Have you ever wanted to sell everything you own and just "take off?" Travel the country's back roads, paddle down a meandering stream, experience breath-taking mountain views, walk among 100-year old trees, and just marvel at America's beauty? That is the dream that my partner, Betsy, and I decided to make a reality. This blog describes our adventure. The food we eat, people we meet, sights we see, and the enjoyment we find in traveling.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Now I know What Ice Cubes Feel Like?

It is cold here in the Florida panhandle! This morning we woke up to ice on the car, motorhome, trees, steps, and everywhere else Old Man Winter decided to throw it.  I am not going to get much sympathy from you blog readers who are up north in the real frigid waste land so my whining stops now. 

We knew a ghastly weather change was coming so the shock factor was not that great and we were prepared.  Except when the desperate whimpering pup woke me up at 5:30 am for her morning outing.  I have been pleading with her to wait until 6:30 at least.    
 
Our javelina "Josephina" did not have a smile on her face and gave me the evil eye when I
laughed at her on the icy picnic table. 
One more night of below freezing temperatures – 22°F in fact, and then we are up in the 70’s by Sunday. The wool coats and scarves get put away as they will be replaced with shorts and flip flops and we’ll be watching the big game on the outside t.v.  Whoo hoo!

Until then, we will be staying warm inside with the company of family and friends.

Nikki, Jennifer, and Mark.


Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Sea-ing More of Florida

Time is quickly marching as Betsy’s brother’s visit comes to an end.  Mark is a guy who spends his winters in Chicago (I know we think that is crazy too) enjoying the big city life immersed in the arts and culture that make that city unique.  So after a number of strolls on the beach, checking out the New Urbanism architecture, and admiring the local galleries, I thought he might enjoy going to some of the local museums.  There is no Contemporary Arts Museum or art institute but I was able to come up with a couple of doozies that would give him a taste of the local culture.  The Man in the Sea Museum ($5) and the Destin Fishing Museum ($5)  O.k., so the truth is I have been wanting to go to these museums and this was my excuse to make it happen. 


Betsy refused to go in the Man of the Sea Museum since she is certain we were there many years ago with my parents.  She opted for a nap in the car instead but Mark and I were brave enough to open the windowless steel door and have a look.  The museum is filled with undersea paraphernalia (donated from a nearby U.S. Navy installation) that takes you on a journey from crude early diving equipment to the creation of undersea labs capable of housing people for months underwater.


The exhibits are very hands-on so you can climb in the Undersea Lab, put a Mark IV helmet on your head and don a scuba mask if you choose.  After forty-five minutes of poking around the exhibits and listening to the videos, we ventured outside to take a look around the metal objects that adorn the parking lot.  Betsy got to see those for free from the car window.  We both decided undersea exploration is not for us but were glad we visited the museum.



There was no way we were going to try out the decompression chamber.
Go on in Mark . . . I think you'll fit.
The Destin Fishing Museum is quite small (and located conveniently right next to the Senior Center) but jammed packed with artifacts, pictures, mounted fish, and historical artifacts that tell the story of Destin’s past and fishing history.  The museum houses many unique artifacts including a bamboo fishing rod that belonged to Ernest Hemingway and the oldest seine fishing boat still in existence.  While perusing the exhibits, the Assistant Director came over to give us a history lesson in Destin’s geography.  Turns out Destin is home to the largest commercial fishing fleet in Florida and one of the largest fishing rodeos in the country.  No wonder the town is called the “World’s Luckiest Fishing Village.”  The Destin Fishing Rodeo celebrated its 65 th year in 2013 and with over 30,000 anglers competing throughout the month of October vying for over $100,000 in cash and prizes.  The fishing industry is big business in Destin and that is very obvious when you visit. 





In between all this excitement we still had time to hook up with and introduce Mark to some of our friends.  We had a great dinner of Zuni chicken with Jen and Nikki at their home and another day met up with Jen and Deas (Nealys on Wheels) who were organizing a get together with some other RV bloggers, Clark and Lynn (Tales From the Mutiny).  We ended up in Panama City for some delicious grub at Dusty’s Oyster Bar – a new favorite restaurant of ours.  The joint is known for their oysters served practically any way you want them.  Mark was back in oyster shooter heaven.

Clark, Lynn, Betsy, Deas, Jennifer, Me, and Mark

Mark will have to wait for sophisticated cultural activities until he gets back to Chicago.  He was a good sport to partake in my love of small obscure museums.  In the meantime, we still have a few more days with Mark which we will enjoy as we indulge in more seafood, amble through the art galleries, collect a few more sea shells, and glare at the emerald water.






Monday, January 27, 2014

Fleur de Sel Chocolate Caramels

Don’t be freaked out about making candy.  Candy making is certainly not my forte so believe me when I say that these little bites of gooey chocolaty rich goodness are not that hard to make.  So put your apron and your “can do” attitude on and get cooking because these are well worth it.  Besides, it is cheaper to make these candies at home than paying $2.50 a pop in a gourmet chocolate shop. 

I remember having salted chocolate caramels with my mom in a chocolate shop in St. Louis.  It was a number of years back and thought they were the most wonderful thing ever to grace a display case.  (If you can’t tell, I am more interested in beautiful food than shoes or handbags.)  What I love is the irresistible combination of chewy caramel that sticks in your teeth while the bittersweet chocolate coats your palate and the touch of salt slowly dissolves in your mouth.  Yes, I was eating one while typing!  

In hindsight, I should not have added this recipe into my repertoire.  The results have
certainly wiggled their way down my hips and are evident on the digital numbers glaring up at me from an unhappy scale. But they are yummy, easy, and elegant so how bad can that be?

The recipe is slightly modified from one I came across by Ina Garten and deserves to be made at least once – I would recommend not so close to the New Year’s resolution you made a few weeks back (that is if you made one . . . and clearly I did not).

Ingredients

  • 1 ½ cups granulated sugar
  • ¼  cup light corn syrup
  • 1 cup heavy cream
  • 5 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 1 teaspoon fleur de sel (a.k.a. sea salt), plus extra for sprinkling
  • ½  teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  • 4 oz. bittersweet chocolate
  • 1 tablespoon butter

Directions

  1. Line an 8-inch-square baking pan with parchment paper, allowing it to come up the sides.
  2. In a deep saucepan (3 qt.), combine 1/4 cup water, the sugar and corn syrup and bring them to a boil over medium-high heat.  Boil until the mixture is a warm golden brown. Don't stir -- just swirl the pan.
  3. Meanwhile, in a small saucepan bring the heavy cream, butter and 1 teaspoon of fleur de sel to a simmer over medium-low heat. Turn off the heat and set aside.
  4. When the sugar mixture is golden brown, turn off the heat and slowly add the cream mixture to the sugar mixture.  Be careful -- it will bubble up violently.  Stir in the vanilla with a wooden spoon and cook over medium-low heat for about 10 minutes, until the mixture reaches 248 degrees F (firm ball stage) on a candy thermometer.
  5. Very carefully pour the hot caramel into the prepared pan and let cool until firm.  When cool, cut caramel into bite-sized pieces. (If you like sprinkle salt on these and eat them plain, if desired.
  6. For chocolate covered caramels, cut the chocolate into small pieces and place in a bowl set over simmering water (or in a double boiler). Slowly melt the chocolate and stir in the butter to combine.
  7. Dip the caramel pieces in melted chocolate until coated.  Place on parchment paper and let cool.  Sprinkle with fleur de sel.   (Trim the excess chocolate from the bottom for a neater presentation.)


Thursday, January 23, 2014

The Social Calendar is Full Again

Mark  happy with his dozen oysters.
Busy, busy, busy is how I would describe the last few days.  We had another friend and fellow Mainer (of Marks), Bonnie, come for a visit and the four of us continued the routine of eating, laughing, and enjoying the bright Florida sunshine and white sandy beaches.  Since we love the Florida panhandle, we are more than happy to share it with our friends and show them the area.  And of course that means indulging in the Gulf’s bountiful seafood treasures.  Mark is a raw oyster fan so we are on a daily quest to find the best slippery, slimy, salty, slithering shucked goodness.  Betsy and I don’t eat raw oysters but love hearing him moan in gastronomic joy and proclaim how good they are.  Ah, the simple pleasures in life!

Bonnie and Mark taking a break from watching the football game to pose for the camera.
We also met some RV’ing gals, Jan and Phyllis, who are blog readers and were camped in the same park.  Phyllis contacted us and asked if we wanted to meet when they were in town.  Our response, “of course!”  These ladies travel part-time leaving their North Carolina stick house for much-needed vacations in their rig with four dogs and a cockatoo.  Wow, and I thought our little four-pawed pooch was a lot to handle?  It was great getting to know them over dog walks in the woods, cocktails in the evening, and dinner. 
 
Phyllis, Jan and just one of the dogs with their rig before heading home.  Can't wait to see them this Spring in North Carolina.
One of the best things about RV’ing is meeting new people and sharing stories.  We have learned a lot from those we have met – everything from which is the best winery to visit . . . where is the closest dog park . . . how to find my diesel water separator (and what to do with it once I find it) . . . to finding the best donut in town.  It seems that living in RV parks and making new friends goes hand in hand.  I admit, we don’t always talk to our neighbors.  Sometimes, we are scared by two adults traveling with four kids and three dogs.  Some neighbors prefer their privacy and sometimes we prefer ours.  But most of the time, we are telling each other about “our new best friend” that we met while walking Spirit and exchanging cards so we can stay in touch.  One never knows who you will see again or where because there is a lot of smallness to this world.

And for the small world category, Jan is a veterinarian and scientist and had graduated from Ohio State Veterinary College where Betsy went to college but she arrived two years later.  Phyllis is a lawyer.  We had an immediate connection.  Great new friends that we plan to see again in their home state on our way to Maine.

We especially love meeting blog readers because it gives us a chance to meet the people that read my written ramblings.  The Blogger homepage tells me how many people hit my blog in a day but I have very little idea who you are.  Thanks for reading and letting us get to know you through your comments and contacting us.  Our door is always open and there usually is a bottle of wine open in the evening, so please stop by if you are ever nearby. 




Monday, January 20, 2014

A Welcomed Visit

It’s been a week since Betsy’s brother Mark drove into Florida to pay us a visit.  It has been nearly two years since we saw Mark which makes this a long overdue get together.  Mark spends six months of the year working at his bed and breakfast, the Maples Inn in Bar Harbor, Maine. (Click here to read a past blog about our experience running the Inn while Mark was away - it was quite the week.)  The Inn is closed during the winter which leaves him free to return to his beloved Chicago and time to travel around visiting friends and family.  We were super happy when he put us on his travel list. 


And we were super ecstatic when he showed up with live lobsters from our favorite sea food market in Pensacola (Joe Patti’s) and king cake from New Orleans.  Nothing like a Maine lobster feast in Florida.


Mark is game for just about anything so we have been busy showing him around taking him to our favorite eateries, shops, hiking trails, walks on the beach, and getting to know our friends.  

Look Mom, I am drinking my vegetables!
Although he is here for two and a half weeks the time is flying by so time for me to stop typing and get back to playing tour guide.



Monday, January 13, 2014

Chicken Tikka Masala

There is no shortage of great restaurants in our neck of the Florida woods.  The bounty of the sea (and land) comes alive in creative gastronomic inventions by some incredible chefs.  We have certainly found our favorite places to eat and still have many more to try.   That said, if your taste buds are beckoning ethnic food, you may have to look elsewhere.  Yes, there are a few Mexican restaurants, the occasional sushi bar or pasta house, a lonely Greek place, and maybe a couple others hidden away.  But when I was in the mood for Indian food . . . I was out of luck. 

So the other night with chicken breasts in hand I decided it was time to break out the cardamom, ginger, and coriander and bring a taste of the Punjab to the motorhome.  Betsy was agreeable to whatever creation was coming to her plate just as long as it didn’t interfere with the Golden Globes and her claimed spot on the couch. 

I had all the ingredients in the motorhome except plain yogurt but I decided the slightly sweet and tangy honey vanilla Greek yogurt sleeping in the fridge would work just fine.  After all, my aunt makes her enchiladas with whipped topping and it works. 

This recipe serves four but you can easily cut it in half as I did.  One large chicken breast was plenty for us.  OR . . . make the full amount and have some delicious leftovers for the next day or to tuck away in the freezer.

While the chicken was marinating, I made a pot of rice and began on the sauce.  In no time dinner was served.  Just when I thought the clapping was for my culinary delight that I boastfully placed on the table, I realized the “best actress in a drama” was being announced and the fan fair was for someone in a Versace gown and not a cook in holey blue jeans.  Oh well.

Serves: 4


Ingredients


Chicken marinade

  • 1 cup plain low-fat yogurt
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 1 tablespoon finely grated fresh ginger
  • 1 tablespoon ground cumin
  • 1 tablespoon ground coriander
  • ½ teaspoon ground cardamom
  • ¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • ½ teaspoon ground turmeric
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 2 large skinless, boneless chicken breasts

Sauce

  • ¼ cup sliced almonds
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • ½ large onion, finely chopped
  • 1 clove garlic cloves, minced
  • ½ tablespoon ginger, freshly grated
  • 1½ tablespoons garam masala
  • 1 tablespoon chile powder
  • ½ teaspoon cinnamon
  • ¼ teaspoon cayenne powder
  • 1 15-ounce can peeled tomatoes, finely chopped (I buy the petite diced)
  • ½ cup chicken stock
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • ½ cup heavy cream
  • ¼ cup frozen peas
  • Salt and pepper, to taste

Garnish with fresh cilantro

Directions

  1. Preheat oven to 350°F. 
  2. In a large bowl, combine the yogurt, garlic, ginger, cumin, coriander, cardamom, cayenne, turmeric and olive oil.  Cut chicken into 1-inch pieces and place in the marinade.  Refrigerate for at least an hour, or up to, overnight.
  3. Place almond on a sheet pan and bake for 10-15 minutes until golden brown.  Once cool, place almonds in a food processor and pulse until finely ground.  Reserve for later use.
  4. Increase the oven temperature to 450°F. 
  5. In a large skillet, heat 2 tablespoons of oil over medium heat.  Add the onion and sauté for 5 minutes.  Add garlic and ginger and cook, stirring occasionally, for another 2-3 minutes.  Add the garam masala, chile powder, cinnamon, and cayenne.  Stir the mixture and cook for another 2-3 minutes until the spices become fragrant.  Add the tomatoes with their juices, chicken stock, sugar and season with salt and pepper.  Cover partially and simmer, stirring occasionally, until the sauce is slightly thickened, about 15-20 minutes.  Add the cream, ground almonds and peas and cook uncovered over low heat for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. 
  6. Place the chicken in a single layer on a baking sheet and season with salt and pepper.  Cook the chicken for 10 minutes, turning once midway through.  When the chicken is done, add it to the sauce and simmer gently for another five minutes until cooked thoroughly.  (If the sauce is too thick, add chicken stock or more cream.).
  7. Serve over rice and garnish with fresh cilantro.







Friday, January 10, 2014

Coastal Dune Lakes - a Stunning Backdrop for the Sun

Coastal dune lakes are one of the most unique landscape features that dot the coastline along the beach of South Walton, Florida.  These lakes represent a unique geographical feature that is only found in just  a few parts of the world including Madagascar, Australia, New Zealand, Oregon, and here in Walton County.  


Campbell Lake 
Campbell Lake at Topsail Hill Preserve is very scenic and worth the short hike.
These globally rare lakes perform a number of functions, one of which is providing stunning scenery for sunrises and sunsets.  Personally, these lakes are totally captivating and the landscape is idyllic.  When I say they provide an incredible backdrop for sunrises and sunsets, I’m not kidding.


The "ball of fire" in this picture is actually the sun rising over Western Lake. It was taken from the bedroom window in the motorhome.
A view worth getting out of bed in the morning for.
On an ecological note, they are critical estuaries that offer nursery grounds to shell and finfish.  The shallow fresh water lakes sit at the gulf’s doorstep protected only by a natural berm of fine white sand.  In periods of high lake water or strong surge from the gulf, the berm is breached and an opening (or outfall) develops.  Through this outfall salt water from the gulf enters the fresh water lakes, resulting in a brackish system.  The lakes have both fresh and marine organisms so in one part of the lake you may catch largemouth bass and in another area redfish.  Sometimes we catch both on a good day!


The campground at Grayton Beach State Park has great views of Western Lake.
Protection of these rare and unique lake systems is a concern and a Coastal Dune Lake Protection Zone has been established around the lakes and their tributaries.  Regulations regarding building, drainage, pollution, removal of vegetation, and erosion control have been implemented.  Local conservation organizations have launched education and outreach programs to engage concerned citizens.  Volunteers are instrumental in such projects as water quality monitoring, removal of exotic species, and vegetative restoration.

The coastal dune lakes are tightly woven into the fabric of the coastal landscape here.  For us, they provide an irreplaceable intrinsic value that makes us really love this area. Did I mention labs also like coastal dune lakes.

"Otter" on a paddle a few years ago.
"Spirit" so happy retrieving




Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Freezin' in Florida

ClearClear
19°F   -7°C
Feels Like 8°F


The needle that registers cold on my burr factor went off the chart this morning when I woke up to a frigid 19 degrees that felt like 8 degrees!  I know that these temporary frigid Florida temperatures do not impress you readers huddled up in the unrecognizable frozen wasteland that is most of the country, but come on, I live in a tin box where cold comes through the walls like air through a fan.  "How is the insulation?" was not the first question we asked when buying our RV.  That being said, we do stay pretty warm with our trusty space heaters that we run all night so we aren’t woken up by the clanging propane heater.  And knowing that our cold spell will be over in a matter of days means I don't have much time to make cold weather comfort food.

Before heading to north-central Idaho in April, we bought a heated water hose.  Seemed like a smart investment as we wanted to be prepared for the Idaho cold.  Ironically, we never used it in Idaho and finally broke it out here in Florida!  Go figure.  But we can deal with the cold for a few days.  Especially since the white stuff we are dealing with is sand.


Yesterday, we met up with Tina and Ron Lorenz, a lovely couple that were blog readers and were camped just a short ways away.  We were so glad they contacted us and really enjoyed meeting them over pizza and clam chowder.  (I know those two food groups really don't go together but soup sounded good on a cold day.)  In no time, two hours passed but we hadn't even noticed as we were enjoying the conversation and laughs.  We look forward to seeing them again and hearing about their adventures in a seriously big rig - a 45' Renegade with three dogs . . . and soon to be four when Ron gets his new guide dog.  We love the fact that Tina is fearless about driving the big rig and the Jeep while off-roading.  


Ron will soon fly out to the Guide Dog for the Blind's San Rafael, California campus where he will meet his new four-legged companion.  As lab lovers and ones who believe in the power of animals, we were totally engrossed in his tales of how the program works.  He will spend two weeks on the campus getting to know his new dog and learning to work with him/her.  

Puppies are raised by volunteers who begin fostering the dogs at 8 weeks and work with them for a year to year and a half.  During this time, volunteers are responsible for socializing the dogs, teaching them good house manners, and basic obedience.  After that dogs return to a Guide Dog for the Blind campus for two to three months of advanced training and even learn "intelligent disobedience."  Dogs learn how to lead a person from one point to another, stop for overhead obstacles or changes in elevation (such as curbs or stairs), and avoid obstacles.  These wonderful trained companions allow visually impaired people to feel confident and assist them during their daily routine.  And the cost to the recipient of a guide dog:  nothing.  What a wonderful service that has been instrumental in changing peoples lives since the early 1940's.  

When I asked Betsy about being a puppy raiser she firmly said "NO!"  Spirit said, "YES!"  (Soft hearted Betsy just couldn't part with a puppy once she had raised it!)



Monday, January 6, 2014

RV Park Review – Henderson Beach State Park (Destin, Florida)


Overall, this campground ranks as another great Florida state park campground.  Sites are large with plenty of space between them and vegetation to provide privacy.  Within a five-minute walk from our site (#44) we were on the white sandy beach staring at the emerald water.  And while you feel a bit isolated among the dunes and coastal scrub habitats, the park is located in the heart of Destin so there is shopping, restaurants, entertainment, and anything else you want within a two-minute drive.  Walmart is literally right across the street.


Campsites cost $30/night unless you are a Florida senior resident which gives you a 50% discount.  Our Verizon 4G phone and hotspot worked great and we had a clear view to the sky for our satellite television.  Our television antenna picked up a few channels but only one major channel (CBS). 

The park has 60 sites that can accommodate RV’s up to 60’.  There are 20 very long pull-thrus but most of the sites are back-in.  Pads and patios are packed gravel and offer 30 or 50 amp electricity and water.  There is free wifi and it worked pretty well at our site.  There are four loops and with bathroom/shower buildings with laundry facilities located conveniently between loops.  The bathrooms were clean but chilly (even though they claim to be heated and cooled).

bathroom/showers and laundry
There is no sewer at any sites but two dump stations are conveniently located in the park.  Roads are paved and wide enough for big rigs to maneuver.  Sites are level.

typical back-in site
typical pull-thru site
Patios are an extension of the gravel pad and come with a picnic table, fire pit, and clothes line (how fancy).  The patios are quite large and we enjoyed the privacy of our site immensely.

our patio
What we really liked about this campground was the proximity to the beautiful beach yet all the amenities Destin and the surrounding area has to offer.  We took advantage of shopping, restaurants and movie theaters that were all within just a few miles.  But the best thing about this park was the privacy that our site offered.  We backed up to a wooded area and felt isolated from the view of others.

the beach boardwalk
incredible beach with nobody on it during our winter visit
The not so good things about this park was the lack of sewer and the road noise.  The park sites right off HWY 98 makes for convenient access but some sites closer to the road may be bothered by the noise from this busy road.   Since we were here in the winter and experiencing record low temperature, we kept all the windows closed and did not sit outside much so the road noise was not an issue.  I also imagine the beach at this park could be very crowded at times since there is plenty of access for the public.

Spirit’s two cents:  She is always bummed when she cannot run on the beach but there is a very large dog park just 1 ½ miles away so there was no shortage of play time.  The park is large enough to take dogs for a long walk and has a ¾ mile nature trail.  

Spirit loves the Destin dog park


Friday, January 3, 2014

Ringing in the New Year with Old Friends

On New Year's Eve night it was clear we were not going to still be awake at the stroke of midnight but we didn't care because our evening was just as great.  Our good friends, Sandy and Kim, invited us to their lake house in Mississippi and where we spent three days laughing, eating, fishing, playing with dogs, and enjoying catching up over a glass of wine . . . or two.  Jean and Lisa also joined to kick in some more fun and with six people and four dogs there was never a dull moment.

Take the picture already, we are hungry! (Betsy, Kim, me, Sandy, and Lisa)
Spirit has a lengthy conversation with the lobster and said, "it's not my fault you have to go in the
jacuzzi with salted water but at least you'll be warm on this cool night."

Eli demonstrating true happiness.
The lake house is picture-perfect and looks like it came out of a magazine - fishing paraphernalia abounds with antique fishing rods adorning the walls, pillows decorated with trout, and coffee table books telling fishing stories.  We have always loved going to their lake house and feel so comfortable and relaxed there.  The girls are great hostesses and strive to ensure that everyone (two and four-legged ones) have a great time and we always do.

Lisa and "Satchmo" in a tug-of-war game.  Satch won!
"Josie" the Wheaten was nice to share her
house with us crazy girls
Jean and "Eli" seemed to
 have a great time.























New Year’s Eve dinner was planned to be a lobster feast.  Two-pound brilliant red crustaceans sat in front of everyone and the devouring began in earnest.  Maybe it was all the eating that forced us to bed at 10 p.m. but we all went to bed happy.  The New Year met us with drizzling and foggy weather but we were warmed with more delicious food in the form of the traditional cabbage and black-eyed peas.  These culinary customs may be tied with good luck but how lucky we already are to have such great friends.  And thanks to Lisa who brought the "Protection From Stupidity" candle.  I think at some point in the New Year I'll need that.