First month in Key West: My how things have changed

After one last night at Xavier and Joy’s in Coral Springs, we headed south, breaking up the drive with a one night stopover at the Cracker Barrel in Florida City.  From there it was on the US-1 and the series of islands and bridges leading to our southern destination.

 

During our first three winter stays in Key West, each one longer than the last, we thought we had learned the patterns, the ebb and flow of how things worked in The Keys generally and on the Naval Air Station campground specifically.  With the lower keys, naval base included, having sustained significant damage from Hurricane Irma in September, they were still in recovery mode in January, though services and most business had reopened.  But things were different, in both predictable and unexpected ways.

The campground did not open until December 28th, and established a reservation system: The hurricane caused enough base wide damage and some campground damage such that the RV sites remained closed until late January, significantly delaying the arrival of many of the Key West RV regulars.  Further, the old “first come, first serve” system for everyone other than active duty personnel was out the window, with the MWR office working with the national Navy Bed & Getaways contractor to establish a reservation system. Fine as far as it goes, but the sole intent was to limit the number of arrivals to 20 rigs per day, not to control over all reservations.  Unfortunately, Navy Bed’s system was not set up for this, and chaos ensued.

A lot of debris visible in the background of this pic.  A good portion of US-1 south of Big Pine had piles of it still awaiting removal.

Like many large service organizations controlling complicated systems, there is room for significant variance in how the rules and procedures are interpreted by different customer representatives, so we simply applied the “if they turn you down call again and speak to someone else rule.”  Once the official process was announced in December, we called the reservation desk (their online system is bloody awful) and were turned down for our preferred arrival date.  So we secured a back up, hung up, and immediatly called back, this time getting a different rep who magically found an open slot on our desired arrival day. 

Our first dry camping site, a big corner lot.

Fewer RVers showed up this year, and many of those came later than normal:  In Hurricane Irma’s aftermath the fate of the campground was a pretty big unknown.  Rumors swirled, tongues wagged, and many regulars began to make back up plans in alternative locations either for the whole winter, or at least in other parts of Florida where they could assess a run to Key West as things became more clear.  The base did what they could to keep everyone informed, but the campground was hardly their top priority, and until mid December it was quite unclear when the official reopen date would occur. 

Though we did not sell at this event, the Key West Seafood Festival is an annual thing for us, particularly since as retired military we get in free. Note the “Shell On Wheels” logo shirt courtesy of Dolores. 

As a predictable result, many regulars simply decided not to risk endangering full season reservations elsewhere, and once things did open up, many others pushed their arrival into late January or February.  This meant that despite an entire row of RV sites closed off due to erosion and a downed ATT data line, the campground never completely filled up like it had in past years, usually by mid January.

The positive impact of this was that the rotation from dry camp to full hook up was much shorter this year.  You might recall my past explanations of the system, the short version is that of the roughly 500 spots, less than 100 have any connections, and MWR set up a rotation system limiting FHU stays to 14 days at a stretch.  Last year we arrived in late December and had more than three weeks in dry before we rotated to FHU; this year it only took 12 days for our first rotation.  Last year our second string in dry lasted just short of five weeks; this year it was less than three. 

Though the social calendar for January was not like that in 2017, it was not without some traditional events, such as the large contingent of Sigsbee people at Lucy’s for Taco Tuesday.  Sadly, Brian, seated next to me, passed away in March.  We were glad we got to know him under happy circumstances in the short time we were all in Key West. 

The downside was that many of our friends and acquaintances were simply not there this year, and having found other winter options, some of them might not come back next year either.  Bummer!

As alluded to above, a good number of sites, many of the premier water front locations, were closed:  Physical damage, erosion and the questionable stability of the sagging ATT data lines, resulted in the base closing the entire front row of the dry camping section; something like 30 spots.  A couple of others were closed until damaged tree branches could be removed.  Further, several of the FHU sites had pedestal damage and were thus closed.  Lastly, the permanent dry camping sites over on Trumbo Point did not open until mid January.   The fact that despite these issues we still enjoyed a much faster rotation than in the past drives home how many fewer rigs showed up this year.

The activities started off severely curtailed:  A combination of fewer regulars, a swamped MWR activities office, personnel changes, and some still closed base facilities resulted in a lot few organized on base activities this year.  Crafting was down from three to one day a week, yoga was limited, the pool was closed, the community center was unavailable for most of the weekend due church (the base chapel took heavy hurricane damage) and worst of all: no Shuffles!  That’s right, the premier monthly social event, the forty person, multiple host, moving parties of past years just never made it onto MWR’s schedule.  Sigh.

PKM at rest in front of our second site, full hook ups, water front.

We did a lot more markets this year than in the past, despite the base having fewer:  Last year we did a grand total of three markets in all of January, February, and March.  This included two on base “yard & craft” sales and one event hosted by the Lower Keys Medical Center (LKMC).  I really expected things to be about the same this year.  Rosemarie had other plans, and her frenzied research revealed a number of new, or at least new to us, market opportunities.  Had we been willing to drive as far as Marathon, and been willing to risk some higher than usual vendor fees, we could have participated in a market every day of the week along with a few special one time per year events!  No thanks, that’s too much like a job, but we did end up doing seven market days in January alone this year.

Fresh ceviche from one of the markets at which we sold.

This really, really surprised me.  I had thought our inquiries from last year revealed that we were not eligible for most of the lower keys events, and thus I assumed we would only do the monthly base event, the annual LKMC fund raising market, possibly the once a season on base Family Day fair, and maybe the once a year two day event at the botanical gardens.  And I was quite OK with slowing things down; we had averaged nine market days a month since early September.

Curry garlic chicken with shiitake mushrooms, also from one of our markets.

But Rosemarie found us so many more options, and for January we did three small but consistent market days on Surgarloaf Key (only 17 miles up the road from us), two days at the expensive but crowded Thursday Bayview Park event in Key West, and two Fridays at the very small but intimate new market at the American Legion on Stock Island (minutes from our campground.)  Note that this does not include a single on base event: the monthly yard sale never happened during our stay, likewise the on base Sigsbee Charter School event we did in 2016, and family day was not until February. 

After having put the word out last year that I wanted to do some salt water fishing, I got the opportunity this year:  Though I was born and raised in Florida, I had never fished in salt water in my life. I recall one night of shrimping in a channel as a child, but that’s it.  For much of my adulthood, I considered this no great loss since I had it in my head that I simply did not like seafood.  An encounter with Maine lobster in the late 90’s cured me of that, and I have been a fan of salt water seafood ever since.  But still, no fishing. 

With word on the street, I got an invite to go out with Mark and a few others on his small but effective boat.  I secured my Florida Resident’s annual fishing license online, and Mark was gracious enough to lend me whatever gear I was lacking, along with the knowledge of how to set up the rig for the type of shallow water drop and drag fishing we would be doing.

As he and other regular fishmen from the campground would tell me, “we’re not really fishing, we’re catching.”  And sure enough, with a bit over three hours on the water the four of us returned with something like 60 legal fish, most of them Lane Snappers, Grunts, and Porgies.  They considered this just a so-so day.  My kind of fishing, and well worth the customary chip in for boat gas money!

Whole fried Lane Snapper, fresh caught.

A week or two later Jim showed me his spot for shore fishing, an entirely different and in my mind more demanding task, but we ended the day with 5 decent Mangrove Snappers each, our limit for that type of fish.  I would go out one more time with Mark and crew one more time, but also got connected with enough others that I had more fishing than I could handle for the rest of our stay.

I wasn’t the only one to get out on the water; Our friends David and Clara are members of the local sailing club with access to their small catamarans, and with one open seat available Rosemarie go to spend a couple of hours on the bay. 

Advertisements

A bit of extra mileage to start off the new year: back to Wekiwa Springs

OK, yes, I let the blog fall way behind again, more than it has ever been.  But in my defense, we were in Key West, and the, er, social calendar was rather full.  So expect a flurry of posts this week catching us up, starting with this short one about our first week in 2018, and then three posts about our time in the Florida Keys, along with monthly reports for January, February, and March.

Daughter Andrea’s holiday schedule defined the beginning of the year plans for us: I left Rosemarie at Xavier and Joy’s house in Coral Springs while I took the rig, the tracker, and the cat back to Central Florida.  Dad and Marcia were still there and had a duplicate reservation at Wekiwa Springs State Park that I was able to use for a four day stay.  I made the three hour plus drive, this time reluctantly taking the Florida Turnpike since the time difference to avoid it was significant, and arrived mid afternoon back at our preferred CFL campground.

New “Shell On Wheels” shirt, a gift from sister-in-law Dolores.

I met Dad and Marcia’s friends with whom they had traveled a bit in California.  In one of those small world coincidences, they are the RV couple that had also traveled with our friends Jen and Dees of Nealys On Wheels.  None of us have satellite TV, and over the air reception in the park is almost non-existent, but I was able to set up my laptop to the TV and stream the College Playoff semifinal games thanks to our unlimited* data plan with Verizon.

Andrea and I celebrated New Years Day with a swim in the big spring, which due to the cold weather we had nearly to ourselves.

After months of procrastination stemming mainly from my fear of making it worse, I finally got around to replacing my failing lap top battery.  What started as simply limited battery life had progressed to the point where it would hold no charge at all, and the slightest jiggle of the power cord would cause the laptop to shut down.  The replacement process was as simple as I hoped, entailing the removal of a dozen or so tiny screws, including one that was stripped, and one small power connector.

After a four day stay I connected up and headed back to Coral Springs to pick up Rosemarie.  We had two days before our reservation at the Key West Naval Air Station starts, and used that time to make final preparations for what would surely be a significant bit f dry camping while we waited for our turn in the full hook up sites on base.

* The “Unlimited” plan is not without limitations, with speed throttling frequent once any device on the plan reaches a high amount of data usage.

2017 in Review (Three Years Fulltiming)

Another great year of full time RVing!  The near continuous mechanical problems of 2015 have been left behind but for minor (in comparison) glitches during the last two years.  While Serenity lacks the “cool” factor of The Big Kahuna, we are definitely happy to have the confidence that the thing will start when we turn the key and move when we put it in gear, and hope that 2018 will remain similarly smooth sailing.  While wintering in The Florida Keys earlier this year, we pondered our options for the rest of 2017, and ultimately decided that it would be another Western US tour.  Below is an overly detailed review, filled with numbers and stats, and concluding with our favorites and not so favorites.

Where we started the year.

The Distance: 10,639 miles.  Over 600 more than last year, but still no where near as far as our frenetic nearly 15K first year on the road.   In general, we did more lengthy stays in favored locations with hard sprints in between, and changed up the plan near the end of the year with a mileage bumping run up to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula before turning back to Florida for the late fall and winter.

The Places:   We visited 19 states, including the three (MT, ND, SD) that we had not seen in our previous two years of RV living.  We lived in the RV for 339 days and stayed with family or in hotels for the remaining 26.  Those numbers do not include Rosemarie’s separate trips to Virginia each month during the fall and early winter.  Our overall pattern is quite is quite similar to that of 2016.  Breaking this year down by places and days:

  • We visited 74 places this year, though only 66 when you discount repeat visits such as family’s houses and a few parks in Central Florida.  Those 66 different sites break down as 14 private parks, 1 national site, 7 state parks, 8 municipal/city/county parks, 18 military campgrounds, the houses of 2 different family members, 4 store parking lots, 10 casinos, and 2 hotels.
  • Breaking things down by days: we stayed in private RV parks for 64 days, military campgrounds for 153, national areas for 4, state parks for 38, county/city/ municipal parks for 59, casinos for 17, store parking lots for 4, with family for 23, and in hotels for 3.
  • The main difference between this year and last was a doubling of military campground days, halving of municipal park nights, and the addition of casinos.
  • Our longer stays with hard sprints in between resulted in a continuation of the pace reduction we saw from the last two years; we averaged 4.9 days per stop this year compared to 4.0 in 2016 and 2.7 in 2015.
  • Another way of looking at the 339 days in the RV: we had full hook ups for 152, electricity and water for 100, power only for 19, and dry camped for 68.
  • We also crossed the border (on foot) to Mexico for our extensive dental work.

We filled in the sticker map fr the lower 48 during our stay in South Dakota

The Money:  At the beginning of the year we established a budget that included an accelerated pay off of our RV loan, a sort of aspirational austerity program.  Based on that budget we ended up 2.8% over.  In a budget constructed without that accelerated pay off plan, we would have ended up 12.9% under, so all things considered we are pretty happy with the way things turned out.  Our daily (vice monthly) budget continues to be key to keeping things on track, and the increase in farmer and artisan market participation made a huge difference in the numbers as well.

Old School budget and travel planning.

The Markets:  We sold Rosemarie’s jewelry at 52 events this year!  That averages to one a week, but in reality we have a feast or famine pattern to these things, with six months of the year seeing between five and ten markets, and the rest of the months seeing zero, one, or two.  More than 28 of our events were compressed into the last three months of the year after our return to Florida.  We sold at markets in five states, and observed a range of management from totally uncontrolled, free, grass roots type events in Michigan, to carefully controlled, city run, “have your paper work in order and we need three different fees paid before you can start” in Lake Mary, FL.  We saw tiny markets with seven or so vendors and large affairs with hundreds.  We did 49 traditional farmers/artisan markets, 1 flea market, 1 town wide bazaar, and 1 community wide yard sale.

The Casinos:  This was the new thing we started doing this year.  It turns out that most casinos across the country allow free overnight RV parking, while some even offer low cost, even free, RV connection sites.  In addition, almost every casino has some sort of loyalty “players club” with modest awards just for signing up and more for spending lots of money at the machines, tables, and associated shops and restaurants.  The business model is clearly designed to make you feel like the money you’re pouring into those machines is actually earning you free things.

Less than half of the players club cards we collected during visits to more than a dozen casinos.

If you restrict yourself to just using the “free play” money they provide and never your own money, the pay out odds at the machines pretty much guarantee you will walk away with some actual cash.   And so that’s what we did.  We stayed for free or at a discounted rate at 10 different casinos for 17 nights, and visited a couple of others during day trips.  We took advantage of the sign up bonuses along with additional various free play credit for birthday months, for opting in to email or text receipts, and in two particularly beneficial stays, just for being an RVer staying in their lot.

Sometimes casinos have RV sites like this.

Oh, and we did get robbed.  In a particularly sketchy casino with zero lot control and incompetent security, my foolish decision to set the Honda generator outside unchained (while I was present, inside) resulted in a snatch and grab minutes before we planned on shutting it down and bringing it inside for the evening.  Sigh.  This was terribly depressing, but had the result of redoubling our intent to soak as much free stuff out of the casino industry as possible to counter the loss.  In the end, we believe we have done so, with our direct cash winnings exceeding the used market value of the generator, and that doesn’t include the free gas, food, drinks, and general entertainment value we received at several places.

But usually its more like this.

Serenity and Loki.  While last year saw us travelling in Serenity without the constant mechanical problems we had faced in 2015 with The Big Kahuna, we still had ownership of old bus and the stress associated with getting his transmission rebuild complete, returning him to Florida, and getting him sold.  All that was finally accomplished at the very end of 2016, so this year we truly had the freedom to explore in reliable comfort.  That doesn’t mean we didn’t have problems.  Serenity gave us sporadic electrical issues throughout much of the year, culminating with the recall repair of our chassis isolation switch in Oregon.

We also had the fridge go completely kaput as we passed through Wisconsin, the replacement of which, though mostly covered by our extended after market warranty, still took five weeks, and was further exasperated by a propane valve failure.  As of now Serenity is mostly good to go, though vague 12 volt electrical issues still cause problems, such as our automatic stairs failing to come down these days.

Fridge, no longer working.

Loki added to the trouble a little bit, with a punched out headlight resulting from my improper hanging of our bike rack, and a replacement starter installed just as we were getting serenity back from fridge and propane valve installation.

The Discounts and Clubs:  We cut our club memberships down from five to three in 2016, and continued with those three this year.

  • National Park Pass ($80): Renewed this in May, which paid for itself with the free entry into the North Cascades, Glacier, Teddy Roosevelt, Badlands, and Wind Cave national parks, and we are bound and determined to get to The Dry Tortugas this late winter or early spring as well.  When it expires in 2018 we will have to see how our park visit schedule is looking, but will likely renew it to support our plans in Maine, Michigan, and Minnesota.
  • Passport-America ($39 for 16 months):  We stayed at private RV parks on the 50% Passport-America discount for 20 nights; a significan reduction from 2016’s 55, but still enough to pay for the PA membership many times over.
  • Moose Lodge ($60, $35):  I renewed my membership this year and Rosemarie did not.  We honestly didn’t get much use out of it, going to far fewer lodges than we had anticipated.  This is partially because we spent so much time in the west where Elk Lodges seem much more predminant.  This year we are returning to Maine, and anticipate hitting the Moose lodge near Bar Harbor quite a bit, so we will likely renew.
  • Other: We received a 10% military discount at private parks for another 14 nights.  I honestly don’t recall any of the private RV parks that account for the remaining 30 nights offering a discount program like Good Sam or AAA.  We have found that if a park offers those, they almost always honor the same discount for active and retired military personnel.

All the discount clubs and memberships we need.

Favorite Private RV Parks:  The 14 different private parks at which we stayed dropped down to less than a fifth of of our total RVing nights, compared to 2016’s 25 private parks making up a third of the total in that year.

  • Periwinkle Park and Campground on Sanibel Island, FL.  This is our favorite private park three years in a row.  Yeah, its expensive, but if you want to RV on Sanibel it is your only option, and the social atmosphere is excellent.  Our favorite private park two years running.
  • Cleone Campground, Fort Bragg, CA.  This was a surprisingly good deal (for the area) and an attractive, very peaceful park we stumbled into near Glass Beach.  They honor the PA 50 discount rate, so we view this as a great alternative to the overpriced dry camping at MacKerricher State Park.
  • Glacier Campground, West Glacier, MT.  This beautiful park near Glacier National Park reminded us of traditional state parks: big spaces, lots of greenery, tree canopy, a bit of isolation, but with limited amenities.  Exactly our sort of place.
  • Honorable Mention:  Wanee Lake Golf & RV Resort in GA, perhaps the best bang for the buck we have ever found.

The beautiful lodge at Glacier RV Park

Favorite National/Federal parks:  We only RV’d in one national campground this year, so I am changing the criteria to simply favorite national sites we visited in 2017, with our without RV.

  • Custer State Park.  Yes, we are cheating, but we hit Custer in the same weeks we hit Teddy Roosevelt, Wind Cave, Badlands, and Mount Rushmore, and it was the best of them all. Thousands of buffalo, lots of other wildlife, and incredible sights to behold.  Highly recommended if you are in the area, even if that means skipping some of the actual national places.
  • Glacier National Park.  Yes, had there been less forest fire smoke blanketing the region it would have been better, but even with that it was pretty awesome, and we liked the region in general.
  • Buffalo Gap National Grasslands.  This makes the cut by virtue of being a simply beautiful campground, even if it is only dry camping at $6 a day.  Yes, it might have been nice to stay in the campgrounds actually inside nearby Teddy Roosevelt, but we liked this option a lot.
  • Honorable mentions: Teddy Roosevelt, Badlands, and Wind Cave National Parks, the first for having great day hikes and awesome vistas, the second for striking landscape particularly at sunset, and the last for being a pretty fantastic set of caves with the added bonus of great top side hikes and sites.  (It is our second favorite cave/cavern based national park, behind Carlsbad but ahead of Mammoth.)
  • The other national sites we visited were The Alamo (interesting, but we strongly prefer the nature type parks over the historic museum type places,) North Cascades National Park (I think we would have loved it if not for the heavy forest fire smoke,) and Mount Rushmore (bit of a let down to be honest.)

Favorite State Parks:  State parks are our thing: they are almost inevitably set in very natural surroundings with big sites, lots of privacy creating green space, and nice activities like swimming, biking, or hiking.  So it’s weird that we only went to seven of them this year.  Some are repeats from previous days, particularly those in Florida, and some were new gems.  There was not a bad one in the bunch, so here are the top three and all of the others are honorable mentions.

  • MacKerricher State Park, Fort Bragg, CA:  This is a controversial choice.  It ain’t cheap at $45 a night for dry camping, but the location and beauty are hard to beat.  You are on the ocean, with crashing waves hitting the beach, black sand, abalone shells, and just a general state of extraordinary beauty and peacefulness.  it is Rosemarie’s top choice, but for me, value is part of the equation, and I would drop it one position if not two.
  • Wekiwa Springs State Park, Apopka, FL:  One of our top parks when we are in the Central Florida region, rivaled only by Trimble County Park.  Ever since the remodel when power and water (and in most cases sewage) were installed at all sites, this has become one of our faves.  Nostalgia plays a part since I grew up making frequent trips to the big spring fed swimming hole at the head of the Wekiwa River.
  • Balmorhea State Park, Toyahvale, TX: This had been on our 2015 list of must see places in Texas until we encountered (surprise!) mechanical issues with the old bus.  It’s fantastic.  A huge major spring with a crystal clear swimming area situated basically in the desert.  Highly recommended.
  • Honorable mentions: Fort Robinson SP in Nebraska, Ledges SP in Iowa, Squaw Lake State Forest in Michigan, and Blue Springs SP in Florida.  Not a bad one in the bunch.

Our site at Balmorhea State Park.

Favorite municipal/city/county parks: State parks, as mentioned above, are “our thing,” but county parks (and here I include city or other municipal ones) are where we have found hidden gems.  These places often have the charm and location of a state park for a cheaper price and easier availability, i.e., they are often less crowded or popular.  This year we stayed in eight.  The tops:

  • Woodland Park, Grand Marais, MI: We made a major late change to our plans this year with a sprint back to the U.P., and part of the reason was to return to this fantastic county park on the shore of Lake Superior.  For the second year in a row this place takes top honors.
  • Gilbert Ray, Tucson, AZ: One of our favorites from 2015, and we were happy to return this year, even if for just a short stay since we spent the majority of our Tucson time at the nearby Air Force Base.  The beauty and location near both a nice city and the Saguaro National Park make this a must stay place if you are in the area.
  • Trimble Park FL: Though bumped to #3 this year, Trimble Park near Mount Dora remains one of our favorites.  The small size (15 spaces,) heavily wooded and large sites, beautiful lake side setting, and proximity to the wonderful town of Mount Dora cement this place as one of our preferred campgrounds any time we are in the Central Florida region.
  • Honorable Mention:  Farr Equestrian Center in Baton Rouge and Munising Tourist Park on Michigan’s U.P.

The view from Woodland Park in Grand Marais, MI.

Favorite Military RV Parks: It is going to be even harder this year than last to rank our military RV parks since we increased our number from 11 in 2016 to 18 different military campgrounds this year.  We have two clear standouts and a slew of honorable mentions:

The beach at Cliffside RV Park on Naval Air Station Whidbey Island.

Least Favorite places:  This was harder to do this year than last.  I think we are getting better at weeding out via advance research places we wont enjoy.  But we still have a couple:

  • Muckleshoot Casino, Auburn, WA.  Our opinion: this place is a crime ridden, poorly managed ghetto.
  •  I-4 specifically and Orlando traffic generally.  Nearly 40 years ago it was a common Central Florida radio DJ joke to make fun of the never ending construction projects on the I-4 corridor through Orlando.  Today, that joke is still just as relevant with I-4 still under expanding construction.  I am astounded and frustrated every time I have to deal with Orlando traffic.  I get that it is necessary road work since the population in the area is growing fast, but it reminds me why I don’t want to live there.
  • Orange City RV Park.  The park is OK, it is just exactly what we don’t like: Huge, crowded, tight, awkward connections and with not much to look at.  And a big sugar ant problem.

Minor issues like those aside, we had a fantastic 2017, and hope that you did as well.  We wish you the best for the coming new year, and look forward to seeing our family, our friends, and new friends as well.

2017 monthly reports:

2016 in Review

2015 in Review

36 Months Fulltiming: December 2017 Report

Loyal readers will have noted a flurry of posts this week as we did our usual “catch up at the end of the month” with further motivation provided by Rosemarie’s desire to have our 2017 in Review post come out before January 1st.  You should see it pop up later this evening, this is just the December report.

Sanibel Luminary festival

The Distance:  563 miles while making a big inverted “U” up the Florida Gulf Coast, across the north central part of the state and back down the east coast to Coral Springs.  This puts our 2017 mileage total at 10,639.  Next month will be a little higher than we originally expected since I will be running the rig back up to Central Florida to see daughter Andrea before turning around four days later and heading to the keys, picking up Rosemarie in route.

The Places:   We started the month with nearly two weeks at Periwinkle Park in Sanibel, one of our favorite (and most expensive) spots.  After that we covered the weekend at Lake Monroe County Park, followed by 10 days Lake Wekiwa State Park that took us through Christmas.  Then it was back to Lake Monroe for two days before we headed south for our final stop of 2017: Xavier and Joy’s house in Coral Springs.   As she has once each month or so for the past few, Rosemarie flew up to Norfolk, VA for a week long visit with Linda and family while I manned the fort (and the markets) in Florida.

This month we had 13 days at a private resort, 3 in a house, and 15 in public campgrounds (10 state, 5 county.)   We enjoyed full hook up services for 18 days, power and water for 10, no drycamping, and 3 days in a house with the rig in the driveway.

Dolphin, not a shark.

The Budget:  We had a decent month, finishing 8% under budget, despite 13 days at our most expensive park, Christmas expenses, and a few investments into our market readiness.  It was only possible because of, for the second month in a row, our participation in 10 markets before Christmas.  It was not quite enough to put us on budget for the year, technically we ended up 2.8% over budget, but there is a major self imposed artificiality in there that makes it better than that sounds, which I will go into in more detail in the 2017 annual review.

The Drama and the Improvements:  Nothing of note this month, other than we finally got word about the post hurricane repairs opening date and associated restrictions for our winter home at Naval Air Station, Key West.  We will be arriving there on January 7, length of stay TBD.  We purchased a few minor items to improve our market preparation, but nothing more than that.  Our stay in Key West should generate some significant improvements as Rosemarie has big plans for some interior changes.

2017 monthly reports to date:

And here are our 2016 and 2015 annual summaries which include monthly report links.

Head South, Middle Aged Couple! To Coral Springs, and Beyond.

With five days left in the year and our stay at Wekiwa Springs complete, we repositioned back to Lake Monroe County Park for our last two days in Central Florida before heading south to Xavier and Joy’s house in Coral Springs.  While at Lake Monroe we made a final run to those stores to which we would not have access once we reached The Keys (Harbor Freight, Hobby Lobby, Dollar Tree, Walmart) in order to gather supplies, mostly crafting and jewelry making items, for the bulk of the winter.

Tiaras for mermaid crowns

Once again, we took I-95 rather than the overpriced turnpike, and our timing was such that we encountered pretty light traffic until the last ten miles of interstate driving.  We parked the rig in Xavier and Joy’s driveway, as far to the left as feasible (as befits my politics, heh) such that our cars also fit in the drive.  We are even able to put out two of the three slides in this position, so long as we mind the palm tree.

Our timing had been largely defined by Rosemarie’s sister Melissa being in town from NYC: they would be able to spend a week together before we all went our separate ways for another season. 

There was also an excessive amount of football watching.  I don’t enjoy watching solo all that much, but in the company of others I get quite enthused, so it was nice to be able to watch several great bowl games with Xavier and others.

Watching the Orange Bowl

Rosemarie also finally got to start learning her way around her Cricut machine.  For those unfamiliar, this is the latest crafting craze; a machine that allows drawing, cutting, and scoring of a wide variety of materials from thin paper up to leather, using downloaded images or creations of your own design.  For example, here is our logo applied to a T-Shirt Rosemarie’s sister Dolores made for us. 

Next up: December Monthly Report followed by 2017 in Review, marking our third anniversary full time RVing.

Back to Wekiwa Springs for Christmas

Wekiwa Springs can get hard to reserve in December, and the week directly surrounding Christmas and New Year especially so.  A couple of weeks in advance I had no difficulty securing five weekday days in mid December, but it was not until our three day stay in Lake Monroe that I was able to extend that another five days through Christmas.  This made possible, of course, via the tried and true “just keep checking the reservation site for cancellations” method.  I find that using the “date range availability” viewing option is the easiest way to spot openings for any Reserve America controlled campground.

Our second of two sites, full hook up, a few less trees.

PKM loves this park, the squirrel density is quite high.

Sunday morning we broke camp early in order to get the rig parked in the lot behind Sweetwater-Wekiva market with enough time to set up for the event, which gave us another decent performance.  Shayna, the market manager has worked to add special events to draw in more people, and this week included a puppy parade with free dog treats for all participants.  It’s rather strange how consistent this market is for us:  though it has limited foot traffic compared to the steady stream of people at Deland, the people that show up are much more likely to buy.  Works for us!

From there it was on to the state park just a couple of miles down the road.  We would spend the first five days in the “upper loop” at site #38 and the second half in the “lower loop” in #4.  I mention this because the loops are different in appearance and services.  Both have smooth, hard packed dirt sites with plenty of trees and other greenery, but the upper loop has noticeably more older growth oak and general forestry, while in the lower loop all sites are full hook up rather than power and water only (there are a handful of exceptions in the upper loop with full connections.)

I’m sure she would have come down on her own eventually, but when?

No time for these games, cat.

Our ideal site would be in the upper loop in one of the higher numbered sites with full connections, but for those that value their satellite TV, the lower loop is less likely to provide signal obstruction.  Regardless of site, the camping fee pays for the park entry, so anyone staying can enjoy the wonderful swimming area at the spring head.

About to take the plunge..

… and in.

Somewhere in the midst of all this I picked up Rosemarie’s Christmas gift and hid it in a locked storage compartment and kept the key on me, just in case.  This was insufficient to prevent her from sleuthing it out when she accidentally found and then accidentally read my to do list, which included, of course, picking up her Circut Explore One die cutting machine that is all the rage with the crafters this year.  And then her sister Dolores convinced her that, yes, it’s a nice gift but you really need to have the (more expensive) Circut Explore Air 2.  But of course.  Thanks, Dori.

Behold, the eventually decided upon Christmas present.

And part of our gift from Dad and Marcia.

In addition to our three final markets of the year occurring during our stay, we had a ouple of family gatherings to celebrate the Christmas holidays.  We managed to somehow avoid getting any pictures to prove these events occurred.  Mom and Tim joined us for one night in the park, meeting their “camping” quota for the year.  Jackson and wife Andrea joined Rose, me, Dad and Marcia for an afternoon cookout at Wekiwa Springs on the 23, and Aunt Judy hosted Christmas Day brunch for dozen of us.  This is the only big and consistent Christmas gathering we attend, despite my attempts to force a “gathering of the cousins” each year like we managed in 2016.  Ah well, 2018 will be the year, I’m sure.

Starting Christmas day dry…

… and ending it wet.

Back to Central Florida: Lake Monroe County Park again

Here’s the thing: Lake Monroe Park, located on the Volusia side of the Seminole-Volusia county line, and situated on the St Johns river where it empties into Lake Monroe (natch) is, as far as we know, the best value park for short term stays in the North Central Florida region loosely bracketed by Deland, Lake Mary, Wekiva, and Mount Dora.  Admittedly, that is a rather arbitrarily defined region directly north of Orlando and short of the Ocala National Forest, but it places us in perfect position to visit our CFL friends and family as well as a handful of markets in the vicinity.

Site 13, our usual assignment.

It is not our favorite spot in the region; that would be a toss up between Trimble Park near Mount Dora and Wekiwa Springs State Park. But it is affordable, beautiful, heavily wooded, and convenient, and has thus become one of our go to campgrounds, particularly on winter weekends when our other top options are often hard to reserve.

That said, it’s not for everyone.  The reservation system is strictly by phone during regular weekday business hours, and often requires a call back or two.  Unlike many, many county and municipal campgrounds we have visited, there is neither a camp host nor an honor system “iron ranger” deposit box to make payment if you just show up to try and camp in one of the open sites.  They have a one week maximum stay, and a 30 days total stay limit per calendar year as well.

Linda’s three sons with Rose

The gate is locked at dusk, so you better have made note of the combination lock contained in your reservation confirmation email if you are out past then.  The trains run regularly and into the night through nearby Sanford, whistles and all.  And there is some sort of industrial plant a few hundred yards away across the highway that produces hours and hours of… a steady sort of blow dryer sound, also deep into the night.

“The Plant”

Aside from the noise, most of those issues can be dealt with by planning ahead, and I find the train noises vaguely soothing in a nostalgic sort of way, but your mileage may very.  Regardless, at less than $17 a night all in, we use it regularly, particularly during this year when other favorites have been closed or limited.  So for our return to Central Florida, occurring as it did on a weekend, we locked in a three day stay in advance of our longer, through Christmas reservations at Wekiwa Springs State Park.

This would be a busy weekend.  Just as in November, we had locked in 10 markets for December.  We completed four in Naples across our Sanibel stay, but had six more to cover during the last two weekends before Christmas.  And in addition to the Friday Deland Artisan Alley market and the Saturday Lake Mary event, we also had to get Rosemarie to the airport for another trip up to Virginia to see Linda and the crew.

If there are two things all Linda sons know how to do well, it’s cooking fantastic food…

When we returned to Central Florida in November, our first Deland night market confirmed why we remembered it so fondly (we crushed it) but the following two Fridays had been just so-so.  We were pleased that this mid-December Friday returned to form with a great showing, which we partially attribute to some additional lighting we purchased cheaply at Harbor Freight.  The next day’s Lake Mary market was solid, though not nearly the extravaganza we had experienced in November, but still significantly better than the alternative Saturday event in downtown Sanford.

…and making beautiful kids.

We did a rapid market tear down after the Lake Mary event ended, swung back by the campground to refresh, and then it was straight to Orlando International for Rose’s flight.  Thankfully it was a weekend and thus we avoided the worst of Orlando’s horrific I-4 traffic, but it was still long ride there and back, where upon arrival I made preps for a complicated move to Wekiwa Springs State Park as well as a market the next day.

Another (almost) week in Sanibel

With six days left in our Sanibel stay, we crammed in as much as we could, starting with the two Naples markets on Friday and Sunday.  Truth be told, if we hadn’t already paid the vendor fee for the Friday event, we probably would have skipped getting up early and the hour drive for what we suspected (accurately) would be another poor showing.

We are finally planning far enough ahead to be on top of seasonal items this year.  Behold Rosemarie’s glass and seashell ornaments.

The only great thing about running back and forth to Naples is the always enjoyable drive across the causeway.  Even PKM seems to enjoy this part, and the Osprey’s are always there to great us.

Fortunately Sunday’s market was very solid, and the experience only re-enforced in our minds the need to pick our vending events in Naples a bit more carefully next year.  Regardless of the money, we always find something worthwhile to buy at these events, usually produce or delicious prepared food.  This month it was the chocolate croissants from Tartine & Tartelette, the Guacamole from a vendor I can’t recall, and the medium heat salsa from Sinful Salsa, though the array of olives was quite tempting as well.

In between events we got to visit with October Rose, who was on vacation from her permanent home in the mountains of India.  She and her sister Barbara joined us for an afternoon on Sanibel.  We returned the visit on Monday at Barbara’s Cape Coral apartment where we enjoyed white wine, vegetable stew, and an unsuccessful attempt to see some manatees at a nearby park near an electrical generation plant that often draws them into the warm outflow channels from the cooling cycle.  The weather was just not quite chilly enough at the time of our visit, perhaps next time.

No manatees, but we did like this big tree across from Barbara’s apartment.

We also managed to connect up with Key West friends (and geocaching buddies) Stan and Marilyn who were staying with their nephew on Pine Island, the next island inland from Sanibel.  We took a short tour of Sanibel and Captiva with them, spent some time on the beach shelling, and capped the visit off with lunch at Pecking Order (though some people chose to order from Subway next door.)  Given the expense of Sanibel, it was nice to find another affordable joint with top quality food.

The remaining few days were taken up by a whole lot of shelling as Rosemarie sought to improve the quality of her keepers and the volume of her crafting supplies in anticipation of a lot of shell oriented items to be sold at markets throughout 2018.

We keep restaurant outings quite limited on the island, but couldn’t resist a late brunch at Over Easy Cafe where I enjoyed one of the more beautiful versions of Eggs Benedict I have every had.  It used Nova salmon in place of the traditional Canadian bacon, and spiced up with red onions, capers, and sliced tomato.  In our five or so years of visiting Sanibel and Captiva, I think we have dined at fewer than a dozen of the 50 plus eateries there.  Someday we might actual make it to the more well known establishments, such as Island Cow, but for now we are happy with the few price conscious gems we have found and hope to visit again.

Come on, even if you don’t like poached eggs that looks fantastic, right?

For our last afternoon we took drinks and snacks up to Lighthouse Point, and were rewarded with a small pod of dolphins that put on a show with their shallow water, near shore hunting.  Between that and another great sunset, it was a fantastic finish to a great Sanibel stay.

Next post: our triumphant return to Central Florida where we close out the market year strong and enjoy the holidays with friends and family.

Week 1 in Sanibel

One of the great things about our full time RV travel pattern is our ability to return to favorite places without feeling like we are missing out on opportunities to see new ones, and Sanibel is definitely one of those spots.  Along with Key West, we made Periwinkle Park on Sanibel Island a regular destination even before we were full time, back when we were doing weekend trips in The Barracuda. 

Nowadays we try to work Sanibel into our winter itinerary for a week before and after our long stop in Key West.  It’s the most expensive place we RV all year, $58 a night with no weekly discount, but we treat ourselves with the knowledge that for much of the rest of the winter we are enjoying vastly discounted daily rates at the Naval Air Station in The Keys.  And for the second year in a row, we would further offset the Periwinkle costs by participating in a set of Naples markets bracketing our stay.

Our one day stay in Naples included directions with an impossible U-Turn, and instead I ended up on a dead end, had to disconnect and pull a multipoint turn to get back on the right road.

So Friday, December 1st, would be a busy day indeed.  The morning saw us up bright and early setting up shop at the Bed Bath and Beyond market in Naples that we had done twice in 2016.  Later that morning I returned to the nearby Naples RV resort and broke camp, bringing Serenity to the large vendor parking area behind the BBB.  Once the market ended, we packed up, hooked up, and made the hour plus drive up through Fort Myers and across the causeway to Sanibel to check in and set up at Periwinkle Park.

And then we broke out the bikes for two hours of riding along the bike paths as part of Sanibel’s annual Luminary event, in which miles of pathways are lined with candle, sand, and paper bag luminaries and many of the merchants along the route host various events, often involving wine and hors d’oeuvres.  We had planned our stay around this once a year extravaganza, having stumbled into it last year.  After more than a couple of stops we wisely chose to turn around well before reaching the end of the luminary path, and made a few more stops on the return trip before capping the day off with live music at Huxsters, the market and deli store adjacent to our park.

The next day we began a mixed schedule of relaxation and beach time interspersed with furious activity to prep for, drive to, and sell at markets in Naples.  The original plan, based on the market schedule from 2016, was to do a Saturday and Sunday event each weekend with a six day Sanibel stay in between such that there would be no need to run back and forth between the the island and Naples.  Unfortunately, the Saturday market was moved to Friday, so it was either shorten the Sanibel stay or suck it up and make the drive.  We chose the latter.

We were really lucky with our site assignment this year.

So day 2 may have been a day of rest, but day 3 had us back on the road for the Naples market on Pine Ridge, which for two years running has proved a much better vending opportunity than the BBB event.   Given this, we will likely drop the BBB market entirely next time we are in the region; it’s just not worth the time and effort, particularly since we are essentially forgoing an extra day at Sanibel to work it. We had been on Sanibel for three days but only had one full day uninterrupted by sales events. 

Because of that hard running first weekend, by day 4 we decided to extend the stay from a week to 10 days, and before the end of the week we stretched that to 13 days, tentatively moving our Tampa area plans to March of 2018 during our likely meandering exit from Florida.

This gave us the rest of that first week to truly enjoy the island without the looming threat of a complicated “markets plus departure” itinerary.  For Rosemarie, this meant, above all, shelling.  Aside from the joy she derives from it, we had heavily depleted the shell supply stockpile with the sales of so many shell crowns and other items.  While in past years Rose had focused heavily on the stretch of the island between Bowman’s Beach and Blind Cut, this year she spent nearly as much time at the other end, near Light House Point.

The breathing space allowed us to settle into our island time lifestyle; social hour at the pond front deck, frequent sunsets on the beach, occasional trips to the library to take advantage of the high speed internet, and generally comfortable days in our excellent tree shaded site.

During our last trip to Sanibel we had purchased a box of Pencil Sea Urchin Spines from which Rosemarie made and sold a bunch of earrings and pendants.  We finished our first week during this trip with a return trip to the seashell collector in the hopes of buying another box.  Unfortunately he did not have a large selection of the larger spines, so we ended up just getting a select handful, along with a few other items Rose plans to transform into one of a kind jewelry.

Pencil Sea Urchin Spines

Next post: another week in Saniblel, two more markets, and visits from friends.

35 Months Fulltiming: November 2017 Report

The Distance:  375 miles, all in Florida as we bounced around the state.   Our mileage for the year is now up to 10,076, and we don’t expect to put more than a few hundred on the odometer in December.   The next three months will be a big mileage slow down for us, but with our Key West plans still unknown, we might be doing a bit more driving than last winter.

The Places:   After a couple more days at Wekiwa Springs State Park we spent a week at Lake Monroe County Park, one of the few places on our Central Florida short list that we could still find weekend openings.  Rosemarie spent a good portion of the Lake Monroe time up in Virginia for another visit with Linda and family.  We then took advantage of a robust Passport America deal with Orange City RV Resort for a six day stay, and finished off our Fall Central Florida time with four days at Blue Springs State Park.  Then it was time to head south to Coral Springs for Thanksgiving and more, where we stayed with Xavier and Joy for 10 days with Serenity parked in their driveway.  Finally, we closed out the month with a one day stop at Naples RV Resort, positioning ourselves for a pair of weekend markets.

We had 7 nights at private resorts, 10 in a house, and 13 at public campgrounds (6 state, 7 county.)   This gave us full hook ups for 9 days, partial (power and water) for 11, no drycamping at all, and 10 days of “it doesn’t matter because we are in a house.”

The Budget:  We really killed it this month, finishing more than 22% under budget.  A combination of ten markets, ten days without campground fees, and only one fill up for Serenity made November a great budget month.  Technically, this puts us in striking range to actually be on budget for the year, though I doubt this will happen even with solid market performances in December; it’s the holiday season and we have a lengthy stay at our most expensive RV resort planned.

The only manatee we saw while at Blue Springs State Park.  They were some supposedly there, but they spent most of their time a bit further down stream than we could see, apparently.

The Drama and the Improvements:  Nothing nearly as exciting as last months various problems to report.  I had a bit more electrical drama with Loki’s starter which required me to take apart the battery connection cable and wire brush it thoroughly, we improved our under belly storage on Serenity, and stripped out all of the tracker’s water damaged  carpets.

PKM researching something.  Something nefarious, no doubt.

2017 monthly reports to date:

And here are our 2016 and 2015 annual summaries which include monthly report links.