Tag Archives: Florida

Sitting Pretty in the Florida Panhandle

In the Florida Panhandle, fish rule. Go into just about any restaurant and there will be a giant stuffed marlin swinging above your head. Thankfully, I love fish (as do these pelicans). Recently, I visited three Panhandle destinations to suss out what the area has to offer.

DESTIN

Harbor Docks mascot.

After landing at Florida Northwest International Airport in Panama City, I picked up a rental car and headed to Destin, about an hour’s drive west. First stop was at Harbor Docks, a restaurant on the water that opened in 1979. They specialize in locally sourced seafood and chef Dang McCormick, from Chaing Mai, offers Thai dishes every day at lunch. This is where I caught sight of my first panhandle marlin, hanging feistily from the rafters.

My accommodation was at The Island, by Hotel RL, on the Gulf of Mexico shoreline.  Built in the 1960s, it had been recently refurbished. My beach-view suite was spacious and well appointed with mini fridge, microwave and a roomy balcony. With cold drink in hand, I marvelled at the many beach volleyball games that were going on, despite the fact that a storm was set to break any minute.  And rain it did!

Feeding the birds on the dolphin cruise.

The next day, thankfully, the sun came out and I took a Southern Star Dolphin Cruise. Captain Jason told us there were around 100 dolphins living in the area and we spotted quite a few darting after their fish dinners. This was a great outing for the families on board, the captain even took photos with all the children.

Just up the road from my hotel was Henderson Beach State Park. A ¾ mile nature trail wound through the dunes and I stopped often to read signs describing the flora and fauna of the region. Benches were scattered along the trail and I took a moment to just sit and breathe in the salty, pine-scented air.

Destin is an anglers’ heaven, as I found out at the Fishing and History Museum. Outside there was an historic seine fishing boat named Primrose, a cabin housing the old post office and a memorial walkway naming all Destin’s famous fishing families. Inside, the walls were hung with 75 mounts of locally caught fish. Black and white photographs chronicled the massive fish caught in the area over the years. One room was set up as an impromptu theatre with a video describing the birth of the 65-year-old Destin Fishing Rodeo – a fishing tournament with lots of history and prizes. “Originally a commercial fishery, Destin has now become a mecca for charter fishing boats,” Kathy Blue, the museum’s executive director, explained. 

She was right. Wandering along nearby Harbour Walk later in the afternoon I came across a row of stalls where freshly caught red fish were being cleaned and packaged up for sports fisherman who had spent the day on the water.

Paula Deen, the deep fry queen.

Stopping in for a quick gander at Destin Commons, an outdoor shopping complex with more than 90 shops and restaurants, I stumbled upon the launch of a new Paula Deen restaurant. Who knew the controversial southern fried belle would be in attendance that day to sign her new cookbook?

NAVARRE BEACH, SANTA ROSA COUNTY

Driving west, in about 40 minutes I came to Navarre Beach. I had arranged to rent a bicycle from Sage Paddle Company and soon was peddling past houses and out to the Gulf Islands National Seashore.  Wow. Powdered sugar beaches and not too many people. This was pure natural shoreline with nothing but dunes and one covered picnic area. The sand actually squeaked underfoot!

 After an exhilarating ride, I met the bike/paddleboard company’s owner, 16-year-old Sage Offutt who was camped out in the parking lot with her service French bulldog Oliver. Oliver had been trained to know when a migraine was coming on so Sage could take her meds before it became full-blown. “He knows because he can sense my serotonin levels as well as my sleeping and eating patterns. He warns me by licking me. I haven’t suffered from a migraine for almost a year,” explained Sage. Before getting Oliver a little more than a year ago, she was getting migraines up to four times a week. Sage told me she has a rare genetic disorder called Ehlers-Danlos syndrome which affects the body’s connective tissues and is very painful. Who knew Frenchies could be such wonderful health canaries?

Sage’s business got off the ground when she was 11 and had just moved to Navarre Beach from Colorado with her family. Her dad wanted her to get involved in more than lying on the beach and as a pilot experiment he gave her $5,000 to start up a paddle board rental company. “There was no other rental company around and it really took off,” Sage explained. She was supposed to pay her dad back at the end of the year, but instead it only took 17 days. Now she also rents scooters, kayaks and bicycles. This won’t be a permanent career for her, though. “I’ll probably sell the business after I finish my undergrad. I want to study medicine, pediatric neurology, and help kids out like me who have health issues,” she explained. In 2016 she was named Florida’s Young Entrepreneur of the Year by Governor Rick Scott and in 2017 she was invited as a VIP guest, representing the state’s small business owners, to his State of the State address. I could tell that, although demure and self-effacing, Sage was a real force of nature. Now with Oliver on board, she’s unstoppable.

Lunch was at Cactus Flower Café, a California-style Mexican food eatery where everything is made from scratch. Salsa is made twice daily, and a whole avocado is used in each order of guacamole. No animal fat is added to the refried beans and extra virgin olive oil is used for sautéed items. Everything I tried was light and flavourful – chips and salsa, apps including queso bites, flauta and mango shrimp, mahi mahi fish taco and Mexican wedding cake for dessert. Speaking with the manager, I learned there are four Cactus Flower Cafes, two in Pensacola, one in Pace and the one I visited in Navarre.

Exploring the area a little further, I came upon the Navarre Beach Sea Turtle Conservation Center. As soon as I stepped through the door, I was greeted by the most wonderful little creature.

Sweet Pea was a green turtle who had been found on a Texas beach, tangled in fishing nets. She was transported to the Gulfarium, a Destin marine adventure park that does rescue and rehabilitation, where she underwent surgery. One of her flippers was removed and part of her shell. Despite such a horrific experience, the six-year-old, little Green turtle seemed genuinely happy zipping around her indoor pool. “We move the rocks around and float a ball on the surface so she gets a change of view,” Jared Lucas, a volunteer animal caretaker, told me.

Navarre Beach Pier, the longest pier in the Gulf of Mexico.

Later, on the Navarre Beach Pier (the longest in the Gulf of Mexico at 1,545 feet long and 30 feet above the water), I saw members of the Conservation Center in action. Crammed with fisher folk, I watched as one excited customer landed a small mahi mahi and another reeled in a Spanish mackerel. Parked at the far end of the pier was a turtle rescue vehicle.

Bob, part of the turtle conservation team, helps fisherman untangle turtles who get caught in their lines.

“We have rescued more than 60 turtles since the program started a little more than a year ago,” Bob, a retired air force pilot told me. As we stood there looking out at the water, I saw a dark shadow swim by and then surface. A Green turtle, just about the same size as Sweet Pea! Bob told me that most of the shrimp boats in the Gulf now use TEDs – turtle evacuation devices, which allow the creatures to exit the bottom of the net without impacting the shrimp catch.

“We get green, loggerhead, Kemp’s ridley and leatherback turtles here. The Kemp’s ridley are the most endangered. There was a program to increase their numbers in the Gulf, but the BP oil spill happened in their prime feeding area, so the numbers are still declining,” Bob explained. My heart aches when I recall that sickening oil avalanche. But I am so glad in places like Navarre Beach people are being educated and turtles are being saved.

While in Navarre Beach I stayed at Beach Colony, a Southern Vacation Rentals condo complex right on the beach and very close to the Navarre Beach Pier. These rentals very spacious and a good option for families. Mine was three bedrooms, with a huge living room, dining area, kitchen, three bathrooms and a sprawling balcony overlooking the water.

Not wanting to cook, I headed over to the nearby Springhill Suites Resort by Marriott Navarre Beach. Cocktails were on the terrace and after sunset some people remained, huddled around a stylish propane terrace fire. It was starting to get a little chilly, so I went inside where chef James Fontaine told me he grew up on a sailboat. His love of the sea could be seen on the menu. I started with crab cakes jammed with claw meat and topped with a mustard caper remoulade. Next was a salad of greens, strawberries, blueberries and grilled salmon, coated with sweet, spicy pineapple juice. I sampled some of the grouper (by this time I was getting very full) and took home a slice of salty caramel cheese cake which I just managed to find some room for. Delicious.

PANAMA CITY BEACH

My final panhandle stop was Panama City Beach, just a half-hour from the Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport. I checked into the Edgewater Beach & Golf Resort, with fabulous beachfront access, a pool and close proximity to another pier. I noticed people came early in the morning and staked out spots under the pier where they would sling up hammocks. Armed with a towel, hammock and cooler, what more could you ask for? Oh yeah, sunscreen. I forgot to put it on one day and got really burned. The sun is wicked in Florida.

Bar at the Grand Marlin.

On a two-hour trip with Island Time Sailing, I was set to spot dolphins, but there weren’t many. Instead, it was the sunset that really had me in awe. The pinks, golds and oranges were stunning. Dinner later was at the Grand Marlin, not far from the cruise dock.

I dug into a kale Caesar salad topped with blackened Gulf Shrimp. So good.

My last water activity was jet skiing to Shell Island. I signed up at Lagoon Pontoon and was joined by a group of travellers from Brazil. Some of us were a bit nervous, but after following our guide Wesley’s instructions we were on our merry way. Shell Island is uninhabited and a nesting ground for various shore birds. It’s also a hot destination for pontoon boat tours that bring in groups to swim from the sandy shores.

Hungry after that jet skiing, I headed to FINN’s for fish tacos. It was Taco Tuesday and I got two for one! Stuffed with mahi mahi, tomatoes and coleslaw, these tacos draw fans from miles around. The kitchen was set up in a food truck, parked permanently by a patio next to a surf shop. Patron sit at picnic tables and munch their meals on the patio. Attached to the surf shop was a wonderful coffee café where I sipped one of the smoothest cold brews I’ve ever tasted.

To get a top-notch view of the area, I went to City Pier, a shopping destination and home to a monster big Ferris wheel called SkyWheel. The air conditioned wheel car was the perfect place to snap shots of the waterfront and beach area.

My final dinner was at Firefly, a sushi restaurant near the Edgewater Resort. I ordered the crab and tuna tower with mango, avocado and cucumber. It was amazing and a delicious end to my sunny, sandy, fishy adventure on the Florida Panhandle.

Foodie Tampa

7th Ave. in Ybor City, Tampa Florida.

7th Ave. in Ybor City, Tampa Florida. Photo: Robert La Follett

Here’s a link to a wonderful new hospitality site called AmberSpire and the story I wrote for them on the yummy gourmet offerings in Tampa, Florida!
http://amberspire.com/savoring-flavors-tampa/

Surprising Sarasota

The Great Room at Ca'd'Zan, John and Mabel Ringling's dream home.

The Great Room at Ca’d’Zan, John and Mabel Ringling’s dream home.


Culture, history, old masters and circus people. Just what you’d expect in the sunshine state…what? Did I mention I just got back from Sarasota, Florida? Considered one of the best art towns in America, Sarasota is perched on the Gulf of Mexico, half-way down the state. The area has more than 90 sites listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Take a quick drive, cross a bridge and you’ll hit Longboat Key, one of the six barrier islands that lie between Sarasota Bay and the Gulf. There are 35 miles of sugary sand along these islands and my first night we had dinner on the beach, watching dolphins chase schools of fish as the sun lowered into a golden pink sky. The stone crab was heavenly, as was the view.
Top 10 Activities in Sarasota:
1) Visit all the barrier islands and make sure to walk along the beach on Siesta Key, ranked No. 1 in the USA by Stephen Leatherman, aka “Dr. Beach.”
2) Tuck into the buffet at Der Dutchman in the Amish/Mennonite neighbourhood of Pinecraft. The broasted chicken (fried and roasted so the skin is amazingly crunchy) is to die for, as are the fresh salads and pickled beets. Save room for peanut butter pie. Pick up a tray of cinnamon rolls at the attached bakery, then nip into Carlisle Gifts to peruse the beautiful Amish quilts.
3) Eat seafood at The Shore Diner. Try the crab cakes and truffle fries or the eggs Benedict with lobster salad. Heavenly.
A beastie on the Myakka River.

A beastie on the Myakka River.


4) Photograph ‘gators at the Myakka River State Park from an airboat. The tours run 3-4 times a day, are around 1-hour long and cost $12 for adults, $6 for children 6-12, and kids 5 and under are free (they must sit on an adult’s lap).
Manatees are in the elephant family! Water ellies!

Manatees are in the elephant family! Water ellies!


5) Check out Hugh and Buffett, two manatees at Mote Marine Laboratory Aquarium. They were born at the Miami Seaquarium and would have had difficulty adapting to the wild, so instead they help researchers understand their physiognomy and habits. All the animals here, sea turtles, penguins and dolphins take part in research programs that will ultimately help manage wild populations.
6) Sift through sand for shark teeth. Do this on any beach, or sign up for a pail of sand at the Mote Aquarium for guaranteed finds.
7) Kayak through the mangrove tunnels: Kayak Sarasota offers guided kayak tours at 10:15 am and 1:30 pm. If you’re lucky you might see dolphins or manatees. For sure you’ll see cormorants that like to suss out paddlers. www.ikayaksarasota.com
8) Catch a first-class performance. Choose from the Sarasota Orchestra, Asolo Repertory Theatre, Sarasota Ballet, Sarasota Opera or Florida Studio Theatre.
Exterior of Ca'd'Zan, like a Venetian fairy palace.

Exterior of Ca’d’Zan, like a Venetian fairy palace.


9) Circus legacy. John Ringling of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus moved with his wife Mable to a permanent home in Sarasota in 1926. Ca’d’Zan is a 56-room Venetian-inspired villa full of marble bathrooms, hand-painted frescos and pedigreed French furniture (some is said to have belonged to Marie Antoinette). Next door is the Museum or Art, containing Ringling’s personal collection including paintings by Rubens, van Dyck, Velazquez and Gainsborough. Also on the sprawling property is the Circus Museum where you can try your hand at tight-rope walking or squeezing into a tiny clown car. www.sarasotaCircusHistory.org
A beautiful banyan tree at the Marie Selby Botanical Gardens.

A beautiful banyan tree at the Marie Selby Botanical Gardens.


10) Take a breather at Marie Selby Botanical Gardens, on Sarasota Bay. Wander the 14 acres, contemplate life as you look over the Bay, marvel at the orchids and bromeliads. A leisurely lunch under the banyan trees makes for a perfect afternoon.