Destin Dolphin Cruise

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Whether we like it or not, our summer is quickly coming to an end. We’re trying to make the most of the last days of freedom before school starts by spending some time at the beach with our extended family. We’d like to get out on the water in some way, but we’re still deciding exactly what we’ll do.

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Last year, our family went on a dolphin cruise out of Destin Harbor. A company called Boogies operated the glass-bottom boat, which docks directly behind the Harborwalk Village and the Emerald Grande. I didn’t think I’d enjoy this as much as I did, because it is a quintessential Destin tourist excursion. I got over my reluctance quickly though, because dolphins, sunshine and gorgeous Destin water make it impossible to have a bad attitude.

cruise in DestinWe set sail out of Destin Harbor and cruised through the turquoise waters of East Pass into the Gulf of Mexico. Dolphins followed our boat and swam alongside us for much of the trip. It was great fun. The kids loved it and we snapped a million pictures.

dolphins-swim-with-boatThe boat also cruised into the shallow waters known as Crab Island, a popular spot where boats anchor down for easy swimming and play. We had fun watching other boats, wave runners and even a few paddle boarders as we passed through the area.

DSC_0312Our boat stopped briefly to toss out a net. The crew members pulled the net up a few minutes later to see what, if anything, had been caught. I’m not sure what they were hoping for – fish? crabs? – but it seemed like mostly seaweed, shells and a few hermit crabs made it into the net. The kids loved seeing this and my children we thrilled to hold one of the hermit crabs.

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The Destin dolphin cruise cost our family of five just under $100. Similar cruises are offered in Panama City and Pensacola Beach. Occasionally, I’ve seen Groupon offers for discounted dolphin cruise tickets, so it may be worthwhile to look for deals before you go. It’s definitely something I’d do again.

Breakfast with the Blues at Pensacola Beach

All eyes were on the sky this morning at Pensacola Beach as the Blue Angels practiced high-flying stunts above the sand and surf. The U.S. Navy’s flight demonstration squadron, which calls nearby NAS Pensacola home, is preparing for its annual air show over Pensacola Beach.

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Officially, the air show is Saturday, July 11, but for beach-goers who can’t wait for the weekend or just want to avoid the larger crowds, there are a couple of opportunities to catch a glimpse of the jets in action a little early. The first, known as “Breakfast with the Blues” happened today at 8 a.m.

With my coffee, camera and kids in hand, I made my way out to Casino Beach, the large public beach area that is the hub of activity on Pensacola Beach. We found a shady spot in the shadow of the Pensacola Beach Pier and stood in awe of the skilled maneuvers the Blue Angels are famous for. It is not for the faint of heart! If you’ve ever seen the Blues perform, you know what I’m talking about. If you haven’t seen the Blue Angels, you can catch them practicing again tomorrow, July 9, at 2 p.m. The dress rehearsal takes place Friday, July 10, and the Pensacola Beach 2015 Air Show is Saturday; on both days, civilian air acts begin at Noon, and the Blue Angels fly at 2 p.m.

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Many folks watch from hotels, condos or boats, but there are plenty of spots on the sand, too. For my money, I’d find a cool spot with shade, snacks and flowing beverages. Although I haven’t tried it yet, I have heard good things about Casino Beach Bar & Grille. It is right in the middle of the action at Pensacola Beach, located just east of the pier. They offer plenty of seating under umbrellas, as well as beach chairs and a covered bar area, and they have misting machines to help you stay cool.

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Enjoy the Blues! And remember those pilots’ mothers, who I imagine have a hard time watching their flying aces perform heart-stopping, jaw-dropping aerial stunts and make it look easy.

Panhandle Butterfly House in Navarre

panhandle-butterfly-house entrance

The Panhandle Butterfly House isn’t a big place. Drivers can easily cruise down Hwy. 98 through the heart of Navarre and not see the small, white house just west of the Navarre Beach bridge. What the butterfly house may lack in size shouldn’t discount its value as an environmental center and educational attraction.

orange-butterfly

My kids and I have visited on more than one occasion. Each time we’ve admired the beautiful flowers and plants and, of course, the butterflies. Each time my girls have learned about the butterfly lifecycle and observed specimens at each stage of the lifecycle. Volunteers serving as docents have talked with us about the gardens and butterflies.

DSC_1023There is a small gift shop area where you can purchase butterfly-themed souvenirs or make a donation to the Panhandle Butterfly House. When you are finished with your visit to the Butterfly House, you can walk out back and take look at the Santa Rosa Sound and the birds and turtles that have made their homes nearby. The Navarre Kids Park is also adjacent to the Panhandle Butterfly House property, which is a great place for younger kids to burn some energy.

This weekend happens to be one of the biggest of the year at the Panhandle Butterfly House. It’s the annual Monarch Madness festival, which celebrates the Monarch butterfly and its migration through Northwest Florida. It’s one of a few dozen activities going on this month in Santa Rosa County, Florida, as part of the Beaches to Woodlands Tour.DSC_1036

If you can’t make it out this weekend, put them on your list to visit next spring or summer, when they’ll reopen for 2015. Operating strictly on donations, admission is free but contributions are encouraged.

Beaches to Woodlands Tour “Tees Off” Bubba-Style

Fall has always been my favorite time of year on the Gulf Coast. For starters, the weather is pleasant – still warm enough to enjoy the beaches and outdoor activities, but not so hot you have sweat running down your neck the minute you step outside. Also, the beaches tend to be less crowded, which makes for a peaceful day in the sun, and you spend less time waiting at restaurants and popular attractions. For those who travel to the Coast, better rates are typically available at hotels and rental properties after Labor Day.

What’s not to love, right?

Well, this year, I’m even more excited about fall. Why? Because of the 11th Annual Beaches to Woodlands Tour, a month-long collection of events in Santa Rosa County, Florida. Santa Rosa County includes Milton and Navarre Beach, and it’s less than an hour’s drive from Pensacola and Destin. I have had the opportunity to cover some of the events as a freelance writer helping to promote the Tour. Although I am compensated for articles I’ve written, I am not asked or paid to blog about these events. I am telling you about them because I am truly excited about Beaches to Woodlands this year. It may be because my kids are now old enough to get out and enjoy some of the family-friendly activities going on throughout the month of October.

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One of the first events on the Beaches to Woodlands Tour is actually open this weekend through November 2, with the exception of Halloween. It’s the Sweet Seasons Farms Corn Maze. It’s been generating a lot of buzz because the corn maze, viewed from above, depicts two-time Masters Champion Bubba Watson swinging a golf club. Watson is from Santa Rosa County – a little town called Bagdad, to be exact. So the corn maze is a nice tribute to him. He’s tweeted about the event a few times already. Pensacola News Journal shared this video on pnj.com that tells a little bit about the making of the maze and what you can expect if you visit this year.

If getting lost in a corn maze is not your thing, there are other Beaches to Woodlands Tour events to suit a multitude of interests, including art, history, running, biking, and marine science. Take a look at thebeachestowoodlandstour.com for more information. It’s worth checking out if you are going to be in Northwest Florida this fall. Hopefully I can share some real, live photos and updates when we head out to experience some of the fun.

Taste of the Beach at Pensacola Beach

crab-taste-of-the-beach The annual Taste of the Beach Festival at Pensacola Beach has been going strong for seven years. The 2014 event was my first time attending, and Taste of the Beach did not disappoint.
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The food, of course, is the main attraction. Our party sampled generous portions of Angry Pork Nachos, prepared by H20 at the Hilton Pensacola Beach, and cheeseburger sliders from Surf Burger. Each plate was just $5. For seafood lovers, there are plenty of options from fish tacos to peel-and-eat shrimp. Those wanting to cool off with a frosty beverage can choose a frozen cocktail or beer.

taste-of-the-beach

Tables and chairs were set up under tents, providing a shady spot to enjoy your food and drinks as you look out over the Gulf. If you wanted to spend your day on the beach, you could easily come and go from the festival area to play in the sand and surf.

Chef Carla Hall, co-host on The Chew and former Top Chef finalist, entertained the crowd during a live cooking demonstration. She prepared gazpacho and kept the festival-goers engaged with an interactive presentation.

Carla-Hall-Taste-of-the-Beach

One section of tents was designated as a Kids’ Area, which made it easy to corral the youngsters for face painting and sand crafts. Our only disappointment was that the snow cone station ran out of ice.

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Taste of the Beach was a nice way to spend a couple of hours and try delicious food prepared by Pensacola Beach chefs at an affordable price.

Gator Bait in Destin

the-swampThis crimson-blooded Alabama native has seen enough Gators after a football weekend trip to The Swamp, in Gainesville, Fla. The raucousness of the University of Florida crowd after a triple overtime win over the University of Kentucky Wildcats looked much like the scene at another reptilian retreat I visited a few weeks ago.

The scene: Destin’s Fudpucker’s restaurant at alligator feeding time.

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Just like the diners at this popular eatery, real, live alligators come hungry. Trained staff and regular restaurant-goers alike have a chance to feed these gators, which reside in a manmade swamp just outside the front door at Fudpucker’s.

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I ate at this restaurant years ago, but I don’t think they had alligators on the premises back then. (Fudpucker’s opened in 1982.) Just as I remembered, guests can (and do) leave their autographs on the walls, tables and just about any other writeable surface inside this colorful establishment.

Fudpucker’s hadn’t been on my short list of places to go in Destin for quite a while, but it’s funny how having children leads you to all sorts of places you might not otherwise go. Surprisingly, some of them are not so bad. Fudpucker’s, in fact, may be brilliant because what I remember as an area to wait for a table is now a semi-educational attraction, thanks to the alligators.

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For $3, you can purchase a bag of alligator food. Your four pellets of food are presented to you with a fishing pole-like contraption that you use to lower the bait down to the surface of the water below. Then, watch the gators swarm and CHOMP!

feed-the-alligators

The pellet snacks are an appetizer to the raw chicken pieces a staff member feeds them during a narrated demonstration. “The alligators here are young gators,” he explains. “Once they reach five or six feet in length, they are moved to other habitats as they’d become too aggressive for this environment.”

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A rare albino alligator named Pearl also resides at Fudpucker’s. She is older and has her own tank that is shielded from the sun to protect her skin.

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My children loved seeing Pearl, feeding the other alligators and asking questions about them. It was certainly a unique experience, and it would be an easy way to pass the time with young children if you in fact were waiting for a table.

On this visit, we didn’t have to wait. We were having a late lunch on Labor Day, when most of the summer vacationers had packed up and gone home. Service was good and the food was better than I expected at a big, popular tourist stop.

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Our entrees were around $10-12 each. The fish sandwich I ordered was seasoned well. My mom enjoyed a fresh salad with chicken, fruit and nuts. The kids’ menu included the usual fare and portions were good.

If you don’t go to Fudpucker’s for the food, go for the gators (even if, like me, you don’t usually “go for” Gators).

 

Fudpucker’s has locations in Destin and Ft. Walton Beach. Somewhere on the restaraunt’s walls is written “Roll Tide Roll!”

Rainy Days (and Mondays) Don’t Have to Get You Down at the Beach

Newsflash: It does rain at the beach (occasionally).

You won’t read that in any promotional tourism guide or on your resort’s website, but let’s be real. It happens. And when you’ve researched and planned the perfect vacation months in advance, packed up the family and all your kid gear, driven for hours or navigated airports, arriving to a forecast of gray skies is a bit of a downer.

If you are a regular beach vacationer, it is bound to happen at some point, but bad weather is no reason to cancel your trip to the Gulf Coast (unless of course the weather threat is severe.) If there is a hurricane, Jim Cantore will be here to tell you all about it as you tune in from the safety and comfort of a living room far, far away. Thankfully, tropical storms don’t happen every day and when they do threaten our Coast, there is typically a few days’ lead time for visitors and residents to prepare and evacuate if necessary. The most important thing is to stay alert and keep an eye on the forecast, especially during hurricane season (June 1-Nov. 30, 2014).

There. Now that my super tangential PSA for storm preparedness is over, the real reason for this post is to share a story of how my family entertained ourself on a recent rainy day that kept us all indoors. It’s one you can easily recreate with your own family if you find yourself holed up in a hotel room or condo during a downpour.

Quite simply, get crafty!

I am perhaps the least crafty person on the planet, but I make the occasional effort for the sake of my children. With this as our inspiration, we set out to make our own fabric covered letters. We used:

  • old wooden letters I picked up years ago (These are available at any craft store or Walmart.)
  • fabric scraps and embellishments that my late grandmother gave me
  • beads from one of those kids’ jewelry making kits (The few that my toddler hadn’t discarded into the crevices of our carpet.)
  • all-purpose craft glue
  • scissors

We already had all of these items around the house, so it was easy to pull them out and get started.

I helped with some of the fabric cutting to ensure that it would wrap around all the angles of the letters, but after that it was mostly an exercise in gluing and decorating. So I sat back and supervised as the girls made their own custom creations. The (almost) end results:

letter-craft photo-12

 

While I still haven’t mastered sewing, I’d like to think my grandmother would be happy that her great granddaughters got some enjoyment out of the fabric she gave me. If you don’t have fabric scraps around your house, you can get them cheaply at most any fabric store. The key for vacationers is just to plan ahead to bring a few items like these along on your trip so that you have them when the mood (or the lightening) strikes.

You’ll be glad you did because, when it rains at the beach, a deck of cards will only get you so far, especially with young children. And any local can tell you that nothing generates crowds at the movie theatre and outlet malls faster than a rain storm. So earn your smart parent points by bringing along a simple craft or two. Find one you like on Pinterest, like I did, and have fun with it.

With just a little planning and simple crafts, surviving the first world problem of rainfall in paradise is easy. It may be just what you need to keep your family and your sanity in tact until the sunshine returns.

6 Things to Look for When You Rent a Beach House

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Before I lived in Florida, going on vacation to the beach meant packing up the kids, suitcases and beach gear, hopping in the car to drive several hours until (finally!) we arrived at our coastal destination of choice. The sparkling blue waters of the Gulf of Mexico and its white sandy beaches are never more inviting than after you’ve been glued to your seat, staring at the highway in front of you, and forced to listen to countless renditions of “Let it Go” from the wanna-be Elsa in the backseat. The last thing you want to happen upon arrival is to discover the beach house you’ve rented — your home away from home for the week — is not what you expected.

Chances are, if you’re renting a beach house, you’re vacationing with others. Most beach houses for rent are designed to accommodate extended families or groups of friends who want to enjoy their stay together. Often the best houses are booked as much as six months to a year in advance so it pays to plan ahead. When you begin your search for a beach house, here are six things to look for:

1. Sleeping accommodations – This is probably a no-brainer but unless you plan to bring air mattresses or sleeping bags for the youngsters, you should start by narrowing your search to those homes that provide a place for everyone to lay their head.

2. Shared spaces – Consider how you plan to use the space in your rental home. My family loves to cook so we look for a well stocked kitchen with seating for everyone to dine in the same room. If you prefer to only eat at restaurants during your vacation, this may not matter to you. Do you watch movies with the whole gang? Look for living areas large enough to accommodate this. If your week at the beach begins to seem like too much family togetherness (and we’ve all been there), having two separate living areas can be a plus.

3. Photos – It’s hard to imagine renting a beach house sight unseen (at least in photos), but look closely at rental listing photos. You can get a sense of the home’s decor, and a home that looks like a museum may not be right for a family with active children. We all know boys playing Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles don’t mix well with Picasso.

Photos sometimes give you clues as to the floor plan of the beach house. For example, if the only door to the pool or balcony is through a bedroom designed for children, this raises a red flag, both for the safety risks it poses and so that nap time won’t be interrupted when Uncle Chris is ready to dive in for an afternoon swim. If Grandma has a bad knee, you’ll want to be sure her room is not at the top of three flights of stairs. Floor plan is not always apparent in photos so see tip #6 below if you have concerns.

4. Amenities – Beach communities and resort neighborhoods are becoming increasingly competitive in the amenities they offer to rental guests. First, I look for convenient beach access. After all the beach is the main attraction and you don’t want to hike forever and a day to step foot in the sand. If beach access is not in your potential rental home’s immediate vicinity, is transportation available (e.g., shuttles, golf carts) to make getting to the beach easier? Pools are also an important consideration. You may pay a premium for a private pool or opt for using a community pool. Tennis courts, gyms, and concierge services are other examples of amenities you may be offered when you’re renting a beach house. Some properties have on site restaurants and spas. Decide what is most important to you and those you are traveling with, as well as what fits within your budget, and plan accordingly.

5. Reviews – Read the reviews or comments if they are included with a rental listing. You can often uncover some information that may not otherwise be apparent, such as whether or not the owner/management company is responsive if problems do occur.

6. Ask questions – Most of all, after you’ve done your research online, don’t be afraid to contact the owner/rental company to ask any questions that haven’t been answered, especially if you have any unusual requirements for your trip. Most are eager to help answer your questions and they may shed light on features of the home you hadn’t considered.

Of course all of these tips will only be useful if you’ve first narrowed down the location for your vacation. My family and friends have vacationed all over the Florida Panhandle (Perdido Key, Pensacola Beach, Navarre Beach, Destin, many points along County Road 30-A in South Walton County, Panama City Beach) and Southern Alabama (Gulf Shores, Orange Beach). Each community has its own strengths and unique offerings.

Vacation home rentals can be arranged directly through resort communities, independent property management companies or individual owners. My family has used Vacation Rentals by Owner (vrbo.com) to search for properties online and book our stay.

Good luck with your search for a beach house and enjoy your vacation!

Cucumber Pineapple Salad

Vacationing on the Gulf Coast with my husband’s family often includes evenings spent in the beach house kitchen, with one or more of us preparing a meal for all 11 family members. Though it may sound like a chore, we enjoy cooking and having meal time together. Sure we like to eat out, too, but it can be difficult with such a large group. And somehow making dinner is much more enjoyable at the beach when you’re not feeling rushed after a long day at work and children’s extracurricular activities.

Tonight was no different. My sister-in-law made three delicious homemade pizzas – one cheese, one veggie and one sausage. I’d bought the ingredients to make a recipe I recently discovered on Pinterest, a cucumber pineapple salad, so I made it and it turned out to be a nice complement for the pizza.

This cool and refreshing salad would make a good snack after you’ve been out on the beach, too. Take advantage of the fresh fruits and vegetables of the season and try the Cucumber Salad Recipe with Pineapple and Cilantro featured on the Reluctant Entertainer blog.

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What do you like to eat on vacation? Leave a comment and let us know.