With the van modifications done and everything ready, we head out to a familiar place to start our journey to the northern most point of NC’s Outer Banks. Where else for us but Myrtle Beach,… More
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Pensacola, Florida… about as far west in Florida as you can go. We know that because we had picked it as the place we’d turn the steering wheel right and head back towards NC. We finally made it there after meandering around Florida for nearly 3 months. After a beautiful but sad 4-hour drive we arrived to the place we knew would be further west… but we didn’t think about it being further north than we had been and that change along with this year’s famous cold front brought on cold temps that chased us out of shorts and back into long pants, sweatshirts and even our coats. The drive was sad because it took right across the section of the state that was devastated by hurricane Michael last year. We were not prepared for the miles and miles of nothingness that exists out on the interstate now… nothingness like hardly any trees anymore. They’re mostly all gone, especially on the hillsides. Like boats on land 100s of feet from where the water is now. And homes and business impacted but not giving up… many rebuilding as we drove by… many piling up trees, shingles and debris at the road 20-30 feet high. It was a sight we should have been prepared for but we were not… but how can you prepare yourself for that kind of scene.
But as we crossed the bridge and neared Pensacola the palm trees, shrubs, landscape, houses and businesses started to appear again with many not even touched by the hurricane. Part of us wanted to turn around and go back and help. Part of us was glad there was still a coast to visit at all. We were both tired from a long day of driving, well 4-5 hours is our max, so we got our van all set up and hunkered down for the night… for a long, cold night as it turned out.
But that cold weather didn’t keep us from enjoying the Pensacola area. Like almost every area we visit we had done some research to decide on what major things we wanted to do. We knew we wanted some long awaited beach time, but with temps in the 40s that may not happen. We also knew we wanted to see the lighthouse and although we did the research to know all about it’s history we failed to do the research to help with directions to view it.
You’d think it would be relatively easy to find a freaking lighthouse wouldn’t you? It sticks up hundreds of feet in the air and it’s made to be seen… for miles. Well the lighthouse at Pensacola is not that hard to find… that is if you know you have to go on the Naval Base to get there. While Maggie wasn’t allowed to go up the lighthouse she was allowed on the beach and man that girl loves being in the sand and running, running, running. In fact, like us, she seems to love everything there is about exploring these new areas in our van. Her life is simple… sleep, eat, pee, smell, sleep a little more and play when the time is right. It’s a formula that maybe we all should try to stick to if our finances and situations give us the chance to do that.
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So what is up with all the big spiders we keep running in to? This time while we were… wait.. let me back up and tell you how we got here. After spending one night at Suwannee River State Park in a tight spot beside of a bunch of loud kids, we were excited to pull into Ochlanockee River State Park to find that we had the most private and best spot in the park! Yeah!
We got setup quickly and went out for a hike… nothing new for us. After a mile or so Maggie was hot and panting so we took her back to the A/C coolness of the van and set out to go for a longer hike. Along the way we found lots to look at, including huge pine cones. So Lynn proceeds to pick one up and hold it out to show me how “pretty” it is. It’s about that time that I hear her say “OH CRAP! SPIDER!” and she throws the pine cone down. The huge brown spider crawls out of his little pine cone house and just looks at us. Freaks us out… especially Lynn. She had that thing in her hand and it’s a wonder she didn’t get bitten.
Oh yeah… and white (albino) squirrels. Who knew that was really a thing. The park ranger told us about them… you see we always talk to the ranger at every park we arrive at if it’s possible… just to get the inside information and any safety precautions, and we suggest that you do the same thing because you would be surprised at what you can learn from talking with someone who loves their job and lives their job in the outdoors like that. So anyway, the albino squirrels… we saw them. White as a snow. Pretty cool too. After seeing the spider we counted those as our reward for hiking.
This was one of the most quiet and peaceful parks we visited while in Florida. Granted it is literally out in the middle of nowhere but it was perfect for us and just what we needed after our last very noisy campsite the night before. I guess they all can’t be perfect but this one was for sure!
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What campsite you get is really just the luck of the draw. You may end up beside of someone who plays music outside just so his dogs inside don’t bark all the time. Or you may end up beside the guy who just lets his dogs bark 24 hours a day. Or… you could end up beside a tent full of kids… playing stupid loud games… all day long! That’s what happened to us at Suwannee River State Park.
This stop at what we thought was going to be a peaceful stay at the Suwannee River had the chance to be terrible. Our site was pretty cramped but that was OK. But when a family with what seemed like 13 kids set up a tent in the site beside of us things got… well.. noisy. Even still we made the most of it. Our Travato 59K camper van has a loud air conditioner and we used that and the awesome hikes to drown out the noise and never once had to say “Get Off My Dirt”. Now, there was a day when Owen would have been “that old man”. You know the one. Grumpy, ill, gruff get-off-my-grass old man! Especially when they proceeded to setup games on their picnic table and decided since we were inside, hiding from all the noise, they could just use our picnic table too, even though it was inches from our bug room! But instead of being “that grumpy old man” or “that cranky old lady” we turned it into something else. You see, we take our grandchildren camping all the time and we always want the experience to be one that makes them want to get out in nature even more. So, we did our best to make those 13 kids, who has 13 kids anymore anyway but that’s another question… we hiked with them and talked to them and did our best to be the opposite of grumpy with them. And hopefully our attitude about their loud fun helped make it a great camping experience. But, I’ve got to say, we’ve never loved our super loud air conditioner more than we did on this night.
The river… well the river was just awesome! Flowing water with lots of hiking and wildlife. And the wild Day Lillies were in bloom! What’s not to like?
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Did you know that one of the state parks in Florida actually used to be a little gambling town? Or that a river actually disappears underground for 3 miles right in the park? We didn’t either until we stayed there in our Winnebago Travato 59K camper van. We are loving being retired and living this “No Man-Bun, No Bikini” style of Van Life!
There are so many things we did not know about Florida. For instance we thought the Santa Fe River was in Texas. Well, it is actually… but there’s a Santa Fe River in Florida too and it one-ups the Texas river by pulling a disappearing act. It was so cool to hike out to the place where a river actually disappears underground. The swirling water, logs, turtles and other wildlife at the mouth of the cave was mesmerizing.
And we didn’t have a clue about the cool history of the state park known as O’Leno. O’Leno actually stands for Old or Ole Leno. It was shortened to O’Leno as time went on. But it actually started out as a town that made the gambling game of Keno famous and got it’s original name from that… Keno. We often think that our current society is the only one that insists on things being politically correct but when they could not get the name of Keno registered for a post office in 1876 they just changed the name of the town to Leno, kind of like the guy who misspelled his girlfriend’s name on the water tower and just changed girlfriends. We also did not know that this is the oldest of all the Florida state parks! We thought it was going to be just a stop over on the way to something we thought was going to be cool. It turned out to be the cool stop on the way to something that might have been overhyped.
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As you travel up the Gulf side of Florida there’s a lot to love. The beaches, the food, the weather… wow, the list goes on and on and on. Our first stop after leaving Mary’s Fish Camp was Homosassa, Florida where we ate lunch right on the water while observing the cute monkeys on Monkey Island.
Then it was off to spend 3 nights at Shell Mound Campground in Cedar Key, FL. What a gem of a small campground. You pull in, find an open spot and go pay the very nice attendant $20 per night you plan to stay. Each site has water and 50amp power and there’s a free dump site as well. The campground provided the backdrop for some of the most amazing sunsets we’ve experienced.
There’s so much to do and love in this little quant drinking town with a clamming problem. They are known for their fresh as it gets clams and seafood and we found their claim to be true. We went out to eat twice during our 3-night stay and both times we went to Steamers on the water. The first night was so good we went back again on our last night!
You will find the town to be like many say old Florida towns used to be. Old, unique buildings full of local shops that range from marine supplies to handmade jewelry. Maggie was welcome in almost all of the stores we visited. On the “Go-Back” scale of 1-5 it is a 5!
Area: Cedar Key, Florida
Campground: Shell Mound Campground ($20 per night waterfront)
Lessons Learned: Natives’s resourceful use of shell life created food, tools, shelter and lodging
Fun Fact: We loved eating at Steamers Restaurant so much that we went back a second time! Best clam chowder ever for us, best coconut shrimp ever too!
In this episode we visit the St Petersburg area of Florida and reconnect with old, dear friends. After leaving Myakka River State Park we head over to the St Petersburg KOA not to spend the night but to spend the day with old, dear friends. You may remember the part of our story where we spent the last 6 winters in Florida. Well that home away from our NC home was at the St Pete KOA and the folks from all over the north and Canada who make it their homes during the winter have become more than just friends over the years. Maggie’s God-parents, John and Sharon Rudolph of Ancaster, Ontario call it their home and since the first day when Sharon invited us over for chocolate wine (disgusting actually but that’s another story) we have been like family. Each year we have not only spent the winter together but have made it a point to visit each other’s homes once per year and last year we took a 6-week trip up the east coast to Acadia in our vans. So a day for us to spend with them sharing old and new tales of adventures was just the ticket for us. They were all particularly interested in how our life in out tiny little van was going and pleasantly surprised to find that we are loving each and every day as we explore the different parts of Florida.
There’s something great about being in your second home again. You know where everything is and you know what you like and what you don’t like so you don’t waste time. After a great day with our friends we retired to sleep at our favorite of free places, Cracker Barrel. We awoke to the smells of breakfast and set out to grab some souvenirs for family at John’s Pass. Then it was off to Tarpon Springs to have dinner with two locals who we adore, Burton and Lucille Cobb. My favorite dessert of all time is their specialty cake “Orange Pineapple Cake” and even though we’ve been on a low-carb diet I had to engulfed in this awesome slice of heaven. We wore out our welcome sitting beside the water talking and eventually said goodbye and headed further north up the coast… destination a Walmart. But at the last minute we changed our minds and chose instead to try out Mary’s Fish Camp. It was a quant, pretty cool little fishing campground and lodge right on the river with some pretty cool stuff all around. Our site was tricky to get in after dark, in fact anything other than a small van would have been down right dangerous, but we awoke to the sounds of nature rested and relaxed, knowing we’d made the right choice. Total cost? $30.
We also learned that fish camps in Florida mean something totally different than they do back in NC. You see in NC they have evolved, or devolved, into a seafood restaurant, primarily a deep fried seafood restaurant. But in Florida they still mean the same thing it did when they popped up many years ago… a campground based around a fishing location. Wow! Who knew! See when you get out and travel around and see what’s out here in this great big world you learn things. And, that my friends, is the best part of life in our van!
Area: St Petersburg, Florida
Campground: Mary’s Fish Camp
Lessons Learned: A fish camp in Florida means something totally different than in NC
Fun Fact: Friends made while spending time in a place in your RV or van remain lifetime close friends. There’s a bond that is never broken.
In this episode we visit Sarasota, Florida area and spend an interesting night at the Myakka River State Park. This remote park is actually pretty close to the St Petersburg / Bradenton area but it’s really out in the middle of nature and nowhere… just the way we like it. We’d grown accustomed to seeing alligators after two months of meandering around Florida but nothing could prepare us for setting up at our campsite literally feet from black swamp water and gators. Talk about having your head on a swivel, we were always mindful of the fact that gators were literally just outside our doorstep. We were especially careful about Maggie in this area and she spent a lot of the time, much to her unhappiness, inside the van where it was safe.
We got set up and went for a hike only to look overhead and see hundreds, if not thousands, of buzzards. It was a spectacular sight to see all those huge birds gliding overhead. Then it was back to campsite to grill out dinner and eat. As if the buzzards and the gators were not enough we had no sooner started eating when Lynn jumped up scared to death after seeing a huge spider go walking by just outside our screen room. Needless to say we grabbed dinner and went inside to eat. We went to sleep to the sounds of gators calling to each other and it was hard to not imagine that they were saying, “You take the lady… that guy looks like he’s got some meat on him and would taste good”. I know they were not but it was an eerie feeling to hear them making that noise all night.
We woke up the next morning prepared to leave. In doing so a huge turtle decided to walk through our campsite as it headed back to the water. It literally walked under our van to take a shortcut and proceeded to crawl into the water to swim off. But you tell he knew that “Gus”, as the locals call the gator that lived right behind us, was somewhere around and he was a potential late breakfast. As far as we know he made it without being eaten.
So how did we like this stop? AWESOME!!!! What a stay in nature in such a beautiful place that’s less than 30 minutes from big cities. Wow!
Area: Sarasota, Florida
Campground: Myakka River State Park
Lessons Learned: Buzzards migrate in huge flocks and Florida also has some huge spiders
Fun Fact: Myakka River State Park is one of Florida’s smallest state parks but is one of the most diverse with rivers, lakes and all kinds of wildlife