Miami Beach

April, 2017 – Miami, FL I’d been wanting to fit a trip to Miami into our winter itinerary so when our oldest daughter, Carie, expressed an interest in visiting us in Florida Easter weekend I suggested we meet there. She and her beau flew in and we made the 2 hour drive over. It was such an easy drive that our younger daughter, Heather, drove over on her day off.

I wanted to find a place on Miami Beach where we could all stay together but not be too cramped. South Beach is the most popular part of Miami Beach. About 6 miles north is what they call North Beach and accommodations were a lot more reasonable. The area seemed like a better option for a family vacation anyway.

I have surfed sights like VRBO and Airbnb before but I have never actually booked anything through them. They seemed like my only option for finding a rental with a minimum of two bedrooms and two baths. I initially searched for properties around $300 per night as that is about what it would have cost me to book 2 decent hotel rooms in the area.

I found several promising properties but the one that stood out was an apartment on a canal just three blocks from the beach. It had not two but three bedrooms and three full baths? Sound too good to be true? It was.

I messaged the host with a couple questions and they wrote back that the rate was inaccurate and thanks for bringing it to their attention. They then offered it to me for $450 per night but waived the cleaning fee. I initially thought “no way” and moved on to other options.

I messaged several other hosts offering 2 bedroom 2 bath condos in the area. Each time they replied that the units were booked even though the booking sights said they were available. I imagine they have them on several different sights and don’t bother updating all the calendars.

I was getting frustrated with this process. We reconsidered the option of two hotel rooms and did not like what was available. We looked at the three bed/bath unit again and it seemed perfect. I did not like the feeling of being duped by a bait and switch scam but I did want that unit. So I bit the bullet and made the reservation.

It turned out to be a great decision. Even though it was more than advertised it really was worth the price. Having all that space for our family to spread out really made the weekend special. Everyone had their own rooms if they needed a nap or some quiet time.

A full kitchen was great for preparing and enjoying meals together. And there was plenty of space to gather together and visit; the living room, the balcony, and this patio overlooking the canal.

By the way I stole that pic from the host’s website and it is the only one I recognized as actually being from the property we stayed at. We had the entire second story of one of two buildings that were broken up into apartment units. We arrived Thursday night and went to pick up the kids at the airport Friday morning. There was a great view of downtown Miami from the I195 bridge.

After meeting Heather at the apartment and getting everyone settled in we headed out to explore. Wynwood Walls was once a dilapidated warehouse district that has been transformed into an art district focused on graffiti and street art.

At the center is the official outside gallery which is free. Each piece is amazing and the scale is breathtaking.

It is an awesome place to get your picture taken.

For many blocks around the streets and storefronts are lined with murals. There are lots of restaurants, quaint shops, and coffee shops.

If you come to Miami do not miss this place. And bring your camera.

The next day Heather had to go back home to work so the four of us set out to visit South Beach. We did not want to mess with parking so we headed out on foot with maps of the free trolley system. We had to walk three quarters of a mile to the nearest trolley stop and then take two trolleys to get to South Beach. It was a great way to see the area without worrying about traffic. We got off around 17th Street and endeavored to walk to 1st street seeing as many of the beautiful Art Deco buildings as we could.

At 14th Street wandered closer to the beach and walked Ocean Drive where it seems practically every building is historic.

We made it all the way to 5th Street when our stomachs started controlling our actions and even though the street was lined with restaurants they just weren’t speaking to us. The kids called us an Uber and it whisked us back to our neighborhood.

There we enjoyed lunch at a local Cuban restaurant that had been recommended to us by our host. Las Vegas Cuban Cuisine was very good and gave us the stamina to make the walk home which was almost a mile. All in all we had walked about 5 miles that day so we spent the rest of the weekend with our feet up, enjoying our canal view, simple food, and good company.

A Renaissance Fair

April, 2017 – Tampa, FL We attended one small renaissance fair many years ago. So when our daughter, Heather, showed an interest in going to one of Florida’s large renaissance fairs we were completely on board. The nearest one was in Tampa. The Bay Area Renaissance Festival has been held each year since 1979.

The event takes place on 7 consecutive weekends and we put off our visit to the very last day, April 2nd. Since the fair is only held on Saturday and Sunday and Heather generally works weekends she finally had to ask for a day off in order for us to attend. She got a Sunday off and I babysit Monday mornings, so we made the 2 ½ hour drive up on a Sunday morning, took in the fair, and drove back Sunday evening.

We arrived just before lunch. I had no idea what to expect and thought maybe the last day of the event would be a bit lame. I was shocked to see the numbers of cars trying to get into the free parking area. They were backed up way down a busy street.

Once we were directed to a parking spot, it was a short walk to the entrance gate. The tickets were around $20 each which I didn’t think was unreasonable. It turned out to be a very good value.

Once inside we headed straight to the main event. There was a jousting match taking place center stage. It was fun to watch but it was incredibly hot with all available shade already occupied. I didn’t even think to get any pictures. We watched about 10 minutes before seeking a reprieve from the sun.

Most of the rest of the grounds had ample shade and it was a pleasant day to wander the 100 plus merchants booths. We ogled all sorts of odd merchandise you just don’t see every day; chains, leather goods, corsets. There were also lots of beautiful artistic pieces from glass, metal, paper, about anything you can think of. It was hard but we all refrained from making any purchases.

The actors wandering the grounds were one of the best parts. Hands down this guy was our favorite.

There were plenty of scarier characters as well, such as the Pewter Pirate.

This big fellow was magnificent and his handler was beautiful as well.

I loved these guys and was somewhat disappointed I didn’t make it to their bird show.

It was hard to find your way around and the map they gave you was pretty useless. We finally quit trying to figure it out and just wandered and enjoyed what we came across. There are 12 stages so there were a lot of entertainment options. These musicians were a lot of fun.

The Harmless Danger Juggling Show was even better.

He did finally let go of the wall and ride the unicycle quite well.

We really enjoyed the festival and would definitely like to attend another large fair like this one in the future. We learned a few things from the experience. I think we’d enjoy the next one even more.

This particular fair was incredibly dusty. Everyone’s feet were covered with soot. So I wouldn’t recommend flip flops, or in my case, a pair of brand new sneakers.

They didn’t search our bags as we expected so we would take a half dozen bottles of water and some snacks next time. I also wouldn’t forget sunscreen again. And I’d make sure everyone in the party had sunglasses.

It would have been nice to stay nearby so we didn’t spend the day dreading the drive home. I’d love to find one that would allow us to camp in the parking lot. A few adult beverage might have made the experience even better.

Koreshan State Historic Site

Bonita Springs, FL – March, 2017 We had a cold front come through the middle of March and while much of the rest of the country wrestled with winter weather of the white variety, we enjoyed a break from the heat of our Florida winter. On a perfect day with a high of 75 degrees, a slight breeze, and a mostly cloudy sky we chose to visit the state park closest to where we are staying, Koreshan State Historic Site.

The Koreshans were a religious sect that started in New York State around 1880 and spread across the country with chapters in Chicago and San Francisco. They moved their headquarters to Estero, Florida in 1894 to avoid religious persecution. They planned to build a grand city here, a new Jerusalem, built on the principals of community property and celibacy.

At the center of their beliefs was the conviction that the universe existed inside a giant, hollow sphere with the sun and the moon in its center. Here is a representation of the way they saw the universe.

They stayed in tents for several years until they could get their homes built. They never quite accomplished the great city they had planned but they did eventually build a very nice compound. The arts were very important in their society and the entertainment hall was the center of their social lives.

It’s a beautiful, well preserved building.

There were seven prominent women who ran many of the group’s businesses. They lived in this beautiful home.

There were 7 bedrooms which served as the lady’s offices as well.

There was no need for a kitchen as all meals were communal. The woodwork in the home was amazing.

The founder of the religion, Dr. Cyrus R. Reed, had a pretty awesome home as well. I never did find an explanation for the round addition on the side.

Not every member of the sect lived in such luxury. But even their shacks weren’t all that bad.

They were a self-sufficient society with a bakery…

and a woodshop.

These were just a couple of the multitude of businesses operated on their members’ behalves.

They had some extraordinary gardens planned.

But the bridges they built stand out the most.

We enjoyed a nature trail along the Estero River which borders the property and were surprised how clear the water is. We were pleased when we could see a manatee approaching from quite a distance.

The bamboo along the nature trail was awesome. It made a nice wind chime like sound on a windy day.

Koreshan was a great place to spend an afternoon. Admission was only $5 per carload. They have a lot of demonstrations and events. We will likely time a future visit with one of these and/or bring our kayaks with to float the beautiful, clear river. The prior occupants were very interesting to learn about, the property was beautiful, and the walk along the river was entertaining.

We took our daughter and grand-doggy, Sasha, with and the park was very dog friendly.  Of course Sasha wasn’t allowed in any buildings so we took turns looking in them.  We also drove through the campground on our way out.  The sites were nice but close together with only a thin line of vegetation separating them.  But compared to the postage stamp we are renting in our commercial park they were huge.

The whole day we couldn’t help exclaiming often how great the weather was and how pleasant it was to have a break from the hot days we’ve experienced most of this season. We would never complain about the heat but this was a nice intermission from it and was really appreciated. We enjoyed a couple more days of cool weather before the hot days returned.

Girl’s Day in the City

Tampa, FL – February, 2017 Our daughter planned to visit the Tampa area for the day.  I asked to join her and Jim chose to stay home. So we enjoyed a fun girl’s outing. This was Heather’s trip so she set the itinerary and I just went along for the ride.

It’s a two hour drive to Tampa from Bonita Springs. We rocked out the whole way there, taking turns controlling the playlist. We arrived at our first stop about 11.

Tampa Electric’s Manatee Viewing Center is near Apollo Beach on the Tampa Bay. The salt water used to cool their equipment is discharged into a canal and the manatees congregate there, especially on colder days. They have built a very nice nature center devoted to these gentle giants and it is totally free.

Of course, the primary draw is the manatee viewing decks across the canal from the power plant.

We were there on a fairly warm day so there weren’t a huge number of manatees in the water. We spotted at least 6 but they were a good ways away so they were just large, gray bodies just under the surface of the water. A couple of times people asked, “do you see anything?” and we pointed them out.

We were not surprised that this was the best manatee siting we had. There were several sculptures and murals.

The highlight of our visit here was their ray exhibit. They had a shallow pool with about 20 rays swimming around. There were several different variety of rays.

You could put your hand in the water and they would swim under it and let you “pet” them. They had glass windows in the side which made for great pictures except for the reflections. You can see the playground behind me in the above photo.

Since this was a girl’s day it had to include some shopping so we stopped by the Westfield Brandon Mall. It was an extremely nice indoor mall with just about every store you could desire. We enjoyed a nice walk and lunch in the food court.

Next on Heather’s agenda was a stop at Ybor City just northeast of downtown Tampa. Ybor is a historic Latin neighborhood and a National Historic Landmark District which began in 1886 when a large cigar factory relocated from Key West. We found a parking lot and walked the main drag, East 7th Avenue.

The area is primarily an entertainment district now, so it probably really comes alive after dark. But it was still a great stop with interesting architecture, some funky little stores, and a fun atmosphere. It reminded me of Beale Street in Memphis or The Loop in St. Louis. Cigars are still a big part of the culture here. There were a couple bars with quite a few people sitting outside smoking cigars.

By this time it was 4 o’clock so it was time to make our way to our primary destination for the day, the Dali Museum in nearby St. Petersburg. Every Thursday evening at 5 they offer $10 admission to this famous art museum and my budget conscious daughter was determined that was the only time to see it.

The building itself was amazing with strange bubbles of glass protruding from the concrete structure. We explored the outside until 5. This beautiful tree appears to be adorned with ribbon but they are actually peoples’ admission bracelets tied to it.

Once inside a grand circular staircase led you to the galleries upstairs then continued its spiral to the ceiling.

We first visited the Frida Kahlo exhibit which is on display until mid-April. It was a large exhibit with over 60 pieces including her paintings and personal photos. Her art is definitely odd and sometimes disturbing and based on the descriptions of her in the gallery, so was she. The gallery was extremely crowded so we moved on to the permanent exhibit of Salvador Dali’s work and life.

Considered a surrealist, his works were strange but I found them beautiful as well.

The best part of the visit was when Heather dragged me into a little room I never would have noticed. They had a virtual reality exhibit which allowed you to go inside Dali’s work. Luckily there were only a couple people in front of us in line and two people could go at a time.

In less than 10 minutes we were seated side by side in chairs that swiveled 180 degrees and had the headsets strapped to our noggins. We had 3 minutes to virtually wander through a desert landscape with two towers and a herd of extremely long-legged elephants.

We experienced the same landscape but chose different paths through it. I was thrust to the edge of a crumbling balcony at the top of a tower. It was startling and I couldn’t get back to the relative safety of the stairs fast enough. Both of us enjoyed watching the herd of elephants walking practically right over us.

We saw everything we wanted in the museum within an hour. It was a great experience made better by the reduced admission. I don’t think I would have enjoyed it nearly as much if I’d paid $25 to see it.

We rounded up our girl’s day with breakfast at Waffle House as soon as we got outside of the city. Then we made the long trip home.

Everglades Wonder Gardens

Bonita Springs, FL- January, 2017 There is an old roadside attraction located just down the street from our campground. In 1936 the Piper brothers opened The Reptile Garden beside the then new Tamiami Trail. This road is now called Old Highway 41 and the attraction was renamed the Everglades Wonder Gardens somewhere along the way. The Piper family closed the attraction in 2013 and a not for profit organization, with financial assistance from the city of Bonita Springs, purchased and reopened it.

We visited mid-day and mid-week so it wasn’t very crowded, maybe a dozen other guests were there. There were plenty of plants, some very pretty like this sea grape, but despite the name the gardens were not the highlight.

They have a lot of birds and the ones that talked were especially entertaining. Many were real hams.

They had plenty of beautiful birds as well, like this cute little duck.

One highlight of our visit was the flamingos. It was fun to watch the strange way they eat, turning their heads up-side down to swallow.

We watched that couple peacefully for a bit. But when another couple joined them the feathers really flew.

Four was definitely a crowd.

This pair wins the prize as the oddest couple. Apparently they’ve been roommates for many, many years.

There were many peacocks roaming the grounds.

There were a lot of reptile exhibits as well but it’s not always easy to get a picture of their guests under glass.

The stars are definitely the alligators. This baby is apparently adopted.

The alligators are generally in a large enclosure with a swinging bridge for visitors to walk over. We were a little disappointed that this exhibit was closed and is being rebuilt. But they don’t seem to mind their temporary digs.

They are all smiles.

We would definitely recommend anyone visiting this area to check out this Florida institution. The tickets are $12 per person but knowing that the money is going exclusively for the care of the animals and to make improvements to their habitats makes the price easier to swallow. We also highly recommend the Twisted Tangle Café next door. We stopped by for a snack after our visit and thoroughly enjoyed our appetizers and visiting with the owner.

Blastoff!!

Cape Canaveral, FL – December, 2016 Jim has always had a strong desire to visit the Space Coast. As a child of the 60’s the space race looms large in his earliest memories. Although we vacationed near there several times over the years, we never made the time to stop. Visiting Kennedy Space Center was at the top of our to do list while wintering in Florida.

We were all snuggled into our campsite at Bonita Lakes RV Resort and had decided our 5th wheel wasn’t going anywhere for a while. So Jim had been investigating getting a small rig to make short trips around the state. He found a truck and topper for sale nearby and after thorough investigation decided to buy it.

We have often thought that such a rig would be perfect for a trip to Alaska, or to Mexico. So this is an opportunity to see if we could really live in such a small space for any length of time. In the meantime, it is perfect for tootling around Florida and we’ll decide what to do with it at the end of the season.

As luck would have it there was a rocket launch scheduled for the week following our acquisition and we decided the four hour trip would make the perfect maiden voyage for our new toy. I found Jetty Park Campground about 15 miles from the launch site where we could view the launch from camp. I reserved a full hookup site for $50 per night so we could test all the systems and flush out the tanks.

We arrived in camp just after lunch on the day of the launch. We got set up, finally got everything put away in the camper, and took a walk around. It appeared everyone was getting ready to watch the launch across the inlet. There were campsites directly beside the inlet where people could watch from their front yard but they weren’t electric. Day visitors were able to park their cars right along the water and many were claiming a spot.

The launch was scheduled for between 6:30 and 7:30 so we went back to the rig and had dinner, then grabbed a cocktail and walked back around 6. We found a nice curb to sit on and waited, enjoying the carnival atmosphere of the crowd.

Right on time at the beginning of its launch window we saw a bright glow from behind the hill across the water. Everyone chorused “Here it comes!” or some such variation of this statement.

Then there was a large, silent ball of light rising into the sky.

It seemed forever but was probably around 60 seconds before we heard the roar. It wasn’t earth shattering but it was impressive.

In my final shot of the rocket you can see the smoke trail. The camera magnified all the available light including the helicopters flying around. And I had forgotten my tripod which I keep in the other truck so it’s a little shaky. But it is still my favorite pic.

Then the rocket disappeared into the heavens. The crowd quietly dispersed and we made the short walk home.

On Friday we planned to visit the Kennedy Space Center. We made it out of camp around 9 am. It is really weird taking your home with you on every single outing. We were about half way there when Jim realized he should have grabbed a heavier shirt. Then he laughed at himself when he remembered the closet was still 10 feet behind him.

Not 5 minutes later, I was mentally kicking myself for forgetting my camera until it dawned on me that it was in the cabinet above the couch a few feet to my rear. This will take some getting used to! But I think I’m really going to like it.

By the time we got parked, bought the standard one day tickets for $50 each, and made our way through security it was around 9:45. We decided to take the bus tour first as there was only a small line and they started at 10. So after a 10 minute wait we got on the first bus of the day.

The bus drives you around the property for about an hour. The bus driver gives you a lot of information and there are TVs that deliver even more. You get to see an awful lot from your comfortable bus seat, like the massive assembly building.

And gigantic equipment for moving the rockets to and from the launch pads.

And of course the launch pads themselves are colossal.

I’m running out of synonyms for really, really big so I’ll give that a rest.

After your ride they drop you off at the Apollo/Saturn V Center. Here you are treated to a history of the moon-landing era. This takes place in several rooms with large screens culminating in a re-creation of the Apollo 8 launch complete with rocket noise and rumbling seats. These are the actual consoles the ground team used.

Afterward you exit into a massive room with this rocket dominating it.

And you are free to explore the many exhibits at your leisure, like the Apollo 14 capsule.

We found the perfect spot to enjoy the lunch we’d packed.

Whenever you are ready you can catch a a bus for a short ride back to the main visitor complex. We then chose to visit the shuttle building, the home of space shuttle Atlantis. We entered the building and were funneled to a line, thankfully short in our case. After a 5 minute wait we were ushered into one theatre and then another where we were educated on the history of the space shuttle program.

Then we were set free to explore the rest of the building. Atlantis, hanging above it all, is breathtaking.

There were a multitude of displays here, astronaut training simulators, and a memorial to the Challenger and Columbia crews. I really wanted to do the Shuttle Launch Experience, the closest thing to a ride offered at the space center. But I didn’t want it bad enough to wait in line for 45 minutes.

Finally we took a stroll through the Rocket Garden.

There is so much more included in the basic admission including two IMAX films and the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame. But we were satisfied with our first visit and decided to save them for another time. Our visit was moving, inspirational, and nostalgic. We will definitely be back!

Sandsculpting

November, 2016 – Fort Myers Beach, FL Several people in the trailer park had mentioned the sand sculpture competition in nearby Fort Myers Beach and claimed it was a good value and not to be missed. We kept putting off going until we were trying to decide what to do one Sunday afternoon and realized the 9 day event ended in 3 hours. It was just 15 miles away so we jumped in the truck and headed over.

The 30th Annual American Sandsculpting Championship was held from the Friday before Thanksgiving to the Sunday following it. We had driven through Fort Myers Beach on a weekend day soon after arriving in Florida and it had been a zoo. So we were grateful that the event included free parking and shuttle to the event from nearby Lover’s Key.

Since it was already 3 when we arrived at the parking area most of the bus passengers were returning to their cars. A bus was unloading a large group when we arrived. We ended up getting a private ride without a wait. We walked onto the plain white bus and were surprised to find it was quite the party bus. We rode to Fort Myers Beach in style.

The bus dropped us off in front of Wyndham Garden Hotel and we walked through their parking lot to the beach where we did have to wait in a short line to pony up $7 each for admission. Then we were in.

There were dozens of sand sculptures spread over a couple acres. There were many holiday themed sculptures.

And several variations on the classic sand castle.

There were also quite a few aquatic themed pieces.

And even one that made a social statement. That’s a TV he’s watching.

I’m not sure what this guy had to say.

Or this one. No more monkeies jumping on the bed is my only guess!?

It was impossible to get a pic of the centerpiece of the show without someone posing it front of it.

When we tired of the sand art there were some unique booths to browse through. Here was my favorite piece of merchandise which is very fitting for a couple of my friends. You know who you are.

On the way out we were treated to this character. I’m not sure how much rum it would take to let that creepy looking guy hug me but she seemed to have found the right amount.

It only took about an hour to see everything we wanted. It turned out to be a pleasant way to spend a Sunday afternoon. I’d recommend anyone see such a competition at least once if they have the opportunity.