considering how long we played all week and what fun we had. We met the friendliest casino dealers who would really help you understand how to improve your odds and by week’s end came to recognize you. What fun.

Food
We did our best to try every eatery on board and enjoyed them all. Of course everyone heads to the Windjammer buffet for breakfast and lunch but we ventured away from that most days. The Park Cafe had delicious roast beef sandwiches and salads for lunch on the terrace in Central Park and Sorrento’s had pizza almost all night. The Solarium Bistro (the adults-only area on the decks 14 – 16 at the bow) had slightly lighter fare and a great view. There were several up-charge specialty restaurants that we mostly skipped.

Dad, Jackie and I ate lunch at Jamie’s Italian (complimentary for balcony bookings) on a sea day and were totally stuffed. Appetizer was an antipasto plank of cold meats, cheeses, olives and veggies; main courses were pasta, burgers and salads. We each made a dessert choice, whereupon our waiter asked why not all of them?

So, as you can see in the picture, we were served another plank with Tiramisu, Lemon meringue cheesecake, brownie, Almond sponge cake, and a raspberry pavlova confection. Yikes.

Dinner was mostly in the main dining room (short ribs and rack of lamb were the best), but we also tried the Solarium Bistro on the upper deck for dinner as we sailed out of St. Thomas and then the Izumi Japanese hibachi grill on the last night. That was a hilarious show of food preparation that none of us had yet experienced. Chef tossed pieces of egg for us to catch in our mouths – ok, weird but fun – and a few of us (Doug and Dad) nailed it on the first try.

Lobster, scallops, chicken were all delicious, and the tenderloin beef was mouthwatering. And some strange ice cream-filled dough balls for dessert.

Jackie and I also had a complimentary dinner at Wonderland, themed with Alice in mind.

Definitely something different, with all sorts of special food effects – smoked buffalo chicken eggs, “liquid” olives and mushrooms, spicy tuna in frozen limes, baked halibut and branzino. Quite the presentation, capped by a dessert plate of fungi: mango sorbet with cake and meringue mushrooms in pop-rocks dirt and a crazy bit of wizardry: The World – a chocolate sphere that melts before your eyes as the waiter drizzles hot caramel sauce, revealing salted caramel ice cream and chocolate mousse. Wow.

 

Drink
I did get a chuckle on the first day when I pulled out a bar checklist for each of us – crazy Doug – but later in the week we were all caught checking which bars we might have missed! “Oh, did I get a drink on each floor the Rising Tide bar stopped at?” “What about the Bionic Bar?” “Darn, I missed a glass of wine at Vintages.”

The robot arms of Bionic Bar

If you purchase the Deluxe Drink Package, you will have more than 16 bars to choose from. Poolside, in the Central Park garden area, restaurants, Promenade (mall) area, Solarium (adults only), plus the island of CocoCay. Yeah. That’s right. You try it without a list! Plus specialty coffees with a shot to start your day, like Icy Bourbon Mint Coffee.

We definitely gave our beverage package a workout.

Fun
Yep, another checklist just to be sure I didn’t miss anything. Besides the snorkeling in St. Maarten and CocoCay, there were plenty of activities onboard.

 

 

Whirlpools, main pool, the 9 deck drop on the Ultimate Abyss dry slide, three waterslides, rock climbing wall (made it halfway), zipline over the boardwalk “canyon” … busy, busy. We didn’t ride the carousel, ice skate, or play mini-golf, nor did we try surfing the flo-riders, but it was fun to watch. We saw the Jules Verne styled ice show “1887”, “Grease”, “Columbus, the Musical”, “Fine Line” and “Big Daddy’s” aquashows and a rock tribute band, all of which were top-notch entertainment.

 

You might not have the pool to yourself

Riding the waterslides was crazy, since two of them were designed for you to race your opponent. Jeff and I swapped winning times, but maybe my worst showing was when halfway down the dark tube I realized the water was pretty much disappearing and I slowed to a stop. “Send water!” Soon a gush hit me from behind and I started to move along again, but it might have been a long squooch, squooch crawl to the end. And yes, Jackie did try the Ultimate Abyss, which also lost some steam at the finish and we both had to scoot ourselves out of the last 3 feet of slide. The launching pad was the best part, as you are perched on a glass floor high above the stern of the ship!

 

I guess this all sounds like one big commercial for Royal Caribbean, but it turned out to be a much easier cruise for Dad than we expected and I do have to give credit to the cruise line for a ship that was well designed. It never felt crowded, it was gorgeously appointed, there was plenty to do for all ages, the rooms were thoughtfully laid out, staff was abundant, friendly and attentive. Dad had his walker and our rooms were close to elevators, so it was easy enough for him to head to the casino or up to the buffet on days when we were ashore. Jeff and I figured out how to push him along backwards in the walker when we needed to cover some ground quickly, and he was a good sport to go along with it. These twice-a-year cruises are his big vacation getaways, and as his escorts we are happy to go along (but seriously, we need some time to recover!)

Once we got back home we were greeted by two of the five fawns born around our yard this year. I guess they thought we had left town for good this time and they had the run of the place. Kodi keeps a careful eye out now and the mommas don’t seem to be as fiercely protective, so it seems safe to use the backyard again.

Up Next?
Well, it isn’t really an adventure, but it does involve the motorhome. We head to the mountains of North Carolina to help John with some work on the cabin he is building. It is under roof now and I think we will be doing some staining and working on the deck railing. Once again we will pack the motorhome with supplies and the pets for a trip to the mountains.

If you haven’t checked out some of my latest glass creations, be sure to look over the Glass Totems page and then catch up with recent events on the Happenings page. Stay tuned for a brief blog with some of the crazy video from the cruise, once I get it edited.

Thanks for following along on the adventures. And to borrow a phrase from our cruise director, “bing bong.”

Doug

And I should thank Alex and Bethany for watching Kodi and Merlin.  It looks like Allie kept a wary eye on Merlin, though.

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Georgia Mountains Getaway

It’s spring, and Jackie and I wanted to get out in the motorhome to enjoy it before summer season hits, so we planned a week in the Georgia mountains. Since our Panama City Beach vacation has been cancelled we thought it would be good to explore more state parks near home. And a good choice it was. First stop was Talullah Gorge State Park in northeastern Georgia. It took us about 2 hours early on a Sunday morning to get here, but it seems like we are much farther from the metro area as we drive into the bright green mountains.

Wildflowers, Waterfalls and Wallenda

 

As we checked in at the campground we noticed a “Campground Full” sign posted, but we soon figured that must have been for the weekend, since the place nearly emptied out by Sunday evening. Nice level spot with lots of room and we made camp easily. This site has water and electric, which is just fine. The weekend before the trip the motorhome got a good scrubbing – thanks to Jackie and her brother John, who both worked on cleaning the van to a sparkling white.

 

Talullah Gorge and Falls are just below a Georgia Power operated dam and Sunday was to have an aesthetic release of water, a much larger volume of water than normal that would make the falls much more robust. We wanted to see that so we started out on the path that led to the first overlook, a rock outcrop high above the gorge. As I was standing at the rail, snapping some pictures of the falls, I heard gasps and commotion behind me only to look down and see Jackie falling forward into the iron rail and down on the rocks.

The overlook that caused problems

While looking at the falls, she missed the step off the wood platform and couldn’t recover her balance as she fell forward. Although she banged her head darn hard into the rail, it was hugely fortunate that it was there. So many folks helped check her out (a nurse who was hiking the trail, several other visitors, the park rangers who hustled down the path and the EMTs that we called to have Jackie looked at). Several ice packs, bottles of water, some time laying back on a bench and lots of TLC later she walked out to the parking lot with the EMTs as we all made sure she was just fine.

So that is how our week’s adventure started off – a bit of a scare. As Jackie said, “we have hiked all around the US on much more difficult terrain!” but it is a reminder to walk while watching the path and stopping to watch the scenery, not both.

 

 

 

After some ibuprofen and a good night’s rest Jackie felt up to trying the hike again. The hike to the bottom of the Gorge is mostly a series of stairways down to the lowest level. Before you reach the lowest platforms there is a very cool suspension bridge about 80’ above the river that has some great views. We noticed that the waterfalls were just beautiful with the normal flow of water, but later witnessed much larger volume as they did another aesthetic release.

 

The hillsides were loaded with mountain laurel in bloom and a few remaining rosebay rhododendron blossoms. Sweet shrub, speedwell and a few trillium were also in bloom. The cool air in the gorge felt good as we made our way up the many, many steps back to the top.

After lunch back at camp, we drove north a few miles to the town of Clayton. The old main street was filled with cute shops and eateries and one stop just called out to us: Farmhouse Donuts. We only bought 4 donuts, but they were so delicious and calorie-laden (it involved caramel, peanut butter cups, Bavarian cream, apple filling, whipped cream, chocolate sauce) that as dessert and again with breakfast, they more than did the trick to satisfy our sugar craving.

 

 

The next day we headed back to the Interpretive Center and took the North Rim trail up and along to Inspiration Point. It was at this spot that Karl Wallenda in 1970 made a crossing of the gorge on a cable, without nets or safety harness and performing two headstands along the way. The remains of the dismantled tower lay along the rim at that spot. To give you a sense of how high up you are, we were looking down on a dozen turkey vultures who were catching the updrafts and thermals. Quite something to watch them zooming around, banking and gliding on the air currents. Kodi came along with us on this hike, but he was happy when we turned back and headed for the car. One last wildlife sighting was a large king snake making his way along the meadows edge. Cool.

 

Dropping Kodi off at the motorhome, we drove off in search of another waterfall hike – somewhere near Lake Rabun heading toward the town of Tiger. As we serpentined our way along the shoreline of Lake Rabun we fell in love with the gorgeous homes and boathouses that lined the lake. Clearly out of our price range.

 

 

   

 

 

We found the parking spot at the trailhead for Angel and Panther Falls in a National Forest campground. A good choice for a future visit. The trail to the two falls was supposed to be a mile in, but it sure seemed farther than that as we climbed upward along the stream on a mostly narrow, root-filled trail. But it was worth it to see both of these refreshing and beautiful falls. Again, the stream was lined with loads of blooming mountain laurel and we spotted a few native azaleas just finishing their bloom. We clicked the GPS tracking on our new Fitbit Charge 3’s at the far end of the falls, only to find that it was indeed a mile each way. Sure seemed like more.

 

Well after that hike we needed some refueling. Drove a bit further to Clayton again and parked ourselves at the Universal Joint – a converted gas station with a wonderful outdoor patio. Jackie was in heaven when she saw they had her favorite on tap: Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Ale. The zippy pimento cheese sandwich she had with it just made her whole day. I had a delicious Brisket Dip sandwich with Bell’s Oberon – a beer that I will definitely have again.

 

One final stop on the way back to camp was in Tiger at “Goats on the Roof” – a roadside attraction not to be missed if you have kids. A whole lot of goats were really grazing on the rooftops, with connecting bridges to all sorts of other rooftops. Ok, then.

Black Rock Mountain

Midweek it was time to pull up and head further north to Black Rock Mountain State Park. This trip was close enough to home that we didn’t trailer the car, Jackie just drove behind. Made it a bit easier on the motorhome, too. I realized that was a smart move as we wound our way up the Black Rock Parkway – a very twisty road with lots of blind curves. Fortunately no one else was coming down the mountain and I was able to negotiate the curves with gusto.

 

The campground is perched along the ridge of the mountain and our site is a nice pull-through 2-level spot. Not a lot of negotiating room around here though. There are some awesome sites further along the ridge with loads of hybrid rhododendrons in bloom, but I really wouldn’t want to have to drive to the far reaches in our motorhome.

 

Some of the trail hikes we did here are a bit short, but still a lot of elevation changes. Norma Campbell Cove trail was filled with trillium, native azalea, false solomon’s seal, true solomon’s seal and some columbine. Ada-hi Falls trail downward on stairs and slopes to the falls was lined with a new wildflower for me: white clintonia, with galax, saxifrage and moccasin-flower. The Black Rock Lake trail was fairly easy and flat around the lake past Greasy Falls and also wildflower-lined. We hope to try a portion of the Tennessee Rock Trail before we leave the park – since it is supposed to have a great view to the north to Tennessee and across to the Great Smoky Mountains in North Carolina.

   

Our hiking here was in short bits, but the views from the several overlooks are spectacular. The green mountains of the Chattahoochee National Forest spread out before you as you look toward the southern Appalachian Mountains, from Georgia to South Carolina, North Carolina and Tennessee. Wow.

We drove down the mountain to have lunch in Clayton, this time at the Rusty Bike Cafe. It was a very busy spot with locals and we ordered blackened chicken sandwiches that were quite filling. Needing to work off that lunch, we hiked around the Foxfire Heritage Center, a celebration of the mountain lifestyle made famous by the student-written magazines and books from the 60’s and 70’s. The relocated and restored cabins in this mountain hideaway tell a unique story that continues through classes and activities today. It was nice to visit a place and story that inspired much of my early outdoor education activities as a naturalist.

 

 

Since rain is expected for later in the week, we are heading to Franklin, NC to meet with Vickie’s sister Sharon and sample two breweries on our list: Lazy Hiker and Currahee Brewing. As it turned out, the day was just beautiful weather and we enjoyed both breweries.

 

Along the way in Otto we had to stop and wander through Culpepper’s Salvage to see if there was anything we could repurpose or use at home. An absolutely fascinating place to poke around if you need any old beams, windows, iron fence, knobs, lights … well, you get the idea. Picture-rich spot.

 

 

   

Sharon took us toward Highlands to stop at my brother’s favorite place in town: Wilderness Taxidermy. This workshop and museum of trophy animals, fish and mounts was loads of fun to look at and we enjoyed chatting with the taxidermist working on an elk mount.

 

  

Back at camp it was a quiet, starry night … until it wasn’t, early in the morning. The predicted thunderstorms and rain hit hard and we spent the morning having a second cup of coffee and plotting the final day on the mountain. Hikes were out of the question in the rain, so we are going to hang out at an indoor flea market in Clayton, then gather our things and prepare for the trip down the mountain and back home. We did manage one short walk along the road to an overlook between rainstorms and found a new friend warming himself on the roadway: a red salamander. Never have seen such a bright orange critter, and not too sure he was happy about the selfie.

It was a terrific getaway week in the Georgia Mountains. We enjoyed spring wildflowers, waterfalls, challenging hikes, green mountain vistas, some good beer with family and learned a little more about life in the Appalachian Mountains.

If you want to see what it’s like from the driver’s seat going down the road from Black Rock Mountain, watch the new video “Leaving Black Rock Mountain” – but hold on tight, it is a wild ride.

Upcoming adventures that await us are a retirement party on our deck for three of our teaching colleagues who are joining our ranks and another Caribbean cruise with Dad, Jeff and Vickie. This cruise was to have been on the Oasis of the Seas, but the fallen crane damage in port canceled that cruise, so we are now booked on Harmony of the Seas heading to the newly opened Perfect Day at Coco Cay, St. Thomas and St. Marten. Can’t wait. Stay tuned for more “Happenings,” pictures and stories.

 

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Chill’n in Florida

Here it is spring already and 2019! I know, we have been quiet since we got back from our Maine trip and the Halloween cruise, but that doesn’t mean we have been hibernating all fall and winter. We winterized the motorhome after hosting family for Thanksgiving, we had more family with us for Christmas and have spent some quality time with our grandsons.

 

I made a trip to Hilton Head to check on Dad, we made a few improvements to the house, I crafted several more glass totems and Jackie was busy with crochet projects.

 

But the worst news was when we had our reservations cancelled to St. Andrews State Park in Panama City Beach for this summer. The damage from Hurricane Michael has been pretty devastating to the area and the campground has only limited sites available, so the decision was made to cancel all reservations for the year and open it to walk-in (drive up) only. That’s pretty risky when you have to drive 6 hours with fingers crossed that you can find an opening when only 30 of the 200 sites are even available to campers. So St. Andrews is off the schedule this year.

About that Florida Chill

Our first camping adventure is to Big Lagoon State Park in Florida (west of Pensacola Beach next to Perdido Key) for an early adventure with family (Colin and Rachel’s school is on spring break). We uncovered the motorhome, rinsed and sanitized the water system (and yes, the hot water does flow!), checked to see that the fridge works, put air in all the tires and packed up for about a week along the Gulf coast.  Now we consider ourselves pretty sharp, but I don’t know what we were thinking when we packed our gear for this trip.  We had bathing suits, flip flops, snorkel gear, beach chairs and umbrellas, paddleboards and a kayak all loaded – but as we rolled out on Saturday the temperature was 40 degrees!  Needs to warm up a bit.

It didn’t get much warmer as we approached Peridido Key and it was overcast and breezy.  But we made camp in a very nice campsite and caught up with Judy, Craig, Colin and Rachel once they arrived.  Naturally, we all had to explore the trails, boardwalk and waterways the next day to see what fun we could get into and we all quickly learned that it was not at all swim weather, or paddleboard weather, or kayak weather (Gulf water temperature was maybe 63 degrees).

 

   

 

A short drive into Pensacola for lunch followed our hike, but this was St. Patrick’s Day and we weren’t sure what to expect along their entertainment district.  No problem, we had a nice walk along Palafox Street and stopped in at World of Beer for some good food and cold beer. After placing orders for several flights of beer we were told, “no flights today” so settled for some pints of local brews instead.  I ordered the deal of the day: an amazing andouille sausage sandwich with slaw that was huge and the table shared wings and a big pretzel.  One last stop at Perfect Plain brewery for a flight (I liked the Carrot and Ginger Saison) and we were set to head back to the campground.

 

 

The forecast said we would be warming to the mid 60’s with some sunshine soon, so we decided to visit the National Naval Aviation Museum the next day and then check out the beach on Perdido Key.  We spent a lot more time exploring the museum than we expected, since it was a great (and free) attraction.  I recommend you visit if you are in the area and have a look at some amazing aircraft, including the Blue Angels, of course.  But aircraft ran the spectrum from helium balloons to WW1 and WW2 aircraft, Vietnam-era Hueys, Coast Guard helicopters, a Marine One helicopter and plenty of jets.

Yes, Nixon is onboard.

Later in the afternoon we tried the beach for maybe a half hour, but it was just too windy and chilly.  Maybe tomorrow.  Oh, but those plans got changed to be a Segway tour around historic Pensacola in the morning, which turned out to be sunny and warmer.  Now Jackie and I have done a Segway tour in Washington, DC, so we figured we had this one nailed.

And, yes, we did just fine the six of us zipping behind our tour guide along the streets and sidewalks of downtown like a swarm of bees buzzing along.  However, about midway through the tour I got a little flummoxed and lost my balance forward just a bit.  If you know how Segways operate, you know that is the instruction to go faster, so zipppp I go forward a lot faster than intended.  I tried to dig in my heels to slow down, but meantime the curb came up fast and I was soon bouncing and spinning circles, dragging around the road.  Finally let go, got my foot untangled, dusted off my pride and we got going again.  Yep, I have a few brush burns on my knee, but otherwise lucky that was all.  Oh, but hotshot nephew Colin had an encounter with a bush that left him sprawled on the ground later, so it isn’t always smooth running on these “simple” scooters.  Emerald Coast Tours did a great job of showing us the historic district and we learned a lot (for instance, did you know Pensacola was the first colony in the New World – before Plymouth Rock and Jamestown?).  I was surprised to learn that Andrew Jackson was Florida’s first governor – wasn’t he a Tennessee native?

Well, I needed to recover after that, so we found one more spot for lunch, Big Top Brewing, and had ourselves a flight and some fish tacos.  Beer was good, tacos were tasty, but it was the first time I had mullet fried in a taco.  Was I eating bait?  Actually, the Hawaiian Lion Coconut Coffee Porter was good.  Before we ended the day around the campfire we tried about an hour at the beach at Gulf Islands National Seashore, but it was windy and chilly despite the sun.

   

 

Last day in camp it was sunny, upper 60’s and we all went different directions for a while, bike riding, walking along the lagoon, and an aborted kayak attempt.  Finally packed into the car and over to the beach at Gulf Islands NS (with our senior passes it was free admission), and spent the afternoon in beach chairs.  It is a gorgeous beach, but it was just a bit too early to enjoy the water.

Just a bit nippy, eh?

 

Dinner was a great spot along the water in Pensacola, the Oar House, where we started with drinks on the patio but moved indoors when the sun went down and it got cold again.  The grouper po’ boy I had is a serious contender for best grouper sandwich.  This one was a monster slab of grouper on a bun with remoulade sauce and lettuce – a big mouthful for sure.  Judy had ahi tuna, Craig had shrimp and grits, Colin shared some of his fried oysters, which were very soft and tasty – everyone enjoyed the food. This place was fun and would be an ideal spot in warmer weather, with a big outside bar overlooking the marina.  Good choice.

 

 

 

 

We got ourselves packed up and out of Pensacola the next day, which of course was a cloudless blue sky, and were soon headed north to Montgomery, Auburn and Atlanta.  And of course to welcome us home, I-285 started with a wreck, major backup and plenty of traffic.  But it was all good.  Pulled in, unpacked some stuff, ate a quick dinner and off to bed.

 

 

Consider this a successful first camping adventure of the 2019 season, even if we miscalculated the Florida panhandle temperatures in March.  We might just try next year’s week in Grayton Beach State Park but with far less of the watersports gear (in fact, none).  But seriously, isn’t March a little early for a school to have Spring Break?

What’s Next?

We have plans for May camping in the Georgia mountains and might head to the Okefenokee this fall, but no big multiple-week trips have been planned out.  Of course our BrewCrew will be volunteering at the Kennesaw Beer Fest in April and we plan to host a final retirement party for one last group of our good friends who are saying goodbye to teaching.  Gosh, retirement is rough.

Thanks for reading along – check out some of the previous posts and enjoy the photos.

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Halloween on the High Seas

Here we go again with a Caribbean cruise, and just a week after returning from our Leaf Peeping in New England adventure!  Yes, crazy.  But this cruise should be a blast, with Jack (Dad), Jackie and first-time cruiser John (Jackie’s brother).

Of course the first objective is to board the ship quickly and early, get a drink (especially the colorful,  fruity kind), then take and send a selfie to everyone back home.  That was pretty easy actually, and we met John while getting checked in and headed for the Lido deck and got our drinks to celebrate!

I think the sail away on that first day is the most exhilarating, as the ship navigates the inlet and the shoreline slowly slips away with all your thoughts of things back home.  And with it, cell service, so the phones start to disappear and you direct your attention to the open sea.

The cruise was another break for Dad, although his current independent living is a pretty sweet deal for him.  But they don’t have a casino at home, so that is always a big attraction for him on cruise ships.  And he has quite the luck – overall doing much better than I did at craps.  I tried a new strategy that Jeff tried on our Alaska cruise, and I did hang in there for over 2 hours one night, but I think I paid for Dad’s winnings!  Ah well, it was fun just the same.

This was our first cruise over Halloween and we really didn’t know what to expect.  We thought we were clever packing some masks to wear to dinner, but soon saw that we were outdone by some pretty elaborate costumes.  John looked snappy in his pirate outfit, but there were many more aboard with us.  Kids (yes, there were school-aged kids aboard) were dressed up and even had a special onboard trick-or-treating night.  Certainly was festive fun.

~Halloween Cruise 2018 (64)

Two days at sea gave us a chance to relax on the pool deck, as the temperature was in the 80’s and sunny.  Yes, I did the water slide again, although it was a bit chilly. One nice sunny day was spent at Princess Cay and we were snorkeling around, checking out the reef full of fish and coral.  A  decent sized barracuda was hanging around the spot, but once there were enough swimmers, he moved on.

At Nassau, a port we have visited several times, we all wandered ashore to the Straw Market and the Woodcarver’s Alley.  Not exactly our style of shopping, but it was an experience nonetheless.  Oddly, we were the only ship in port and for some reason we were at the farthest pier.  It did give us a chance to work off some of the great food we have been eating.  We found out later that Dad had met some nice ladies on-board who shared a nice group picture.

The only spot of bad weather was just an afternoon drizzle off the northern Florida coast, but the worst of it stayed off our bow.

All of us ended the cruise in good spirits, glad to have been in sunny, warm Caribbean waters for a week and totally ready for the coming colder, colorful fall back home.  I know Jackie and I will be just fine spending a few weeks at home and not changing ports, cities, campgrounds and state locations every day.  But no complaints at all … it has been an awesome adventure-filled fall for us.

I have no idea what the next adventure will be, but stay tuned as our retired life’s adventures continue.  Time to get started with the planning … 

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Salem Harbor to Shenandoah Valley and Home

Another episode in our continuing adventure to see the fall colors in New England (and sample plenty of craft beer along the way).  Yes, our wonderful site on the Salem harbor waterfront was really windy last night, so much so that we pulled in the slides to keep from rocking around.  But not much rain and it was clear and chilly in the morning. Did the whole disconnect, hitch-up and head out routine on our way back through Salem and off to Rhode Island.  

We made it around Boston and then Providence to mid-state to connect with an old friend.  It took a little maneuvering to get the motorhome in and around the stone walls to the farm, but with some help we settled in next to the horse paddock at Laurie and Brian’s place.  Actually worked out great – a good long walk around the farm with the dogs, delicious dinner and conversation to catch up and back to our own place on a darn chilly night.

Woke to another sunny, chilly morning and it was time for a repeat of the hitch-up, head out routine.  This was going to be a pretty long haul to get us into Pennsylvania and close to another brewery on the list: Yuengling Brewing.  Lots of historic rivers and bridges to cross on this drive from Connecticut to New York and Pennsylvania: Connecticut River, Hudson River (impressive), Delaware River.  Quite a few hills and mountains and very scenic, but not much of the fall color yet. As we headed to Scranton, Jackie checked on her phone to confirm the details of Yuengling in Pottsville, just a little further on.  Well, it looks like we were gonna cut it close if we wanted to make it there by closing time at 5 – but then Jackie said it looked like winter hours meant it closed at 3. So we were out of luck and out of time for that brewery.  

I was impressed with the mountains around Scranton and how cool the landscape was as we drove through the Poconos and closer to Harrisburg.  We decided to stop for the night at a KOA – pull-through site with full hookups. Very nice spot that was only 2 miles from the AT, not that we were planning to hike it, but it must have been close to where our nephew Adam made it (so proud).


I have to take a moment to say that this, like all our adventures, is a true partnership.  Yes, I do the driving, but Jackie is busy navigating, checking ahead for the best gas prices, calling ahead to some of the breweries to ask about parking, and being an extra set of eyes when we get into tight situations (including the very tricky gas stations).  We each have our set-up and pack-up routines, which helps us remember everything and we aren’t afraid to double-check each other. Anyway, it does take two when you drive a rig like this. And then there is the whole hitch/unhitch the car routine.

So that brings us to another day on this series of travel days.  Not too many pictures to share, as it doesn’t work to shoot while moving along and besides, who wants to see an interstate highway?  It was a good start leaving the KOA, sunny and in the low 40’s. We did not stop in Hershey to see chocolate world (another time perhaps), nor did we stop at the Lindor chocolate factory that we saw at the last moment, but we did have a nice drive.  Southern Pennsylvania heading toward Harrisburg was filled with small farms, the barns and silos dotting the landscape. Green fields were sprinkled between brown cornfields, most in mid-harvest. As we slipped into Maryland and West Virginia, the traffic increased and the hills were a bit more rolling.  We crossed yet another important river: the Potomac.

Into Virginia and the Shenandoah Valley was just amazing.  Blue skies, green pastures, old homes and farms all with a dark green backdrop of the Blue Ridge Mountains.  Very cool, but no hint of fall color here. Jackie got back on the navigation and located our next destination: Devil’s Backbone Basecamp and Meadows.  We first learned of the DB Vienna Lager while pouring at one of our beer festivals back home and knew we wanted to stop here. Plus, Adam stopped here on his AT hike and said it was great.  Up and over the ridge from Staunton, I think it was Rooster Gap, we found our country road and wound our way along. Wow, there is a winery, wait slow down, there is a cidery. A distillery, a brewery …. Gosh the choices.  But we kept on until we found basecamp and checked in.

This is a pretty new operation, the campground just opened this year.  But is has generous room for rigs, full hookups and dump station, and lots of tent sites for AT hikers and others.  The grounds have a bandshell, outdoor bar, lots of outdoor seating, a distillery, breakfast spot and of course their tap room and brewpub.  So we walked around with Kodi, who met lots of folks, had ourselves a beer and relaxed a bit in the sunshine. We both liked Gold Leaf Lager, I enjoyed the Cran Gose, a cranberry sour and we made plans to come back for dinner.  Dog back in camper, cat fed and we went back for a flight each and a delicious meal. I mean great!

The only moose we saw on this trip:

Jackie ordered nachos with smoked chicken, I ordered a smoked top round (shaved) on Cibatta au jus.  Both were amazingly flavorful. On the flights we sampled Trail Angel Weiss (was best with the nachos), UK Lager and Vienna Lager (good with the beef) and a Brut Lager that was very dry, light and crisp.  Saving it for last, we tried their Hibiscus Hard Lemonade (6.3%) which was really quite nice. A stop in the gift shop and then a welcome walk back to the camper in the dark. We really like where this spot is going.  Definitely worth a stop if you are driving nearby.  We learned that the next day the campground was booked with vintage VW Campers … now that would have been fun to see.

Merlin is getting anxious to be home — and we have one more stop before home, somewhere near Bristol, Tennessee.  Might not be blog-worthy, we shall see.

As we left the valley at the DB Basecamp it was one wild ride.  The hairpin turns and switchbacks on the road up the mountains, and then back down again were a thrill (Jackie disagrees).  Crossed under Skyline Drive on the Blue Ridge Mountains and the AT again. The mountains were green, the sky blue and just a bit of mist was rising from the James River as we followed along.  What a gorgeous day, but no hint of fall color here.

As we get closer to closing the loop on this trip approaching Knoxville, we end where we began, with a home Tennessee football game causing traffic and trouble.  No campsites between Bristol and almost Chattanooga were available. We didn’t make advance reservations for this last part of the trip, since we weren’t sure how far we would drive.  So, as we sat in some nasty traffic in Knoxville, we made the decision to push on to home. It made it an 11 hour driving day, but when we pulled in (at our non-moving house), it felt good.

So at the conclusion of this 28-day “Big Loop” to see fall colors, we will have driven through 16 states, two countries, a total of over 3,800 mile (not counting the car excursions) and sampled oodles of craft beer and ate great regional food.  It was definitely worth it – all the driving, all the gasoline, the cold nights and the rainy mornings. We caught up with old family friends, did a few hikes, had our share of pumpkins, apples, fall festivals and scary Halloween decorations, saw some new wildlife and definitely got to see all the beautiful colors of fall.  Phew! Now one week to do the laundry and pack swimwear, shorts and t-shirts for a cruise to the Bahamas with Dad and John. I guess we are just a bit crazy. Thanks for reading along.

Until the next adventure …

Oh yeah, there are just a few photos that didn’t make the blog the first time around that I thought I would share:

Walking and picture-taking in Acadia:

The rungs, iron rails and walkways of the treacherous Precipice Trail:

The vintage campers from Salisbury Beach State Park: