New discoveries in Florida

Our Florida visit hasn’t turned out to be much like I had envisioned months ago when planning our route.  Since we’ve been here many times, I had thought we’d spend a month circumscribing the state, down the Atlantic coast and up the Gulf coast, but instead we have abandoned southern Florid and are spending nearly two weeks in Tampa — a city we hadn’t planned to visit at all.

The reasons for this are described in my previous blog, and they are still good reasons, but that doesn’t make the feeling of deja vu go away.  We like to explore new places in addition to revisiting our favorites.  Too much retracing past trips can be disorienting and boring, so we are trying to mix up the central Florida portion of our travels by seeking out new things to see and do.

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Before leaving our courtesy parking spot in Haines City, we spent a day at the Lake Mirror Classic Auto Show in Lakeland.  This was a really nice “find” — a huge auto show that takes over much of downtown Lakeland and surrounds the little lake in the center of town.  I had expected 3-4 hours to view the show but in fact we spent most of the day there, joined by Brett, Lisa and Wendimere.  The show covers all sorts of automotive genres: long fin-tailed American cars from the 1950s, minicars, amphibious cars (the Amphicars were tootling around Lake Mirror), Mustangs, motorcycles, muscle cars, pre-war luxury cars, Mercedes, British cars, Deloreans, and many others.  I’ve posted a small album of photos from the event on Flickr.

Florida is having unusually warm weather for this late in the year, which I completely failed to anticipate.  Once again we’ve had to dig into the storage compartments and dig out a new set of clothes for the season. The shorts and lightweight clothes we packed while we were in Virginia have come out again, and the long pants are tucked away under the bed now.  With the warmth we’ve also had powerful Florida sunshine, and I got a sunburn while viewing the cars all day at the Lake Mirror Classic.  So we’ve also dug out the sunscreen that we had put away long ago.

We are now parked in a rather unusual stop for our style of travel: the grandiose “RV Resort.”  Normally the words “RV Resort” are our cue to keep looking for somewhere else to stay.  I can’t think of a more abused term.  Most RV Resorts we see are pathetic dumps with excessive rules , ridiculous prices, and minimal upkeep.  But the place we are staying in Tampa is a nice exception, and we have used it before for extended visits to the area because of its excellent location, peacefulness, and quality.

Also on the plus side, “resort” means we get full hookups with cable TV, a nice swimming pool, a couple of docks onto the creek for fishing and viewing, mature shade trees, the cleanest bathroom/shower rooms I’ve ever seen at any RV park, gated entry (!) and other excellent facilities. The negative side is the cost: nearly $400 for 11 days, even with the weekly discount. That’s about our average budget for a month on the road, averaging in the free parking that we typically do at people’s homes.

honeymoon-island-emma-beach.jpgOverall it makes a fine place to re-stock (because we are close to all services and stores), explore, and get ahead on work/school.  The Winter 2010 issue of Airstream Life is finally off to the printer, and I’m working on Spring and Summer now.  Eleanor and Emma are working to get some of her home school program completed too.

But at the end of the working week we broke out for a little exploration.  Saturday’s excursion was to nearby Honeymoon Island State Park, just about ten miles away in the Gulf of Mexico.   The result of some landfill and a busted development plan, this island is a great little getaway just a short drive from Tampa, with a nice stretch of beach and plenty of shallow water offshore.

honeymoon-island-shell-chart.jpgI was surprised at the  lack of crowds on the island when we went. Despite being an absolutely perfect beach day (temps in the 80s, 100% sunshine, light breeze, beautifully warm and calm water), the parking lots were only about 10% full.  Maybe the $8 state park day-use fee drives away the Floridians, who can easily find free beaches in the area.  We spent most of the day building sandcastles, collecting shells, and walking the shoreline.  It is best to stay near the beach and established roads, since the rest of the island is inhabited by rattlesnakes.

dunedin-elis-barbecue.jpgOne of our goals while traveling the south is to find excellent barbecue.  The best barbecue in the USA ranges from Florida to Texas.  But Eleanor started off on the wrong foot, making the mistake of ordering ribs at a chain “barbecue” restaurant up in St Augustine, and she had a disappointing culinary experience.  She tried again in Haines City at our favorite local chop house, but it was apparently an off-night in the kitchen there too.  On Saturday night after leaving Honeymoon Island we wandered down to downtown Dunedin and stumbled upon a real find: Eli’s Barbecue.

airstream-elis-barbecue-ribs.jpgThis was the sort of place we like to find as we are roaming the south: small, local, and with a powerful reputation built up over years.  You know that when a restaurant is only open Friday and Saturday, only for take-out, and offers no amenities, yet has a line of people anxiously awaiting their chance to get something to eat before the food runs out  … well, a place like that has to be really good.  So we got in line at Eli’s Barbecue and managed to snag a big heap of dry-rub ribs, beans, and the last of the coleslaw.  My advice is to get there early.  They close at 6 pm.

Finally, barbecue that didn’t disappoint!  That was some seriously fine cooking.  I’d be inclined to go again, but we’ve got some other culinary plans for this week.  And besides, the Texas Barbecue Trail awaits …

Overall, Saturday was a big win for us, because we found a nice new beach and a really terrific meal all in one day.  That’s the kind of day I’d like to have more often.  If we can keep finding interesting things, it won’t seem like we’re just retracing our steps.  It takes a little more effort but it’s well worth it.

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Editor & Publisher of Airstream Life magazine