A Visit to Oak Hollow Farm

Oak Hollow Farm horsesHorseback riding, a campfire, and an all around beautiful setting are what I’ll remember of my visit to Oak Hollow Farm in Fairhope, Alabama, last month. That, and what had to have been the coldest night of the year at that point in 2016! Despite freezing temperatures, I had a great time chaperoning my daughters’ Brownie troop and two other Girl Scout troops on a fun overnight adventure.

We arrived in the early afternoon hours on a Saturday, dropped our bags in the bunk rooms we’d reserved, and readied ourselves for horseback riding. While we waited for the hay ride that takes visitors to the horse barn, the girls discovered the largest oak I’ve ever seen. One low hanging branch was particularly accessible to the girls and they wasted no time climbing up on the giant tree. Wooden swings hung from other branches and these were popular with the girls throughout our stay.

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The short hayride across the property to the horse barn was enjoyable and fun for the kids. The staff then helped our group by supplying helmets for the kids and matching each person up with a horse. Oak Hollow is a family owned and operated business and the staff at the horse barn definitely reflected that in the pride they took in the horses and the grounds. Our large group of about 40 people was divided into two, one going on the first outing and the other going out on the horses after the first group returned. Most of us had no experience with horses. The staff were very helpful in ensuring we knew what to do, and they led us on the ride and remained with us the entire time. I didn’t pay attention to the time, but it seemed like each ride was about 30 minutes.

Horseback Riding Oak Hollow Farm

The horses were extremely gentle. I was never fearful of my horse running off from the group or going too fast.  Occasionally some of the horses stopped to eat grass or leaves on the trees, but it was easy to redirect them to get back on task with a simple tug on the reins. These horses are so are well trained. One staffer even mentioned that their horses are ridden in the area’s Mardi Gras parades.

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When we returned to the barn, some of the girls who’d brought carrots for the horses were able to feed them. Then the hayride returned us back to our cabin area.

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After a quick snack, the younger girls began gathering up twigs and small pieces of wood for the campfire. A fire pit is available just a short distance from the cabins and bath house. As the sun set, the older girls and a couple of the leaders helped to start the fire, where we roasted hot dogs and s’mores for dinner.

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After dinner and clean up, we all returned to our cabins to retreat from the cold. The cabins were comfortable, with one queen size bed, and one bunk bed with a full size bed on the bottom and a twin bed on top. There is a bathroom (toilet only) and a small kitchen area equipped with a sink, mini refrigerator and microwave. There is one space heater in each cabin, which I was thankful to sleep near, but we all relied on our many layers of clothes and blankets to stay warm that night. The kids played cards and some board games before lights out. We actually slept pretty well. The next morning we made a simple breakfast in our cabins and walked around the grounds before packing up to return home.

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Although we didn’t participate, Oak Hollow Farm also offers fishing and skeet shooting. They also have facilities for private events like weddings or corporate gatherings. According to their website, a CMT show, Sweet Home Alabama, filmed there, and notable guests have included members of the Duck Dynasty family and country music star Blake Shelton.

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For guests who stay on the property like we did, it is definitely more glamping than camping, but that was perfect for our group. I’d go back, especially for the horseback riding, which you can do even if you don’t choose to stay overnight. The horseback riding costs $35 per person.

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It was a treat to spend a night on this gorgeous property with my daughters and friends. It’s amazing what even a short time away from electronics and the busyness of our daily lives can do for your spirits! Plus, did I mention s’mores?!

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!

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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!”

Shopping Tax-Free on the Gulf Coast

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If you are vacationing on the Gulf Coast this weekend (or you live here like me), you have the rare opportunity to shop tax-free in Alabama, Florida and Louisiana.

On Friday, August 1, each of these states begins what many refer to as tax-free weekend or a sales tax holiday, a designated time when consumers can purchase certain items for personal use without being charged state sales tax. The most common of course is school supplies, as students prepare to go back to school over the next several weeks in most areas (like it or not, kids).

Vacationers, if you going to be out shopping for sunscreen, don’t forget to toss a box of crayons in your cart, too. You can take them back home with you. Just don’t let them melt in the car! (Many schools post students’ supply lists on their website, so be sure to check yours before you shop.)

For more significant savings, you may want to shop for personal electronics (rules vary by state as to what items qualify, as well as the maximum dollar amount to which the savings can be applied.) This may be a good time to buy the Mac Book you’ve been eyeing or software for your college student. Before you shop, just check the tax-free weekend details for the state where you plan to buy:

Alabama

Florida

Louisiana

Texas will hold its sales tax holiday August 8-10. Mississippi’s was last weekend (sorry we missed it!).

Most clothing and shoes qualify for the sales tax savings, as well. I expect shoppers will flood the malls and outlets (and we have some good outlets on the Coast) for summer sales and (gasp!) fall clothes. I’m not sure why those are even sold in this part of the country until at least October, but they are there if you feel the need to stock your closet.

My children won’t stop growing, despite my pleas, so I’ll be shopping for bigger sizes for them this year. Although it won’t be tax-free, I plan to shop one of my favorite consignment sales in September. It’s called Mom2Mom. Twice a year, this massive resale event comes to the Pensacola Fairgrounds. Managed by two moms and many, many volunteers, you can purchase gently used and new children’s clothing, baby items, toys at greatly reduced prices. According to the Mom2Mom Facebook page, the September sale will also feature women’s clothing, so that’s another bonus! The sale is open to the public September 18-20. (In the spirit of full disclosure, I should acknowledge that I could benefit financially as a consignor at this event. Even if I wasn’t a consignor at Mom2Mom, I would highly recommend this sale to parents.)

Happy shopping and saving!

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!