Thursday, January 26, 2012

Checking out Key West

Jan. 21-26, Florida Keys

Aside from checking out my brother's favorite spots for happy hour, we made a few trips to Key West. The first one was to hear a good cover band at the famous Green Parrot. We went to the early set on a Friday night, but the bar was already packed when we arrived. Fortunately it is an open bar to the street and we would enjoy the music from the sidewalk, but also eventually found a long bench inside with a perfect view of the impressively talented rock and roll band. To top off the night, we stopped at one of Mike’s favorite bars in Looe Key which also had a 60s style rock ‘n roll band and room to dance on the dance floor.
The famous Green Parrot parachute on the ceiling

Are we having fun yet at the Green Parrot?
Our second trip to Key West was a daytime adventure. We wanted to walk down the whole stretch of Duvall Street as well as check out the Truman Annex where our friend Marilyn lived on Penny Lane when she went to high school (her father was a naval officer—I think). Turned out to be quite an exclusive area with historic plantation-type homes that conjured up nostalgic images of graceful island living. Below are photos from our day trip to Key West:

Our third trip to Key West involved researching campgrounds and trying a Hogfish sandwich at the Hogfish Bar on Stock Island—just before Key West. 

Here is a run-down of the campgrounds we checked out:
Curry Hammock State Park—This beautiful state park located on the Atlantic side of Marathon on Fat Deer Keyon has only 28 camping sites. The park takes reservations six months out and is usually booked Oct-May at $42 a night and, like most state parks, has a two-week maximum stay.
Bahia Honda State Park-- This park, thirty minutes from Key West on Big Pine Key, has 48 RV sites on the Atlantic side of the Key. The park takes reservations six months out and is usually booked Oct-May with rates of $42 a night and a two-week maximum stay.        
Sunshine Key RV Resort—This large (over 400 sites), friendly Encore Resort is located at the south end of the seven-mile bridge on Big Pine Key. The campground is located on the bay side of the key with a marina, waterfront lots with docks, swimming pool, restaurant, and a good variety of planned activities. The sites are fairly close together and daily prices range accordingly from $65-$100. Since the park is part of the Encore and Thousand Trails network, there are potential discounts for long term stays and club members. Seemed to be a popular place.
Boyd’s Campground—This popular vacation site for campers is just minutes away from Key West on Stock Island—and walking distance to Hogfish Bar. The park is on the ocean side with waterfront sites that are quite cozy with other campers. Daily rates range from $80 and up during the high season with weekly and monthly rates available. They also have a pool, game room, and activity center with a full calendar of events.
Bluewater Key Resort—This incredibly beautiful private campground on mile marker 14 sells sites for up to 300k. Many of these sites have their own private tiki bars, storage units, and lush tropical landscaping. The minimum cost for renters in the winter months is $125 plus 12.5% tax with no weekly or monthly discounts. The park has a small pool and community center with a modest calendar of activities. Worth some photos:

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Off to the Keys

Jan. 18- Jan 21, Marathon, Florida
Lucky us. My youngest brother lives on the water in Marathon in The Keys. His home has a huge concrete driveway capable of holding his 40’ motorhome and our 36’ with the slides out and still room for our Jeep and another car, plus he has 50 amp elec. hookup. What a terrific opportunity for us as state parks in The Keys were all full and private campgrounds cost $100 a night and up!  We had originally planned to stop in the Everglades at Midway, a federal campground, on our way to Marathon, but the drive from Bonita Springs to the federal park was only about an hour and a half.  The federal park is a boondocking stop; the day was hot and the park was pretty barren, so we decided to keep on trucking (rving?) to Marathon, only another four hours away.  The view on the drive, especially panoramic through the large windshield of the motorhome, was a landscape of azure water and palm trees on both sides of the causeway.  It really does take your breath away.
Just had to stop at Islamorada at the Lorelei tiki bar where my father used to live on his 50’ trawler. Hurricane Wilma in 2005 caused severe damage to the Lorelei so it had to be completely rebuilt.  It is now much bigger than I remembered (back in the 80s) but it kept its character and greatly improved the docks with pavers and flower boxes as well as adding a sandy beachfront dining area.  WE were also happy to learn the outdoor seating was dog friendly so we were able to let the dogs join us as we had a drink and light meal in honor of my dad’s memory.
Chilling out at the Lorelei Tiki Bar

About an hour later, we arrived at my brother’s home in Marathon, greeted by his two Springer Spaniels.  He and his wife Bonnie made our site all ready for us; even trimming the palm trees to be sure our slides had room to open. We felt lucky to be able to stay in such a tropical setting on a lake which opens to the Gulf Bay—and the price was right! Our dogs quickly become buddies with their dog cousins and enjoyed the great freedom of being off leash during their entire stay here—except for neighborhood walks. Rico was a bit reticent to go in the water, but managed to play at the shore or just under the dock. Jetta was braver in actually swimming to retrieve her tennis ball, but her more adept at swimming cousins usually got to the ball before she could.  It also didn’t take them long to join their cousins in begging the mailwoman for a biscuit each day.  I don’t think our dogs will ever want to leave this place.
Mike and Bonnie's amazing front yard

Cousins Buddy and Marley
The dock at Mike and Bonnie's
My brother announced that he wanted to take us out in his power boat while we were there.  (He also has a 40’ sailboat at his dock.)
He wanted to show us around the bay and show us some amazing homes, but also wanted to take me to a place called Coffin’s Patch, a place where many locals put their loved one’s ashes.  Mike had taken some of my step-father’s ashes and put them there in 2003 and now wanted to do the same with some of my mother’s ashes.  We needed to have a calm day to go out to this Atlantic locale, so we chose a low knot day and made the one-hour boat ride to the reef (where supposedly a ship carrying coffins wrecked and laid them to rest there.)  Mike brought some champagne and some flowers to commemorate the occasion.  When he asked me to say a few words, I choked up and was suddenly overcome with tears as I paid tribute to my mother’s generous spirit.  It was special to share this moment between Mike and me in such a spiritual setting for what has become a family ritual of burial at sea (or Great Lakes).
My mom's second resting place

Captain Vic takes the helm
A Snowy Egret among the mangroves

A Blue Heron among the mangroves
A private home's beach viewed from our boat trip

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Bonita Springs--It's a Dog's Life

Jan 16, Bonita Springs, Florida

A major question mark in our mind as we embarked on this adventure was how well our two dogs would adapt to this lifestyle and, more importantly, how well we would adapt to living in our motorhome with two dogs. After almost five months, I think we would both say that having the dogs with us has many more rewards than disadvantages.
The rewards include:
  • meeting people who are often curious about their breed
  • taking frequent walks
  • having more than each other to "talk to"
  • cuddling with us (especiallyu on stormy nights)
  • entertaining us with their various antics
  • protection--warning of something wrong with barking
  • giving us something managable to worry about rather than the things in life we have no control over
Disadvantages have been:
  • not wanting to leave them for more too many hours in their crates
  • having to tie them up when outside in most places
  • not being able to take them with us in the car everywhere because of heat
  • beaches that don't allow dogs at all (even on leash)
  • putting up and taking down crates
Even if the disadvantages list were longer, we would still choose having dogs with us as we long ago acknowledged that love trumps logic everytime.

We love to find dog parks or beaches where the dogs can run free and really show their personalities with other dogs.  Our neighbor in the park here has four three large dogs: two goldens and one border collie mix. He told us there was a great dog park on the beach about thirty minutes away near Lover’s Key state park. The trick is to get there at low tide as the entrance is not accessible at high tide. What a fantastic place this turned out to be. I never dreamed it would be such a lovely beach (on somewhat of an inlet so it was calm and protected) with beautiful white sand and gentle sloping beach bottom so the dogs could run out pretty far into the water. Rico was just beside himself with excitement as there were dogs of all sizes and types to check out and herd in the gentle surf. Jetta was more fixated on retrieving her tennis ball even in deep water. Both dogs are more hesitant in salt water with waves vs. a freshwater lake experience, but they had a blast. It’s hard not to have a smile on your face when you are watching dogs having such fun with abandon. I even found a beautiful olive shell while playing fetch with Jetta.

The arrival back to the motorhome from the dog beach called for bath time. The dogs both needed clipping too, so we took advantage of their clean hair to get them combed out and do a grooming session on our patio area picnic table. Both the dogs behaved quite well and now were all set for our trip to see their cousins in The Keys.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Exploring the Bonita Springs/Naples area

Jan 9- Jan. 15,  Bonita Springs, Florida

"Stand back, smell the rose, and feel the sand between your toes."--Kenny Chesney
My mom and step-father in their 1977 Pace Arrow
My mother used to travel in a motorhome in the late 70s through the 80s. She and her husband would close their restaurant in Chassell, Michigan after New Year’s Eve and head south to Florida until they re-opened for Mother’s Day in May.  One of her favorite places was Bonita Springs as she had a friend, from her days working for Helena Rubenstein at Marshall Fields in downtown Chicago while in her 20s, who owned and operated a steak and seafood restaurant here called "Lucky's Landing" until the early 90s. (So this friend went way back and they had a lot in common in their later years both running similar types of restaurants.)  I have no idea where they used to park their motorhome and wish I could ask her now, but it seemed like they often stayed in people’s driveways as their motorhome was 32’ with no slides—a little more compact than ours. I also remember my mother saying how much she liked the beaches in this area, especially the shelling on Sanibel.  I used to feel jealous to hear from her while in Florida as these were the years I was going to school and working in Missoula, Mt. while starting a family.  No time off or beaches for me then, but here I am in my own retirement appreciating this connection with my mom.
The park we are staying at in Bonita Springs is Bonita Lakes Resort—about twenty or thirty minutes from the beach in light traffic.  Because of its proximity to the beach, the sites were closer than we like with only a few feet separating us from our neighbors.  The park was a mixture of park models, fifth wheels, trailers, and motorhomes—with the majority being fifth wheels. 
Looking West along Trixie Lane Jan 2006.jpg

Womens Bean Bag League Jan 2006-1_0.jpg
There is a small pool and a full activity calendar with bean bag toss being the most popular activity in the park. Another major highlight of this place is its close proximity to a well-known bar called Buffalo Chips which used to be part of a brothel.  After settling in the first day, we heard it was wing night there (.60 wings).  The place was packed even at 5:30 (the q-tip crowd), so we had to wait at the bar (a shame) and drink a mug of ice cold draft beer while waiting for a table. Turned out to be delicious food, worth waiting for, and a colorful place to hang out complete with live downhome live country music.
We heard from our new friends, Mike and BJ, who were about 45 minutes away at Seminole, and invited them to spend the day at a beach near us. They showed up at our door  before 9 a.m. just in time for coffee and we headed out to Barefoot Beach where we spent a great day combing the beach for shells (found lots of kitten paws and jingles) and enjoying the turquoise water views.  Mike and BJ brought their shelling scoops and had much better luck than me sorting through piles of shells from deeper waters.  We thoroughly enjoyed another special time with good people, good food (stopped at a waterfront restaurant), in a fantastic locale.  Now I get why my mom so enjoyed this area.  It is a special part of Florida—even in dealing with the snowbird traffic on Hwy 41.

While in this area, we decided to go and check out two Class A Motorcoach resorts in Naples.  I had seen both of these advertised with excellent reviews (as well as top of the line prices).  The first one we went to was called Naples Signature Motorcoach Resort.  The place is exquisitely landscaped with a hotel-like activity center and large lots with pavers.  Many of the sites are privately owned with unique cabanas, storage areas, and formal outdoor furniture. The downside, aside from the nightly rate or the exorbitant cost of the lots—over 100k, was the distance from the beaches.  They did have a lake with a fountain, creating the feeling of water, but it would take at least 45 minutes to get to the beaches (on a good day without much traffic.) 
Naples Motorcoach Resort clubhouse--photo from their website

The second motorcoach resort at Pelican Lake was even further out.  This place was equally attractive with a large lake in the center, but much less inhabited.  We had the feeling that maybe the park was in receivership as it seemed like they were struggling to fill the place.  We took a tour of the main building and were very impressed with the music stage, dance floor, library, exercise room, and luxurious movie theater with large overstuffed leather chairs. They also promoted theme nights with free happy hours and food—sounded pretty good to me!
Pelican Lake clubhouse gazebo on lake


On the way back to our park, we spotted another RV resort that had not been on our radar called Neapolitan Cove RV Resort in Naples.  This was a lovely small park right off Hwy. 41, but only a few miles from the famous 5th Avenue in downtown Naples, and only a few more miles to the Naples beaches.  The park had a very small pool and no exercise room, but the close proximity to things made it stand out, plus the landscaping was quite attractive.
Neapolitan Cove RV site

The last stop on our RV park tour was a quick trip to a place in Naples called Tin City.  It sounded very cool in the Places To Go in Naples flyer, but we discovered a place that seemed a little tired and run down. Tin City got its name from the tin-roofed buildings that were the center hub of activity in this old fishing harbor in the 1920s. In the 70s, some of the buildings were restored and the area was turned into the Old Marine Marketplace.  The shops turned out to be mostly well-disguised souvenir gift shops with a few ho-hum looking restaurants mixed in.

We learned that our park was having a senior prom with a live band on Saturday night, so we decided to give it a whirl.  Formal dress was not required and you could bring your own drinks and snacks. About an hour before the prom, I took a walk and saw several couples having a pre-prom dinner in formal attire complete with corsages and boutonnieres.  Thankfully, I also saw guys with sport coats, shorts, and flip-flops. We dressed up moderately and, most importantly, put on our dancing shoes and headed to our first senior prom together,  It was a fun evening and cute to see couples in 60s prom attire such as white and baby blue tuxes as well as the range of Hawaiian shirts and tropical wear.  The band played mostly music from the 60s and 70s, very nostalgic and good for dancing swing, cha-cha, waltz, and night club two-step.  A good time (but forgot to have someone take photos of us!). I have heard that senior prom dances are a popular ritual at many of the  parks in Florida--too funny.