The Plan:THERE, you’ve done it again! You’ve mentioned, politely inquired or created some small indication or vibration to indicate an interest, however feigned, in reading about my winter travels. This year, unwanted in foreign lands and mostly locked down in our state, I looked South where restaurants are often open, though with serious considerations for virus prevention, and decided to visit Florida. I have rented a house for three months in St. Petersburg where my eldest son has recently moved. My wife and I will drive there, she plans to accompany me this year, taking our time and the back roads.
I will update on the road South and whenever interesting things or bumps in the road present themselves. I won’t be sitting still, basking in the sun; that’s not my style. Golf, fishing, museums, and exploring the Sunshine State will all probably get a share of my time.
- Norfolk, Virginia
Thought I’d better write the updates before they’re gone from my memory bank, so I’m writing this year’s first update en route.
Began this year’s adventure lugging baggage (for two) down three flights of stairs to pack the 2017 Chrysler Pacifica for the long journey to our destination, St. Petersburg, Florida. Our building’s elevator has been inoperable since the end of September and repair and modernization of the 40-year old lift will finally begin after the first of the year when the made-to-order parts finally arrive with a crew from Delaware knowledgeable enough to attack the job. It has been a trying four-month ordeal for everybody in the four-floor condo building, but we’re all in better physical shape than when the elevator was working.
Vehicle finally loaded after six trips up and down the three flights of stairs, you’re now wondering why I used the collective pronouns (we/our) for what is usually a solitary trip to some far-off land. No, Schim is not going along; he lives in Orlando, after all. No, this year my wife, Joan, is accompanying me. Unable to visit her 99.5 year-old, sweet mother in the nursing home because of the lockdown caused by the Covid virus pandemic and able to return home quickly if needed, she decided to join me for the three-month trip. Like a bad penny, though, Schim is likely to turn up on my doorstep if the vaccine finally makes a dent in the pandemic.
Why St. Petersburg, you may also wonder? With the pandemic surging wildly around our country, few foreign lands encourage our visits to their soil. I might have returned to the Baja in Mexico, beautiful Sicily, exciting Portugal, or even Argentina, but good luck getting out of our country or into theirs. Instead, I started planning a trip to St. Petersburg where our oldest son, Gary, a bachelor with dog, relocated in July to a house on the shore of Tampa Bay. After significant research, now with help from a newly- interested spouse, I rented an entire AirBnB house fifteen minutes from our son’s new abode. Our son now works from home and decided that three winters in Chicago were enough for him; though he loved the city, he definitely didn’t appreciate their frigid winters. The answer was to move to St. Petersburg and he is now in the process of renovating the new house, adding a pool, and installing a dock and boat lift. That sounded like something that might be fun watching.
First stop this Christmas morning was near Skippack, PA, where son #2, his wife, and five children reside. Exchanging gifts on their driveway, opening them in the frosty garage with the door wide open, and all wearing masks, (more COVID precautions), we began our journey South after the twenty-minute exchange.
We navigated the Delmarva Peninsula in frigid, 35 degree, blustery weather, ate our Christmas dinner of fried chicken in the van in the parking lot of a Royal Farms gas station on the way, and crossed the long, Chesapeake Bay bridge-tunnel into Norfolk at exactly 5:00 p.m. Searched for a hotel, since I don’t enjoy driving after dark when there is little to see, and located a Delta by Marriott near the Norfolk Airport. Very reasonable, only two years old, and immaculately clean, it was a perfect, first -night landing spot.
We’ll surely get an early start in the morning, since we were in our room by 5:30 and asleep by 8:00 without ever turning on the TV. A long day of driving exhausted these two seniors, but that status got us a great discount at this beautiful hotel. The lease on the AirBnB begins on December 29th, so we have a few days to meander South from here, down route 17 along the Atlantic coast. Our next landing target is Wilmington, NC, but we’ll stop when tired and hole up where we can find a clean (COVID again), safe room, wherever that may be. Ciao!
12/26/20 - Murrell’s Inlet, Myrtle Beach, South Carolina:
Another long day on the road, departing Norfolk at 8:20 a.m. and arriving in Myrtle Beach around 6:20 p.m. We only traveled 400 miles, but got lost several times during the meandering process. For a while there I thought we might spend the winter lost on the coastal back roads of North Carolina. We brought no maps, a mistaken oversight, and only had “Isabella” on our GPS, the van’s compass, and the route signs to guide our way. First, the three guides agreed; then there were route 17 signs AND business route 17 signs. Sometimes, “Isabella” guided us on business routes and other times she took bypasses around town centers. Then, she took us off route 17 on what we figured must be a scenic shortcut to Wilmington. NOT! When the asphalt ended and we faced what looked like an endless dirt road, we decided to follow the compass rather than go off-road. Florida is South, right?
We kept plugging, though, and blew right through beautiful Wilmington, NC. We would have reached Myrtle Beach in daylight, but I took a wrong turn, thinking I was on the relief route that avoids the horrendous King’s Highway that is always bumper to bumper and traffic light after traffic light on the Grand Strand. I probably went 40 miles out of the way and got a little testy with Joan as we both attempted to manipulate “Isabella” to find our way through the maze that is Myrtle Beach. Why anyone would want to live here is beyond me; OK, 100 golf courses, a beautiful beach, a long boardwalk, and tens of thousands of restaurants from which to choose may draw some here. The traffic, though, is horrendous; I described it to Joan as Ocean City, MD, on an overdose of steroids.
We stopped for breakfast at a funky, little, coffee shop in Elizabeth City, NC. There were only a few people inside, all wore masks, and we were a good 20 feet from anyone as we drank our coffee and finished our banana bread and pumpkin bars. Delicious! Lunch didn’t work out quite so well. We stopped in New Bern at a seafood restaurant and both ordered the BBQ platter, the day’s special. The hostess wore no mask, but our waitress did, hopefully keeping us safe. The BBQ was not so good, the only sauce a hot pepper-infused vinegar; my rice drowned in brown gravy was bland, Joan’s fries were just average, but the free, basket of hush puppies were outstanding, certainly the best by far of any puppies in our past. The restaurant was almost empty, we could see no other diners but one distant diner on the other side of the large booth dividers sneezed loudly several times, making me nervous. This Covid surge has me all but paranoid!
The thousands of restaurants on the Grand Strand, large and small, buffet or with table service, had jammed-full parking lots we observed as we passed through, searching for a hotel in the dark. We finally found this wonderful Hampton Inn, were upgraded to a suite, and decided to eat snacks in our suite (I love saying that), rather than risk the crowded restaurants. There have been no restrictions on restaurant dining in South Carolina since May 15th! They may have had outside dining during the summer, but nobody was dining outside in the 36 degree temperature that they suffered through as we arrived at the hotel.
Tomorrow, it will be an early start for another long drive to Charleston or Savannah where we might spend an extra night. Who knows what will happen when you’re in the meander mode.
12/27/20 - Just Outside Savannah, Georgia:
After a short run from Myrtle Beach, we took a quick trip through Charleston to refresh memories of previous visits to the gorgeous city. I often said that, when I become too old for foreign travel, I would like to winter one year in Charleston. How exciting it would be to live for three months like a local in that historic city. The city’s streets were crowded with tourists, many sitting outside having lunch in the 55 degree temps. The tourists don’t seem to mind the cool temps, but the natives were freezing.
We had lunch sitting outside in a bar/restaurant across the bridge from Charleston. We weren’t going to chance mingling with the tourists and found a safe corner in the restaurant that had plastic covering surrounding a few tables with open, outside access for the waitresses to duck under - plenty of ventilation. Food was just OK, then we jumped back in the van to meander Southward, driving mostly on two-lane, alternate route 17 (thanks Isabella).
We crossed over route 95 as we approached Savannah and noticed gridlocked lines of traffic, often extending to the top of the on-ramp, a full half-mile from the merge lane. Many folks must have been heading home after the Christmas holiday. Isabella and the GPS got many thanks from us as we buzzed by on the overpasses averaging about 60 miles/hour on the lightly-traveled back roads.
Arriving in the historic center of Savannah, I checked the price of a nice Hampton Inn but, even after some of my serious bargaining, I could only negotiate the nightly price to $200, which didn’t include parking and taxes. Refusing to pay that much for a solitary night of sleep, I ordered Isabella to head us toward Jacksonville, FL, figuring we’d find a less expensive hotel along the way. Sure enough, not far out of town, we located a Baymont by Wyndham ($69) that was clean and recently refurbished. After check-in, a short trip to a 4.5-star-Yelp-rated, Korean BBQ restaurant produced a delicious meal and a great dining adventure.
After a good night’s sleep, we’ll head out for Jacksonville and, probably, Gainesville in the morning. After a chilly 36 degree start, the high temp reached 60 degrees today. Methinks, we’re heading in the right direction. Ciao!
Whose idea was it to take five days and meander South to Florida? I know: it was mine, but the derriere is sore and the patience is wearing thin. I might be getting too old to do this stuff; there goes my idea of driving to Skagway, Alaska.
We left outside of Savannah in a leisurely fashion, actually simply a late start, but wasted 45 minutes hunting for a coffee shop to breakfast on the run. Finally ended up in a creepy gas station where Joan got her coffee and a Krispy Kreme cinnamon bun, but I opted for a couple of vanilla Oreo cookies packed from home and a Starbucks Frappuccino from the cooler in the van. I thought the place too grimy for me.
Isabella guided us on back roads where there was almost no traffic and we could average almost 60 mph. Saw an enormous amount of clear-cut land and long logs on trucks headed for pulp mills. Eventually, the traffic picked up as we neared Gainesville and cruised by the campus of the University of Florida. Go Gators!
Continuing South through the low hills of horse country around Ocala, we stopped at a Pilot Travel Station for a bite, eaten in the car, and finally bought a map - of Florida. We should know where we’re going now that we’ve almost arrived. Twenty minutes South of Ocala, we quickly passed through a couple of The Villages which were lovely, but the lifestyle didn’t appear to be our cup of tea. We started searching (thanks, again to Isabella and the GPS) for a hotel around 4:00 p.m. and finally found a decent Microtel near Interstate 75 a little before 5:00. We are only two or three hours from St. Petersburg and should make it there for our afternoon check-in tomorrow. The meander will finally come to an end!
12/30/2020 - St. Petersburg, Florida:
After a late start yesterday to allow time for the bodies to recharge, we drove a couple hours through rural, central Florida before popping out on heavily-commercialized, coastal route 19, jammed with traffic and traffic signals. An hour or so of that was more than enough, so we looped over to alternate route 19 which really is a coastal route with many views of the turquoise waters of the Gulf of Mexico. The going was slow, through famous Gulf towns, like Tarpon Springs and Dunedin, but with much less traffic and fewer traffic lights. Only a traffic jam crossing the high bridge from Clearwater to Clearwater Beach slowed our way South but, hey, with those views, an outside temp that the Pacifica showed to be 82 degrees, and throngs of skimpily-attired young folks exercising along the bicycle paths, who could complain?
At the recommendation of our son, now a Floridian, we stopped in downtown Dunedin at a lovely fish market/restaurant for lunch and a respite from the rigors of driving. Joan, not a big seafood lover, opted for a fresh, Gulf shrimp skewer and potato salad, while I went for a grilled Grouper sandwich (lettuce, tomato, & tartar sauce) after sampling a tasty conch fritter as a starter. Both meals were delicious, but my sandwich registered a 10 on the food Richter Scale! The grouper was almost still wiggling with freshness and was grilled perfectly, making each bite drip with the subtle flavor of the sea. Did I say it was absolutely spectacular? Thanks for the tip on the restaurant, Gary!
We arrived at our rental AirBnB right at the scheduled 3:00 p.m. check-in time and Gary met us and assisted in the unloading of the van. He was accompanied by his unbelievably-friendly labradoodle, Kacey, fresh from her trip to the grooming salon. We apparently brought enough clothing, food, golf and fishing gear, towels, and electronic equipment to make this move permanent, but we finally got the van unloaded. The house is perfect, certainly much better than the doomsday horrors Joan was envisioning, and with all the amenities we’ll require for the next three months.
We then followed Gary to his recently-acquired house on the small island in Tampa Bay, only a tiny bridge from the St. Pete mainland and with a beautiful view of the water. The small house was lovely, but the yard is undergoing excavation for the pool that should be ready for use in February. The house will be a show stopper once the pool, the dock and boat lift, and the yet-to-begin building renovation are completed.
After the tour, Gary led us to Gulfport, a nearby neighborhood or contiguous, small town for dinner at an Italian restaurant. Sitting outside, listening to the live music of a guitar-playing vocalist under strings of lights and unnecessary propane heaters with Kacey lying peacefully by the table made for a great welcome to St. Petersburg. Oh, the food was great, too!
Isabella directed us home through the confusing maze of the city’s streets and we collapsed exhausted in a very comfortable bed. The remainder of the unpacking could wait another day. Ciao!
The New Year holiday has come and gone rather uneventfully here in the Sunshine State, unless you consider fireworks and loud explosions until 3:40 a.m. New Year’s Eve an event. We are located on a relatively busy street in St. Petersburg that suburbanites might find a tad noisy, but permanent residence in our downtown condo on the regular fire truck, police, and ambulance route has made this noise level seem almost bucolic. No sirens screaming by under our windows at any hour of the day or night and able to hear the anchors on the network evening news (no, not the Fox Network) had us enjoying the peace and quiet until, that is, New Year’s Eve. Observing roadside fireworks vendors along almost every route we traveled on our way South, it should have come as no surprise to hear some fireworks on the holidays; here, however, the cacophonic celebration seemed like an artillery barrage beginning as soon as the sun set and continuing through the night. Window shaking explosions that sounded like no other fireworks we have ever heard and seeing no colorful, overhead flares made the event seem even more like an attack. On New Year’s Day, we even found metal washers and nuts on our front driveway; were they shrapnel from the previous night’s onslaught? We have no idea, but couldn’t find damage to the van that sat outside all night during the barrage. Oh, well, Happy 2021!!
We enjoyed the traditional pork and sauerkraut dinner on New Year’s day, prepared by our bachelor son as he has managed to whip up every New Year’s since having a home of his own, whether in Wilkes Barre, Bridgeport (near King of Prussia), or Chicago, all places he has lived before moving to St. Pete in July of this year. He apparently loves the German dish as does his mother who drove over and joined us for the evening repast. I can eat it, but an annual meal is plenty of the kraut for me.
Before that meal and very early (8:30) in the morning for Joan, Gary picked me up; he’s only 15 minutes away. We stopped for coffee and donuts and at a local bait shop for live bait (grass shrimp), then proceeded to his house on Coquina Key in Tampa Bay. We set up a couple of canvas lawn chairs on top of his sea wall, rigged our gear, and started fishing on the incoming tide. Many of the shrimp apparently committed suicide, but four wound up in the bellies of fish that were brought ashore. They were small, but each was a different species: Mangrove snapper, Ray, Pinfish, and Ladyfish, a type of Bonefish. Nothing much to brag about, but loads of fun and a great morning opportunity to talk with our oldest son, whom we haven’t seen in ages.
The following day he took us to the colorful, outside, Saturday market (masks required) in downtown St. Pete, which also happens to be called the best dog city in the country by a recent magazine and I think all the critters go to Saturday market. It was an interesting market with quite a few items for sale that one could only find in a tropical environment: freshly-squeezed orange juice, basil plants, Cubano sandwiches and other delicious-looking Cuban dishes, herbs & spices, and too many other items to remember. The market is a great morning tradition, one that I’m certain that I’ll repeat. Though she made the trip that day, it’s a little too early for Joan to be repeating the visit, however.
We followed the market visit with a trip to Tampa, 30 minutes away, to a place called Top Golf. A three-tiered, inside/outside golf driving range run like a bowling alley and impeccably sanitized, where even the clubs are wiped down after each group. The range is set up and used by golfers from beginners to aged veterans (like yours truly) with unusual games that can interest all. We ate lunch, sitting in our “alley,” separated from the next “alley” by ten feet or so and a plastic divider that is also wiped down after each use. It was a great, re-introduction to the golf swing for those of us who haven’t touched a club for a few months and even un-athletic Joan enjoyed hitting a few balls. Sophisticated computers tracked every shot, awarded points for targets hit, and kept all involved. An enjoyable activity, one engaged in by many young people who also thoroughly enjoyed the three bars in the place. From the traffic the day we were there, I’d say the chain is a huge money maker in locations around the country. Don’t know how they adapt to cold weather locations, because our activity was almost entirely outside. The nearest locations to us at home are in southern MD and in NJ across the river from Philadelphia. I won’t have to return to Top Golf; I located a nine-hole public golf course with driving range only 10 minutes from our house. I can get there, hit a bucket of balls, and return home before Joan is even out of bed in the morning! Ciao!
Quite a few activities to summarize since I last updated, so I’ll get right to it this Sunday morning: I made several recent trips to my son’s new home on the shore of Tampa Bay, just 15 minutes from our AirBnB rental that is only half-a-block off of busy, heavily-commercialized route 19 along Florida’s Gulf Coast. It turns out that our street is a great location, not nearly as frenetic as 34th St. (route 19), but close to the many businesses just around the corner, like pharmacies, groceries (Winn Dixie, Publix are the big ones here), restaurants, gas stations, Walmart, Sam’s Club, and bait shops.
Bait shops, you no doubt ask? Yes, two of the trips to my son’s house were, unaccompanied by spouse, rather early in the morning to fish from his sea wall. A stop at the bait shop yielded two dozen, live, grass shrimp for bait and the hook rigs used locally. The fish seemed to enjoy the bait, only two remained in the bait bucket after more than 60 (bait shop employees don’t count well) were offered over two days to aquatic life in the canal that enters the bay at my son’s property line. A total of five creatures (photos on the way) were careless enough to end up on our hooks during the sessions that lasted a total of six hours, but a great time was had by yours truly, my son, Gary, his dog, Kacey, and the well-fed creatures of the deep.
Joan and I made an early trip to tour Gary’s house and I made another visit to be certain the construction crew was installing the pool properly. Photos of the progress in pool construction are also on the way.
I made one trip last week to the public golf course 10 minutes distant from our driveway to hit balls at the driving range. I purchased an overflowing, small bucket of balls and only hit a quarter of the bucket before deciding that a gradual start in reviving my golf muscles was the right course of action. I hit about a dozen balls with my driver using the low rubber tee on the mat and only one was poorly struck off the heel of the club. I also hit a dozen eight irons off the mat itself. I couldn’t believe how well I struck the ball after the long layoff and I didn’t bounce any hits off the mat, a common problem when hitting off mats. Wow, I impressed myself, as well as a couple of elderly hackers on either side of me. I putted for 10 minutes on the well-kept green and called it a day after explaining my use of the long putter to three women who, apparently, had never seen such a weapon.
A fortunate occurrence this week was recovering Joan’s jacket that she left in the hotel in Bushnell, FL, several days ago. This light, pink jacket was one that I purchased for her several years ago on my solitary, road trip to Santa Barbara, California, and one that she only recently started wearing more frequently. It was a favorite of mine and the many compliments she got about the coat had begun to make it a favorite of hers. We brainstormed where she might have left it - restaurants? rest stops? hotels? We finally decided that it must have been in the Microtel in Bushnell. We had the receipt, checked for a phone number, made one call and - bingo - learned they had it. It was a problem for them to mail it to us, so we headed back to Bushnell, making the trip on the interstates and it only took 70 minutes to get there. It must have taken us four hours to make the same trip using secondary roads on the way South. A very lucky recovery!! Oh, we stopped for lunch at the Fish Market/restaurant in Dunedin on the way back and the same delicious grouper sandwich was my reward for making the trip.
Although we will get little sympathy, we are suffering through a two-week cold snap that is very unusual in these parts. A high temp of 54 degrees today made it a tad chilly sitting outside at the Tiki Restaurant at the marina for lunch today. Brr, but the food was good and the ambiance unbeatable! Hasta luego!
01/17/21 - St. Petersburg, FL:
The pandemic is certainly dampening our activities in Florida but, thanks to the warmer weather, outside dining is possible. When we don’t eat outside, we (Joan) cook at home or get take-out. We are trying to be very careful and avoid contact with others, but passing people safely even in uncrowded grocery stores and outside restaurants is difficult. Hopefully, the masks required by every business we enter and the limited contact in passing will be sufficient to avoid the recent, highly-contagious, mutations of the Covid virus. So far, so good, but a close friend, also wintering in Florida was not so fortunate and is currently in the hospital battling the virus and pneumonia. We are praying and pulling for his recovery.
My son had hernia surgery last week and is recovering remarkably well. We transported him to and from the hospital for the laparoscopic, day surgery and spent his first two nights of recovery with him. We’re back home (AirBnB) and have returned to our daily routines.
My routine is a relatively early morning visit to the coffee shop in Gulfport where I sit outside with a decaf-au-lait and a small sweet for breakfast. This morning, wearing shorts, a golf shirt, and a fleece sweatshirt to ward off the chilly, 57 degree temp, I was very comfortable watching the myriads of people walking their dogs. I can see why St. Pete was called the best dog city in the USA. Departing the coffee shop, I drove to the municipal parking lot overlooking a small beach and the bay and enjoyed watching the pelicans diving not far offshore for their breakfast. Plenty more dog walkers passing by, too.
Joan’s morning is a little slower, although this morning she was up early to Zoom-attend (a new verb?) her church. Usually, she arises much later than I, makes coffee, toasts an English muffin, spreads it with honey peanut butter and watches the Today Show, with whose stars she is, apparently, on a first-name basis.
Yesterday, the two of us and our son went on a Saturday drive across the magnificent Skyway Coastal Bridge to Bradenton. While driving we remembered the Facebook posting of one of our friends who was enjoying a blackened grouper sandwich at Tide Tables, an outside, bayside, seafood-shack kind of place and, feeling hunger pangs, we headed there. Securing a picnic table two or three feet from the bay, I enjoyed a cup of curried grouper stew and a blackened grouper sandwich that was sensational. Gary had a fried grouper sandwich and Joan, never a seafood lover, went for the grilled shrimp. It was a delightful stop although quite windy on our table by the bay.
Gary and I went fishing a day or two before his surgery, but we didn’t go “catching!” I caught a nice Ladyfish, but that was the only fish we were able to land in a couple hours of lashing the water. The fish apparently enjoyed the grass shrimp they repeatedly stole off our hooks and we called feeding fish our good deed for the day. Ciao.