Saturday, March 31, 2012

How to spend a rainy day in Navarre Beach

March 30-31, Navarre, Florida
With reservations at Gulf Shores State Park from April 1-5, we had two nights left to fill somewhere between Destin and Gulf Shores, Alabama.  I had heard of Santa Rosa Sound as a good fishing area, so we decided to travel less than an hour from Topsail to our next destination in Navarre.  Navarre Beach Campground turned out to be a bit of a let down after the last two places, but still a decent place to hang out for a couple days.  The campground name and photos made it look like it was on the Gulf rather than the Sound, but we were right on the water with a fishing pier and only a few miles from the Gulf beaches.  The daily rate at this Good Sam Park was about $45 with the 10% discount and we had a pull-through with ample room next to a cute cabin (no park models here—a true family campground).

Our first night here we started to hear thunder and awoke to the sound of a pretty steady rain.  Other than a few short rainstorms, this rain lasted longer than anything we had experienced since we were in Maine in October!  Coming from Oregon where they are experiencing one of the rainiest winters on record, this stretch of time with mostly sunny skies has been rather astounding for us.  The rain persisted through the night into the morning and challenged our ideas for how to spend the day.  We had heard about a white sand river near here, the Blackwater, and were considering a day of kayaking but the threatening skies were not a good match for this plan. 
Throughout this trip we have seen incredible places to go kayaking and have seriously considered buying our own as we often see motorhomes pulling an SUV with two kayaks on top. We have also talked to several campers about their kayaks and how they like them, etc.  One couple warned against the double kayak they purchased, referring to it as the divorce boat.  We considered ourselves forewarned and agreed that we would each like to be in control of our own craft.  Staying at Buttonwood Inlet a few weeks ago increased our desire for kayaks as they had their own boat launch area with canal access to the Intracoastal Waterway.  How great would it be to have a launching area right in your own park?  Also, we met a couple there (staying next to us in Holiday Cove) who had a Tiffin motorhome and a Jeep Cherokee Laredo (like us) with two lovely kayaks on top. (not like us).  They were also retired teachers whom we seemed to have much in common with so it was encouraging to hear how much they enjoyed their 12’ sit-on-top kayaks. 

What better way to spend a rainy Saturday than to go looking at kayaks?  We knew we had much to learn but we were pretty sure we also wanted sit-on-top kayaks in the 10-13” range. Vic made it very clear he did not want inflatable ones as he has enough to pack away each time we change locations. With the internet aiding our search, we found three places nearby that carried a large selection.  The first one introduced us to Hobie Kayaks with pedaling systems.  I had not thought of pedaling vs. paddling, but felt attracted to the idea of having the option of both.  Of course, the price on these was much more than we had hoped to spend.  The second location was a West Marine store.  They did not have much of a selection in stock and nothing with pedals. Lucky for us, by the time we took a scenic route to the third store, Key Sailing, located on the Rosa Sound in Pensacola Beach, the sun had come out. 
Gulf Islands National Seashore
 (scenic drive between Navarre Beach and Pensacola Beach)
Navarre Beach--a few miles from our campground
Even better, this store offered demonstrations as part of their sales program.  Their main line also turned out to be Hobies—so we took the opportunity to try the kayak with pedals.  It was way too cool and I knew we were in trouble.  We experimented with both pedaling and paddling, but it was hard to settle for just one option.  Time to take a break over some beers and discuss the possibilities.  I decided to call my son Brooks for his input as he is adept at all kinds of boating, fishing, etc.  He said you can’t beat a Hobie Kayak and thought we would love the pedaling option. The photo below tells the rest of the story. 
We are incredibly excited with these new purchases.  And, tomorrow is Vic’s birthday—now there’s a good excuse for the splurge.  Of course, like many purchases there is a domino effect; we now are faced with finding the perfect kayak rack and lifejackets for paddlers to ensure safe traveling.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

The amazing Topsail Hill State Park

March 26-30,  Destin, Florida
Site 127 at Topsail
Wow! Now we understand the rave reviews this park consistently receives.  It turns out it used to be a private RV resort, which explains why there is cable, a pool, sewer hook-ups, and luscious landscaped sites.  The drive in to the park takes you along two large ponds filled with water lilies which were in full bloom this time of year. 

There is shuffleboard by the pool area and bass fishing in the ponds.  The park also runs a tram to take you to the beach which is less than a mile away on a private trail (also an easy bike ride or walk). And what a beach it is, no condos here, only lush white sand and crystal clear waters. 

We set up everything on our patio and took off on our bikes for the beach as soon as possible, Vic carrying the two folding chairs in their canvas bags and me carrying our beach umbrella and backpack.  Within fifteen minutes, we were relaxing in our chairs, squishing our toes in the sand.  What a luxury to be so close to a phenomenal beach.  I could get real used to life at Topsail.  We definitely plan to return for the full 14 day stay they allow—and more if we can do back to back reservations. 

The park really was full, especially with families on spring break.  It made us miss our grandchildren as the last time we saw the boys was at a state park on the ocean in Oregon.  We couldn’t help but think all our kids and grandchildren would love this place—who wouldn’t.  The positive energy flowing out of this place seems to create a happiness vibe that is palpable. At least I noticed I had trouble wiping the smile off my face. 

To add to the happiness vibe, Vic and I ventured south what is well-known in this area the 30A, a scenic highway which extends all the way back to Panama City Beach. Along the 30A, unbeknownst to us, are planned communities which look absolutely idyllic.  The first planned community is Watercolor, then Seaside, and Rosemary Beach.  The most famous of these villages is Seaside, the place where the Truman Show was filmed. All three have unique architecture centered around beach life with a town center full of small cafes, boutiques, and art galleries.  We were blown away by how attractive the lifestyle appeared to be with bike trails everywhere and inviting accesses to the sea.  The idea of a planned community does not typically appeal to us, but the intimate size of these villages makes living here seem very alluring.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Waking up to the roar of lions

March 25, Panama City Beach, Florida
The panhandle  is a place I have never been before—almost a first for me on this journey.  It doesn’t even feel like Florida—even the time changes to Central Standard Time.  It is way more open and greener and the air feels crisper—could also be the absence of live oaks dripping with moss.  There also seems to be less poverty—maybe because we are in tourist areas.  The park we chose, Emerald Coast Beach RV Resort, was a gorgeous surprise. We are staying in one of their older sites, but it is spacious with beautiful landscaping. There are two pools here, one salt and one chlorine. 
The new area of the park has wide sites with pavers centered around a lake with sand volleyball, bocce ball, basketball court, shuffleboard, and fenced dog run. 

Dog bath at Emerald Coast RV Beach Resort

The most comical part of the park is that the old section backs up to a zoo.  We actually awoke to the sound of a lion roaring and a monkey screeching.  I loved it! Apparently, there is a giraffe that pokes his head through into the park from time to time.  We were so impressed with the park that we inquired about monthly rates and were surprised to learn that their high season is March-August. Apparently, many tourists from the interior southern states come to this Emerald Coast in the summertime.  Rates during high season were about $1000 a month and $700 during low season including elec., cable, and taxes—not bad for such a lovely park less than fiive minutes to the Gulf beaches.
Our friends who live in Panama City Beach, Gavin and Betty, came to the park to see our motorhome and learn a little more about our new lifestyle before heading to their home(only ten minutes away) for dinner.  Even though it had been almost ten years since we had last seen them, it was easy to rekindle our friendship and spend the evening catching up on the past decade of our lives. Vic and I were especially intrigued to learn what drew them to this area (beyond employment) as our first impressions were much more positive than we had anticipated.
The next morning, we took time to check out the beaches in the area.  Evidence of spring break with college students was everywhere as there were music venues set up all along the beach with big banners welcoming students from across the nation (even Oregon State was included).

The sand felt like baby powder and looked like white sugar; the water had the typical turquoise color of the Gulf of Mexico but looked even more dramatic in contrast with the white sands. We were a little surprised by the presence of tall condos and hotels, but they took up only less than a mile of the shoreline. Something about this area reminded us of the golden zone in Mazatlan. For us, that is a very nostalgic feeling as we miss Mexico so much. One thing for us to keep in mind was the weather this winter in Florida has been much warmer than typical.  The high today was supposed to be in the mid-80s, about ten degrees warmer than usual.  Spending a winter in the panhandle would not be nearly as warm as Naples or even the Bradenton beaches, and this doesn’t seem to be a shelling beach.  Might be a good place to spend November or April of next year?

Sunday, March 25, 2012

A week with family in Zephyrhills

March 18-25, Zephyrhills, Florida

March 18th would have been my mom’s 82nd birthday and we are heading back to the place she lived the last years of her life.  They say getting through the first year of someone’s death is the hardest as the calendar moves through anniversaries that evoke different memories and trigger corresponding emotions.  Two years ago, our whole family came to Zephyrhills to celebrate my mom's 80th birthday.
My mom on her 80th with seven of her grandchildren
Leaving Cortez seems emotional on another level as it marks the beginning of our trek northward to new vistas outside of Florida. My niece texted me with plans to hold a birthday memory party for my mom, so all my family in Zhills will be gathering today at 4 p.m. to celebrate my mom.  So sweet.  I feel lucky to be in the area and to keep these connections going as it would have meant the world to my mom to know we are staying close without her to draw us together.
Jesse and Aunt Terry
While in Zephyrhills, we are staying in the same park we stayed out for the whole month of December: Majestic Oaks.  It is an Encore/Carefree park but they do not offer the Passport American 50% off discount Jan-March; however, their daily rate of $28 is terrific as the park is spacious and immaculately kept with well-maintained amenities.  Another bonus this time is that an open field lay right behind our motorhome, a perfect place for the dogs to run and play.  Our plans for the week are to visit as much as I can with my son Jesse and my aunt Terry and check out what we can do to generate more interest in my mom’s mobile home for sale—like dropping the price considerably. I also am taking the opportunity to have my haircut with Kelly at the HQ Aveda salon in Wiregrass—something I did in December when we here (ahhh, the challenge of haircuts on the road).
We had planned to go and check out the Tampa beaches while here, but just didn't feel inspired to deal with the spring break traffic that was likely to be there. One place I had always wanted to check out in this area is Ybor City, a historic area settled mostly by Spanish and Cuban immigrants, well-known for the production of Cuban cigars.  I also heard that since the economic downturn, Ybor City has become somewhat run-down, but still worth checking out.  We enjoyed a lunch of Cuban roast pork sandwhich with mojo sauce--so good and wandered around the main street enjoying the scenes in the photos below:

This week went so quickly and once again I am faced with saying goodbyes as we don’t plan to be back here until November.  It was much easier to head south and say “see you in a month or so.” I need to be mindful of the luxury this lifestyle affords us in terms of having much more time available to spend with the people we care about and having so many options of places to visit.  It has been a priority for us to seek out friends and family to reconnect with along the way and we are so grateful for this opportunity.
One of those reconnections is about to happen in Panama City Beach—our next destination.  In 1982, my close friend Pam from Crystal Lake, Illinois introduced me to Betty and Gavin, a couple she and her first husband befriended yeaearly int their marriage.  I have only seen them about once every ten years, but it is our good fortune that they have recently moved to Panama City Beach. 

Uncharacteristic of us, we have actually booked out the next eleven nights.  Throughout my research of Florida parks, the name Topsail State Park kept rising to the top as one of the finest state parks in the country.  Because of its popularity, it is hard to get in. I bookmarked Reserve America with the specific details of my request and kept trying the last two weeks.  Voila—one day at Buttonwood I found four nights available at Topsail March 26-30 and booked it.  After studying the calendar, I realized that only left March 25 (my deceased father’s bday)  for a chance to see Betty and Gavin.  I found a park  10-10-10 rated park in Woodall’s called Emerald Coast Beach RV Resort and booked it.  We also hoped to be able to stay at Gulf State Park in Gulf Shores, Alabama.  Since this time of year is spring break for many, this park was also busy, but we managed to find openings April 1-5.  Since that left March 30 and March 31 open, I looked at a map and remembered an advertisement for Navarre Beach Campground, just about an hour west of Topsail.  That is the story of how we ended up with reservations for eleven nights in a row.  We are starting to learn that making the commitment of a reservation isn’t so bad if it is in a place you know you want to be.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Falling in love with Cortez

March 11-18, Cortez, Florida

With our three days at Arbor Terrace up, we felt unsure of where to go next.  Our plans to spend another week in Zephyrhills before heading to the Panhandle were not for another week.  I kept trying to get a reservation at Fort de Soto in Tampa, but every time I tried on-line the campground was full.  We were not too eager to drive to this busy area of Tampa across the skyway bridge only to find there was no room at the inn. Again, our friends BJ and Mike came to the rescue.  On their way to Bradenton Beach, they checked out a campground they had seen last year when they were staying at the very lovely (and rather expensive) Holiday Cove in Cortez. The campground, called Buttonwood Inlet, has undergone major remodeling and the addition of big-rig friendly sites with pavers and lovely landscaping surrounding a small pond.  It sounded like a place we should check out as we really like this part of Florida and would consider it for a long-term stay—maybe next year. We drove to Buttonwood on a Sunday (only 20 minutes from Arbor Terrace) and the office was closed, but we managed to find another worker who told us where we could stay at least for that night.  We were immediately impressed with the back area of the park. Everyone was incredibly friendly, the sites were gorgeous, the proximity to the beach was incredible (1.5 mile), and the price was good for high season—about $60 a night. 
Our site at Buttonwood

On Monday when the office was open, we asked if we could have our site for a week; we were lucky to work it out as this was spring break in the local area.  After talking to many others in the park who just loved the place, we decided to find out what reservations for next year looked like.  They had a waiting list of 50-60 people already.  It turned out Dec. and Jan were still open, so we put our name on the list with the understanding that there is no cancellation penalty if you are more than 60 days out.  Our immediate attraction to this place surprised us both. We had not anticipated wanting to stay anywhere for more than a month, but we could both envision it right away--felt good to be feeling the same vibe. 

Exploring this area for one week actually increased our attraction to this part of Florida (and this park in particular). There are no park models here—only fifth wheels, trailers, and motorhomes—and there is a canal access for fishing and kayaking right in the park itself.  Across the street from the park (walking or biking distance) are several local cafes and even a tiki bar. Cortez used to be a well-known fishing village and it has kept its laid-back charm and old Florida innocence.  Across the bridge to Bradenton Beach (1.5 mile) is a large public beach area (Coquina Beach) and a cute downtown area of locally-owned shops and restaurants.  Just a little to the north (on Anna Maria Island) is the town of Holmes Beach which allows dogs to use its municipal baseball park for an off-leash area when no baseball is going on. At the north end of the island is a well-known fishing pier and more cafes. Further to the south of Bradenton Beach, takes you across a bridge to Longboat Key (which is where we went to a more secluded beach almost daily).

Shorebirds at our favorite beach on Longboat Key

We also discovered a sweet little county park about two miles east of our park that allowed dogs off-leash in an area where they could actually swim in the bay. The downside was the traffic during spring break over the bridge to the beach—but we could walk or ride our bikes, plus we discovered if we went to our special spot on the beach by 9 a.m. and returned by noon, we had no traffic issues.  Another downside to the park itself was a lack of organized activities--such as Zumba! (but we did attend a St. Patrick’s Day potluck complete with live music.) Considering all the pros and cons, we would be thrilled to spend a few months here next year.

A whimsical store next to Buttonwood

Packing up at Buttonwood