Monday, November 21, 2011

Time for saltwater fishing

Nov 15-20,  Vero Beach/Melbourne Beach, Florida 

Several years ago my niece Kim had told me that one of her favorite places to go in Florida was Vero Beach, so before we headed inland to Zephyrhills, the town where my mother lived and where my son, brother, aunt, two nieces and one nephew live, we thought we should check out this part of the East Coast of Florida (having decided fairly early on that we would not be going any further south on the East Coast than Daytona Beach.  So this was our chance.  We found a Good Sam/Encore Park in Vero Beach that was spacious, clean, and reasonably priced.  (The only drawback was that it was about twenty minutes from the beach itself. . . .) We were pretty surprised at the wealth in this area, especially the mansions on the beach that were mostly hidden from view by tall landscaping, but the real estate signs advertised homes starting from $ 6 million and up! The beaches here are fairly quiet, a few fishermen, surfers, and walkers and very few tourists-too early for snowbirds? The downtown area had several high end stores but the neighborhood (and wealth) seemed to shift abruptly to the have-nots once you cross the Indian River Lagoon. 
It wasn’t long before I wanted to try my hand at fishing again, Heard from my female fisherwomen in St. Augustine that the state park,San Sebastian Inlet in Melbourne Beach is one of the best fishing areas in the United States. Vic and I took a side trip to check it out and discovered it was a great place for RV camping. We booked a reservation and returned the next day. The options for fishing were to go directly on the ocean for surf fishing, a pier on the jetty (elbow to elbow people), fish right off the banks next to the park, or try the pier right at the campground on the Indian River lagoon. I opted for the latter after making a quick trip to the closest bait and tackle shop. The major fish in the area included red fish, mullet, flounder, tarpon, and snook. I decided that flounder was my target and learned that the best bait was live minnows. I bought a dozen along with the proper weights and hooks as well as an aerator for my bucket to keep my live bait alive. (Vic seemed a little surprised how motivated I was to go fishing as my morning routine has been pretty slow when there is no tangible reason to get up and get going.) About noon of my first day fishing my reel broke, and, after consulting with a few experienced fishermen, we concluded that it was toast. Vic took me back to the bait store to get a new reel. By now he could see that I was more serious about fishing than he had expected, so he encouraged me to get some better equipment (no sense putting a good reel on a shoddy rod). I left the tackle store with a Penn reel and Star fishing rod (and more live bait). The only other challenge turned out to be the no-see-ums which were covering my ankles and biting non-stop. This problem required another trip to the tackle store to get the famous Avon spray: Skin So Soft. It really does work and at least it does not have the toxicity of deet! Well, after three days of fishing I had caught only two flounder that were too small to keep, but I was totally addicted to the thrill of feeling their characteristic tug and the challenge of being patient while they took the bait.  
Southern Flounder are a beautiful fish
This inlet connects the Indian River with the Atlantic ocean,
creating a well-known thorough-fare for fish.
Method of Catching Flounder:

Flounder are a very cautious fish. They will often take bait in their mouth shallow enough not too hook for several minutes only to spit out the bait. This is because the grab the bait and turn it for swallowing later. After a hit wait patiently if possible, giving the fish plenty of time, to set the hook -- then set the hook when the flounder tries to move to a new ambush position--from  

Note: I don't remember much else about this place aside from my obsession with fishing everyday!

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Visiting America's oldest city

Nov. 8-15,  St. Augustine Beach
I had read about the Atlantic beaches in St. Augustine and decided we should try to find a campground close to the beach. Well, we did—North Beach Camp Resort. The campground really felt like an old Florida setting as our site was on sand and crushed shells in the midst of palm trees and other tropical vegetation. The other big bonus (for me) was the discovery that the predominant pastime in this park was fishing as it is located on a barrier island between the Atlantic Ocean and the North River. Shortly after getting settled in the park, I headed out to the river front area where there was a pier with two women fishing on it. They both had purple fishing rods and reels and they encouraged me to join their group by going to the local bait and tackle store and getting a purple rig like theirs. Within an hour, Vic took me to the Avid Angler on Ponce de Leon Blvd. where I purchased a one year saltwater license and gear for my first fishing adventure of the trip. Over the next three days, I caught mostly silver trout which I cleaned, filleted, and fried for lunch. I did have several “tugs” from the local flounder, but never was able to land one
Our tropical new home in Florida

This is what the sites look like empty--very private.

Campsite road leading to the North River
A second highlight of this locale was the discovery of two good bars within walking distance of the campground: one on the ocean called the Reef Restaurant and the other called the Victory Bar inside Aunt Kate’s restaurant on the river. We went to the Reef for happy hour and discovered one of their house wines was Firesteed Pinot Noirwhich is a Willamette Valley winery about twenty minutes from where we used to live in Corvallis, Oregon. Pretty surprising as Firesteed used to be a fairly small winery. Aunt Kate’s was a charming old-fashioned riverfront cafe with a colorful history dating back over 100 years involving Henry Flagler, a Standard Oil and railroad magnate who seems to have owned much of Florida back in the early 1900s.

Day two also included exploring the historic downtown area of this country’s oldest city.  We enjoyed the colonial Spanish architecture, restored Missions and the reenactments of life dating as far back as the discovery of the fountain of youth by Ponce de Leon in 1565. I also like all the pirate history and displays of treasures discovered off this coastline (sends my imagination reeling). Another fun discovery was a colonial style Spanish tavern called Taberna del Gallo, a small candlelit bar where you are served beer or sangrias by pirates singing sea shanties. 

We enjoyed our time here as it was relatively quiet in terms of tourists and had much to offer in terms of charm. We also liked having the North River access on one side of the campground and the dog firendly ocean beaches right across the street. The bright Florida sunshine and loud surf of the Atlantic felt just right.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Cosmos in the streets

Nov. 5-Nov. 8—Savannah, Georgia

Next stop –Savannah. Other than hearing about Paula Dean’s famous restaurant, A Lady and her Sons, and having several former students attend Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD), I wasn’t sure what to expect in visiting Savannah.  We chose to stay at Savannah Oaks Campground, a place we heard of from a “wagon master” of a caravan tour we met in Williamsburg.  Nothing fancy, but good sites, reasonable rates, and easy access to the city. Our first night we chose to take a ride to the downtown area and walk the streets with the dogs to get the lay of the land.  We found the riverfront area which was becoming quite lively on a Friday night.  I needed to use a restroom and walked into a crowded bar where I saw a chalkboard sign listing their special drinks for the evening.  The part that really caught my eye was it said ORDER ONE TO GO.  After using the facilities, I stopped and asked the bartender about the sign.  She said Savannah was one of the last few cities in the country that allowed patrons to order alcoholic drinks to go.  This news put a smile on my face and I walked back out to greet Vic and the dogs with their drink of the day: a Cosmos on the rocks.  After joining the growing number of people on this delightful river walk area, I noticed many of them had drinks to go as well creating a very festive atmosphere. The other standout experience was the fabulous music that seemed to lurk around every corner.  We stopped and listened to a first class jazz saxophonist for a while and then later discovered some Reggae music on the next block.  The best was yet to come with a full stage set up and a musical do-whop performance going on for free.  There were also several arts and craft booths all along the riverfront.  This was not a special festival of any kind—just an ordinary fall evening in Savannah. 
Savannah riverfront

On our second day in Savannah, I convinced Vic we just had to try Paula Dean’s restaurant: The Lady and Sons. We discovered Sunday’s menu was a buffet (my least favorite), but we decided to go ahead and try it anyway.  We put our name in around 1 p.m. in the afternoon and expected at least an hour wait.  Not so—we were seated upstairs immediately and before we knew it were eating cheddar biscuits, southern fried chicken, and all the sides you could imagine.  Vic managed to save room dessert, Georgia peach cobbler (imagine that!).  My favorite part of the experience was the building itself, a two-hundred-year-old building that was a former hardware store on Congress Street in downtown Savannah. While there, I noticed an advertisement for Paula Deen’s brother’s restaurant in the low country near Tybee Island, Uncle Bubba’s Shrimp and Oyster House.  I am much more of a seafood fan than a fried chicken fan, so we decided to try it on our way to Tybee Island the next day. After leaving Paula Dean’s restaurant, we decided to try a horse-driven carriage tour around the city. We were impressed with the incredible southern architecture—plus we learned quite a bit about the city’s historic residents which includes several ghosts who still inhabit many of the old houses in town.
The sign for Paula Dean's restaurant

Decorative fish downspout on historic building
On our final day in the Savannah area, we packed up the dogs and headed to Tybee Island.  It turned out to be a pretty typical understated beach area that looked like it had seen better days.  We were disappointed that dogs were not allowed on the beaches, so we walked them around the town before heading to Bubba’s where we were not disappointed with an ice cold Yeungling and charbroiled oysters cooked on the grill with garlic butter and parmesan cheese.  Great stop.  

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Reliving the past in Charleston

Nov. 2-Nov. 5, Charleston, South Carolina
We heard about an amazing county campground in Charlotte but we had also been given the recommendation from a couple in Willow Tree to check out the Plantation Oaks Campground just south of the city. The price was good, the sites were large, and we were happy with the proximity, so we pulled in for three nights.  High on Vic’s list for visiting Charleston was a trip to Ft. Sumter National Park which requires a ferry ride.  We investigated the plan and headed out fairly early the next morning to the waterfront area where you catch the ferry.  The whole ride was part of the tour.  It was pretty fascinating to imagine the Union trying to battle the Confederate soldiers from this small atoll.  Of course, we all remember this place as being known for the dubious distinction of the first shots of the Civil War being fired here.  The tour took about two hours and the bonus was the beautiful day we chose with terrific views of the harbor and city shoreline. Charleston itself is a foodie's dream come true so we found a terrific old ale house for lunch on the downtown before heading back to relieve the dogs of their time in their crates.

A view of the island of Ft. Sumter from the ferry

Fort Sumter memorial plaque

Ruins of officer quarters at Fort Sumter

North America's largest cable bridge in Charleston Harbor

Charleston day two called for a visit to a Southern Plantation. (We were thinking of going to one in Savannah until I read—and then was reminded—that General Sherman burned them all in his march to Atlanta). I read about several classic plantations to visit, but one stood out the most, as it is still a working plantation today: Boone Hall Plantation. The entry is almost a mile of two-three hundred year old live oak trees arching over the driveway. The house itself was incredible—the movie The North and The South with Patrick Swayze was filmed here as well and scenes from The Notebook (especially the famous scene with Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams in the rowboat on the Ashley River). The plantation has preserved several slave cabins which were incredible to visit as each had a flat screen TV with video footage and music that enabled visitors to see what the cabins would have looked like inside and also hear music from that era. We also took a 30 minute buggy ride around the plantation where we could see the farm crops still being grown which included mainly strawberries, corn, pumpkins, tomatoes, and peppers. Our last stop at the plantation was at their own farmer’s market kitchen where we had blue crab chowder, fresh biscuits, and a glass of wine. We both agreed this was a worthwhile tourist attraction to visit.
Boone Plantation's  grand entry of live oaks

Boone Plantation estate home

Four-hundred-year old live oak on Boone Plantation

Boone Plantation slave quarters in background

Slave quarter cabin at Boone Plantation
 Our last day in Charleston took us back to explore the amazing city.  I especially wanted to walk the famous Broad Street and explore the many shops and restaurants of this incredibly charming place.  (What a contrast to Myrtle Beach!)  We finished our tour of Charleston by finding the famous Citadel—the military institute which played a big role in at least two of Conroy’s books: The Lords of Discipline and The Great Santini.  It looked way less imposing than my mental image of it.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Unwinding in Willow Tree

October 30-Nov. 2, Myrtle Beach, South Carolina
Left Emerald Isle, North Carolina—next stop in the Myrtle Beach area of South Carolina. This is a state neither of us had ever been, so the adventure seems a little more uncertain as we plot our journey along the coast of S.C. We both wanted to see the Myrtle Beach area but after splurging on a campground right on the ocean in Emerald Isle, we decided we could set up camp a little further out and explore the area on the coast with daytrips. I had read about a campground that earned the coveted 10-10-10 from Woodall’s called Willow Treewhich was about twenty miles from Myrtle Beach. We decided to check it out since November was considered off season—too cool for summer travelers and too soon for snowbirds to arrive—so the price was right (about $37 a night). What a beautiful place this turned out to be. The sites were extremely roomy and situated around a man-made lake with a one-mile walking or bike trail around it. Several sites also included hot tubs and all had fire rings (my personal favorite). The clubhouse was lovely and the pool was also inviting but rather cold. They also had a large Jacuzzi by the pool which we enjoyed the first night we were there. We stayed here four nights with forays into town each day. While we loved the place itself, it was almost too peaceful with few campers there and all activities on hold for the arrival of the snowbirds.
Willow Tree pathway around pond
Swings by the pond, one of my favorite things

Our coach at Willow Tree
Our first trip into Myrtle Beach left us quite unimpressed. We explored the new boardwalk on the beach which seems to have infused some new life into what appeared to us to be a tired resort town. The main highway running through the area is filled with golf course, elaborate miniature golf venues, and show theaters such as Opryland, and other eclectic forms of entertainment like jousting castles, etc. The second and third day we took side trips to the beach and visited mega campgrounds there designed for family activities and resort-type vacations—albeit these were all tired looking places too. The best discovery was a state campground on the beach that looked good, but we admitted we were happy to drive the 20 miles to our peaceful retreat in the willows. So much for the Myrtle Beach area. We were excited to “pull up stakes”and head to Charleston—a place we knew held much more promise just based on the Pay Conroy novel we both had read called South of Broad.

Myrtle Beach boardwalk
Vic on the Myrtle Beach boardwalk

Sunday, October 30, 2011

North Carolina's coastline

Oct. 23-29, New Bern and Emerald Isle, North Carolina

Studying the map of North Carolina’s coastline left us unsure of where to head next.  I had romantic notions (what’s new?) about going to the Outer Banks and Kitty Hawk, but after seeing what a narrow strip this area is coupled with the weather forecast of high winds and possible thunderstorms, we decided to follow the H on the weather map which landed us in the Southern Outer Banks region which included the historic towns of New Bern and Beaufort, and the Emerald Isles. 

The KOA at New Bern was our first stop in this region.  We were majorly unimpressed with the KOA but held high hopes about visiting historic New Bern.  It did not disappoint.  We had a fantastic two hour walk around the town and waterfront which was nothing short of charming.  The town was filled with notable landmarks which included the homes of famous people dating back to the 1700s and references to the notorious ghosts who haunt the streets.  Another highlight were the artistic depictions of the many bear statues that anchored almost every block as mascots of New Bern (somehow related to Bears).

We learned that Pepsi was created in New Bern, N.C.

One night at the New Bern KOA proved enough and we were off to the Emerald Isles, not knowing what to expect.  We chose to stay at a place we heard was expensive but worth it—Holiday Travel Park.  The website showed sites right on the ocean but I have learned to be skeptical of such claims.  The first good sign, from my point of view, was the simple elegance of the office where we checked in (always my job as Vic stays in the coach with the perros). The office woman showed me the site map and I chose ocean view over ocean front as she explained that in the ocean front places you could only hear the ocean because there was a sand dune separating the ocean view sites from the actual shore.  I also have some trepidation about ending up in a site which would be crammed up against another one with no privacy.  None of these concerns proved legitimate as this campground was well laid out and the area we chose afforded us a perfect view of a beautiful sandy beach that was a popular spot for surf fishing and shell collecting. Score!  The only downside from my perspective was that campfires had to be self-contained and elevated off the ground—translate: you need to have your own outdoor fire pit (which we do not have—yet.) 
This whole trip I have been dreaming of finding a campsite right on an actual (walkable) beach and this place exceeded my expectations.  The best part was how noncommercial this area is—much like the Oregon coast near Newport or Florence.  We were able to take the dogs on the beach and even let them go off leash as there were several spots where no one was around.  The other surprise for me was the popularity of surf fishing on these beaches: you could even drive your Jeep onto the beach with all your fishing gear and set up three of four rods into the surf.  I also saw something new in the little carts on wheels everyone seemed to have for their rods, coolers, fishing gear, etc.  Some were even attached to the front bumpers of their vehicles for easy transport.  I really wanted to get a short term fishing license.  There was even a pier within walking distance where I would not need a license and could rent a rod, reel, rigging and bait for 24 hours.  I did not take advantage of this, but a seed was planted for our longer stay in Florida.
Park entryway to beach (about two minute walk from our site)
The beach by our campground was deserted enough to let
the dogs go off leash for a little treat.

Our beach was a popular spot for surf fishing.

This fishing pier, only a short walk from our campground
Aside from amazing walks on the beach, we were about to experience a real first at this campground as they were holding a Halloween Bash weekend that was nearly sold out  and we were going to be a part of it.   We had no idea what we were about to experience.  I reviewed the literature advertising the event and decided we needed to find a Dollar Store to find some cheap decorations.  The main event seemed to be the contests for best Halloween decorations at overnight sites and another category for long term sites. We also needed to be prepared for up to a hundred trick or treaters.  We ended up finding a Target Superstore that had mega-size bags of “fun size” candy bars for the trick or treaters and cheap decorations for the motorhome. I ended up stringing orange lights with a five-foot blow-up bat in the windshield area inside and stringing glow-in-the-dark skeletons and LED ghosts around the outside of the motor home.  Well, this proved to be humble compared to what showed up.  Campers came with trucks full of Halloween decorations that were astounding.   One woman a few motorhomes away spent three or four hours setting up a display for which she had six pages of instructions from the internet--complete with an actual boiling cauldron with smoke, a lifesize Count Dracula and witch with a whole bar of special potions, and sound effects carried by a wireless  speaker system.   Highly entertaining.  The park also had an impressive amount of elaborate decorations which included animated figures and frightening sound effects.  They also put together a haunted house that scared me so much I had to ask the people in front of me to stay with me through the various rooms.  Something about the sound of a chainsaw and gory scenes of amputees that sets my imagination off in the wrong direction. . . .

Rico was frightened by this talking and moving skeleton.
Eyeballs fresh off the grill anyone?

I wathched the set-up for this witch's
brew table which took several hours.
This whole family dressed as the Flintstones, complete with the car.

This pumpkin won first place--no surprise to me!
A mellower Halloween Madness highlight:  I woke up on Saturday morning with a start, thinking there was something I needed to do.  Vic was surprised as I threw on my clothes and asked for the key to the Jeep.  Before I was even totally awake, I found myself driving to the local Food Lion to buy ingredients for my mother’s favorite fall pie.  The campground was having a pie contest and I found myself inspired to make my mother’s recipe for Upside Down Caramel Pecan Apple Pie—a recipe I had never tried before.  I hurried back to the motorhome and lit the propane oven as I had only two hours before the pie had to be submitted to the judging panel.  It was fun to suddenly have a task I had to complete on a short timeline after drifting through the days with no real commitments to fulfill.  My biggest concern was baking in the propane oven as I had not yet done this, but all went well. I took out the finished pie from the oven about twenty minutes before the deadline and set it down outside on a picnic table in an outdoor temperature of about 55 degree, hoping it would have time to cool sufficiently before the taste test.  I also had to accomplish the feat of flipping the whole pie upside down onto a platter and hoping it all came out in one piece.  I did this outside by myself and at first it didn’t seem to budge causing me to think the caramel was burnt to the bottom of the pan.  I just held the inverted pan and rubbed it gently like a genie lamp and voila—the whole pie gently slid onto the platter. I lifted the pie pan to look at it and felt dazzled by the result.  It was flawless looking with the caramel a perfect golden glaze over whole pecans arranged in a perfect circular pattern.  Regardless of any contest, the creation of this pie was evidence of my mother’s spirit living within me.   I felt grateful for the inspiration to participate in this event. And, just to top it off, I won the contest and the judges only ate half the pie.  Vic was so glad all was not lost to the contest. . . .

Collecting seashells:  I get a little obsessive about looking for the perfect seashell while walking on a beach that holds promise.  I have always loved collecting shells, interesting pieces of wood, or rocks from various places that I have traveled.  I was surprised that the Atlantic beaches here had so many shells.  I have always been searching for the elusive whole conch shell like you would find in the tourist shops—the ones you can hear the ocean in and use as a bugle like the boys in Lord of the Flies.  I managed to fill my pockets several times over on each ocean jaunt and then was faced with Vic’s question of what I intended to do with all these shells (in a motorhome that has limited storage).  He agreed to humor me by storing my collection in one of the storage bays until I decide their future.  It has been a bit of a challenge for me to live in a space that is so generic (but lovely).  My need to hang pictures, display photos, arrange fresh flowers in vases has gone dormant for the most part but is stirring to be expressed in other artistic callings (shell mobiles?)

The weather in the Emerald Isles has been unseasonably cold (as you can see from how bundled up Vic is in the beach photos)—especially at night with temperatures in the 30s.  This front was part of a major Nor’easter that dumped several inches of snow in New England which resulted in canceling Halloween in some communities because of the downed power lines and icy road conditions.  Time to head south!