Magic Christmas in Lights at Bellingrath Gardens

Bellingrath tree lights and fountain

This weekend, on a whim, we decided to visit Bellingrath Gardens, located just outside Mobile, Alabama, for Magic Christmas in Lights. The grand holiday light display features three million lights throughout a 65-acre property. Visitors walk along a path that winds through the estate, transformed by lights of every color in a variety of scenes.

It’s truly impressive. My only regret is not having brought a real camera along, so photos included in this post are from my phone.

blue trees

Bellingrath Gardens and Home is an amazing place to visit during daylight hours any time of year. The picturesque estate along the Fowl River is famous for its beautiful, azalea-rich grounds. Countless other varieties of flowers and plants bloom in abundance, too. I visited about 10 years ago and have recommended it ever since to anyone traveling to the Mobile area.

under_the_sea_lights

This weekend was my first time to visit during Magic Christmas in Lights. I did a little bit of research and learned the holiday lights display started 20 years ago, inspired by a similar event at Georgia’s Callaway Gardens. It’s grown through the years, and last year USA Today named Magic Christmas in Lights at Bellingrath Gardens as one of the top 10 light displays in America.

Bellingrath swans

What I didn’t know when we decided to put the kids in the car to be tourists for the night is that this (the weekend before Christmas) typically represents the busiest nights of the season for Magic Christmas in Lights. We had a very long wait to get into the parking lot as cars lined the two-lane road leading into the property, and then another wait in line for tickets. The traffic added about 45 minutes to our trip.

Lesson learned: Buy your tickets in advance online, plan to get their early, and if possible visit on a weeknight – or any night other than the busiest of the year!  One bonus – the Coca-Cola Christmas Truck and a costumed polar bear were on hand for photo opps just outside the Gardens on the night we visited.

Coca Cola Christmas

Walking through the lights with my husband and daughters, taking pictures, and enjoying one of the few cool nights we’ve had during this unseasonably hot fall made up for the long wait. Christmas music and hot chocolate for sale added to the experience. This place is sure to put even the biggest Grinch around in the Christmas spirit!

Magic Christmas in Lights is open nightly from 5-9 p.m. CST through January 2, 2016, with the exception of Christmas Day and New Year’s Day. Tickets are $15 for adults, $7 for children ages 5-12, and free for children 4 and under.

Destin Dolphin Cruise

boogies-glass-bottom-boat

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.

dolphin

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.

Highlighter Tattoos and the Great Gulf Coast Arts Festival

Today, during our drive home from school, one of my children offered her sisters highlighter tattoos: peace signs, hearts, and butterflies all drawn in one of several fluorescent highlighter hues. These were not your run of the mill stick-on-with-water temporary tattoos. She would draw the tattoos on their arms herself – for a fee! She came up with a price list and wanted to charge them for her, uh-hem, artwork.

Trying not to laugh hysterically or worry how we will wash off this glowing ink from their fair skin, I decided to do what I thought any parenting advice article would tell me to do: relax, let them have fun and focus on the positive. My daughter was artistic, innovative and enterprising…what a bright (no pun intended) future she must have!?! Ha!

Coincidentally, I found this note inside her backpack, inviting us to see some of her work in the Student Exhibit at the Great Gulf Coast Arts Festival, which takes place this weekend in Downtown Pensacola’s Seville Square.

student-art

No word on whether the selected artwork has anything to do with her burgeoning tattoo business, but we’ll check it out along with the rest of the festival. Sneaky, but well played move, art festival people!

In all seriousness, the Great Gulf Coast Arts Festival is a popular and respected juried art show that takes place every year on the first weekend of November. More than 200 artists display and sell their work in this historic setting. It’s free and open to the public. Families will appreciate the Children’s Art area, with the student art displays and several opportunities for kids to get their hands dirty creating artwork somewhere other than your house. In my book, that’s a win.

If you’re visiting the area for the Blue Angels Homecoming Air Show or the Pensacola Marathon, you should make time to head over to the art festival. See you there!

Spooktacular Science in Navarre Beach

octobusWe had a fabulous evening at the annual Spooktacular Science by the Sea at the Navarre Beach Marine Science Station last night. Putting an educational twist on traditional Halloween activities, the Spooktacular event includes a sea creature costume contest for kids and a variety of stations set up to teach children about marine science.

Organized by local teachers and high school students who volunteer their time and talent, it’s an opportunity for kids to learn about native sea life and participate in hands-on science experiments. A haunted beach walk tops off the night with a stroll along the edge of the Santa Rosa Sound, where you’re sure to find a few surprises. Spooktacular Science by the Sea continues tonight from 5-9 p.m. CDT. Admission is $5 per person. Children ages 2 and under get in free.

If you’re going to be there after dark, it doesn’t hurt to bring a flash light along to make it easier to find your car in the parking lot when you leave. The Marine Park area surrounding the Science Station is not well lit.

It’s spooky good fun!

Navarre-Beach-Marine-Science-Station

A Not-So-Scary Boo at the Gulf Breeze Zoo

As a freelance writer, it is always exciting when I see my work in print. These days it’s often online only, but this weekend my byline appeared in real, hard copy newsprint. Serious, investigative reporting, you may ask? Well, not exactly, but it was fun to show the kids.

I originally wrote the article about Boo at the Zoo that appeared in the Pensacola News Journal for a Santa Rosa County, Florida tourism program, The Beaches to Woodlands Tour. Beaches to Woodlands includes dozens of events showcasing the diverse natural beauty and culture of the county throughout the month of October. Most (if not all) of the activities are family friendly, including Boo at the Zoo. So yesterday, we decided to check it out. We made our way to the Gulf Breeze Zoo, where we spent about two hours or so seeing the animals and taking part in Halloween-themed activities.

Trick-or-Treat-Trail

Part of the fun of Boo at the Zoo is the Trick-or-Treat Trail, which invites kids to wear costumes and visit stations set up throughout the zoo to collect candy. Our three – dressed as Doc McStuffins, a peacock and a mermaid – enjoyed the chance to don their costumes early and mingle with the likes of Elsa, Jake and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. It was definitely a unique way to experience the Zoo, which spans 50 acres and includes a petting zoo, train rides and a chance to feed many of the animals.

Giraffe-at-Gulf-Breeze-Zoo

Tiger-at-Gulf-Breeze-Zoo

A budgie aviary was new since I last visited the Gulf Breeze Zoo. It was like stepping into a giant bird cage, surrounded by a few hundred of your closest feathered friends. The kids loved it. So did the birds that we fed, and the makers of hand sanitizer.

feeding-budgies

Some of the extra activities available during Boo at the Zoo include face painting, bounce houses and balloon-making clowns. At $12 per ticket (not including train rides), Boo at the Zoo is a little pricey for a family of five, but comparatively speaking fairly reasonable versus other zoos we’ve visited in the Southeast.

zoo-sign

Look closely: The last line of this sign made me laugh.

Boo at the Zoo continues next Saturday and Sunday, October 25-26, 10 a.m.-4 p.m. CDT if you want to go. For information on other Beaches to Woodlands Tour events, visit the official Tour website.

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.

Beach Baking

Confession: I have a slight obsession with pinning recipes on Pinterest. I usually try most of them, believe it or not. When you are feeding a family of five you have to keep things interesting. Most of the recipes I try are dinner recipes, but yesterday after working on several work projects and battling the car pool line at my daughters’  school, which incidentally seems to lose all manner of civility and sense when it’s raining, it was time to bake.

This is not a mood that strikes me often (maybe there is a full moon?), but the kids sure seemed to appreciate it. We went right to Pinterest and found a recipe I’d pinned for Flourless Chewy Cinnamon Sugar Peanut Butter Cookies (originally shared on the blog Foodie Crush). We had all of the ingredients on hand and it sounded delicious, so it was an easy choice. The girls helped me add the ingredients to the bowl of the stand mixer.

mixing-bowl

After a quick blend, the dough went into the refrigerator for an hour. Keeping the kids busy and focused on doing homework during this hour was the hardest thing about this recipe. After an hour, we rolled the dough into balls, coated them with a cinnamon and sugar mix and popped them into the oven for the 8-9 minutes indicated in the recipe. We let them cool for a few minutes afterward, then wah-la, delicious snack!

peanut-butter-cookies

These cookies were good and a hit with all the girls, but they are definitely sweet. It is a sugar-intensive recipe, so that was to be expected. The original pinner noted that the recipe is vegetarian and gluten free, so it may appeal to those with special diets.

This was my second attempt at flourless cookies. The first, some sort of oatmeal and mashed banana concoction, was a disaster. I’m sure there are better variations I’d know if I baked this way often, but I don’t. In fact, baking yesterday’s yummy flour-less peanut butter cookies reminded me of a vegan birthday cake our family ordered for my brother-in-law’s birthday last summer.

We purchased the cake from La Loba’s Bakery in Santa Rosa Beach, Florida, where we were spending the week for an extended family vacation. I don’t think I would have ordered a vegan cake had we not had a vegan in the family, but it was better than I expected. For vegans or anyone seeking out organic food in the South Walton County area, I’m sure this place is a boon. 

Do you like to bake? Would you bake on vacation?

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.

aerial-view-Bubba-Watson-corn-maze

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.
H20-pork-nachos
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.

kids-craft-table

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.

alligator-crossing

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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Fudpuckers-walls

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.

gator-bait-shack

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.”

gator-meal-time

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.

pearl-albino-alligator

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.

fudpuckers-fish-sandwich

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!”