Monday, April 27, 2009

Florida......take five.

After losing my mom in late August of 2006 we made another stop in Canada the summer of 2007... we (my dad, grandma, brother, Greg, the kids and I) decided to take a trip together. It was a great time and I think my mom was happy looking down from heaven at all of us together. (I will blog later about our Northern adventures).

When the summer of 2008 rolled around we were ready for sunny Florida again. We had everything all set... condo reserved, clothes packed, snacks bought.... then Greg went to work that Friday before we left for our trip to find out he was laid off effective immediately. Vacation downer (wah, wah wah).... we were not sure what to do. There was no way to tell how long it would take Greg to land another job and we didn't want to spend money we may need to live on for the next couple months. However, a lot of money had already been spent on the condo, tickets for Universal Studios etc... and at this point Greg needed a vacation more now than ever. We decided to go... we also decided not to tell the kids about Greg's job situation until after the vacation. No need for them to worry too.

It was difficult at first to get into vacation mode with all that was hanging over us but it all rolled off us once we hit the beach. The sun was just setting when we pulled into our condo so we ran over to the beach first thing to smell the salty air and feel the sand between our toes.

Vacation smiles....

Nick doing his thing...

Greg and Les went for a walk together.....

Les and I practiced our Yoga.... felt a lot different on the beach than on the Wii Fit board. :)

We relaxed more on the beach this year than in years past.

Cabana upgrade

I am so happy they are friends (when they want to be)

Nick caught in action... picking on his sister.

Leslie's find on the beach.... it was still alive so we took pictures and then released it... so pretty.

She is too... :)

Greg set up the tripod and took some family photos of us on the beach... first time in a long time for a nice family photo..

We visited St. Augustine again.....

While we were in St. Augustine we wanted to do something different so we stopped into one of the little Ghost Tour shops. They told us all about their tours and then told us about a great time share opportunity they had. Typically we turn and RUN when the words time share are mentioned however this time we listened.... they told us for the price we would pay for a ghost tour for four we could stay in a 5 star resort for 3 days and 2 nights.We thought "We don't have any time restraints... why don't we extend our vacation by a couple days. We can team up and shut these guys down and then enjoy 3 more days in Florida." We called home to make sure we would have pet coverage (my dad was kind enough to watch 3/4 of our zoo and our neighbors had Murphy) for another 3 days. We walked out of the store with four ghost tour tickets AND a voucher for a 2 night 3 day stay at Blue Green Resort for around $60.00.

It was done..... we were participating in 2 things we vowed never to do... ghost tours and time share. What were we thinking??? St. Augustine is known for its old haunted hotels and buildings... I mean it is the oldest city in the country.. there has to be orbs... I mean ghosts right??? The kids were at a good age to know it is a novelty and to tell you the truth we learned a lot of history of the city on the tour. It was fun to watch all the people getting into it as they took pictures of orbs. It was raining so there were a lot of "orbs". We had fun saying ooooooooh after everything our guide said... trying to make it spooky. :) Speaking of spooky... look at our guide in this picture... guy in the black hat... is he creepy or what???

See our little white "orb" in this photo??

We visited Daytona Beach again too....

Leslie met up with an online friend while we were in Daytona.... her parents were delightful people and even bought us dinner.

Yep, Pirates Cove miniature golf again too... it was Nick's birthday and this is what he wanted to do. Leslie was a good sport... she really doesn't like putt putt golf too much.

Our big day this year was a trip to Universal Studios. My sister in law had two free tickets that she had been holding onto for years so she gave them to us to try. There were no expiration dates on them so we thought what the heck... lets give it a try. We arrived early to the park and stood in line to purchase our tickets. Not only did they accept the tickets, but they also gave us a free upgrade for admission to both parks. We purchased the upgraded tickets for both the kids and we were set. We also purchased the "meal deal" bracelet for all four of us which was amazing. We could walk into the restaurants listed on the meal deal ticket and order anything we wanted and as much as we wanted. It was so nice to not have to worry about food in the park....if you are hungry.... walk in... show your bracelet and get what you want. ahhhh... the day was fun and care free.
This picture was taken shortly after the Jurassic Park ride which DRENCHED us. We didn't think it would get us that wet when in actuality we were under water for what felt like a minute at the bottom of the huge hill. It was the last ride of the day and we laughed and laughed. We walked immediately next door to the Dinosaur Grill and got hamburgers the size of our heads with our wrist bands... what a great ending to a great day.

This picture was taken outside the Monster's Cafe... neither child would pose for me in this chair so I had to do it myself.

Back to the Future baby...

Do NOT ride this ride if you have motion sickness..... as I do and now feel sick when I watch the Simpsons on TV.

Nick ready for our 3D Terminator showing....

This picture was taken for our niece Maya...

The park across the way from Universal Studios... Island of Adventure was our favorite. We rode the Hulk, Dueling Dragons and all sorts of fun Hollywood Themed rides. We would get off one ride and run to the next trying to fit it all in. On our way out the door we rode the Cat in the Hat ride with our sweet Maya in mind... she loved Cat in the Hat at the time so we rode the ride thinking of her... it was a lot of spinning around and around and it helped us dry off from the Jurassic Park ride... the time we got off we were ready to leave.

After another fun filled day at the condo on the beach it was time to cash in our 3 day 2 night stay at the Blue Green Resort. We packed up, said our goodbyes to the beach and the condo and headed back to St. Augustine to pick up our voucher. This was an adventure.... we went in circles trying to find the information place to pick it up. We finally talked to someone who knew what they were talking about and they directed us to the right place. We picked up our voucher and headed to our resort.

We were impressed as we pulled into the resort.. the buildings were very nice and it was on a Jack Nicklaus designed golf course. We tried to check into our room but they didn't have it ready yet so we sat in the visitors lounge and checked our email for a while. Eventually they had our room ready and gave us the key.

When we first walked into the room we were not impressed at all. It smelled like fish and it did not meet our expectations of a 5 star resort... it was nice enough, for like a hotel stay or something but we were thinking... FIVE STAR. Greg was of course the business man through all of this and he found all kinds of things wrong with the room... he said" If they are trying to sell us on purchasing a time share through this resort, they are not doing a very good job of it". He noticed busted knobs off the jacuzzi tub, a chipped and broken lamp, and the cupboards apparently were not on straight. ( I personally would never have noticed but it is that male/female observation thing again that I spoke about earlier ). Still, it was an extension to our vacation and we pretty much got it for free.

Greg called down to the front desk about the smell and the broken tub buttons. They apologized and told us the cleaning ladies had forgotten to spray the fragrance spray in our room and they would send someone up to fix it. A sweet lady who spoke Spanish came to the room and we had to have Leslie speak to her because we didn't understand what she was saying. She sprayed some spray around the room and on the carpet and then left. The smell was really strong... but it didn't smell like fish anymore. :)

The kitchen... in the front room/dinning room/ kitchen area

The kids pull out couch:

The next morning Greg and I got up early to attend our little "presentation". We were prepared to play the good cop/ bad cop scenario with these people and get it over with. We agreed there was nothing these guys could say to us that would make us want to waste our money on a time share, much less than THIS particular time share resort.

We arrived, drank our coffee, watched a little film about Blue Green and then on to the tour. We were shown rooms that put our room to shame. They were even baking cookies in the rooms so they not only looked inviting but they smelled incredible. Greg and I were very sly in how we worded the description of the room we were currently staying in. We were not really complaining.... but more like talking the other rooms up. "Wow, this place is incredible, these rooms are amazing... this is NOTHING like what we are staying in." It worked really well for us because then the lady continued her presentation about Blue Green thinking we were really impressed.

Until....... she took us back to the location where we began and she started the selling portion of this presentation. Greg allowed her to finish her memorized speach and then politely said to her "we are not interested and let me tell you why". He then told her everything.. about the difference in the rooms, about the smell, about the broken everything in the rooms... he laid it out. She was shocked of course that we would have such an experience at this resort so she brought over her manager to see if he could sweeten the deal. We were prepared... we knew there was always a "dealer" that had to come over and offer us a today or nothing deal. He apologized to us both and wanted to offer us a better room during our stay. That was great! We were very grateful however we still were not going to purchase anything from them. They pressured us a bit and then when they saw they were not getting anywhere with us they backed off. They gave us our $50.00 gift card, walked us to the front desk to request a room change and then we were on our way.

We walked down to the pool to sit for a while until our new room was available.

This room was MUCH better. It was exactly like the rooms they had shown us on the tour.

We had a washer and dryer with two bathrooms and a complete kitchen. We even went to the grocery and bought cookies to bake so we could have the good cookie smell. :)

We talked to the conciere and she told us about a great little restaurant on the water called Caps, so we drove there for dinner.

Leslie ordered crab legs....
She was in heaven....

Nick doesn't like seafood so he ordered a grilled chicken salad... this is what they brought him...he said "What am I supposed to do with this?" It was pretty funny.

This is one of my favorite pictures of the kids...

So, all in all it was another great trip to Florida. Greg worked through a lot of things while on this trip and I think having the beach to decompress a lot of the stress helped tremedously. God is good and He came through for us nearly a month later with a great job for Greg. Sometimes it is hard to remember that ultimately He is in charge, but he continually shows us that we need to not worry about tomorrow.... for tomorrow has worries of it own.

Florida is sentimental to me because each trip has brought something new to my memory jar. We may have stayed in the same place, saw the same things, ate at the same restaurants but each time we were different people. Each trip had a different purpose for that moment in time.

This year we will be traveling with a freshman and a senior in high school, we will be traveling as people who have lost loved ones, friends, pets, and jobs. We change like the ocean tide.... we change with each circumstance that is thrown our way and God uses those circumstances to grow us. I am one who struggles with change... so for me...bring on the comfort of my familiar friend ocean man.

Florida or Bust 2009. :)

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Florida....take four (part two)

I have always wanted to swim with dolphins... I used to pretend I was a dolphin when I was little, I would swim around in our little pool in the back yard and ask my brother to be the trainer. I loved watching the dolphins at Kings Island when they used to have the dolphin and sea lion show. My love for dolphins go way, way back. :) I was so excited to see places like Discovery Cove open because it gave someone like me, (someone who doesn't travel around the world hopping from one resort to the next) a chance to spend some time one on one with a dolphin.

I did my research... and I learned a lot.....

1. I learned it was very expensive... $250.00 per person for a day at the Discovery Cove with a dolphin swim and photo. A family of 4 would cost over $1000.00... ummm yeah... a bit spendy.

2. The swim was usually done with a trained professional (which isn't a problem) but the dolphin is trained and it is more like a performance than time spent hanging out with a dolphin.

3. I learned how some resorts get their dolphins. Not that I think Sea World or Discovery Cove would ever take part in this since they are a rescue park, but it was the principle. Japan is the worst for this..... most of the people in Japan are not even aware this takes place. Men go fishing together to capture young dolphins.... it is usually a blood bath and many, many dolphins are killed inhumanly to sell their meat while the young are sold at a very high price to aquariums and resorts.

Phillips said, "The public, including the people of Japan, would be outraged if they knew the truth - that thousands of innocent dolphins die a horrible death so that a few can be shown doing tricks in aquariums. The drive fishery and the slaughter must be stopped, and the aquarium industry should be ashamed of sponsoring the killing of thousands of dolphins annually."

"Fishermen herd dolphin schools into shallow waters, where around 2,000 are annually slaughtered for meat," said Sakae Hemmi, spokesperson for Japan's Elsa Nature Conservancy.

"The aquarium industry subsidizes the slaughter by offering thousands of dollars to buy a few prime specimens of dolphins from the shallow waters of the blood-filled slaughter pools," said Hemmi. "Without these enormous prices for prime specimens, it will be quite difficult for the drive fishery to survive, for dolphin meat is much contaminated with mercury."

Ok, ok, I will get off my activist soap box now...

Needless to say we didn't want to support this industry so we started to look around. I was very sad because of what was being done to these intelligent creatures and also because dang it!!! I wanted to swim with one. I then became very excited when I stumbled upon Captain Mike.

Captain Mike runs a Manatee Swim business. He owns a few boats and takes a few people out at a time into the Homosassa River to swim with the manatees in their own environment. Firm rules are set in place, such as:

1. No riding the manatees
2. No chasing the manatees
3. Obviously no hurting or scaring the manatees

Manatees are an endangered species... their only threat is man. Most are killed or injured by boat propellers. So, in order for us to interact with these wonderful creatures we had to follow the rules.

The kids did not know we had this little trip planned. I had called ahead and made reservations for the four of us to board Captain Mike's vessel in the morning of August 1st at Cracker's bar and grill dock. The Manatee swim included breakfast on the boat, lunch at Crackers Grill, 5 hours in the water with the manatees and rental of the wet suit... it was a great deal at $99.00 per person.

We told the kids we wanted to visit other parts of Florida so we went for a "drive". While on this drive we decided we didn't really want to drive 2 1/2 hours back to the condo so we rented a hotel room at the Homosassa Riverside Resort. (one I had set up in advance).

Leslie, (the observant one) had noticed signs on the way to the hotel advertising Manatee Swims.... she kinda had a feeling this is what we had planned but, she kept quiet and let us play our little game.

Once inside the hotel we gave them pamphlets on the manatee swim and told them all about the day we were going to have. Leslie was so excited she cried a little bit... Nick wasn't sure... but was excited about the wet suits and the water rocket he could ride.

We went out to dinner that night to a really neat restaurant on the water just off the Homosassa River. It was called Marguerita Grill. It was a a beautiful night and the sea food was wonderful...

In the morning we drove over to Crackers to wait on Captain Mike's boat.

We were happy to see we were sharing the boat with two really nice teachers from NY. I was giddy with anticipation. I know I wasn't swimming with dolphins... however after reading up on manatees I found out they truly enjoy interacting with humans and I couldn't wait to play with one.

We stood on the dock and waited for our boat to pull up...

Once we had made our introductions ( Captain Mike was not our captain for the day... it was....umm...... her name started with a D... very nice lady... she was almost killed by a run in with a boat propeller herself so she had a special bond with the manatees. I will have to look up her name in my vacation journal... it will drive me crazy... (YES, I JOURNAL OUR VACATIONS!)...Delores maybe???... I don't know.
... Ok, after introductions we proceeded to put on our wet suits. Have you ever put on a wet suit??? How about one that is a little too small?? Have you tried going to the restroom while wearing a too small of a wet suit that is wet??? (and I thought a whole piece bathing suit was bad).

I am not going to complain however because if it were not for those wet suits I would have been miserable all day long. We were in spring water which is much, much cooler than ocean water. Even with the wet suits the kids lips were blue after swimming all day.

As we approached the natural spring in the Homosossa River, look who greeted us....

We couldn't get into the water quick enough.... they came right up to the boat and wanted to play.

Look at that face! Is that not the sweetest face?? These guys were so much fun... they would swim up to us and roll over for us to rub their bellies. We would swim down with them to the bottom (which wasn't too deep... some places were only 5 or 6 feet deep... no wonder boats hit them all the time) and we could hear them eating the plants under water. That is how they got the nick name of water cow.

Here we all are riding.... umm..I mean swimming with the Manatees

Taking a break to get warm for a bit.....

It was amazing to me how playful these guys were... they would come right up to the boat and look for us. They would play with us while in the water too, it was obvious they enjoyed being around us.

We swam around the natural spring for a couple hours and then loaded back onto the boat to look for more manatees in a different location. We rode out to very deep, murky water. We all got into the water (except Nick... he wanted to take a break so he camcorded for us) Greg, Les and I swam way, way out from the boat looking for manatees. The water was very murky and you could only see about 2 feet in front of you; it was pretty scarry. When we did find some manatees they scared the you know what out of us.... we couldn't see anything and then BAM there they were... two HUGE creatures with moss growing on them. They allowed us to touch them a little but then with one huge swoosh of their tail they were out of sight again. The three of us swam as fast as we could back to the boat and decided we were done with the scarry, murky water.

Doesn't this look like a scene from Jaws or something??? I'm telling ya... don't swim with manatees unless you are in spring water.... it is pretty spooky.

After our spooky encounter with 100 year old manatees in the murky water we all wanted to go back to the spring water to play with our little playful friends that we could SEE!

Toward the end of the day a baby manatee approached the boat... one of our teacher friends from NY reached out her hand to the baby and he started to swim over to her.

He swam over to her and allowed her to scratch his head and nose....

Then his belly.....

Look at that face!!!!

I couldn't take it anymore so I got into the water with the baby..... I think I stole him from this lady, but she wasn't getting into the water and I wasn't going to miss out on this opportunity. I was on cloud 9.

At the very end of the day Nick was given the water rocket.... he was waiting for that rocket all day long. We had to wait until the manatees were either gone or at least further from the boat so he would have room to drive around without running into them. He had a blast!

The day in a nut shell was amazing for me. I have never experienced one of God's creatures, in their own habitat, so intimately. It amazed me that they came up to us much less than played with us. There were no trainers, no whistles or time limits... just us, the water, and the manatees the way God created them to be. I loved these manatees and I will definitely go back to experience this again some day. Something I HIGHLY recommend if you are thinking about a dolphin swim. :)

Florida....take five another day....