Saturday, November 30, 2013

A family interlude in Central Florida

November 19-30, 2013
Zephyrhills, Florida
Majestic Oaks RV Resort

closest shot of alligator[1]

Goodbye to November already!  Thanksgiving is behind us and Christmas songs are going full force on the radio—a disappointment for us as we really enjoy a Tampa station called “The Dove” which normally plays mellow oldies.  It’s hard to believe this is my third year of retirement from the classroom. I still have my fair share of teacher dreams and tend to view the year in terms of Thanksgiving Break, Christmas Vacation (no—Winter Break), etc. I guess after living this way as a student or a teacher for close to 50 years, it makes sense. But, this year I feel the hold on me loosening as Sunday evenings now hold the same possibility of joy as any other day of the week.  (Teachers out there will know what I am talking about---the ungraded papers and loose lesson plans colliding with the Monday morning reality).

We accomplished pretty much everything we intended in our stay here the past ten days.  A major focus for me was to spend time with my aunt. She lost her husband one year ago and it has been a tough adjustment for her after being married for more than fifty years. Our park is only about two miles from here, so I have been able to spend time with her almost every day. I didn't think to take a photo of us together, but here is one from two years ago.

terry and pam 2011

We managed to see two movies while here: Last Vegas and About Time. We didn't expect Last Vegas would be that good, but it was entertaining to us baby boomers from beginning to end. How can you go wrong with Robert De Niro, Michael Douglas, Morgan Freeman, and Kevin Cline?  It has been described as similar to the movie Hangover only for senior citizens, but we thought it was better than Hangover because it had a better developed plot and subplot which we found quite entertaining.

I took my aunt to see About Time. It was an unexpected WOW for both of us. If you liked the movie Groundhog Day, it is likely you will appreciate this one even more. Suffice it to say the film caused us to both laugh and weep, and more importantly, reflect on our own daily relationship to the passage of time. For some reason, I think those of us who are full-time RVers may relate to the theme of this movie more than others. See it and let me know!

One big highlight this past week was learning that we were in close proximity to fellow bloggers, John and Pam of Oh the Places They Go. We have been following them for almost a year now, but have been quite far apart geographically for most of that time. Aside from having the connection as full-timers and for me, the same first name, we are all retired educators. Vic and John, even more so, as they both were social studies a teachers and principals. I also need to acknowledge that they have been an inspiration to do some serious hiking out on the trails. They met us for lunch near at Kafe Kokopelli in Dade City. As so often happens with getting to know folks we only knew in the virtual world of blogging, we passed three hours quite easily with much to share about our travels and perspectives on this lifestyle. Fortunately, we will be at the same RV resort for the month of March, giving us a much better opportunity to deepen our friendship.

pam and john with us at lunch

The day after we met Pam and John was Thanksgiving. I have two nieces who live in Zephyrhills; the youngest one typically hosts Thanksgiving and the older one hosts the Christmas gathering. This year, three other nieces were able to join us: one from Sweden, one from Miami, and one from Ocala. As the mother of two sons, my nieces are especially important to me. I was thrilled to be able to be with them on this holiday. Here are a few more shots of our Thanksgiving feast.

Five of my gorgeous nieces. They make me miss being young and . . . ?

With about twenty five or more for dinner, we had quite a festive gathering. It also happened to be my sister-in-law’s birthday so we managed to include a birthday celebration after our gynormous meal.

Of course a family gathering for us Irish folks would never be complete without a group shot—hah.

After our meal, we had a big bonfire in the backyard (one of my favorite things) and we were serenaded by my niece on guitar and one of my other niece’s boyfriends, also on guitar. My photos and short videos were too dark to share, but it was a special way to end the day.  I also enjoyed taking photos of one of the two bulldogs who graced our party.

Another highlight of the week was Vic washing the motorhome over the course of two days. He even found time to polish the rims—a job that had not been done in some time!

We are hoping the winter months are more reminiscent of our previous winters here in Florida as the weather has been either unusually warm and humid or downright chilly.  I had intended to bathe and groom the two dogs, play tennis, and lounge by the pool. With temps as low as the mid 30s the night before Thanksgiving, the pool was not a big draw this week. It was also too cold on most days to wash the dogs outside, so that will have to wait.  I am sad that we did not get out on the courts; time just slipped away. Playing tennis or pickleball is something I really want to do. 

Tomorrow we are off to Holiday Cove, a splurge to be by the beach RV resort in Cortez, where we will be for the next two months. It is only about a ninety minute drive from here—close enough to return for a few occasions in December during the holidays. I leave you with my friends, the Sandhill Cranes, who visited us daily here in Zhills.

sand hill cranes

Sunday, November 24, 2013

From The Villages to Zephyrhills

November 15-24, 2013
Zephyrhills, Florida
Majestic Oaks RV Resort

fish shack

Our stay at Southern Oaks RV Resort  was a bit unplanned but turned out great as we enjoyed exploring The Villages, having lunch with my brother in Dunnellon, and meeting friends of my family for dinner while we were here. The Villages, called by some Adult Disneyland, is a bit of a phenomenon. It was designed to be a self-contained retirement community that provides a wide spectrum of shopping, medical, recreational, and housing options. There are three town squares now within a 6 square mile area, each with different themes, and housing developments to match, plus dozens of churches, golf courses, recreation centers, and entertainment venues catering to a population close to 100,000. One of the most unusual aspects of the design is that it is also accessible by golf cart. Supposedly, one could live here and only use a golf cart for transportation.

These photos below are of Lake Sumter Landing, the most developed town square in The Villages. This area is built around a large man-made lake that offers boating and fishing for recreation. The town is supposed to look a little like Key West, or a waterfront fishing village.

sumter square2

golf carts in town

hummer golf cart

Another big attraction here is live entertainment and happy hour every night in the town squares. We learned there was a Sadie Hawkins celebration going on in Brownwood Square, so we checked it out and were entertained by a Dixieland Jazz band when we were there. This square is the newest addition, opening a year ago, with the theme of the Old West.

dixieland band at brownwood

The sidewalks in Brownwood have exposed brick and the streets are lit with what are supposed to look like gas lanterns.

brownwood sidewalks with exposed brick

brownwood street lamps

The first time we were here, our friends gave us a tour, and, while we were curious about this retirement community, we did not feel compelled to spend any time here. It seems that the full-time RV lifestyle calls us to evaluate almost every place we go as a candidate for our eventual settling down phase. Since we were in the area again, we thought we would do more exploring on our own. If you want to learn more about this place, I found an interesting website with an article called “50 Things to Think about Before Buying a Home in the Villages.”

sumter lake

Regardless of what you think of this type of lifestyle, it does look like fun to zip around on all the special golf lanes to your favorite restaurant for dinner or to a polo match. A downside, however, is the “Stepford Wives” quality of this designer lifestyle with limited diversity in age, race, socio-economic levels, and political views. And for those who seek solitude in a natural environment, this would not be the place for you as the home lots are small and landscaping must conform to the HOA regulations.

We happened to meet a wonderful couple at GarVino’s Wine Bar in Lake Sumter Landing (one of the village squares) who were eager to share their enthusiasm for Village retirement. They had just purchased a home here in April after renting for a couple years. Their description of the place is “summer camp for adults.” They seriously do have classes or workshops for almost every imaginable hobby or avocation. This couple were avid pickleball, tennis, and golf players. They each had their own golf car and they clearly were living a very active lifestyle here. They even invited us to try pickleball with them, have cocktails at their home, and zip in for dinner to one of the squares in their four-seater golf cart. We wished we could have taken them up on this offer, but we had made plans with my family friends that day.  On the bright side, they visit Sarasota often and we vowed to get together when they come our way later this winter.  We appreciated hearing their first-hand enthusiasm for this place, but neither of us can imagine ourselves as “Villagers” at this time of our lives.

Another outing while we were in this area was to visit my oldest brother Bob and his wife Carol. Bob is a busy guy running the National Parachute Test Center in Dunnellon, but he managed to break away from the airport to join us for lunch. We had just enough time to catch up on one another’s families and his work at the test center which is always fascinating. Fortunately, we will be able to spend more time with him on Thanksgiving and at his annual holiday party the week of New Years.

I spent the last day in Summerfield (at Southern Oaks RV Resort) cooking a meal to take to a couple who have been friends of my family since the 60s. We try to see them every year we come to Florida. He is 85, blind, and still sharp as a tack, but you never know how many more years we will be able to enjoy their company. They live in Spruce Creek, a Del Webb development, just north of the Villages but they still have a home in Upper Michigan which they retreat to May-October. 

16 will and sharon 80th 2011

After visiting with them, we left the next morning for a short stay in Zephyrhills where I have lots of family. My mother used to live in Zhills before she passed away in 2011, so it is a place I have been coming to visit since she moved here in 1999. We found a park that we like to stay at here, Majestic Oaks RV Resort,  because of its proximity to my family (brother, nieces, and aunt), reasonable price, and spacious sites. We also like watching the daily drop of numerous skydivers from our patio as we are just a mile or so from Skydive City, an internationally known skydiving club. The folks in this park are quite friendly and seem to be drawn to the strong sense of community here, the good amenities, and central location to shopping, airport, medical, etc. It is, however, a misnomer to call it an RV Resort—maybe a Park Model Resort would be more like it.

majestic oaks

My family’s connection to Zephyrhills goes back to the 1950s as my sister-in-law’s family owned orange groves here. It was a different kind of place then, but now many of the farms and orchards are turning into Super Walmarts and strip malls. Kind of sad. . . . If I did not have family in the area, Zhills would not be a place we would spend time. It is too far from the beach and has a rather depressed economy. We will stay here through Thanksgiving as my niece is having us all at her home—about twenty or more folks--something we are looking forward to in terms of family connections and holiday cheer.

Our plans for this two-week stay here tend toward the more mundane—read, play cards, catch a few movies, wash the motorhome and Jeep, bathe and groom the dogs, and, for me, spend time with my aunt whose husband passed away last year.  She is my godmother and the only living sibling out of my mom’s family of six. 

There is a very nice pool here and tennis courts, so we are also hoping to take advantage of these two amenities in terms of exercise or just lounging—if the sun comes out!  (It has been rather cloudy, humid, and a little rainy since we arrived.) December will be here before we know it and we will be returning to one of our favorite spots in Florida, the Gulf Coast in Cortez, near Anna Maria Island. We are looking forward to an extended stay of two months there with plenty of beach time! 

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Leaving Hilton Head Island and getting blown away at Fernandina Beach

November 9-15, 2015
Summerfield, Florida
Southern Oaks RV Resort

Since my last post, we wrapped up our one-week stay at Hilton Head Island and headed south to Fernandina Beach on Amelia Island, Florida.  We had quite the social time during our last three days at Hilton Head. The resort had a plethora of activities going on since it was a semi-annual event they call owner’s week. On Friday night, they had a free wine and beer tasting which we enjoyed. A local distributor brought in a several wines to taste and the beer tasting included about twelve beers which were full bottles loaded in coolers.  Vic was a little disappointed as he wanted to taste a few different beers, but did not want to drink three bottles.  I stuck with the wine and was quite happy as they had Washington and Oregon wines in the line-up.  The park provided cheese and fruit trays on each round table. We sat and visited with some folks we had met earlier in the week. Very pleasant.

After the wine tasting, I devised a plan to go to a restaurant a fellow blogger, Suzi of Beluga’s excellent adventure told us about: Charlie’s L’etoile Verte. We had ridden our bikes past the place and it reminded me of my mom’s restaurant in Upper Michigan.  I discovered they have a bar with a happy hour menu—one of our favorite tricks for enjoying food for less at a higher end restaurant. The place was packed but there was a two-top near the bar that had just vacated. Lucky us. They have an extensive wine list and all wines by the glass were half price. Score. We ordered she-crab soup, seafood quiche, and broiled scallops on mixed greens. The food was excellent and we loved the bar atmosphere which was like being in someone’s living room. The best part of the night, though, was meeting a delightful couple who sat near us at the bar. They were locals who lived here since the 1980s who also had a motorhome.  We learned even more about the area from them, and the surprise of the night was having them invite us to their favorite place on the island for Sunday brunch. How sweet. 

On Saturday morning, there was a craft fair around the pool and a seafood and produce stand in the parking lot. I bought some fresh grouper and shrimp from the seafood guy and admired the jewelry some ladies in the park had for sale. Our plans for the afternoon were to spend it on the beach. It was a little chilly but sunny with highs in the 60s.  It felt great just to relax, read, and people watch, of course.  I also saw my first horseshoe crab (shell). They sure are big.

We were surprised how few people were on the beach during a lovely Saturday afternoon.

coligny beach1

I looked for shells, one of my favorite pastimes, but never came up with any of these featured in the poster below. Some young kids I checked in with found sand dollars, surf clams, and cockles on this Atlantic Beach.

That evening we had tickets for another park event: dinner from a local Cajun restaurant, Kenny B's, followed by entertainment from a live band with dancing.  What a fun time. The food was good, but we enjoyed the three-piece band named Target even more. They played music from the 50-70s with audience participation and lots of corny senior citizen jokes. We danced a fair amount too. Vic liked the band so much he even bought a CD. Now we can dance to them in the motorhome. Ha.

Sunday was another full day. First we had our brunch date with our new friends, Grayson and Glenda, at Palmetto Bay Sunrise Café. We never would have discovered this fantastic café on our own, yet it happened to be only about two miles from the resort. When we arrived, there was a half-hour waiting list, but Glenda had connections and speeded it along.  Excellent food again. They are known for their variety of eggs benedict dishes and their shrimp hash—which I had (never can get enough seafood for this girl). It was quite a delight to get to know them a little better. It turns out we will be in the Keys at the same time, so we look forward to another get together then.

After our big breakfast, we were ready to go for an extended bike ride which included meeting up with Janie and John of Flamingo on a Stick at Coligny Beach, about a two-mile ride from the park, with plans to ride down the beach. I, however, had forgot to check the tide table as bike reading on the beach is not too accessible at high tide. Oops. It was about a half hour past high tide.

Plan B turned out to be driving with them to see the Harbour Town Lighthouse on Hilton Head Island. The lighthouse is located in a section of HH called the Sea Pines. This turned out to be our least favorite part of HH as it is a gated area where they charge you $5 to enter.  We were actually told we could not enter the area at all because of the kayaks on our car.  They rent them there and don’t allow you to bring your own—never mind that we were not planning to kayak there. Janie and John were told they could not enter with their bikes mounted on the truck for the same reason—they rent bikes. Oh, please. In spite of these restrictions, we decided to lock our bikes up at the beach and go in their truck to see the lighthouse. Much to our dismay, we were told by the gate guard that the price for a vehicle with more than one axle is $25 (they have a dually truck), but he gave us a break and only charged us the $5 admission. This situation did not sit well with us either, but we proceeded to the lighthouse.


The lighthouse turned out to be part of a shopping area and marina, with an exclusive golf course along the shore. Not exactly what we pictured, but we walked around and checked it off our sightseeing list.  We headed back to the beach for a beer together before seeing them off at dusk on their way back to Savannah. Too bad we didn’t get a chance to ride together, but we sure appreciated getting together again as we only just met them a couple weeks ago at Petersburg Campground.


On Veteran’s Day, we left Hilton Head Island (sniff-sniff) and drove about four hours south to Fort Clinch at Fernandina Beach. This time we did better research on-line for accessibility and were able to book a beach front site for five days. It was, however, a bit of a challenge driving in on their two-mile canopied drive.  We pretty much had to stay in the middle of the road to avoid tree branches.

We had never been to this area before.  I thought it would be interesting to check out as it is advertised as “the real Florida.”  Our first day here we rode our bikes just a couple miles within the park to the Fort itself. It is supposed to be one of the best preserved 19th century forts in the country. Hard for us to compare as we haven’t been to many, but it was the best we had seen, and definitely worth the $2.00 admission. 

fort clinch collage

Another highlight of our first day here was seeing a nuclear submarine be escorted past the beach near us to the Inland Waterway. They sure had a lot of boats surrounding it as part of the security. Impressive.

On our second day, we took a drive around Amelia Island to check it out and run some errands. The historic buildings and homes were impressive, but much of the retail areas looked pretty tired. We may not have checked out the right places. My intention was to do more research on the area and spend some time on the beach the next day, but that night the cold front moved into Florida with wind gusts of 50 mph at the beach. What a night! Fortunately, we did not have to worry about trees falling on us as we only had a few palm trees nearby, but the slide toppers were flapping so hard we thought they might be shredded.

At about 2 a.m., we finally decided to put the slides in—a first for us. The whole motorhome was being buffeted by the winds. The poor dogs were practically under the covers, shivering with fear as the noises in the back bedroom were so loud.

When morning came, the winds had died down to about 35 mph gusts. Vic suggested we leave as now we were experiencing a sandstorm and gale force wind warnings were through late that evening. I was surprised to learn that the Reserve America policy is to refund your total camp fees--after you stay for the first day of your reservation. We were both disappointed to be leaving as we had plans to kayak, fish, and walk the beaches; instead, we drove about 150 miles southwest to a park near The Villages three days earlier than planned.

We are now at Southern Oaks RV Resort in Summerfield, Florida. This is a pretty basic Passport America park that we have stayed at before as it is across the street from friends of my mom’s whom I have known since the late 60s. Also, my oldest brother lives about a half hour away in Dunnellon, so we will have a chance to visit him while we are here as well. It is a rainy day here in Central Florida and we are going to go listen to live music at a wine bar in The Villages tonight.  Somebody has to do it. . . . Roll on.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

A daytrip to Pat Conroy’s Lowcountry

November 6, 2013
Hilton Head Island, S.C.
Hilton Head Island Motorcoach Resort

I first learned about Beaufort, South Carolina through reading one of our favorite authors. Pat Conroy.  An area called the Lowcountry, a geographic and cultural region located along South Carolina's coast, is the setting for most of his works: The Great Santini, Prince of Tides, and Lords of Discipline (based on his experience attending The Citadel, a well-known South Carolina military college in Charleston).  When we were in Charleston for the first time two years ago, I was reading one of his more recent novels, South of Broad, which takes place in Charleston. His writing made me feel an affinity for this part of the country long before ever seeing it.

Conroy now lives in Beaufort and is partially responsible for making it such a popular place to visit these days that apparently many tourists return to retire here.(it has made several “most livable small town” lists.) The town was founded in 1711, making it the second oldest settlement in South Carolina, after Charleston. Beaufort has a diverse history with the slave trade, rice, indigo, and sea cotton plantations, shipbuilding, a devastating hurricane, and a boom and bust textile industry as a result of the boll weevil. Another big influence in the area is the close proximity of three military bases at nearby Parris Island: the  Marine Corps recruit training Depot, Marine Corps Air Station (MCAS), and a Naval Hospital.

The South Carolina slave trade (with Charleston at the center) played a large role in the original settlement of the area. Many of these slaves came from West Africa where there was a similar rice-growing industry. The descendants of these slaves are known as Gullah, African Americans who live in the Lowcountry region of South Carolina and Georgia. The name Gullah is believed to come from a mispronunciation of Angola, one of the predominant countries of their origin. The Gullah heritage is an important part of the Lowcountry culture in terms of storytelling, cuisine, music, folk beliefs, crafts, farming and fishing. My favorites are the Gullah creole-based recipes and their sweetgrass baskets.

Beaufort is about an hour and a half drive from Hilton Head. We first drove through the historic part of town and then decided to head further out to Hunting Island another 16 miles to the seacoast. On the way there, I was reading a Southern Living article about Conroy which said his favorite place to take guests for local seafood was The Shrimp Shack, a little place out in the country which is famous for its chowders and shrimp burgers.

There were several cars parked out behind the shack just as the article described, so we thought we had a winner. We were wrong.  The food was absolutely terrible and the place was dirty. We both ordered shrimp burgers and a tomato-based chowder which was almost inedible. I had the feeling we might even get sick after eating there, but thankfully that did not happen. Either Conroy has terrible taste in food or the management has changed. Do not go there!  Beaufort is full of good restaurants and even the little town of St. Helena Island just down the road has at least two restaurants that are supposed to be good: Gullah Grub and Sweetgrass Cafe.

On to Hunting Island. We originally had reservations to stay here, but heard that our site may have been a problem in terms of low clearance and tree branch issues. The park is pretty remote which is part of the draw, to be camping at a natural and more untamed seashore. It is a beautiful place in a haunting sort of way with fallen trees in the water creating a rugged-looking beachfront.

Even the sites have a more natural feel as they are not all lined up in a row; instead, they are tucked into what appears to be a random pattern going in different directions. We saw mostly tents and small trailers, but there were a few motorhomes wedged into various sites. 

The best sites were definitely the ones near the beach front (numbers 1-86). Our site would have been #197 which is way back in the forest. In driving to this loop of the campground, we came upon a motorhome trying to get into a site in the same area with his toad still attached. (Not a good idea at all). While trying to maneuver into the site, he came within inches of two trees smashing his awning up against one of them. Aside from the trees on his right, he would not have been able to clear the overhanging branches either.

Here is a close-up of the awning pressed up against the tree. Ouch.

His wife had been guiding him in and this outcome made her pretty upset. Vic offered to help guide him out of this predicament.  First he unhitched his car, then Vic had him back out every so slowly to avoid doing more damage. The driver said he just felt sick to his stomach. I would too. We have had our closest calls in state parks and have also run into trouble with our reserved sites being unfit for our MH due to low branches or unlevel grounds. We have also had some fabulous sites at state parks. Ideally, it pays to do some firsthand research.  Watching this incident, however, confirmed our decision to not stay at this park unless we had one of these more open beachfront sites.

We did like the beach and especially the freedom the dogs would have there. This kind of a stay just requires more of a camping state of mind by bringing plenty of food, firewood, and bug spray. We tend to be drawn to less remote camping with urban conveniences nearby and the luxury of full hook-ups—although a good campfire can trump all those amenities for me.

Our main plan for the afternoon was to spend time in Beaufort walking around the waterfront and the historic downtown area. The park along the water was quite lovely complete with swings, rocking chairs, and a beautifully landscaped picnic area with an outdoor stage.

We also enjoyed checking out the marina with its variety of pleasure boats, sailboats, fishing charters, and shrimp boats. It looks like Beaufort has a thriving waterfront industry. 

Somewhat to our surprise, the shops downtown were pretty high-end, especially the art galleries, jewelry stores, and clothing shops. There must be a fair amount of money (coming from Charleston?) in these parts. It seemed like the split was between the wealthy and the poor, with not much in-between.  Perhaps an over-generalization on my part. . . .

Appreciating the Lowcountry takes a different kind of sensibility. Conroy says many people who visit him think the area behind his home is ugly at low tide, but he describes it this way: “It's when small animals come out to eat. Low tide is for the little creatures. But they have to be quick. High tide comes in with a rush, roaring up the creek. It's simply amazing to watch nature in action. The drama of how it all unfolds is the history of life and the sea.”

Dusk was coming on as we took a second walk along the waterfront. Our little daytrip gave us an appreciation for the lifestyle of this area with the wildness of the seashore to explore at the state park, the abundance of seafood to enjoy in local eateries (just NOT the Shrimp Shack!), and the allure of living life at a slower pace.