Thursday, November 29, 2012

Thanksgiving, Toys for Conch Kids, and a little kayaking

November 22-25, Marathon, Florida

We had originally planned to have several members of my family at our Thanksgiving gathering in the Keys but plans changed and we celebrated with just the four of us—my brother and his wife and Vic and me. With a surprise gift of Florida lobsters on Wednesday, we decided to start the day with a lobster quiche, an Oregon berry medley from our summer harvest, cranberry nut bread, and mimosas with freshly squeezed orange juice.

This indulgent breakfast meant we would have Thanksgiving dinner at sunset rather than mid-afternoon, so we would have time to be hungry again.  Of course, the day wouldn't be complete without watching some of the Macy Parade and catching some of the NFL games in between cooking. Even though Vic and I have been trying to eat more vegan meals than carnivorous ones, we opted for the traditional turkey with all the trimmings dinner. It was beautiful day in the Keys with highs in the mid 70s and we were thankful to be spending it with family rather than strangers in an RV park.

My brother Mike and his wife Bonnie

The whole idea of holidays full-timing in the motorhome has been a little unsettling to me as these were times that our home seemed to hold more importance as a place for family and friends to gather around our big dining room table and create special memories together. If you haven’t figured it out yet, I am an incurable romantic, so these Norman Rockwell images I envision as part of holiday celebrations often fall short of what actually occurs. The first challenge is the reality that our children come from previous marriages. Our own marriage occurred after Vic's two children were already married adults living far away from us, and mine were already teenagers, so, other than our wedding day, our four children have never gathered together holidays or otherwise.

Vic talking to his daughter Mindy on Thanksgiving morning. 
All of Vic’s family is in California, my two sons are in Oregon, and most of the rest of my family happens to be in Florida, yet we did not come to Florida for that reason.  We have discovered we genuinely love it here—something I never expected as I often visited and never wanted to linger. We planned to spend winters in Mexico when I retired, but the drug violence in Mexico and failing American economy led us to Plan B--the idea of traveling in a motorhome.  Our original plan definitely included leaving Oregon in the winter for a warm, sunny climate with a beach which we thought would be Mazatlan, one of our favorite places in Mexico.  For us, spending time on Florida’s Gulf Coast and the Keys has exceeded our expectations, especially since the purchase of our kayaks. We do, however, really miss the Latino culture—the music, food, traditions, and lively spirit of daily life in Mexico, but we have been happy to discover that life in Florida has a varied and colorful culture all of its own. (Think Buckingham Bar Bluesfests, wing nights at Hogbody’s Grill, pressed Cuban sandwiches in Ybor City, tiki bars blaring Jimmy Buffet songs throughout the Keys, soul food at Farmer’s Market Kitchen in Ft. Myers, cracked conch sandwiches and dollar tap beers in Marathon, mullet throwing contests at the Flora-Bama, lounge dancing at the Red Rose Inn and ballroom dancing at the Fred Astaire studios, and something I have yet to experience that is high on my list: beating down the sun drum circles. I need to get a belly dance coin skirt for that one. . . . And so I ramble. We had no set plan in terms of travel when we started this journey 15 months ago, but the weather and presence of water plays a significant factor in where we choose to spend time these days.

Speaking of water opportunities, the Keys is the place to be. We took our kayaks to Sombrero Beach, just a few miles from my brother’s house, where they have a great launching area which leads to a popular kayak and canoeing area that meanders through mangrove canals via Sister Creek. (Sorry about the quality of these few photos below as I had my camera with no memory card in it, so had to use my phone camera.)

sombrero boat launch

I was a little disappointed that we did not see much wildlife in the mangroves, but on the way back we had a big surprise as we glided right over two large manatees which were cavorting around near the fishing pier at Sombrero beach. Of course, it happened so fast there was no way to get photos.

vic in mangrovessister creek private beach

We also fulfilled a desire of mine to watch the sunset on the ocean side of the Keys from our kayaks. The trick is to hurry in before it gets too dark to see and to be sure to carry flashlights (it’s the law) just in case you underestimate the time due to the currents.

sunset with pam in kayak2

sombrero sunset3

sister creek sunset2

Sunday the 25th was a busy day for us as my brother and his wife are active members of a motorcycle club called ABATE and Sunday was their annual toy drive called Toys 4 Conch Kids. In addition, it was my brother’s birthday and my middle brother and niece would be arriving from Tampa that evening.  Vic and I attended the end point of the motorcycle gathering—talk about varied culture—and were impressed with the results of their efforts.

The generous donation of toys and gift cards all go to children in the Keys, which some like to refer to as the Conch Republic. (I learned from ole Wikipedia that the term derives from a “tongue-in-cheek secession of Key West from the United States on April 23, 1982 and has since  been expanded to refer to all of the Florida Keys" and that "the original protest event was motivated by a U.S. Border Patrol checkpoint which greatly inconvenienced residents and was detrimental to tourism in the area.” As a result, Key West has an annual Conch Republic independence day celebration on April 23—as if they needed more reasons to throw a party.

Flag of the Conch Republic

Since the toy drive was in Islamorada, about 20 miles north of Marathon, we took the kayaks with us in hopes of getting in a “pedal” on the drive back home. We decided to check out Long Key State Park and discovered they had easy launching points on the ocean side from several spots in the park.  For a nominal entrance fee of $6 we were in and pedaling away within 10 minutes (a shorter launching time than usual because we slid the kayaks into the bed of my brother’s 1974 Chevy 354 pickup rather than having to secure them on our Jeep’s rooftop rack).

The water was amazingly calm and clear and we enjoyed seeing the park’s RV campsites from the vantage point of the water.  We would love to stay here but you need to plan way ahead to get reservations during the winter months.

Again, we didn't see much wildlife except for Vic’s first sighting of flying fish. Good thing they weren't too big as there was a national news story a couple years ago about a kayaker in the Keys being critically injured by a flying fish which punctured her lung and knocked her out of the boat! Thankfully, our kayaking adventures so far have been considerably more tranquil.

Before leaving for the day, I prepared shrimp kabobs for the grill, sun-dried tomato and artichoke fettuccine  and salad so when we returned it would be easy to throw together a birthday dinner. I even had homemade bread all ready to warm in the oven, and my sister-in-law made a fabulous New York style cheesecake which she drizzled with Drambuie (a family favorite). My other brother and his daughter arrived from their Tampa to Marathon road trip hungry so my efforts were doubly appreciated. The only bummer part of the day, especially for the birthday boy, was the shellacking of the Green Bay Packers by the Giants.

No sooner had Thanksgiving weekend drawn to a close, than Christmas lights began to appear throughout the neighborhood and on the waterfront vistas.  I never feel remotely ready to think about Christmas until at least December, nor do we participate in any of the black Friday and Cyber Monday shopping frenzies. I have to admit, it still feels strange to be in a warm climate for the Christmas  season, but we will do our best to generate the holiday spirit and be fully appreciative of the many, many blessings in our lives. Gracias a Dios.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Hanging out in the Keys

Nov. 13-20, Marathon, Florida

Blue Heron on front of Crane Point Museum

The drive to the Keys over the causeways surrounded by water and swaying palm trees passing scenes that look like a Corona commercial can’t help but put you in a lighthearted mood. It’s no accident that Jimmy Buffett’s “Margaritaville” is the theme song here echoing from many of the tiki bars that populate the drive along U.S. 1 South. With my brother’s driveway as our destination, we were a bit more subdued than going to an RV resort but we were looking forward to hanging out with family, appreciative of the break from costly overnight stays—especially here in the Keys. We have everything here but a sewer dump and even have a view of the water—Dodge Lake, a man-made body of water that serves as a canal with easy access to the Bay of Florida—from our expansive windshield. We do indeed feel lucky to have family in such a special place of the country.  Back in the 70s when my first husband and I lived in Missoula, Montana, we thought the ideal life would be to split our time between two amazing places Montana and the Keys. Jimmy Buffet concurred as he had a ranch in Livingston, Montana in the Paradise Valley and a classic plantation style conch house in Key West before finding a more remote retreat in Palm Beach, Florida.

A main attraction of our presence here in the driveway has to do with watching four “cousin” dogs interact.  Our Portuguese Water Dogs, Jetta and Rico, instantly recognized that they were about to relive one of their best memories of last year, having free reign in their cousins’, Buddy and Marley, yard with free access to swimming.  Oh Boy. Jetta and Buddy, the oldest of two male Springer Spaniels, are the only ones willing to swim over their heads on their own.The other two dogs mostly splash around near the shore. Jetta, being the only female in in the group, has to establish her dominance right away and then the boys give her first choice on the tennis balls and water toys. It is fun to see the dogs having such a good time as it is rare that they can experience such freedom other than visiting dog parks. There is a challenge here though in terms of bugs that can harm the dogs—ticks abound—and, as a result, we needed to make a trip to the local vet to purchase a special tick collar. There are different threats for dogs here vs. Oregon where Heartworm from mosquitoes is still rare. Fleas, mosquitoes, ticks, sand fleas, and mites are all common problems here for dogs so we had to have them tested for Heartworm and decided to put them on a flea and Heartworm combination pill called Trifexis, but this combo medicine does not deal with ticks, mites, or sand fleas. Thus the decision to purchase special collars (like the old day of flea collars) for tick and mite repellant, and hopefully, sand fleas too.  The Oregon environment was much easier for dogs to deal with but we have learned from traveling to different regions of the country that it is better to be proactive about keeping these potential canine challenges under control. (Not to mention the possible ingestion of poisonous Bufo toads or the rare chance of meeting with a large alligator).

One of the things we are really looking forward to doing here is kayaking. Last year when we were here we did not have our Hobie kayaks yet. I would like to combine some of these outings with saltwater fishing,  So far, we have spent most of the past week settling in and visiting with family which has been great. I also researched the local Zumba opportunities and came up with a great little studio less than three miles from my brother’s home. The instructor is the best I have had so far. They offer two levels of classes: Zumba Gold and Zumba Fitness. I quickly learned that the Gold class was low impact and more of an introductory class.  The cool thing is that I can go to one class or the other every day except Sunday. Having easy access to Zumba classes is now a high priority for me wherever we travel as it is my favorite form of exercise and it is just plain fun.

We managed to get out on the water in the kayaks right from my brother’s dock a couple days ago.  The lake he lives on has a canal that is about 300 yards long leading into the Gulf or what is more properly called the Bay of Florida. There are some good places to explore close to here such as the Crane Point Nature Center, but we discovered small white caps out on bay, so our kayak exploring on day one was a bit limited by the dark skies and rough water. The good part was just being out on the water in the sunshine and indulging in my new obsession of looking for large shells in the shallow water.  With recent weather reports in Oregon showing massive amounts of rainfall, extremely high winds, and relatively cold weather we are clearly thankful to be in a sunny, tropical climate—a major intention of our retirement plan.

With meals being a central source of pleasure, we have been quite indulged the past week.  As soon as we arrived here we were treated to my sister-in-law’s homemade chili, and then we have alternated meal preparation with only one escape so far to happy hour at one of the local sunset bars, Lazy Days. We have been happy to discover that the Keys have decent grocery store options now, as my father lived here in the 80s and had to do most of his shopping in the Miami area for storing up on good food.  There are two major grocery stores in Marathon: Winn Dixie and Publix. Both have good prices and most everything you could get on the mainland, so that makes it a little easier to get by here if you are not having most of your meals out. There are, of course, several good spots for buying fresh seafood which is, as my brother says, rivals the abundance of berries and fruits in the Willamette Valley in Oregon. We are really looking forward to enjoying the Key West lobsters, pink shrimp, grouper, and hogfish to name only a few of our local favorites, We actually already indulged in the pinkies at Lazy Days where happy hour from 3-6 is half price on all call drinks and shrimp are four for a dollar.  Good times.

While we were at Lazy Days we took a self-guided tour of the new RV park and pool that they recently added to the Marathon Marina.  No motorhomes were in the small lot of eleven sites, but we sure were impressed with the setting.  We could not find anyone with information about the rates, nor could I find anything on the internet, but we definitely would like to find out if a stay here would be even remotely affordable.

Today we woke up to a cloudy sky and temperatures in the low 60s. The locals were all dressed in sweatshirts and jeans. I even saw someone at the local grocery with a fur-collared hood! Tomorrow is a cooking day to contribute to our Thanksgiving feast as I am in charge of all the sides, including homemade bread. Wishing all of you out there a special day for acknowledging all the blessings in our collective lives. Namaste.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

A week long hiatus in Cortez, Florida

Nov. 7-14, Cortez, Florida

We have spent the past week at Buttonwood Inlet RV Resort with our friends Mike and BJ whom we met in motorhome adventures last fall. This time together was unplanned as we arrived in Florida earlier than expected due to Hurricane Sandy dumping snow in the Smoky Mountains. Buttonwood is one of our best discoveries for an RV park as it only a mile from some of the best beaches on the Gulf and the area nearby in Cortez and Anna Maria Island still have retained an old Florida charm. With a location this close to the beach and big-rig friendly sites, the rates are relatively reasonable, especially if you can use the Passport America discount (good for  a 7 day stay between May 1 and Dec.31) or the book a site at the monthly rate which averages to about $33 a day. Knowing this park is out of our budget during high season, we were delighted to get the PA discount and be able to arrive early enough to surprise Mike and BJ with our presence as they drove in. From the moment they arrived, this past week felt like more of a vacation and celebration than most of our other experiences since we left Oregon. 

It didn’t take long to start plotting out things we wanted to do together in this area.  Day one took us to a beach that Mike and BJ discovered a few years ago which became one of our favorite spots when we stayed here last spring. This somewhat private beach is on the northernmost end of Longboat Key with public access that has free parking less than 100 yards from the beach.

The white sand beach on Longboat Key is good for shelling, particularly for sand dollars, and it is rarely crowded. BJ and Mike, experienced shellers, come provisioned with special rakes and knowledge of the types and rarity of Gulf Coast shells.  Aside from teaching me the names of the shells and which ones to keep, they have taught me to clean them with mineral oil and to preserve sand dollars by bleaching them and painting them with white glue.

Finding a shell with a wow factor involves a bit of science, keen eyes, and a good dose of luck. For starters, you cannot keep any shell that is alive—a big no-no that incurs a hefty fine. Sometimes a hermit crab will have taken up residence in the shell, but that does not qualify the shell as being alive—although the shell has to be pretty spectacular for me to kick the little creature out of its home. Most of the wow shells I have found, unbroken conches or whelks, are ones I found about knee depth in water where the water is so clear you can see their dark shadow. Low tide is best for finding shells washed up on the sand, especially where there are small shelves in the sand to catch them, and high tide can be good for bringing in a new haul, especially if you are willing to get wet. Another part of the excitement is thinking you have found a whole shell only to discover the underside has a hole or is missing a piece.  I admit it is hard for me to toss back large imperfect shells. Vic is a good filter as he keeps reminding me there is a limit to what we can carry with us in the motorhome. My promise is to keep culling through them and only keep the best ones as my collection grows. Today’s haul was a pretty modest one but, like many sports, the hunt is the major part of the fun. In truth, I find it shell searching somewhat addicting but in a good way like some form of meditation walking the shoreline in a quest for beauty.

Aside from spending time at the beach, we took a few adventures together to some new places (at least new for us.) One was to check out a planned community called Lakewood Ranch about forty miles away. I had read that there was a Farmer’s Market there on Main Street and we also discovered there was a store called called Total Wine there where we all enjoy shopping for good bargains. Lakewood Ranch turned out to be a bit of a dud—the place is pretty, all groomed with golf courses and fake lakes and the modern Spanish architecture was attractive, but there wasn’t much going on at the market and many of the shops and cafes were closed either due to the early season or the challenges in the local economy. Not a place I would go out of my way to return to, but the visit satisfied my curiosity. We still had fun exploring both the main street area and scouring the shelves at Total Wine for our some both good deals and indulgences.

Another day we headed north about an hour across the St. Petersburg Sunshine Skyway Bridge to experiences the beaches in that area. Our first stop across the bridge was to check out a county park called Fort de Soto that I have wanted to stay at because of its proximity to the water. It is a highly popular spot with a pretty hefty rate for a county park ($42 daily), but I have read that you can launch your kayaks directly from some of the sites, so we decided to see for ourselves.  One of the challenges of this park, besides getting a reservation during the winter, is low overhanging branches. Fortunately, the website for the park includes photos for each site so you can get a pretty good idea of the clearance for choosing a site that will work with your motorhome or RV. After circling around the different options in the campground’s pet area, we decided site 152 would be a good choice.  The sites actually jut out into a bay which looks perfect for kayaking and fishing. The prevalence of water and woods may also make this spot popular for no-see-ums and mosquitoes. I also heard it is a big haven for raccoons. The only other drawback here is the likelihood of constantly dragging in sand as none of the sites are paved. Can’t have it all—or can you?

My niece who lives near Tampa told me that her favorite beach in this area is called Pass-a-Grille, so that was our next stop. I learned that Pass-A-Grille got its name from Cuban fisherman, known as "Grillers," who camped along the water's edge of the island and would smoke their fish before returning home. Traveling through the pass, you could see fires on the beaches, hence Pass-A-Grille. The beach was really lovely there and the historic area on the main street, with the oldest dwellings on the Pinellas beaches, was charming,  After spending a little more than an hour on the beach shell hunting and people-watching, we found a local cafe with a view of the water for crab cakes and grouper sandwiches. The café overlooking the historic street also provided a good venue for people watching on this Veteran’s day weekend.

Happy hour and sunsets are also a big draw in this little corner of paradise we claimed for our own this week. Our first attempt to catch sunset took place at the Gulf Drive Café tiki bar in Bradenton Beach, only about a mile from our campground. We missed the live music and happened to catch the sunset on a cloudy night, but still managed to capture a little sky drama with our cameras while we sipped our favorite beverages.

With water on nearly three sides of us, this place is also great to explore by kayak. Vic and Mike took out our Hobie Revolutions on the Sarasota Bay, launching them directly from the boat launch at our campground. They tooled around for a couple hours out in the bay. One good story was Mike’s attempt to use one of the paddles to bring up a large whelk that he spied on the bay floor. It was more than likely a live whelk, so it was just as well that his attempts failed. They seemed to enjoy themselves but took no photos as evidence of their fun afternoon. While they kayaked, BJ and I returned to our little beach on Longboat Key for more shell hunting and relaxing in the sun. I even got in a little swim that felt great until a rather large fish that looked like a Dorado (mahi mahi) surprised me in about shoulder depth water. Made me wish I had my fishing rod there. . . .  Just for the record, it took eight minutes by car for us to get to this beach from our campground and that included a short traffic delay on the drawbridge. Definitely a place you could also easily bike to if you were willing to do without the chairs and umbrella.

Our last night in Cortez called for another chance to see a good sunset and have a little celebration to cap off our fun week together. Our choice of locations this time was just a few blocks across the street from us at a new restaurant called Swordfish Grill. We learned that happy hour was two for one on all drinks from 4-6 p.m., but we would have to settle for a sky view rather than an ocean view of the sunset as the place is on the bay facing south. It turned out to be another great discovery as we enjoyed watching the commercial fishermen next door bring in their catch which attracted dozens of white pelicans and other shorebirds. The place turned out to be another good find as they have entertainment nightly which we could even hear from our campground. We will be returning to Buttonwood Inlet for the month of January, so I imagine we will have plenty of chances to check out the entertainment and enjoy more of the chargrilled oysters that were one of their specialties.

white pelicans at swordfish grill

A common refrain on this blog has been that departure day from these special places always seems to come too early. Our deepening friendship with BJ and Mike certainly adds to the angst of moving on; however, we are not going to garner much sympathy with our next destination of going to the Keys for more fun in the sun.

swordfish grill sunset

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Arriving in Florida ahead of “schedule”

Oct. 31-November 8, Cortez, Florida

Hurricane Sandy changed our plans and we arrived in Florida on Halloween—about two weeks ahead of schedule so as we crossed the border from Georgia on I-75 we had some decisions to make.  As it turned out my sister-in-law’s mother passed away this week and the funeral was scheduled to be held at a location on our way south to Tampa just west of Ocala. Stopping here would allow me to spend time with my sister-in-law during this difficult time as well as see two of my three brothers. We also had planned all along to stop at a fairly new Passport America park we discovered called Southern Oaks near the Villages to visit with longtime friends of my mother.

With the funeral on Saturday and our entry into Florida on Wednesday, we had time to stop off near the Villages for a couple days first. We made a surprise phone call to my mom’s friends and were lucky to catch them just in time to be invited to happy hour at their home on Halloween. We spent a lovely evening sharing with them about our travels and hearing about new developments in their lives and received an invitation to go back the next night for a delicious dinner. Before dinner the following day, Will and Sharon took us to see some land my youngest brother is going to build a house on in horse country.

This couple traveled with my mom and step-father in their Pace Arrow motorhome all the way from Michigan to Acapulco, Mexico, back in 1979.  I was living in Acapulco at the time, so I actually witnessed a part of this adventure as they came there primarily to see me. It is wild to think about them making this journey knowing no Spanish and at a a time when the roads were much worse and no one had any GPS devices. This month-long trip more than thirty years ago still stands out as one of this couple’s best travel memories. The other amazing part to me is that the motorhome was only 32’ long, had none of the amenities that we now have in our 36’ motorhome, and there were four adults sharing that space! My mom told me before she died that her years of traveling in the motorhome every winter and spring for more than a decade were some of the best times of her life. As we have been confronted with the fleeting quality of life these last few weeks, this statement of my mom’s is a timely reminder of how blessed we are to be pursuing this kind of adventure full-time as my mother always had to be back in Michigan to re-open her restaurant by Mother’s Day every spring.

My mom's close friends, Will and Sharon, in the 70s

After leaving the Southern Oaks park, we made an hour drive to another Passport America park called Sandy Oaks in Beverly Hills, Florida. We chose it based on price and close proximity to the funeral home. I was a little worried about this park being more of a long-term mobile home park, but the RV part of the park was quite lovely. We only stayed two nights but we were impressed with the sites, the pool, the very large grassy fenced-in dog park, and, most of all, the super-friendly managers and guests. I also managed to take advantage of their dog bath area and the chance to groom Jetta, our curly Portuguese Water Dog.

We also took a short drive to check out a more popular local destination, Crystal River, a small town on the Gulf Coast that is known for its kayaking or canoeing opportunities and large Manatee population. There is also a 45 mile bike trail in this area called the Withlacoochee Trail which is a big attraction to both locals and tourists. The disappointing part about this coastal town is that the beaches are not easily accessible as there are several inlets thick with mangroves and protected habitat. There is also a nuclear power plant just north of town—not something I like to hang around. But we did want to see an RV park in the area that rated 9s and 10s from Trailer Life called Rock Crusher Canyon RV Park.  This park looks more like a state park than a private one and boast over 400 sites in a fairly heavily wooded setting near the bike trail and several access points to the Crystal River. The monthly rates at this park were very attractive but we still prefer having easy access to the white sand beaches between St. Petersburg and Naples for the majority of the time we spend in Florida.

We left the park in Beverly Hills on Sunday morning and took a short drive of about twenty minutes to the Dunnellon where my oldest brother Bob lives and works. Bob, a retired Major in the Marines, runs the National Parachute Test Center at the Dunnellon Airport where, among many other enterprises, he offers military skydiving re-enactments for veterans who want to relive history. Vic and I enjoyed getting a tour of the place and learning more about what actually goes on at the Test Center. Bob has been working at this site for more than twenty years and I have been here several times before but this was the first time I understood his passion for living in a flat place that is relatively remote—sure works well for being able to find the drop zone.

I was also surprised to learn how much engineering and production they do at the test center. Bob buys military surplus chutes and re-rigs them for a variety of purposes from sport jumping to GPS-guided drops of emergency supplies. Even on a Sunday morning, his talented sidekick, Billy, was running rigging through an old industrial Singer machine in an effort to be ready for their next big jump event.

Making sure parachutes are properly rigged and packed is a big deal; you have to be licensed to do this work and that’s a good thing!  (I think you can pack your own chute without having a license based on the theory that you would be extra careful if it was your own life that depended on it.) This was Vic’s first exposure to this whole process, and while he has zero interest in skydiving himself, I think he found the behind-the-scenes look pretty fascinating.

From the Dunnellon Airport, our next destination was another family stop to see my aunt and nieces in Zephyrhills, about a two hour drive to the south.The Zephyrhills connection in my family goes way back to my middle brother’s first marriage in the 60s. His wife’s family, the Boyettes, owned orange groves near Zephyrhills and she eventually inherited land here in the 70s. My two nieces and nephew grew up here after my brother and his wife divorced. Eventually my brother moved here to be near his children and grandchildren. My mother and step-father moved there in 1999, and a few years later my mother’s sister moved to Zhills also. Other than having family there, it has never been my favorite place to visit in Florida but last year we discovered another Passport America park, Majestic Oaks, that is quite a pleasant and reasonable place to stay. Even though there are more park models than RVs in the park, we like the open feel and roomy sites here, plus we have enjoyed watching dozens of skydivers perform all kinds of world record feats at an internationally known facility called Skydive City which is just a few miles from the park.

We must be on the family radar as it just so happened that my cousin and her family were on a vacation at Disneyworld during this time and they drove over for a few hours to visit my aunt and us. It seems a little crazy to me that I have so many family connections here now, but it is fairly typical that mid-westerners frequently head south to Florida for vacations or retirement.

After a few days with family in Zephyrhills, we had a new dilemma and that was to find a place to go for about a week before heading to the Keys as the brother I had planned to visit there was in the Dunnellon/Ocala area due to his mother-in-law’s death.  We learned that our good friends BJ and Mike were going to be staying at one of our favorite parks at Buttonwood Inlet RV Resort in Cortez (near Bradenton Beach).  We did not think we could afford a one-week stay at this park, nor did we think there would be vacancies, but here we are! It turned out they had vacancies and they take Passport America for up to seven days through December.  Their normal weekly rate for the sites we like are $414, but we managed to rationalize spending half that to be able to enjoy spending time with our friends at this fantastically located park just a mile from the beach.  Suddenly there is so much to do and only a week to accomplish it all: shell and sand dollar hunting, kayaking, biking, going to the local farmer’s markets, and window shopping at St. Armands Circle in nearby Sarasota. We are off to the beach!