Monday, October 31, 2011

Morning Walks, Cedar Knees and Freshwater Paradise

Florida has certainly had its due this trip, and now it's time to press on toward home. Still, we don't want to push ahead and miss ALL the sites in the 2,800 miles between here and home, so we've planned some stops along the way.

Last night, we camped at Silver Lake in the Withlacoochee Forest. Though unfortunately located adjacent to the freeway, it's a beautiful lake surrounded by forest, home to countless 'gators and (I was told) good fishing. Our camp neighbors were friendly, inquisitive and helpful. We arrived early enough to take out our Sanibel shells for a good washing - WHEW! Did they stink up the car or WHAT?!

I woke early this morning, so while the girls slept in the locked trailer, I took a short walk by the shore. The light was nice as the morning mist rose from the lake. I never spotted a 'gator, but wasn't brave (or dumb) enough to stick my feet in the lake's dark waters. No telling how quickly it may drop off, where the holes might be and just how big nature's critters might be here. Oh, and water moccasins - I'm not a fan.

Then we headed toward Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge in hopes of seeing the manatees. (Note to all: research in advance would avoid this kind of confusion - I confess I didn't do my due diligence before leaving home - but that's alright.) Thanks to the information radio station broadcast for visitors approaching the reserve, we learned the refuge is only accessible by boat. Instead, we were directed to Homosassa Springs wildlife State Park.

I don't know who names any of these parks in Florida "the nation's best." While I enjoyed our afternoon here, it certainly wasn't the best zoo, park, refuge or family destination of any sort I've visited in the nation. It was fun, the animals were fun, the docents were friendly and we did get to set eyes on some manatees that live full-time at the reserve. The highlights for me were the boat ride from the main visitors' center up Pepper Creek to the park's front gate (there's parking at the gate, too). Small children (say 5 and younger) would be much more impressed than my children, who were hoping for some hands-on experiences. In fact, even the spring itself is entirely inaccessible to visitors.

The park offers a nice walk through the grounds, interpretive signs, animals unique to the area (plus Lu, a hippo made honorary Florida citizen some years back), hand-scooped ice cream and a nice selection of raptors. You'll see the noses of manatees grazing, and one presentation per day allows visitors to touch an animal (in our case, a King Snake). There's also a small education center where visitors can do rubbings (again, great for those 5 or younger) and read a bit more about the animals.

We DID learn that it would be unlikely for us to see manatees in the wild this early in the season. They won't head in toward the clear spring waters until the coastal waters cool. Then the manatees will head to the constant 72-degree temps of clear, clean spring waters for the winter.

So we pressed on to our intended camp destination - Manatee Springs.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Captiva Island - meh...

After our beautiful day on Sanibel Island, we thought we'd check out equally storied Captiva, the neighboring barrier island to the north. In short, don't bother. Stick with Sanibel, avoid the drive time, the parking fees and the current.

The beaches we experienced at Captiva were far more weather beaten, so the shell hunting wasn't that great. Most of the beach access here seemed dominated by the beautiful, shorefront luxury homes. There is no street parking, and there are, apparently, only two public parking lots (both paid, both with very limited space) on the island. For residents here, I'm sure it's lovely, but unless you're shelling for a resort here, it's not really worth the hassle. We read about longer hikes to better coves, but with parking meters placing deadlines on our otherwise leisurely adventure, we opted to head back to Sanibel's lighthouse point for some beachcombing. But first, an entertaining stop at a local tourist trap to check out the trinkets and the hats.

Then I put the camera away. It's fun to take photos, but I find myself too often playing the role of family history recorder rather than participant. I wanted to get in the water, hunt for shells, wander like my 9 and 11 year olds and not worry about electronics. So, pictures of the great beachcombing at the lighthouse, but we'll have memories to spare (and have shells and stories to tell when we get home).

After an hour at the lighthouse, our paid parking time was up, and rather than pay the meter again, the girls wanted to head back to the known entity, so back to our hotel we went for a beautiful, wonderful day on the beach playing, resting and learning more about the creatures that crawl this shoreline.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Sanibel Island, a Shell Hunters' Dream

Slept in this morning a bit, then had a hot breakfast before heading to the beach where the promised seashells lay awaiting pickers like us. The girls and I all put this island beach on our list of places to see after reading about the ample seashell combing to be hand. Because of the lay of the land, each tide sweeps countless shells up onto the shore. Still more lay untouched just a few feet out into the gulf.

We spent the morning beachcombing, E and I finding plentiful shells for a variety of projects. V focusing, as usual, on living beasts and creating her own aquarium in the sand. When we found live animals, we turned them over to her. All totaled, her aquarium included four sea cucumbers (two she named "Memory Foam" and "Hush Puppy"), several purple urchins, four sea anemones, three fighting conch, a couple of live scallops and a BABY OCTOPUS! THAT was the coolest animal she's ever found. We kept it in the pond for observation for awhile (and shared it with passers by) before finally walking it offshore a ways and releasing it.

A boy struck up conversation with E and in no time they were out on the sandbar splashing away and bringing more shells and live things to her sister. Austin, though a full head taller than her, is only one grade older than E, and was very pleasant, soft spoken, funny. They spent most of the remaining daylight together either in the ocean, on the beach or in the pool where we spent our afternoon.

As we picked shells, I couldn't help but think of all of our family members who so enjoy the beach, shell hunting, rock hunting. We know Grandma Ruth would have been in heaven here, and we're really sorry Aunt Kathy isn't here with us to pick up shells. A number of our finds, which we soon discovered were alive, reminded me of Auntie M. (Yes, we threw them back!) We made tidy little collections and look forward to sharing them with you all when we return.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Inside Everglades, and On to Paradise

Woke to a BEAUTIFUL, blue, clear sky this morning and decent morning temps in the low 70s. HALLELUJAH! After checking the ground for creepy, crawly, potentially fatal critters and discovering no mosquitos in the sunshine, I started breakfast for the crew. While the girls ate on the safety of the picnic table (over pavement), I unloaded the trailer cabinets and did a little repair. It seems the SINGLE SCREW that anchored the entire cabinetry system to the floor just wasn't enough. After 38 years and who knows how many miles (more than 20,000 with us), the wood into which it was screwed split and the cabinets have been pushing out into the walkway for the past few days on the road.

Fortunately, my dad provided me the tools (both literal and figurative) to deal with such a problem. On one of the keys, I found a hardware store where I hunted down some L brackets, screws and a cordless drill (we needed a new drill at home anyway, right Dear?). Unfortunately, the drill motor is too long to fit between the wheel well of the trailer and the support post I was repairing, so I had to resort to the tool bag. The regular screwdriver was too long, too. So for the first stage of the screwing I used the drill's screw attachment (two-ended so it was a bit longer than it might have been otherrwise) and a wrench to make 3/4 of that installation. But then I hit some hard wood and just couldn't turn it.

I dug deeper into the tool bag (emptied it) and came across a tool I suspect was left in one of my vehicles when Dad worked on it some time in the past. I don't think you can buy one of these, but it's a little screwdriver with the last inch or so bent at a 90-degree angle. PERFECT! Well, perfect enough to nearly complete the job. Turns out the head of the screwdriver was finer than the head of the screw, so with probably one full turn (or four quarter turns since that's how it had to be done in the confined space) later, the center of the screw was stripped. I think a short, chubby screwdriver will do the trick to finish it off next stop.

I finished just in time for the girls and I to make the boat tour into the heart of Everglades park. We'd considered renting a canoe, but given my limited canoeing experience, our limited knowledge of the park, the variety of hazards here and the true stories of people going missing here (NEVER to be found), we opted to take what we all felt was the safer route. It was nice to have a guide point out the sights, identify plants and animals and share some local stories.

There's an inland waterway that connects Flamingo to Everglade City that would be fun for a rugged outdoors type with canoeing skill and a lot of backcountry skills. It's apparently a 90-mile paddle, best done "downstream" from north to south. Since there's little dirt in the mangrove river, some platforms have been erected for the hearty ones who attempt the trek. I wonder what climbs on the platforms overnight...

Welcome to Shark Valley
Rather than test the post-storm recovery time of the mosquito storm (and play back at camp with the snakes which, we were told by our guides today, our always plentiful in the campground), we opted to carry on to the coast. We stoppped at Shark Valley for another walk with the alligators before heading out of the park. This paved, flat path along a man-made canal leads 7 miles to an overlook that beckoned me. But the girls, both opposed to bicycle riding for whatever reason, had made it clear they didn't want to ride on this trip (or ever), so I left the bikes at home. Note to self (and others passing this way): bring the bikes anyway. It would have been fun to make the overlook. Then again, at bike speed we would have missed a lot of the details our slow meander allowed us.

Our dilly dallying, though, meant a late arrival on Sanibel Island, about which I'd done VERY little research. I'd hoped to camp at the island's only "campground," but when we arrived the RV park (ala Grandmother's Park) was closed for the night. Visitors were asked to camp in any of three spots by the entry and register in the a.m. That was all fine and good, but I took a little hike into the darkness and couldn't find the restroom. I suspect the campground is intended for entirely self-contained vehicles. We carried on to plan B - a hotel for our stay. After the heat and rain and wind and dirt and poisonous critters, I felt this break was in order.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Bahia Honda, Tropical Storm

We had a lovely day on the key, but a storm was brewin' and the water was far colder than anticipated after the warm beaches up north. The girls still toughed it out as we dug in the sand, chased birds up and down the beach and they contrived a "mermaid sleigh" out of a palm frond that had been blown down by the stiff winds. The girls spent no small amount of time designing and building a "mermaid kingdom" on the beach before we headed into the jungle for a hike the Old Bahia Honda Ridge Trail through the jungle tree/bush tunnel.

At 1:11 a.m. I woke up SWELTERING. The girls and I were spread like starfish on our shared bed, each of us clearly trying not to cross tendrils with the other. The outside sleepers were sticking closer to the cool insulation of the walls. There was no wind blowing through the trailer, but ample wind shaking the bushes and trees outside. It was time to move the trailer back into a wind tunnel. Moving wind would be better than none at all. Finding no access to wind in our site, I finally pulled out and backed into the site across the driveway from us, with our back door (screened) open to the Atlantic and a stiff breeze, albeit warm, blowing from the storm.

Then I crept back in the trailer and, for quite some time, watched the strobe show that continued for the remainder of the night. I've seen some pretty good electrical storms before, but nothing quite this spectacular. I'm surprised the girls slept through it. Between the lightning aloft flashing at intervals so close that counting wasn't feasible, the crashing wavelets (they were still only a foot or so tall, but they crashed right on shore about 25 feet from the trailer door), and the wind blowing through the trees it was a loud, disruptive night. I woke again at 2:30 when the faucet opened on the roof, and the rain began splattering through the screens. I closed some of the windows, but it was too hot to close them all, so I left those on the sheltered side of the trailer and at the back door open.

At 7 a.m., my heavy sleeper woke up and was ready to go. It would have been a great morning to stay in bed and read, what with the wind, rain and lightening, but it was just too hot to lock ourselves in, and nothing on the island (ie. nature center) was open, so short of hanging out in the restroom or sweltering in the trailer, there weren't many options. So we packed up (I got a freshwater shower in the process) and headed to Marathon Key where we happened upon "Stuffed Pig," a local favorite breakfast spot. Pecan pancakes and other treats hit the table minutes before the lightening FIRST struck just across the street. KABOOM! Midway through our meal, KABOOM again! Certainly the most EXCITING breakfast we've experienced.

We did opt to hang out in the restaurant a bit longer than usual rather than walk back out the rig and carry on. Who wants to stand in a puddle on a flat island in mid-ocean while lightening strikes around you? NOT I!

Then off we scooted for Everglades National Park - in search of birds, alligators, crocodiles and maybe a little dry spell.

On our way in to the park we were warned by several volunteers that the campground at the end of the road (Flamingo) was overwhelmed with mosquitos. But after our summer horse packing trip with Maddie we felt prepared. Plus, we had four cans of repellent and the screens on the trailer are good.

We took a hike on the Anhinga boardwalk where we spotted our first 'gator in the wild, and a variety of birds including the namesake. Like a cormorant, it flies under the water to catch fish. It's long, flexible neck also earned it the local nickname "snakebird." We checked out the visitors center, then looked for manatee in the marina (none sighted...murky waters) before heading to camp.

The scare tactic apparently works with most people. There were TWO RVs in the trailer loop. We were the only camper in the other open loop. That's it. Three crazy camper groups in a park with 300 sites. Clearly we hit it off season. But thanks to the storm, the mosquitos were knocked down. We had one in the trailer that night, and swatted a few on our runs to the bathroom, but otherwise the girls enjoyed a lovely evening outside while I made dinner which we all opted to enjoy inside the trailer.

Our pre-bedtime run to the bathroom was indeed our most interesting ever. With flashlights in hand and flipflops on feet, we each exclaimed something or another at the same time as we opened the bathroom door. What came out most clearly was E's, "Look! A scorpion!" I'd noted a large spider. V pointed out a frog just outside the door. The spider was notable for its size (though hardly a fraction of a tarantula - still interestingly large), but the "scorpion" was a crawdad/crayfish that had found its way into the girls' room. Freaky!

After we wrapped up our bathroom business, I dangled a piece of toilet paper in front of the crawdad which immediately attacked it and attached itself to the paper. I carried the weird creature out to the grass where he threw himself off the rescue tool and began hiding, tail first. Then we decided to turn back and look for the frog. Instead, we found a coiled snake which, I believe, was a pygmy rattle snake, one of the park's four poisonous snake species. GREAT!

And guess who got ENTIRELY dressed, complete with close-toed shoes, and carried a flashlight on that very early mornin' wake-up run to the loo...

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Hiking South Florida's Peak and Chasing Tropical Storms

Apparently, we've hit Florida at JUST the right time to do laundry by simply rubbing it with soap and hanging it out on the line overnight. Thunderous rain last night on the trailer. But the rain let up enough this morning to allow E and me to take the 5 minute walk to the top of South Florida's highest peak - Hobe Mountain. At 87 feet in elevation, it is lower than our house not all that far from California's coast. The view from the top offers miles upon MILES of flat land COVERED in varying shades of green vegetation - and a glimpse across the Atlantic.

Then it was on through Miami ( traffic, graffiti and LOTS of law enforcement apparent) to the Florida Keys.

I'd decided I didn't really need to go all the way to Key West. Looks like a very touristy spot, lots of shopping for the same ol' same ol' offered in so many touristy shops we've seen along the way. Oh, and bars of varying degrees of cleanliness. Sure, fun for grownups, but not really great for this particular trip.

So I reserved a spot at Bahia Honda State Park, a spot about which I'd heard from multiple sources in
no uncertain terms. It's in the Lower Keys, so the drive was still considerable, but it was worth it. The park is the only development here, and the sites were lovely. We had one of the inland (across the driveway from the beachfront) spots which was sheltered from ocean breezes by dense vegetation. The hurricane-tested plants came in handy that night when the winds picked up as a tropical storm approached.

But before the storm arrived, we managed to get in a walk down the shore. Thanks to recent storms, the water is murky, though green, even nearly-glacial blue in some places. Thanks to a very long shelf, not a lot of shells make it to shore in one piece. Still, we had fun exploring, finding shells to hang on the shell tree someone started (or was that a storm creation?) and battling the wind back to camp.

NEWS BREAK: But Why Graphic Images of the News?

We don't have cable at home. There are lots of reasons for it, but a top issue I have with television these days is the depths into which it has sunk in the name of "entertainment" or "news sharing." We used to watch sports - they're fairly safe - but then the ads for prime time shows started showing the graphic violence rather than just alluding to it. Really? Do you have to show the shootings and slashings and slayings for late-night shows during prime time viewing? During morning games?

But we're in a hotel tonight. We have cable. There's cable in nearly every restaurant or sports bar we pass. Images splash on screens whether we want to see them or not. Images are displayed on screen regardless of the audience at hand, with no thought to the people - particularly children, but we're all affected - exposed to them.

So, the news of Muammar Gaddafi's death was, certainly news, but it was in very poor taste for the mass media to project images of his body, for a butcher shop in Libya to set the body out for display and further image sharing via twits and tweets and posts. Where will it end? Why must we show these images (and not once, but repeatedly and at length in loop or otherwise)? My children certainly don't need to see it. I don't need to see it. You don't need to see it.


You don't.

When I was in journalism school, we talked about the ethics related to presenting in whatever format images of the deceased. As recently as the 1990s, if you wouldn't want to view the image over your breakfast with the family, they shouldn't be posted on the front page (or any other page). WERE there images of the dead published? Sure. Were they as graphic as our nightly news offers these days? Not typically. But that's gone out the window. In the name of what?

If your father, mother, sister, brother, best friend were killed, would YOU really want to see graphic images of that event? Would you want those graphic images displayed for all to see? Would you want his or her body displayed for all to photograph and share in any way the gore-mongers saw fit? Really? How about YOUR body?

When it comes down to it, Gaddafi was a man, a father, a husband, a friend (to someone at sometime surely). He was, at some time in his life, a lover, a boy, a son. He was a human being.

I know I have family and friends who think I've gone off the deep end in sheltering my children (and myself when possible) from the tragic images our news media and entertainment media (is there a difference anymore?) consider of value. I know they're wrong. I know that images of war, death, gruesome acts serve no purpose but to scar those who otherwise would not come in contact with it. We can be educated about these things without viewing them, considering them forms of entertainment, making games out of them. War, death, murder - they're not games.

Not now.

Not ever.

Book Review By E: "The Witch of Blackbird Pond" by Elizabeth George Speare

"The Witch of Blackbird Pond" is a really great book! it is about learning to live with change.

When Kit Tyler leaves her home in the Caribbean islands to live in Connecticut Colony, she must learn to live a simple Puritan life. Then she is accused of being a witch! She learns what it is like to have judgement passed on you by people who don't know anything about you.

I read this while we were on our way to Salem, Massachusetts, the home of the Salem Witch Trials. We visited a museum that told all about the girls and adults who were involved in the trials. This book gave me a different view of the story. It was especially interesting because we got to see the places that the story talks about.

This book has been around a very long time. My mom read it when she was a kid, too. School Library Journal lists it among the top 100 books!

Boys would not like this book because it is about a girl and boys wouldn't understand it. It is for ages 9 and up. There are tense places and scary things.

Book Review By E: "Johnny Tremain" by Esther Forbes

"Johnny Tremain" by Esther Forbes is a very exciting book about the hardships of living in Boston during the Revolutionary War.

Johnny is a silversmith's apprentice full of pride and bossy to the end until he burns his hand on molten silver. There is no place in Boston for a boy with a crippled hand, so he must learn to live without a craft and swallow his pride. He tries to forge a bond with a long-lost relative by giving a gift of a silver cup he has made, but the craftsmanship is so great that the man accuses Johnny of stealing it.

Through the book, Johnny learns about honesty, leadership and patriotism. We learn about life during the U.S. Revolutionary War.

This book is for boys mostly because it is about one, but girls will like it, too. Ages nine and up. There is some violence, gory bits, and it has a mixed ending.

Book Review By V: "Fighting Ground," by Avi (Edward Irving Wortis)

"Fighting Ground" is an exciting book about a boy who runs away to be a soldier in the Revolutionary War. He gets captured by the British and has to work with the British to stay alive. He has two choices: remain a captive or become a patriot.

This story is, clearly, about war. If you don't like stories about war, then this is not for you. It was assigned reading for me while we traveled through the Colony States.

I would advise this book for people 8 and older who like adventure. (P.S. It is written kind of like a journal!)

Book Reviews By V and E: "Guns for General Washington," by Seymour Reit

V, age 8, says:
This books a really exciting story about the Revolutionary War. In this story, the British are about to attack America, but America does not have enough canons. A group of people go on an adventure across hundreds of miles of rough terrain in the snow to bring back canons that way up to two tons!

"Guns for General Washington" is very exciting. I think it's a good story for readers ages and up because I'm 8. The only bad thing about it is that it's about war and I don't know if anyone should really ever have to read about wars.

E, age 11, entirely disagrees:
"Guns for General Washington," by Seymour Riet, is a terrible book! It is not well written and not interesting.

It is about the Revolutionary War. A group of General Washington's men take the nearly impossible journey to bring 183 canons from Fort Ticonderoga to Boson in the dead of winter.

If anyone could take this book, it would be boys. Ages 6 and older.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Continuing South and back to the camping routine

After a week (plus) in "civilization," the girls and I continued our trek south toward the southernmost tip of the United States. On our way, we figured we'd make a few stops and see some more of the beautiful, unique spots our country has to offer. First stop, Dickinson State Park, east coast of Florida half a day's drive south of Orlando.

The park was a pleasant surprise. Though mapped directly adjacent to the highway (and with one of its campgrounds conveniently placed near highway for busy travelers), the park extends for 11,500 acres and includes waterways, woodlands and accessible parks with amenities including a swimming beach, 'gator culvert, canoe rentals, guided tours up the river (for groups of two adults or more - children don't count toward this number), boardwalks and picnic spots. We were originally slated to camp near the highway (through the reservation system - we hadn't picked our own spot), but when we talked to Ranger Robert Shuhr about the park, he gave me some other options, and recommended a site which was, indeed, much better for us. We were only about 150 feet from the Loxahatchee River, and even closer to a restroom with running water. Ranger Shuhr also assured us that swimming in the river's swimming beach was perfectly safe - no big current, no big drop offs, and 'gators only rarely.

While watching out for snakes (I never thought I'd be glad we have only one specie of snake to worry about in most of California) and spiders (big ones here), we followed the trail to the river where we spotted some boys our girls' ages playing in the river. I talked to their parents for awhile and learned the boys hadn't been sent out to swim with the 'gators as any sort of punishment. So, we donned our suits and joined the family in the refreshingly cool water as the gray skies grew darker and more forboding.

Just before sunset, we took the short walk back to camp for dinner away from the mosquitos (inside trailer) and a night of heavy rain. (More rain in Florida...go figure!)

Monday, October 17, 2011

Missing Mr. B

We dropped off Mr. B at the airport early this morning and have driven south to a Wi-Fi-friendly lunch spot to catch up with the internet (particularly blog n' photo uploads) on our way to camp. We're headed south along Florida's east coast toward the Florida Keys. For tonight, we'll stop midway down from Orlando at a state park, cutting our driving time and making for a simple day easing back into the camping life.

It's only been two hours, but I already miss Mr. B, and really want to turn for home. But we've made plans to visit friends and family on this southern stretch of the trip, and I also don't want to miss those opportunities which we likely won't have again anytime in the known future. So we'll stick with our plans, and be home in early November, and happier than ever to be there.

I know that sometimes Mr. B feels like he's just a sherpa to us all (don't so many dads and husbands?), but I really appreciated him sharing this week with us, holding my hand, encouraging us all along, and sharing All Things Mickey and Harry with us. And OF COURSE I appreciate his help holding things, carrying things, hooking up the trailer, parking the trailer, mediating between the girls and opening the occasional bottle I can't manage. I do a lot for myself, and I try not to ask for his help too often because I feel like he works hard to help us in every way he can - through his hours upon hours at work earning the living that sustains us all, and all the work he does at home. He is the hardest working man I know. So far be it from me to ask him to help when "I can do it myself."

Thank you, Mr. B, for coming all this way to share in the adventure, and for making the adventures here and at home all possible for us all.


A Week in the World of Disney (with a little Harry Potter added)

V's birthday was super rainy
What a week! Five consecutive days in Disney parks, a day of “rest” at a Disney pool party and archery range, another day of exploring all things Harry Potter and then some at Universal Islands of Adventure. It especially was great because Mr. B was here. Together we experienced rain the likes of which we’d never seen before (REAL rain, for HOURS on end), a birthday (Happy Birthday, Baby V!), humidity, crowds, unusually short wait times, a food festival, and lots of memorable moments.

E’s favorite parts of the week were: having Dad with us; Harry Potter land; EPCOT center (especially SOARIN’) and the pool (and pool party). V’s favorite parts of the week were: having Dad with us; Harry Potter land and the pool. So there you have it. (My favorites were having Mr. B with us, Mr. B holding my hand as we zoomed through the lines to the big rides, Mr. B giving kisses voluntarily on our anniversary while we were serenaded in Animal Kingdom, riding the ferries, watching the girls watch the parades, performances and rides that made them especially happy.)
Taking in the Electric Light Parade

Before we send Mr. B back home, then continue our drive south and finally west, I’ll share a few pointers we learned during this, our first, stay at Walt Disney World:

1) Five days may be enough to get to most every ride in the four parks, but you’ll need another week to include the water parks, to have time to enjoy the performances, and maybe yet another week to enjoy the myriad other opportunities on the 28,000-acre property.

2) There’s lots of free entertainment on the Disney grounds. Start at the Boardwalk any evening.

3) The meal plan may be the way to go. I didn’t know how easy it would be to use, or how flexible, so opted not to bother. But we probably would have saved a small fortune given that we ate nearly every meal for five days on Disney property (no small coin dropped there).

4) If you want anything even closely resembling healthy food (and don’t want to do your own cooking) don’t bother to eat in Magic Kingdom or Hollywood Studio. Head, instead, to EPCOT (we particularly enjoyed the cafeteria downstairs in The Land).

5) While Disney provides fun transportation options (bus, ferry, monorail) all free to its guests, it won’t save you any time or frustration. If you want to get to and from the parks in reasonable time, drive. Parking throughout the property is included with lodging, so there’s no additional fee to drive yourself to the parks.

6) Wilderness Lodge Campground is a great deal – very nice campground with resort amenities – pool, hot tub, wading pool, little kids’ splash zone, video arcade, archery range, shuffle boards, outdoor theater (with nightly showings of Disney films), horseback riding, carriage rides, dinner theater, restaurant and shops. Oh, and full hook ups, hot showers, and lots of trees (and SPACE between campsites)!

Waiting "patiently" for the bus
7) Just because the campground has wi-fi doesn’t mean you’re welcome to use it. Unless, of course, you’re willing to shell out a few more bucks for the honor. (Really? Even cheap hotels provide free wi-fi with their rooms. Coffee shops provide it in trade for the purchase of a three-buck cup o’ joe. Dunkin’ Donuts doesn’t even REQUIRE purchase. Come on, Disney!)

Not a lot of time on the internet this trip, so perhaps more upon our return home in less than a month.

But also wanted to drop a few lines about today’s visit to Universal – Florida. The girls, who read aloud the first Harry Potter title on the way here, particularly enjoyed the Wizarding World of Harry Potter found at Universal’s Islands of Adventure.

We spent half the day here riding its three rides, checking out its shops, tasting of the Butterbeer and dining at Three Broomsticks (then returning for more riding). Hogwart’s Castle and its related ride are really great (though I’m not a huge fan of simulators, so would rather have seen that bit run outside, or on real track). Still, well done!

Mr. B and I really enjoyed BOTH tracks on the Dragon Challenge. (The girls weren’t quite up to this type of roller coaster yet. I wasn’t sure I was, either, ‘til I completed the first ride. Nicely designed coaster that left me exhilarated without leaving me nauseated. So I had to try the second line – equally exciting and well-designed.)

We spent the second half of the day seeing what we could of the rest of the Islands park and the nearby Universal Studios park. Lesson One for those who follow us: Plan one day for each park.

And whether it’s Disney’s property or Universal’s, bring LOTS of cash. You’ll need it.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

St. Augustine - The Nation's Oldest City

Remember that thing I said a few days ago about the forts? Essentially, it was “you’ve seen one fort, you’ve seen them all.” Well, I take it back. St. Augustine, Florida is home to one of the nation’s must-see forts (not to mention countless tourist traps). Bring the family historians, the doubters and the shoppers. There’s something for everyone here.

This morning we woke to fantastic claps of thunder (had we good windows, surely they would have rattled), gray skies and some drizzle with a promise of more wind and rain throughout the week. I’m thrilled to have the bugs and heat knocked down by the change in weather. And if our camp host is correct in forecasting “cooler temperatures for the next five days with highs only in the low 80s,” then bring on the storm! It was toasty yesterday, and sticky and warm throughout the night. These “cooler” temperatures are more than welcomed by me.

I let the girls sleep in while I reconnected one of the trailer marker lights (gravity had pulled off the connector) and discovered that one of the taillights/signal lights was burned out. Then I started plunking around in the kitchen cooking a nice hot, complete breakfast (pancakes and bacon) while they stretched themselves awake.

The girls fed turtles and ducks in the campground pond while I wrapped up my trailer cleanup project (putting tools back away, boiling water for dishes and cleaning up the kitchen). Then we headed for town.

Our first stop was the St. Augustine Lightstation. I wonder why lighthouses on the east coast have the black and white stripe motif while west coast lighthouses are just plain white buildings. I’m sure there’s an easy answer (and probably even online…if only I had a smart phone, or a tablet, or just an internet connection), but sometimes it’s ok to just wonder. We visited the abbreviated museum in the lightstation entry building, but stopped there. Unfortunately, like so many sites here, the station appears to have been privatized and there’s a fee not only to climb the 219 steps to lens level, but to walk the grounds. Neither girl was interested, so I didn’t shell out to drag them in. Instead, we returned through the shady parking lot (mosquito haven) and continued into town.

I knew the fort was a unique shape among American forts, but I didn’t realize it would be in such great condition. The moat is still in place, as are the drawbridges and entry gates. Since the masonry fort was never forcibly taken (the British burned down the original wooden fort), it still stands largely undamaged. Docents were informative, friendly and knowledgeable. And the views from the top level, where cannons were angled to provide overlapping coverage, were wonderful.

As the wind and rain picked up, we found shelter in one of the corner sentry houses while we watched a drawbridge open for a passing sailboat heading to the inner harbor. Then we boogied off the rooftop and back for shelter.

But the rain came in fits and starts, so it was only a few minutes before we were able to walk across Avenida Menendez to St. Augustine old town, now a popular tourist attraction full of shops and restaurants. Rather than turn this historical portion of the city into a museum piece entirely, the buildings are maintained and the narrow streets open only to pedestrians, but it continues, just as it served originally, as a center of commerce.

After peeking into galleries and shops, we veered off the beaten path in search of The Floridian, a restaurant whose ads touted a locavore menu. What a fantastic find! The service was friendly, the menu compelling and the food wonderful. The girls were especially excited to find a children’s menu that didn’t just offer the same-ol’, same-ol’ (chicken fingers, mac n’ cheese, hot dogs and cheeseburgers) but instead offered kid versions of the adult menu – real food. E opted for the pulled chicken with garlic herb dip and a chunk of corn bread. V went for the fried shrimp with a side of apple slices. I particularly enjoyed the Southern Belle salad – sliced peaches, pecans, chunks of roasted sweet potatoes, and blue cheese over a bed of mixed lettuces sprinkled with a light vinaigrette dressing and drizzled with just a tiny bit of honey. I wasn’t sure how those potatoes were going to do on a salad, but clearly the chef here knows what she’s doing. SCRUMPTIOUS!

The rain and grey skies and lightning and thunder continued well into the afternoon, so neither girl was excited about returning to camp or the pool. Instead, we continued window shopping, found a few treasures, and visited a pair of bookstores where we all picked up some new reads. (We all particularly enjoyed “Second Read,” a used bookstore with a good selection for young and old and friendly staff at the counter.)

On our way “home,” we ran a couple of errands including finding that replacement bulb for the trailer tail/turn light. During our quest, we came upon a (GASP!) real video store! I’ve never turned as hard for wildlife in the road as I did to get into that store’s parking lot. Our old membership number was still in their system, though our local branch of this chain left our community years ago. The girls agreed almost immediately on “Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian,” in no small part because we just visited that amazing national treasure.

There’s nothing like the promise of a movie to get these girls going. Within an hour of returning to camp, we’d showered, run a load of laundry, made dinner (with lots of help from the girls) and set up the computer inside the trailer. (YAY! The plug works once you plug in the trailer and flip the GFI – I’d never tested that system before.) With intermission for stove-top popcorn popping and rain pounding on the roof, we were content and relaxed and entertained.

Now we count the minutes ‘til we pick up Mr. B. Can’t wait to see him!

Driving, Driving and south to the Carolinas

Driving, driving, today was all about driving. After waking early and packing ourselves to the beach for sunrise breakfast on the sand (and some very easy seashell hunting), we hit the road and headed yet further south.

It’s a shame to pass through states so quickly, but with all those delays up north (an extra day here and there) even the removal of our proposed loop through Pennsylvania wasn’t enough to allow much of a visit in the Carolinas or Georgia.

We were slated to sleep in Georgia tonight, but the girls in particular are weary of “just a place to sleep” stops. We talked about our options (stop shortly after midday, sleep, then move on in the morning; or drive a couple of extra hours today, then stay two nights in once place tomorrow) and they voted for moving ahead. SO…on to St. Augustine it is.

After our really pleasant experience at the Williamsburg KOA, I thought we’d go for another KOA experience down here. (Prior to Williamsburg, I’d never really had a nice KOA experience.) The girls looked forward to the pool, and I looked forward to giving them such a treat in our travels.

This KOA, however, is a real disappointment. It’s clearly an older such campground; the neighborhood surrounding it has grown to include very busy roads and shopping centers. The pool, also clearly aging, was not only unheated, but also green. And two of the three toilets on our end of the park are not functioning. Heaven forbid we have a morning rush on the bathroom. The touted WiFi also doesn’t work, so I have no idea when you’ll be getting this and other recent updates. Maybe the land of Mickey is up to par.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Fort Sumter - another day, another fort

Hands-on history
Oct. 5
Note to others considering a trip like ours: if you have girls, particularly girls who are not particularly into the warlike portion of our nation’s history, you probably don’t need to visit more than one fort. If you’ve seen one, visited with its docents, checked out the guns and considered the strategic placement of a fort, that should do you.

Then again, there’s Fort Sumter. Though we’ve visited a few forts in our travels, I found the placement of this fort, on an island in the mouth of a bay, particularly interesting. What about tides? Floods? Hurricanes? And how on earth could this little island really defend all this space? Turns out those old guns can shoot a lot further than I’d ever imagined. Forts north and south of Fort Sumter gave added coverage. No pirates or rebels were likely to make it through the combined barrage of artillery here.

The related story of the Union troops’ taking of this fort, their survival here, and the final Revolutionary War battles here was interesting, too.

The girls, however, were unenthusiastic at best. V was entertained by the heavy wind. E enjoyed watching the dolphins play with the bow wave on the ferry.

And so we headed south for camp near Edisto Beach, South Carolina.

Friday, October 14, 2011

D.C. Again (Betcha can't do just one day...and not want more and more and more...)

Well, we couldn’t just leave D.C. at that. We HAD to return today! So, with coaching from our fair hostess, we hooked up the trailer, hugged everyone goodbye, and headed back north toward the city to check out two of the 19 Smithsonian museums there before sneaking out before drivetime.

After a bit of research, we discovered there apparently isn’t any large vehicle parking at the Metro stations. I checked out some parking options on the streets nearby and identified a likely mall parking lot about half a mile from the station we intended to take into town. But come this morning I chickened out. Even if I purchased a cup of coffee and morning snacks from a coffee shop in the mall, I don’t know if we could have gotten away with the customer parking for so many hours; and I really didn’t want to return to find the rig towed away.

We tried surface streets, but permits are required throughout the neighborhoods surrounding the Metro station, so we just drove toward D.C. hoping to come up with something. I’d read about oversize vehicle parking at Arlington National Cemetery, so was headed that way, but didn’t quite find our way there before meeting up with a ranger who pointed us toward Haines Point. Today there was ample parking (free) in the Potomac Parks, so we pulled into a shaded spot and flagged down a cab. (No metro stops out here, and quite a long walk from our intended museum destinations, though a great place to park if the new Martin Luther King, Jr. Monument is your first stop.)

It was a great call! We were at the Museum of American History within minutes and only a few dollars lighter. We cruised up to the First Ladies exhibit, found The Ruby Slippers (yes, that’s a capital T), played in the kids’ play areas, then headed out the doors of this free national treasure. We buzzed over to the neighboring Museum of Natural History where we headed (almost) straight for the Hope Diamond. Once there, however, we found ourselves entranced by the variety of gems and minerals (and metals) on display here. It would be easy to spend an entire day in this exhibit taking in the amazing creations of nature.

With the 2:30 warning alarm chirping, the race was on. We cruised back outside, hailed a cab, and found our rig waiting just where we’d left it. With clear and easy directions from our cabbie (“just follow the signs”), we were out of the city in minutes. The early crowd was clearly on the same page as we were: while I drove with the cruise control set on the speed limit, others were flying by me. I think they, too, were fleeing drive time.

I turned on the radio when we were west of Norfolk, far south of D.C., to pick up on the news and learned that we’d made the right choice in fleeing the city early; traffic was a mess behind us, and we were cruising south without a worry.

Had hoped to head to Hatteras today, but this portion of the outer banks is still devastated by August’s hurricane. Three of the northern islands reportedly are still cut off and authorities are asking those of us who haven’t already secured reservations on the overcrowded ferries to just stay away for awhile. We can certainly honor that – south we go.

Tonight, “camping” at Flying J somewhere in North Carolina. Not romantic. Not beautiful. Not even peaceful. But we’re welcome here, and I feel fairly safe out here under the security camera. The girls are already knocked out for the night.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

D.C. at LAST!

Today, we finally stopped dilly dallying and headed into D.C. I was SOOO very excited to get back to this truly great city. I was here in the early 90s for five days. We walked everywhere that August week, saw a lot, but never stepped foot into National Geographic (one of my goals) nor a Smithsonian. There’s SO much to see and do in Washington, D.C. One could stay here for months and still not see it all.

Our hostess gave us a ride in to the Metro stop on her way to work. Our adventure began with the purchase of our day passes. (Only $9 per person per day for full Metro passes – the best mass transit deal we’ve seen in our travels.) Once I finally got the machine to accept my plastic (no small task), we headed to the train only to learn that the full-day passes don’t include rush hour. We’d either have to wait half an hour, or would have to purchase single-fare tickets. I didn’t want to waste the half hour in the station, so I opted for the single fares. Turns out, however, that you can’t share a fare ticket (I’d put three fares on one ticket), so two out of three of us were locked out. Fortunately, the Metro agent was friendly and helpful (and funny), and helped me parse out our tickets so we could all ride the next train into town.

The train pulled into the station at 9:35…5 minutes after the peak period ended and our day passes would have worked just fine. (sigh)

We hopped off at the Smithsonian stop which put us right in the heart of the nation’s capitol. We walked our feet sore checking out the Mall and its monuments, including the new Martin Luther King, Jr. Monument. At first I wondered why they left Dr. King’s likeness unfinished – his head and upper torso and crossed arms are complete, but the carving becomes increasingly rough until his legs remain a block of stone. In fact, however, I think it’s particularly appropriate that his likeness remain unfinished, a reminder of the life cut short and his goals of peace and unity not yet met.

With an enthusiastic recommendation from a park ranger, the girls and I ventured back into the Metro and out to the jazz quarter in search of a great Ethiopian restaurant. I wish I could have remembered the name of the restaurant I visited (and greatly enjoyed) so many years ago (if it’s still open at all). Instead, we hit Dukems on U Street. The girls enjoyed eating with their hands, but the table experience was entirely different that the comfortable floor-seating arrangement I had enjoyed, and the food wasn’t really that exciting (except for our appetizer – pastry wrapped spicy vegetables). We all left hungry.

Fortunately, world famous Ben’s Chili is just down the street. We tried to stop in, but major demo work was under way. This restaurant has been in place since the ‘50s and has survived a riot or two that has otherwise entirely decimated the neighborhood. As we turned away, a lovely lady said, “I’m sorry. I’m sorry we’re closed. Come back and see us again, will you?” It turns out she’s the owner, and her son own’s the place next door (Ben’s Next Door) which was serving not only its regular higher-end menu, but also mom’s chili and related goodies. So, we stepped in to check it out. V and I split the chili dog, and an order of sweet potato fries while E enjoyed a bowl of (delicious) black bean soup.

We made it back to the Mall in time to watch the monument lights come on, and to return to some of the monuments to check them out under lights. (I, for one, like them better under lights. And they’re open 24 hours a day. For the best, quietest visit, come back near midnight if you have bigger kids, or no kids at all.)

Our feet quite sore, we walked past the Department of State, through George Washington University and hit the Metro again for a ride back to the suburbs, and a warm late-evening greeting from our hostess.

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