Florida: Fish, Sun, and Fun

IMG_2538 (640x427)We drove through Alabama and were on our way to Florida. Our first destination was Panama City in the Florida panhandle. We were staying at the Beachside Resort. The hotel was ok. It wasn’t the nicest but it worked. The big draw was the view. The hotel is right on the Gulf and just out the doors of the hotel were beautiful white beaches and crystal clear water. The first night we got there it was very windy and a little cool out so we headed down the road where there was a shopping center, Christina’s favorite. She wanted to get a few ore things for the wedding and there was an Olive Garden near by, also Christina’s favorite, that we headed to for dinner. The shopping center was ¬†Panama Pier Park;¬†it was actually huge with all sorts of stores. It was on outdoor shopping area similar to what you find at most outlet stores.

The next morning we decided to head out to the beach. It was a little warmer and not as windy as the previous day. Christina relaxed on a large wooden beach chair that she had me lug from the top of the beach all the way down to the water. I had my fishing pole in had and was ready to finally get some fishing time in. I waded out into the water about waist deep and I could still see the bottom perfectly clear. I ended up catching on flounder in the hour and a half we were out on the beach. Although it was nothing big it fulfilled my urge to fish. Later that night we headed to find some souvenirs, as well as our Florida magnet, and to get some froyo and call it night.

The next day we were off to Cocoa Beach where we got a pretty good deal to visit a time share seminar. For $199 we got a 3 night stay in a Holiday Inn Express and after the time share seminar we would get $199 back in cash and a free stay for a night in another Holiday Inn. We knew what we were in for with the time share seminar and we made sure we were ready. It was a little late when we got to Cocoa Beach, It was a 7.5 hour drive from Panama City, so we decided to get dinner and call it a night. We headed to Papa Vito’s. Boy were we happy we did. Check out Christina’s review of the restaurant here!

The next day was our time share seminar. In the morning we headed out for a run and went back to the hotel to get ready. We didn’t have time to get lunch so we headed to a little shop right near the hotel, The Local Experience. We noticed a sign for smoothies so we decided to try them and they were great. The owner and employee working were also both great and very helpful. The time share company that this seminar was with was Holiday Inn Club Vacations. We were told this presentation was going to last 2 hours. They were exactly right. At two hours on the dot we were out of there. They did try to get us to buy a time share but their¬†pricing didn’t seem very good. Although, we wouldn’t have gotten a time share anyway. Who wants to always vacation in the same place (yes, I know if you pay extra fees you can go to different locations). They claim these are “investments”, but they do not seem to grow in value.

After leaving the presentation we headed back to the Local Experience shop. We saw a pamphlet for a fishing charter and wanted to check it out. When we went back to the store they helped us call a few places to find somewhere to fish. We ended up going with Cast Away Florida who heads out on the Banana River and only cost us $65 per person for 4 hours of fishing.

We also decided to head to dinner at on of the restaurants that one of the locals recommended from the shop we were in, Baja’s Tavern and Eats. We headed to dinner and upon being seated Christina was already skeptical. There was a cat walking about in the out door seating area. We ordered our food and although nothing was bad nothing was really good either. The service that we had also wasn’t quite on par with what we expect from most restaurants, especially in this price range. You can also check out Christina’s review on this restaurant at her Yelp link here. After diner we decided to find a waterproof camera to bring to out fishing the next day and to bring with us on our Caribbean cruise. We checked Wal-mart, Sears, and Radioshack, before finally landing at Target just before closing and finding the camera we were looking for.

The next day we had to be at the boat dock for 8am. It was about a 10 minute drive from the hotel we were staying in. When we arrived to the dock we noticed the boat that we would be fishing from. We were on a decent sized, 24ft, pontoon boat with a captain and guide and we were the only ones on the boat. We caught a decent amount of fish, between the 2 of us we probably caught 30-40 fish. We caught a few pinfish, speckled trout, puffer fish, and grunts. In addition, I caught a very rare oyster, and Christina ended up hooking the biggest catch of the day: me! Yes, she hooked my ankle on accident, so I was the biggest catch. I was excited to finally get some real fishing in. After fishing we decided to go back to Papa Vito’s since it was so good, plus we had some coupons for lunch.

On November 6th we headed to Miami and checked in to our hotel in the afternoon. There was a Chinese restaurant that Christina wanted to stop by for dinner so we decided to head over there, called Wei’s Chinese Restaurant. We had hot pot for dinner, which is basically a pot of boiling broth at our table that you use to cook raw food that is given to you. Dinner was great and we were really happy that we decided to go over there.

Down in Miami we really feel like we are already down in the Caribbean islands. Everyone here is fluent in Spanish. Either they are native speakers or they have acquired it along the way. It seems mandatory down here if you are working in any retail or hospitality work. Also, Christina and I were very surprised to see the overwhelming amount of tolls we have to pay on the Florida turnpikes. We figured it’s going to cost us about $50 in tolls as we travel through Florida. I think we have spent over $30 so far.

The next day we needed to get a few final things for our wedding. Somehow Christina keeps finding a few more things we need to get. We headed to Miami International Mall and were able to find everything that we were looking for. Also, everyone seems to be on island time, especially in the mall. We also noticed a cache nearby. We were able to drive to a library just near the mall and find our cache pretty easily. After our cache we headed back to the hotel so we could get ready for our cruise and finalize some wedding tasks.

As of tomorrow afternoon our cell phones will be off for a week, and we will be on our way to the Caribbean. Woohoo! Can’t wait.

 

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Alabama

We made the decision to drive through Alabama the day of Saturday, November 1st, after leaving New Orleans. It was just going to be a quick stop. We were stopping through just to get a magnet, find our cache, and grab some lunch.

When we got into Spanish Fort, Alabama we stopped for some gasoline and headed to a Walgreens to look for a magnet. We found a magnet that said “Spanish Fort, AL” but not one that only said ” Alabama” So we decided to keep searching. In the Walgreens parking lot we noticed there was a cache. It was a quick find. We placed our frisbee and were off.

Christina had a couple of items that she had to return to Kohl’s so we headed one that was nearby in the town center. We were pretty hungry since we hadn’t eaten breakfast so lunch was the next thing on our list. We found a Five Guys Burgers and Fries, our favorite, so we had to stop there for lunch. After eating lunch we resumed our search for a magnet. we checked a couple of shops in the plaza we were in with no luck. One person recommended we go up the highway an exit and there was a “Tiger Pride” store that should have some.

We drove up to the next exit and found the store. To our dismay there were not any magnets there that we could use, unless we wanted one that was about a foot long. There was also another small gift store near by that we checked, and again we came out empty handed. The owner did recommend checking  Barnes and Noble, Bass Pro Shops, and the Welcome Center. Barnes and Noble was just next door so we searched there and again, nadda.

We decided to go check Bass Pro Shop and the Welcome Center. The only problem was they were back at the last exit we just came from. So we headed back to the previous exit and headed to Bass Pro Shops. Im sure you can see where this is about to go. There were no Alabama magnets there. I did need to get some fishing line, which came in handy the next day, so the trip to Bass Pro was not a complete loss.

We rushed over to the Welcome Center. They must have magnets there we thought. We arrived at 3:15 sharp, only to find they closed at 3pm. What kind of Welcome Center closes at 3?

We made the decision that this was becoming very much a pain and headed back to Walgreens, where this all started and to get the original magnet that we found.

NEW RULE: When we find a magnet with a state name on it, we buy it. No searching around.

That was our trip to Alabama. Now, on our way to Panama City Beach.

New Orleans: The Beignet Battle

Michael and I were very much looking forward to visiting New Orleans, Louisiana and since the beginning of the trip I had been bugging him to visit this city! I had heard lots of fun and exciting things about this city, and I was ready to take it on with my side-kick hand-in-hand.

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We booked two nights, 10/30 & 10/31 at Hotel New Orleans Downtown, which was undergoing a $29 million renovation to become Le Meridien. The architects and construction was very much limited to one section so we did not feel bothered at all by this. This hotel was so nicely decorated and had that nice, refreshing hotel scent as soon as you walked into the lobby. Since this hotel only offered valet parking for about $45/night, we opted to park at Harrah’s Hotel & Casino, right across the street for $30/night. This saved us $30 for parking in total for the two nights. We did not want to gamble, but if we signed up for a Total Rewards Card and gambled for 30 minutes, we would have received one free night of parking. We’re not big on gambling anyways, so it was not worth the risk to us.

View from hotel room

One of the main reasons we selected this hotel was the fact that it was right in the French Quarter, but it wasn’t too close to the main “party” area in city. It was just close enough to walk to and from, so we were happy with the location.

The first afternoon we checked in, we decided to walk down the Riverwalk all the way down the Mississippi River to Jackson Square to do a cache and also grab some famous beignets at Cafe du Monde. Along our stroll we saw so many painters, musicians, artists, performers, and homeless people wandering the streets. New Orleans has a very European atmosphere to it, and the buildings have such lovely balconies and architecture. Because it was the day before Halloween, it seemed as though everyone was gearing up for the occasion. It was neat to explore Jackson Square and stumble upon Pirates Alley where we did our cache. We were also instantly able to find a magnet with an over abundance of gift shops in this area, all along Decatur Street. We also got a chance to walk along Bourbon Street to be in the thick of things.

We stayed around the area until the Krewe of Boo Halloween Parade, which started at 6:30pm, securing a standing spot along the street across from the H&M. Crowds gathered in the area so we knew this was going to be a fun one. There were so many different people, groups, dancers, musicians, performers, speakers, trucks, tractors, and floats that went by. Some were throwing out freebies and we got some samples of some New Orleans Chewy Pralines from Aunt Sally’s, some ground coffee from PJ’s, a few different beads, plastic cups, a magnifying glass, assorted candies, and snacks.

For dinner, I was anticipating, craving and hoping there would be some spicy, cajun, and creole crawfish. Unfortunately, we soon realized they were not in season. They are, however, available in the wintertime, through February. I did manage to find some places with some crawfish in a few dishes. We decided to check out Huck Finn’s Cafe on Decatur Street for some southern grub. I ordered the Taste of New Orleans (Crawfish Etouffee, Jambalaya, Red Beans and Rice) and Michael got the Shrimp BBQ Po-Boy. Our entrees were both delicious and very flavorful!

It was Halloween the next morning, and we kicked off the day with a trip¬†to the fitness center, which was on the fourth floor of the hotel. We had to walk passed the outdoor pool to get to the area. It was a nice gym filled with all sorts of weight and cardio equipment, so we took advantage of everything there, and we sure are still feeling the pain of our workout now. It was about 1pm when we got ready to go out for some brunch, and we actually decided on some sushi because we hadn’t had it since Michael’s parents took us out before we left. It was so yummy and definitely hit the spot.

We made our way to the French Market, which is home to many vendors. There were a decent amount of people shopping around and there was so much going on. I made Michael get me a “faux” diamond ring, since mine was getting rhodium-dipped in preparation for the wedding, and we figured since we were in the French Market, we might as well go with the with the theme:)¬†I also had their version of a snow cone, which was some of the best shaved ice ever!

Because NOLA is known for its beignets, we knew that we could not just limit our tasting to the really popular one in town. So…we made our way to two more cafes famed for these scrumptious donuts. Our first stop was New Orleans Famous Beignets and Coffee, where there were barely any people=no crowds whatsoever! ¬†We were a bit hesitant, but we were going for it! As soon as the order came out we knew we were in for a treat. These beignets were a lot thinner than the ones we had at Cafe du Monde. They were piping hot, and oh sooo flaky! These really reminded both of us of a pastry sheet. There was just enough powdered sugar on these mamas, and they were so delicious that we were really happy to get to try these. The coffee on the other hand was blah. Price: $3 for 3 beignets

Next on the list was Cafe Beignet. I mean it has Beignet in its name! We were surprised to see this place had the widest assortment of food and beverages compared to the other two, which was so not reflective and indicative in its name. Michael placed the order at the counter, and we had a seat. These beignets were the most expensive at just over $4 for 3. They also definitely seemed to take the longest to prepare. When they came out, the gentleman had three other plates of food for other guests, and he had them stacked right on top of our order…so it left some imprints on the¬†powdered sugar. These resembled the ones we tried at the first place, because they were much thicker than the ones at New Orleans Famous. Michael and I agreed that these were actually way better than the first place as well!

So who took the lead in this challenge? Well, I know Michael was really a big fan of New Orleans Famous Beignets and Coffee, as was I. But, I was really torn on whether or not I enjoyed the larger ones at Cafe Beignet. Because there is so much hype with Cafe du Monde’s beignets, we were both really surprised these were the most difficult to eat and chew. These were really dense, and more consolidated/doughy compared to the other two. The thinner ones at Famous were really flavorful but overly oily. Yes, we really enjoyed the Famous ones, but I would vote Cafe Beignet as a close second.

After the beignets, we decided to head back to the hotel to freshen up for the parade and dinner. That evening, we were really not impressed with the parade. It was much shorter and the participants of this parade did not seem too enthusiastic about it, even though everyone was dressed up.

One huge revelation occurred when we were eating dinner on Halloween evening at New Orleans Hamburger & Seafood Co. was that mayonnaise typically does not need to be refrigerated!!! WHAAAT?? My first thought was “EW!” I saw the squeezable mayo bottle (pictured below) with a strong focus on “NO REFRIGERATION NEEDED”. I was aware that if the bottle was newly opened, it does not need to get refrigerated, but once the seal gets opened, I assumed it was necessary. I guess not. Well that was news to me. Apparently Michael had known this all along, but failed to mention that to me. I wanted to confirm this notion, and sure enough…it’s true! Even after knowing this, I will still most likely keep it in the fridge…it just creeps me out for some reason.

Overall, The Big Easy really had a lot to offer, and the best part of it all were its beignets: I mean how can you go wrong with fried dough sprinkled generously with powdered sugar?

Mississippi

We made our way to Mississippi after Tennessee booking our one night stay in Jackson the night before the incident. Michael took me to a Steak ‘n Shake for the first time where we had some burgers, fries, and shakes once we crossed the Mississippi border, because we were starving! It was about 3pm in the afternoon, and we were happy to eat some protein!

Due to unforeseen events we arrived to Jackson just after 8pm on Wednesday, 10/29. It sure was a long day! We checked into the hotel.  We thought it was peculiar there was no one at the front desk. I guess she was shopping at Walmart, so it took longer than anticipated.

The first thing we wanted to do was to go to Applebee’s when we got there. It was hump day there, so most of the burgers were $5.99. Burgers and beer while we watched Game 7 of the World Series. ¬†We pretty much ate burgers in this state.¬†It was a pretty early night when we turned in. The next morning we found a magnet, did our cache and left.

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We were really eager to get to New Orleans to take part in Halloween festivities, so here’s the MS sum-up: burgers, burgers, sleep, magnet, cache, and dash.