Now that all the excitement of disease, death, and urine samples is behind us, it's time to get back to the real purpose of this blog – FUN! We have a lot of catching up to do, so we had better get started.
As I mentioned previously, we left the Keys, and headed over to the Florida West Coast. Our first stop after driving through the much lauded and equally overrated Everglades was St. James City on Pine Island. You may ask why we stopped in this particular place when Sanibel Island was our destination, and all I can tell you is I let Stewart make the arrangements. Note to self: Google all reservations made by Stewart before departure. The Island was in a beautiful location right on the Gulf of Mexico, and the Intracoastal Waterway, however the median age was 63.2. The only thing that come to mind is they averaged in the ages of great-grandchildren who were visiting at the time the census was conducted. Even the biker bar had a handrail in the restroom with a raised seat.
Besides the mosquito and noseeum infestation, we were able to manage a bit of fun. One of the restaurants we returned to a couple of times was The Waterfront Restaurant and Marina. The food was delicious and plentiful. The fresh clam chowder was particularly good, as was the broiled seafood gumbo. The first time we at there, we sat in the bar as it was packed. Beer was 25 ¢ and served in a mason jar. As you can imagine, hot sun mixed with cheap beer made for an interesting group of diners and drinkers. A few locals entertained us with stories, some of which are just not appropriate to share on a PG-13 blog. The many stickers that graced the wall behind the bar were also good for a few laughs.
The biggest drawback to St. James City being Heaven's Waiting Room was that Stewart and I are night people. We first began to think about food when the street lights were being extinguished for the night. Fortunately we were able to find one of the best meals we'd had to date at The Lazy Flamingo. Though they are known for their Dead Parrot Wings, we shared an appetizer of conch (pronounced conk by the locals) fritters that were moist and delicious, followed by grilled grouper sandwich for me, and a grilled fish platter for Stewart. We were stuffed to the gills, so to speak, but our very persuasive waitperson convinced us our meal would not be complete without a slice triple layer chocolate mousse layer cake. We didn't want to let her down, so we dug in. When the bill came, the waitperson had deducted 10% from the bill because she liked us – not something that happens every day. (Note: I did not tell her I wrote a travel blog, which made it even sweeter!)
The third and final noteworthy place we visited that was Woody's Waterside. Now, before I go any further, I think it is important that you know Woody is a dog. More specifically, a hound dog. His picture graces the wall behind the bar asleep with his tongue akimbo and paws wrapped around a can of beer. After eating there, I will be adding restaurants named for pets to my list of places to skip. In retrospect it seemed like a good idea as the parking lot was full, and compared to the geriatric biker bar, it was fabulous.
If you happened to read my previous post, you know about my experience with the less than competent folks at Quest Labs. Needless to say, I was extremely happy to see Pine Island in the rear view mirror. Our next stop was beautiful St. Petersburg/Madeira Beach. This was 180º from Pine Island. Though we had an inauspicious approach with GPS directing us into a cemetery, we ended up in this beautiful lush place on the bayou where Tampa Bay empties on its journey back from the Gulf of Mexico. Our campsite was surrounded by old growth trees and flowering bougainvillea bushes with the view of the water right across the path. Our three days there stretched into almost two weeks as we were reluctant to give up our corner of paradise. Then, the heat and humidity arrived. Florida in late April/early May is just no fun. There were so many wonderful restaurants and places we went during our stay in Madeira Beach that I couldn't begin to mention them all. Instead, I will focus on a few standouts.
This was the first real sense we had of the West Coast versus the East Coast of Florida. There was decidedly a different feel here, more Southern than Eastern. The pace was slower, the locals and tourists younger and friendlier. We ate at a lovely place along the boardwalk in Clearwater called Britts' Laguna Grill. We started out with a dozen raw oysters. They were so large and plump they actually took two bites a piece. Fortunately, we had ordered a couple of caramelized salmon salads. The dressing was made with fresh ginger, and was outstanding. The couple at the next table had smuggled in their dog. It was the cutest little thing tucked inside the man's shirt. I tried to ask them about the dog, but they spoke no English, and I spoke no Portuguese.
Our Fifth wedding anniversary was during our stay in Madeira Beach, and we had a full day. First thing we did was meet briefly with Tom Morris, whom I had 'met' on Twitter. There is always a chance when meeting someone who is only a virtual friend, that they will not be who they seem in cyberspace. In this case, Tom was the real deal. A true gentleman, kind and generous of spirit. I have a pretty finely tuned BS detector, as does Stewart, and no bells went off. Tom was in St. Pete's giving a speech, and coincidentally, we discovered we were in the same town. This is known in tweetspeak as a tweetup. After his speech, Tom stayed to be interviewed for an Internet TV show. The producer and a freelance journalist were also Twitter folks, ProducerGirl and McMedia, aka, Sandi McKenna. More about Twitter later.
After taking a walk along the beach, Stewart and I decided to look for a place to eat. We stopped in at Crabby Bill's. It's been around for over 25 years, and from what we can figure out, Bill is crabby because he wants some good food and good service! There were very few people up on the roof deck overlooking the water, so we thought there would be no problem having a leisurely meal. I'm just going to leave it that if I don't have anything good to say, I'm not going to say anything at all.
Later that night, after spending some time with Jeffrey and Emma, Stewart and I headed into St. Petersburg proper to see “I Love You, Man”. It was very funny example of a modern day bromance. One of the bonuses of traveling is seeing concerts and films in strange venues. The audiences are different, the feel of the place is foreign – even if it's the same film showing in your own neighborhood.
There is this little gadget I have on my laptop that allows me to enter the city we're currently in, and it pops up all the music in the area. While in St. Petersburg, I found out SEAL was going to be performing the following night at the Mahaffey Theater. We immediately bought tickets assuming we'd be in nosebleed seats. Instead, to our delight, we were able to get box seats right next to the stage. Apparently, they save these until the last minute in case some big shots decide to attend (the venue saves them, not Seal). We have both been to hundreds of concerts, and can say without a doubt, that we have never witnessed as masterful a performance as this. The energy in the room was electric. Seal's connection to the crowd was almost intimate. The man is a masterful entertainer, a humble man who is grateful for his life, and a gifted singer. He had us in the palm of his hand from the first note. I've thought long and hard how I was going to explain this experience in words, and frankly, I'm stumped. It was just too divine even try.
One of the most unexpected treats we've had so far on this journey was discovering my dear old friend, Marta Rose, is VP Communications for Panama City Beach. Marta and I had been close friends years ago when we both lived in Santa Monica, CA, but had lost contact with each other until quite recently. One thing I always loved about Marta was her ability to connect with people and places in a very special way. She was able to show us around, and provide some local colour. We ate at the Boatyard, which was delicious, and Guy Harvey’s Island Grill, which was horrible. It was a shame, really, because it is perfectly situated at the end of Pier Park near the waterfront.
James Johnson, another Twitter friend lives in Panama City and was gracious enough to take us to a couple of really cool restaurants. The first one was Captain Anderson's. It was an old local staple with a variety of delicious fish overlooking a dock with boats moored all along the backside. Next, we went to Ernie's Bayfront Grill & Brewhouse. They have a great wraparound back deck that overlooks the dock – a coastal feature present at most establishments in this neck of the woods.
Did I mention it was Bike Week in Panama City Beach? Tens of thousands of Harley Davidson's roared through the streets creating a cacophony of engine noise, music and general revelry. One of the things that really spoiled the dinner we had at Guy Harvey's was the occasional biker who just had to rev his engine for effect in the parking lot. We were unable to hear each other, and the smell of exhaust was stifling. I did learn a new acronym, though. RUB, Rich Urban Biker, and there were many of these! The way RUBs were described to me was guys who have their bikes shipped down while they board their private jets, change out of their suits into their leathers, and paint on temporary tattoos for the week. As funny as this may seem, from what I saw, the description hit its mark!
One last thing I feel it is important to mention before we leave Florida is we spent three full months along the coastline from Miami down to Key West, and over to the west coast and up through the panhandle. Stewart loves to fish, and as I've previously written about even caught Emma while engaged in night fishing off our back dock. During all this time, with countless hours spent bridge fishing, dock fishing and bank fishing, money spent on bait, tackle and equipment, we did not have a single fish dinner that did not come from the grocery store or a restaurant. Stewart is a lot of wonderful things. A fisherman is no one of them.
(I realize this blog is really, really long, but it has been a while since I updated, so please bare with me.)
We headed back to New Orleans, and spent two weeks at the Pontchartrain Landing RV Park. Of all the places we stayed, this was the most enjoyable. It was not the most scenic (we were for the most part in a shipyard), or the best facilities (no restaurant, game room or boat rentals), or the most centrally located (we were down a torn up road right in the midst of Katrina's devastation), but it was STILL the best campground so far. It's all about the people. This place had some of the nicest folks we'd met anywhere. The Property Managers, Nate and Dawn Garrder, were always available, kind and working hard to make this the best place to stay in New Orleans. The people working with them, like Jim and Bunny McElyea stopped by just to say hi and see if there was anything we needed. When Jim heard I had gotten good news from Kenner, he immediately went and found his wife to tell her. Bunny was by to share in my joy. We've been traveling for almost seven months, and this was the first time we even knew the names of staffers, nonetheless visited with them. They are doing a lot of work to make this place beautiful and fully functional for its guests. We will definitely be going back there.
16 May was our last Saturday night in New Orleans, and we didn't want to miss one last chance to enjoy the fantastic music scene this great city has to offer. So, around 9:30 we headed over to Bourbon Street where you are almost guaranteed to find good music for free (or the very most, the cost of a beer). We walked around for a bit before we heard some of the best guitar playing either of us had ever heard coming out of Tropical Isle. The place was packed near the front, so we worked our way to the back of the bar area right near the stage. Right in front of us were friends of the bands, one of whom was a music producer out of Austin, TX. He started telling us about the history of the All Purpose Blues Band, and Billy Gregory, lead guitar, in particular. It seems Billy used to play with A Beautiful Day, and has been a New Orleans staple for decades. Their rendition of Black Magic Woman would have made Santana proud! When the band was through with their set, they came over and introduced themselves to us. Stewart and Billy quickly got into a discussion of calluses (Stewart had them, Billy didn't). I was chatting with one of the other musicians, when suddenly Stewart grabbed my arm and starts pushing me. I was a bit surprised my gentle husband was manhandling me in this way, but decided to ignore him. When he kept at it, I decided maybe I should investigate what he wanted. At this point, his gingerly pushing became much more direct, with verbal instructions. “Move”, he yelled. “Let's go”. Now, anyone who knows me will tell you, those are fighting words for me! When I asked him what the bleep he was doing, he yelled, “this place is on fire! Now, MOVE!”. Finally, I got it. I moved. Poor Stewart. Fortunately, no one was hurt. Unfortunately, it turned into a 4-Alarm fire with 70 firefighters working over the next couple of hours to extinguish the flames. Miraculously, no other buildings were damaged. The owners are planning on rebuilding, and the employees and band assured us they will find temporary work along Bourbon Street until the Tropical Isle reopens.
After we were certain everyone was out safely, and that they would not be playing another set, we wandered down the street to Famous Door, a venue we had visited previously. The same band, Rock Box, was playing. They did a good job covering everything from Led Zeppelin to Lynyrd Skynyrd. We stayed until they finished their set, then moved on to another blues club, where we heard New Orleans Levee Board Blues perform. They were world class musicians, but it was obvious they were playing to the crowd instead of playing what they loved. We were seated right in front, and the dance floor was empty. The place was about half full. I nagged Stewart until he finally gave in and danced with me. Within moments the dance floor filled up, and the band came alive. A group of young women gathered for a bachelorette party saw the crowd enjoying themselves, so they came on inside. The bride was up on stage dancing, her friends all donned wigs in colors ranging from pink to green to purple. By the time the band had finished two songs, there wasn't an empty table or an empty inch on the dance floor. It was time to call it a night.
After all the excitement of Florida and New Orleans, we decided to bookend this segment of our trip with a return to my hometown, Dallas, TX. We arrived in Dallas on 21 May, and will be taking some trips throughout the state. More later...