Driving Miss Maggie -- Around Florida
Since we’ve retired, Tom and I have tried to explore the world, defining “world” as widely as our resources allow. During his 30 years in the Navy, Tom proved the truth of the recruiting slogan, “Join the Navy and see the world”, so it’s hard to find places he hasn’t been. If there’s a port big enough for an aircraft carrier, chances are he’s been there. In the last 10 years, we’ve spent a lot of time in Asia, Europe and Central America, and have enjoyed exploring North America. 2019’s plans to raft the Grand Canyon and explore the southwest were destroyed by orthopedic issues, but once we dealt with those, we decided to explore the coastal southeast of the US, especially the barrier and sea islands.
We’re driving a Phoenix Cruiser, built on a stretched F450 chassis. The company does custom work, so it’s not a class A, B, or C, just a Cruiser. We’re pulling a base model Kia Soul, one of the few cars you can still tow with all four wheels on the road.
Our initial plans were to drive east until our wheels were in the water off the outer banks of North Carolina, then take the ferries from Hatteras Island to Okracoke Island and Cedar Island. Please see the satellite picture below – the outer banks project far out into the ocean, making the Cape (the point where the island turns back toward the mainland US) THE prime target for hurricanes on the east coast. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what happened in 2019, when Hurricane Dorian dealt a smashing blow to Okracoke Island, destroying the island's only road (NC 12) and campground.
S-o-o-o … with other hurricanes swirling around in the Atlantic, we decided to stop at Hilton Head Island South Carolina, to let the weather sort itself out. We chose the Hilton Head Island Motorcoach Resort (https://www.hhimotorcoachresort.com/), which bills itself as “The Nation’s Finest Motorcoach Resort”, and learned that there’s a big difference between campgrounds, RV parks, and motorcoach resorts. Much of the difference is in price, but this place was nice.
We found that Hilton Head is not always as snobbish as its reputation. Many restaurants welcome dogs in their outside areas and the local residents (by that I mean the service people) are polite and friendly. The tourists and wealthy residents? Not so much. Some of them remind me of the people who shop at The Fresh Market and Pottery Barn in Knoxville. Friends who work there note that “just because you have money doesn’t mean that you can treat the help like they are lower class.” So after spending two weeks in luxury, we decided that the weather was calm enough that we could head south.
Tom did his usual excellent job of making plans and reservations. We knew that the Disneyworld campground, Fort Wilderness, would fill early. We learned that all the state park campgrounds would fill 6-12 months in advance. But we were very disappointed that all the DoD campgrounds are impossible to reserve. Tom’s both a retired officer and a disabled veteran and we still cannot get reservations at most military base campgrounds, no matter how far in advance we try to make the reservations. Very discouraging.
Most of this blog post will sound like a paean of praise for the state-run campgrounds of the southeast. With a few caveats, they were amazing. Things to check if you’re camping in one of these state parks:
· Many campgrounds don’t have sewer hookups, though almost all have dump stations.
· We tried to reserve 50 amp power if it was available. An autoformer (made by Hughes) is a good investment – there were many times when we plugged in and saw low voltage (112-114 volts before anything was turned on) and needed the autoformer to bring voltage up to what we regarded as a safe level. At Sebastian Inlet State Park in Florida, the power was so bad that it burned our 30-50 amp adapter and popped low voltage error codes on our Progressive Dynamics Power Monitor. (Check Alerts and Special Information on this page: https://floridastateparks.reserveamerica.com/camping/sebastian-inlet-state-park-indian-river-county/r/campgroundDetails.do?contractCode=FL&parkId=281972 )
· Most, but not all, campgrounds have laundry facilities, though sometimes that means one washer and one dryer. Something new to us: pay by credit card! It was a big surprise when I hauled my bag of dirty clothes, detergent and quarters across one campground and found that I needed a credit card. Lemme tell you – in an area where cell service and wifi are shaky, credit cards don’t work well either. Even when the machines do take coins, they sit outside near the ocean and corrosion is a problem. Tom saved the day for us and other campers more than once with his trusty can of WD-40.
· Most are great places to ride bikes. We should have taken ours, but there are often places to rent bikes, canoes, sit-on-top kayaks and more.
· In most cases, the state park campgrounds are much nicer than commercial RV parks. The sites are more private, they are quieter, they are cheaper, and the people who run them (often volunteer hosts) are almost always friendly.
Here are my notes on some notable parks, starting on the sea islands of South Carolina, moving south along the Georgia and Florida coasts right down to Key West, then north-west through the Everglades and up the Gulf Coast to the Florida panhandle.
· James Island County Park. https://ccprc.com/68/James-Island-County-Park South of the city of Charleston, this is an amazing county park with everything from a waterpark to a climbing wall to miles of walking and biking paths. The campground is large and offers full hookups. We drove to Charleston, sweated our way around the old city one day, and visited Fort Sumter and Patriot’s Point (with the USS Yorktown) on a second, cooler day.
· Hunting Island State Park, Beaufort County. https://southcarolinaparks.com/hunting-island I loved Hunting Island, which is a 5000 acre “secluded” barrier island off the SC shore. The park’s website says it’s the most popular park in the state, and I can understand why. The beach is deserted, wide and beautiful, there’s a lighthouse you can climb, and trails through a jungle that’s authentic enough that it was used for the Vietnam scenes in “Forrest Gump”. The campground is not the best, having taken some serious hits from hurricanes. In the beach photo below you can see black wires sticking up through the sand. That's where the front line of campsites were before Hurricane Michael wiped them out.
Georgia Sorry! We stayed at some OK state parks, but nothing special.
Florida – Down the Atlantic Coast
· Anastasia State Park, St. Augustine. https://www.floridastateparks.org/anastasia Again, the park is on a barrier island across a causeway from St. Augustine. We enjoyed the park and ate twice from an unusual food truck right outside the gate, Nalu’s Tropical Takeout. They advertise fish and seafood tacos, nachos, and wraps – wonderful! We also enjoyed the St. Augustine Alligator Farm, https://www.alligatorfarm.com/, which was excellent and much more than an alligator farm. St. Augustine proper was so full of tourists that it was impossible to park, so we didn’t.
· The Great Outdoors RV Resort (https://www.tgoresort.com/ We had reservations at Manatee Hammock Park (NOT a state park) in Titusville FL, but Tom looked at the weather and read some bad reviews about campground drainage. The RV Resort is one of those places where you buy your lot to park your RV, usually for the winter season. The rest of the year you can rent out your site. Tom called to see if by chance we could stay there a few nights while we were visiting the Kennedy Space Center. With luck, we rented a site with a covered patio, which was wonderful, as it rained for all three days.
· Fort Wilderness Campground, Disneyworld https://disneyworld.disney.go.com/resorts/campsites-at-fort-wilderness-resort/?CMP=OKC-wdw_lodging_gmap_14 Sorry about that long web address! We stayed at this huge campground and boarded Maggie at Best Friends https://www.bestfriendspetcare.com/. The biggest advantages were cost (camping versus hotel/restaurants) and ease of transportation. The campground itself was nothing special, but it was easy to reach DisneyWorld on the boats across the lake. Best Friends took great care of Maggie.
· Sebastian Inlet State Park, Melbourne Beach FL https://www.floridastateparks.org/parks-and-trails/sebastian-inlet-state-park This park is great for fishing, walking, and everything EXCEPT for its electrical power. Buried deep in the park’s information is a note that electrical voltage may drop to levels that can be damaging to equipment. We were glad to have our Hughes autoformer, but had to replace our 30-to-50 amp adapter after it burned out.
· Geiger Key Marina http://www.geigerkeymarina.com/ Tom made reservations here based on many excellent reviews, then discovered that the great reviews are of the wonderful restaurant and that the campground itself is crowded and noisy. We blew the budget and jumped to --
o Bluewater Key RV Resort https://www.bluewaterkey.com/ which is amazing and expensive – and worth every penny if you can afford it. There are seasonal minimum stay lengths, but we called and they accommodated us.
o Though the campground at Geiger Key Marina wasn’t to our taste, the restaurant is great. Maggie was welcome, the food was delicious, and the people were friendly. We rarely go to the same restaurant twice – but we did.
o We went fishing here with Captain Kevin and (luckily) Barbie Wilson of Knee Deep Charters (http://fishmekeywest.com/). Thankfully, they stay inshore (I’m a dedicated scopolamine patch user) and we spent the day limiting out on yellow-tail snapper. Tom even brought in an unhappy lemon shark who'd eaten the snapper Tom hooked. (We let it go unharmed.) Captain Kevin and Barbie met us at the Geiger Key Marina and returned us there, cleaned and filleted the fish, and generally gave us a wonderful day on the water. We heartily recommend them.
NASA’s Kennedy Space Center Visitor Center. We spent two very worthwhile days here, the first going through the space exploration museum, and the second day doing the astronaut training experience.
About space – for the first time, I’m glad I’m 70. I can remember lying on my back in our yard with my father watching Telstar go over us at night, watching Alan Shepard and John Glenn, mourning Gus Grissom and his crewmates, and sitting at work as a the only woman in a room of male engineer colleagues when the first space shuttle came in to land, all of us holding our breath as this huge glider careened down, knowing there was no second chance, and as its wheels slowed, looking around to see all my friends with tears running down their cheeks. There was romance – and it’s all gone now. Now NASA and the president talk about going to Mars, and the reaction is ho-hum. Everyone's bored with space.
NASA is trying to wake us up, trying to get American’s youth interested. If NASA had the budget, they’d probably be in our schools, trying to drum up interest – but they don’t. We spent our second day in the Astronaut Training Experience, which admits even old folks like us, but is really oriented toward young students. We landed on Mars, helped each other with a virtual reality walk to pick up rocks, experienced micro-gravity, and did other tasks that astronauts will need to do when they reach Mars.
Our day was enriched by the group we worked with – the only group of students that attended that day – 12 young women who attended a private school and whose parents had paid their way here – from northern India. They were extremely polite and shy right up to the moment that they discovered we had visited the towns they lived in. After that, they chattered like a flock of birds. I earned the favor of one student by swapping Tom for her headmistress on tasks where we had to double up. (“She’s awful – she doesn’t know how to do anything!”)
DisneyWorld. What we learned: if you (like us) don’t have huge stores of patience, buy the VIP tours! Come on – you’ve already invested a huge amount of money in lodging, food and tickets – spend a little more to walk by all the lines and pop into the attractions without waiting. Have a quiet, delicious lunch. Walk through the gates that say “No Admittance” and take a car from one part of the park to another. Any problem is immediately resolved. It is SOOO worth it.
Universal Studios. As homework, we watched the first Harry Potter movie, because neither of us had read the books. Smart move, because the whole place is oriented around Harry. Very well built movie-set quality buildings, even a train – much better than Disney’s StarWars exhibit. We had another VIP tour that was even better than Disney’s. Disney takes you to the back of the FastPass line; Universal takes you to the front of all the lines. (And boy, do you get the evil eye!) What I didn’t know about this VIP tour: it was rides. All rides. And it was a wonderful day for Tom and his one-year-old reworked back. He rode ELEVEN ROLLER COASTERS with no pain.
Key West. We arrived on Halloween and found that it was WAY too hot to wear the costumes we’d brought. We were disappointed to see how much the place has changed in the 25 years since our last visit – it’s now full of what I call “cruise ship people” and the atmosphere is much less laissez faire. The cat man on Mallory Square is still there, but he’s 25 years older too and only had two cats. You can see that he loves them.
Up the Gulf Coast
After leaving Key West, we traveled through the Everglades, a fascinating area that’s much bigger that I expected. It’s 1.5 MILLION acres, not jungle swamp but a wetlands preserve, “Often compared to a grassy, slow-moving river, the Everglades is made up of coastal mangroves, sawgrass marshes and pine flatwoods that are home to hundreds of animal species.” The quote is from Google and the map below taught me (someone who thought her geography knowledge was pretty good) how much of southern Florida (including ocean) is actually in the Everglades National Park.
By U.S. National Park Service, restoration/cleanup by Matt Holly - U.S. National Park Service (http://npmaps.com/wp-content/uploads/everglades-map.jpg), Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=58976527
Collier Seminole State Park https://www.floridastateparks.org/parks-and-trails/collier-seminole-state-park is one of the state parks within the Everglades that illustrates the history of this part of Florida. One of its displays is a “walking dredge” that made it possible for roads to be built through the swamp.
The gulf coast is occupied by cities, and all the interesting stuff (the parks and natural areas) are inland. Here is a sampling of some interesting parks:
· Koreshan State Historical Site https://www.floridastateparks.org/parks-and-trails/koreshan-state-park The park is located on the grounds of a former utopian community, designed by a doctor/bureaucrat who took the name "Koresh" (the Hebrew version of "Cyrus"). The Florida community was called Koreshan Unity, and some of its buildings still exist, though the community is gone. By the way, no relation to David Koresh, leader of the Branch Davidians, but who claimed to be the prophet Koresh. Wikipedia says https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Koreshan_Unity
· Myakka River State Park https://www.floridastateparks.org/parks-and-trails/myakka-river-state-park. Pretty good campground and good walking, though it’s all along roads. We wished they’d built bike lanes or some way to protect the pedestrians and bicyclists from the stupid, speeding drivers. It’s one of the largest Florida state parks (37,000 acres) and has a canopy walk, a birding walkway through the swampy area, waterways, and canoe and kayak “wildernesses”. It would be a good place to stay a few days and paddle.
· Hillsborough River State Park https://www.floridastateparks.org/parks-and-trails/hillsborough-river-state-park Included because it actually had a class II rapid on its little flat river!
Once we got to the panhandle of Florida, we drove west toward Destin and Pensacola, where we planned to head north for home. However, our neighbor Brooke said (at least 500 times), “St, George Island. You’ve got to go to St. George Island. It’s the best place on the gulf. It’s the best place on earth. You’ve REALLY got to go to St. George Island.” OK, OK, Brooke, we’ll stop at St. George Island for a couple of nights.
We can officially say that St. George Island is the BEST place on the southeast US coast.
Link to St. George Info: https://www.visitflorida.com/en-us/cities/st-george-island.html
The island is a long, thin barrier reached by a no-fee causeway. Unlike the Destin and Panama City areas, there are no big hotels or amusement areas, only a small area of little grocery stores and then homes/condos stretched the length of the island. Zoning laws must be strict. I looked on VRBO; there are only 813 total rentals; pretty small. The beach is wide and flat, even in the residential area. Link to State Park Info: https://www.floridastateparks.org/parks-and-trails/dr-julian-g-bruce-st-george-island-state-park
We stayed in the state park campground, which has large campsites divided by thick shrubbery. The bathhouse is large and accessible, there are sandy walking trails to primitive camping areas, the campground has its own resident alligator in a nearby pond (apparently transported there by Hurricane Michael), and it’s a short walk to one of the openings through the dunes to the beach. Day access to the park and its beach is $4 for those staying in town. The beach is amazing – flat, wide, and deserted. We walked for miles in each direction, found dozens of shells and a stone crab who was happy when we put him back in the water, and watched people fishing for pompano and sea mullet.
Back across the causeway and a quick right turn brought us to Lynn’s Quality Oysters (https://www.lynnsqualityoysters.com/) where we ate twice and bought fish to stock our freezer. It’s one of those places where they mean their motto: come in as a customer; leave as a friend. And you know Tom – he’s everyone’s friend in five minutes.
Fifty Years at Pensacola
On 23 September 1969, Tom entered Aviation Officer Candidate School at Naval Air Station Pensacola. He was commissioned as an ensign in the US Navy on 6 February 1970 and spent the next 30 years serving his country, retiring on 31 January 1970.
We drove over to Pensacola to revisit some of his memories, even though the Navy, in its budgetary wisdom, has abolished the separate aviation-oriented school and consolidated all officer training at the Navy Officer Candidate School in Newport, Rhode Island. The buildings, exercise fields, parade grounds, dorms are all still there, and aviation training still takes place, so it’s definitely not a ghost town, and we were able to talk to some of the young people who are learning what it takes to be a part of today’s Navy.
I’ve heard many of Tom’s stories about AOCS and watched “An Officer and a Gentleman” with him (he says that real life was harder), but it was good for us to walk the grounds together.
Please enjoy our sunset pictures!