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!


  1. gee thanks for the review of many of the PA parks in Florida... hoping we don't regret not returning to Florida but we just had to try the Rio Grande Valley this year...

    1. Variety is the spice of life! I never thought we would go to the same area two years in a row but we decided long ago, when our original plan was retire in Mazatlan, that beach life and warm temps were a high priority for our winter plan.

  2. Buttonwood Inlet looks like a great plea to consider ... we'll have to remember it for another year.

  3. How wonderful to visit with folks important in your life. Thanks for the park suggestions. We biked the Withlacoochee trail and enjoyed it. Definitely agree with you about beaches.


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