Monday, February 27, 2012

Part II: Our month at Seminole Campground

February 15-27, North Ft. Meyers

Vic and I decided to head out on our own and check out Matlacha and Pine Island. It took about twenty minutes to get to Matlacha a cute little bayside village with artsy shops. 
Bert's: A well-lnown watering hole in Matlacha
From here, we continued on to Pine Island, not sure what to expect. Unless we were missing something, there didn't seem to be any white sand beaches. It did, however, have the charm of a less touristy seaside area with a few picturesque seafood places on the water.
 It was too early for lunch so we decided to head north to Punta Gorda and maybe even the Venice dog beach.  On the way to Punta Gorda, I decided we should check out a campground that I heard about called Water's Edge. When we arrived, we took the opportunity to walk the dogs around their man-made lake. We struck up conversations with a few couples who really seemed to like it there.  We were impressed with the privately owned or rented sites that circled the entire water's edge of the lake, each with its own customized tropical look. On the minus side, the regular park rentals were stuck in the grass on the outside circle of the lake with much fewer amenities or aesthetics.  This arrangment made the haves and have-nots stand out too much for us. I imagine the renter vs. owner conflict may be more pronounced in this kind of environment.
On to Punta Gorda. We were given recommendations to try a place called Danny’s for happy hour, but we noticed another place called Dean’s with an outside bar that turned out to be a tasty stop, well-known for its Tex-Mex food. (We could even have the dogs at the bar with us because it was outside.) In 2004, Hurricane Charley caused major damage in this area, but, as a result, is quite charming in its renovated state. We both liked the size and vibe of the town, reminding us of Corvallis in an odd way—maybe it was the farmer’s market setting.  The RV park, Water's Edge, on the outskirts of town, suddenly seemed more attractive to me as I could imagine myself spending time here. Our next question was how far it was to the best shelling beach; we were sad to hear that it would take about an hour with traffic to get to the place locals seemed to like the most: Boca Grande. I don’t think it would be as far to Englewood or even Venice beach, but not sure.
We decided to go ahead and forge on to Venice and see what it was like there. I knew about the dog beach and also wanted to look up a friend from my pre-teen years in Michigan. Vic was gracious to go along with this plan and since I had no phone number for her, I just navigated used her address to navigate us to her front door. She was home and we had a nice visit on her front porch with promises to get together again while we were in the area. I left wondering where all those years went since we used to have slumber parties at her parents' cabins and where I had my first spin the bottle kiss.

Next stop, before sunset, was the Brohard Paw Park in Venice. What a place this was— a long entry to the ocean which was all fenced off that led to a wide stretch of premium beach for dogs to run free. The beach itself was not as pretty as further south; the sand seemed grey and coarser. This was supposed to be a famous area for shark’s teeth (like our Englewood beach adventure). I didn’t see any, but that might have been because our attention was on the watching the dogs play their hearts out.
Saturday was time for the Buckingham Blues Fest. All ten of us went, with Sharon and John heading out first and giving us a thumbs-up that it was worth it. We all brought chairs and circled around on a small hillside overlooking the stage where a highly talented blues band was entertaining a crowd of about 100 people. It was a perfect day, about 75 degrees and clear skies, but by early evening a cold front (we laugh about what Floridians calls cold front—a drop of 10 degrees) came through adding to the ambiance of the setting which included the largest fire pit I have ever seen at an outside venue. The crowd was quite eclectic ranging from aged hippies, tough bikers, senior snowbirds (us?), and younger hip couples grooving on the blues. Quite a place just for people watching.

My brother Mike was going to be coming through Ft. Myers on his way home from a trip to Tallahassee and a cleaning out of his mother-in-law’s house in Beverly Beach. We arranged to meet, guess where, our neighborhood bar, Hogbody’s. Mike also invited his former Illinois neighbors, Andy and Dorothy, to join us for a late lunch. Our mini-reunion turned out to be another good time at Hogbody’s with terrific food and company. 
I had been hankering to make a paella dinner and I even happened to have shrimp, chorizo, chicken, and arborio rice on hand. All it took was a text message to invite everyone and of course everyone pitched in with sides and vino. Paella is one of my personal favorites and it had been some time since I made it. Not having my Julia Child cookbook on board, I was lucky to find the recipe I always use on-line. John and Sharon were leaving this week, so it also seemed to be a special opportunity to get together before they took off on their next adventures. After dinner, we got out the tiki fuel with citronella, used it to stoke up a fire, and spent another night around the campfire enjoying one another’s company.
When Vic and I were staying in Bonita Springs, I saw a sign for a Trader Joe’s that caused us to turn around and investigate. It turned out the sign said "Coming Soon." Well “soon” had arrived and our little group of six were all eager for a fieldtrip. We managed to fit into Steve and Diane’s Buick Enclave SUV with room enough reserved for our indulgent purchases. (How many cases of two buck chuck will fit in the back cargo area of an Enclave?) The newly opened TJ was in Naples, close to an hour drive, but what else do six retired educators have but time? The grand opening was just as busy as I remembered when our store first opened in Corvallis—crowded aisles and sold out favorites. Our biggest disappointment was that this store did not carry Vic’s cranberry oat dunkers. Nevertheless, we were able to amass a cartful of goodies including some splurges on wine and imported cheeses. I should have taken a photo of the Enclave cargo area; it was impressively packed to the rooftop.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Part I: Our month at Seminole Campground

Feb. 1-Feb 15. —North Ft. Meyers
This is the first time we had reserved a campground for a month ahead of time.  We like the Ft. Myer area and were excited to be near our new friends, Mike and BJ, again at Seminole Campground, plus I have been following a blog of a couple who were also going to be at Seminole. Vic and I were looking forward to meeting them as they are also new full-timers who have never "motor-homed" before. Mike and BJ’s friends, Steve and Diane, whom we also met in Sault. Ste. Marie, would be coming to this park for most of February as well.  Sounds like the possibility of getting my social needs fulfilled. The dogs are happy here too. This park is also one of the pet friendliest with a large off-leash area and trail and pet parades once a month. 
Mike and BJ's inviting site at Seminole

Our reunion with Mike and BJ began with a 4 p.m. whiskey tasting. You gotta love a guy who comes swaggering over in his bright yellow Keys winery tank shirt (Mike, you know which one) with a smirk on his face, then says, "Seeeems laike it's hiiigh tiiime fer some wheeskey taaastin." Mike had found a bottle of Pendleton whiskey for me (way to pay attention Mike) and a Canadian type of honey whiskey made by Seagram’s. In addition, he had the Wild Turkey brand of honey whiskey and his regular—Canadian 12.  I also had some Canadian whiskey called Ellington Reserve which I found at Total Wines.  An instant party was at hand.  I favored the Pendleton followed by the Wild Turkey honey, for just sipping.  Vic liked the Wild Turkey honey on ice, and our friends liked their regular  and the Seagram’s honey (staying true to their enthusiasm for Canadian blends. These are tough calls. So is figuring out who is cooking what for a shared meal. Of course, we always have Hogbody’s, ta fantastic whole in the wall BBQ  joint close by if we need someone else to fix dinner for us--which we did. . . .
The next day, I found the motorhome of the bloggers we were interested in meeting, John and Sharon, and decided to knock on the door and introduce myself.  I felt a little shy about it, but they greeted me warmly and seemed genuinely happy that I made the connections and invited them for a happy hour at our place later that day.  BJ and Mike joined us and we had a small feast of stone crabs (thanks to my brother Mike), cheese and crackers, and shared a few bottles of wine.  My favorite part was that it got cool enough (after a high of 80 degrees) to start a campfire with the wonderful cedar scraps my brother shared with us.  We had a terrific time sharing stories and getting to know one another better. 
Anxious to discover more beaches, Vic and I took a ride to see the Ft. Myers beach area which allows dogs on leashes.  It took about forty minutes to get there because of traffic. We love almost any beach but this one was less attractive than many of the others we have had the pleasure to enjoy. The beach area is quite wide with gray sand, few shells, and a fair number of rental areas with chairs, jet skis, etc. 

We managed to get in a good hour walk on the beach with the dogs, then decided to tour the area more by car. I was anxious to check out a campground on the ocean near here where the photo I saw looked like a Corona commercial: Red Coconut RV Resort.  It turned out to be about a mile from where we walked the beach which surprised me as the photo on the web made it look more remote. 
Photo from the owner posted
 on their internet site

The park has two areas: one directly on the beach in the sand and one across the street on concrete sites.  Both are incredibly tight quarters and the prices were high—ranging from a daily rate of $80-110, plus $8 for electric and 12.5% tax.  Even if the price was better, Vic did not like the idea of being so close to the saltwater because of corrosion issues.  We continued south down the Gulf Coast all the way to Lover’s Key but discovered we couldn’t even walk the dogs on leash there, so off we went to Barefoot Beach in Bonita Springs.  What an entrance to Barefoot Beach—paved streets lined with multi-million dollar homes complete with private tennis courts and large pools and gardeners working the lawns.  I should have done my homework better as Barefoot Beach also did not allow dogs.
Bonita Springs aerial shot--internet photo
(my private plane was not available)

We were, however, happy to have checked out these areas for days when we left the dogs at the motorhome. Our last stop of the day was an all important one at Costco for our favorite dark chocolate acaia berries and a large jar of mixed nuts.
I had seen a large Bass Pro store just off the freeway south of our campground and invited Mike and BJ to go with us and check it out.  We also wanted to see a lot that my sister-in-law Sandy inherited from her mother-in-law which was in the Ft. Myers area.  Vic and I checked out kayaks at Bass Pro but wished we had an opportunity to try the style we were looking at first before buying.  We have heard varying recommendations about sea kayaks vs. lake ones and ones you sit inside vs. on top, etc.  One thing we do know for sure is that we want separate ones; one couple we met bought a double which they later referred to as the divorce kayak.
The property turned out to be in a fairly remote and lower income neighborhood in Lehigh Acres. I took some photos to send and we headed back on a country road.  The best part of the day came near the end of our drive when we passed a back woods tavern called The World Famous Buckingham Blues Bar.  After passing it, Vic suggested I look it up on Google and see if it had a website. I doubted it would, so I was really surprised when I saw a multi-faceted one with you-tube videos of concerts and an impressive upcoming calendar of blues fests.   It was easy to convince Mike (who was driving) to turn around so we could check it out for ourselves.  It was pretty quiet at 4:00 in the afternoon, but we learned they had a large outside venue with a blues fest coming up on Saturday. We definitely plan to return on Saturday. 
Steve and Diane showed up on Monday and were quick to set up camp and join what came to be our growing circle for happy hour.  This was also the week I decided to start attending the M-W-F exercise group. I had heard they sweated to the oldies with Richard Simmons and was hoping that was not true, but it was.  Hey, just getting moving and dancing felt pretty good and the best part about Simmons was he doesn’t talk in the exercise videos. Actually, some of the songs were pretty good ones like "Proud Mary" and "Dancing Queen." This park is also a good place for bike riding or walking.  Vic and I found a two-three mile circle that we liked for the walking the dogs or just getting out on the bike. 

Lois at dance studio (studio photo)
Knowing we were going to be in the area a while, I decided to call a friend who had moved to Cape Coral from Corvallis eleven years ago.  She and I were both middle school language arts teachers and our sons grew close playing baseball in high school.  I was curious to find out how she and her husband Mike liked living in this area.  We connected and set up a plan to meet at their house the following Tuesday.  Fast forward to Tuesday. Lois and Mike greeted us with warm hospitality at their lovely home in Cape Coral.  The most surprising thing we learned about their life here is the passion they developed for dancing at their local  Fred Astaire Studio.  Lois had convinced Mike to take lessons for their son's wedding and their interest just kept going to the level where Lois won several amateur dance competitions. She even showed me a photo of herself in a Swarovsky crystal gown with Max and Tony from Dancing with the Stars by her side.  Mike also became involved in some competition and seemed to be enthralled with the whole idea.  How cute!  They invited us to their weekly practice session at the studio the following night.  Both of us suddenly felt inferior as we have never competed, but we pushed our egos aside and agreed to go. (Mike has a bet with Lois that we wouldn't show up--ha, ha.) It turned out to be an exhilarating evening dancing to a wide variety of music and watching inspiring demonstrations.  Vic even took to the floor on his own for a line dancing lesson while I visited with Lois.  The evening definitely rekindled our interest in refining our dance skills, so we signed up for a free introductory private lesson the following week.  Why not?

Zumba, an exercise routine I have always wanted to try, showed up in place of the Richard Simmons DVD on Monday. The Zumba instructor was a virtual one on Wii, but it was surprisingly fun. I love Latin music and already know the basic steps for cumbia, salsa, and merengue so it was pretty easy for me to catch on. I would love to do this on a routine basis as, unlike sweating to the oldies, the time just flew by. Definitely going to look into buying a DVD for doing this on my own.

Another highlight for socializing was the arrival of Mark and Sandy, a couple Mike and BJ had met earlier in the year at Big Pine Key.  They had just bought a new 40’ Tiffin Allegro Bus at Lazy
Days (Tampa RV Superstore) which turned out to have several issues before even leaving the lot, so, of course, these motorhome challenges were of great interest to us. We all (eight now) headed to Hogbody’s for wing night and $1.00 beer--where we found Sharon and John already at the bar--and ended up dancing to a two-man band called the Hat Boys who played everything from Jimmy Buffett to the Beach Boys. Life is Good.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Our last week in the Keys

Jan. 24- Jan. 31, Marathon, Florida

We have had a full week of activities during our last week in the Keys. Fortunately for us, we did not need to stay at any of the expensive campgrounds here (at least during the high season months of Jan-March). Not only did we have my brother's amazing driveway location, we were also invited to take part in an annual private rally one of my brother’s friends put together. The host couple own property directly facing south on the seven-mile bridge. They had built the Sunset Grill and sold it but kept the waterfront land to the east of the restaurant. This coveted piece of real estate became the site for the private rally. About sixteen motorhomes arrived on Thursday, Jan.26, and most stayed through Sunday, Jan. 29. The area was gated and we had ample room to find our own little niche for boondocking with oceanfront views for all.
The several dogs accompanying their owners were all able to have free range of the site including easy access to the ocean for fetching or romping along the shoreline.My brother arrived earlier and helped set up a large tent with tables and created a firepit well-stocked with large bins of scrap cedar he had left over from a project. What fun!Vic and I enjoyed meeting everyone and hearing a variety of colorful motorhome adventures.It turned out there were three Phaetons in the bunch and one Allegro Bus so we talked Tiffin with four couples and learned much about ways to customize the Phaeton as well as the trials of repair issues. OF course the food was amazing—shared dishes from each coach—and even a catered dinner of lobster, steak, and shrimp. The campfires which might seem ludicrous in warm weather turned out perfect for evenings that were as chilly as the high 50s.I also took advantage of the heated pool (open to anyone) at the Sunset Grille next door.In true Mexico style, I was able to have a happy hour drink at the pool’s edge while swimming and meeting some very friendly tourist girls (in their early 60s!) from New Jersey.I particularly enjoyed the connection we shared about being from the two states where you don’t have to pump your own gas (I so love that law).
Scenes from our seven mile bridge rally:

Sunset Grille and pool next door
Sunday the 26th was also a big chili cook-off that my brother was participating in. We broke camp and got both motorhomes back to their respective sites in his driveway, then headed south to Coconut’s at Big Pine Key. The cook-off was fund-raiser for ABATE a motorcycle association that my brother and his wife belong to (they are Harley riders). The event was a first for my non-Harley riding husband and me. The place was a perfect setting-- a dive bar with several pool tables that became chili stations, a good ole rock ’n roll Allman brother-style band, cold beer, and outside hang out areas. Weaving our way between muscular tattooed bikers is not a typical experience for us, but everyone was great and they proved they could make some mean chili. Vic’s disappointment of the day was the discovery that my brother’s chili was all gone went we arrived—only an hour after the start of the tasting. We found several others that we liked, but Vic regretted not putting some in reserve for himself before the chili went to Coconut’s.
Coming to our last few days in The Keys was hard, both in terms of saying adios to my brother and his wife, and leaving such a magical place. Suddenly there was so much we had yet to do—especially kayaking! We entertained notions of coming back after our month in Ft. Myers (something we decided to do just before coming to Marathon). Nice to have options and to feel so close to my brother and sister-in-law.