When I was a kid, my parents and I would go to Florida almost every year to see my “snowbird” grandparents who spent most of each winter at Daytona Beach.
My last trip to Florida was when I was 21, so as we started planning our 2016 vacation–taking into account the time we could take off (one week), and the anticipated costs of a road trip–we decided to do a Florida “Sampler.” Â Â Little did we know that it would turn into a Florida “Full Course”! Â What an awesome vacation!
We left home on Saturday, June 11, 2016 and first drove to the Nashville area to see my oldest son and daughter-in-law. After a fun evening there, we left early on Sunday, June 12th heading for Florida.
They say that “getting there is half the fun,” but I’d question that when it involves driving on the interstates around Atlanta!Â Â We finally opted to hop off of I-75 to makeÂ our way through the peanut fields, groves of pecan trees, and beautiful farmland of southern Georgia. Â Yes, this is definitely my preferred method of travel!
It was a long drive for one day (864 miles!), but we made it to a remote area on the coast of FloridaÂ in timeÂ to watch the sun set over the Gulf of Mexico!
That night we stayed at a very “retro” motel in Cross City, Florida, and it reminded me of motels my parents and I would stay at when we were traveling inÂ the 1960s. But it was clean and comfortable, and I loved seeing the Spanish moss hanging from the trees.
On Monday, June 13th, we continued to explore the west coast of Florida, going to the Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuge, the Cedar Key National Wildlife refuge, and then to the village of Cedar Key. Â Lots of different birds were out and about in these pretty settings. Â And I was pleased to see a large bat house at the Lower Suwanne refuge!
We also stopped for a while in the town of Crystal River. Â We didn’t see any manatees, but apparently large numbers of them spend the winter there.Â We did, however, see more birds, including this little Bluebird in a palm tree.
We briefly checked outÂ the Homosassa State Park, which looked absolutely fabulous, but we didn’t have the recommended 3-1/2 to 4 hours to spend thereÂ because we were heading toÂ Clermont, FL that evening. Â We’ll catch the state park during our NEXT trip! 😉
Clermont is a lovely central Florida city, andÂ home to my double-first cousin Patt and her family. Â We went with them to one of their favorite hang-outs where we ate, drank, talked, and laughed together for hours. Â SO much fun! Love these people. <3
On Tuesday, June 14th, we headed back to the Gulf coast and met up with one of Wayne’s musician friends for lunch in Tampa. Â They used to be in a band together in the 1970s, but hadn’t seen each other in 30+ years! (John is on the far left in the picture of the band; Wayne is the guitar player in the black shirt towards the front.)
Side note: I have no memories of ever being in Tampa before, but here’s photographic evidence from 1959 showingÂ me with my parents in a pool somewhere in Tampa, FL. 🙂
Anyhow, we said goodbye to John (after another fun eating/talking/laughing experience!) and continued south, crossing Tampa Bay onÂ the amazingÂ Sunshine Skyway Bridge.Â Â We also stopped at the rest area there, and the weather was just about perfect–cooler than it was in Virginia that week, with nice breezes off the Gulf.
Sarasota is about 30 miles south of Tampa on Rt. 41, and it’s home to the Ringling School of Art and Design. Â While my art students have been accepted at a number of fine art schools over the years, Ringling seems to be a favorite. Â One of my former students is a Ringling graduate, one is a senior, and anotherÂ will be starting his Ringling experience this fall! So cool to finally see the city–and the Ringling campus–in person!
We really enjoyed driving onÂ Rt. 41 (also called South Tamiami Trail), and we went through the little towns of Osprey and Nokomis (haha, yes, we started singing…), before passing through Port Charlotte (beautiful!), and ultimately reaching our destination for the evening, Punta Gorda.
Ah, another Gulf coast sunset! We ate dinner at “Harpoon Harry’s” waterfront restaurant.
After dinner, we enjoyed seeing the unusual (to us!) combination of palm trees and the rising moon. 🙂
On Wednesday, June 15th, we drove another hour or so down the coast to Fort Myers, and then took McGregor Boulevard towards Sanibel Island. Â These are views that some of my family membersÂ know well!
Once on the island, we stopped byÂ Blue Dolphin Cottages. Â MyÂ cousins stay there each time they visit Sanibel (usually in October), and we had theÂ pleasure of meeting Beth, the manager. Â When I introduced myself, Beth saidÂ that she knowsÂ my cousins quite well: “They’re all CRAZY!”. Â Haha, yes, those would be my people. Â 😉
But oh my, what a beautiful place! And there were protected turtle nests on the beach!
Our next stop on the island was the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge. Â While trams and guided tours were available, we opted to drive through the refugeÂ so that we could stop whenever we liked–and we stopped frequently!
This bird, an Anhinga, is also known as a “Water Turkey” due to its broad tail, or “Snake Bird” because of its habit of swimming with just its head and long, thin neck out of the water. Fascinating creature! It would be completely submergedÂ at times, but we could tell where it was because lots of small fish would suddenly dart acrossÂ the surface of the water.
Still on Sanibel Island, we went to Bowman’s Beach to get more up close and personal with the Gulf of Mexico. Â I’ve said that if I had a “bucket list,” swimming here would have been one of the items on the list! Â The water was gentle, warm and quiteÂ salty, and it seemed to offer greater buoyancy than the Atlantic Ocean. What a wonderful and relaxing experience!
Sanibel Island was most certainly a highlight of the trip, and we really hope to go back when we can spend more time there! Â As it was, we left Sanibel in the late afternoon toÂ make a quick trip to the east coast of the state viaÂ “Alligator Alley.” Â Yikes!
There were extremely tall fences to our right (separating us from the Big Cypress National Preserve and the Everglades Wildlife Management area–and all of the critters who therein reside…), and acres and acres of sugar cane fields to our left as we streaked eastwardÂ on I-75.
We arrived inÂ Boca Raton that evening, and met upÂ with another one of Wayne’s musician friends! Â Wayne and Stan go WAY back;Â they were in a band together in the Richmond area when they were still in high school! Â In the band picture below (circa 1963), Stan is 3rd from the left on the keyboard, and Wayne is 4th from the left (singing) with his brother, Craig, beside him.
Stan worked as a music director on cruise ships after getting his “big start” with “G.L. Cole & the Shades,” 😉 and he’s STILL out there making music with the Blues Brothers Soul Band!
Late that evening, Stan drove us to a dock near his house, and he and WayneÂ continued to catch up and fill in the years. 🙂
So pretty amazing–we started the day on the westÂ coast of Florida in Punta Gorda, went to Sanibel Island, met my cousins’ friend at the Blue Dolphin, toured a couple ofÂ wildlife refuges, went swimming in the Gulf of Mexico, drove through Alligator Alley, and ended the day on the east coast of Florida under a moonlit sky! Â As my cousins say, we do “get around”! 🙂
On Thursday, June 16th, we started making our way north on Rt. A1A. Â Both coasts are very pretty, but so, so different! Â Let’s just say there are far more stoplights on theÂ Atlantic side! 😉
Delray Beach (I guess we were in the “Wright” place):
Jupiter Inlet Lighthouse:
Bicentennial Park Beach:
Interesting signage at this beach, by the way!
While at Bicentennial Park, Wayne took a moment to let the ocean wash away time. Â We’ve done this each time we’ve been to a beach over the last several years.Â <3
Further up the coast near Cocoa Beach, we stopped at Lori Wilson Park. Â Wayne got down to the beachÂ before I did, and this is what I saw when I walked over to where he was sitting. Â So sweet!
This is a beautiful, beautiful beach, butÂ with the storm clouds brewing both to our north and to our south, we knew we wouldn’t have a lot of time to get in the water before it stormed.
While we weren’t out long, we truly marveled at the amazing–and constantly changing–colors of the sky and ocean!
By that evening we reached Ponce Inlet, just south of Daytona Beach. Â Before going into the “town,” we stopped at a park when we spotted birds. Â LOTS of birds!
Ponce Inlet was a place I remembered going as a child, and yet it had changed almost beyond recognition. Â When I was a kid, it was pretty “rural,” but now hotels and condos line the shoreline. Â Thankfully, one place I remembered was still in operation; the Inlet Harbor Restaurant:
Of course it had changedÂ a lot since my childhood….
…but we were lucky enough to enjoy another beautiful sunset, while enjoying a delicious seafood dinner!
The next morning, Friday, June 17th, we drove to the Ponce Inlet Lighthouse, another place full of memories.
Finally, weÂ arrived at Daytona Beach–where you can still drive on the beach!
So very much has changed in the last 38 years (!!!), but it was still nice to see this wide, wide Atlantic beach–and toÂ remember. <3
After we finished our drive on the “world’s most famous beach,” it was still fairly early in the day–and time to start for home. Â After driving 864 miles from TN to FL, we knew we could do theÂ 700+ mile drive home. Â Wayne and a friend drove it in one day in 2012, and my parents and I drove straight through the last time we were there in the 70s.
Best laid plans, right?
Just over the Florida-Georgia border, an accident on I-95 slowed traffic to a crawl. Â Rather than sitting on the interstate for hours, we opted to take a quick side trip aroundÂ theÂ pretty and historic city of Savannah:
In addition to admiring a lot of the architecture, we did a drive-by SCAD (Savannah College of Art & Design), where some of my art students have done summer programs.
Back on the interstate, we’d barely gone 40 miles before another–and apparently far more serious–accident shut us down again! Â To add to the frustration, there were warnings for severe weather. Â Not good….
When we finally, finally crept to an exit off I-95, we took it, not wanting to be trapped on the open road in the event that the dire weather predictions actually played out. Â From this point forward, let’s just say that things got “interesting.”
As the storm hit, a fewÂ otherÂ interstate refugees joined us under the canopy of an abandoned gas station. The winds raged, the lightning flashed and the rains poured! Â TheÂ weather maps on my iPhone showed that the huge line of storms was still basically north of us and moving along I-95 (the route we planned to travel), so when we finally left the gas station, we headed west on back roads instead of returning toÂ the interstate.
Oh, my… Â We had to wonder if this was a good idea as we drove through heavy rain on unfamiliar roads, dodging downed trees! Â We were also concerned about possible flash flooding, as there were several low areas covered in water!
We finally reached some semblance of civilization (we passedÂ through several small towns that had lost power and had significant wind damage), and ultimately turned onto Rt. 321 North in Fairfax, SC.
The weather had improved, and I drove while Wayne rested. Â This scenicÂ “European detour”Â led us through small communities named Denmark and Norway! Imagine that!
We realized that our plan to make it home in one day just wasn’t going to happen, so throwing in the proverbial towel, we stopped for the night just south of Charlotte, NC, near the Carowinds amusementÂ park. Â Pleased to say that the Motel 6 there “left the light on” for us. 😉
The next morning, Saturday, June 18th, we were up and on the road early (after a wonderful breakfast at Cracker Barrel, paid for with a gift card!), and we had smooth travels. Â We stopped at a beautiful park on the Dan River, where we took a moment to bless and prayer for the health and safety of the life-giving water (as we’d done at almostÂ every body of water on this trip, including the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean), and we stopped again at a park in Lynchburg, VA on the James River.
Almost home, our final stop was at the cemetery where my parents are buried. Â A small seashell from Sanibel Island was added to the collection of rocks and other things we’ve gathered and placed there since we began traveling inÂ 2013. Â (The handmade brick is from the house–no longer standing–where my mother was born in rural Nelson County, Virginia.)
This was truly an amazing 3000-mile journey. Â We are so thankful that along the way we were able to connect and reflect withÂ family and friends; that we were ableÂ to see so many wild and beautiful places and animals; that weÂ have the health, stamina (!) and means to make a trip like this,Â and that we were able toÂ safely return home–tired, but happy–and in full awareness of just how richlyÂ blessed we are. <3
June 28, 2016: Â Want to play along? Â This link is to an interactive map of our trip: