Sunday, February 23, 2014

Filling our days with friends, family, and fun in the Keys

February 17-23, 2013
Marathon, Florida
Camping in my brother’s driveway

The past week we have been in action making the most of our time here in this tropical paradise. Two things we wanted to be sure to do was meet up with some folks we met during our stay in Hilton Head Island and see our full-time RV blogging friends, Karen and Al, whom we have been fortunate to meet in the Tampa area two years ago.

Grayson and Glennda, the friends we met in Hilton Head, told us they would be at Bluewater Key RV Resort during February and March, so we took advantage of being able to visit them in the most gorgeous RV resort down here.

Check out the artistry of the gates leading into Bluewater Key RV Resort.

Even better than the gates are the actual sites—many of them with waterfront views. Here is Grayson and Glennda’s daily view outside their motorhome. I think I could live with this.

To make the sites even more attractive, many have tiki huts which have full size outdoor living areas.

Grayson and Glennda have been coming to this area for at least ten years, so they know it well and were great hosts in taking us to Salute, a fantastic cafĂ© on the north beach of Key West, and then touring us around Key West pointing out their favorite places. Vic and I had never been to the north beach area. We were very impressed with the great beaches there—something we thought Key West was lacking. 

 Meeting Grayson and Glennda in Hilton Head was pure serendipity as we happened to sit next to them in the bar at Charlie's L'etoile Verte. Turns out they also had a motorhome and, as long term residents of HHI, were a wealth of information about the area.  They are originally from Kentucky, and in true southern fashion, are super-friendly and charismatic folks. Aside from the pleasures of sharing a very delicious lunch with them, we enjoyed seeing their site at Bluewater, oohing and aahing over their Travel Supreme motorhome, and meeting Sugar Baby, their adorable Havanese companion who greeted us at their site.

On the topic of friends, we spent a fun happy hour together with Karen and Al at their favorite spot, the Sunset Grille just next to the famous Seven Mile Bridge.  It’s amazing how much there is to talk about when two full-timing couples get together.  One of the topics that is always of great interest to us is sharing favorite destinations. Karen and Al split their time between their new RV lot in the northern Georgia mountains, their home-base park near Tampa (which, most importantly, is near her mother) and the Keys. As Vic and I think about our future retirement plans, when we are not on the road full-time, we also envision a mountain retreat and a tropical retreat as the ideal lifestyle.

Of course any trip to the Sunset Grille has to include a few photos of sunset over the bridge and the bar area with a “beach” and a pool just for its patrons. 

sunset grill at sunset best

One of the best highlights of this past week was going sailing with my brother Mike and his wife Bonnie on their beloved sailboat of twenty years. Even though the boat, a 40’ Tartan, lives on the dock in front of their home, they don’t get out in it much anymore. Lives change when we get older and, sadly, the boat is now for sale. But, Mike and Bonnie worked hard to get it in shape for a day sail which required going underwater with a tank and scrapers to clean the prop and boat bottom. Ugh. Wish I could have helped. Having owned a couple of sailboats before myself, I was reminded of all the constant upkeep that is required for the pleasure it provides.  Makes living in a motorhome seem hassle-free--thanks to Vic and his dedication to impeccable maintenance.

Time to go sailing!  We loaded up the galley with wine and cheese and other goodies and off we went. The wind was blowing pretty good at 20+ knots. Since we were all in favor of a gentle sail, Mike decided to only use the foresail or jib and not the mainsail. With both sails up, we would have been heeled over too much for it to be relaxing.

Vic is the less experienced sailor among us, so it was a special treat for him to experience the Zen quiet of clipping along about 6 knots with no engine noise. Even though we were mostly sailing under autopilot, Vic had to pretend to take the helm for at least one photo op.

The wind was coming directly from the north so we set sail northwest into the Gulf about twelve miles out.  The waters around here are pretty tricky to navigate in terms of varying depth, the tides, and hundreds of lobster traps to avoid. Thankfully, GPS units combined with autopilot make it much easier to set your course in navigable waters.  The lobster buoys, however, can only be avoided by constant checking with your eyes as getting the lines in the prop, even without the motor running, can be a major problem.

We headed back on a southeasterly course just in time for sunset. Unfortunately, the clouds all seemed to disappear minutes before dusk so it was not one of the more memorable skies you are likely to see here. I did, however, like this shot of my brother with the shadows of the setting sun.

When we returned to the dock around 7 pm, I became the center of dramatic attention as my foot slipped on the dock and in the water I went with a full bag of provisions in my hand. I was incredibly lucky to have no injuries as the shoreline is all rocky with sharp barnacles. The saving grace was high tide. I was double lucky to have handed the bag with my camera and cell phone to Vic before launching myself from the pier. Once I realized I was okay, I could not stop laughing. My brother wishes he had a video camera mounted on the pier to tape my ungraceful exit. This drowned rat headed for a warm shower to desalinate and think of a way to restore my pride. I was the only one who wore my bathing suit on the sail, so a swim seemed a natural way to cap off this most perfect day.

Yesterday, Vic and I headed off to Bahia Honda State Park to go kayaking. There is no end of great places to get your boat wet around here, but Bahia Honda seems to be one of the favorites. The only downside was the $4.50 per person day use charge but it turned out to be well worth it. Bahia Honda is one of the best state parks in the Keys and it has great camping sites as well. As a result, its popularity makes it one of those challenging places to reserve as you have to set your alarm for 12:01 am eleven months ahead and still may be shut out. I think it is sad that the Reserve America seems to have made many popular campgrounds less accessible to most people as one RV could block off ten weeks of availability. (They allow five 14-day stays in a row with a one day break in between each stay.) End of rant.

We learned that circumnavigating the entire island would be about a five mile trip. That sounded doable to us, mostly because we tire less easily with the Hobie Mirage Drive pedal system than if we had to paddle the whole distance. What we didn't take into account were the currents on the return part of our trip on the Atlantic side, but it was an absolutely gorgeous day with little wind and amazing scenery.

The varying shades of turquoise waters were mesmerizing. Surprisingly, we hardly saw any wildlife--no stingrays, dolphins, or sea turtles. It was fun, however, to look down into the clear water and see a variety of marine life such as sponges, sea fans, coral, and tropical fish When we returned to the kayak launch area after about three hours, I took the opportunity to swim in the ocean for awhile and it felt GREAT.  The water temperature here is about 78 now and the bottom was all pure white sand.

In between all our adventures this week, we have been enjoying shared meals with my brother and sister-in-law, watching the dogs interact and play in the water, and tending to all the normal details of life. One pleasure which might seem mundane is hanging all our laundry on the big clothes lines in my brother’s yard.

laundry hanging

That about wraps up week two in the Keys. We leave here on Saturday, so we plan to make the most of it!  Not hard to do in such a magical place. . . .

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Kicking back in the Keys

February 10-17, 2014
Marathon, Florida
Driveway Camping

We are very lucky to have a free place to stay in the Keys at my brother’s home on Dodge Lake in Marathon. The lake has a canal that leads out to the Gulf so we can kayak right from his pier. Staying in his driveway is much better than it sounds as we also have 50 amp power and full hook-ups. What’s not to like?  This is our third year enjoying this spot and we feel quite grateful to be here.  

Our dogs may be even more excited as they can be leash free with lots of play time with their “cousins,” plus they have access to the water.  My brother Mike has an incredibly big driveway as it holds both his 40’ American Dream motorhome, our 36’ Phaeton motorhome, with plenty of room leftover for our Jeep and his Nissan truck.  We even have a lovely view of palm trees and water from our front window.

My favorite part of his waterfront yard is hanging out by the pier or swinging in the hammock. Rico, proving true to his original nickname of “Loaf,” decided he likes to join me in the hammock. Life is pretty sweet rocking with your dog in a hammock.

Our first week here has been pretty low key (like the pun). The weather the first few days was on the warm and humid side, then a storm blew in with temperatures dropping to the 60s. For us, it’s all good except the weather does influence our choice of activities, especially the wind when we are considering kayaking.  My first activity of choice is not weather dependent at all; it was to buy ten punch cards for the local Zumba class that I liked so well last year. I only go three or four times a week, but it is a major highlight for my mornings as I really like the instructors and their choice of music. It is like starting each day with a party. Fun.

One cloudy and cool day we headed down US 1 about twenty miles to check out the Key Deer National Wildlife Refuge—something we had not done before. The Key Deer, a smaller subspecies of white tailed deer that are only native to the Keys is an endangered species. Fortunately, in 1957, the government established a National Wildlife Refuge to protect them which has helped increase their numbers, but cars are still the primary threat to the population. When you travel on US 1 on Big Pine Key, where the refuge is located, there are signs everywhere to reduce your speed and watch for deer. Most people follow these warnings as there is a $10,000 fine for hitting one. Ouch.

The refuge itself is about four or five miles off the highway. Along the way is a place called the Blue Hole where the Key Deer supposedly hang out along with alligators, turtles, and wading birds.  We stopped at the Blue Hole, but, alas, only saw a few alligators.  For some reason, everything really did look blue even on a cloudy day.

The trail around the hole, an abandoned quarry, was closed so we headed further into the refuge hoping to see some deer.  We did but they scattered way too quickly, so I wasn’t able to get a photo of them.

The refuge happens to be close to No Name Key, were there is a popular tourist attraction—a bar that once was part of a brothel dating back to the 1930s. By this time a cold beer sounded pretty good, so we stopped there to check out the famous No Name Pub.  One of the most interesting features of the bar is the thousands of dollar bills hanging from the ceiling and walls. They estimate there are over 65,000 dollars papering the place.  We were not hungry when we stopped but many go there for the pizza which is supposed to be darn good.

When we were here two years ago, we had the good fortune of taking part in an informal boondocking rally right on the ocean side of Knight’s Key with a daily view of the Seven Mile Bridge .(My brother is good friends with the man who used to own the Sunset Grille who still owns the vacant waterfront property next to it.) The bridge, an iconic part of the Key’s history, is one of several scenic sites along what is known as the Overseas Highway. The original bridge, built in the early 1900s as part of Henry Flagler’s Overseas Railroad, was replaced by a newer bridge in the late 1970s, but they kept spans of the old bridge for walking, biking, and fishing. We learned that we could walk the dogs on the old 2.2 mile section of the bridge spanning from Knight’s Key to Pigeon Key.  I was worried that the dogs might be afraid, but the pathway is concrete and rather wide, so they did fine. 

We liked the walk so much that we returned a few days later by bike. This time we rode from my brother’s house, about fifteen miles round trip.  The big surprise for us was learning how bike friendly the Keys have become. The Florida Keys Overseas Heritage Trail now includes over 70 miles of pathways that parallel US 1 with a plan to complete the whole distance of 106 miles from Key Largo to Key West. The traffic on US 1 can be pretty gruesome, so biking on its shoulder would be treacherous.  We only rode on the path about eight miles and, while it is great to have a separate trail, there are many side roads that intersect the trail so you have to be very alert—at least in the Vaca Key/ Marathon area.

Riding your bike opens up all kinds of vistas you wouldn’t see by car. We stopped at two lovely hotels to check them out. The first resort was called Tranquility Bay. I loved the plantation-looking architecture and their private beach.

The second place that caught our eye was called The Hammocks, appropriately named as they feature hammocks along the waterfront for their guests. The vacation villas here looked like a good getaway for those not living life on the road in a motorhome!

Our bike ride on the old bridge was great as they have walking paths on both sides with a wider path in the middle for bikes. As we were riding along someone pointed out to us that there were many stingrays in the water. There were at least a dozen of them in easy view, but I need a filter on my camera to get a better shot of anything underwater.  We also saw a group of four dolphins cavorting around but they were too elusive for me.

There are lots of picturesque views from the bridge. From the end you can walk down to Pigeon Key, a national historical district, and tour the museum and surrounding buildings there. (We were not prepared to do this nor pay the $12 fee.) Pigeon Key was an important locale for housing the 400 workers who built the original bridge, once called the Eighth Wonder of the World, that was part of the Flagler Overseas Railroad.

Here are a few other shots from our bike ride on the bridge.

vic on old bridge

We have a local “bucket list” of things we want to do while we are here, but we have been pretty kicked back about checking off the list.  Since we have both been to the Keys many times before (my father used to live here), we don’t feel as compelled to play tourists as we might be on our first trip to the “rodeo.” We both like experiencing life here in a more relaxed way.  Having said that, tonight my brother and Vic were studying navigation charts for a trip to the Dry Tortugas National Park.  At the top of my list is a snorkeling trip, but it doesn’t need to be in the Dry Tortugas. We are also looking forward to getting in some new kayaking trips, perhaps with Karen and Al of RV Travels.

mike and vic studying charts

I will be happy if I can say I read a whole novel in the hammock before we leave here. I read my very first novel, Pippi Longstocking, in a hammock at age eight. No wonder I am so compelled to swing between the palm trees every day.  And, you might notice from the photos, that my brother has a lovely sailboat tied up to his dock. Sailing also used to be an important part of my life and there is a very good chance we will get Passion, his Tartan 40', out into the blue water. Stay tuned for Part II of this Pippi’s latest adventures. 

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Checking out the Port Charlotte area

February 1-10, 2013
Myakka River Motorcoach Resort
Port Charlotte/El Jobean, Florida

The dawning of a new month meant it was time to roll up the rug, pull in the slides, and start our journey south to the Florida Keys. We had originally planned on making the 300 mile trek to Marathon, where my brother lives and where we will driveway camp, in one day. A glitch in this plan (which is too complicated to explain) caused us to make a one week stop somewhere new: the Myakka River Motorcoach Resort (MRMR).  Not only was this place new to us, it just opened last winter. We had a 25% discount offer from the Tampa RV Show which enticed us even more to check it out.  Here are a few photos of the place and our site:

It turned out we liked this place even more than we anticipated. The only thing it really lacks is mature landscaping—something Florida weather will remedy in short order.  The park is built on a thirty acre parcel of land that overlooks the Myakka River.  Since the lots are all for sale, they are fairly large (75 x 50) with brick paver pads and room for a small coach house, outdoor kitchen, and/or storage building. There are tennis and pickleball courts, pool and spa, fishing pier, a kayak launch area, and a lovely clubhouse with a well-appointed exercise facility and second floor sunset patio. The resort advertises that it is promoting a spa-like atmosphere with yoga classes and massages available. It is a ways from that reality, but the river setting does create a peaceful feeling especially with the expansive views.

The park is also fairly close (15 miles) to the charming city of Punta Gorda, a place we felt drawn to on previous visits and would like to explore a little more. We also have been anxious to check out the village of Boca Grande on the nearby island of Gasparilla, a place known for its destination beach weddings, and as a reclusive retreat for the rich and famous. So, aside from enjoying the amenities of the RV resort, we had plenty of other things to check out while we were here.

First on our list was a trip to Boca Grande. It turned out to be only a thirty minute drive to the island, but we were a little put off by the $6 toll for crossing the bridge. We left the motorhome a little hungry so found a cute place, South Beach Bar and Grille, right on the beach with live music where we stopped for lunch. I liked the colorful murals indoor and the fantastic setting right on the beach.

After lunch, we explored the beach area for a while then drove into the little village of Boca Grande. Not much there but we did find a homemade ice cream shop where a brand new Bentley pulled up with the same idea in mind--probably the only thing we had in common with the couple who exited the Bentley convertible.

On day two, the sun was shining too brightly to pass up the possibility of getting our kayaks wet. Charlotte County has a great website for finding paddling trails. After reviewing lots of possibilities, we chose to head back to an area near Boca Grande, the town of Placida, where there is a public boat launch with a nominal parking fee of .75 an hour. Our destination in the kayaks was a white sandy beach that looked like it could only be accessed by boat.

It turned out to be a great paddle (actually mostly pedal) with lots of dolphin sightings. I was also quite allured, right out of the boat, by huge whelk and conch shells in the water that I could only reach by standing in the water. Sadly, most of them were alive and needed to stay in their home on the bay. 

On our return from kayaking, we had a surprise phone call from our friends, Mike and BJ, who are staying in Cortez. They came down to see us, so we had happy hour at a little outdoor dive near our park, then joined them and another couple for dinner in Englewood. Always fun to hang out with these special folks.

The next couple of days were a bit of a blur as I wasn’t feeling well and the weather turned rainy and overcast. We did manage to get out to the local movie theater, in our quest to see most of the best picture Oscar nominees. Our  movie choice this time was Nebraska, an Alexander Payne film with a brilliant performance by Bruce Dern. The entire film is in black and white, set mostly in the rather desolate farm country of Nebraska. Nothing about the story was uplifting, but it did make us both feel better about our life choices and overall zest for life in contrast to the lives portrayed in the film! Actually, we found the story quite provocative as it caused each of us to reminisce on our own childhoods and reflect on what’s most important in life.

I am also happy to report that Victor and I did get out on the tennis court here, something we keep promising to do, but seldom happens. I would like to take lessons and make tennis a regular part of my life someday. (To my son Jesse, if you are reading this: I haven’t forgotten that you owe me three one-hour private lessons.)  In the meantime, we just volleyed balls back and forth appreciating the exercise and the fantasy of being real tennis players in our retirement years.

Every Friday night here at the park, they hold a happy hour “meet and greet” with wine and beer and light appetizers provided. This was a fun way to get to know our neighbors here, especially in a park that is so spread out. We enjoyed getting to talk to a variety of folks and felt a little sad that our time at the park was almost over as we would like to have hosted some gatherings ourselves. I especially would have liked to take advantage of the yoga classes in the park (which I intended to do but didn’t feel well) after hearing how the great the instructor was. Apparently, George and Barbara Bush took private classes from her while they were staying at the Gasparilla Inn in Boca Grande. The story goes that after the class, George W. took her aside and said: “You really kicked my ass.” Ha.

On Saturday morning, we visited the Farmer’s Market in Punta Gorda and then ventured out to the Peace River Wildlife Center.  It turned out the market was rather small and had no organic, locally grown vegies. I think the only market that we have been to in Florida that does was in Sarasota. I guess I am a spoiled girl when it comes to the real farmer’s markets we have in Oregon. This market, like many in Florida, had more craft items than food. In spite of my disappointment, we liked walking around the historic part of the downtown and listening to the live music that was part of the market.

From here, we drove out to Ponce de Leon Park where the Peace River flows into Charlotte Harbor. We were quite surprised to see a beach here. They built a seawall and brought in tons of sand to make a very inviting beach—sans sea shells—along the harbor.

Just next to the park is the Peace River Wildlife Center, a rehabilitation and intensive care facility for injured and orphaned native Florida wildlife. Several of the center’s “residents” were permanent ones but happily their goal is to return all wildlife to their natural habitat.

We were happy to have had the chance to see their good work and add to their funds with our donated admission. I am so happy to see places like this thriving as I can hardly stand it when we come across an injured bird or other animal.  Here are just a few images of the current inhabitants.

Our stay here was originally going to be for one week, but we learned that the Ragnar Relay race, a 190 mile race from Miami to Key West was going on Saturday and Sunday-- a terrible time to travel on US 1. We usually avoid big travel on weekends anyway, so it was easy to extend our stay at MRMR for two days. They even honored the 25% show discount on the daily rate.

So once again, a week, or in this case nine days, seemed like a flash in the pants. Sunday night we packed up so we could get an early start for our 280-mile drive to the Keys. We are sure looking forward to warmer weather on a more consistent basis and taking advantage of all the close proximity of water adventures.  Roll on. . . .