Seven Stops for St. Augustine Fun

Girls’ weekend took a touristy turn this year.  Despite the fact that we were only steps from Vilano Beach, we only stepped foot on the sand the evening of our last night. Instead of soaking up sun, we challenged ourselves to see all the highlights of St. Augustine.  Below are my top seven moments.

7.  Beach Sunsets

The picture below just says it all.

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6.  Old Jail

While this is totally a tourist trap, it was made less cheesy by our awesome inmate turned tour guide.  She held the group in rapt with her sassy demeanor as she showed us the workings of the jail that served St. Augustine until 1953.  Something called the birdcage punished inmates in the sweltering heat as they swung in the sun.  If that wasn’t enough, gallows sat on the backside of the property as a constant reminder that despite cozy looking outside of this building, it was in fact a brutal jail.  The one part that is seared into my mind is the cramped quarters of the third floor where I was not able to stand between the iron bunk beds comfortably.  

 

5.  Datil Pepper Challenge

Until I arrived in St. Augustine I had never heard of a datil pepper.  Apparently they are uniquely grown in St. Augustine and not in very many other places in the world.  Upon closer inspection of St. Augustine shops and restaurants, the peppers are truly found all over.  From popsicles to chocolate to sauces and jellies.  The datil pepper is a must try.  I recommend it dipped in chocolate or ground up in a popsicle.    

 

4.  Whetstone Chocolate Tour

Who doesn’t want to stop and taste chocolate straight from the production line?  For a mere $8 we were able to try about 12 different samples, from white and milk chocolate, to fudge, and specialty items.  Each bite was more delicious than the next; then again, I’ve never met a piece of chocolate that I didn’t like.  Right from the beginning, I knew that this was going to be a fun stop.  Our guide reminded me of Josh Gad both in looks and personality.  We each had to don a hairnet before entering the processing plant.  I was a little disappointed that we didn’t get to see more of chocolate in the production phase, but they produce as demand is called for, and as we were touring later in the day, the only live production we saw was fudge.  They did show us how the chocolate seashells are wrapped and sent down the line.  After a hot day of walking, this air conditioned tour allowed us to take a moment to cool off, and as a bonus, we left with a satisfied sweet tooth.  

 

3.  St. Augustine Distillery

I walked into this ice plant turned distillery and was in love.  The updated rustic look of the building looked just like Chip and Joanna Gaines had designed the space.  From the museum space waiting area to the tasting room, everything pulled from that original ice house feel but with an updated look.  One of the things I loved about this place’s story was how they had to petition Tallahassee to even bring this distillery to life.  Unlike beer and wine regulations regarding tours and sales to the public, spirits follow  much stricter laws.  Only after lobbying were the owners able to get the laws changed so that I could actually go on the tour of this distillery and purchase from them directly.  One concession to this is that they have to scan your driver’s license as legally you can only purchase two bottles of each label per year.  

 

2.  Paddle Boarding the Salt Run

On our last day, before the two hour drive home, we spent the morning at Anastasia State Park paddle boarding the Salt Run.  Just inside the park there is a rental place with SUP and kayaks.  We purchased a two hour block of time and made our way north along the Salt Run towards the lighthouse.  It was hot, but thankfully there was a small breeze that made the heat bearable.  Along the way I spotted a stingray, but the highlight was when I came within five feet of a Roseate Spoonbill.  I have never seen one of these birds in the wild, only in zoos.  I watched it feed in the oyster beds careful not to get too close to the bird or the beds.  The Salt Run provides two miles of sheltered water to paddle upon.  It’s the perfect place to try out SUP since the water is so calm and shallow.  I can’t wait to return with Geoff and our kayaks.      

 

1.  Hyppo Popcicles

Skip the ice cream, skip the fudge.  Instead, run do not walk to The Hyppo.  My mouth is watering as I am writing this remembering these awesome gourmet ice pops.  They are made by hand with local and organic produce.  Their three shops have flavors that change frequently.  Cori and I sampled six in the three days we spent in St. Augustine.  My first and favorite was the strawberry datil pepper, a nice blend of sweet and spicy.  My second encounter with The Hyppo was a watermelon mint which was extremely refreshing after the super hot day of sightseeing.  Last was the peach cheesecake and this one I had dipped in chocolate.  It too was yummy, but the chocolate took away from the popsicle.  I also tasted the cantaloupe pepper and pineapple cilantro that Cori chose.  I enjoyed these as well.  From now on each time I visit St. Augustine, The Hyppo will be a must stop, and I’m keeping my fingers crossed that they bring a location to the Orlando area.

 

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Gracie’s Maiden Voyage

I’ve always wanted a dog that can go everywhere with me. Zorro turned out to not be that particular dog. Considering he would bite you as soon as look at you, it probably isn’t the best idea to take him in public.  Since Gracie joined us a year ago, it is clear she is so different from Zorro. She, unlike Zorro, is actually friendly. She would rather lick your face off than bite it.  She doesn’t bark at every little noise,  and she listens fairly well for a dachshund.  So after a year of letting her experience the world,  we decided it might be fun to see if she would be good on a kayaking trip.

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On a calm Saturday morning we loaded the truck with the kayaks and headed to a state park nearby. For this trip we opted for Lake Louisa State Park. I knew from exploring the park a couple of weeks earlier that the lake was full of gators,  but it would be relatively smooth. This meant I could focus on Gracie instead of padding around obstacles.

For Gracie’s maiden voyage, we purchased her a life jacket which she took to right away. I spent some time walking her around the area to let her get acclimated to her new contraption. It didn’t seem to bother her in the least. She just continue to hunt for lizards just as she does at home.

Within a few minutes of checking out the lake, we spotted our first alligator. It was a baby only about two and a half feet long and quickly swam away into the reeds along the bank. Gracie paid it no attention,  and thankfully it was the only one we saw all day.

With the gator off and out of sight I settled myself into the kayak, and Gracie followed. She was pretty nervous at first and did a pretty good job of staying seated in the middle. As she found her sea legs, she decided that she should explore the edges of the kayak. I paddled around for a little while near the dock. Geoff took a few pictures and then went to get his kayak.

Since Gracie was behaving so well, we paddled out hugging the edge of the lake. When we made it halfway around the lake, Gracie decided that she was going to stand on the bow of the boat. And she was doing a pretty good job of staying balanced, but I hit a little wave. She lost her balance sending her tumbling into the lake. She furiously paddled those tiny little dachshund legs.  Her eyeballs,  large as saucers,  searched for me to rescue her.  I was thankful for her life jacket which had a handle on the back making it easy for me to grab her like a little suitcase and deposit her back into the kayak. After that she was pretty petrified, and she stayed in the center of the kayak shivering. Eventually she calmed back down and found a nice spot to relax on the stadium cushion I put between my knees.  

We made our way back toward the dock checking out the ospreys that were fishing and taking their catches back to their nests. With Gracie more subdued I was able to actually take in the scenery. We were surrounded by tall cypress trees dripping with Spanish moss. We were sitting in the middle of an old Florida postcard.

After about 90 minutes on the lake we decided we wouldn’t test fate any more and ended our trip for the day.  I finally think I have a dog that can pretty much go on any adventure that we send her way. I think for now, I’ll settle with her maiden voyage being a success.

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Weeki Wachee River Adventure

Last January Geoff and I visited Weeki Wachee Springs State Park with our newly gifted Florida State Park Pass.  We went to check out the kitschy Florida attraction which features “mermaids” that perform in the spring for guests to view in an underwater theater.  While the show was adorable, the best part was our discovery of the Weeki Wachee River and the kayaking access it provided.  We promised to get back to do some kayaking.

About 16 months later we fulfilled that promise and brought along Geoff’s parents as well.  It was Mother’s Day weekend, so finding a place to rent kayaks was a little tricky.  We got lucky with The Kayak Shack who had a last minute cancellation, so we were able to rent two single kayaks.  

The Kayak Shack was very reasonable, $35 per single kayak for the day, and they arranged transportation to Weeki Wachee Springs State Park so that we only had to kayak the five and a half miles downstream.  The only downside was that they would not transport our kayaks due to liability reasons, so we followed their van in our truck.  

Arriving at Weeki Wachee State Park, Mel and Sydney followed their group and were quickly in the water where they waited patiently for Geoff and I to unload our own kayaks.  While Geoff found a place to park, I went inside of Paddling Adventures to pay our launch fees and have our coolers checked.  They are very adamant about the no alcohol policy inside of the state park. Park rangers were even on the river this particular day as well. $18 covered the cost of our launch fees and paid for Geoff to ride in their van back to our truck. 

Finally, it was time to head to the launch point.  Geoff left our kayak wheels in the truck (which was now parked very far away) so we started carrying the boats when a good Samaritan offered us a cart.  We quickly took that offer, stacked the kayaks, and rolled with ease down to the river.  

We showed the ranger our paperwork, and noticing that we had own kayaks he asked if we really wanted to go kayaking today.  With a smirk, he warned us that the river was very crowded.  The subtext there was that there were a lot of people who did not know what they were doing.  We were already two hours into this adventure, so there was no turning back now.  

I plopped into the kayak, dipped in my paddle, and pushed off for our trip.  Geoff was quickly behind me.  A few breaths to calm myself and erase the stress of getting the kayaks into the water, and we were off.  

The translucent waters sparkled in the sun and allowed us to see straight to the bottom.  After less than a mile of paddling we found our first sandy shore to pull off and dock.  This place was the remnants of an old spring called Hospital Hole.  We ate a few snacks, tested out the GoPro, and did some swimming in the cool waters.  

Our trip continued this way for most of the afternoon.  We paddled, we snacked, we maneuvered around the hundreds of people doing the same thing we were.  Everything was going great until I looked up in a tree branch as saw a black and white striped snake precariously perched just ahead of me.  With a sharp inhale of breath and increased heart rate, I furiously paddled to the other side of the river yelling about a snake.  Then I heard Geoff laughing.  It turns out I had just paddled furiously away from a rubber snake someone zip tied to the tree branch.  Trauma averted we paddled on.

As we continued down the river, there were numerous ropes and boards tied and nailed to trees respectively.  We approached an area where people were climbing a tree and jumping off.  It had been awhile since we stretched our legs, so we stopped.  Geoff decided to climb the tree like the 18-year-olds before him and jump into the river.  I, not being that brave, jumped off a dock instead.  The river was so deep that when Geoff jumped from 50 feet in the air he said his foot just brushed the bottom of the river.  Even Geoff’s mom got into the action and jumped into the river.

As we approached our return point, we were lucky to run into a few manatees.  Geoff dropped the GoPro into the water as one swam under his kayak, but the best manatee was the one that was trying to climb the river bank to feast on some elephant ears.  

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All too soon, five and half miles had passed, and we were back to The Kayak Shack.  Despite all the people on the river, I loved this trip.  The weather was perfect and the company was even better.  This will be a river we explore again, but hopefully on a day when there aren’t as many people.    

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Gliding on the Galien River

Next to running, kayaking has become one of my favorite outdoor activities.  I love to pull my paddle through smooth water.  I love the solitude of a quiet river.  I love being surrounded by nature.  I was able to find all of these in New Buffalo, Michigan while kayaking the Galien River.

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After a quick Google search, I found an outfitter that would rent me a kayak for the afternoon.  I packed a cooler, dropped my mom off at work and hit the road.  The rentals didn’t open until 11, so I spent the morning hiking around Indiana Dunes State Park.  From there, it was about 25 minute drive to the kayak launch.

The kayak launch is on the side of the Red Arrow Highway, and I almost overshot it.  Third Coast Surf Shop had a pretty nice selection of canoes and kayaks to rent by the hour or day.  I decided to rent by the hour and spent around 2.5 hours paddling  out and back towards Lake Michigan which ended up being about five miles.  This paddle set me back forty dollars, which I paid upon return.

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Waiver signed, I sat in the kayak and was off.   The murky brown water offended my eyes since it was not the crystal clear spring waters I was used to paddling.  Despite the ugliness of the water, I was still surrounded by the beauty of nature.  Cattails stood sentinel guarding the river bank.  Lily pads floated in bunches dotted with yellow flowers.  Marsh grasses waved in the breeze.  I glided by three snapping turtles sitting in the sun doing what looked like turtle yoga, their feet stretch out to the maximum length.  As I rounded a bend of marshy grasses, seventeen mallard ducks floated by the front of my boat.  But what really caught my eye was a fast moving patch of grass.  At first I thought that it was just some debris catching the current the same as I was.  When the grass began swimming faster than the kayak, I knew it was an animal, and upon closer inspection, I spied a muskrat.  He must have been taking some marsh reeds to work on his house.   Camera 360Camera 360

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At about two and a half miles out, I found a nice boat ramp to haul out and eat lunch.  After stretching my legs and filling my belly, I turned around and headed back towards the launch.  On the return trip, I passed many families that seemed to be kayaking for the first time.  They were making tons of noise, so the animal sightings ceased.  Before I knew it, I was gliding under Red Arrow Highway and returning to land.  I returned my kayak, said goodbye to Michigan, and aimed the car for Indiana.  Not a bad way to spend a Midwestern day.

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Paddling Mosquito Lagoon

We were recently gifted a set of matching kayaks (thanks Mel and Sydney), and since then we’ve been spending weekends exploring the different places to paddle around Central Florida.  Labor day weekend our destination was Canaveral National Seashore on the southern end of New Smyrna Beach.

The alarm buzzed at 6 A.M. on Labor Day so that we could make the hour and half drive to the national park.  Knowing it was a holiday, we didn’t want to make the drive only to be told the park was full.  We’d recently experienced this at Wekiwa Springs State Park a few weeks earlier.  So by 6:30 the kayaks were loaded and cooler packed, and by 7 we were on the road.

We arrived at Canaveral National Seashore about 8:30.  Five dollars later we were headed toward the visitor center to check out the boat launch.  Scoping out the area from the dock, we had our first wildlife sighting–a dolphin.  Instead of launching the kayaks here, we decided to make this dock our rest point.

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A day on the water

Back in the truck we drove to parking lot six and unloaded.  Carrying the kayaks a few feet we were quickly pushing off into the water.  It was then that I heard a giant splash in the mangroves to my right.  Immediately I saw a couple of manatees, so I decided to paddle a little closer.  Geoff launched right after me.  I hadn’t paddled more than twenty feet when I was surrounded by at least five manatees.  Instead of moving away from me, they decided that they needed a closer look at my kayak.  I stopped paddling as a rather large one swam right under me, nudging my boat on the way.  Now I know that manatees are pretty docile mammals, but my heart was pounding as I saw I was surrounded.

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Slowly I dipped my paddle and pushed backward putting a little more space between me and the herd of female-seeking males.  Later, I found out that I had interrupted a sea cow love-making session.  Most likely only one of the herd I found myself in was a female.    Once I had disengaged from the tangle of manatees, I paused to watch them from a safer distance.  Geoff was about twenty feet away from me watching as well.  Close, but not close enough for me to hear him breathing.  As I continued to hear these puffs of breath, I soon realized that there was a manatee snout next to the side of my kayak.  He or she just seemed to be scoping out my kayak.  So perfectly still, I grabbed my phone and got some of the coolest and closest shots of the manatee checking me out.  It was a moment I’ll never forget.

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My new manatee friend

Leaving that herd of manatees behind we explored Mosquito Lagoon encountering Florida brown pelicans, a blue heron, egrets and ospreys.  Three miles later, we pulled into the dock at the visitor’s center to stretch our legs and grab a snack.  We weren’t out of the kayaks for more than five minutes when I spotted another dolphin swimming right where we had been paddling.

Back on the kayaks we headed to our entry point and again paddled into a herd of manatees.  This time we saw them ahead of time because they had knocked a paddleboarder into the water.  Again, this group was feisty as well with lots of splashing and tail flipping.  I’ve never seen the massive manatee move so much.  Wilting in the humid and breeze-less day we decided to end our paddle.  So, we pulled out and loaded back into the truck.

After lunch we hiked to an ancient Indian shell mound.  While we weren’t sure if we actually found the shell mound, we did find dozens of banana spiders in webs intricately woven between mangrove and palm branches.

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I almost walked into one of these webs–yikes!

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Mosquito Lagoon

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A quick dip in the ocean cooled us off before he headed back for home.  This is the best place I’ve kayaked yet, and I cannot wait to get back and do it again.

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Kayaks, Manatees, and Shells….Oh My!

Ever since my first canoe trip with my parents down Sugar Creek in Turkey Run State Park,  I’ve loved being on the water.  Despite being crashed into by a Boy Scout Troop that dumped our canoe and left my brother trapped under it (he was rescued by my mom) and watching my dad wave good bye to his glasses as they floated away down the rushing creek, my love of water has never subsided, only grown.  Somewhere between the excitement of rushing rapids and the relaxing calm of the straightaway sections, a hobby was born. My husband, not one to shy away from any water activity, has gone canoeing with me numerous times.  We’ve spent many weekend days paddling up and down the Wekiva River.  But after a near run in with an alligator and her babies,  we decided to try a kayak instead.  Kayaks are much more stable and maneuverable than canoes.    From that first dip of the paddle, I loved being in the kayak.  It was considerably more comfortable than the unpredictable canoe. My love of kayaking followed me to Marco Island for my girls’ weekend trip with my friend Cori. This was our second time to Marco Island, but our first time kayaking there.  In fact Cori had never kayaked before, only paddle boarded.  So when looking for a place to kayak, I knew that they needed to be able to accommodate newbie kayakers. My search led me to Dreamlander Tours.  I knew from the moment that I send that first e-mail inquiring about availability that this tour would be worth every penny.  Kieu, one of the owners immediately responded to my query, and the next morning the three hour kayaking trip was all arranged.  We would spend about two hours paddling and one hour scouring a deserted beach for shells. We drove the five minutes from our hotel to Caxambas Park where we would launch the kayaks.  Kieu and Steven were quick to introduce themselves and make us feel quite at ease.  After a couple of quick swipes of credit cards, we were shaking hands with our guide Arturo.  Before we knew it, we were settled in our kayaks and paddling toward Bird Island.

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Florida Brown Pelicans on the edge of Bird Island

There were four of us on this tour plus Arturo.  Our first stop, Bird Island, was true to its name.  It was a short paddle from the dock and loaded with Florida Brown Pelicans, Snowy Egrets, and Double-crested Cormorants.  Here he told us all about the birds, the mangroves, the sea life, and people of Marco Island.  I could tell right away that Arturo is very passionate about nature and loves sharing this passion with the people he guides.  He truly is an expert and was easily able to handle any question we threw at him.  To add to his credibility, he was able to tell us when the paddling would be more difficult and exactly when it would ease up.  That was much appreciated since on our return trip we were really fighting the tide for awhile.

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Arturo, courtesy of Dreamlander Tours

One of the great things about Dreamlanders Tours is that Arturo was taking tons of pictures of our adventure.  He was a great photographer and the photos were e-mailed to us later that evening.  I, of course, brought my own camera with me, but it was nice to know that even if I hadn’t there would still be photos to document the trip.  In addition, they provided bottles of water.  Arturo made sure that we stayed hydrated on the very humid day They only thing that was lacking was a snack.  Cori and I didn’t eat a huge breakfast knowing we would be out on the water and beach for at least three hours.  We kept saying how we wished that we had brought some snacks with us.  We know for next time to pack a little something, but it would have been a really nice touch if the tour provided a little something like granola bars to snack on before the return paddle.

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Photo courtesy of Arturo at Dreamlander Tours

Upon arrival on the secluded beach,  we were provided with some bags to go shelling.  Well, Cori and I live for shelling, and we wasted no time scouring the beach.  Right away we found Banded Tulips, Horse Conch, Florida Cones, Lightning Whelks, Worm shells, and Apple Murex–it was a shelling paradise  For one hour we stood hunched over, eyes scanning the sand for little treasures to take back with us.

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Docked on the secluded beach for a little shelling.

 

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Selfie time!

 

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Our haul from the 10,000 Islands.

Too soon it was time to head back to the kayaks.  When we met back up with Arturo, we asked him how to find Sand Dollars since we are always looking for these elusive little gems.  He seemed surprised that we hadn’t found any and made it his mission to find us some.  So Arturo headed back to the sand bar while Cori and I spent some time cooling off in the ocean. As we floated and enjoyed the salty water, I noticed a baby manatee not more than 4 feet long and within arm’s reach of Cori.  She nervously moved my way, and we watched the orphaned baby (Arturo had told us to keep an eye out for him) for a few minutes before he disappeared into the vast blue before us. A few moments later Arturo was returning with six white Sand Dollars for us.  We split them up before he ushered us over to the point of the island where again we were lucky to see a mammoth of a manatee feeding on the sea grass below.  On the point there was a swing hanging over the water.  Here, we did a mini photo shoot before beginning our paddle back to shore.

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We love our girls’ weekend getaway! Photo courtesy of Arturo at Dreamlander Tours

The paddle back was much  harder than the paddle out, and we were forced to use all our upper body strength to fight the rising tide.  It made for a great upper body workout.  Too quickly our tour was over.  The only downfall to the morning was that we didn’t see any dolphins, and although they do “guarantee” dolphin sighting, we didn’t make it an issue since we had such a great time shelling and being out on the ocean.

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Photo courtesy of Arturo at Dreamlander Tours

Between being on the water, the manatees,  the great shelling, and Arturo, we definitely got our money’s worth on this tour.  If Cori and I ever get back to Marco Island again, I know we will be looking up Dreamlander Tours for an encore performance.

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Four hard working paddlers. Photo courtesy of Arturo at Dreamlander Tours

 

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The best view!

So, where do you think is the best place to paddle?