Friday, January 12, 2018

Christmas in Florida: Kayaking in the Everglades

Although we love spending time with my family, in the middle of our trip it became clear we needed a break, and on December 27, Roger and I took a day trip down to the Everglades. A four-hour drive from my parents' place, it was a little far for a day, and in the future, I'd like to return for an overnight trip, but we had a wonderful time despite the long drive!

We arrived in Chokoloskee around lunch time, and had a really tasty meal at Havana Cafe. Their pork plate and rice and beans were divine, and sitting outside in their little grotto was a delight. It was great for a little people watching, and the food really couldn't be beat.

After lunch we headed into Everglades City to meet with Shurr Adventures for a sunset kayaking tour of the mangroves. Although the group was bigger than I'd hoped for (there were maybe 15 of us all together), we split into four smaller groups once we arrived at the launch site, so that there were only six of us with Alli, our guide and one of the owners of the company. Each group took its own route, so the tour ended up being really personal and intimate.

As soon as we were in the water, we saw our first alligator, which was exhilarating. They look very similar to tires sticking up out of the water, and it's a little unnerving to see how many there. Even more unnerving? Knowing how many more are hanging out under the water, which is a dark brown color from all the mangrove leaves.

Alli led us through three mangrove tunnels, which each got progressively tighter and tighter. I was glad we opted for separate kayaks (in Maine we'd done a tandem), because it was hard enough to navigate one person through them! The tunnels were really fascinating and covered in large spiders. At one point, a racoon raced through over the branches and nearly fell into Alli's kayak, which was pretty funny to see. We saw more alligators throughout, including one that was hanging out in one of those tighter tunnels, and one that was sunbathing near the shore so you could see almost all of it. It seemed to be around 10 or 12 feet long.

After a few hours, as the sun started to set, we made our way back to the boat launch. One of the most surreal moments was getting back onto the beach and seeing several alligators pop up out of the water as soon as the coast was clear. Alli had mentioned they do night tours where you wear headlamps, and that their eyes shine red in them. She said that you look around in the dark and just see red eyes everywhere.

Overall, the tour was a lot of fun, and I learned a ton about the Florida ecosystem and wildlife. A huge portion of southern Florida is covered in a national park and nature reserves, and it felt like a real privilege to travel around a small part of it in such a close and quiet way.

The following day, December 28, was our last full day in paradise, and we spent it relaxing. I finished my first James Patterson book (or, "bookshot" to be accurate), and it was terrible. We went to my cousins' house for lunch, and it was wonderful. Seeing Dave and Faithy was great, and Faithy's homemade ravioli tasted just like being back at our family reunion. As we were leaving their house, we got a call alerting us that the pipes in the ell were frozen and that we'd run out of oil in the house, so it was a fair amount of scrambling that evening to try and get things taken care of. A fun reminder that we were heading back to reality--and negative 20 degree temperatures!

The next morning, December 29, we did a bit more scrambling as our incredible friends, Courtney and Sal, filled up our tank with diesel fuel and our furnace guy got things started again, just in time for an emergency fuel delivery. (I'm hoping to write more about the house soon--it's been an adventure!) We also luckily got to see my sister for an early lunch in Disney Springs at the Polite Pig. Even though we spent a week in Florida, we only got to see her twice, so I was really glad to have had that last meal with her! We perused some of the shops (I love the dress shop) and then dropped her off as we headed to the airport to say our goodbyes.

We had such a wonderful Christmas trip to Florida, and it was so nice to spend a week in warmth. It's always a little sad to leave family behind, but I'm excited to see my parents again in May when they're back up north for a family friend's wedding!

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Christmas in Florida: Boxing Day on Merritt Island

The day after Christmas was very relaxing. We decided to try and use our Christmas leftovers in a new way, and made lobster rolls (Connecticut style and Maine style) with a nice side of fries for lunch.

We took my parents' boat out on the Indian River, and got very close to an island that had dozens and dozens of birds. They were magnificent to see: a whole rookery of spoonbills, and about eight turkey vultures fighting with each other on the beach.

A little further down was another island that we saw kayakers and one other pontoon boat on. My father had always wanted to dock the boat there and I guess my mother was too nervous (truth: I was also nervous about this plan!) but took advantage of us being there to try it out.

The island ended up being really cool. There were a few lizards, and it looks like people had set up fires there in the past. A big sandbar went out into the river and it was fun to explore a little.

That evening, we made pizzas in my parents' pizza oven, also using more leftovers. Who knew a shrimp scampi pizza could be so delicious?!

Next Up: Kayaking in the Everglades.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Christmas in Florida: Our First Married Christmas!

We celebrated our first married Christmas in Florida with my family, a delight! It had been a tremendously good year for us, and a warm, relaxing week was the perfect way to cap it off.

My parents made their traditional seven fishes feast, and invited over Don and Bet, two of their neighbors, to celebrate with us. The meal was delicious, especially the pompano, a fish that's native to Florida and new to all of us.

Best of all, my sister, Jill, was able to take Christmas Day off, so she came by after work on Christmas Eve and the four of us were able to spend Christmas together for the first time in four years! Wonderful!

Christmas Day was very relaxed. My mother brought Liz to the airport that morning, and then the five of us opened our presents (Jill got me the prettiest dress! I got everyone personalized candles as a half joke!). We all had a nice Christmas lunch, but now I can't remember for the life of me what was served.

Afterward, we took a while to visit the manatees near NASA. We saw so many of them and they were all very close. One day, I'd love to go back and bring a kayak!

Afterward, we headed to the Merritt Island Nature Reserve, where we saw even more wildlife, including spoonbills, an alligator, and even a wild boar!

Next Up: Boxing Day in Merritt Island

Monday, January 8, 2018

Christmas in Florida: Holiday Preparations in Merritt Island

The day before Christmas Eve was pretty relaxed. We started the day at the fishmonger and did some prep for Christmas Eve dinner in the morning. Our Christmas Eve is all about the seafood, so living right near an ocean means that my parents were able to get some of the freshest fish around, including flounder and pompano.

In the afternoon, we introduced Roger to the wonder that is the Wawa lunch, which he quickly became obsessed with. Then we took out my parents' boat for a wander through the canal and out onto the Banana River. We had a lot of fun looking at the various birds around the area, though we forgot our binoculars. It was a little chilly out on the boat, so I was glad we had taken our sweaters, but still so much warmer than Vermont. I could get used to that!

That evening, we all headed out to El Tucan for margarita pitchers, tamales, and guacamole. Liz wasn't in love, but I enjoyed the food. To round out the night, we hit the hot tub and pool when we got back: a perfect ending to a relaxing day.

Next Up: Our First Christmas as a Married Couple

Friday, January 5, 2018

Christmas in Florida: Saint Augustine Day Trip

This year, Roger and I spent Christmas outside of New York for the first time in either of our lives. While we had intended to honeymoon in East Africa over the holiday, we realized it was a little tight to plan such a major trip so quickly after our wedding (between house buying and wedding planning, I refused to try and plan a honeymoon, too), so we joined my family at their new home in Florida and celebrated all together for the first time in four years.

After a few hours of driving and a few hours of flying, we arrived at MCO around 11:30pm on December 21. It was great to see my parents and Liz, who picked us up at the airport, and we made plans for the next day, which we spent in Saint Augustine.

Founded in 1565, the city is one of the United States' oldest, and I've wanted to visit for a while now. My mother mentioned that they have a lot of lights set up for Christmas, so it seemed like a perfect day trip from their house. We started with a seafood lunch at O'Steens. There was about a half hour wait, so we perused the antiques store across the street while we waited for them to call me. I found a pretty excellent hunting-print mirror for only $35, but it was moldy and also seemed impossible to carry-on, so alas, there it remains.

Lunch at O'Steens was very tasty. They have a fantastic chowder, and I was totally in love with their hush puppies, which may be some of my favorites that I've ever had. We were a little disappointed by their fried shrimp, which everyone had raved about on Yelp, but the side dishes (I got grits and their squash casserole, but we also loved the pickled cucumbers that Liz had ordered) more than made up for it.

After lunch, we headed back into town to check out the Castillo de San Marcos. We'd arrived a bit late to make going on a tour worth it, so we admired it from the outside and watched as the cannon fired for the last time that day, which was actually more fun than I'd expected, and louder!

After the fort, we took a wander around the main street of town, checking out little shops as we walked about. Most were pretty touristy and typical, but one that I was enamored by was St. Augustine Textiles, a shop of colonial garb that is made by a former re-enactor. I've always been really into historical clothing and re-enacting is something that's fascinating to me. I wish I could have spent hours really looking into things and chatting with the shop keeper. I was sorely tempted by a flat straw hat, but again, it wouldn't fit in the carry-on.

I'd like to go back and take a walking or trolley tour, because it felt like there was a lot of history we were missing, but this was such a short trip that it didn't make a ton of sense. There were plenty of little historic markers along the way, and those were fun to check out. As the evening fell, we stumbled upon the country's second best pizza, which made Roger and me double-take. Surely it couldn't be! But, when we looked at the Trip Advisor list and saw that it contained some of the spots we'd tried and loved over the years (Juliana's, Keste, John's Frank Pepe's), we knew we had to try it. And let me tell you, it really lives up to the hype! Between the five of us, we tried three slices (a grandma slice, a plain slice, and a slice with a bunch of toppings I can't remember right now) and they were all pretty close to perfect.

My mother seemed especially glad to have found a good pizza place just a mere two hours from her house!

The lights throughout the city were really lovely, and it was cool to see fairy lights in all the trees, intertwined with Spanish moss. All the buildings were outlined in white lights and it was just generally really quite a nice way to start out Christmas season in Florida. Being able to walk around in a dress and sweater while taking in all the spirit of the season was pretty idyllic, and I was surprised to find I didn't miss having a white Christmas at all.

The best part, though, was when we walked back to the parking lot and stumbled upon a full orchestra playing Christmas carols. Magic!

Next Up: Holiday Preparations in Merritt Island