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Florida Fall Family Camping

It is a rainy morning in the motorhome, in fact there is thunder rattling around the Grand Lagoon and the pelting rain is getting pretty loud in here, so it is a good time to sit and compose the latest blog of our current adventure.  We have been camping at one of our favorite spots in Florida:  St. Andrews State Park, Panama City Beach.  There are several reasons why this visit has been special, the most important of which is that the campground is finally open again after all the damage and restoration from Hurricane Michael in 2018.  You may recall that we were here that October when we were suddenly evacuated and spent the better part of a week camping around the panhandle of Florida as one-by-one each state park closed due to the storm. (You can search the blog for some of those posts). 

Well the rebuild of the park is remarkable, with each campsite now having full hookups, level and well-defined with a pea gravel base and very well maintained. In fact they have specially built rakes they use to drag across the sites between each occupancy.  What is lacking, though, is the unique charm the campground used to have.  Nearly all the trees are gone, they don’t allow haphazard parking and boats on trailers in the campground and perhaps because of the sewer hookups, there are many more trailers and motorhomes than tents and pop-ups.  But for us it is an easy site to use. 

We booked this week last January with Judy and Craig because their Tennessee school had fall break and we wanted to camp together.  Then we alerted Jackie’s brother John, who was buying a truck camper, and Alex and Bethany, who are working to restore an adorable fiberglass Trillium mini-trailer and we soon had all four of us booked for the week.  Great plan – what could go wrong?

Well around December of last year both Craig and John ordered new Ford trucks from a dealer in Iowa.  Craig needed a bigger truck to pull their trailer out to Colorado and Utah this summer and John needed the Super Duty to mount his nearly-new slide-in truck camper.  Eight months, should be no problem.  Well the trucks weren’t ready for pickup until September, which meant Craig had to use his older truck for the summer trip and John drove his back to NC just a week before we were to camp.  And Alex still had more work to do on their unit.  Eventually everyone got set and packed, except Judy and Craig.  At the last minute he had to fly to Phoenix, Arizona to help his mother return home from rehab following an operation and Judy was not prepared to haul the trailer to Florida.  That’s ok, we have room in the motorhome, so she and daughter Rachel joined us for part of the week.  They set up a tent in their site next to us to hold most of their clothes and extras.  

So we each arrived in stages – John stopped at our house a few days prior and we drove to Lakepoint State Park in Alabama for a night.  We stopped in LaGrange to have lunch and a beer at Wild Leap Distilling – only to find out it was the finish line for a fundraising run.  Pretty busy so we just ate lunch in the motorhome, then on to Eufaula for the night.  We prefer to break up the 6-7 hour trip this way because, well, because we have the time to do it.  So far so good.  Next morning (Sunday) it was off to the beach for the week.  But the rest of Tennessee was also on fall break, so once at the campground and beach it felt more like spring break than the middle of October.  We zipped around on our new eBikes, which was really easy on the flat roads. But the best part is the beach and the water – absolutely clear, slightly cool water with gentle waves and wonderful white sand beaches.  

The beach has been renourished with sand pumped from the inlet, so it was filled with shell bits and was a very high dune hill, but with the repairs to the rock jetty and all the new sand, at least it looked more like the beach of the past.  But it did make for a hike to and from the water’s edge with our well-used Tommy Bahama cart loaded with chairs, umbrellas and beach beer.

That first weekend with just John, Jackie and I was pretty special.  We had delicious fish and ahi tuna tacos at the local Patches Pub and after dinner we sat out and were surprised by a beautiful fireworks display across the lagoon.  We learned it was the end of Pirate Weekend.  Better than the 4th!  And we were later treated to a gorgeous moonrise as a golden full moon slowly rose above the water and totally dominated the skyline.

So what else did we do all week once everyone arrived at camp?  First off we had to check out Alex and Bethany’s setup, then John gave his camper a once-over to be sure all was working.  Judy and Rachel set their tent and we walked around the “new” campground to try and remember how it was and where we might have camped before.  But the beach was calling, so we spent most afternoons in our beach chairs, sipping beach beer, splashing in the water, a bit of snorkeling, dolphin watching … basic beach fun.

Judy was anxious to find a pickleball court, which we did, and play a bit with us.  We have just recently started to learn the sport and have had a few practice games at our local community center.  Well the spot we found was pretty busy and we got swept up in the “put your paddle in the rack, you can play the next team up when there is an open court.”  Yikes, these folks are pretty serious.  Turns out we got an open court for all four of us and we spent an hour or more just between Rachel (tough competitor), Judy, Jackie and I.  Good exercise. 

Meal planning became important, too.  Each night someone hosted everyone at their site and cooked up a delicious meal.  Sausage, peppers and potatoes grilled up by John, steak night at Doug and Jackie’s, a seafood night grilled over a wood fire at Alex and Bethany’s – awesome eats.  That seafood night featured Mahi-Mahi, Ahi tuna, shrimp, scallops … doesn’t get any better.

And of course we wanted to eat at some of the beach bars and restaurants.  Let’s go out to Schooners then!  Barely a mile from the campsite and right on the beach, this favorite is cool because they shoot off a canon at sunset, plus serve good food.  By now I had lowered the canvas top of the Jeep and was ready for some true beach driving (ok, the doors stayed on).  And we had some rubber ducks ready for “ducking” other Jeeps.  If you aren’t familiar with this tradition, it’s a Jeep thing, you wouldn’t understand.

So Alex and John jumped in the Jeep with me, the girls in Bethany’s Jeep and off to Schooners we went.  Parked cars, put in our names – an hour and a half wait!  Hmm, maybe Plan B?  We called to another spot over the bridge that had no waiting: Off the Hook.  So back in Jeeps, but ooops, the sky doesn’t look too good.  Off we go and down came the rain.  Darn, the wipers aren’t working!  Hey, John might have left his awning out, we need to check on that – girls you go get a table at Off the Hook and we will meet you there.  We put the roof up, but I didn’t have the window panels, so backseat rider got a bit wet.  Campsites were ok, so back to the restaurant before it got worse.

Just as we got to the outdoor bar the wind whipped up and things were blowing everywhere – umbrellas lifting up and out, napkins and plates flipping and blowing, people running for cover … time for Plan C.  Patches Pub was best choice, so over there we drove.  All of this is within maybe 2 miles of campsite, so we were kind of driving around in a circle.  Got a table outside under a roof, the rain and wind died down and we ordered up a great meal of Ahi tacos, fish sandwiches, pizza and beer.  Probably should have started here since it was reasonable, delicious and a fun vibe.

Back at camp we tried to prepare for overnight rain but early morning brought another blast of rain and thunder and things got … wet.  Probably the worst was Judy’s tent and contents.  Towels, blankets, and clothes were laid out to dry, I mopped out water from the back of the Jeep, and we all hoped it would dry as we headed up to the beach.  The day turned out to be a perfect one and we soon forgot all about the rain.  Mostly.  

Big waves were hitting the beach this day and we all got our fill of diving under, getting dunked and trying to swim up and over.  Hats got soaked and knocked off, sunglasses held tight, but it was really a lot of fun.  By the next day the waves had simmered to mild ripples, but the storm also changed up the water a bit, we now had pink meanie jellyfish (that eat moon jellies, but still have stinging tentacles) in the surf to avoid.  Alex declared we needed to institute a buddy system to watch for them while swimming.  We made it with no stings.

The night before Judy and Rachel were set to return home we tried for another beachside bar and drove to Pineapple Willy’s.  Not much of a wait for an outside table, and we were already enjoying the sunset while sipping on our frozen Daquiri’s.  Alex got clever and ordered two Miami Vices (strawberry mixed with pina colada) – I guess he got the hang of cruise drinking after all.  We had some gator bites and I had a delicious fried oyster Po’boy. Nice night beachside, plus no rain.  John hung on in the back seat of the Jeep as we turned up the volume and drove back along the beach road to camp, open air.  

Friday it was time for Judy to pack up and head out, so we took some time to dry out her tent first – kind of like waving a flag in the breeze.  A bald eagle that had been spotted all week circled above as if to say goodbye.  Soon they were off and the rest of us hit the beach again.

Sunday morning we were saying goodbye to John and Alex and Bethany as they packed up, pulled out and headed home.  We were staying another four days, so suddenly it seemed just a bit quieter.  All week the motorhome had become the dog house for Kodi, Toby and Allie daytime, so when we got back to the door there was only one barky voice left.  

What else?  We watched the many pelicans, egrets, herons and osprey that fly about and splash into the water, occasionally getting a fish.  Our electric bikes were awesome down here.  The flat roadways made it so easy to zip around camp and off to the beach.  We are still quite cautious with our trips – preferring not to leave them locked at racks beachside.  But they are a definite new fun addition to our adventures.  The Hollywood rack on the Jeep worked just fine and the bikes haven’t lost much of their battery power all week.  Lots of other eBikes around camp, too.  But the golf carts still dominate the traffic around the campground (mostly with kids driving them).

Well, by now the rain has stopped, it is still cloudy, but I need to walk Kodi, pour the water puddle off the Jeep roof and squeeze out the towels and bathing suits.  Maybe a trip down to Pier Park or the t-shirt shops (like we need another?) today while we wait for the weather to clear and beach time begins again. 

It did clear and we had another perfect day at the beach, still dodging a few jellyfish.  But the next day it got cold and windy and a planned bike trip was postponed in favor of lunch at Sharkey’s – you know, it is something of a tradition.  We had a wonderful lunch beachside: fish tacos and nachos with frozen daquiris.  Yum.  We noticed the growing crowd of motorcycles and learned Sharkey’s is one of the sponsors of Thunder Beach, which was just starting up.  Hmmm, we do have a history of being in places where motorcycle rallys happen.  Does an eBike count?

You probably know about the big cold snap hitting the southeast, and we were just learning that it might have been the end of our houseplants on the back deck at home.  For us at the beach, we hit the low 40’s on departure morning and were thankful we had packed at least one pair of long pants and long t-shirts each, just in case.  We rolled out early enough to get to Eufaula by noon and then to a new Georgia State Park: Chattahoochee Bend State Park outside Newnan.  Got there around 4:30 after getting gas (and remember, an hour difference across the border).  We have a great pull-through spot for the night and are maybe 2 hours from home.  The nice part is we aren’t driving through Atlanta at rush hour.  In the morning we can miss the interstates and make our way home on more local roads.

So our fall beach break has come to an end and we are slowly unpacking clothes, food, and such  Need to clean out the Jeep and motorhome from the sandy fun and attend to a few minor issues.  It was a great time in the sun, on the beach and with family.  John and Alex and Bethany got just a little more comfortable with their rigs.  Couldn’t ask for better.

I probably should have mentioned a summer camping adventure on our local lake with the grandsons.  We had a great lakeside spot, Alex and Bethany joined us for their first outing and it was great – until it wasn’t.  Every afternoon a wild thunderstorm whipped up and we had to pull in awnings, take down screen rooms, collect chairs and tables … it was really wild times.  But daytime the water was warm and perfect for floating, paddling or just splashing around.

Next up? No motorhome camping, but we have a cruise planned for late January on the brand new NCL Prima. It is a 70th birthday treat for us. Can’t wait for that Caribbean adventure.  

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Sunshine & Splashing

Oh my gosh, we are back from another cruise!  This one was super special, since we took our daughter’s family with us and that meant the first cruise for Karina, Jason and our grandsons Wyatt and Owen.  And once she heard about it, my sister Linda just had to join in the fun with the boys, bringing along “Uncle Norm”.  

This was a 5 day cruise out of Charleston, SC aboard Carnival Sunshine heading to Nassau and Half Moon Cay.  We all gathered at my brother Jeff’s house days before departure, since it was only 2 hours from the port.  It made for a great start to the cruise, even though it did leave my brother with major FOMO as we departed Charleston!

So what happened, how did it go, what are some stories from the trip??  I will mostly let the pictures tell the story, but here are some highlights (plus a NEW video of the fun):

It was a BLAST!  Our rooms were on Deck 9, the Lido Deck, all the way forward.  Only a few rooms have this full wall of glass facing the ocean ahead for an amazing view.  The boys totally loved it.

Ice cream and pizza were a hit – Wyatt had a record 6 cheese pizzas one day, Owen was not too far behind.

Waterslides were also a hit, but maybe not the big ones.  Wyatt was brave to try one of the racing waterslides the first day with Karina, but probably didn’t know just how fast it would be.  One and done for him, but he quickly made up for that on the smaller slides with Owen.  Whole lotta splashing going on.

The shuttle tender ride from the ship to Half Moon Cay was pretty much a sardine packed trip, but the beach and water more than made up for it.  Absolutely the best beach in the Caribbean and we all made a nice long day of it.  Uncle Norm was definitely a perfect playmate: “quit acting like a kid”.

The Serenity Decks (three of them) for adults were a nice break for us old folks and they gave a nice overview of the entire midship pool deck and it also was good for sunset watching.  The bar was close at hand, too.

Most of us stayed onboard when in port at Nassau.  As you can see by the pictures, the arrival area of the port is undergoing some major changes and all the docks have been rebuilt.  Surprisingly we were the only ship in port that day.  Linda and Norm took a snorkel excursion to a reef that had been pretty much blitzed in the past but they said it had recovered wonderfully over the 2 year pandemic.  Ah well, Jackie and I missed out on that one, but the time aboard with the family was pretty great too, much quieter.

The grandsons were very well behaved during dinner and sea day brunch in the main dining room, with a couple of activity books to help pass the time.

Ah the casino – something that has not always been kind to me, but entertaining anyway.  I bet conservatively and always hope my money will last long enough to have fun, but for two nights the craps table was hot.  Lots of fun and way longer than I expected – plus I definitely came away with some chips this time around.  Yay me.

The arcade and candy shop were also pretty exciting for the boys – heck anytime you have pizza, ice cream and gummies 24/7 it’s a good time.

Probably the only odd moment was one late night toward the end of the cruise when I discovered I had squeezed out anti-itch cream on my toothbrush instead of toothpaste.  I just caught it before brushing, but I was clearly getting cruise-tired!

I know we all declared it a major success and totally enjoyed ourselves – with thoughts of doing it all again (well, way into the future at least).

What’s next for us (after we do laundry and get our bearings)?  We have a week of camping at our local lake with paddleboards, kayak and the grandsons – plus Alex is going to try out his new/old camper.  Only one month of summer before everyone else is back to school and work, so we have to make haste.  Thanks for joining us on our travels and check out the videos posted on the PLACES and VIDEOS page.

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30A Ok

Next on our spring hit list this year is a 2 week stay on the panhandle of Florida at one of our favorite campgrounds:  Grayton Beach State Park along highway 30a.  Booked this one about a year ago and were excited to have our good friends Dan and Terri also book a week at a condo in Seagrove, just next door.  We are all quite familiar with the local breweries, eateries, bike paths and beaches, so this should be a great adventure.

The drive is about 7 hours but we thought we would break it up by heading out a day early and stopping halfway for the night.  One other trip south we stopped in Eufaula, AL at Lakepoint State Park, an easy stop.  But by the time we got past Columbus and were headed toward Eufaula and Dothan, it was still early in the day, so we searched out some options further south.  Jackie found Florida Caverns State Park near Mariana and pretty much just along our route.  We pulled up, asked about a spot for the night and were told, yes, they did have a site, but because we were 33’ we would have to use one of the equestrian sites.  Ok, no problem.  Actually, the three spots were level, full utilities and off by ourselves – with paddocks and stalls available if we wanted to hitch our horse there (um, no). But Kodi did pick up a lot of burrs, so he had to get brushed out a bit.

It was still early afternoon and as Jackie was reading through the park information sheet she said “hey, they have cave tours.  But not tomorrow.”  Well, guess that means we have to hustle over to the visitor’s center and get a tour.  Lucky for us the 4:00 tour was the last of the day and we made it with minutes to spare.  Down into the cave we went, 65 feet underground and still above the lower levels of the cave/aquifer complex.  It felt nice and cool on a hot and humid afternoon and we enjoyed ducking and dodging the stalagmites and stalactites.  We have been in several cave systems and while this wasn’t on the scale of some, it was certainly very scenic.  Outside there were blooming columbine, hydrangea and other wildflowers.  As we exited, we were reminded of just how hot and humid the weather had become.  Can’t wait to hit the cool water of the Gulf of Mexico!

It was a quick 2 hours, plus a stop for gas, and we were nearing Grayton Beach the next morning.  We didn’t rush out, but got here just after noon and the site was ready for us.  Full utilities and a nice roomy spot.  Connected up to water and electricity, put out the chairs, set up the screen house (bugs??), took down the canvas roof of the Jeep and off we went to the beach.  You are pretty close to the beach, but it is either a long walk, shorter bike ride or even shorter trip in the jeep.  Ah, the gorgeous blue-green, crystal clear water and sugar white sands were just what we remembered.  Soon we were splashing in and leaving all our worries behind.

We had a couple of days before Terri and Dan were to arrive, so that meant we could check out the local scene.  Grayton Beach is pretty quiet compared to Destin and Panama City Beach, but the Seaside and Watercolor neighborhoods are a destination all their own.  And it was indeed just as busy with cars, bikes and people as ever.  But we only drove through, on our way to check out two breweries:  Grayton Brewing and Idyll Hounds.  Made it to Idyll for a couple of sips and met a crowd of 5 other local teachers (it was the end of the school day) and we chatted for a bit.  Also met another couple who were great fun – we shared stories of our camping adventures, our beer adventures and some “curly girl” hair advice.  

Right next to Idyll Hounds was a new building with a sign “Distillery 98” – so naturally that meant we had to check it out.  Aha! a vodka distillery and bar for Dune Laker vodka.  Jackie forced herself to have an espresso martini and I had … well a refreshing drink with cucumber and something and something and vodka.  It was good, even if I can’t recall the ingredients.

A couple of really nice days at the beach, another beer selection with Bavarian pretzels at Beach Camp brewpub (used to be affiliated with Grayton Beer) here in Grayton and we are just loving it.  Oh, and a helpful camper told us that the night before they spotted a big fat snake under our Jeep, probably a cottonmouth.  Just thought we should know.  Gee, thanks.  Well, we kind of think that it was probably a brown or banded water snake so no worries.  Our site is just steps from the water of Western Lake.  Good to know.

The Jeep has been fun, with the top down and wide open – and I have been putting a cover over it each night to keep the birds off and stay dry from the morning dew.  But rain was predicted and we debated what to do (nothing was the decision).  Well, Kodi woke us up around 6 am with thunder in the distance.  I got out to check things – did see a cool sunrise – but I wasn’t yet awake enough to put the top up.  After thunder and light rain (and coffee) we waited for a break and went ahead and put the top on, side and back windows back in and made it water tight.  Good thing, as it wasn’t long before we had a pretty severe downpour.  

We waited it out and when it seemed to pass we drove east to Pier Park in Panama City to do some quick shopping and especially to have our favorite grouper sandwich at Sharkey’s.  Dang, just as good as ever!  But the gulf was angry.  The storm continued to whip up the waves, rain and thunder and really blow pretty hard.  Looks like time to head back to camp and check on things and Kodi.  Once there, all was well, nothing blew away, the awning was still fine, but Kodi was definitely glad we came back to rescue him!

While chilling in the motorhome and catching up on blog writing and photo editing we got a text from Dan and Terri to say they were an hour out and wanted to meet up at Grayton Beer.  Well, okay, that didn’t take much persuasion.  So, since it is still raining and definitely NOT a beach day, we met up, sampled some flights of beer, caught up on what we have been doing and planned out the week.  Well, Dan declared “there is no agenda” for the week, so yeah, I know it’s tough being retired.

So a recap of the week (which is a bit heavy on food and beer, I admit) includes:

A delicious grilled steak dinner at the campsite for four, complete with, um, three (?) bottles of red wine.

Mother’s Day dinner at Cafe 30A for some delicious seafood.  Ahi tuna for Jackie (and a proper beet salad – check the “Harmony” blog for the story), a spicy seafood pasta for Doug and a bit of a debate over dessert.  More on that later.

A trip back to Idyll Hounds for more beer sampling and the vodka distillery next door for some bloody marys, martinis and frozen cocktails.

A walkabout at Seaside with fish tacos for lunch.  A very cute gathering spot along highway 30A, but very congested with people, cars, bikes, trucks, strollers, golf carts and dog walkers all competing for space.

Beautiful sunny, cool and dry weather the entire week, with plenty of beach time reading and sipping “beach beer.”  The water was absolutely the most gorgeous color, crystal clear to your toes with the aptly named sugar sand beaches.  Unfortunately we have no underwater critter sightings to report, maybe one or two rays spotted moving past.

Dinner at the Red Bar – a famous watering hole in the cute bungalow community of Grayton Beach.  I  had a delicious crab cake and salad, Jackie had some chicken penne, I think Dan had gumbo and Terri had a large salad … it was all filling, but kinda pricey, too.  Definitely a busy spot and we had to take their free shuttle from the parking area.  But we did catch the sunset on the beach. 

More sunsets. It’s just something you do at the beach: watch the sunset from the water’s edge.  By then the sand is cool on your feet, the water feels warmer as it washes over your toes and the bright yellow sun turns orange as it slips below the horizon.  Definitely cool and we tried it a few nights.

E-bike rentals and a ride down to Blue Mountain Beach and back to Seaside.  Jackie has been researching e-bikes for a while and we had the chance to try some out.  A great guy ran a local service (rentelectricbikes.com) that delivered the bikes to our campsite, then picked them up the next morning.  At $50 per day each that was a deal.  We rented RadRover bikes that had rather fat tires and a step-through frame. They were pedal-assist but you could also just use the throttle alone and zip along just fine.  Wow, what a cool ride.  Terri and Dan rented beach cruiser bikes in Seagrove and met us at the campsite.  We all rode a couple of miles on the bike path along 30a to Blue Mountain Beach and then back to Seaside to leave Terri and Dan before we turned back to the campground.  Very cool experience.

A last night dinner at Hurricane Oyster Bar with the most monstrous oysters ever.  Dan ordered six grilled and I ordered six baked with crab and cheese, thinking they would be small appetizer size, but they were a meal in themselves (but I had also ordered a fried oyster po boy, so it was a major oyster feast that night).

Oh, and the key lime pie affair.

I mentioned Mother’s Day dinner at a wonderful restaurant – Cafe 30A – and how we debated our dessert choice.  Naturally, they had key lime pie and we were tempted to finish off the meal with some, but Terri said she had one back at their condo to share.  “Yeah, but how big?” Dan asked.  “Well, you know, about six inches, a Publix one,” Terri replied.  “That won’t be enough, we’ll only have a sliver each,” Dan countered.  So the discussion went, but it was silly really, since we were all stuffed anyway.  I shared how when we were in Key West years back they had key lime pie covered in chocolate on a stick that I really wanted to try.  But we managed to leave the Keys before I managed to snag one to try.  “Oooh, that sounds delicious,” was the general comment.  But back at the condo we had a very nice slice each of the key lime pie Terri bought and it was just fine.

The next day Terri texted us a picture of a sandwich board from a spot in Seaside that advertised “chocolate covered key lime pie” – Aha!  It did exist.  Well, of course that meant we had to arrange a trip back to get ourselves some of that, so the next afternoon we all arrived at Nigel’s Chocolate Covered Bananas to get our key lime pie on a stick, dipped in chocolate.  “Oh, sorry, we are out for today.”  What??  “We should have some tomorrow.”  Grr.

That meant another trip the next day to see if indeed they would have more.  “Oh, yes I remember you from yesterday.  We have the pie today.”  Great, we will take four slices.  Out came the first monstrous slice, on a stick, that was gently dipped into the pool of dark chocolate. “What do you want on the outside?”  Oh, there’s more?  Well the choice for most was to cover it in crushed pecan shortbread cookies, but I opted for toasted coconut.  

Jackie said she didn’t want it on a stick, but they all were set in paper baskets anyway and we grabbed forks to help.  As we sat outside on benches and devoured our slices of heaven, all we could say was how lucky we were that we found a local source for this decadent treat.  In all the excitement I forgot to snap a picture of the pie, but imagine if you will a 3 inch thick slice of pie with a generous graham cracker crust, dipped in dark chocolate that already was crackly and then coated with cookie crumbs or toasted coconut.  Way too many calories.  And pretty much our afternoon meal.  That’s how it goes at the beach.

What’s next? 

Well, a good cleaning of the RV for one thing and a check on our maternity ward backyard to see how many new fawns have been born. Someone said we are headed out on another cruise and we plan to spend a week camping at our nearby Lake Allatoona with the grandsons. Never a dull moment. Stay tuned.

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Family Sail-Away to the Caribbean

So the topic around the dinner table was whether or not lobster would be a good choice the next night.  About half of us were looking forward to it and the rest were “so-so” about it, saying that it was often disappointing – being a bit tough, not too tasty and well, just not the best.  Four of us were scheduled to eat at the Sabor Mexican specialty restaurant and would be missing the last fancy meal (I didn’t time that meal choice right) and even Jackie expressed concern that we would miss out.  She was reminded that she has a shellfish allergy and wouldn’t be eating it anyway, but she felt bad for Doug missing it.  But before we finish that story, let’s start at the beginning.

Last April my brother Jeff announced that he and Vickie were going to spend spring break on Harmony of the Seas and did anyone want to join?  Since it seemed likely the pandemic restrictions would be gone and cruising would surely be back to normal by then, we said sure and talked it up.  Soon we had nearly the whole family booked (14 of us) and were excitedly planning the adventure.  My nephews Adam and Chris had gotten married during the pandemic and were anxious for something fun to celebrate with the family – their wives Ashley and Becca were all in, plus Ashley’s twin sister Chelsey had also gotten married last year to Eric and they were also up for some fun.  Our son Alex and wife Bethany were in and my sister Linda and husband Norm said they would fly in from California to be part of this.  Ok, big group!

Fun times started right away.  The cruise departed from Port Canaveral, Florida so we all planned to travel the day before and stay local overnight before boarding.  The SC gang quickly posted a travel selfie from the road followed by us (taken safely while stopped) as we made our way to Orlando and Cocoa Beach.  It was something of a relief to be on the road, considering that we each had to have a negative COVID test the day before – which also involved a lot of “negative” text messages among the group as we sweated the results.  

In Orlando we had to wrangle a bit to get us all to a place to eat, but we managed to squeeze into the Rav4 and hit up Rockpit Brewing for some beer and barbecue. Thanks to Bethany for taking the far back storage area to make us all fit!

Next morning I dropped Linda and Norm at the airport so they could catch the shuttle bus to the port, circled back to the hotel, packed up the rest of our crew and we were off to the port.  Checking in at the port was a bit of a crowd at first as everyone had to pass a health check, wear their masks and go through security, but once aboard we were told the masks can come off and it wasn’t long before we all caught up on the top deck to gather and grab that “Welcome Aboard” first drink.  Yeah, we all bought the drink package.  Oh, and somebody’s hat decided to sail away overboard as we departed Port Canaveral.

Ok, so here are some stories from the trip – at least those that I know about.  For some of us it was our first time cruising, for some it was the first time on Harmony of the Seas, for some of us it was our second time aboard, and for a few it was our third time on the ship. Newbies went exploring right away and we all had different activities on our “checklist.” (You can now watch some video highlights at “How we did Harmony of the Seas . . . Again“).

Flowrider and Waterslides

Jeff and I got on the Flowrider almost first thing and mostly got the hang of it again.  The boys joined us and did well considering it was their first time.  Linda was in charge of photos “Is it on?” and did a decent job.  Of course we all had to try the waterslides, some of us nearly getting stuck mid-way with not enough water pressure and the day was VERY windy at the top. 

Onboard Entertainment

I think we tried to catch everything on board, from “Grease” to the ice show and aqua show to comedy to trivia and dance parties.  Some of us did quite well with the dancing, others not so much.  The gaming tables were probably a break-even plus a little more for the craps and roulette players, but I think some of the guys did better at blackjack.  It was exciting fun anyway.

Poolside on Sea Days

We started off on the solarium deck the first day, but once we found a better spot by the pool with good bar service and mostly enough chairs, it made for a base of operations.  The sun got pretty strong, so some of us moved in and out of the shade, grabbed munchies at the mini-bites and solarium bistro and had our share of frozen drinks and beer.  Oh, and milkshakes from Johnny Rockets!  A few braved the Abyss dry slide, which we were told “needed waxing” so it wasn’t too zippy scary.  

St. Marten

Our first port of call was Phillipsburg in St. Marten.  It was going to be a busy day with four big ships in port.  Half the group had an awesome ATV trip around the island exploring beaches and mountains and half the group had an excursion to Creole Rock on jet boats to try snorkeling.  Jackie and I were on the jet boats with Norm, Linda, Alex and Bethany and had a blast bouncing across the blue waters and among lots of sailboats.  The snorkeling was not great, since the reefs were pretty well blitzed, but the water felt wonderful and it was a thrill on the boats.

St. Thomas

Our second port of call was St. Thomas and we again split up for different excursions.  Jackie and I, Norm and Linda took a FastCat boat to snorkel at Turtle Cove and then hang at Hollywood Beach on Water Island.  Snorkeling was much better, water was awesome and clear – we did not see turtles but there was a barracuda under the boat that most of us spotted.  The beach spot was just perfect, as we bobbed in the clear shallow water.   

Perfect Day at Coco Cay

We were joined by Independence of the Seas at the dock on CoCo Cay, so it was going to be a crowd at the watery oasis.  Some of us found chairs at the Oasis Lagoon pool, some at the South beach area in the sand.  We spent time at both spots and I enjoyed the pool, which was a bit chilly, except that the music by the swim up bar was rather loud and created a very congested “spring break” style crowd.  Too many people, too loud.  Otherwise we all got plenty of water, sun, drinks and snacks.

Dinner

Our plans for dinner were to eat in the main dining room and I thought I had things pretty much set for everyone to be together at a reserved time each night, but it took a little negotiating at first to smooth things out – the result was a long table for 14 and the BEST dinner service ever.  A few of us had specialty restaurant reservations during the week, but the table was lively every night.  Our first night was a champagne toast to Dad, who along with Mom, introduced the joy of cruising to all of us.

For the most part the food was excellent and well received by all.  The prime rib slices were huge, the apps delicious – although there was some discussion about the lack of beets and oranges in the beet and citrus salad by some among us.  Someone finally got a banana split, french fries were quickly brought out for some of our diners and then there was the lobster affair.

You will recall I mentioned that the next-to-last meal was the fancy lobster tail meal choice.  Linda and I had booked the Mexican restaurant for that night, not knowing it was lobster night, so we were going to miss it.  Well, we resigned ourselves to missing what could have been a meal of average lobster – and most of us figured it would be chewy and tough anyway.  But the next day our crew said, guardedly, that it really was a spectacular meal and the lobster was the best they had ever had.  In fact, beside two tails each, the wait staff brought our extra plates of tails.  Oh, boy, that news didn’t help.

As we sat for dinner the last night and our waiter described the choices, I made pinching motions with my hands and told him that he could bring me my missing lobster tail from the night before.  I joked with him quite a bit but ordered the short rib anyway – and when taking my order Al said he would try.  Word around the dining room was that they had exhausted their supply the night before and not a lobster was on the ship.  That’s ok, I was fine with my order of short rib – I won’t pout.

When I finished my appetizer, the dining room manager Catherine came to my shoulder and asked how my day went in Coco Cay.  She said she saw I missed the lobster dinner the night before and then slipped a plate in front of me and revealed … a whole lobster, split and beautifully broiled!!  

After that last meal together we took some last group shots, broke off into small groups, packed our bags and some of us returned to sit on our connected balcony overlooking Central Park and reflected on a very satisfying family get-together that was the perfect start to the summer.  Even our armadillo mascot Heffe enjoyed himself.  I love our family!

I have some video I will soon edit and post, both here and on the “Videos” page, so watch for that update.  

What’s next?  This upcoming weekend we volunteer to pour at the Kennesaw Beer Fest and in 2 weeks we take the motorhome down to the panhandle of Florida and Grayton Beach State Park, meeting our good friends Dan and Terry, and … another cruise?  Stay tuned.

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Waterfalls of Little River Canyon, AL

For our first outing of spring 2022 we chose an area of northeastern Alabama that has been on our list for a few years: DeSoto State Park and the Little River Canyon National Preserve.  It was about a 2 hour drive from home, so that was a very easy choice to do a shakedown trip for the start of the year; we are only staying 3 nights.

 

We unwrapped the RV from its winter cover and in preparation we sanitized the water tank, checked tires and had to replace the valve extension again on one set of rear tires in order to get pressurized.  Aired out and packed up for a short trip, we had layers of clothes and hiking gear, ready for some hiking in either cool or warm weather.  Kodi was in his crate and ready to roll as we connected the Jeep (much easier than the tow dolly) and headed northwest.

The drive took us through Cartersville to Rome and across the hills heading to Ft. Payne, Alabama where we had a pretty steep, steady climb up to the top of Lookout Mountain.  It is part of the Cumberland Plateau, the southernmost extension of the Appalachian Plateau.  It was another slow climb, but soon we crossed the Little River and caught a glimpse of the falls.  A dozen miles further and we were in DeSoto State Park, disconnecting the Jeep and looking for our campsite.  Alabama does a nice job with their campgrounds and the site was level gravel, plenty long enough and faced the woods.  We went through the arrival routine to level, connect electric and water, run out the slides and set up chairs and tables.  

It was still early in the day so we went for a hike around the park with Kodi, leaving the campground and trekking to Azalea Cascade, across some boardwalk and then to Indian Falls.  Both were nice waterfalls on a creek that flowed into the Little River below us.  Might have been a mile and a half in the cool, sunny afternoon, but the trail is covered with roots and rocks that reach up to grab your toes if you aren’t careful.  So you look at the scenery when you stop, not while you walk.

On day two (day after arrival) we drove back to the falls and had a good look at the cascade of water over the rocks and the beautiful blue-green color of the clear water.  The Little River has the distinction of being one of the very few rivers to mostly flow across a mountain.  It eventually carves its way down through the sometimes 500 foot deep canyon to Weiss Lake below.  We drove the scenic 11 mile drive along the rim downstream, stopping at several overlooks.  One spot was a wet bog on the exposed rock that was home to several rare and unique wildflowers and sundews.  The bright red Elf Orpine was the most visible plant, but the water was filled with little tadpoles.

We made our way along the twisty roller coaster roadway to the Canyon Mouth park at the bottom and stopped for lunch.  A narrow trail along the river led to a lovely stream splashing its way to the river’s edge.  It is about a week or two before most of the spring wildflowers will bloom, but we did see some of the early bloomers such as foam flower, bluets, violets, dwarf crested iris, mayapples poking up through the leaves, fern fiddleheads uncurling and a few others that I will have to research.

 

 

Back in camp we relaxed a bit before dinner, then enjoyed a deliciously grilled steak with a bottle of red wine and sat around the firepit (our easy propane one) until the stars came out and we got chilly.

On day three we were just finishing breakfast at the dinette when “whoosh” a big visitor flew down to the rotting stump next to us.  It was a bright red and black pileated woodpecker and he was having a nice breakfast of bugs.  Whack, whack into the stump went his beak.  Jackie handed me the camera for a quick shot or two and then he flew closer to a tree that was maybe 4 feet away.  Ok then, guess I will get the close-up.  How wild – even though we have seen the birds on our travels and at home, this one was way cool.

         

We were set to drive a bit north to see the DeSoto Falls on the West Fork of the Little River so back in the Jeep we went.  When we got to the main observation area for the falls and the picnic area it was closed off for dredging and maintenance, so we turned back about a mile to a trailhead for another spot to view the falls.  This was another trail of roots, bare and rubble rock, and a few places where you had to definitely watch the edge.  But the payoff was a gorgeous view of a waterfall framed by a wide circular canyon wall and a deep plunge pool below.  There were also several private residences and cabins along the upper falls that must have spectacular views all year.

DeSoto Falls

 

A little further down the road we hoped to have lunch in the town of Mentone, but the artsy/eclectic little spot was pretty much shut down.  Too early in the season I guess.  We made our way back along the ridge where houses and cabins had a beautiful view across the valley below.  

After lunch at camp we trekked our final hike with Kodi to some falls further upstream from the Azalea Cascade in camp.  The trail crossed lots of muddy springs and wet seeps across the exposed bedrock and a couple of stream crossings, but Kodi did fine and we found the Laurel Falls spot, with a half-dozen youngsters and dogs splashing in the pools of water below.  Yikes, it had to be cold.  What fun, though.  

Final night in camp was quiet.  A couple of deer walked along the edge of our site – they probably got a text from our herd at home.  These were definitely smaller than ours, though.  Next morning it was an easy pack and roll and soon we were back home, where the yellow pollen is starting to cover everything.  Well it was a good start to the spring, the weather was dry and sunny – warm enough daytime to enjoy being outside, chilly enough at night to cuddle. And since you asked, yes, it was very strange and sad not to have Merlin with us. That amazing cat was on every adventure with us and was so much a part of our trips that it definitely was hard not to think about him. Even Kodi had a few moments where he seemed to look for him.

 

What’s next?  In less than 2 weeks we head to Port Canaveral to set sail aboard Harmony of the Seas and within 2 weeks of that we take the motorhome down the the panhandle of Florida and Grayton Beach State Park.  Finally nice enough to get busy outside.  (Although I have been busy with baking.  Rye sourdough is my latest bread and I baked a jelly roll and pound cake – thanks to inspiration from British Baking Show).  Oops, sorry – forgot to leave you some.

 

 

        

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Remembering Merlin

We lost one of our travel companions this week, one who was with us on all our motorhome adventures and who was a wonderful companion and member of the family.


Merlin was with us just over 11 years, but it seems like so much longer than that. If you follow Jackie’s facebook you already know of his passing, but I wanted to post a page about this amazing animal, though it is not easy.  You see, he was not “just a cat” but truly a member of the family. 

Merlin was aptly named because he would suddenly appear and often just as quickly disappear from your side. He was a very good buddy for his first brother, Benji, and he took to his second brother, Kodi very quickly. Actually, we are sure he told the young pup just how things were going to work around the house and so long as he listened to Merlin, things would be just fine.  The way he interacted with them, he might have thought he was a dog, too.  He tolerated others too, such as Allie when she came to stay.

Merlin and puppy Kodi

Merlin and Ally

Benji and Merlin in 2016

Merlin and Kodi got along so well – their play antics were crazy wrestling sessions followed by “chase” up and down the stairs. Kodi would chase Merlin down, Merlin would chase him back up – and then there might be a little hide and seek. I think Merlin saw himself as a dog and not the Maine Coon breed that he was.



When we decided to buy our motorhome for retirement travel and adventures, one of the reasons was that we could bring our pets along with us. So glad that we did that, because they were able to travel south to Key West, north to Canada and the coast of Maine, northwest to Glacier NP and southwest to the Grand Canyon.

Rocky Mountain NP

Benji and Kodi only made half the trips but Merlin saw it all – Yellowstone to Acadia, Arches to Sleeping Bear Dunes. He was such a good travel companion – and somehow managed to post some comments himself. Check out his section of this Blog for some thoughts : MEWS

Jackie said that having pets is tough, because you know you will outlive them – but you love and enjoy their devoted companionship every day they are with you and you cry and miss them terribly when they are gone. Like family.

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Whales and Tales from the West Coast

Welcome 2022!  It was a simple, quiet Christmas 2021 – the cast of Chicken Run went out in the Jeep to find a tree, after 4-wheeling through Monument Valley (yeah, right). And Merlin gave us a scare when he refused to eat and curled up under the bed. After spending time at the vet, he came home with a pink paw and wore his fur boots around the house. He had some bowel, pancreas, and liver inflammation, but we think it is under control now with a change in diet and some pills.

Ok then, we are starting our new year with the kind of trip we haven’t tried since this whole pandemic started: a trip on an airplane!  Seemed like it would be a safe bet when we booked it a year ago, but it is something to take with caution these days.  So off we go for more than a week to visit Linda and Norm in San Diego – all masked up and ready to see some whales. 

We left chilly Atlanta to arrive in warm, mostly sunny southern California.  From my window seat I tried to follow our recent trip across the southern states … pretty much scouting the landscape across Mississppi, Arkansas, Texas and New Mexico.  Kinda cool to see some of these spots from the air. Easy trip and we were soon at their house overlooking a canyon just inland from Mission Bay. How wonderful.

Whale watching was on the list for the next day, so Linda, Jackie and I hustled down to Mission Bay with minutes to spare to board, only to learn the boat was now docked about a quarter mile further down — so that meant a fast dash to board as the engines revved up and we set out. Some California sea lions lounged in the harbor near the inlet as we hit the Pacific Ocean on a very calm day, optimistic that we would see some of the migrating whales headed south to warmer Mexican waters.

We were told to watch for the spouting plumes of water that would indicate a whale had surfaced. These were going to be gray whales that do not have a big dorsal fin, so you have a little less to spot on the water. Soon we had a few just ahead and we were treated to about 5 or 6 gray whales, interspersed with lots of common dolphin. Some nice tail flukes popped up just as they made their deep dives. Wow, lots of action, but not quite as flamboyant as the humpback we saw in Alaska. These guys don’t usually breach out of the water. But when you do see them, they are covered in crusty barnacles.