Winter Trip to Florida – 2015
With a forecast of sub-freezing temperatures for a high on the weekend, we left for Florida for our fifth year in a row. We bought the 14 foot Coachman Clipper primarily for trips to Florida and on trips where we would be stationary for a week or more. The Pod teardrop is a great camping trailer because it is light and more mobile but it is not suited for several days of rain. Last year we had the Clipper ready, but the truck had mechanical problems and there was thirteen inches of snow on the ground when we were ready to leave.
We left just before one o'clock and stopped at Colletion State Park in South Carolina off I-95 near the town of Canadays after driving 311 miles. It was almost 6:30 pm when we backed into the spot and started supper. We were fortunate to get in because the sign on the gate said they were closed at 6, but there was a staff person there working late. After the sun went down, it cooled down quickly; fortunately, the bathhouse was clean and nicely heated.
After a very good night's sleep we were off to St. Augustine, arriving just after lunch. When I went to secure a site at Anastasia State Park on the beach of Anastasia Island right across the bay from the historic downtown of St. Augustine, the attendant said they only had one site that I could get for two nights. We set up the camper and ate some tuna salad and crackers before heading out to have a look at the beach and then find a hardware store. One of the water supply lines drains was leaking, so I needed a rubber washer. We were given directions to a hardware store, but found out it was out if business. We asked someone about another one and we headed off on the bikes further down the street (USA1A). By the time we bought the washer and returned to the park we had ridden about eight miles.
We found out from a fellow camper that the Cape Kennedy space launch which had been postponed earlier, was now scheduled to lift off a little after 6 pm. We ate an early supper and were standing on the beach gazing south a little before six. Cape Kennedy Space Center was east of Titusville about 100 miles south and we were told we could see the rocket once it was airborne.
There was a couple about our age standing next to us with a smartphone. The lady had the launch site on the phone screen. We saw the rocket in the sky, but the video on her screen had it just leaving the launch pad. There must have been a delay between the actual and the video transmission. It did not last long, but it was great to see a launch even from that far away.
Thursday, we headed out to see the sights in old town St. Augustine. We crossed the Bridge of Lions from Anastasia Island and started looking for parking. We parked in the public garage and began our self guided tour by stopping at the visitor center for a map and some post cards. St. Augustine is billed as the oldest city in America and was celebrating its 450th year.
We saw the site of the first church, the Mission Nombre De Dios and the oldest school. St. George Street was the main street and was door to door shops and restaurants and it was closed to vehicles. Across the street and next to Matanzas Bay on the river of the same name was Castillo De San Marcos, the old fort built by the Spanish from 1672 to1695. We spent over an hour roaming around and reading the historical information.
We had lunch back down on St. George Street at a place called the Cruiser Grill. It was a open air restaurant right along the shopping area. We split a half pound, very delicious deluxe cheese burger and a bowl of chilli. The chilli was one of the best bowls I have ever eaten.
We searched out a coat of arms shop down the street, but discovered the Bracknell name did not have a coat of arms. There was some information on the history of the origin of the name. The information said often the coat of arms for the geographic area was used when there was no specific coat of arms.
Back at camp, Rhonda practiced her clarinet after we listened to our neighbor picking his banjo. He was from south of Greensboro near Liberty and was on the way down to a bluegrass festival just to hang out and pick with some of the other musicians. He had his own small band back in his area.
Before supper we went down to the camp store to connect to the wifi to check emails and some basketball scores. Rhonda made chicken stew to put over the garlic cheese muffins she made with the little muffin maker. We could only pick up about five or six TV stations, thus there was not much to watch, so a crossword puzzle and some reading was our evening past time.
Friday morning, the temperature was around 42 degrees and we were up and out early, headed to Salt Springs to the forest service campground by eight o'clock. When we arrived a little after ten, we were told there were no sites available and there were several others sitting in line waiting. We headed back up the road and across the street to a private resort where the prices were double that of the forest service campground. We paid for two nights, hoping to get into the Forest Service on Sunday afternoon.
After lunch, we drove back up to Palatka to check out a thrift store, a bike shop and see what else the town had to offer. We wanted to look for a bike rack since I forgot to bring one. We needed it when transporting the bikes without the camper. As we got near, we saw a sign for Ravine Gardens State Park. We looked it up in our Florida state park booklet and thought it sounded interesting. After finding a bike rack that I hoped I could redesign for five dollars and visiting the bike shop, we headed over to the state park.
The ravine was created by thousands of years of erosion from the numerous springs flowing and draining down to the St. Johns River, There was a 1.8 mile paved park road surrounding the ravine and hiking paths just below the rim and down into the ravine. As you enter the park, there were two rows of arbors displaying all the state flags on the support columns; twenty-five on each side. There was a visitors center at the end and formal gardens beyond it. The gardens were terraced down to where the trails began for the ravine. All around the garden and all through the ravine were thickets of azaleas. Most were the large purple Formosa variety, but there also some coral and white ones. The information said that the gardens and the azaleas (25,000 and 95,000 plants total) were put in by the WPA back during the depression as a works project. There were lush ferns, magnolias, palms and the common saw palmettos. We spent a couple of hours hiking and enjoying the surroundings in perfect weather.
Before leaving town, we went by a fresh seafood market and got a dozen large St. Augustine shrimp and two catfish filets. Back at camp, I shelled and deveined the shrimp. I grilled the fish and shrimp with seasoning outside on the grill and we had it with corn meal muffins, slaw and mac and cheese.
Saturday morning the outside temperature was down to 35 degrees. Inside was sixty thanks to our little five dollar yard sale electric heater. To expedite things, I also turned on the camper's propane furnace and turned it off when it got to 65 degrees.
The day was starting to warm up quickly as we headed out to two yard sales out on highway 19 close by. At the first one I bought an indoor/outdoor thermometer for five dollars. The one in the camper had lost the outdoor sensor. At the other flea market, which was down the road less than a mile, I bought a 3/8” ratchet for a dollar. We had lunch back at the camper and headed down to the clubhouse to check email, the weather, and see who was scheduled to play basketball.
I watched some of the Carolina game on my tablet until I realized that they weren't going to win against Pittsburgh. I went back to the camper and Rhonda and I went for a bike ride over to the springs at the forest service campground. At four, I returned to the clubhouse to see some of the NC State game, but had to leave to get ready for our Valentine supper.
There was a restaurant down the road that came highly recommended by the banjo playing neighbor back at the Anastasia State Park. We went down at 5:15 and there was a waiting list and line. We finally got in at a little after six. They had a Valentine special for two. We had prime rib, a good salad and baked potato, but there was no room for desert. We had prime rib leftover for steak and eggs the next morning and a prime rib sandwich on Monday.
Sunday morning, we got up to a temperature of 48 degrees and again it warmed up quickly. I went over to the forest service to see if they had any sites come available. They told me to come back at noon and there should be a vacancy. We paid thirty-five a night at the resort, but over at the national forest it was only 18 dollars with my Golden Age Passport.
We returned at 11:30 and were soon set up on a site and had lunch. After a brief period of digestion, we headed out to ride down a dirt road beside the campground. When we returned, we rode down to the springs to see if anyone was swimming. There were several seniors in the springs so I quickly returned to the camper, put on my swim trunks, grabbed my mask and snorkel, wet suit, and towel and headed back to the springs. The clear water felt great and I really didn't need the wet suit. There were a number of sizable fish eating algae or aquatic plants off the rocks and concrete wall. I think the fish were mullet.
Monday morning, we contacted Don and Mary Martin (Don was in high school and Vietnam with me) after they sent us an email saying they were in Bartow camping free at the Outdoor World RV center waiting to get some repair work done. After leaving Salt Springs and gassing up, we pulled into a forest service area south of Salt Springs when we saw that we had cell service. The site was called Silver Glen Springs and was operated by a concessionaire. The springs there was as big or bigger than any I had seen. We took a few minutes to see what was there and decided that we would revisit them when we were back in the area and had more time.
We arrived in Bartow about 3 pm after the GPS sent us in the wrong direction for about eight miles. We got to the camping area and I backed in beside Don and Mary's rig and hooked up to the electricity and water. We then went over to the RV store and bought a surge protector and some waste water chemicals. Afterward, we sat around and talked, then had supper independently and completed the evening playing games at their dining table.
The next morning, after some coffee together, we pulled out heading south for warmer weather (another brief cold spell was predicted). We also wanted to camp near Fort Meyers. Our plans were to do some biking and sightseeing around Fort Meyers and on Sanibel Island. We called two state parks that were sort of in that area and both were full. We figured the difficulty we were experiencing was possibly due to all the cold weather up north and the lower gas prices had brought more people to Florida.
When we got to Arcadia, we were fortunate to find a resort park with a week available. The resort was call Big Tree. Their rate was about fifteen dollars a day higher than we normally pay, but they had a lot of amenities and some very nice people and staff. The park had a heated pool, hot tub, internet, a clubhouse, library, outside games and numerous planned activities and get-to-gethers. We were glad to find a place just an hours and half drive from the gulf. The site we got was spacious, and was on the outer edge with no one behind us and the RV unit on one side was for sale and not occupied. Also, unlike eighty percent of the resort, we had some nice shade trees. After the cool spell passed it came in nice. Most of the occupants were snow birds that stay there four to six months of the year. Most everyone we met made us feel right at home.
Wednesday, we had lunch at a barbecue restaurant called Slims and shopped for some hardware to mount the RV bike rack to the truck and dropped off the metal hitch mount for my hammock chairs to be drilled so I could use it for mounting the bike rack. We bought tickets for a cod dinner which was deliciously prepared by some of the residents of the resort. Thursday evening we attended a concert by the Arcadia Community Band in the clubhouse. The concert lasted an hour and a half and consisted of Big Band, polka music and a few show tunes. It was very enjoyable.
Friday morning, the temperature dropped to about 30 degrees. When we woke up around 4:30 am, we discovered the power was off. We put on another blanket and when we got up at 7:20, it had dropped down to 43 degrees inside the camper. The gas furnace would not work without the fan and the fan had no power. I could have gotten out and unloaded the generator, but after dressing and fixing breakfast, we found it to be quite tolerable. In our tent camping days, this was to be expected, especially, out west in the fall.
In the afternoon, we took a long bike ride to the downtown and stopped at a fabulous produce market on the way back. It had a huge selection of fruits, vegetables, and some meats at great prices. We bought some strawberries, broccoli and a palmelo, which was more like a grapefruit than the true palmelo.
Saturday morning we were up early for a breakfast of pancakes, eggs, sausage, coffee, and juice at the clubhouse for just three dollars. We were then off to Sanibel Island to bike some of the fine trails. I had heard about the beauty of the island and the paved bike paths and wanted to check it out.
We arrived around ten and parked at the visitors center. We got a map and headed up to the lighthouse first. On the return trip, we rode a trail that went along the western edge of the island and through some high dollar neighborhoods. Rhonda was having a hard time keeping up. I checked her break pads to see if they were dragging and made an adjustment. Later, we realized that her rear tire was very slack. On the way back to the truck, I spotted a small tire store and stopped to get some air. Back on the bike way, Rhonda noticed an immediate improvement. Before we got to the parking lot, we stopped at an incredible sea shell shop. They had a huge inventory of beautiful and very unusual shells from all over the world. I bought a few, but wanted so many more.
After lunch at our truck in the visitor lot, we drove down to the nature preserve on the north end of the island and biked the seven mile loop. The bike-way from the lighthouse to the inlet between Sanibel and Captiva Islands is twelve miles. After the ride and before leaving the island, we stopped at the Dairy Queen for an ice cream cone.
We drove south to Naples, about an hour away, for a short visit with my 94 year old uncle and aunt. They both had just recovered from serious surgeries. Uncle James was really showing decline in his health from the previous year. He was still sharp mentally, but was almost blind and had difficulty hearing. We had an enjoyable time catching up on the past year and aunt Mary had prepared a nice supper. We left afterward so as to leave some daylight for our hour and a half drive back to Arcadia.
Sunday morning, we attended a wonderful worship service in the clubhouse. There were about 75 folks in attendance. The minister gave an excellent message from one of the beatitudes- “blessed are the pure in heart”. During the afternoon we biked around the resort and went to the pool.
Monday we drove out a few miles to the Joshua Citrus Grove. It was a family run business that had been around for over a hundred years. Our main objective was to by several bottles of orange pancake syrup for gifts and ourselves. We had sampled some from the pancake breakfast on Saturday. Someone sitting next to us had bought a bottle from the citrus grove and told us where it was located. We also bought some naval oranges, two individual sized key lime pies, some orange marmalade and some orange soft serve ice cream.
Tuesday morning we packed up and drove to the Withlacoochie River County Park outside of Dade City. It was a real rustic spot with only four other campers in the ten RV sites, one in the rental cabin and 2 in the primitive tent sites. It was on the river and in the Green Swamp, but they did not have canoe rentals. They had network of short hiking trails, a 2 mile paved trail and lots of little green tree frogs.
Wednesday afternoon, we drove southwest beyond Wesley Chapel and north of Tarpon Springs to the southern terminus of the Sun Coast trail. I rode twenty-four miles and Rhonda rode fourteen. The trail is 42 miles long, but since we did an up and back, I only completed twelve miles one way. It was overcast for about sixteen miles of the distance, but the sun came out and there was a head wind coming back for the last eight miles. I had a hard time maintaining my normal ten to twelve miles an hour.
We drove down to Plant City on Thursday to the 80th annual Strawberry Festival. We arrived about twenty minutes before the gates opened. It was senior day, so we got two dollars off the ten dollars admission fee. We went through several exhibit halls, watched Jimmy Sturr's polka band, saw more exhibits, and had lunch at the Lion's Club concessions.
After lunch, we had strawberry shortcake, went through the arts and crafts building where there were displays of quilts, knit and crochet items, cake decorating and art work in various mediums. All of them had been judged and displayed the ribbons for the winners. When it was time for a rest, we sat in some bleachers and enjoyed a tremendously great act by the name of Kari and Billy. They were a country rock band and we stayed for the entire performance.
The afternoon main performance was Bobby Vinton. He was on stage with is son and daughter. We got to hear most of his big hits: Blue Velvet, Roses are Red, Mr. Lonely, There I've said it again, Blue on Blue, and I love How you Love me. We stayed for about 45 minutes of the show and then bought two quarts of strawberries before leaving. The festival was much like a county fair. The performers for the rest of the week included: Alabama, Mel Tillis, Scotty McCleaary, Mercy Me, Kevin Costner and Modern West, Brett Eldredge, Hunter Hayes, Sawyer Brown, Loretta Lynn, Boys II Men, Oak Ridge Boys, Ricky Scaggs, Sara Evan, Ronnie Milsap, Craig Morton, John Legend, Reba, and a number of others. We had been seeing the promotions for it in the past years when we were visiting Florida. It was enjoyable enough that we will likely go again.
Friday, we went down US 301 to Zephyr Hills to a Hobby Lobby and had lunch at a oriental restaurant. We stopped at the library in Dade City to check emails and I wanted to print some information off the internet on the remainder of the Sun Coast Trail.
Saturday, rain was in the forecast, but I wanted to finish the remainder of the Suncoast trail. We drove to the northern trail head north east of Brookville on US98. We reached the trail about 10:30 and I headed out. After about five and a half miles, it began to sprinkle and in another mile, the rain picked up. About three quarters of the way the rain stopped, but started again just before I reached the prearranged meeting place with Rhonda on Florida Highway 52. My nylon wind pants, shoes and socks were soaked. My hooded rain jacket kept my upper body almost dry.
Rhonda didn't locate the trail parking because the road was closed, but waited in a large gas station parking lot. We connected with the use of our cell phones. After racking the bike, I went inside the store for some hot coffee and a cheese and bean burrito. Back at camp, I changed into dry clothes and spent the rest of the afternoon watching ACC basketball as the rain poured outside.
Sunday morning the clouds and overcast sky cleared rapidly as we headed north to Wekiwa Springs State Park north of Orlando in Apopka, stopping along the way to buy some ruby naval oranges as a welcome to Florida gift for Rhonda's brother, his wife and two friends. We arrived just before noon and fortunately there were sites available. We set up in a very nice site and had lunch at the picnic table. After doing a crossword puzzle, we rode the bikes down to the spring to swim. As I was standing on the wall at the edge putting on my wet suit, I lost my balance and fell in. It was a quick way to get used to the water, but since I adjusted quickly I wished I had not gotten the wet suit wet. Sometime it take a little while to dry it thoroughly. I swam over to where the springs were boiling up down beside some huge underwater boulders. I followed some fish around and then made several laps without the mask. We went by the canoe and kayak rentals to see if they had the stand up paddle boards. They had them but I talked myself out of trying one out.
Monday, we drove to Titusville on the coast. We had reservations at a county park near the Kennedy Space Center. Our plans were to visit the space center on Wednesday along with Rhonda's brother, sister-in-law and two high school friends. They had planned to arrive on Monday and visit the KSC on Tuesday, but an ice event in the Raleigh area delayed them.
I called our hiking club president, Jim Houck, who lives in Titusville and set up a time to drop by and say hello on Tuesday morning. He was originally from New York near the Catskills, but after serving in the navy as a Seabee, he settled in Florida and spent his career with the Florida DOT. He has a son, who leaves in Pearisburg just north of our trail section in Giles county.
We left the campground the next morning and went by Jim's house for a few minutes. He gave us directions to the Black Point Trail in the Merritt Island Wildlife area. The trail was a six and a half mile drive or ride on narrow dirt-like road that meandered through the marshes, salt flats and small lakes. We wanted to ride the bikes, but there were no parking until we got about a third of the way around. When we got to the parking spot, we unloaded the bikes and rode the entire loop and back to the truck for a total of eight miles counting the paved road connecting each end. As we rode, we saw egrets, pelicans, pink flamingos, storks, a pigmy rattlesnake, alligators and other birds. We ate lunch when we returned to the truck.
In the same area, we saw a sign for a manatee viewing area about six miles away, so we headed down there. The viewing area was at a canal called “the Haul over”. It was a canal that connected Mosquito Lagoon to the Indian River and was a part of the Intercoastal Waterway. We saw four or five manatee along the viewing area. It was a great day in the great out-of-doors. The gang arrived around 4:30 and went through the set up process. They said something about going out to eat when they were through. We had eaten a lite lunch and decided to go ahead and grill the two steaks and have a salad and potato salad. We would have planned a meal for everyone, but we did not know all the like and dislikes and we wasn't sure about their arrival time. When there were ready to go, we went along for the social aspect. They found a great pizza restaurant a few miles down US1 south of the campground.
Wednesday morning, we were off to the space center. The way it worked our as far as the tours, we selected, each couple ended up on their own. When I bought my ticket at the window, I did not realize that it was the last tickets for that tour, so when Jimmy, Rhonda's brother bought theirs, they were on an afternoon tour and we were on a morning tour.
It was a great experience. We got to see the history of the space program and toured the launch control center and the primary launch pad (Pad 39A) for many of the significant missions of Apollo and the shuttles. Down the beach at the Cape Canaveral Air Force station was the site of the early Mercury, Gemini and Saturn launches. We got to walk on the astronaut walkway (the arm that extended out to the rocket) which was use to provide a way for the astronauts to get from the elevator to the capsule on top of the rocket. It was the same walkway used by the astronauts that walked on the moon. We also got to see the Atlantis shuttle up close.
When we got back together. We lead the others down to see the manatees and then returned to Titusville for supper at the Dixie Crossroads seafood restaurant for some good seafood. It had been recommended by Jim and someone our friends knew.
Thursday we spent the morning around camp and drove down to Port Canaveral while the others went to the astronaut hall of fame. We stopped in Cocoa to pick up some items for the planned communal meal and I found a place that had eight dollar haircuts. We spent a short time at the pool when we returned. For supper, we got together at Jimmy and Linda's site and had a fabulous shared supper; almost like a pot luck meal.
Our destination on Friday was Juniper Springs in the Ocala National Forest near the little town of Astor on Florida highway 40. When we arrived around eleven, they were full and said they would be through the weekend. We called a private campground in Silver Springs and found they had sites available. Of course we wouldn't be getting the half price rate of $10.50 that we would have at the federal campground with our Golden Passport.
Lake Waldena was a resort type campground with facilities and planned activities. It appeared to have been around for some time. Everything was neat, but had some age on the buildings. It had been raining lightly since late morning, so we went up the road to browse some thrift shops and to pick up some playing cards.
We headed out the next morning to bike on a couple of the dirt forest service roads at an area called Mill Dam Lake and Half Moon Lake. We had a picnic lunch from the truck while we were out and ended up riding about eight miles. When we returned, I was able to find a couple of ACC ballgames on the TV.
Sunday morning I found a paved greenway trail on the map just south of Silver Springs and we rode eleven miles before lunch. We decided to have barbecue for lunch and spotted a Sonny's in Silver Springs, but as we approached, we saw another place called “Fat Boys”. It had been in business since the 60s. We split a jumbo combination plate. It came with ribs, pulled pork, sliced beef and chicken along with slaw and french fries and Texas Toast. We got our fill and could not eat it all, so we got a take out box for lunch on Monday.
After lunch we drove a little ways into Ocala and spotted a Harbor Freight store with their sidewalk sale going on. I bought a cordless drill for sixteen dollars so I would have one to keep with the camping gear. Back at camp I made a mount for our GPS device so I could glance at it as I am driving. Previously, we laid it in a cup holder or Rhonda would hold it as we got near our destination. I used a four by six inch piece of metal and some velcro I picked up at Lowes. I bent the metal to create a lip on one end and hooked it under the part of the dashboard trim. So far it is working great.
Monday, we left around 10:30 and headed northwest past Ocala to the resort in Willston where Jimmy and Linda and our friends the Burgers were staying. We arrived just after noon, set up and were soon chowing down on the barbecue sandwiches from our leftovers. We had stopped along the way and picked up some slaw to augment them.
In the afternoon, we biked around the very large resort and then took a spin through town. Jimmy and Linda went to see Cedar Key and the Burgers had plans. We rode a total of 6.7 miles before returning to the camper for a brief rest before going to the pool. The resort is only about ten years old and there were over 500 sites including the cottages that could be rented or purchased. The were also renovating old passenger train cars and a caboose for a restaurant and lodging. The absence of shade was the biggest draw back for the section we were in.
The next day Jimmy and Linda had booked a pontoon boat cruise on the Homosassa River near the Gulf about an hour's drive southwest. Danny and Dorothy went to spend the day with some friends in Inverness. We went up to the clubhouse where Rhonda joined in on a knitting group and I downloaded some pictures from my camera on the computer made available to the resort guest.
For lunch we went to Hardees for a big burger which we hadn't had since St. Augustine and then rode out west of town to see if we could find a couple of springs that Jimmy had seen the signs for the day before. The first one we found was Devils Den and was set up for scuba diving. It was in somewhat of a cave that had an opening in the top so you could look down in it. The entrance was on one side and down a dozen steps. The waste was a beautiful clear blue. Someone said it at its deepest point was 50 feet deep. There was a large platform in the center in the sallower water. There were approximately 15 to 20 divers in and around the springs. The operator was nice enough to let me take a quick look. The place also had a small campground which we checked out just in case we might want to stay there in the future. The other springs was down a dirt road so I nixed it mainly because I did not want to get the truck dusty.
Jimmy and Linda came by the camper later when they returned. We all decided to go to the pool since it was up aroung 85 degrees. We all had reservations for dinner and entertainment whid was a Elvis impersonator, so we had to allow time to spruce up for it.
The meal of steak or chicken breast with a salad and roasted potatoes and corn was good. The entertainer was also pretty good. He started off with a variety of artist impressions which included Dean Martin, Tom Jones, Willie Nelson, and Neil Diamond. After an intermission, he did his Elvis show. Over all it was a good show with some great songs.
Wednesday was our day to depart and head north toward home. Beyond Gainesville, we stopped at a fruit stand to see if they had some of the ruby navels that we had bought earlier south of Orlando. It appeared that the season for them was winding down. We did get some Valencias and some Honey Bells for our two neighbors who were feeding the cat.
We stopped for the day at an overpriced campground near the town of Ridgeway off I-77 north of Columbia, SC. They charge $40 which was more than two of the resort camping facilities with all the ammenities. The had only one shower, no wifi, and a poor site. It least one of the local TV stations we picked up was carrying the ACC tournament. If it had not been so late, we probably would have moved on, if nothing else but for the principle. We arrived home around lunch the next day to beautiful weather for unloading.