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One way to feed the travel addiction on a limited budget is to house/pet sit. It’s a great way to see more of the world, meet wonderful people and their amazing pets, and live like a local—all for a very reasonable travel cost. As retirees, it’s been a terrific way for my husband and I to travel to places we wouldn’t likely have gone to otherwise, and are so glad we did. One such trip was a house-sitting assignment in Atlantic Beach, Florida in February/March 2016. Having never visited that region before, we had no idea what to expect. Of course I did my usual online research about the area, and pinpointed a few places I knew we’d want to visit, but that’s as far as I went research-wise.

In the past I’ve always headed to either Orlando or the Gulf Coast of Florida. I’d never set foot in northeast Florida, so I was excited to learn more about this area, it’s people, and what it has to offer travelers working with a limited budget. I have to tell you, I was blown away! The house we were caring for was a rambling one floor ranch that was quite comfortable. We were house/pet sitting for a lovely lady with two senior dogs that needed caring for while she was away on a cruise. With the house being just two blocks from Atlantic Beach, it was an ideal opportunity to get to know the Atlantic side of Florida.

What I hadn’t expected was for the area to be so lush and full of tropical flora and fauna. Although northeast Florida definitely experiences cooler winters than its more southern siblings, it’s extremely green and inviting, with plenty of palm trees, palmettos, and flowering plants everywhere. The beaches are some of the widest and longest I’ve ever experienced, which was thrilling to discover. Because we were there from February 24th to March 15th, we certainly got a taste of the cooler and wetter temperatures (ranging from around 9C to about 21C, or 48F to around 70F), but having left Southwestern Ontario, Canada’s unusual winter to early spring cold to cool temperatures, we were happy to trade our heavy winter outwear for much lighter jackets and running shoes.

Atlantic Beach

We were required to walk the dogs first thing in the morning and around 4pm each day, which left us ample opportunity to get acquainted with the neighbourhood, traverse the expanse of sand on the beach, say hello to others passing by, and chat to some of the neighbours. On all but a few occasions, we walked the dogs on the beach to allow us to really experience the Atlantic ocean, and so I could pick up a few interesting shells along the way. It’s where we also saw our first beached jellyfish, and had to take a picture to show our young grandchildren back home. There were a few days when the fog came in and blanketed the coast, making our walks eerily silent, enveloping us in a grey shroud our eyes could barely penetrate. We loved it!

I’m mostly a fair weather girl though, so I admit I revelled in the days we were able to get out and soak up some sun. The small village of Atlantic Beach is lovely, but there wasn’t much to see or do in the town itself at that time of year. We did discover a unique and inviting pub though. Poe’s Tavern on Atlantic Beach is a welcoming place to stop in for a beer and a burger. With a well-rounded menu offering over fifty beers to choose from, its in-house- ground gourmet burgers and hand-cut fries, well, you simply can’t go wrong. Unfortunately, the day we were there the weather was overcast and rainy, so we were happy to sit inside and soak up the ambience of the cozy pub and admire the dozens of Edgar Allen Poe photographs and quotes posted to the walls. On a trip to the ladies’ room, I was surprised to hear a man’s voice coming from the overhead speakers reciting one of Poe’s works, rather than the usual muzak or radio stations one usually hears. The waitress was friendly and knowledgeable, the atmosphere was ideal for a cool, dreary day, and the food was excellent. Had the weather been sunnier and warmer, we’d definitely have sat outside on the large patio dotted with many tables and umbrellas. If you’re in Atlantic Beach, do stop in and check it out for yourself.

St. Augustine

Many days we explored the region by car, checking out the magnificent homes that line the winding waterways. One day we decided to visit Marineland Dolphin Adventure just south of St. Augustine, where visitors can actually purchase tickets to get right into the water with the dolphins (with handlers, of course) and interact with these incredible animals and learn more about the abundant sea life that lives in the ocean.

Another day we opted to wander the streets of beautiful, historic old St. Augustine. Although the day we visited St. Augustine was again cool and quite windy, I could well imagine how it would be on a warm day or summer evening. With its numerous historic buildings (many of which are now gift shops, which did ruin the effect for me a bit), narrow cobblestone streets, and people walking about in period costumes all contributed to the feeling of history. I loved learning about the long coquina walls (walls constructed of sedimentary rock and shells) by the Spanish settlers, and was entranced by the idea of touching stone walls that had stood for hundreds of years. Out on the water, replica pirate ships bobbed, where tourists can pay to take a tour and “be a pirate for a day”. Much as we’d have liked to take advantage of such a fun adventure, the weather was simply too cool. The smell of briny seas was strong that day, so I could easily imagine pirates and sailors of yore shouting to one another from ship to shore, while the sights of the town and the opportunity to read up on the early days of settlement of this iconic port made the trip from Atlantic Beach well worth the visit.

On other days we took leisurely day trips to explore the many incredible beaches ranging along the coast from Jacksonville Beach up to Little Talbot and Amelia Island, Georgia. In late February to March, most of the beaches we visited were either delightfully deserted, or inhabited by only a few other couples and families. Be prepared to walk though, since many of these beaches are accessible only by long boardwalks or paths leading from parking areas to surf. This of course is meant to protect the beach and wildlife from human interference as much as possible. On a hot day, the trek can be a bit of a challenge for anyone with mobility or breathing difficulties, but if you go, it’s well worth the effort once you get down to your destination.

TPC Sawgrass Golf Club

My husband loves to golf, so any opportunity to swing the clubs is a welcome one for him. For those looking to get in a little golf, there numerous courses to indulge your addiction for every budget. If you’re looking for a luxury golf vacation, executive retreat, or corporate event though, then the TPC Sawgrass is the ideal venue for you. Partnered with the Marriott Golf Resort and Spa in Pont Vedra Beach, it really does offer something for everyone; from fine dining, spa visits, lazy days soaking up the sun by the pool, to idyllic golf conditions at the world headquarters of professional golf.

All in all, we were extremely impressed with all that Florida’s northeast coast has to offer, and would certainly return in a heart beat. The main take-away for us was the fact that anyone can take advantage of the many free and low-cost options to explore, walk, and learn more about a destination, if they choose. Much as I love luxury living and accommodations, that trip will stand out as a truly memorable one, not because of a beautiful hotel, room, or hospitality service, but because we made the effort to get out and explore on our own, investigating the roads, beaches, and towns we’d read about back home, and are now part of our experiential travels we treasure.

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