Fun in Flori-Bama

We’re in Florida. No we’re in Alabama.

That was the debate Angie and I had last week when we camped along Perdido Bay in Lillian, AL, which is just steps from the Florida state line. I’m fairly certain we kayaked across that line at least once, giving us the right to brag to our friends that we paddled all the way from Alabama to Florida in a single day. That don’t need to know that it took about 15 minutes to accomplish this feat.

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The Gulf Shores/Pensacola KOA is located right on the bay and from our cabin, we could watch the sun turn the water a beautiful shade of pink in the evenings and catch a Great Blue Heron hanging out on the dock every morning.

My favorite part of the trip had to be just being able to walk out into the warm waters of the bay to go for a swim. We spent so much time out there that other campers thought we had to be water-logged. What can we say? We’re water people! We also employed a bit of knowledge from our Florida Master Naturalist classes and showed some “bored” children how to spot all of the amazing creatures in the bay, including blue crabs, hermit crabs, clams, and an assortment of little fish.

We also went on an outing to see the Pensacola Blue Wahoos minor league baseball team take on the interestingly named, Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp. The Wahoos won and we enjoyed all-you-can-eat popcorn, served in a sand pail complete with shovel.

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No trip to the coast is complete without a day at the beach though, so we did that too. For most of the week, the yellow and purple caution flags were waving on shore but luckily on the day we went, the water was pretty calm and absent of any jellyfish.

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We had a great time but the true highlight of the trip was meeting two friends from Arkansas on their version of a Thelma and Louise trip (minus the ending, of course!). Dana and Tonya are neighbors who decided spur of the moment (like the day before) to take off for the beach. Though they never said exactly what was going on, it was obvious that something heavy was happening in their lives at home. Yet, what stood out most to us about them was their carefree attitude…and the fact that they slept, just a few feet from the shore, on a giant air mattress. No tent, just an air mattress shaded by a picnic canopy.

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I really do believe that the people you meet on your journeys are what make the experience worthwhile.

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Playing in Pigeon Forge

The frigid temperatures of Winter finally broke just in time for the long President’s Day weekend (and our 7th anniversary) so we decided to take a short drive to the Smoky Mountains. For a lot of folks, the Smokies are just a place to shop, dine, and partake of cheesy tourist attractions (like hillbilly dinner shows and redneck comedy barns). We like the other side of the mountains – the less traveled, more serene side – the one with rocks and trees.

We spent the biggest part of our 2 day excursion searching for letterboxes. In total, we found 17 of them – some were in the cemetery, most were in parks, but one was actually hidden next to an outhouse from the 1800s. I know I’ve said it before but I’ll say it again, letterboxing really does take you to places you might not otherwise know existed.

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When we go somewhere that we’ve been before, we like to find one “attraction” that we’ve never visited and give it a try. With the help of Groupon, we decided to check out RainForest Adventures Discovery Zoo. Angie loves monkeys and this place was full of them – from tamarins to capuchins. We love zoos and wildlife parks BUT have very specific criteria for selecting which ones to visit. Our preference goes to rehabilitation centers or sanctuaries that take in neglected or exploited animals. Though RainForest Adventures doesn’t tout their work in this area, with a little digging I was able to find out that they were among several facilities to rescue animals from an abusive (and now permanently closed) zoo in Alabama last year.

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We enjoyed watching the monkeys play and eat and we enjoyed feeding the goats, especially the tiny little babies that were born just last week.

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The highlight of our trip was hiking to one of the area’s lesser-known but no-less beautiful waterfalls – Spruce Flat Falls.

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The 2-mile round trip hike is rated “easy” in the guidebook. As we stood panting 1/10th of a mile up the first bend in the trail, we wondered who writes these guidebooks anyway?? The trip is not difficult but it is definitely not one that I would take a small child or a even picnic basket on. There are too many steep climbs and drop-offs to manage either.

We managed to make it though and like any other major (or minor) accomplishment, we were pretty psyched at having done so. The view at the end was phenomenal. I only wish it were summer and we could have played in the waterfall.

Fall in New England & Canada

Thank goodness I’m not employed as a travel writer. I’d be broke at the rate I get around to writing about the places we go. It’s been more than a month since we got back from our adventure in New England and Canada. Our first week was spent road-tripping from Tennessee to Ohio to Niagara Falls to New Jersey. The second week was spent a bit more leisurely. We took a 7-night Carnival cruise out of Manhattan to the ports of Boston, MA; Portland, ME; Halifax, Nova Scotia; and St. John, New Brunswick.

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Angie having fun on board the cruise ship.

This was our 4th cruise and the first that wasn’t destined for tropical isles. Cruising the Northeast is a very different experience. First, you rarely see anyone wearing their bathing suit on deck. It’s just way too cold! There are also fewer college kids and more retirees. This makes for a more crowded attempt to dine early but also means the arcade and sports bar are usually pretty empty and you’re all but guaranteed to have the ping-pong table all to yourself. Or course, being close to (early) retirement age ourselves, it was also much easier to find someone to talk to, about a wide assortment of interesting topics.

Boston, MA

Our first port of call was Boston, one of the oldest cities in America (founded in 1630). There’s obviously a lot of history in Boston – the Boston Tea Party, the Paul Revere House, the Old North Church, and more – but for television nuts like us, Boston was the backdrop for a lot of our all-time favorite shows – Cheers, Rizzoli and Isles, and Boston Legal. We couldn’t help but walk the streets thinking of Sam and Diane, Norm and Cliff, Denny and Alan and the histories of our own lives growing up with these characters. The day of our visit to Boston it was pouring rain but that didn’t stop us from walking the Freedom Trail and taking a slight detour to a tiny bar where everyone knows your name.

Portland, ME

Straight off the boat, we both fell in love with Portland. I’m not sure if it was being immediately greeted by the Harborwalk Trail or the quaint shops along cobblestone streets or the flavor explosion we found in a bottle of blueberry soda or even the lobster roll we purchased from a hot dog cart. It might also have been the bin of fresh Swiss Chard marked FREE that we walked past in Old Port or the amazing shop called Nomads where we found ExOfficio anti-insect socks on the clearance rack. Or maybe it was simply all of the above.

Halifax, Nova Scotia

After experiencing Niagara Falls, Halifax was a bit of a disappointment. It’s your typical cruise port destination – a mecca for shopping and overpriced dining, with the true sights so far away that you either have to book an excursion, pay for an expensive taxi, or skip them altogether. We chose the latter. Instead we perused the tiny Farmer’s Market and took a long walk along the harbor.

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The most photographed lighthouse in all of North America.

St. John, New Brunswick

The best thing about St. John is the Harbour Passage, a gorgeous 2-mile walk along the water that leads from the cruise terminal to all of the main sites of the area. We took our time getting to the Reversing Falls and still somehow managed to make it there before the folks in the excursion group.

Glamping in Niagara Falls

The first stop on our October road trip (besides an overnight in Toledo, Ohio) was Niagara Falls, Ontario. Crossing the border allowed us to officially mark “visit another country” off of our 2017 Happiness Project Bucket List. Crossing the border also gave me a chance to update a negative experience with a new, more positive, one.

When I first visited Canada in 2006, I was detained by immigration. After 30 minutes of explaining why a District Manager from TN would be visiting a sales rep in Ontario for anything other than a work visit – I was actually there to take the rep to dinner and present him with an award – they let me go. This time, I was on vacation, so we sailed through our border crossing.

If you’ve never been to Niagara Falls, I highly encourage you to add it to your list. The place is amazing! The weather was near perfect the entire time we were there (60-70 degrees F) and the scenery – the fall foliage, the white water rapid, and of course, the falls itself – was stunning.

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Off season accommodations are relatively cheap in Niagara Falls but instead of a hotel, we opted for a Kamping Kabin at the KOA on Lundy Lane. It’s outside of the tourist area but still within a short drive to all of the attractions. Of course, there are plenty of things to do at the campground too – an indoor pool, mini golf, a game room, a playground, and more – and right across the street is a delicious place to have dinner – Boston Pizza.

The KOA also sells Adventure Passes, which include a 48-hour bus pass on the WeGo and admission to select attractions. We chose the Hornblower Cruise, Journey Behind the Falls, Niagara’s Fury, and the White Water Walk. We enjoyed each of the attractions but I think Angie’s favorite part of the Adventure Pass was the WeGo. I’m not sure if she loved it because it was convenient or because she found $20 at one of the bus stops. Seriously though, for hopping on/off and navigating without the hassles of driving and parking, the WeGo is definitely the way to go even if you don’t opt for the Adventure Pass.

We spent 4 days exploring the Niagara Falls area. In addition to the attractions on the Adventure Pass, we had a picnic at Niagara Glen, walked across the Rainbow Bridge to explore the American side of the falls, briefly ducked into a casino, explored the shops in Clifton Hill, and enjoyed some downtime at our campground.

My favorite part of the trip though was seeing Niagara Falls at night.

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One of my biggest concerns when planning this trip was having cell reception in Canada. Sadly, Boost Mobile doesn’t have international service in Canada BUT we were able to get limited reception near the falls and along Niagara Parkway. We were also able to use WiFi calling through Google Hangouts when we had a WiFi signal (though not at our campground – they limited the use of their WiFi signal to only certain applications). Cell phone woes aside, we now rank Niagara Falls, Ontario among our favorite vacation places.