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