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Beach-bound -- Florida 2016

Florida 2016 (Beth Rickers)1 / 6
TC at the MInnesota Twins spring training game vs. the Florida Marlins. 2 / 6
Palm tree3 / 6
Key lime pie at Gramma Dots in Fort Myers, Fla. (Beth Rickers/Daily Globe)4 / 6
Close up and personal with an alligator on the airboat tour. (Beth Rickers/Daily Globe)5 / 6
The airboat we took on our tour of Lake Trafford, headwaters of the Everglades.6 / 6

When we told friends and family that we were going to, for a second year in a row, embark on a late winter two-week road trip to Florida, Hubby Bryan and I encountered a few raised eyebrows and looks of skepticism. Why would you want to do that, they asked, when you could jump on a plane and be in Florida in a matter of hours?

Because Bryan and I are road trip junkies. The getting there is just as important as the destination. We have nothing against air travel, but we like the freedom of traveling in our own vehicle rather than getting used to a rental, being able to stop when and where we want and taking in a few sights along the way. Driving also gives us a reason to take a much-needed two-week break from our respective occupations, whereas if we were flying, we would likely only take one week off.

So in early March we packed up the Jeep and headed southeast, hoping this time to avoid any snowstorms and blown tires. Our only encounters with snowflakes were in both exiting and entering Minnesota, and no major vehicle issues ensued.

We decided first to head toward Savannah, Ga. — a destination that had been recommended and would serve as a starting point to a drive down the eastern coastline of Florida.

But getting there on the course we set entailed driving through two major cities — Nashville and Atlanta. Navigating through Nashville, at night, was no picnic, but then neither was Atlanta, even on a Sunday afternoon. Can’t imagine what either would be like at the peak of rush hour.

But once we arrived in Savannah, the traffic issues were forgotten. The city charmed us from the start, and we managed to find a reasonably priced city center hotel that was in walking distance of the main entertainment area. But a one-night stay was not sufficient to take in all the historical sights, and we immediately decided Savannah warranted a return trip.  

FAVORITE STOP: The Crystal Beer Parlor, which came highly recommended by my sister and her husband. It is Savannah’s second oldest restaurant, opened in 1933 during the Great Depression. We found a bounty of regional beers to sample, including a pina colada gose and a praline ale, and thoroughly enjoyed the fare, especially the crab stew.

After picking up a few bottles of the praline beer to take home, we headed down the coastline, stopping first in St. Augustine (we had been there before, so avoided the touristy historical areas and headed straight for the beach) and then on to Port Canaveral and Cocoa Beach. Although spring break was in full swing, we couldn’t resist a stop at Ron Jon Surf Shop for a few souvenirs. But our greatest pleasure was taking the top panels off the Jeep and enjoying the warm breeze coming off the ocean as we drove along the coastline.

Eventually, we made it to our main destination — Fort Myers, where sister Margaret and her husband, Don, spend the winter months while Don, a retired pastor, helps out at a Lutheran Church that triples in size with an influx of snowbirds. Our agenda there included a couple repeats — Minnesota Twins spring training, the farmers market, beach time — as well as some new experiences such as manatee viewing and  an airboat ride through the northern Everglades.

First the repeats. If you are a Minnesota Twins fan and have gone to a spring training game, (OK, so this is a Nike reference) just do it. The weather is generally beautiful for an outdoor ballgame, the atmosphere is convivial (seated immediately around us were people from Owatonna, Trimont, Waseca, and we also ran into a few people from Worthington) and the experience ignites enthusiasm for the upcoming baseball season. Our seats were a mere four rows above the Twins dugout, so we had a bird’s-eye view of many of the players, who good-naturedly tossed balls to the youngsters in our section. Tony Oliva was also standing at the rail for most of the game and signed autographs toward the end of the game. (Wouldn’t you know I didn’t bring a pen!) And while I was standing up to get his photograph, mascot TC doused me with his watergun — a not unwelcome shower on a warm day.

I love farmers markets, and the Fort Myers one is small but exceptional. There is all manner of fresh produce, and many vendors hand out samples. It’s our favorite place to find gifts for friends at home, and this year we garnered some spicy jellies and flavored vinegars.

Now on to the new. Seeing manatees was at the top of our to-do list, so we headed to Lee County’s Manatee Park (www.leeparks.org), a non-captive refuge for the gentle sea creatures. We arrived just in time for the park’s “All About Manatees” program, which provided valuable insight into their habitat and behaviors.(Among the tidbits I gleaned are that they are most closely related to elephants. Who knew?) Because the manatees seek out the warmer inland waterways (especially near the power plants) when the weather is colder, optimal viewing time is November through March. We spotted a few as they surfaced for the occasional breath of air, but never got a clear enough shot to take a photograph.

We had better luck getting up close and personal with a more imposing animal — the Florida gator — during an “Airboats and Alligators” tour on Lake Trafford, the headwaters of the Everglades (laketrafford.com). With memories of TV programs of my childhood such as “Gentle Ben” and “Flipper” going through my head, we boarded an airboat, donned ear-protecting headphones per our guides’ instruction and glided across the water and swamp-like areas in search of wildlife.

We saw numerous species of birds pointed out by the guide, stopped to check on a couple whose airboat had broken down and finally happened upon a few gators who didn’t disappear below the water at our approach. A pretty large gator was, for a matter of minutes, close enough for Hubby Bryan to reach out and pet it — although wisely Bryan didn’t try. Later, our guide explained that he kept a close eye on the reptile, looking for any signs of agitation or aggression as we studied it.

I would highly recommend the experience to anyone.

Here are a few more notes about our trip:

IT’S HUUUUUUGE: I have never encountered a bigger ice cream cone than the one I consumed — in its entirety — at Love Boat Ice Cream (loveboaticecream.com). The line at this premium homemade ice cream shop in Fort Myers was long but moved fast, and the treat was well worth it. With dozens of flavors from which to choose, I ordered a single dip cone of key lime pie, not knowing the single dip was about the size of my head. But it was too good to waste, so I ate it all.

CRAFT BREWS & JAZZ: We, of course, had to check out the local beer scene, so our hosts took us to Point Ybel Brewing Company’s Hurricane Hole tasting room (www.pointybelbrew.com). On this particular night, there was an open mic jazz and bluegrass jam going on, complete with a gentleman playing a washboard with thimbles on his fingers. The music was sweet, and the beers were tasty.

FOOD: Crab and key lime pie are my favorite food things in Florida. We consumed a luscious piece of said pie at Gramma Dots, and I ate crab in some form or another just about every night: crab stew, crab cake tacos, crab cake BLTs ... Yum.

Beth Rickers

Beth Rickers is the veteran in the newspaper staff with 25 years as the Daily Globe's Features Editor. Interests include cooking, traveling and beer tasting and making with her home-brewing husband, Bryan. She writes an Area Voices blog called Lagniappe, which is a Creole term that means "a little something extra." It can be found at http://lagniappe.areavoices.com/.  

(507) 376-7327
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