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.