Snorkeling in John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park

This morning I woke up to the loudest and most interesting storm I have ever heard/seen, which is saying a lot, since I live in the Pacific Northwest, went to college in the Midwest, and have visited nearly every one of the ‘worst weather’ states in the US. Until recently, we had never been this far South – on the Island of Key Largo in the Florida Keys, to be exact.

I ran out and shot the best video I could with such short notice, being that is was still dark, and trying to find a decent place to park where I wouldn’t be stuck down by lightning. – I’ll post a bit of the video when I have some time to edit it. It really was surreal.

Christ of the Deep

Christ of the Deep

A couple of interesting things to note about the Florida Keys. First off, if Oregonians think their weather changes fast, they should visit the Keys. Not only are you in the tropics, but there isn’t much land mass, either. So weather systems just breeze right over us like nothing. In fact, if I have my GPS on, the route line is the same width as the island! At some points I can literally see the Ocean on one side and the Bay on the other…a little disconcerting when the monsoon-style rains start.

Key Largo – the first major island in this archipelago of islands (or Keys), is considered the diving capital of the world, and snorkeling here has been on my ‘must do’ travel list for some time. Ever since I saw images of the undersea park in John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, I knew I had to visit. They put stone people underwater! I couldn’t wait.

Today, I’m happy to say I’ve at least started to scratch this one off my list. Even though the day began with a bang, in the afternoon we were able to fit in a couple hours of snorkeling off the main beach in the Park. Surrounded by children learning to snorkel, one can assume that’s the kiddie pool/training area. This means it’s doubtful that I’ll be able to swim down and greet the Christ of the Deep before we leave Key Largo, but I know I’m well on my way to at least make the colorful coral reefs that lie 3-5 miles offshore.

This trip mostly featured the same little fish I’ve seen around the piers, random sea vegetation, one feisty crab, and – if you believe the kiddos in my area – at least a half dozen sharks and one sea snake. Thankfully, I escaped unharmed, despite forgetting to remove my Power Bait Pink nail polish – again!

When a beach isn’t a beach…

Unless you are lucky enough to stay in a resort or motel right on the water, views like this are rare in Key Largo. Sadly, most of the coastline is blocked by business, residential or vegetation.

Sunrise on the Atlantic - Key Largo, FL

Sunrise on the Atlantic – Key Largo, FL

Additionally, Key Largo is known as the ‘Diving Capital of the World’ – and for good reason. The area is surrounded by beautiful living coral reefs, but that makes for a much more gritty, rocky shoreline. When there is a bit of land to stand on, you’re going to find mostly crushed coral vs. sand. Not quite so barefoot friendly :) And walking into the water seems more like the edge of a lake or riverbank…not the nice gently, sandy slope of a more traditional beach.

Snorkelers and divers will be in heaven ~ but if you are looking for small kid friendly beaches to jump waves and build sand castles, this might not be the Key for you. We’ll keep you posted on what we find as we head down through the other major Keys until we reach the end of road in Key West, FL.

Asian Otters

Since we both love animals so much, and I tend to spend hours and hours video taping and photographing them in various places around the world (country thus far), we’re going to start posting some of our favorites, along with additional info for fellow animal lovers :)

SeaWorld San Antonio closes for the season tomorrow, and a well-timed break in the cloudy weather got us out and over to enjoy it! After stumbling across these little guys – tucked back past the seals and sea lions – we might have to go back tomorrow, I’m in love!

Cool Facts (from the Monterey Bay Aquarium website)
Asian small-clawed otters live in female-dominated groups, also known as lodges. A lodge typically consists of four to 12 individuals. In the lodges, otters are social and playful. Couples mate for life and usually produce two litters of two to three pups each year. These family groups stay together with the older siblings helping to raise the younger ones, though they don’t reproduce on their own. The group splits up only when one of the parents dies. Gestation period is about 60 days. The newborns open their eyes at six weeks and begin to swim at nine weeks. Unlike the African spotted-necked otters, Asian small-clawed males help raise the offspring from day one.

These otters are considered to be the most vocal of the 13 otter species. They can emit a dozen or more calls, each with its own distinct meaning such as alarm, greeting and mating calls.

Rice farmers are tolerant of small-clawed otters since the otters feed on crayfish that can damage rice fields. Fishermen train otters to drive fish into nets.

What we learned about lodging in 2012

Our 2013 trip (which will likely be our last big road trip), is much easier due to all we learned on our first go around. One of the things that make this possibly is our choice in lodging. Last year we tried to go as cheap as we could–think Motel 6, Days Inn, etc. We tried living solely off a hot plate, mini-fridge and microwave (if we were lucky) One room, generally no seating, which made any down time watching movies or just talking a bit tricky ~ bed are comfortable enough for sleeping, but not so much for lounging around. At times our internet was spotty at best, the rooms’ cleanliness and existence of roommates in the form of critters was always a gamble.

This made for a lot of moving sooner than expected, which increased our costs greatly. And since we travel with our dog, the shorter the stay, the less the pet fee would get spread out. I’ll make another post soon about which hotel chains give you the most value for your pet fee. :)

In our second round, we’ve discovered a few very helpful tips that have made our work and personal lives much more productive and enjoyable. Here is a list of our more helpful suggestions:

1 – Try and find one hotel chain and stick with them. This gives you the ability to collect ‘points’ using their reward system (all big chains have them), and most include multiple brands under one umbrella. While we try and seek out Mom & Pop motels in smaller towns, in any larger cities, it’s much more reliable to go with your favorite. Our number one pick is the InterContinental Hotels Group (IHG). They have nearly 5,000 hotels in 1,000 countries (even though we’re focused on just one at the moment). Their hotels include: Candlewood Suites, Staybridge Suites, Holiday Inn, Holiday Inn Express and Crowne Plaza to name a few. Candlewood Suites are generally on the ‘budget’ end of the spectrum, but they have all the comforts of home. With a kitchen, optional bedrooms, and free (yes, FREE!) laundry. Their Internet access is always spot on, and if it’s not, they’ll generally work to resolve the situation.

2 – Don’t always go for the cheapest solution. As mentioned above, brand loyalty has its perks. If you earn a free night for every X nights that you stay, you can count that into your budget. Also, for longer term stays, you can usually negotiate the room tax. A $33 budget room quickly becomes a $50+ once you add in taxes. In most states, if you stay 30 days or longer, you can get the state and city taxes waived. Add in being able to cook for yourself and being comfortable staying in or on property, free internet, cable, sitting areas and free laundry – and suddenly you find a lot more money in your budget to spend on the lodging itself.

3 – Try before you buy! A lot of our unplanned moves from one location to another could have been prevented if we had simply looked at the room and checked the internet speed before checking in! All motels and hotels should allow you to do this, and if they don’t, that’s a big red flag in my book. Just because you’ve reserved the room doesn’t mean you need to take it. If it’s not what expected or as advertised, stand your ground. Ask to see another room or even cancel your reservation altogether. Again – any reputable company will not hold you to the 24-hour cancellation notice if they’re at fault for not providing what they represented. A simple & free speed test app on your smart phone can give you the details of Wi-Fi in the room.

4 – Location, location, location! Do some research and think before you commit to a certain area. On our second cross country trip, we knew exactly what we wanted to see in the places we had already been, so it was easy for us to plan that way. If you know you want to visit DisneyWorld, but simply search for Orlando hotels, you can end up miles and miles away. For some, that might be OK. For others, especially if you are visiting multiple days, you may want to pay the extra money to be closer. It’s a little game in pros and cons we always work out. We ask ourselves a couple important questions: ‘How many times will we be visiting ‘Location X per week?’ and ‘How much time/gas will we pay being further away?’ – These two answers along can make a great mathematical equation to decide on being across the street or half an hour away from ‘Location X’.

Berried treasures close to home

Hoffman Farms Store

$1 Berry Tarts – Perfect size, perfect price!

One of the hardest parts about coming ‘home’ is the sheer amount of catching up there is to do. Many people believe life on the road is the chaotic part, but they’re mistaken. Honestly, I get most of my battery recharging, creative juice flow, inspiration, etc., when we’re on the go. During our respite back at Home Base, my free time is spent catching up with family, taking care of various checkups, car maintenance, and so on. We hardly ever have the time to get out and explore our very own backyard.

This makes our latest find all the sweeter. Earlier in the summer, a local berry farm ran a Groupon special, and it was quickly snapped up by me at least three of my family members. We’re very fortunate to live in an area in which a ten-minute drive from the city will land you smack in the middle of agriculture nirvana. Hoffman Farms Store is located within this little haven, just off Scholls Ferry Road in Scholls, Oregon. For those not in the know, Scholls Ferry, along with its cohorts, Farmington & River Roads, sprawl through miles and miles of Washington County’s west side. Out this way you’ll find everything from Alpacas to Vineyards. Berry and apple farms, lavender fields, mini horses, antique shops – these are just some of the places you’ll pass, and on a nice day, a fair amount of cyclists. We are located just outside the most bike-friendly city in the world, after all.

Hoffman Farms Store is a small, family owned and operated farm residing on the historic Butler/Flint Century Farm in Scholls . They’ve been in business for over two decades, but relocated to their current home in 2000. The Store is quaint, clean and charmingly decorated. Their staff is friendly and knowledgeable. Prices are wonderful, but the main attraction has to be those berries! Big, juicy, bright and fresh – you’ll have a hard time resisting them until you get to your destination.

At this time, with summer winding down, Hoffman Farms Store has some blueberries and blackberries left, but the season is sadly over for strawberries, raspberries, and marionberries and all U-picking. However, they still offer a variety of fresh, locally grown produce, Walla Walla sweet onions, cucumbers, zucchini, green beans, sweet corn, cherries, cantaloupe, and Sweet Sue peaches. Fresh spinach, lettuce and herbs are harvested daily from the garden.

While you’re there, don’t miss one of their fresh-baked, handmade fruit pies and tarts. The little hand tarts are just $1 and the perfect size for an on-the-go treat.  You can grab a coffee as well, since Hoffman Farms Store even boasts it’s own real espresso machine…the kind the big guys abandoned for less attractive and more automated gizmos & gadgets.

Be sure to take a walk around the grounds while you’re there. Among the fields you’ll find great places to stop in the shade, have a picnic, and even one of the most unique play structures I’ve seen.

You can currently visit the Hoffman Farms Store daily. Hours and updated availability is located on their website.

Hoffman Farms Store

22242 SW Scholls Ferry Road
Beaverton, OR  97007
(503) 628-5418

The kindness of strangers

Disney Passes!

A gift from a passing stranger...

I’ll never meet you, you’ll never meet me. Even if we did meet, the chances of us knowing we share a moment in time are not in our favor. You ‘paid forward’ a little gesture that created a lifetime memory for four people. Early on Wednesday, May 16th, 2012, you happened across two travel weary college students in the Orlando International Airport while exiting the plane. The kids had just spent the last dozen or so hours flying the red-eye from Portland, Oregon to Orlando, in order to visit with my husband and I. You simply handed them two small scraps of cardstock, explaining to them that they were passes to DisneyWorld, insisted they made sure to use them, and continued on your day.

Well, I wish I could express the gratitude the four of us feel for what you did. My husband and I already had resident passes, and we all knew ahead of time that DisneyWorld was not really in the cards for the kids this trip. Theme park prices have increased since my day (back when your parents/grandparents or anyone else electing not to go on rides could pass those gates for free & simply observe!) For those who don’t know, a day trip to any of the major Orlando parks will set you back about $100 – one park, one day. To make matters worse, all the big players have now split their parks into individual mini-parks, so count on adding more money for each additional park, day, food, line passing, and any other way they can think of to make more money off you :) So, needless to say, the Wonderful World of Disney (split into four separate parks here in Orlando), was off our list.

Two happy kids!

Justin & Jasmine in the Magic Kingdom

Not sure if the flimsy cards my nephew held in his hand were real, he showed them to me. I read the back – one day park hoppers, worth about $120 each. Nice score! Two days later, we headed to the turnstiles of Disney’s Hollywood Studios with a little trepidation, but once the kids were through the gate, they didn’t stop until we closed down Epcot later that evening. They managed to get in 3 of the 4 Disney parks that day, and had an amazing time.

So, kind sir, the chances of you ever reading this are lottery-winning slim, but hopefully it’s a lesson to others what a small gesture can mean to someone else. (Note: I’m in no way implying $240 worth of tickets is a “small” gesture, but in this case I imagine they were extra or leftover tickets you could not use) In any event, you added an unforgettable experience to two very grateful young adults, as well as their Aunt & Uncle. Thank you!

Those darn kittens

Just as I hit my stride today, masterfully balancing housework & editing, my husband walked in the door with five of these adorable little guys. Sadly, they appear to be abandoned; he ran across them last night, and when he checked on them today they were no better off. Scattered around a very hot sidewalk in Central Florida, and a day promising temps in the 90′s, he knew he really had no choice but to rescue them. At about 48 hours old, they were likely to end up dead from heat or a meal for one of the many creatures that inhabit the area where we currently stay.

Unfortunately, it’s Sunday and there isn’t anyone around to bring them to. After a call to my mother-in-law, some checking online, and a trip to the store for a kitten bottle & kitten formula (yup, they make that), all five are happily cat-napping away in their makeshift home at the moment. I’m seriously hoping the local shelter will take them and continue to nurture them to the appropriate adoption age, I’d hate to think of anything bad happening to them.

Needless to say, my productivity dropped to zero after the arrival of the kittens. On the other hand, my dog Bitey, who had spent the better part of the day holding the couch down, leaped into action. She’s been pacing around the kittens bed, sniffing them, watching them…she seems a little confused, but still guards, which I think is sweet. The confusion must be due – in part – to the fact that Bitey is quite fond of chasing grown cats. These guys are defenseless and so very tiny, and they don’t run away at the sight of her!

It’s a darned good thing we are on the road, it would be hard for Justin to take them from me if he had found them when we were home.