Hurricane Hurricane, Go Away

Although this blog focuses on the wonderful nature and history that Florida has to offer, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the ugliness that can come with living on a peninsula. The ugliness that is severe weather.

In case you live under a rock, Florida just survived Hurricane Irma.

In the 15 years I have lived in Florida, I have been through six hurricanes. That may sound reasonable- one every two years or so, but in actuality 2/3 of them were in one year. Meteorologists will verify, we have cycles of weather patterns-or “warm” and “cold” years–fluxuations in the temperature between the ocean and atmosphere. These weather patterns are known as the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) cycle.  La Niña is sometimes referred to as the “cold phase” and El Niño as the “warm phase”.  In 2004 we had four hurricanes, back to back to back in the span of six weeks–and that was a weak El Nino year!

When I think back to 2004, I remember one storm in which my grandparents stayed with us, another we did not even lose power as the storm went further south, and another in which we lost power but immediately left our home the very next day to go help family in another county.  Although our county took a hit, it was not as bad as where my in-laws lived.  My husband’s whole family had serious damage that year and we spent 5 days helping them clean up their neighborhood and awaiting for restored power. This is the prominent memory when I think of hurricanes; the heat, the sweat, the constant yard work, the grilling dinner becuase there was no power, the cold showers, and the non-existent relief even at night!  I learned a lot that year and I remember my soon-to-be father in-law telling me that I was a “real Floridian now” because I made it through not one, but four hurricanes in one season.

So when the local news started touting the power of Irma, and then the real weathermen, the storm chasers started arriving in Florida and heeding the warning to evacuate, I took a moment to mentally prepare myself; this could be like 2004.  This could be worse.  We could lose power….for days.  We could miss school and work and maybe even have damage to our house. (Eeek) And then I made a plan to prepare our family because although I was “officially a Floridian” I didn’t have two kids to think about, entertain and keep safe back in 2004 like I did now.

The morning after Hurricane Irma hit, we took a drive to survey the damage, and I couldn’t help but marvel at the amount of wind destruction.  Flooding did happen in certain low-lying areas of our county, but this was a wind event like none I have ever seen.  Winds exceeded 100 mph, toppling 60-plus foot trees, which equated in downed power lines, snapped feeder poles and blown transformers. There were more power outages in the state of Florida than ever before in history.  Our little neighborhood went 9 days without power.  Yes, I said NINE.  And in the midst of our forced “camping”, I thought about how many of our friends are not Floridians or were not here in 2004 and thus felt unprepared for the calamity that hurricanes endow.  Even up until the day before the storm, friends and neighbors were asking what they should do.

• As soon as you know you will be in the cone of uncertainty, gas up everything you can. Cars, portable gas tanks, generators, etc.
•Take cash out to have on hand. After a hurricane hits a lot of business are only able to accept cash until phone, internet & wireless capabilities are restored.
•Buy or full up extra propane for grilling or camp lanterns or extra charcoal if you have a charcoal grill.
•Get Batteries for anything in your house that runs off batteries. Charge the rechargeable batteries.
•Buy flashlights of you don’t already have them. Even if you don’t sustain damage to your  house, you could be without power after the hurricane.
•Charge up everything you can- laptops, cellphones, etc.
•Buy drinking water or fill up reusable bottles. We filled up sweet tea gallon jugs before the storm hit that way if we needed water and couldn’t use our tap, we had plenty. The recommendation is 1 gallon of water per person per day.
•Feeeze small individual water bottles as it will help keep your freezer cold when you lose power. It won’t save everything  but it will slow the thawing down and buy you some time.
•If you have a high quality cooler, fill it with ice. Ours lasted a week- no joke.
•Other coolers, no matter the size, fill with water. This is NOT for drinking but instead can be used in case the water is shut off. You can use it to flush toilets and if need be, dip a rag in to sponge bathe.
•If you don’t have extra coolers for this, do the same thing with your bathtub: Fill it up and leave it. It is not to be used for drinking, but for flushing or spot bathing.
•If you can afford it get a generator, window AC unit and extension cord. The combination will provide you a means to power and cool one room of your house. If you cannot afford it, borrow from someone not in the hurricane path–it is worth the extra effort.
•Hurricane party? Not after the hurricane hits, but the day of or the day before. The purpose of a hurricane party is to eat what’s in the freezer so you don’t end up having to throw it away. Save your non-perishables. Save your bread! Eat the fish, the steak, the frozen chicken- eat it now because once you lose power it will go bad.
Peanut butter and jelly, apples, oranges, chips, crackers, pretzels- this is what you eat when you have NO power.
•What should I have on hand for after the hurricane hits? -Other than the suggestions of generators, water and non-perishables–sunscreen, a rake, gloves, and any yard tools.
•If you own a chainsaw, pole saw or any saw that works, you will be everyone’s best friend.  Get it ready and put it in a handy place.

  • Boarding up windows is a choice each homeowner must make- the cost does outweigh the benefits but materials are often hard to get ahold of once the panic and pandemonium set in.  My advice, consider the age of the windows and the direction the wind/hurricane is traveling in relation to your house.  We knew Irma was traveling from the east, so for us, that meant the front of our house.  Figure that out and consider your physical ability to install and take down boards, your financial ability and your willingness to gamble.

•Assume you will lose power and stockpile books, board games, cards and easy crafts to help pass the time, this is especially important if you have kids! They need to entertained- outside is hot and there is no AC relief.

  • Finally, close all interior doors as it aids with pressure and could save your roof from being blown off.  When the storm arrives, go to the room in the center of your house- the one without windows–ideally a bathroom and then hunker down and pray.

Once the storm passes, and you’ve surveyed your property, do what you can to help others; grill the food; set up the generator or share one with a neighbor; open your house to those who may need it; combine food; babysit kids; volunteer; clean up your community and above all GIVE THANKS.

“Those who have the ability to take action, have the responsibility to take action.”              –National Treasure


One of many piles of yard debris to be picked up



My side yard


Tree uprooted


The arbor I got married under was done for.

For the Camping Enthusiast: Tomoka State Park

Tomoka State Park located in Ormond Beach, Volusia County is a must! We have camped here twice and although we got rained out, we still had a great time. The Tomoka and Halifax intersect at this park, providing over 12 miles of shoreline.  There is plenty of water activities at this park and we personally want to go back again.

Our experience with the park was that it was a positive, family-friendly place with plenty of outdoor activities including bird-watching, biking, boating, geocaching and hiking. The trails are cleaned out and maintained well; and there were paved path ways as well, great for little kids to ride their bikes on. The campsites were clean and well kept and the bird watching was awesome! We saw Peregrine falcons, egrets, herons, and white ibis. My kids have gotten so good at distinguishing these native Florida birds it brings me such pride. 🙂
Although we didn’t personally get to fish (due to inclement weather) we know that spotted trout and red fish are regularly caught off the Tomoka River. There is a boat ramp to launch kayaks and canoes, as well as access the Intracostal water way for saltwater fishing. This is our biggest reason for wanting to go back- my son didn’t get to fish on either trip.
The history of the park I found really interesting too. The Timucuan Indians occupied the area when Spanish explorers stumbled upon them. Shell middens can still be found from the 1700’s! After British occupation however, the land that was given back to the Native Americans and the land officially became a park in 1945. The park is filled with history including the chief Tomokie statue and indigo plants that still grow there from when the natives used the land for indigo and rice. My kids really enjoyed the live oak canopy that provided lots of shade (and helped temper the rain) as well as the Fred Dana Marsh Museum that offered crafts and a short historical lesson.

Pros: Very clean restrooms/showers with laundry facilities and a large washbasin to clean your larger pots in.

Cons: I have no negative comments about the park itself. Just a bit of advice, I wouldn’t recommend going in the summer when the bugs are at their worst and the rain is likely, especially being right at the intersection of two waterways.

Two weeks of camping, numerous lessons learned

We went camping for TWO weeks and this is what we learned:

Not surprisingly, we learned that Mom over-packed the clothing. Fourteen days sounds like a loooong time, but how many outfits do you really need?  We spent whole days in our bathing suits and wore our clothes for only a small portion of the day and thus re-wore them.  As the planner of this adventure, I knew washer and dryer facilities would be available to me at every stop along the way, yet I still packed 14 outfits. Why?! Because I’m crazy.  I would’ve been better off just packing six outfits and using the extra bag space for more towels.  In fact because I was able to do laundry, my kids wore only half of what I packed! Me too! I came home with four outfits that were never touched. Lesson learned: no more than one weeks’ worth of clothing, especially if you can do laundry!

We also learned I didn’t pack enough….of towels and toiletries.  I packed four towels, for four people, but didn’t account for the lack of dry time when you use those towels for the beach, the pool and then need to shower.  So we went without showers ahem, for several days.  (No judgement!) I also only packed one soap, one bottle of shampoo and not nearly enough sunblock.  This may not seem like a huge deal, but when budget is a factor (and really it’s always a factor), buying these items at camp stores or other places along the route is an unnecessary cost.  Pack extra and then you won’t have to spend the extra.  Extra sunblock was a no-brainer that I really should have checked prior to leaving.  I just grabbed our beach bag and didn’t check any of the bottles or spray, which were all nearly empty.  So I had to buy a $10 bottle 😦  The one bar of soap/one bottle of shampoo was more of an irritation than a real problem.  And I didn’t really discover this until nearly the end of the trip when we ALL wanted to get showers….at the same time.  My daughter and I were able to shower, but then the boys had to wait until we were done so I could pass off the toiletries to them.  If I had packed extras, we all could have been done at the same time.  Like I said, minor irritation, but good to note for next time.  Lesson Learned: pack more essentials and triple check!

The next lesson came in regards to food.  Not too much or too little packed, in fact we did just fine, but we learned that you get what you pay for with coolers. We own three coolers, all of the same quality level, but took only one on this two-week endeavor. Knowing that I would be able to replenish and restock our food (and ice) at each stop we made, I only needed one cooler. However after having to buy two bags of ice every day, we decided to invest in a higher-end cooler that kept our ice and food cold for days at a time. We had previously talked about investing in such a cooler but this trip solidified the need to finally do it, and now that we have I can’t believe how long we’ve survived without it.  One website helped us narrow down the size and price range to fit our families needs.   Once said cooler was purchased, we only had to buy ice one more time and it lasted over five days.  To say that we should have done this before we left for our adventure, is an understatement.  But, lesson learned!

We also learned how to work together as a team. I don’t mean to sound hokey, but we really leaned on each other and as the days passed, we gelled as a team, not just as a family. It wasn’t the long drives, although those were great bonding times over the Hamilton, Moana and Trolls soundtracks, but it was the camper that made us a team.  Everyone had responsibilities and jobs and that made us gel as a team.  No one yelled for help; no one was off playing while the others were stuck doing the grunt work.  Campers have to be broken down and set up in a specific sequence and it takes many hands to help make it happen.  When we first got our camper, my husband did all of it.  Then I started to see the steps and started pitching in.  Eventually, my son wanted to help and now everyone has a specific job.  We’ve grown as campers, but we also grew as a team.

We streamlined our break down and set up sequence for our pop-up. Breaking down our camper can be done in under 30 minutes including hitching it to the truck. Setting up our campsite and the entire pop-up camper (with everyone pitching in to help) can be done in 30 minutes flat. Everyone pitched in and was given particular tasks-including the five-year old!  This is integral because my husband and I should NOT be doing all the work. We firmly believe in order to have fun you have to contribute to the work that goes into the set up and clean-up of camping.  And although we have been camping many many times before, this trip was different.  We were stopping and setting up camp every 2-3 days.  That means set-up on day one, break down two days later.  Set up again that same evening and break down two days later.  It’s tiresome and we told our kids, you have to contribute.  We want our kids involved in the process of camping and all that it involves; you can’t just tag along for the fun stuff.  We want them to learn how to set up the camper so that one day they can borrow it for themselves.  And we were thrilled as parents that they rose to the responsibility.  Lesson learned: Make them accountable by giving them a responsibilty and it’s a win-win for whole team.

Finally, we learned that we are in, what many refer to as, “the sweet spot.”  This is a new revelation we only recently discovered but was cemented on this trip.  The “sweet spot” is defined as a short period of time where kids are not helpless, but aren’t yet ditching family time for their friends.  This trip crystallized for us that we are entering “the sweet spot” and we have a very short window in which to make these memories.  Our kids are in this age range where they don’t need us, but they want us around.  They don’t need help wiping their butt, or their noses, but they genuinely like being with us.  We are not uncool, boring parents yet.  My son even said unsolicited, “I would want you as a friend, even if you weren’t my mom.”  Seriously?  (Way to make me cry kid).  And I am keenly aware, he will be the first to leave that sweet spot and move into being a sullen, moody, independent teenager who thinks his parents know nothing.  So this trip was more poignant, not just because it was our first long road trip, but because we realize our time is short-lived with our kids.  Our chances of making these memories is fleeting and we must seize them!  Lesson taken to heart.

Florida Natives

I was 19 when I moved to Florida.  I knew virtually no one, had no historical knowledge of the state and really only associated it with the vacations I took with my grandmother to her time share in Buena Vista.  But in the sixteen years I have lived here, I have explored more of Florida than any other state I lived in, and learned more about its history so that my Florida native babies will know the lineage they come from.

Despite the length of time I have called Florida my home and the loyalty and love I have for it, I’ll never be a true native.  (My father-in-law just recently stopped calling me a Yankee).  But I married a native Floridian (and his entire clan) and have learned a thing or two about Florida natives that I feel are singular to this group.

Prior to marriage, I marveled at my to-be-husbands’ choices of entertainment and just how Floridian he was; I had never met anybody who spent as much time outdoors as he did.  Seriously, not a weekend went by without him asking, you wanna go surf?  You wanna go fish?  Kayak?  Knee board?  I mean, we never were indoors while the sun was out.  I can honestly say it was one of the main things that attracted me to him.  He took me out of my comfort zone and I loved it.
But I still wondered, are all Floridians like this? And he would nod his head and say, “everyone I know.”  And he was right of course, they may not all have the same exact outdoor interests as he does, but every Florida native I have met loves being outdoors.
Here are a few things I have come to learn about native Floridians:
1. All Floridians, no matter what part of the state they live in, are immensely proud of their state.  In their eyes there is no better place to live in the world than Florida.   Despite living in central Florida his entire life, my husband would rather travel inside the state lines than go explore another state.  When we set out to plan trips I always ask, what state do you want to see?  And he always picks Florida.  With a miriad of water sports, to lakes and beaches, to caves and historical sites, this state has something for everyone. And each area is vastly different, despite what some tourists might believe.  The panhandle has a completely different vibe than St. Petersburg than the Florida Keys, but all take pride in their neck of Florida.
2. All Floridians LOVE the outdoors, especially IN their state.  Whether they like to hog hunt, fish, hunt deer, go to the beach, go offshore fishing, or go hiking, they want to do it IN their state.  Floridians have an appreciation for the natural beauty of old Florida that is unparalleled.  They scoff at the photo shopped pictures on a vacation brochure because in their eyes nothing will ever compare to Old Florida beauty.
3. True native Floridians are pirates.  Now, this doesn’t mean they steal or attack or plunder.  But rather, they like doing what they want, when they want, and in their own way.  This falls in line with number two; if a Floridian is into fishing, they want to do it their way not how some wrangler on TV is telling them to do it. And chances are the way they learned was from their dad or their granddad.  Likewise, if they have a favorite beach they have been going to for years, you are not about to talk them into going to a different beach; they want to do it their way.  The way it’s been done for years (or generations for some families).  Don’t mess with a Florida pirate.
4. Floridians take pride in their work, because they know their vacation IS their back yard.  I don’t mean to say others don’t take pride in work, but rather that when your backyard is a destination place for so many, you work hard to keep it a destination for you.  No one wants to bring the rat-race to their happy getaway, therefore Floridians work hard to keep both in balance.

5. A follow-up to #4, the majority of Floridians, don’t like tourism.  Now let me be clear, I don’t mean they don’t like tourists.  No, it’s not about people; in fact they want to show off all their state has to offer, it’s what the tourists represent.  Floridians don’t like tourism, as defined by the tear down and build up of their land for the expansion of certain amusement parks.  Or the onslaught of chain restaurants that are giving mom&pop, hole in the wall (awesome!) local restuarants too much competition.  But what really bothers native Floridians is that there are thousands of people each year who choose Florida as their vacation destination, and the only thing they ever see is the inside of the hotel, a monorail and an amusement park.  Visitors don’t truly get to appreciate all Florida has to offer and that upsets native Floridians.
6. Finally, the last thing I have learned about native Floridians, is that no matter how serious or stressful their job, all native Floridians know how to have fun without an amusement park.  This doesn’t mean that they’re not used, it’s just that they know to get back to the simple life.  They don’t need the high energy, fast paced, thrill-seeking amusement park to have a good time.  Floridians know how to kick back, relax and de-stress in nature without external stimuli.  The water, the trees, the animals are their stimulus and it relaxes them.

I didn’t know how to do this before I met my husband and his family.  They have taught me the joy of being on the water, taking a hike in a nature preserve, fishing, laying in a hammock under a canopy of Spanish moss, and bird watching.

Floridians are preservationists of their state, they love to be in it as well as share it .

The next time you decide to visit Florida, ask a Florida native what you should do.  Or message me for a list of off the beaten path places to visit, sights to see, or even local eateries.  I can tell you what beaches fit your needs and where to find the best surf, fishing holes, camping spots, kayaking, paddle boarding and more.  Don’t let Florida escape you; escape to Florida like a native.

Thinking of visiting the Florida Keys? Read on for 6 essential tips for an awesome Keys trip!

What’s so great about the Florida Keys?  Well, first of all, everything!  Even if you are not a fishing enthusiast, anyone can appreciate the majestic beauty of natural Florida.  From the picture-perfect sunsets, to the historical sites, to the variety of outdoor activities, the culture and the amazing seafood(!), there is something for everyone in the Florida Keys.

But before you go, here are 6 ESSENTIAL tips to help you plan an amazing Keys trip!

1. Research the area; the Keys span over 113 miles, and are broken into three parts.  There are truly hundreds of islands you can explore in the upper, middle and lower keys.  The upper keys, from Key Largo to Marathon are closer to Miami if you wanted to take a day trip there. If you’re planning on staying in the keys, Marathon is a good mid-way point.  The lower keys are closer to Key West, Cuba & the Gulf Stream.  Key West is of course a popular tourist destination, and an easy day trip if you’re staying in the lower keys.  Either way, research what each area has to offer to see if aligns to your expectations and what types of experiences you want to have. Some great websites are:


2. Pre-plan your agenda…somewhat. The Keys offer a plethora of activities and sites to see, so knowing what YOU want to do will keep you from missing out. For example, when we went to the Keys, we knew we wanted to go to Bahia Honda State Park one day as well as spend one day in Key West. So having that in mind, we marked 2 days off mentally for those experiences. We didn’t have to know the exact day we were going, but just that those were on our must-see, must-do list. If you know ahead of time that certain adventures/ experiences will be non-negotiable for you and your group, then you can better plan out and utilize your time. It also allows you to pre-book any experiences that require a reservation such as jet ski rentals, fishing charters or diving expeditions.

3. Prioritize your toys. Knowing what you’re going to do also helps decide what you’re going to pack. If you don’t think you’ll use kayaks more than once, then it’s not worth the hassle packing them-rent them for a day! Likewise if you know that you want to go fishing and there are multiple times of day to go fishing, it’s worth it to pack the tacklebox and rods. My point is don’t pack everything because you “might” use it. Really ask yourself what am I absolutely going to use while in the keys? Some examples of for my group are: aqua socks, bathing suits, rash guards, sunblock, bug spray, fishing gear and snorkeling gear. Everyone packed these items because we all used them nearly every single day.

4. Research the gear needed for the season and the rules of the sea. Know the tides, the wind and the weather as well as the fishing seasons for different species. For example, lobster season starts in August and the keys are packed with fisherman trying to score. But this is not a free-for-all, there are size limits, bag limits and rules for how you can catch lobster. Just as an example. They’re also rules for all different species of fish that are prevalent during certain times of year. Know which species of fish are available during certain times of year.  Research before you go, otherwise you could lose your fishing license and your boat.  Similarly the weather, believe it or not, changes in Florida and each season brings a different challenge.  The summer doldrums bring beautiful water views but sweltering heat. The water is glassy and beautiful to look at but it’s because there is no wind and with no wind comes bugs and no relief from the heat. The winter months bring strong wind which stirs up the surface of the water and cuts your visibility drastically. All of these conditions can affect both what you can and can’t do well in the keys and the planning of your activities. The more you know, the better prepared you’ll be.

5. First timer? Hire a professional. If you are going down to the Keys and would like to do something new that you’ve never done before, hire a guide and rent the equipment.  Or, go with friends who are experienced. For example, inshore fishing guides take you to certain strategic locations so that you will have success.  Additionally, Dive masters will take you to safe, popular dive sites as opposed to off-the-beaten-path secluded places.  Spending the extra money on local knowledge is worth it.  You’ll have more success and more fun.

6.  Have a good attitude and remember that not everything will go as planned. Leave some space for the unexpected.  There’s always the chance that you’re gonna have bad weather or end up not catching anything. But each experience teaches you something new.

Whatever length of stay you chose, or where precisely you stay, I hope you enjoy the amazing-ness that is the Florida Keys.  And when you return, let me know how your trip was by commenting below!

Why we bought a Pop-up Camper

We have just returned from a two-week long vacation in which we camped our way up the eastern seaboard.  The number one question we got from campsite neighbors and family we visited was, why did you by a pop-up camper?

To us, it seemed very obvious, but I began to see things through others’ eyes and realized, not everyone thinks like we do.  Most family assumed we had a full size pull-behind camper and were surprised to learn how few amenities and creature comforts we really have in our pop-up.  (I think they thought I was a “glamper.”)  And in some ways, we are glampers because the number one reason we bought a pop-up camper is its hot in Florida!! My husband said, “I’ll camp with you, but I need A/C.”
After one memorable camping trip three years ago in which no one slept because of the gnats and heat, I finally relented. So we set out to find something to fit our families’ needs.
My husband’s requirements were simple: “It needs it to be dry, bug free and have A/C.” After talking about what we were willing to pay, how serious we were about camping and how much work we wanted to do, I pointed out a pop-up at our campsite.  A pop-up! My husbands eyes lit up.  A pop-up is a cross between a full pull behind camping trailer and a tent. Aside from remembering that an uncle owned one once, I never had any experience with a pop-up before.
So research we did! The more we learned about them the more we were convinced this was the right recreational vehicle for our family.  Pop-ups offer the comfort and features of a camping trailer but in a lighter much more towable, compact option.   I learned that there are different floor plans and styles with varying features and specifications, but all come with a stove and fridge.  Only some models have toilet and indoor showers.  None of this appealed to me however. Now wait! Before you think, what is she crazy?, let me preface this with saying that I took many summer trips with my grandmother in her full size pull-behind camper and cooking inside left a residual smell that I hated!  I did not want to deal with that! Plus, we already had a camping stove and griddle, why do we need one inside?  We like grilling.  We like eating outside.  We wanted this pop-up to be our sleeping area, nothing more.  And the indoor toilet/shower? Let’s just say indoor plumbing is not worth the hassle given that all campgrounds and State Parks have facilities available for use.
Once we settled on a pop-up style, we set a budget and went to craigslist.  The make of the pop-up was not important to us, but the condition of these four important things were:

  1. The canopy had to be in excellent shape.  No holes, no patch repairs, no rips or broken zippers.
  2. The A/C had to be in working condition.
  3. The bearings and seals had to be new. (Tires we can always get, but replacing  the whole hub on a trailer is time consuming and costly).
  4. The frame of the trailer had to be sound.

Anything after these four essentials, we could deal with.  A broken fridge?  Ok, no problem.  The plumbing needs to be replaced?  No worries, we won’t use it anyway.

The second most important reason we bought a pop-up was that it was affordable! Not just in the cost of the camper, but in the usage and maintenance of it. Pop-ups do not require a special car to tow them or special equipment other than a tow hitch. My husband’s truck and my small SUV could both tow a pop-up, and that knowledge alone made this option so much more convenient for us. We also did our research and learned that maintaining a pop-up and/or upgrading it was far more pocket-book friendly than a fifth wheel or full size RV. We ended up buying our pop-up used which was even more budget friendly!

The third reason we bought a pop-up was storage. We can park our pop-up in our driveway without it taking up a considerable amount of space or having to pay for parking at a storage facility. It sits low, has a short wheel base and takes up the same amount of space as a car.  Our particular pop-up is a pull behind trailer that collapses to no more than 4 feet off the ground and 12 feet long.  Once opened though, it extends to 16 feet long and rises to 10 feet high.

Since purchasing our pop-up camper three years ago, we have had many memorable camping trips and couldn’t be happier with our decision.

Key West, FL in a day.

If time is limited and you only have one day to spend in Key West, here are the must see places to visit.

Once you’ve parked your car, try to orient yourself by north and south as all the main thorough fare streets run north and south. As you are walking, look for the Key West Trolley stops or the Conch Train stops. Any of those locations will tell you how to get to the main booths to purchase a ticket. Buying a train or trolley ticket is so worth it in Key West! The amount of history, information and the number of sites you will get to see on the tour outweigh your frustration of trying to navigate the streets on either foot or in your own car. The train and trolleys are a great way to learn about Key West’s unique history. Whether you take the Conch Train or the Key West Trolley you can get off at select stops, eat lunch, shop, have a drink, and make it back to Mallory Square in time for a beautiful sunset!

We purchased tickets for the Conch Train ride, so the route laid out here after is based on their stops. The first 45 minutes of the Conch Train tour are nonstop so be prepared that you cannot hop on and off for the first 45 minutes. Once that part of the tour is finished, get off at the Hemingway House and take a tour of the grounds and preserved home of the larger-than-life, romanticized famous author. Uniquely built and full of history, the Hemingway House is worth the price of admission, even if you’re not a fan of his writing. My nine-year-old thought it was cool and especially loved seeing the six-toed cats!

Next, walk right across the street and visit the Key West Lighthouse and Keeper’s Quarters Museum. At only 88 steps this lighthouse is totally climbable. Personally I am a lighthouse connoisseur, having climbed over 20 lighthouses, and I must say this one is pretty tame-not too steep and not too narrow.  The rich maritime history, the lifestyle of lighthouse keepers and interesting facts make it enjoyable for all ages. Not to mention the views at the top of the lighthouse are unparalleled.

Get back on the train and get off at the Southern Most House and Southern Most Point. The Southern Most House while not all that exciting is still beautiful to look at.  The historic Victorian style house is now an Inn that has accommodated presidents and dignitaries alike. Less than one block away is the famous southernmost point landmark. A great place to get a picture and say that you have now stood at the end of the continental United States. Standing there you are actually closer to Cuba then you are to Miami.
Finally, get back on the train to finish the loop and you will be able to hear about other historic landmarks and stop for a picture op at mile marker zero- which marks the end of US Rt.1
The end of the tour will take you back to Duval and Front Street where you can get off and have lunch (if you haven’t yet) or something to cool you off.  Stroll Duval Street and see the famous Sloppy Joe’s Bar where Hemingway frequented and Irish Kevin’s (both have live music all day and night) as well as any number of places to eat, drink and shop.
After lunch, go shopping or stop at the Shipwreck Historeum. This museum/ historical performance explains the salvage and wrecking industry that helped make Key West the richest city in the U.S. for a time. Three floors full of real and reproduction items that were typically salvaged from shipwrecks and auctioned off, as well as short films on the history of shipwrecks and the salvage industry. The bonus with this museum is the look-out tower. The open-air 65 foot tower provides another opportunity to take some amazing panoramic photos of Key West.
Finally, sunset at Mallory Square. Mallory Square hosts dozens of performance artist and vendors selling unique items each night while the sun goddess performs her most exquisite dance- the sunset. In the western sky, of the southern most Key in the continental United States, it is hard to resist the photo op of golden skies and aquamarine ocean as far as the eye can see.

Before you go, a few things to know ahead of time.
• About parking: Take cash! Street parking is very limited and is by the hour. There are meters and they are strictly enforced. There are several public parking lots around but they only charge for the full day. We were able to find a lot right near Duval Street and paid $20 (cash) for the whole day. We simply used our phone GPS and typed in “nearest parking lot.”
•Make sure you lock your cars and hide any valuables.
•Wear comfortable shoes!
• Regarding Duval Street: There are several shops that sell T-shirts and souvenirs that some may find offensive.

How to camp with a large group of kids. Thinking of going camping with a group of friends, but the kids outnumber the adults? Read on for tips and suggestions from my real life experiences.

Camping is a wonderful activity for the whole family to enjoy and in my opinion, the more the merrier!  I LOVE camping but camping with a large group can present problems if ideas, rules and yes even agendas aren’t discussed prior to leaving.  Dissatisfaction happens when someone’s expectation wasn’t met.  The same thing can happen during a camping trip.  It could have gone perfectly well in one person’s view, but another person felt let down.  This happens when an expectation or wish was not fulfilled.  Therefore, the biggest piece of advice I can give you when camping with a large group, is to communicate and do it often.

Prior to leaving, have a meeting of the minds.  Share what your hopes are for the trip and include the kids!  This is a great opportunity to dispel any myths the kids might have of what they will be doing on the trip.  A great example is when my son told us, prior to leaving for the Keys, he couldn’t wait to go out deep sea fishing.  Uhhhh…. Nope, sorry we’re not doing that.  He had visions in his head of chartering a boat and getting some BIG TUNA!  Lol.  I love him for his sense of adventure, but we had to let him down and explain, no buddy, not this trip.  That activity is quite expensive and one day we would love to do that, but it’s not gonna happen on this trip.  He handled it like a champ, but all I thought was, holy cow, what if we hadn’t asked him what he was most looking forward to?!  He had this grandiose idea in his head and would have inevitably been let down and quite possibly could have ruined his whole trip!  So ask the kids, what are you most looking forward to?  Talk about what possible activities everyone can enjoy: lawn darts, hillbilly golf, bean bag toss, riding bikes, hiking, scavenger hunt, roasting marshmallows, etc.

Once everyone has shared their wishes and expectations of the trip, it’s time to establish rules.  Camping with your family is one thing, you know your kids, the kids know the rules and so forth.  But throw in another family or several other families and suddenly the lines are blurred.  What you allow your child to do, may be off limits for another child.  Similarly, rules at home are different than rules while camping.  Establishing common rules and expectations for the kids lets them ALL know where the line is drawn.

During one memorable camping trip, a rule the whole group all agreed on was that no child was allowed to go anywhere (not even the bathroom which was just a short walk away) without telling an adult where they were going. No kid, no matter how old, was allowed to walk off by themselves without telling an adult. We also had a rule that the little kids had to go to the bathroom with a buddy. Having the same rules isn’t just about safety, although that is paramount in traveling with a large group where the kids outnumber the adults, but this can also help set some expectations for the trip. For example, if one family allows their kids to play electronics but yours doesn’t, then there needs to be a discussion prior to leaving. Aligning your values of what the camping trip should entail, allows for a more cohesive experience for everyone. If there are multiple campsites being utilized by multiple families, one expectation could be that there is one central meeting space. When we camped with a church group, we learned that they purposely reserved an additional campsite that was just for the chairs and the campfire. This central location became meeting point number one, and no matter where the kids were at, if we called out to them to come in for lunch, that was where we all met.

Next, plan out your menu and meals ahead of time.  Find out if there are any allergies and/or major food dislikes before you go so that no one is left eating chips for dinner because they are allergic to the main dish.  Then plan your meals to do double (or triple) duty.  For example, the same sliced cheese used on the hamburgers for dinner can be used for the sandwiches for lunch as well as for the egg burritos for breakfast. Likewise, the tortillas used for the egg burritos can be used for tacos the next night at dinner.

Divide and conquer with food. In one memorable camping trip in which there were over 30 people, including 7 families, we actually divided the meals up amongst families. For example, on Saturday morning the breakfast was provided by the Smith family. Saturday lunch was provided by the Johnson family and Saturday night dinner was provided by the Peterson family and so forth. Another family provided all the cooking gear including a huge grill we all used, the pots, pans, sink, paper plates and utensils. This worked out very well with our large group of church friends because each family was only responsible for one meal yet everybody contributed to the whole of the group.
For a smaller group such as two or three families going camping, you could divide the food out by type instead.  One family is in charge of all the drinks and cutlery and plates while another person is in charge of all snacks and fruit, and possibly another is in charge of the cold items like meat or milk or eggs and cheese. This not only divides the cost of food and essentials, but helps with packing, and helps avoid any duplication or missed items.

On our most recent camping trip with only one other family, I was entrusted with creating the menu.  This was to be the longest camping trip any of us had ever taken, so naturally my friend said, you do the menu!  To start, I simply made a menu for the five days that we would be camping, factoring in that day one, we would be driving quite a distance and would only eat dinner at the campsite.  Then based off that menu, I made one large shopping list.  Next I took that shopping list and divided it out between the two families.  My family was in charge of all of the cold items (since we have numerous coolers). I had to get the eggs, lunch meat, cheese, hamburgers, creamer and milk. Our friends were responsible for all the cutlery, the plates, the utensils, paper towels, snacks, hamburger buns, hot dog buns, basically all dry goods. We both brought drinks; water, beer, Gatorade, and more water. We also both packed our own first aid kits (just in case). *A note about some commonly overlooked food items: don’t forget about the condiments! Ketchup, mustard, mayonnaise, salt and pepper and any other seasonings for your cooking. Think ahead, who is responsible for those items? I can tell you from personal experience, nobody is happy with a bland cheeseburger.

Once the menu is planned, then you can begin to focus on common interests or common goals for the trip. This helps you plan out what to bring and what to do. For example, on one trip, both families all enjoy the water and like to snorkel, so we all brought our snorkel gear and aqua socks with the understanding we would use them as much as possible. On another trip, the entire group understood that biking and hiking would be a part of our daily activities, therefore we all brought our bikes and sneakers. Have this conversation with your group before you leave so that the whole group can plan group activities to enjoy together.

Once an agenda of sorts is worked out, plan for the unexpected.  What if it rains?  What if they don’t like the activity?  What if, god forbid, someone gets injured?  What if, they just want some down time?  Bring plenty of games and outdoor toys!  Bring a plethora of outdoor and tabletop games so that there are choices amongst the kids. We regularly pack lawn darts, hillbilly golf and horse shoes. But also think of games!  A regular deck of playing cards, an UNO deck, checkers, tic tac toe, etc. can allow kids to decompress as well as bond.  Other suggestions include bingo, giant tumbling blocks, an outdoor scavenger hunt game, baseball and gloves, soccer ball, bikes, skateboards, and Frisbee. These toys allow kids to interact meaningfully and enjoy the outdoors as well without it having to be a planned “activity.”

Finally, utilize the resources within your group. If someone in your group loves bird watching, then ask them if they would be willing to do a bird watching expedition with the kids and help them identify certain species. Or is someone in your group an experienced fisherman?  Could they handle taking a few kids at a time to teach them how to fish? On one trip a parent volunteered to teach the kids geocaching with the one request that we all provide compasses to the kids. So we combined two activities in one: we all went for a hike and along the way this parent pulled the kids aside and show them how to do the geocache and use their compasses. It was a simple activity but taught a real-world skill too! Ask the adults in your group who is willing to do an activity with the kids? It might be slightly more responsibility but it’s only for a short period of time. Trust me, the kids love it when they have learned something new and got a firsthand tutorial.

Camping with a large groups takes a bit more planning and a lot more communication, but the rewards are exponential.  If you are contemplating a large group camping trip, or are already planning one,  go with like minded people, even if everyone doesn’t know each other all that well (that’s part of the point!).  Start out small, with just a weekend and stay closer to home.  Then as you find those you love to camp with, and as you get more experience in planning the trips, venture further out and grow your group.  Some of my favorite memories camping were when we were with a large group and my kids still talk about it.

Happy Camping!

South Florida Science Center & Aquarium

The South Florida Science Center & Aquarium

4801 Dreher Trail North
West Palm Beach

Cute, little museum perfect for a rainy day activity. The museum features 5 main exhibits:
1. Grossology exhibit which showcases the human body functions including the digestive system, nasal cavity and gastrointestinal system. All of it is hands on, including walking through the nasal cavity, climbing through the Lower intestines & simulations that emulate how we throw up & pass gas. (The kids loved this!) But all of it was educational.
2. Aquarium featuring nurse sharks, turtles, eels & many more. Also a table for kids to touch & feel sharks’ teeth, jaws & fossils. (My son has a serious obsession with sharks teeth so this pleased him immensely).
3. Florida Everglades exhibit: could be expanded more but it was good for the space they had.
4. Planetarium: This was extra ($5 adult, $3 children) but a nice break from the loud fun.
5. Brain teaser puzzles: very nice interactive & accessible for all ages of children.
Additional things to see: hands on science experiments are offered everyday; a water table for toddlers; a light bright wall; tornado & hurricane simulators; a small fossil dig & a small NASA exhibit.
We spent 3 hours at this place & it’s definitely not at MOSI’s level but it’s way better than Explorations.
Pros: All age appropriate exhibits at kids’ height level too; good from 18 months to 10 years old; sofas are strategically placed throughout for parents;  also has a small cafe & outdoor picnic area for lunch.
Cons: Some of the exhibits could be expanded more, but that’s it.

Insider Tip: On the first weekend of each month, Bank of America cardholders get FREE admission. We went on July 3, a Sunday, and we both have BoA credit cards- I didn’t think they would let both of us in, but they did! So we only paid $11 per child!!