Posts Tagged With: snorkeling

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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Of Devil Rays and Dolphins

As promised, I am writing our next blog from Panama City Beach – a camping vacation in our favorite spot on the gulf coast: St. Andrews State Park.  Since this is our fifth visit, (see 2015, 2016, 2017) it might be hard to find some unique stories and shoot some new photos, but these two weeks have a lot of special meaning, so let’s recap the adventure:

It starts with Mother’s Day.  We traveled and arrived on Sunday and went straight to the beach — found it just as beautiful as we remembered.  The soft white sand beach, while narrow, sloped gently into the water with almost no waves and clarity that beats most pools.  Jackie says she had a perfect Mother’s day, sitting on the beach with drink in hand, sunlight sparkling off the turquoise water.  The colors are as beautiful as the Caribbean and the snorkeling along the jetty was nearly as good.  Lots and lots of fish (blue tang, bluenose wrassie, mullet, sheepshead, angelfish, sergeant major, yellow tail) can be seen on the gulf side and the lagoon side.  Just amazing.  Click on the word link:  Snorkeling highlights video

It continues with our anniversary.  We celebrated our 43rd wedding anniversary at Sharky’s, a perfect beach bar and restaurant.  You can sit beachside and enjoy what we swear is the best fried grouper sandwich.  Since we remembered to bring our Fat Tuesday cups from last year, we got our fill of tropical drinks much cheaper.  It was a perfect, magical evening as we watched the sun set on the surf.

The cups also came in handy at Pineapple Willy’s one rainy afternoon when Jackie was searching for wifi to download books to her Paperwhite Kindle.  Jackie consumes books, so this was a “must do” event.

It becomes something special.  Wherever we go we manage to find something special.  This time it was while we were knee deep in the water.  A small raft of dark shapes was headed our way and we watched in wonder as we were surrounded by five or six rays zooming along, mouths open, feeding on plankton.  Up and down they bobbed, wings flapping, sometimes the tips out of the water, moving around us in the shallow water.  We learned they were devil rays, looking like small versions of manta rays, maybe two feet across.  They would move back and forth along the shore in groups of two to twelve and we saw them almost daily.  Every once in a while you would see a splash where one would break the surface, but the most fantastic moment was when I saw one shoot four feet into the air, do a slow flip and then dive back into the water.  What a treat. Check out the videos by clicking on the word link:  Devil Rays Video

And of course this area is great for spotting dolphin.  Sitting on the beach you watch the various dolphin tour boats and jet-ski tours arrive at the end of the jetty and watch for dolphin.  And most times they are not disappointed:  the dolphins appear and jump about for the tourists.  We almost become “ho-hum, another dolphin,” but we were well entertained one afternoon as the dolphin must have found a thick school of fish and furiously zipping through the school and shooting out of the water.  One or two were jumping four to five feet in the air, maybe a dozen times or more.  Quite the show and something that you don’t always get to see.

One evening as the lagoon calmed down I hopped on a paddleboard and paddled along shore to see if I could find some stingrays.  We saw several on a paddle over to the point of the inlet and I was hoping to find them again.  No luck, but on the way back Jackie called to me from the dock and we both spotted several dolphin bobbing around.  One was a mother/youngster pair, easily seen as they sliced up and out of the water.  I just sat on the board as they fished within feet of me, spitting and fluking.

Another afternoon we were similarly treated to a small pod of about 8 dolphin within 25 feet of our boards – bobbing and splashing about.  The water was so clear you could see them beneath the water, turning sideways to show their lighter belly and then breaking the surface.  Very special.

I spotted some spoonbills in the marsh one morning on my way to the beach, but I only had my phone to snap the shot – not my best shot.  Spoonbills have been an elusive bird to get on camera for me, so this was something of a catch at least.  I figured I could find them again the next day, but was treated instead to a turf war between gators.  While snapping shots of one alligator in the marsh, a second male came lumbering in and quickly dispatched the other one out, watching to be sure he got the message, his tail flipping back and forth.  You might be surprised at how quickly these boys can move!

It ends with the school year and a tropical storm.  We know our fellow teachers back home are celebrating the end of the school year and a few teachers in the family are within days of their school year ending.  We congratulate them all on making it through another year and especially Linda, who finished her first year back in the classroom teaching autistic students.

As we pack up camp we are under a tropical storm watch, with nasty weather brewing in the Gulf and heavy rain headed our way.  We returned the golf cart, brushed off the sand, packed up chairs and toys and pulled in the awning.  A good time to be headed away from the coast and back home.

And of course, an “uh-oh” moment.

Jackie and I have come to the conclusion that no matter how well planned you are, each camping trip seems to have at least one “uh-oh” moment.  Somehow something unexpected happens and you hope it is a simple fix, not AC failure or a cracked windshield or blown tires.  This time it was all about water.  With the prolonged cold spring we didn’t de-winterize the RV until late, which meant that this trip was the first of the season.  The week before heading out, we drained the potable antifreeze and flushed the water system.  Into the main water tank went bleach to sanitize it and another flush of the water lines to sanitize and rinse them before adding a few gallons of fresh water to the tank.  We also needed to fill the LP tank, which was no problem.

But there was one itty bitty detail.  The first drinks I fixed in camp tasted a bit off – like gulps of swimming pool water off.  I made ice from the tap and it seems we must have been a little heavy handed with the bleach.  Yech.  Ok, toss that drink and let’s use bottled water for the ice.  That meant a trip to the store for a few more gallons of bottled water for the ice and coffee, but worth it until we flush out more of the water in the system.  Well, at least it is sanitized.  (Note to self: use far less bleach and do a better job of flushing and rinsing the water lines).

The other glitch involves hot water.  We have it — we just can’t get it through the lines. The water tank fills and heats water just fine, it just doesn’t flow from the taps.  Grrr.  A bit of a head scratcher, which had me draining the tank, bleeding out any air, trying the water pump, flipping the bypass valve each way — and then doing it all over again to no avail.  This one will require some research and tinkering at home, maybe a vinegar rinse of the tank and a systematic check of the lines for a blockage.  Since we are using the camp showers, the only need for hot water is washing dishes, so filling a container from the water heater drain outside worked for now.

A plate of oysters and a grouper sandwich at Hunts.

Thanks for following along on our adventures.  Next up for us is our Alaska cruise – in two weeks!  Jeff and Vickie will be along with us to zip line, whale watch and explore the inside passage.  I hope to have some cool pics and video to post after that wild journey, so keep an eye out.

And be sure to check my nephew Adam’s blog about his continuing Appalachian Trail adventure: Adam’s blog.  He has video and stories about the first 300 miles posted now.

Doug

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Caribbean Cruising … again!

Let’s see, when we last left “Caribbean Jack” in October he was already talking about the next cruise.  It seemed too early to talk about another cruise, but in the weeks leading up to Christmas he kept checking schedules with various family members until it seemed that Jackie and I were the last ones standing … since we were retired and all.

Ok, I volunteered to research dates and itineraries out of Charleston and soon we had a date booked in April for a 5 day sailing to Nassau and Princess Cay.  Oops, we found out that was spring break for some schools in South Carolina, but by then it was too late.  What’s that Jackie?  Just like the romantic hike in the mountains for our anniversary that involved a gaggle of fifth graders? (see the post “Hike Inn Anniversary“).  Retired teachers can be soooo crabby!

Our “Welcome Aboard” drink!

So with bags packed and adventure awaiting, we set off for Dad’s – leaving freeze warnings at home amid April showers – with visions of the blue Caribbean and warm sunny days ahead.  He was all set, bags also packed and waiting, with a reminder that we needed to get the handicapped hang-tag out of his car and be sure to pack his walker.  That proved golden, as Charleston does not charge mobility-impaired passengers for parking and we were able to use their lift-equipped shuttle van and wheelchairs for a swift boarding process.  With little fuss we were soon on the Lido deck, poolside, with that first tropical drink in hand.

Ready for our day at sea.

Ok, it was a bit drizzly and chilly so we moved inside while we scanned the list of shipboard activities and planned our first day at sea.  Soon after we pulled away from shore and the Carnival Ecstasy was headed out of Charleston harbor and on to warmer and calmer waters.  If you are a cruiser, you know the exhilaration you feel at the sail-away moment, with all the stresses of life left behind and the thrill of the open water ahead of you.  This was going to be fun.

        

The itinerary was for our first full day at sea followed by a stop at their private island, Princess Cay.  That first day brought us into the sunshine, but the water temperature in the pool was still mighty chilly, so it was pretty much just the kids who were splashing about (when they weren’t filling up the hot tubs, that is).  Undeterred, we sat poolside, legs in the water, adult beverages in hand, chatting with other passengers – most from the mid-Atlantic and Southeast region.  I kept a look out for “that kid” who would sooner or later appear, gleam in his eyes, and flop in the pool, sending icy sprays of water over all the adults nearby.  Oh, wait, my glass was empty … time to head to the bar anyway.

Even the towel creatures had their day by the pool.

Those first days also involved casino strategy sessions – well, between Dad and I anyway.  Craps for me and roulette for Dad.  Jackie declared she was going to get to every comedy show and a few of the musical ones and Dad said he might join her.  After a slow start at the craps table, I headed to the room to find Jackie napping and with good intentions of making the evening shows, but we ended up crashing and leaving a note on Dad’s door.  He later said that he went to the musical performance (too loud, no real dancing, just wacky moves), then the casino and stayed up to nearly midnight.

Jackie was proud of the shawl she had crocheted – and it was needed.

What do you do on a five-day Caribbean cruise anyway?  Here is how we kept busy:

  • Talk about meals and food, check menus, and then talk some more about food. This is something of a pastime for my family anyway, but we would hear all about the great omelets, warm pastries, and breakfast dining room service from Dad on those days we went ashore.  Dinner was fun, with great appetizers (mussels, conch fritters, escargot, calamari) and main courses (lamb shank, short ribs, prime rib, crab ravioli, roast duck).  And dessert!

Roast duck and crab ravioli

  • Go ashore at Princess Cay for snorkeling.
  • Talk some more about meals and food. Guy’s Burgers were a big hit and the fresh tacos, burritos, pizza and Reubens all delicious.

Burger run from Guy’s Burger Joint

  • Hit the casino, and in Doug’s case hope for better luck at craps.
  • Go ashore in Nassau and pay to wander Atlantis on Paradise Island.
  • Read a book

Love that new eReader!

  • Hang something special on your door (Jackie has been great at crocheting shells, starfish, palm trees and such for the doors).

Of course mini golf!

  • Wander the ship and play mini golf, look at the fitness center, pass the duty-free shops, sit by the pool and maybe get wet.
  • Hear how well Jack did at the roulette table – again.
  • Check out the Chocolate Fantasy at the Lido buffet.

  • Check to be sure you haven’t hit your 15 drink limit for the day (not even close).
  • Enjoy the sail-away each night and watch for flying fish (yes, there were many of them popping out of the water at the bow as we left Princess Cay this time).

  • Buy the drink package and enjoy yourself for a few days. We bought the special Tervis insulated cups to hold our favorite drinks.

We enjoyed our previous snorkel on Princess Cay and were hoping for just as much fun.  Caught an early tender and walked down to the snorkel reef area.  It is an easy, sandy entry into the water and you can snorkel along the shoreline to see corals and fish pretty easily.

Easy entry to the snorkel area.

Jackie saw a large barracuda and Doug saw a small flounder and eel besides the parrotfish, yellowtails, blue tang, sergeant majors, crevalle and lots of the typical reef fish. It began to get a bit choppy after a few hours, so we tried another spot that was more protected, but more jetty than coral reef.  It was a good morning on shore and we were back aboard by mid-afternoon.

You can’t beat the color of the water in the Caribbean.

The snorkel reef from above. Just beyond and below the waves were fans, corals, and reef fish.

How was Nassau this visit?  Lots of flowers in bloom and fresh paint on most buildings made Nassau a colorful port of call.  We had three other ships in port with us, but we were in the slip right along the embarkation dock.  Easy on and off and a great way to people watch along shore.

   

     

   

This time we purchased tickets to walk the grounds of Atlantis on Paradise Island, so we caught a cab and zig-zagged our way through traffic to the resort.  If you have never been there, I recommend it – even though it is pricey to just walk through expensive shops, a gorgeous casino and tropical grounds.

        

        

 

After wandering through the casino and gazing at the Chihuly glass sculptures, we found our way outside and around the waterfalls and gardens.  And typical for us, we walked in The Dig aquarium from the exit (we managed that by accident in another aquarium).  It didn’t really matter, we were out of the way of strollers for a while.  It is a pretty nice aquarium, with all sorts of artifacts that add to the experience as you gaze at the reef fish, including some spotted eagle rays and a very large manta ray.

       

When you make your way to the lobby above, you can also look down on the pools to see the schools of fish.  In the Predator Lagoon area there are several species of shark and three very big smalltooth sawfish.  We were at the rail where a guest was feeding squid to the sharks and got a pretty good look at the frenzy.

 

Further on we saw turtles and hammerhead sharks before climbing the dunes to the beach.  Hey, we didn’t buy a wristband for beach access … nor did we buy the water park pass, but we somehow ended up next to their signature waterslide.  Darn, we didn’t have our bathing suits on!

       

Another wild ride back to the ship and Jackie headed onboard to have lunch with Dad while Doug walked around town for some photos of the local scene.  From the edge of the harbor it really is an amazing sight of clear blue waters and large white ships, with street vendors and excursion boats sprinkled in.

            

And what about the casino onboard?  Well, Doug had his new craps strategy in play during the week, but was up and down (mostly down).  He would sit and play roulette with Jack for a bit, then Jack would watch him play a while at the craps table.  Dad stood at the rail and played craps one night but opted to return to roulette.  So it went, up and down.  But the last night got a bit more exciting.  While they were both at the roulette table, Dad said “I’m going to do a crazy bet” and he covered one whole column of numbers.  Of course he hit one and got a nice payout.

Aboard Carnival Ecstasy (15)

“You have to have a system …”

Doug heard the call of the craps table for one last time but when Jack joined him his stack of chips was dwindling.  Jack stepped to the end position on the rail and it was soon his turn to shoot the dice. By then, Doug had ditched his strategy and was back to just odds on key numbers.  “So what do I need to roll?” Dad asked.  “7”.  “Okay, here goes.”  Bam, we got a seven.  And another.  Then he hit his point as Doug managed both their bets, and again hit his number.  “Am I still throwing?” he asked several times, to which the entire table replied “hit it again, Mr. Jack.”

That was how the night went on until he crapped out and we cashed in.  Everyone was fist bumping him around the table congratulating him for a great run.  Our stacks of chips were back to respectable size again!.  A good recovery for sure, but these are only $5 tables, so it’s never that much money, just good fun.

Our last night in the dining room was a special celebration, even if a bit teary-eyed.  We ordered a round of champagne and toasted good fortune (finally) and good sailing, with a nod to the memory of Nancy and all the cruises she and Dad enjoyed together.

Nancy and Jack aboard Forbes yacht Capitalist Tool

It had been a great five days at sea and we declared it a success.  I think I heard something about “not sure I have another cruise in me …” but I chose to ignore that one (of course he does).

Leaving the ship was a breeze. Thanks again to Jack’s walker we were able to do a late departure and rolled off the ship to head home.  Yep, rainy conditions again and more freeze warnings at home.  As we look out at the leaves just popping and the azaleas finishing their bloom, we can’t help but compare the low 30’s temperatures to the warm breezes of the tropics and ask ourselves “weren’t we just snorkeling in clear, blue waters three days ago?”  Cruising is magical.

Be sure to look at all the photos below to get a sense of the ship and ports of call.  I should point out that the underwater shots are at the aquarium, not from our snorkel.  Soon I should have snorkeling video edited and posted on the Video gallery.  Thanks for following along on our adventures.  Next trip is Panama City Beach in the motorhome.  Yippee!

Planning a cruise?  You can get a great deal and we get some credit if you book through Cynthia Long at CruisesOnly.  Their loyalty program will give you extras like shipboard and resort credit on top of the cruise line’s best deals.  Give her a call at 617-587-6000 x 38584 and mention that Doug and Jackie sent you.

 

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Caribbean Jack

It seems you can’t keep Dad away from a good cruise.  He really needed this respite break and some of the family was happy to join him.  So Jackie, Jeff, Vickie and Doug set out from Charleston Harbor on Carnival’s Ecstasy for 5 days in October to enjoy the sand and sun.

Rat Pack ready for the Cruise

Sail away day is the BEST day of a cruise … you grab your colorful favorite drink and the party starts right away as you leave your troubles behind.  This was our first trip out of Charleston and the weather was just perfect to head past Fort Sumter and into the Atlantic.

Here’s to getting aboard first!

Charleston Harbor

Charleston Harbor and Ft. Sumter

Happy Jack

After a day at sea we arrived off the shore of Princess Cays.  Took an early tender and our snorkel gear to see what we could find.  Since the drink package did not include anything on the island, we all figured to spend just the morning ashore and be back on ship for lunch, drinks and dinner.  The snorkeling beach, however, was quite a surprise.  It was one of the best small reefs we have encountered in the Caribbean.

Princess Cays and the snorkeling spot

A small sandy entry point gave access to a sloping reef that was loaded with fan and pipe coral, sponges and all sorts of reef fish.  Several flounder were spotted, along with plenty of the other colorful reef fish: blue tang, parrot fish, sergeant major, angels … and a good size barracuda.  What a good morning of snorkeling (oops, no pictures).

After a Fine Meal

Dinner each night was in the main dining room and was good service with darn good food.  Dad certainly enjoyed the selection.  After dinner the guys tried their luck at the casino and the ladies did the shows.  Doug and Jeff tried a new strategy at the craps table that started out really well, but ended up working against them.  Overall, I think we all played as much as we wanted to and pretty much broke even.

Cheers!

Back to the “Cheers” program and our handy list of gotta-try drinks.  Some of us were fretting that the prepaid drink program’s limit of 15 drinks per day was going to be a concern — but we must be lightweights, because only one of us hit the limit on one night (and we agreed it was because the day started with a bloody Mary!)

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Rough day at the office…

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Popular spot for us on the pool deck

Our favorite bar was the RedFrog Rum Bar, poolside, but we also frequented the lobby bar, the BlueIguana Tequilla Bar, Alchemy Bar (for some wild martini productions) and the casino bar (but that was tricky — had to make your bets last until the drink arrived!)  So, despite our history of craft brewery visits and beer festivals, we were quite happy to try lots of fruity and colorful concoctions.

Freeport shops

The other island visit on this trip was a stop at Freeport, but we all decided to stay aboard ship and just watch the crowds wander the shopping plaza adjacent to the ship – and to giggle at the late arrivals who almost didn’t make the ship’s departure.   It didn’t appear that the recent hurricanes had a significant affect on the two ports we visited.  Jeff and Doug decided that with so many folks off the ship, it was time to try the Twister water slide.  Pretty wet and wild affair, and we hung in there for several runs.

Waterslide awaits

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Yikes!

Oh yes we did!

Overall, a good cruise and a nice ship with friendly staff and good food and drink.

Mango Magic

The point of this cruise was to make sure Dad had plenty of sunshine, good food and companionship — and that he did.

Pretty sure this was one good week for him!

Sleepy Jack

Planning a cruise?  You can get a great deal and we get some credit if you book through Cynthia Long at CruisesOnly.  Their loyalty program will give you extras like shipboard and resort credit on top of the cruise line’s best deals.  Give her a call at 617-587-6000 x 38584 and mention that Doug and Jackie sent you.

 

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To Panama City Beach … the Long Way!

The gulf at St. Andrews State Park

We were excited to be returning to St. Andrews State Park in Panama City Beach again this year, but it took something of a circuitous route this time.  You see our future daughter-in-law was having a wedding shower in Memphis just as our trip was to start, so we had to go west before going south. Turned out just fine, however.

We didn’t want to make the entire drive to Memphis all at once, so we made our way northwest through Huntsville, Alabama and stopped for the night at Joe Wheeler State Park along the Tennessee River.  We prefer state parks when we can, since it is reasonable and you discover some cool natural areas.

Not much of a campsite …

Jackie made the reservation for a pull-through site, since we didn’t want to disconnect the car and tow dolly, but we discovered this was more of a pull-aside site.  Maybe just a wide spot in the road, an extra bit of shoulder . . .  It was long enough, there was plenty of room between sites, we had full hookups and a nice view of the lake, but it had a few problems.  First off, we weren’t facing the campsite.

Sites are usually situated so your right side faces into the site, with utilities on the left.  In this case we faced the road, fairly tightly, too.  Putting the awning out was out of the question and we barely extended the bedroom slide – just enough to get around the bed and into drawers.  Stepping out the motorhome door meant looking both ways for sure. And if we had wanted to use the picnic table, well that was way off thataways.  But, it was only one night and easy to pull out the next morning.  Overall it was a very nice campground and Kodi enjoyed the evening walkabout to meet children and other dogs.

At least the site next to us was empty.

After driving across northern Alabama and into Tennessee, we pulled into our site at the Agricenter International RV Park, a multipurpose fairgrounds in Shelby Farms Park in Memphis, Tennessee.  While it was a basic gravel lot, it did have full hookups and an onsite Farmer’s Market that was fun to wander through.  We met up with Alex, Bethany and her parents and they took us to Central BBQ for some Memphis-style ribs and barbecue.  I had a plate of ribs, half dry half wet (rub and sauce) that was fall-off-the-bone good and Jackie tried the pulled pork nachos with some good hush puppies to share.

Farmer’s Market

Next day Jackie’s sister and niece arrived from Nashville and the ladies went off to the shower.  Alex, Jim and I took Kodi and their two terriers to another part of Shelby Farms Park for some exercise, with a stop at a dog-friendly outdoor gear shop.

All the dogs …

Once again, Kodi was a hit with the kids (he is such a friendly dog).  Jim and Dawn hosted us all back at their home for a delicious (and I mean delicious) cookout and then it was back to the camper with Judy and Rachel for the night.  However …

Wow did we get a thunderstorm that night!  Everything was buttoned down tight, but the wind was rocking the van pretty good and the rain was quite loud on the roof.  We had the paddleboards strapped to the roof of the car, but while we are parked I usually loosen the straps a bit to let the boards relax and flex.  The wind was so intense I found myself peeking out the bedroom window to check on them, only to see them bouncing around more than I liked.  I had visions of them slipping out from under the straps and snapping or just blowing away.  I certainly couldn’t sleep with the thought, so I ran out to tighten them down and got totally, totally drenched.  But the boards were safe.  Unfortunately, the outside radio compartment popped open and I wondered how the speakers and radio would hold up when dry …

Just a spot for the night

Heading south through Alabama, we stopped at Birmingham South Campground for the night, again with full hookups and a pull-thru site.  Easy access to the highway and a rather nice park.  It was entirely full, since this was now Memorial Day weekend, and we were glad we made an advance reservation.

Nice spot at St. Andrews

Finally hit the road on the last stretch through Alabama and into the Florida panhandle to arrive at St. Andrews State Park.  Got ourselves settled into the campsite and took Kodi on a walkabout to check out dogs, kids, deer and everything else around camp.  While inside the van I suddenly heard loud voices outside and was a bit confused.  Stepping out I realized that the radio had turned on, muffled as it was behind the hatch door.  Odd.  It mysteriously turned on and off a few more times during the trip, so I guess the rain must have short-circuited something.  Just another project for back home.

Lagoon paddleboarding and watching for dolphin.

Let’s see, what did we do for the next few days?  Well, we paddleboarded in the Grand Lagoon out to the inlet, where there is a gorgeous spit of sandy beach and clear water for swimming.  We always manage to spot fish below us and a few dolphin around us.

Lagoon side beach and children’s “pool”

Gulf side beach (awesome)

At the St. Andrews Beach you have a choice of the Gulf side beach or the lagoon side, which has a great spot of water perfect for kids and jetty snorkeling.  Depending on the water conditions, you can snorkel the Gulf side jetty, too.  So we alternated between both, since the water was a refreshing 81 degrees, clear and clean.  Amazing.

Patches Pub Patio

One of the first nights in town we wanted to try a local spot that was always crowded and seemed like fun: Patches Pub.  The patio had live music (not as good as Blind Fate, mind you) and there was a nice selection of craft beer, but no open table.  We were asked to join a couple and promptly learned that they were regulars and were also staying in a motorhome nearby.  They headed out and we ordered a second round and some food, only to look up and see a few ladies who had come out on the patio and were without a table, too.  “Why don’t you join us” we asked, and we were soon sharing stories about the local scene and what was going on.

Peeps at Patches

One of the gals was from Kennesaw, — about 3 miles from our house!  Turns out, two were sisters in town to visit their mother Henrietta, who declared that at 92 she was ready to party.  Her condo sits next to the party spot LaVela, which bills itself as the largest nightclub in the US. Apparently she can catch the action from her balcony, some of which she described in pretty wild detail.  As we were chatting, she swapped her plastic glass of wine for one of her daughter’s glass stems (adding her red to the remaining white for a nice blush wine…) declaring “it’s just classier” and we all laughed and enjoyed our newfound peeps.

How was Kodi in camp?  He was great, and he certainly had his fan club.  Every walk around camp involved meet and greets with kids and dogs – he even got the hang of being walked/run on the leash while Doug was riding his bike (a disaster-in-the-making, according to my brother).  Later in the week we had folks saying “Oh there’s Kodi, Hi Kodi” around camp. Crazy that he became so popular.

Beach Buds

My brother Jeff and sister-in-law Vickie (you will recall them from our cruise posts) joined us for a few days and we had a total blast.  Our mission was a search for the best oysters around, plus some good snorkeling.  But first we had to hit our favorite beach bar Sharky’s for grouper sandwiches and drinks.  It was as good as ever, with a table at the rail along the beach.  So of course there is a bit of a story, too.  Jeff ordered a frozen margarita and was asked “large or small?”  Large of course, and it arrived in a big plastic beer stein with a lid.  Okay then.  I ordered a ‘Shark Attack’ for Jackie and I to split, large of course, and got the same plastic mug.  Cool.  Well, during dinner we learned that refills were cheaper if you had the mug, so heck, why not?  Even better, the mugs were good at two other spots that had the Fat Tuesdays bar setup.  So keep that tidbit in mind for later.

Beachside at Sharky’s

Jeff rented a pontoon boat from the park for a day and off to Shell Island we went.  Shell Island is just on the other side of the inlet and the lagoon side was waist-deep clear water along the jetty.  Amazing to see so many bait fish – clouds of them in the water, plus mullet, pinfish, tang, and others that we really couldn’t identify.  “I can’t believe we have this place to ourselves” was the refrain that morning, since it was indeed a quiet spot.

Thumbs Up for sure!

Oysters discovered!

Mmm, fish tacos

Lunch was the main event, however, and our quest for the best oysters took us to Old St. Andrews Marina and we tied up at the dock.  Within sight was our destination: Hunts Oyster Bar.  This local spot was busy, but we got a table pretty quick and put in an order for a pitcher of beer and two dozen oysters on the half-shell.  Bam! We had our oysters before we had the beer.  Cold, sweet and awesome beauties from the Apalachicola Bay.  Jeff and I worked through them pretty fast and ordered up another tray, while we also asked for their fish tacos.  I have to say that the tacos were really, really good.  Jeff and I marveled at the speed of oyster shucking and he determined he was going to get some for later.  Since we had the rest of the day on the boat, we decided to wait on the oysters to go.

Schools and schools of baitfish

Back onboard we returned to snorkel at Shell Island and then across the inlet to the sandy spit for a quick swim and then back to the marina.  A great day – and I recommend the boat rentals from the park.

Next morning Jeff was pondering the whole question of a box of oysters to take home.  “Dad’s gonna love them, but I don’t know if I want to drive around to Hunt’s to get them.”  Those oysters were calling our name, so we decided to try the closer Treasure Island Seafood Market and bought 100 fresh oysters (hey, they were a good deal), piled in a box and filled with ice.  Hmm, don’t have a clam knife in the van – guess we need to hit Winn Dixie.  Oh, and what about that bloody Mary mix over there?  Perfect!  Back in camp it was time to shuck oysters (Jeff’s job) and serve up bloodys (Doug’s job).  Ouch, that knife was sharp and the oyster was tight … well, 12 oysters and a bloody thumb later we had to rethink.  88 to go and “how exactly did they shuck those guys so quick?”  Ah well, time to snorkel instead.

Grilled oysters

Before he left for home, Jeff left me with about a dozen to fight with.  Grilling seemed to be the answer and that worked out for the next two nights – they were much easier to open when they had been steamed on the grill for a bit.  Jeff later texted from home that he also steamed them and Dad polished off most of them himself (maybe his secret for reaching 90 years old?).  Well done.

Oysters and Dad

I should mention that there was much boating activity that weekend, mostly due to the 3 day season for red snapper in Federal waters.  Best place to see them was at the fish cleaning station, where Jackie pretended that she caught a big one.  I recall those fish-cleaning days on the Jersey shore when we came back in with barrels of bluefish and I didn’t envy the guys who were filleting them at the dock.  But snapper is good eats!  Made me also think of the lionfish cleaning in the Keys from last fall (see the post: Island Hopping).

Did you REALLY catch that?

Fish cleaning

So what is left to say about the remaining week at the beach?  Let’s see, we changed campsites after a week and a visit to the dump station.  New site was closer to the water for a great view.

Dinner for two at the next campsite

Two days of rain – but that was really an excuse to have lunch beachside at Pineapple Willy’s for some amazing grouper po’boys (oh, and a refill rum drink using our special mugs).

Gotta get that refill on a rainy day

Pineapple Willy’s and po’boys

More snorkeling (and my GoPro, since I finally got the batteries charged) and great swimming, since the water was amazingly clear and the bait fish were all over the place.  A last refill rum drink in our special mugs (I mean, we just HAD to check out all the options) and grouper sandwich at Hammerhead Fred’s.  Good times.

Hammerhead Fred’s and the refills

So, despite the 8 hour trip home – never fun at the end of a vacation – we are all set to plan it again for next year.  Remember, those 8 hours include the time it takes to hook up and then unhitch the car and tow dolly and some traffic snarls in Dothan, Eufaula and Atlanta.

I have to start editing the pictures and video from my GoPro, which may take me a few days, so I’ll make them a separate post.  There are some teaser shots in the gallery below.  You can check back later for more of the snorkeling shots and videos.  I updated Happenings with news of our deer and Merlin says he made some comments on Mews, so be sure to give them a look.

And thanks again for following our adventures – we have fun with it and I enjoy writing the stories.

UPDATE:  I have now posted some snorkeling and paddleboarding videos on the “Places” page, so go check them out.

 

 

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Reefs, Writers and Conch Fritters

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Adoption Day for our granddaughter!

It’s about 85 degrees early this morning, with bright sun, blue skies and a warm breeze as I sit outside facing the water and get caught up on our wanderings.  We are camping beachside at Curry Hammock State Park and it is indeed a quiet start to another hot Florida day.  It has been a week since we left John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, counting down the mile markers to the end of the road.  A highlight of the trip as we left Marathon was 7-mile bridge, which somehow has this magical attraction.  Parallel to the new bridge is the old one, a remnant of the East Coast Railway and later the original Overseas Highway.  But you may know it best, as we do, from the movies.  In particular, True Lies, where Arnold Schwarzenegger pulls Jaime Lee Curtis out of a speeding limo at just the right moment.  Is that the limo I see underwater just there?

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7 mile bridge

I should probably pause to say that I consider our adventures to be well planned – mostly because if you want to be in state or national parks, you have to reserve well in advance.  But sometimes you miss a few things, such as September is still really hot in Florida (90’s) and Bike Week in the Keys happens right now (about 10,000 or more motorcyclists).  We knew about the hurricane season and kept our fingers crossed, but somehow missed the Poker Run.

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Bike Week in Key West!

But it’s fun when the unexpected happens.  For instance, our next few nights were in Bahia Honda State Park and we discovered it was a really nice island with views of the overland highway and old Flagler-built East Coast Railway bridge. It is one of the few keys that has sand beaches that are nice to relax on or in (we sat the chairs in the ankle deep water for most of the day). We signed up for our second reef snorkeling adventure, only to learn that the boat was in need of a part for repairs and the trip was canceled.  Next day as we were awaiting the part – oh the part is in, but the mechanic is out – canceled again, there was a lot of buzz about “the movie.”

Set of "The Leisure Seekers"

Campground set of “The Leisure Seekers”

On the set for "The Leisure Seekers"

On the set of “The Leisure Seekers”

Down by the nature center there was a crew setting up for a shoot, complete with some vintage campers, tables, grills and such and lots of cameras and equipment.  Actually, this wasn’t even part of the campground.  Someone said it was a film with Donald Sutherland and Helen Mirren.  We watched and wandered about, got waved out of the shot and tried to figure the smoky scene, which looked like some grilling gone bad.  It is “The Leisure Seekers,” a story about a retired couple who set out in their vintage Winnebago RV on an adventure of a lifetime.  Hmm, sounds kinda familiar.  We probably saw both actors, but who could tell?  Shorter in real life and all…

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Reef snorkeling

As we learned that our snorkeling trip was canceled yet again, we quickly checked with the nearest dive boat and got ourselves on for a run to Looe Key – a marine sanctuary reef that was supposed to have reef sharks and goliath groupers and spotted rays.  Very clear water that was a different reef than Pennecamp, deeper and lots of fish and coral: parrot fish, French angelfish, barracuda, yellowtail snapper, sergeant major, blue tang, some grouper, fan coral, elkhorn coral and some low-flying frigate birds circling.  But we didn’t see the reef sharks (some folks did), goliath grouper or spotted rays.  We did see lots more moon jellies and just as we were headed back to the boat, Jackie got nailed along the neck by one.  Ouch!

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Reef fish

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Reef fish

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Reef fish

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Barracuda

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Christ of the Abyss

The boat moved to a spot where we got to see several large green sea turtles from the boat, one might have been a Loggerhead.  Overall great afternoon, despite the jellyfish sting.

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The beach at Bahia Honda

We really do like the Florida State Parks – they are clean and very dependable for hookups and campsite conditions.  Bahia Honda had some beautiful sunsets and we got to ride bikes along the shore, paddleboard and bird watch (no spoonbills or swallow-tailed kites yet, but a nice osprey).  The Keys are not really beach scenes. To appreciate them you need to get out on the water and fish, snorkel the reefs or paddle around.  They are rocky coral and pretty darn shallow and there is lots of weed at the water’s edge. And no waves – no sounds of the roaring surf, hardly even a ripple.  We got to chat with others about where they had been, and “you’ll love Key West, it was so quiet in town yesterday – even with 2 cruise ships in port.  Empty.”  Right.

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Sandbar off Curry Hammock

So off we went to check in at Leo’s Campground on Stock Island (the island used to be the stockyard for Key West), which is maybe a half-mile from new town Key West. Umm, not so easy to navigate back to the site.  We unhooked the car and pulled forward, but needed to do a K-turn, which just wasn’t happening without the tow-dolly getting tangled up with an old Dodge van (oops, sorry, did that leave a scratch?), so I turned around, started over and backed all the way in, with Jackie’s help. Usually the private campgrounds are more like wide-open parking lots, but Leo’s not so much. Well, the dino-sized iguanas were amused at least (and it seems our site was next to the official feeding spot for these 4 and 5 foot guys). Remember, always the unexpected!

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Key West awaits, let’s see what it’s all about.  We drove in and parked ($$) near Mallory Square and Duval Street, which was blocked off for the bike event, and tried to get a flavor for Old Town Key West.  Stayed for the sunset celebration on the waterfront along with a zillion selfie-takers and wedding photos.  We returned on Saturday, but this time we parked at Higgs Beach in free public parking and then bought a trolley ticket to get around.  So what did we find in two days in Key West?

  • Bike Week is a big event – best to avoid it if it isn’t your scene.
  • September is their off month, several restaurants post “Gone Fishing, back in October”
  • Upper Duval Street is much like Bourbon Street’s bar scene, but it was great for drinks and seafood.  Lower Duval has the art galleries and more expensive shops and is quieter.
  • Conch fritters were delicious – the Conch Shack had the best ones in my opinion.

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  • Sloppy Joe’s was Hemmingway’s watering hole, and this weekend just about everyone else’s.  Plentiful bar, though.
  • Everyone sells Key Lime Pie, but get the pie on a stick, dipped in dark chocolate!
  • Lazy Gecko had best craft beers, Key West Crazy Lady and Funky Buddah Floridian, and a delicious grouper mango taco

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  • Flying Monkey bar at Fogerty’s had a “uuuge” fish sandwich with some brain-freeze drinks that were very welcome on a hot day
  • Hemingway House is inside a wall of vegetation, a pricey tour so we didn’t go in to see the six-toed cats
  • Some beautiful homes, but for the prices (millions) you would expect a little better maintenance on some.  Fixer-uppers are still around a million bucks.
  • I would hate to see a cross-hybrid between kudzu and banyan trees.  Whole cities would disappear.

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The trolley tour told a little more of the local history of a town that has been one of the richest per capita more than once:

  • Salt ponds were used to gather salt for the North Carolina fish-packing industry (hurricane wiped it out)
  • Reef shipwrecks became a profitable salvage industry until better navigation and charts came along.
  • Flagler’s East Coast Railroad was to be the entry port for cargo from the Panama Canal, plus luxury hotels (hurricanes wiped out several bridges after a few years, then he sold it to the state)
  • Cigar industry using local Cuban talent thrived until the great fire (which then spawned the requirement that roofs be made of tin)
  • Finally tourism became an industry
  • Declaration of secession when the feds blocked US1 to stop the flow of illegal drugs and immigrants in the 70’s – the Conch Republic was born
  • The bars and latitude seem to inspire writers:  Hemingway and Sloppy Joe’s bar and the lighthouse that led him back home each night; Tennesee Williams and “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” (was it 6-toed?), and “Streetcar Named Desire.”

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So we did as many of the usual tourist things as we could all the while dodging the motorcycles.  Parked all down Duval Street, the lineup of bikes was crazy and the crackling motors and impressive sound systems let you know they were there. Since we forgot our tattoos and leather vests, and I have been shaving regularly, we probably stood out, but the crowd was really very friendly (but black leather in mid 90’s heat meant the watering holes were pretty busy). Our picture of the Southernmost Point in the US was a drive-by and it was crazy that there was a line of 50 or so folks waiting to take selfies with the cone.

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Sunset at Mallory Square

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Sunset at the end of the road…

 

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French angelfish

 

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Starfish on the sandbar

Still no spoonbills, although I did see a kite soaring over the waterfront while driving (darn!), and even though Big Pine Key had all sorts of warning signs about key deer (and as you know, we have quite the reputation with deer) we were for once disappointed not to see deer. But you never know.  We still have a few days left before we head out of the Keys and back home.

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It is just so tough paddling around the keys!

Oh wait! We heard about manatee being in the area today so we quickly grabbed the boards and got in the water.  After paddling around a bit, we were over and around five really big manatee in the water.  They would surface, snort and then go back under and swim along.  Big, big, big!  So much fun to paddle over and around them, ever watchful that they might just toss those back flippers and send us swimming!  How cool.  I got some video before the battery went dead (of course), so will post that soon.

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We found Dory!

Ok, as I finish up this post, the “little” iguana is advancing on me … followed by three more of his buddies.  I think they replace the pesky squirrels or pigeons who beg for food – except these guys are fast… and long.

Next Adventure?  Not sure. Need to spend some time at our “other” home.  When I get home I will post some of the great pics and videos from our trip!

PS. This is our first trip without Benji, our beloved adventure dog.  It seems empty without him sometimes, but we know he is traveling with us in spirit. Merlin and we miss him and send him a heartfelt shout out.

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Beach Tales

St Andrews 2016 (100)b

A month in Florida is hard to beat: a perfect mix of sunny weather, sparkling clear water, a white sandy beach and plenty of little fish to chase around the water.  That’s been our June so far, with a few stories to share.  We don’t have wifi here in St. Andrews State Park so it has been a convenient excuse to postpone updating the blog and just enjoy the sand and surf.  But a trip to Starbucks will give me time to share what’s been happening:

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We love Panama City Beach and St. Andrews State Park.  For us it is a very casual, friendly and laid-back vacation spot.  Can’t beat the campsite, with a view of the Lower Lagoon, a nice breeze and lots of kids on bikes and golf carts zipping around.  We arrived just as the rain stopped from tropical storm Colin and many of the sites were underwater.  A high tide surge added a little more waterfront to many sites, too.

Nice (?) waterfront site

Nice (?) waterfront site

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High and dry at St. Andrews

The storm cut into the dunes along the Gulf beach, creating a cliff of sand.  You know how kids always want to get buried in the sand at the beach?  It usually means someone gets totally covered in sand and has to rinse off.  Well, sadly, a teenager who had been digging tunnels and caves in this particular sand wall was trapped when the sand collapsed on him.  We were watching the boys dig the tunnels, but minutes after we left the beach emergency crews arrived to dig him out and administer CPR.  Unfortunately he died the next day.  Kind of a rough start to the week.

Ready for the beach

Ready for the beach

Jackie’s sister Judy and family came down to PC Beach mid-week and we spent time at the beach together, snorkeling along the rock jetty and splashing around in the surf.  Just had to snap a shot of us all getting slathered with sunscreen!  We joked about the long trek to the water with all the gear and laughed about the big deck umbrella they brought along.  One afternoon a dark line of thunderstorms moved along the coast as we watched and debated when to pack up.  That decision was made quickly when the wind rack kicked up and umbrellas started to go inside-out.  Jackie grabbed and shut ours down just as we watched Judy’s umbrella go airborne in a slow-motion tumble that pierced itself on a pole, then lifted and tumbled further over the dune.  Ok, time to go.

Tut, tut looks like rain!

Tut, tut looks like rain!

Back at camp we got a phone call that our niece lost her glasses in the scramble.  Could we come help look for them?  Tracing our steps back from the parking lot, down the long boardwalk, up and over the sand dunes and down the beach to the scene of the crime, we looked earnestly for the purple frames.  Not much luck, but I brought a small fan rake and began to skim the area where we were sitting.  Probably useless, but just maybe … wait, what’s that?  Something popped up out of the sand as I scraped along and Presto! there were the glasses.  Great save.

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Another vacation goal was to seek out local craft breweries and compare the samplings.  We found Nivol Brewery in a strip shopping center and were pleasantly surprised by their operation.  Had some samples of wheat, porter and red ales – they have only been open a month, but have a good selection of local beers on tap.  With their full license pending, we had to buy a souvenir pint glass but could then have a fill of our choice of beer.  We chatted up the brewmaster, who already knew about and carried Burnt Hickory brand and had been visited by Dry County (they have the same tank system), but of course we talked up Southern Sky Brewing, too.

Maybe the strangest craft beer sampling came the next day.  An internet search listed “Screw and Brew” locally, so I just HAD to see what that was all about.  A definite pint glass purchase, I figured.  Jackie helped navigate the location, “wait, you just passed it” … well, according to the online maps, but we didn’t see anything.  U-turn and try again.  “Turn here,” as we drove past a small hardware store and through their side parking lot into a pretty gnarly back lot.  Hmm, that wasn’t right.  Back out front we noticed a small sign in the window “home brewing supplies” and thought what-the-heck.  I left Jackie in the car (this was doubtful) and I ventured in.

Hmm, inside it was pretty much a hardware store, with a wall of home-brew supplies.  “Can I help you?”  Uhh, well, I guess I got the wrong spot.  We are on a hunt for local craft breweries.  A smiling clerk said he could recommend several spots (Fishale, Nivol) and I said those were already on our list.  “Ok, well thanks, I guess I got the information wrong.”

“Hang on, I do have some wheat beer if you’d like a sample” he said, and I cautiously nodded okay. “Just follow me out back.”  Ok, this was speakeasy creepy and I was wondering if I would have to know a secret password or handshake.  Out through the stockroom to that gnarly section of the back room and garage … a rusty fridge had a tap installed and an off-kilter kegerator was nearby.  “Don’t have any fancy glassware, (oh darn, the whole point of the visit), but if you are ok with Styrofoam…”  Next thing I know I have a cup of foamy beer in my hand.  “What do you think?  It’s better this week.”  Well, here goes nothing – lot of head but it’s actually not bad.  We walk back into the store and he says he just can’t keep the beer cold enough in the kegerator, it keeps tripping the circuit breaker…

I thank him for the beer, wish him well, take the rest of the cup back out to the car for Jackie to finish (I mean, seriously, am I supposed to just drive off with this beer?  No DUI for me, thank you).  So chalk that one up to the weirdest sampling ever.

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Local samplings at Fishale

Just down the road we stopped in at Fishale, which was a real pub that featured a lot of real craft brews on tap.  Spent time sampling all sorts of Florida brews and decided to visit Grayton Beer on our way west later in the month, since we liked their 30A Beach Blonde.

Best Grouper Sandwich!

Best Grouper Sandwich!

Caught up with one of our fellow teachers from school when we learned she was staying in PC Beach with a friend, too.  Our suggestion was to meet up for the best grouper sandwich in town at Sharky’s on the beach – which lived up to expectations.  Still the best sandwich in town!  We shared stories and encouraged her to join the ranks of the retired (just maybe one more year of teaching she thinks!).  Good fun all around.

Good Friends

Good Friends

So as I wrap up this posting, I should probably share one last story that just goes to prove that you really do need to check and double check your vacation plans no matter how careful a person you are.  We came back from the beach on our last day in camp and sat out to enjoy an adult beverage and the nice breeze.  We had been talking about what we needed to pack up so we could roll out easily the next day, Monday.  Our plans from 11 months ago were to stay Monday to Monday (2 weeks) and then move to Topsail Hill State Park for 10 days.

A golf cart with two park rangers pulls up … “You know that checkout is 1:00 pm.”  Yes we do, we plan to be out tomorrow by noon for sure.  “You were supposed to be out TODAY by 1:00 (it was now about 6:00).  Yikes, no way, we had a Monday check out.  We scrambled to pull up the reservation info on our phone as he explained that they found another site for the folks who DID have the next reservation and we didn’t have to leave until the morning.  But would we please settle up with the Camp Office in the morning?

So what was the story?  Turns out we had a Sunday to Sunday reservation but put it into our Google calendar as Monday to Monday. The reservation at Topsail Hill was fine, but we got the one at St. Andrews goofed up by one day.  Kept wanting to say, “that’s not us, we aren’t those kind of people… we are rule followers and are well-planned… we are retired teachers (and are always right) …we went out West for 6 weeks… “

Ah well, (sigh), honest mistake.

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Happy Birthday drink for Jackie!

 

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Jackie’s birthday celebration at Dewey Destin’s Harborfront restaurant.

Next stop is Topsail Hill Preserve State Park.  Probably won’t get to post until we are back home.

Check out lots of great photos of the parks here.

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Family Cruisin’

This was one of those family gatherings that actually played out better than we expected – after lots of planning conversations laced with “fingers crossed” and a collective sigh of relief when we were back home.  (My sister will note that I used my often maligned air quotes once again).  So if you are up for hearing about a family adventure to the Caribbean, keep reading.  If not, just look at the pictures here and in the Places Gallery and smile (oh and I posted more of our craft brewery discoveries in the Foodie section of the blog).

The goal was to get Dad out of the house and back on a cruise that he and Mom had enjoyed so often in retirement.  He is a patient and loving caregiver for Mom, who suffers from Alzheimer’s, and he was in need of some serious social interaction and relaxation.  So a three-night weekend cruise from Port Canaveral to Nassau, Bahamas seemed the right choice.  My sister flew in from San Diego to join, my brother and wife from SC drove Dad and sis to meet us at the ship.  We stayed at a local spot the night before and teased that we would be on board, poolside with drinks in hand while they were still driving down I-95.

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Cheers to Cape Canaveral!

We actually had a good time the night before, as we discovered Florida Beer Company was just across the street from the Radisson where we were staying.  So we sent selfies of our “hey we made it” drinks at Radisson and a few at the colorful sampling bar of the brewery just to get my brother and sister in the mood.

Florida Beer

Florida Beer Company

Florida Beer 1

Florida Beer Company

As it turned out, they arrived at cruise check-in the same time we did, so we all got to board and head to the pool deck at the same time, with a beaming Dad ready for adventure.  (I have to pause a moment to thank my other sister who stayed with Mom the whole weekend and really was a critical piece in making this happen).

It was the first time we cruised with Royal Caribbean and as it turned out, the last cruise out of Port Canaveral for the ship Enchantment of the Seas.  They were headed to Miami after our cruise to be their next home port.  There was a big celebration one night in the center atrium, complete with a table-sized cake for all.

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Central atrium was spectacular

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Want some cake?

So of course we had to find the nearest bar for the perfect glass of champagne (Kir Royale) in celebration.  Ok, Ok, we did purchase the unlimited drink package, so slap our hands and raise a frozen concoction to say “Welcome Aboard.”  It really did make for a very fun and relaxing weekend, as we changed up the drink of the day and I checked off my list of gotta-try-this-next drinks.  I have to say the bartenders onboard were top-notch.  The sail away that evening was perfect: sunny, clear, smooth sailing.  We left the dock before the Disney and Carnival ships and were ready for adventure in Nassau the next day.

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Bahamas Cruise 2016 leaving port

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Pool deck

But first we had to discuss the “peeps” competition between my brother and I.  Not sure why, but we started this thing about having people we meet and high-five aboard ship and such.  You know how you seem to run into the same faces for some reason the whole vacation?  Well, Jackie and I already chalked up the server at the Florida Beer Company and the manager of the Radisson (a great guy who had several recommendations for drinks aboard ship).  My brother was anxious to grow his list of peeps at the blackjack table later on, so the gauntlet was thrown down.  He didn’t know that I already had a peep serving us at the Boleros bar on deck 5 …

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Saturday we were to arrive in Nassau at noon and there was much planning about who was going to go ashore and who was staying on board.  Jackie, my sister and I wanted to go ashore, since we had never been there before and we wanted to try a local beach spot: Junkanoo Beach.  As we sailed into port, there were four other ships docked, so it looked to be a pretty busy spot.  We had a great view of Paradise Island and the Atlantis Resort, something a lot of folks visited for a half day excursion.  We stepped ashore, ready to walk a few blocks to the beach.

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Junkanoo Beach beauties

I can’t say I was very impressed with the arrival area closest to the ship’s dock.  We didn’t get to wander too far, but clearly the big draw was Senior Frog’s and Fat Tuesday’s – definitely crazy beach bars.  We made our way around them to the beach, where the clear water was amazingly refreshing, but the whole public beach scene was not really the most relaxing.  It was a good idea that we took a taxi the short ride back to the dock and was exciting driving on the wrong side of the road.  We did stop in at Pirate Republic Brewing and had a flight (of course, you knew we had to) of Long John Pilsner, Island Pirate Ale and Captain Kid’s Kolsch.  The pilsner was quite good.  The waterfront just didn’t seem as welcoming and clean as we expected, so maybe a ride over to the hotels on Paradise Island or over to Cable Beach would have been a better choice.

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Pirate Republic Brewing courtyard

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Arghh

Pirate Brewery

Yet another brewery flight!

Saturday night was Formal Night in the dining room.  You can see that our table took that very seriously … well maybe it was more like Island Formal, meaning we had shoes on.

Formal Night in the dining room

Formal Night in the dining room

Sunday our day was spent on CoCo Cay, the private island of Royal Caribbean cruises.  We kids all took the tender ashore and spent the day snorkeling and sipping and spraying sunscreen.  It was a gorgeous day and we had fun spotting lots of tropical fish, including rays, puffer fish, parrot fish, butterfly fish, trigger fish, and all the other golden, blue, silver and purple tropicals that make the reefs so colorful.  For me, this was some of the nicest snorkeling I have done.

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