Cumberland Island & St. Augustine

In January, I visited Cumberland Island, GA and St. Augustine, FL with my husband and stepdaughter. We left on New Year’s Day and drove approximately 6 hours from Asheville, NC to Kingsland, GA.

We had a hotel reservation for one night at the Travelers Inn in Kingsland. Because the name had recently been changed, I couldn’t find any reviews online but I booked it anyway because it was so cheap (about $40 I think). That was a huge mistake! When we arrived, they said there were no non-smoking rooms left (even though I had made a reservation!) but let me look at two smoking rooms. One of them was occupied (!!) and the other one was disgusting. We promptly drove away and desperately looked online for another place to stay. We ended up at Motel 6, which was actually very nice ($67.14 including tax)!

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The next morning, we headed to St. Mary’s to take the ferry to Cumberland Island ($25 plus tax per person aged 13-64 round-trip). We had booked one night of camping (the website says $4 per person per night at Sea Camp but we only paid $2 per person?) and the Lands and Legacies Tour. Unfortunately, when we checked in we learned that the price of the tour had increased from $15 to $45 per person! So we canceled the tour and decided to take the earlier ferry back the next day. We also had to pay an $8 entrance fee ($4 per person over age 15). Anyway, we lugged all of our camping equipment onto the ferry and took the 45 minute trip over to the island. We saw dolphins and wild horses along the way!

When we arrived on the island, we paid $5 to rent a cart to carry all our stuff to the campsite. It was so worth it! It would have sucked to carry everything the half mile to the campsite. The campsite was gorgeous! We loved it.

After we set up camp, we went out to Sea Camp Beach and hiked a mile down to the Dungeness Ruins area. Everything was so beautiful! A horse did charge at Chad and scare the living daylights out of him, so beware! We hiked back on the main road and it seemed to never end… Our feet felt like they were going to fall off!

The next day, we took the ferry back to St. Mary’s, stopped for lunch at Mi Casa in Kingsland, and drove about 2.5 more hours to St. Augustine. We checked into Americas Best Value Inn Ocean Inn (booked on Hotwire for $126.38 for 2 nights including tax) and took naps after a hard night of sleeping on the ground! That evening, we headed to downtown St. Augustine. We paid $3 to park at Castillo de San Marcos, wandered around, and enjoyed dinner at A1A Ale Works.

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The next day was full of sightseeing! We started at the St. Augustine Lighthouse. Chad and Chloe went up ($21.50 for both) while I wandered around and took photos.

Next we headed to Fort Matanzas National Monument. A little out of the way but free! And pretty cool. Check into the office to get your tickets for the boat. It leaves every hour on the half hour and the whole tour takes less than an hour as the fort is right across a narrow river.

After a quick lunch in St. Augustine Beach at Fuji Japan, we headed back to downtown St. Augustine to check out another fort: Castillo de San Marcos National Monument. We parked at the visitors center for $12 a day and admission to the fort is $10 for adults (kids are free).

We had a few more hours to kill before A Ghostly Experience ($28 for 4 people with a Groupon) so we wandered around some more and stumbled upon Pizza Time, which was voted #2 of “TripAdvisor’s Top 10 Pizza Restaurants” in 2015. It was pretty delicious! After dinner and the ghost tour, we headed back to the hotel and then headed home in the morning. A  great trip!

Florida Keys

In June 2015, I took my sister Callie to the Florida Keys for her high school graduation present. We met at the Fort Lauderdale airport and rented a car. Our first stop was the Everglades!

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We hit up Robert is Here for key lime milkshakes and Taqueria Morelia for lunch before we entered the national park.

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From the main park entrance, we drove four miles to the Royal Palm Visitor Center. We saw lots of alligators and other interesting creatures on the Anhinga Trail, which winds through a sawgrass marsh. We got caught in a torrential downpour, but still had a blast in our ponchos!

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That evening, we checked into The Cosmos houseboat we had rented in Islamorada for $70 a night on Airbnb. It is very expensive to stay in the Keys, so this was a steal! The Cosmos is a docked 1964 Columbia 24″ sailboat, recently renovated on the inside, with two small rooms: a sleeping berth with a double-sized bed and a sitting area. It was air-conditioned (very important!) and they had other amenities available on the property: grills, bathroom/shower, refrigerator, towels, coffee maker, hammocks, picnic tables, washer/dryer, toaster, wifi, and complimentary kayaks, snorkeling gear, and bicycles. (It’s the smaller boat in the photos!)

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We went to check out Anne’s Beach, but were super disappointed.

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So we headed back to the houseboat to kayak (we saw a manatee!) and catch a beautiful sunset.

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The next morning, we headed to Robbie’s to kayak through the mangroves! It was awesome… We saw jellyfish, sharks, and a crocodile! That was one of my favorite parts of the trip.

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After lunch at FL Keys Steak and Lobster, we headed to The Turtle Hospital, a small non-profit organization dedicated to the rehabilitation of endangered sea turtles. We saw lots of adorable, but sadly injured, sea turtles and learned a lot. At $18, admission is steep, but it goes toward a good cause.

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We ended the day with a quick swim at Sombrero Beach and dinner at Bayside Gourmet.

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After two nights in Islamorada, we headed down to Key West for two nights. On the way we stopped at Bahia Honda, which was my other favorite part of the trip. Simply gorgeous! We spend a good part of the day swimming there and enjoying its natural beauty. (And we saw a stingray!)

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After a delicious lunch at Boondocks, we checked into the Curry House bed and breakfast in Key West. It wasn’t super cheap at $144 a night (including tax), but as I said before, the Keys are so expensive that this was the best deal I could find. We had a shared bathroom (but that was never an issue) but there was also a pool and complimentary breakfast.

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After enjoying the pool, we wandered around Key West and had dinner at Amigos.

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In the morning, we went to the Hemingway House. As self-proclaimed crazy cat ladies, we had a blast hanging out with all the kitties! But it was super hot and pricey at $13.

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In the afternoon, we took a snorkeling trip through Sunset Water Sports. It was fun, although I didn’t think it was as spectacular as other places I’ve been in the Caribbean and Asia, but maybe I’m just spoiled.

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Our last meal in Key West was at Keyviche and it was divine. I had grilled churrrasco steak served over linguini pasta in a Peruvian pesto style sauce. For dessert, we had key lime pie from Key Lime Pie Company and Kermit’s.

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We hadn’t been to the Southernmost Point yet, but when we drove by in the morning there was a long line for pictures so we made do with one from the car! We stopped at The Moorings Village on our way back up the Keys because that’s where Bloodline is filmed… And I’m obsessed! Then we headed to Miami to visit my grandma and great aunt for our last night. Callie wanted to see South Beach, so that was our final stop on this fun-filled vacation!

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Southwestern Virginia

In September 2015, my husband and I visited southwestern Virginia for a quick weekend of canoeing and camping. From our home in Arden, we drove about two and a half hours to River Place on the Clinch in Kyles Ford, TN. We rented a canoe for $30 and embarked on the two mile float. It was a lovely trip, with very few people on the river. The water was a bit shallow but we managed just fine. We stopped to swim at one point and the river was cool and refreshing! We met another couple while swimming who said that River Place on the Clinch has great music and food on Friday and Saturday nights. We’ll include dinner there on our next trip!

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After returning the canoe, we meandered about 20 miles through back roads to our accommodations for the evening, Clinch River Family Campground in Duffield, VA. We didn’t see much civilization, but some pretty scenery and interesting sights… Like an outhouse! Which we learned is not uncommon in that neck of the woods.

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The campground was nice, with only a few other campers so we had plenty of privacy. We paid $15 for our tent site, which came with a fire pit and picnic table, and there was a clean bathhouse as well with hot showers! Bring everything you need with you though, as this place is pretty much in the middle of nowhere.

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The next morning, we packed up and headed to Natural Tunnel State Park, which was only five miles away. More than 850 feet long and as tall as a ten-story building, Natural Tunnel was naturally carved through a limestone ridge over thousands of years. We paid a few bucks for admission into the parking area ($3 or $4?) and then headed down the Tunnel Trail. After viewing the tunnel and the Carter Cabin, we bravely took the chairlift back up ($2 per person?).

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Next we drove over to the Wilderness Road Blockhouse, which was actually really cool! A blockhouse is a fortified building, constructed to be easily defendable. The top story is wider than the lower, and openings in the overhanging story allowed defenders to fire down upon anyone who approached the building. The chimney is located within the structure so that attackers could not use it as a way to enter the building. This blockhouse is a replica of John Anderson’s from the 1700s. It was an important stop-over for travelers who gathered there until a sufficient number of people and rifles made it relatively safe to proceed on their journey west.

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On a whim, we headed over to Big Stone Gap, VA and ate lunch at Little Mexico before heading home. We’d like to go back next summer and camp at Natural Tunnel State Park, as they have a junior Olympic-size swimming pool and 100-foot water slide!

Mardi Gras in New Orleans

Mardi Gras in New Orleans! Something that has always been on my bucket list and I’m so happy I got to go in 2014. My friend Tessa and I went from Saturday, March 1st to Wednesday, March 5th (Mardi Gras was Tuesday, March 4th) and had a blast. I really feel like it’s the happiest place I’ve ever been! Like Disney World for adults and people like me who hate roller coasters. 🙂

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Don’t think you have to book a hotel a year ahead of time to be able to go to Mardi Gras. We booked two months in advance on Hotwire. I think Hotwire is an awesome website for hotels. They don’t tell you the name of the hotel but you’re given the star rating, neighborhood, amenities, and reviews. I’ve never gotten a bad deal but I always choose 4 star hotels in a neighborhood I want with at least 90% positive reviews. We ended up at the Hyatt Regency, which we were very happy with ($215 per night for two people). The facilities and our room were nice, although the room was a bit small. But we were only in it to sleep! It also had a pretty cool view of the Superdome. (Note to those who stay at the hotel with a car: If you just drop your luggage off, exit the hotel, turn right on Girod Street, and park in that garage, you’ll save $20 a night. It’s $25 to park in the garage as opposed to $44 for valet parking. The garage connects to the hotel on the second floor and is easy to navigate.)

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As soon as we checked in, we had a major celebrity sighting/freak out! Norman Reedus, aka Daryl Dixon from The Walking Dead, was in the lobby! He was there to be the co-marshal (with Ian Somerhalder) of the Endymion parade that night. Unfortunately we didn’t get a photo with him, but at least we got a photo of him!

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We did go to the Endymion parade but that was it! We had planned to go to six but only made it to one… There’s so much craziness that there’s no way to stick to a schedule. But definitely make sure you make it to at least one parade. They are so much fun! Bring a bag to collect your beads and other trinkets they throw from the float. We watched the parade from Loyola Avenue and had no problem getting a spot at the front just a few minutes before it started. Some people hang out all day with their chairs but once the parade starts, it’s kind of a free-for-all and no one is sitting. We were all jumping up and down for free stuff!

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That evening we headed to Bourbon Street to meet some of Tessa’s friends. Big mistake… I would not recommend Bourbon Street at night the weekend before Mardi Gras. It was so crowded we ended up losing her friends, it smelled disgusting, and we were walking on piles of garbage. It was much more pleasant during the day. So we headed back to the hotel as soon as we found a side street and could breathe! (As a librarian, I had to stop and take a photo in front of the library on our walk back…)

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On Sunday we had booked a balcony party at Bourbon Vieux. I highly recommend it!! It was $100 for six hours of all you can eat and drink. The food was decent: salad, muffaletta sandwiches, gumbo, red beans and rice, jambalaya, sausages, pasta, a sandwich bar, desserts, etc. For drinks they had wine, liquor, Hurricanes, and cheap (domestic) beer. Everyone had either a blue or purple wristband. Every hour they would clear the balcony and then alternate what color wristband got to go out first. That was nice… People couldn’t hog their good spot on the balcony! They did sell beads there but it’s better to go to a parade before the balcony party and get lots of beads for free! But there are so many beads at Mardi Gras that they are really not a very hot commodity. So next time I go, I will bring other fun stuff (boas, t-shirts, cups, toys) because people go crazy for anything other than beads! Also, you definitely don’t have to flash people to get beads. I only saw a few people do it all weekend. But if you want to, go for it… It doesn’t matter what you look like, everyone will cheer you on! Beads are given to everyone and there were lots of kids and older people with quite the collection!

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On Monday we had made reservations for the Lundi Gras Jazz Brunch at Broussard’s. Another event I highly recommend! Someone on TripAdvisor (THE website I use for travel planning) steered me towards the restaurant’s Facebook page a week or so before and if you made a reservation by that day, you got free bottomless mimosas with your brunch (usually $12 a person). Yay! The three-course brunch prices ranged from $21-$42 (depending on what entrée you ordered). I chose one of the most expensive (filet mignon) but it was delicious and worth it! Everyone at the restaurant was dancing with the jazz trio and having a fabulous time.

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After quite a few mimosas, we headed to the Zulu Lundi Gras Festival in Woldenberg Park. We drank, danced, and enjoyed the music and it was a blast.

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Later on in the afternoon, we headed back over to Bourbon Street. Zydeco music, booty dancing, strippers… Fun was had.

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On Tuesday (actual Mardi Gras day) it was in the 30s and raining. After three days of partying, we were done. We slept all day and just went out for food! Lunch was a french fry-stuffed burger at Vitascope (in the Hyatt) and dinner was cochon de lait fries at Ole Saint.

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A few more tips:
• BYOB if you want to save money! Go to a market or grocery store like Rousse’s (very close to the Hyatt), buy a six pack of canned beer for $5, and carry it around in a backpack! If you want liquor or wine, buy a cup to pour it in. You can carry cans and cups around on the street, but not glass. I also saw a lot of rolling coolers.
• Do NOT wear sandals or flip flops on Bourbon Street. Ewwwwwwwwwwwww…
• It was not as crazy as I thought it would be. I saw lots of children and elderly people, even on Bourbon Street! Everyone was friendly and happy. Also, if you are in high school or college… They don’t card anybody. Just sayin’.
• If you are going to a parade, download the Parade Tracker app on your phone. It shows you real time exactly where the start of the parade is. Very handy! (The parades last for hours…)
• Wear what you want! If you want to wear normal clothes or a fun tutu or just body paint… Anything goes! But if you wear an awesome costume people will want to take photos with you. 🙂

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