Saturday, February 28, 2009

Wakulla Springs

For our final day in Florida, we decided to drive northeast of Carrabelle towards Tallahassee to a state park I had read about, Wakulla Springs. It was an old 1920's resort that sits on top of a large deep aquafer spring. The resort still has a working lodge and restaurant, along with large spanish moss trees and some interesting rhododendrons:

The big feature of the park are the boat tours you can take along the Wakulla river, and the glass-bottom boat tours you can take directly over the spring itself. We decided to take the latter tour and it was a blast. Before hitting the springs, I saw fish jumping out of the water, a heron drying it's wings, and even a large gator taking a mid-afternoon nap along the shore.

Pictures didn't do justice to the views out the glass-bottom boat of the springs. There were various kinds of catfish, garr, and trout swimming underneath us. Even a manitee had been spotted, but unfortunately, not during our cruise.

There's a ledge at the edge of the aquafer where water levels drop from about 14 feet to over 200 feet deep. The water can sometimes appear crystal clear (as it did for us), or can be cloudy and dark if there's been excessive rains and groundwater drainage. In 2007, they were only able to run the glass-bottom boats for 2 days the entire year because of this. So, we felt extremely lucky to see it! A great way to end our trip.
On Saturday, we began our journey back to Chicago leaving the the upper 70's Florida just as a storm was approaching. By the time we got to Nashville that night, a big snowstorm was hitting southern Tennessee and Alabama. We were lucky to leave when we did!

Friday, February 27, 2009

Carrabelle & the Forgotten Coast

Our home for the week was a terrific RV park in Carrabelle, Florida right across the street from the beach. In fact, looking out the T@B windows you could see the Gulf and hear the waves. Mom, Millie, and I were all delighted!

They call this area of the Florida panhandle the "forgotten coast" because most of it lacks the big wide white sandy beaches and wall-to-wall condo buildings that are found in the Destin area (and in most coastal towns in Florida these days). But the "Forgotten" coast between Panama City and Tallahassee have virtually no large buildings or dense populations of tourists (or locals for that matter).

The neatest town along this stretch is Apalachiacola, the oyster capital of the world, and the original state capitol of Florida. It's a small historic town with cute little shops that are lit up with white christmas tree lights at night. We stumbled upon a terrific restaurant at the main intersection in town called The Seafood Grill. Wonderful oysters, crab cakes, shrimp, as well as some "to die for" desserts! Friendly service and great prices too. We liked it so much we ate there twice!

The best beach in the area is out along the longest barrier island called St. George. You drive out a long 3 or 4-mile bridge to get there, and a cute lighthouse welcomes your arrival to the island. There's a nice state park with camping at the very end of the island. I would have loved to stay there, but I needed to work a few days and needed the wi-fi and cell phone connectivity available in Carrabelle.

Our park was called Carrabelle RV Resort and had 1/2 the sites available for purchase or long-term rental, and the other 1/2 available for shorter-term stays. They had great facilities too-- a newer pool and bathhouse, nice clubhouse, etc. Many folks in the park were retiree snowbirds who come down year after year to enjoy this quiet peaceful place.

The park is across the street from the only large beach for a good 50 miles east of Apalachiacola. Fortunately, the state of Florida owns it and has a nice roadside picnic area there (so no big condos can ever block the view for RVers!).

Maybe this beach gets more crowded in later spring and summer, but while we were there (the last week of February), there was never more than 4 or 5 people on the beach at one time.... and it's a huge beach!

But the absolute best thing about this beach is that it's about the ONLY large beach in Florida that is dog-friendly (only Franklin and Gulf counties along the panhandle permit dogs on beaches--- all other Florida counties prohibit them).

Millie had not done any swimming since her visit to Maine in October, so she was eager to get in her daily afternoon swim time!

Our last full day in Carrabelle, Millie and I got up early to watch the sunrise. Each morning walk along the beach revealed different wildlife-- one day I watched a group of dolphins swim up and down right along the shoreline; another day, a blue heron walked along the waves in front of us. A fabulous, fabulous place to be a snowbird!

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The best beach in America

I think it was a Travel Channel show that ranked Destin, Florida as having the best beach in America. Not hard to see why! The sand is very soft, fine, and pure white, which also turns the water close to the shore a brilliant turquoise color and crystal clear.

Mom and I had bypassed Destin on our drive over from New Orleans to our week-long camping spot in Carabelle, but then made a day-trip to come back to Destin for lunch. We ate at this terrific seaside restaurant called the Crab Pot--

After lunch, we strolled the beach a bit to take in the sun, sights, and sounds. Only downside to this gorgeous beach is that no dogs are allowed (Millie was not too happy about having to stay in the car!).
On our drive over from New Orleans, we drove along the beachfront of Gulfport and Biloxi, Mississippi. They've got some excellent white sandy beaches there too, but sadly, this was an area that was hardest hit by Katrina in terms of physical damage. In the 15 or so miles we drove along the beach, the only buildings standing are brand new. The remaining 80% or so of the land are completely vacant lots with only their concrete foundations and large oak trees remaining. Mom said there used to be gorgeous, stately old mansions along this road in between all the typical hotels and tourist beach businesses. Now, it's completely gone.

On the bright side, once building continues a few more years, it will be a great sparkling new beach destination with new casinos, hotels, businesses, and homes. But as of right now, you'd better like waffles, because the only food you seem to be able to get along this stretch of road are from the 3 or 4 brand new Waffle House restaurants!

Sunday, February 22, 2009

New Orleans Mardi Gras

My T@B had been at the factory for 2 months this winter getting ceiling repair work done, so by the time I went to go pick it up, I was having some serious "winter snowbirding" temptations. A quick check of the weather forecast revealed that the Gulf coast would be warm and sunny the following week, and it just happened to be Mardi Gras weekend as well...thus, our first T@Bventure of 2009 was now a plan!

Mom, Millie, and I drove virtually non-stop all the way down to New Orleans to get there in time for some large parades on Saturday. We got one of the last sites available at the New Orleans KOA and were rested and ready to go on Saturday morning.

We got to Canal Street just before noon and claimed a few feet of open curb to sit and wait for the parades to begin. Mom played it pretty low key, just buying this smartly accented boah--

Others were quite another story! This gal was ready to party with her rubber boobs, boah, hat, and long tall drink--

Even the vendors & cops were in festive spirits as we waited for the parades to begin:

Finally, the wait was over and the first parade began, hosted by the Krewe of Iris. This parade featured a parade queen, marching bands, bagpipes, and a number of floats from various travel destinations from around the country. And of course, about a million beads thrown from those floats to the awaiting arms of thousands of parade watchers!

The next parade of the afternoon was by the Krewe of Tucks. This one was a bit wilder with floats that mocked FEMA, the crummy economy, Elvis, and the 70's. Along St. Charles Street, many locals brought their King Cakes, kegs of beer, and even their own step ladders to catch all the goodies raining down from the floats (ranging from necklaces, cups, frisbees, mini toilet plungers, and mini rubber bouncing balls).

Business is a bust for this street vendor. It's a dirty job, but someone's gotta do it!

The scene on Canal Street as floats go up and down both sides of this very large street.

After the parade, Mom & I started to try and head into the French Quarter from Canal Street, but the crowds were getting quite large by then (and our chances of finding a good place for dinner and being able to get back across the parade route to our parking garage were looking rather slim), so we decided to head back to the car and go to dinner away from downtown. We found a terrific seafood restaurant near the KOA to enjoy our gumbo and cajun-spiced catfish.

The next morning, we got up early to head back to the French Quarter for warm beignets at Cafe du Monde. The line was already pretty long at 8:00am-- 1/2 the folks were just waking up; the other 1/2 were still partying from the night before! The drive through the French Quarter was also quite an experience-- city street cleaners were out with high pressure washers literally hosing off Bourbon street to try and quickly remove the 6" layer of trash from the night before-- beer bottles, cups, mardi gras beads--- you name it! It must have been a pretty roudy night!