Friday, December 30, 2011

Christmas Vacation Part VI

We left St. Petersburg with heavy hearts, first because there was so much left there to explore, and second, because we had travelled as far "away" from home as we would get on this trip. It was time to backtrack.  We stopped in Largo Florida to see a house my oldest daughter could potentially call home, then we pressed on to Clearwater Beach Florida, where we thought we might find a place for the night.  It looked inviting from afar.

We quickly changed our minds once we reached the barrier island and the massive ball of TRAFFIC!  Nothing moved very fast.  All we wanted was to check out their marina, but after 15 minutes of crawling through the parking lot, we bailed.  This place was NOT for us.

Our next destination was Foley, AL where we would spend a night with the Waltons.  We wanted to knock off a few hours today to shorten our drive tomorrow.  So we headed back to Crystal River and got a room at a Best Western right off the road.  This was by far, the least wonderful place we had bunked, but it was clean and quiet.  We ate the cold cuts and cubana bread we had brought with us and hit the sack.

We were back on the road early the next morning.  We stopped again for our last "foreigner" breakfast, this time at the Hudle House, a Waffle House knockoff I suspect. Bruce voiced his thankfulness that there aren't any of these places near home, or we would be enormous!  As it is, we split a plate and this was what we each had to eat.... amazing!

We travelled on to Foley, AL. where we stayed a night with friends and former members of BYC, the Waltons.  I took a break from taking pictures for some reason so there are none of this portion of our journey.  The Waltons welcomed us into their homes warmly and extravagantly...  Their place is huge and gorgeous nestled in the scenic rural town of Foley.  Lynn took us on a short drive to Gulf Shores, AL.  It's a beautiful beach destination with lots to do, including a visit to the famous Lulu's.  This place looked like it would be fun.  It's owned by Jimmy Buffet's sister.  It's on the list of places to revisit, as is Florabama!  We checked it out on the advice of another friend from the Club, but found it undergoing massive remodelling.  It was still crowded, but we'll check it out next time through.

Susan and Lynn fed us a marvelous home cooked meal, which was such a pleasure after eating our way across four states in greasy spoons and tourist meccas.  Thank you SO much for your hospitality.  Our room was fit for royalty and we spent a restful night there once our stomachs quit aching from all the food we had consumed.

Next morning, coffee and conversation, then back on the road.  We stopped over at a marina to take a look at a Bavaria Ocean 40 that was for sale in Mississippi but the Brokerage was closed as it was New Year's Eve.  Too bad, Bruce really liked the looks of it, although I still think a 40 ft boat is not going to get it. 

We pressed on to the Seabrook Marina and Wand'rin Star, which would be our home this final night of our trip.  Steve took us around his marina to show us the highlights.  He's been talking to the neighbors and picking up interesting tidbits.  This thing carried a family of 5 down the Mississippi from somewhere up North.  There's gotta be some kind of story there...

There are quite a few "Katrina" boats here on the hard, casualties of the storm in various states of disrepair.  Some still the property of the owners at the time the storm came through, and others newly purchased for a song and in the process of being lovingly restored by their new owners... 

Another story here, surely.  Rumor has it that this boat is being made ready to sail to Hawaii.  Hmmm.

We continued on our walk around the yard.  Bruce is seen here trying to hide a massive case of "Prop Envy".  Who needs this much forward motion on the water?!

We collected Lynn from the boat and walked the short distance to the RV park next door, bought our tickets for the shuttle bus and boarded for our ride to the French Quarter. 

This was the BEST way to get there, no parking problems, no traffic headaches.  Just ride up in style and be at the appointed spot at 8pm to  catch our ride back. 

This would ensure that we escaped the madness that would surely occur in the French Quarter on New Year's Eve.

We strolled through the streets, briefly enjoying the entertainers then moving on...

We stopped in at the Hotel Monteleone to see their Merry-go-round bar. 

It was pretty neat but very crowded already so we only stood and watched it go around for a while. 

I wanted to stop in at the Cafe du Monde for beignets.  This is a Must-Do in the French Quarter but when we got near the place... I stared in disbelief at the ridiculously long line out the door.  Well, we would Must-DO it next time!  We stopped for a beverage across the street and continued on our way.

The streets of the French Quarter were festooned with declarations of allegiance to the Saints with the occasional LSU flag thrown in just to get the juices flowing.  There's a lot of infectious energy here, fun for me even if I have no idea who the Saints are...

Lynn had a place for us to eat all lined up.  We weren't ready for dinner yet but wanted to scope it out so we wouldn't be scrambling later.  We easily found the Gumbo Shop... not to be confused with the less highly recommended Gumbo Pot found earlier. 

We marked our spot then continued on to see the fog rolling in on Jackson Square.  The square was lined with Palm and Taro Card reading Phychics and artists galore.  I came very close to having my cards read but didn't really "feel it" from any of those offering up their services this night.  Lynn was all for it but Bruce was wary... what if they told me something I didn't want to hear.  Maybe he's right.  Better leave the future to unfold as it will.

Darkness fell and the streets were really filling up.  We made our way back to the Gumbo Shop fearing that there would be long lines.

But Fear NOT!  We arrived at our dinner destination and were whisked right to a very nice corner table by a window.  The ambiance was a calm contradiction to the building frenzy outside. 

We ordered the Complete Creole Dinner to share.  Our Waitress, Rose was doubtful that it would satisfy us both, but we figured we could always order more food...

The Steakleys did the same and nobody left hungry.  We can't imagine eating all that food and still being able to walk out on your own...  Everything was delicious with delicate flavors but I'll say that the Jambalaya was exquisite!  I know... word choice seems odd, but it works for me. 

We left the Gumbo Shop with some time to spare before our scheduled rendezvous to be taken back to sanity, so we enjoyed some "people watching".

Who thinks these things up?  And isn't that kind of bad for your skin? 

We soon noticed that there were people "People Watching" US!  The streets were really beginning to fill.  There were already drunks lying on the sidewalks and suspicious looking "puddles" here and there.  We made our pick-up spot in good time and were glad to see our shuttle coming up the street.  There was a younger crowd arriving for the debauchery and we wished them well as we boarded and they disappeared into the streets. 

We were dropped off at the marina where we immediately made our beds, worried that the sporadic fireworks already popping in the distance would keep us awake, but it was not so.  Wand'rin Star is a solid boat and we slept well.  The morning was cool and misty and we were sorry to leave as this meant the end of our week-long adventure.  We said our goodbyes and headed for home.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Christmas Vacation Part V

We lounged abed for a while in the morning, enjoying this plush comfort for a little longer.  We had learned our lesson about booking for two nights and were checkin' out!  We had breakfast quesadillas in the hotel lobby with Starbuck's coffee then loaded up our belongings and set out to explore St. Petersburg. 

I had hoped to talk my way onto a Catalina Morgan 45 that I had my eye on.  It is under contract but I was still hoping that they would show it to us, along with a 38 that was still on the market.  The iPad got us through the downtown area and took us right to the Brokerage that was offering these boats.  Next door was a business that cleans sails.  The Brokerage was not open yet but these guys were already hard at work.  We are drawn in by all things "boaty" so we struck up a conversation with the owner.

We spent a while watching these guys make boat cushion covers while the owner tried to contact the Broker for us.  We had to wait for him to contact the sellers of the boats we wanted to see, and while we waited, we learned about his business.  Evidently there are lots of businesses that cater to boating in the St. Pete area. 

We were fascinated at how clean these sails were as compared to the one still soaking in the cleaning solution.  It was covered in green slime but would soon be as white as the ones strung out in the yard.  Pretty cool and not very expensive either. 

Well anyway, long story short... the Broker couldn't get us onto either boat today, so we left there to go see if we could find a dock to walk.  We drove to the waterfront and parked near the St. Petersburg Yacht Club.  Bruce wanted to get out his BYC Card and try to get in but I nixed that.  The place looked like a small palace and went on for blocks it seemed.  Who needs it?!

Once again we found the docks all locked down.  The only one we could get near were the Municipal Marina slips.  One nice thing about this place is that the slips come with assigned parking places.  Bruce checked into the Liveaboard rates for the Municipal and found them very reasonable with two parking spaces.  He's sold!  Wants to move here NOW!

We had an hour on the parking meter so we took a stroll around the area.  The day was very mild and the sun felt good.

There are no ridiculous winds to deal with here... at least not today.

The boats were all nestled in their slips...

The water was clear and clean.  Tampa bay was placid and Bruce was even more certain that this would be a nice place to spend some time aboard a boat.  We spoke to a woman who was heading back to her boat anchored out just off the pier.  She said that there was inexpensive public transportation and a grocery store a couple of blocks away.  Perfect!

We could see some kind of oddly shaped building off at the end of a long pier.  There were pictures of it in our hotel so we knew it must be some kind of attraction.  We found it easily and parked the car.  Behold "The Pier".

We had no idea what this thing was but boldly entered it's doors.  Inside it looked kind of like a mall, with little shops and restaurants lining the walkways.  It was time for lunch so we went up to The Columbia restaurant on the fourth floor.  The view was most excellent!

I was immediately worried that we were in the wrong place if we wanted a cheap lunch... Maybe a watermelon margarita will help me get over it!  This place had a world class view...

But was surprisingly affordable!  We had a yummy queso fundido appetiser and split a giant cubano sandwich made with delicious mouthwatering Cuban bread.

After lunch we went up onto the observation deck and had a look around. 

There are so many things we wanted to do in St. Pete, but the day was half over.  It was decision time... take a sight seeing boat ride or take the Looper Trolly around town to see what else is out there.  We opted for the Looper. 
It's very handy.  It does a loop around the downtown area taking tourists to all the hot spots.  Not a bad idea when parking is at a premium.  Maybe Corpus Christi should take notice.  The other trolly/bus that uses these same stops is a regular city bus line that can take a cruiser to the places they need to go.  The Bus driver was a good source of knowledge which, I suspect, is common among bus drivers. 
We had to make a difficult decision.  Leave St. Pete and get on the road towards our next destination, or stay another night and have a really hard day of driving the next day...  We were good.  Head homeward..., it's over.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Christmas Vacation Part IV

We set our alarm to get up early... we're crossing the line from Central to Eastern on this trip.  Sometimes the line is fuzzy.  We had a storm in the night which brought in a cold front.  It was 45 degrees when we left Panama City Beach and we saw temps everywhere from 32 to the 60's and fog!

We travelled along enjoying the scenery.  There were vivid fall colors and surprisingly, so many pine trees.  When I think of Florida, I think of Palms.  Not so!  Evidently Florida is a logging Mecca!

This was interesting to me.  All along the drive we found sections of Pine trees, some tall, others tiny, others medium sized.  It was something I've never seen before.  I wonder how long it takes a Pine tree to grow to harvest size...

Anyway... we progressed on our way down into Florida proper and I mentioned that we were nearing Crystal River.  Bruce says "Isn't that where the Manatee are?".  Out comes the iPad again.  I found Crystal River National Park  where the Manatee are featured.  OK, so we have another destination! 

We consulted a very nice woman there at the Park office who hooked us up with a woman named Pavla, who runs a small Manatee Tour business (among other things) out of her home on a canal very near where the Manatee come in the winter.  We were just in time to dash to her home, be ushered through the house into the back yard and hop aboard her small pontoon boat.  We joined a Japanese couple with their (tiny) 10 year old child.  They were wearing wet suits as they would be swimming with the Manatee.  We opted for the dry tour as it's still just COLD!  Check out this picture, look closely at the water's surface near the shore.  Those bumps you see are our first glimpse of the Manatee.  They come up into these canals where the water is warm near hot springs.  They just "hang out". 

We continued on out into King's Bay where we were treated to a tour of the "not-so-touristy" areas.  We saw an American Eagle, two Osprey...

Many different types of ducks, heron, cormorants and pelicans.

We even saw a little otter running along the bank.  He jumped into the water, swam a ways then popped back out and disappeared into the reeds.  What a treat! 

Pavla kept up a running commentary on the flora and fauna of the place.  She has a real appreciation for nature and showed us spots that were relatively untouched by commercialism.  This is what sets her tours apart from many of the others.

But... we're here to see MANATEE!  Thus far, we've seen shadows, bubbles and swooshes, but this is a Manatee tour.  And the Japanese people are starting to shiver!  So we make our way back to the canals, where most of the Manatee are lurking.  This whole Bay is fresh/brackish water coming from hot springs under the surface.  Hard to believe.  I questioned our host about the depths in King's Bay and found that it is deep enough for some sailboats to anchor.  I'll keep it on the list.

We backtracked and arrived at the entrance to Three Sisters, where the Manatee converge in the warm spring waters.  They are protected by a refuge area where they may go to get away from the reaching hands of people, but they can (and do) also come out and play with the crowds who come to see them here.

The Japanese family got into the water and disappeared up into the cove where the real fun is, but we were more than adequately entertained by these looming hulks drifting right under our feet. 

I could watch them for hours and we'll definitely come back here when it's a bit warmer.  (go on... get it out of your system...)

I've put the clips I took together in a movie to give you the full effect. 

This was just a brief interlude in our day and we were soon on our way.  After collecting the Japanese family, we returned to the dock and said our goodbyes.  Pavla felt like family and we vowed to return. 

Our destination was St. Petersburg.  I made a reservation on Hotwire in a very trendy little "Boutique Hotel" called the Hotel Indigo.  We were WOWed with the decor!  From the front entrance to the bathroom, this place was Done UP!.  I was tickled to fall into the sumptuous bed with piles of pillows.  I made Bruce sleep on the other bed just so I could luxuriate in peace...

We spent a quiet night with Chick-Fil-A in the room for dinner, watched some TV, caught up on the Blogosphere and turned in.  It had been a long and full day.  Tomorrow, we explore St. Pete!