These are some of the thing I learned on my annual Florida Vacation:
1. Never. Never put gasoline into a diesel vehicle. Brent and I lost hours of our vacation and more than a few bucks sucking gas out of our diesel truck. There was also a homeless guy who kept asking us for money as Brent was trying to get the siphon going. I finally advised the gentleman that perhaps now was not the best time.
2. Driving to Florida is better than flying. No, wait! Hear me out. Not only does it allow you to adjust more naturally to the season change, but you finally have the time to talk to each other. Brent and I have the most amazing conversations while driving. We talk about everything – including you.
3. Traveling with my dogs is a fantastic experience. The dogs not only bring us hours of comfort, joy and love; but they help us meet new people. Strangers often approach us with exclamations of adoration, questions about their breed, traveling with dogs or how much they miss the pup they had to leave at home. The dogs are great in the car. We never had trouble finding a hotel since the pet friendly trend has gripped North American. We rarely eat inside a restaurant, but who wants to when it’s 80 F outside? The dogs enjoy the adventure just as much as we do, although I’m certain there are times when Gizmo would rather nap than go kayaking.
4. Give yourself enough time. This is the first year that we took a month. It meant using nearly all my vacation and leaving the farm animals for a long period of time, but it was worth it. Our vacation was leisurely. We could unpack and settle into our digs. We could spend days reading and not feel like we should rush out to see things.
5. Returning to the same place year after year is good. This is our fourth annual trip to Florida and we felt a sense of comfort knowing where our favorite restaurant was in Key West. We recognized milestones as we passed the big bridge and harbour in Jacksonville that heralds our entrance into Florida. Each year we watch as winter becomes fall, spring and finally wonderful summer as we drive south.
6. Pack heavy. Finally, someone said what we all wanted to hear. We take everything, but the kitchen sink. We took kayaks, bikes, puppy carriers, multiple suitcases, tools, books and entertainment.
7. Make at lease one special buy. You’ll always remember the adventure of the purchase. Every time you see that piece you’ll say “I remember when we bought that!” triggering a warm syrupy feeling. This year it was a 47″ TV. Normally our purchase isn’t that big, but we couldn’t possibly watch the Green Bay Packers play the Superbowl on a 27″ TV! Big thanks to dad for picking it up at a big box store and bringing it down to southern Keys in time for Superbowl.
8. Eat. Eat local food. Look for off the beaten path local dives to try. They often have the best food and even better people. They usually have a special drink. We’ve gone to small places that welcome the dogs right into the restaurant off leash, free to roam. We’ve had conversations with salty seaman who tell us stories of the ocean. Often the stories start with: “I remember back during the 1935 hurricane when I rode out the storm by putting my boat deep into the mangrove trees and hoping for the best (while clutching a bottle of moonshine to his hairy chest).” There was a big hurricane in 1935 that struck the Florida Keys as a category five that killed over four hundred people. It’s considered the worst hurricane to ever strike the United States. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1935_Labor_Day_hurricane
9. Listen to your gut. If it looks like a place you shouldn’t stop for fuel deep in Georgia, then don’t stop. If it looks dirty, it probably is – don’t touch it. Fine a new place and pay that ten cents a gallon extra in good fuel, rather than risk a loss of time, anxiety and truck troubles. Not to mention getting shot in the parking lot.
10. Unless you have an iron gut: don’t eat gas station hot dogs. I don’t care if you can get 2 dogs for $1 with free liquid cheese. Your body will hate you. Mind did. Same goes for gas station pizza, unless it’s brought in from a pizzeria. That can be a delicious find.
11. Never speed in any state with the word Virginia. They will pull you over for even the slightest infraction. If you see one cop another one isn’t far away. Set your cruise control at 65 mph and enjoy the mountains. Even if the speed limit is 70 mpg – go 65 mpg.
12. Cook your own meals with local foods. Stop at the “good” fish market and get grouper. You’d be surprised how good it is and don’t be afraid to BBQ everything. Including your vegetables.
13. Rent a house rather than stay in a hotel or resort. You get all the luxuries for less money and can make your own coffee in the morning. I’d like to advocate the sites I use, but they really disappointed me this time around, so I’d be wary. With hesitation I say look at www.homeaway.com or www.vrbo.com to investigate a potential property rental. We’ve had one bad rental out of seven. Two were excellent, the rest were average and the last place in Cudjoe Key was horrible.
14. Jacksonville, Florida is not as frightening as everyone says. We stayed there once and didn’t have anything stolen.
15. Next year we’re going to take our trailer. A home on wheels. I can’t wait to never unpack. We’re booking our state parks a year in advance because it’s the only way to get a state park in lower Florida.
16. Don’t worry what time it is when you crack your first beer. Vacation laws apply (coming soon).
17. Don’t plan everything because you never know when a side road will lead to incredible adventure. We got off the I95 to avoid a traffic accident and ended up driving through a small Georgia town. The recession had hit this town hard and there were people selling their possession in the parking lot of the shut down grocery store. It was sad. It was real and made us grateful.
18. Don’t be embarrassed to do things that you love. I pushed my dogs in a stroller all over Key West. There were some people who make negative comments, but most people were delighted. It’s impossible to ask a little dog to walk for hours through crowds in Key West and it’s impossible to carry them. Even at eight pounds they get heavy. The stroller is a great option. If you are one of those people who feel the need to make a derogatory comment make it a good one. For example: a man walking two big dogs walk by and saw Taz and Gizmo resting in the stroller and said, “mmmm… dim sum cart”. That’s a good one.
19. Yes. I have a pink faux leather Sex in the City raincoat for Taz and a black faux leather biker jacket for Gizmo. What of it? Friends of Key West love that stuff. Bring it. Use it. Wear it with pride. I also have an orange pair of prada sneakers that I love.
20. Fort Lauderdale Flea Market is the best place in the world. This is not a place for amateurs. You could walk all day and not see it all. There are some great deals and some bad deals. This is the place you want to eat hot dogs without fear, bargain with the locals and push the dogs around in the stroller. It’s a great place and I miss it.
21. Don’t eat at the Buffet. It’s not that great of a deal.
22. In Key West eat at the Blue Heaven. Live roosters and cats wander the outdoor patio that is littered with old signs and giant trees that offer shade. The food is incredible and the servers are always friendly and entertaining. Reasonably priced and said to be the “most pet friendly place on earth”.
23. Brave the crowds and watch the sunset from Mallory Square. Paddle out into the ocean and watch the sunset. Decide for yourself which one you like best.
24. You can’t get lost in the Florida Keys. There’s only one highway. Drive the whole thing. Top to bottom. Next year we’re hoping to take motorcycles. I’m excited already.
25. Learn to love not having a Walmart for over 100 miles.
26. Shop at Bealls. You must buy one piece of clothing with a blue sticker. Blue stickers mean 95% off tagged price. I’ve gotten summer blouses for less than seventy-five cents. It’s the hunt and the thrill of the find rather than the clothing. Pink stickers are also acceptable and mean 70% off, but nothing is better than a blue.
27. Take your bikes if you like to ride. One year we used the bikes at the rental and thought “I wish we had our bikes”. We ride more with our own bikes and it has that great puppy trailer attachment!
28. Take pictures and video. Share them.
29. Don’t be afraid of the locals. Most of the time. I find people in the US tend to travel and live all over. On this trip we only met one kid from the Keys. He went to school in the Keys and moved away to go to school. He was now working at a local fish market and restaurant, because he’d rather be a waiter in the Keys than a professional in Minnesota.
30. Sunblock. Use it. Nothing ruins a vacation faster than burnt flesh.