Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Home Sweet Indian Rocks Beach

We left the Atlantic side of Florida with just a quick drive across the state to spend the end of October and the first third of November on the Gulf of Mexico at one of the barrier islands.  Although they were in the same state and both the epitome of beach life, Indian Rocks Beach failed to win me over the same way the Saint Augustine did; IRB was missing that carefree, easy going lifestyle that I had become accustomed too.

Getting to the barrier islands from Tampa is quite a journey and we learned quickly that whatever the mileage is, you needed to double the amount of time to miles to get anywhere due to the copious amounts of traffic on Pinellas Peninsula. I like to compare driving here as being as torturous as pulling teeth; I’m pretty sold on the idea that most people here got their license from a Cracker Jack Box. It was a huge wake up call after leaving St. Augustine, where everyone is all smiles and peace signs; no you go, no you first. Instead I was afraid if I blinked on the gulf side that someone would take the front bumper off the car trying to get in front of us; I had to revert back to New Yorker Bonnie in quite a hurry and well that bitch was well hidden in a cobweb of beach Zen.

On the island, in Indian Rocks, life was a little slower and the beach was just across the street which meant sunsets and pristine white sand were in my future and that helped curb the frustration of driving. Downfall, the beaches nearby were not pet friendly, so I would sneak over with Ethel in my arms to and stand at the tree line to watch the sun say goodnight. However restaurants and shops were all in walking distance, and the Gulf Boulevard Shuttle could be picked up just outside our door which made getting around simple and easy.

The only pet friendly beaches were at State Parks and at each end of the chain of the barrier islands; Fort de Soto and Honeymoon Beach. Each of these ended up being about a forty minute drive to get to, although beautiful, a bit of a drive for a dog who hits a max of beach time within thirty minutes, so visiting just didn't seem worth the time. Also, Gulf Boulevard didn't have sidewalks but an extension of the road for walking on and every time we went out onto the road for a walk, I was pretty sure somebody was just going to look down for a second and steer right into us. Daily walks with the critter became walks in our condo complex down to the fishing pier instead of getting to peruse the community, alleviating any unnecessary panic about the dog getting too close to the road.

Once we left Philadelphia, we thought we were done with walk up buildings, but we were surprised by being on the third floor of a walk up in Indian Rocks. Which we may have only complained about a little while we were moving in and out, but I must say the view of the Intracoastal totally made up for the labor. Plus the condo felt huge and spacious and reminded me a lot of our old home, they were built about the same time and some of the finishes were pretty similar. Bonus it was furnished with a king size bed, something we didn't realize how much we missed, and the community had a swimming pool which made for a quick escape for a little sun time without having to commit to the beach. Overall this place gave us a great little oasis for a month even though I still felt myself pining for St. Augustine.  

So here it is, our Intracoastal View House in Indian Rocks Beach: 

Monday, December 15, 2014

America's Oldest City

When we weren't at the beach or entertaining family in St. Augustine, we were generally off on a history lesson. Like I said before St. Augustine is the nation’s oldest occupied colony, founded in 1565, 55 years prior to the Pilgrims landing at Plymouth Rock and to say there is an abundance to learn here would be an understatement. Not only does this place exude stories of the days of old, it is also rich in architecture and charm coming from mixing the old with the new.

Aviles Street
Old Town St. Augustine sucks you in the moment you walk upon her cobblestone streets; the Spanish style collides with a bit of British influence and it gives you that complete European feel. Aviles Street lies right in the heart of Old Town and is the oldest public street in the USA, today it is closed to cars and lined with cozy outdoor cafes and quaint local shops. Also in the heart of Old Town sits Flagler College, named by the Princeton Review as one of “Americas Best Colleges.” And although the college was built in 1968, the architecture mimic's that of the city and you would never guess it wasn't there from the beginning. Running along the Intracoastal is Castillo Drive; home to Mission Nombre de Dios, Castillo de San Marcos and eventually running into the Bridge of Lions before crossing over to Anastasia Island.  Regardless of your mood, St. Augustine has something to explore.

Flagler College
Starting from St. Augustine’s beginnings we did the same, hitting Ponce de Leon’s, Fountain of Youth. Taking time for a sip of water, alright we guzzled the water and they even let Ethel have a cup of water from the Fountain of Youth! Do I feel younger? Well of course I do, even if it’s all my head, but a girl has got to do what she must to keep herself looking young and feeling vivacious! Ponce de Leon landed in Florida in 1513, prior to its settlement by Pedro Menendez de Aviles in 1565, and the park gives over 500 years of history of the area and its transition from Spanish, to British, and finally American acquisitions. Of course Tom and I were very giddy about learning the historical aspects, the prospects of life longevity, but Ethel was ecstatic to chase the copious amounts of peacocks in the park.  This place is a definite must if you’re in the area and want to get an extensive history lesson that is fun for the entire family, plus the views of the Intracoastal are spectacular!

Guzzling water at The Fountain of Youth 
Next up was the Mission de Dios, the home of America’s first mission, built in 1567, and often called the country’s “Most Sacred Acre.” Today its massive steel cross is believed to be the tallest in the country and the little chapel is still home to the first American shrine to the Mother Mary, “Our Lady of La Leche.” Walking the grounds you can feel the reverence of the property by the people visiting and preying in the little chapel, you are immediately aware as to why it is cherished and still has so many visitors to this day passing through her hallowed gates. 

Mission de Dios

Mission de Dios
Just a little up the road from Mission de Dios, is Castillo de San Marcos. Ground broke for this miraculous fort in 1672 and it is built solely from coquina (to learn about coquina, click here), which pretty much made the place indestructible.  Considering that this fort is still standing over 300 years of wear and tear, and by wear and tear, I mean the British tossing cannonballs at it and it looks the way it does is amazing. Especially when you consider that you are climbing the same stairs that the Spanish tread all those years ago while defending their claim on Florida, and that they haven’t had to be replaced to accommodate tourists is insane. This place, the stories of Spanish and British rule, the back the and forth and knowing what happened here, it’s spectacular, the history is so rich and I was mesmerized by it. I don’t remember learning about the territory wars in school, you know, it’s all Spanish and British history and predates anything American by a long shot, so being privy to this now, well I feel like I missed out on something in my education. Don’t worry though, I am geeking out on it now for all of us!
Castillo de San Marcos
St. Augustine Lighthouse
Just over the Bridge of Lions and back on Anastasia Island, lies the Saint Augustine Lighthouse, the oldest lighthouse in Florida. We had the pleasure of climbing the stairs to take in the panoramic view of St. Augustine and experiencing what it would have been like to carry the old kerosene pales up to the top of the stairs, needless to say, I need to do more bicep curls, that thing was heavy.

Stairs leading to the top of the lighthouse
View through the lighthouse window

Just outside of St. Augustine we found Tom’s version of heaven, The World Golf Hall Of Fame! This place is a golf lover’s mecca: an extensive museum, two golf courses, putting course, hole in one challenge and an interactive staff to make sure you’re getting the most out of your visit. We have toured a lot of museums, especially over this last year, but we have never entered one that was so much about creating an experience as this one was; not only did we learn, but they made learning about golf fun. If you are a golfer, this place is a must stop and talk about making us miss not having our clubs on the road with us, my hands were itching for a driver in my hands. This place in all honesty made me miss home just a little bit, our golf course view and a club house just around the bend, but then we returned to our beach house and I walked out to the ocean and shook my hankering for home right off!

Just outside of Jacksonville lies Kingsley Plantation and it holds a very interesting story. Zephaniah Kingsley and his wife Anna Kingsley where the owners and it’s the story of Anna that leaves one captivated. Anna was captured from West Africa and sold to Zephaniah as a slave and later became his wife and mother of his four children. He eventually left her in in charge of running Kingsley Plantation, giving her rise from slave, to wife of a plantation owner and then becoming a plantation and slave owner herself. A remarkable story given the time period of the late 1700’s and early 1800’s, granted at this time Florida was under Spanish control, but once Florida was gifted to America, their interracial marriage and her role in the plantation came under scrutiny and they moved to Haiti for some time. Eventually Anna took the issue to court after her husband passed and the court ruled in her favor and honored the treaty with the Spanish and reluctantly gave her back her inheritance. The gardens, the views and the tabby ruins here are amazing, but nothing as fascinating as Anna’s story, the mainstream and progressiveness of the Kingsley’s life was refreshing and encouraging; plus the strength she must have had to deal with any and all persecution she dealt with is just admirable.
Kingsley Plantation
St. Augustine gave us so many facets of life, from learning to lounging. The beach was the focus for much of our time here, the crash of the waves was invigorating and opened up that need to create. I spent many a morning and afternoon combing the beach and creating shell art, reading or running out to jump the waves. This place created so much magic for us that we will be returning after Christmas and for the month of January, a first for us, a return to a place on this trip. I know, still so much to see and do, but this place has captivated us and we can’t wait to spend a little more time here and hopefully y’all can bear with us on a few more adventures in St. Augustine. To hold you over until our return here are a few more photographs of our time here.

Shell Art:

The Beach:

Sunrise and Ethel's paw prints in the sand

The Pier
Bike and shoe drop before heading off to the beach
Trail leading to the beach
Family beach day
Waves crashing in and sunrise reflecting in the sand

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Family Fun

Tom’s brother Todd turned the big 4-0 and we wanted to help his beautiful wife Sherry make it something really special and memorable for him - plus on a completely selfish note we wanted to see them both. A few conversations with Sherry, and some scheming we were able to assist her and help concoct a grand affair for Todd. Leveraging Skymiles, Tom and I were able to pitch in with plane tickets while Sherry took care of everything else. Sherry planned everything, including conspiring with Tony and Diane (Tom and Todd’s parents) to take the kids for the weekend, while they came out to St. Augustine to celebrate. I am pretty sure Sherry succeeded in bowling Todd over and then throwing in one more surprise as they boarded their connecting flight in Atlanta to St. Augustine - Tom was there waiting for them on the plane to fly the rest of the way to Florida on his way back from San Antonio.

Tom and Todd heading out to body board

The majority of the weekend was spontaneous and completely centered around the ocean. Days where spent lounging on the beach, taking to the waves by body board, Todd and Sherry taking complete advantage of the proximity to the sea during their visit and hopefully enjoying every moment of it. In fact one of my most cherished memories of our stay in St. Augustine happened while they were visiting and involved the four of us sitting on the beach one night after a storm had moved out over the Atlantic Ocean. All of us sipping on wine as we sat in awe, watching as lightening ricocheted across the sky, giving us our own nature driven firework show! The power and energy that illuminated the sky while listening to the snap of thunder and the soothing sound of waves, all creating an amazing ambience to just sit, marvel and catch up on life. A memory I will never forget and they company made it a perfect moment in time!  

Strange encounters on the beach
Todd raising the main sail
We had one event planned for Todd and Sherry’s stay, a sunset sail which didn't disappoint. The sail started perfectly, we put Todd to work assisting the crew with raising the main sail to mast as we set out to sea. The crew kept our wine glasses full. They were exceptionally friendly and fun to talk to, and the Captain even let Miss Ethel man the wheel for a bit. We all sat back, took in the scenery and marveled at the well-oiled machine that was our crew, watching them move sails, run across the boat as the wind would shift and learning what it takes to sail a schooner was quite a learning experience. Then there was that magnificent sunset, creating an ambiance of magic as she highlighted the historic St. Augustine in front of her and left a trail of golden streaks to dance across the ocean. Our sail was a perfect start to a crazy and fun filled night. Poor Ethel was such a trooper and went along the entire night, although I am pretty sure she slept through the bulk of it.

Sunset Cruise
Todd and Sherry taking in the view
All of us tipsy and starving as we disembarked the boat, we immediately set out in the search of dinner and ended up at a fun outdoor place on Aviles Street. Good food, great conversation, a dog passed out on top of my feet and the most interesting server I think I have ever experienced. At one point she was Brazilian and had no voice, later she sounded like New Yorker with a voice and at another point she changed her clothes. To top it off she kept bringing us free food and wine and then she graciously kicked us out; our response “if you want us to leave, quit bringing us food to eat!”

Sunset Cruise with an outline of St. Augustine
Me stealing kisses from Tom
After being kicked out of the restaurant, we stumbled down St. George Street looking for more fun and happened to meander into this crazy, eclectic wine bar; enticed in by a bobble head, a one man band and the fact that they let Ethel come hang out with us up at the bar made it a perfect landing spot. I vaguely remember ordering a drink and getting some strange concoction and then learning later by some bar friends that the bar was technically not a bar, but by some weird Florida law they can sell fermented alcohol without a liquor license. So the vodka water I had was fermented, hence the weird taste. Hind sight, had I known this, I would have gone with wine and not the weird Florida moonshine I ended up with. We happened to close down yet another place, we got the boot and this is when we all learned pretty quickly that St. Augustine isn't really night town because everything was pretty much shut down by midnight. I am wondering if during peak season in the summer months if it’s a little different? Although, it suits me, I am such a morning girl, being out past ten is kind of a big deal for me and St. Augustine made me feel like party animal, it was good for my ego!

More Sunset Cruise
Bridge of Lions Drawbridge welcoming us back to port
The long weekend with Todd and Sherry went by way too quickly and it was hard to say goodbye to them, but I am sure their kids were very excited to have them home, even if we didn't want them to leave. Getting to celebrate with Todd for his 40th almost felt like being home again and it was nice to be around familiar faces and family. Lucky for me, my sister-in-law (my brother’s wife) who is also one of my dearest friends, Staci, was coming out to play the following week while Tom was working. So although I had to say goodbye, I still had another hello coming my way, which helped ease the pain of letting them go.

Fun family shot from our sail
Water Reflections
Staci flew in on a Sunday and we had five wonderful days with her, packed full of fun adventures and of course lots and lots of beach time! But when we weren't of playing in the sand or rescuing live starfish that had washed ashore, we were off doing something crazy, like zip lining over alligators or exploring the haunted side of St. Augustine!

Charm in sailing
City view from the marina
One day, cloud covered skies with rain on the horizon, Staci and I had the need to move, so we opted to explore our adventurous side and headed over to the Alligator Farm to attempt the zip line. Little did we know that it was a full two hour obstacle course that included 9 zip lines with obstacles sixty feet from the ground; ground that was covered with very large and very hungry alligators! Besides zip lining over large ravenous beasts, we also walked across high wires, rickety old bridges, log jumps and then ended our adventure with a forty foot free fall! Talk about endorphin's running wild, such a fun and spur of the moment thing and one of my favorite memories. I am so glad I got to do this with her and didn't read all the details online before driving over, I might have decided against it!
Shots from Staci and I's obstacle course
Ghost tour fun
Staci’s last night in town we headed out to dinner and then for a walking ghost tour of historic St. Augustine. Were we scared? No. We did however learn a plethora of history about the city that I wouldn't have learned otherwise, so on that account, I have to say it was 100% worth the time and money. St. Augustine is America’s oldest city, so to say that there isn’t paranormal activity, would just be na├»ve; the stories, the puns and learning the overall dark side of its roots was phenomenal! The puns of course coming from the yellow fever outbreaks and people being assumed dead, but only in a coma. The wealthy citizens would hire individuals to watch over the grave of their loved one buried in Huguenot Cemetery by tying a string around the buried finger. This string was then tied to a bell on the surface, so if they awoke from a coma versus actually being dead they could be “Saved by the Bell” by the person paid to watch over them from a death of being buried alive. So were people actually buried alive? Yes! They have actually found caskets with scratch marks of those that awoke from their coma, to only end of dying of suffocation. I know, crazy and creepy! What else did we learn? Well the Intracoastal is connected with the Matanza River, which I knew with my broken Spanglish, meant slaughter, but learning how it got its name was another fascinating story, but I am going to leave that one for y’all and your own ghost tour of St. Augustine; as much as I want to, I can’t give you all the gory history!

One of the three starfish Staci and I rescued
Having family visit was amazing, wonderful and I was just over the moon to see OUR people! We haven’t had guests since April when Susy came to see us in DC and I didn't realize how much I missed everyone. And not to take away from all the friends we have been able to meet up with and see along the way, or the new friends we have met on the road, but it just isn’t the same as those you are used to interacting with on a regular basis; those that know you and still love you regardless of your craziness! Saying goodbye to Todd, Sherry and Staci was hard. Maybe it is just the hold that family has on you, that unconditional love, or the not knowing when we will see them again; but I have been left with that longing and maybe feeling a little homesick for our people as of late, so dammit, I need more of you to come visit because I am not ready to come home yet!

Sunrise and combing the beach with the beautiful Staci
Sunrise Selfie