Posts Tagged ‘vacations’






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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A few years ago I attended my youngest sister’s wedding, which she decided should be a destination event. I was extremely excited to learn that she and her groom-to-be (now husband), chose to host their celebration on Mackinac Island, Michigan. I’d heard about the island, but had never been. What I did know was that it was a unique experience unlike any I’d get anywhere else.

My young niece informed me the island had a certain smell to it; “Horse manure and fudge!” she exclaimed, watching my face as she made her announcement. On the ferry ride over from the mainland area of Mackinaw, I kept trying to imagine what I was in for, and was intrigued at the idea of coming to a place where you step off the boat and are transported back in time.

Immediately after disembarking, visitors are treated to the sight of a line-up of perfectly outfitted horse-drawn carriages, each waiting patiently to take visitors to their destination, or for a tour around the tiny island. You see, no cars or motorized vehicles are permitted on this quaint little piece of land along the shores of Lake Huron, furthering the feeling of being transported to a bygone era. Other than horses and feet, bicycles are the other most popular mode of transportation around the island, and are available to rent from a variety of locations.

As our group turned the corner onto the main street, I became immediately aware of the truth of my niece’s assessment; the air did indeed smell of horse manure and fudge – oddly, not an unpleasant odour. In addition to its tourist draw of horses, carriage rides, and picturesque Victorian-themed shops lining Main Street, Mackinac Island is infamous for its outrageously good fudge. Walking by one of the open doors of a fudge shop, my middle sister and I simply had to stop in and watch as the candy artisans worked a new batch of creamy delight, right in the open portion of the shop itself. Visitors to the shop are invited to ask questions, and of course there are numerous exquisite samples of the finished product to tempt the palate. Needless to say, we each bought several flavours to take home with us.

After meandering through delightful gift, clothing, and assorted shopping venues, we met up with the main group for lunch at the Pink Pony restaurant. On a warm September day, it was the ideal venue for an alfresco repast right along the water’s edge, where we sat and looked out onto the wide expanse of blue of Lake Huron.

Opting to walk up the hill from the main street shopping area after lunch, we headed up to check into our hotel, The Grand Hotel, the island’s premiere resort hotel and destination.

With its impressively wide steps leading up to a spectacular white wooden porch, reminiscent of the grand old days of southern charm and elegance, we made our way indoors to the lobby, where guests milled around and lounged in well-appointed chairs and sofas dotting the open area. After excited greetings with late-arriving guests who were part of our large group, we found our way to our room, exhausted, and ready to re-charge before dinner.

Each room is perfectly outfitted in soft carpets, beautiful antiques, and wall-papered elegance befitting a grand old mansion oozing southern charm, yet the bathrooms lack none of the expected updated modern-day necessities, to ensure each guest’s visit it perfectly ideal.

As a writer, I was thrilled to learn that this hotel was the set and location for the movie, Somewhere In Time, with Jane Seymour and Christopher Reeve. I have to admit to being in awe of walking through rooms and down hallways featured in the movie, and imagined turning a corner to find the genteel beauty of Seymour’s character all decked out in a sweepingly elegant gown.

The rest of that weekend became a bit of a blur, with wedding preparations, the ceremony on the grand front porch, and dancing till dawn that evening, but the experience as a whole will remain with me for a lifetime.

What I came away with from that trip was the sense that, in this one place, this one island, time really does slow right down and take visitors back to the distant past. I couldn’t help but reflect on the craziness of our modern, everyday lives, where we’re plugged in, connected, and yet also disconcertingly disconnected, especially in contrast to the old world charm and grace the island exudes. While we didn’t have enough time to check out the many fabulous on and off-island B & Bs and other beautiful hotels and venues during our stay that weekend, I’ll definitely go back to explore more of this unique place. I can’t think of a better way to unplug, de-stress, and reconnect with self and others. For travelers looking for a truly unique experience, a visit to Mackinac Island simply can’t be beat.

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