Tag Archives: vacation

Meeting the manatees

I have a long list of “I’ve always wanted to…”

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And with that marvelous milestone of 3-0 looming, I did what lots of let’s-do-this-oriented bloggy ladies do and came up with some fun activities that I hoped to satisfyingly cross off on my way to the big birthday. Of course, it included one of my longest held dreams: Seeing manatees in the wild.

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My manatee obsession spans 20+ years; it’s become a part of my identity and one of the random facts most people who know me even a little bit will remember. Hence, I’m tagged weekly with articles about the beloved creatures and have been gifted three of these.

So this winter, or as some like to call it – Manatee Season – I was determined to finally make it happen. I booked our family a direct flight between Des Moines and St. Petersburg for a long weekend manatee-centric getaway.We stayed in Crystal River, which is a couple hours north of St. Pete. (Zip up the toll road and do not mistakenly think Hwy 19 will be a “scenic route.” It was a stop-and-go, strip-mall-infested nightmare.)

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Manatees are at home in both fresh and salt water, but in the colder months they like to come inland and hang out in the warmer springs. Two best-known Florida manatee havens are Homosassa Springs/Crystal River and Blue Springs State Park/Orange City. I’ve mostly heard about these magical spots through my membership with the Save the Manatee Club. Even Emmett got to “adopt” a manatee for his first birthday. He and “Squeaky” were both born June 13!

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Our Crystal River manatee adventure included a kayak trip with Aardvark’s Florida Kayak Co, Inc., which is a sponsor of the Save the Manatee Club and takes one of the most eco-minded approaches in all manatee tourism. We got a sweet Save the Manatee treat bag, and a private family kayak tour in the chilly Florida morning.

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Our guide is a board member for the club and was extremely knowledgeable, sharing information about the preservation initiatives and conservation challenges of the area. I’ll admit that most people who asked about the trip assumed I was going to be swimming with the manatees and when I saw the sweet creatures gliding below the surface, it took every ounce of willpower not to just jump into the water. But when you see how disruptive the boats full of scuba divers and snorkelers are in the habitat — some don’t even use propeller guards! — it’s easier to hold back and let the manatees be.

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Emmett did, however, jump/fall face first into the bay in the .25 seconds we had our heads turned while taking a break on the beach. Toddler adventures!

We also made two different trips to Homosassa Springs, a wildlife park that is way bigger than I had ever envisioned. You can take a little ferry boat from the main parking lot out to the park, and hear about the trees and wildlife along the way. A beautiful boardwalk features a number of different manatee and fish observation points over the springs, and another “Wildlife Walk” loop takes you through a kind of wildlife rehabilitation zoo.  If I were to do it again, I would have kayaked in the afternoon and gone to Homosassa in the morning. The afternoon was crowded and the manatees had all swum out to deeper waters. We were the first people in the park the second day, and got the practically private manatees-as-far-as-I-can-see fix I was hoping for!

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We didn’t do as much dining out as we typically do on vacation — eating our way through a city. Considering Emmett’s allergies, we enjoyed a few picnics at the King’s Bay park, which the little boy loved, and had a nice dinner out at the Fat Cat Grill, which is fancier than it sounds, but also had high chairs. (Lamb chops, ftw!) Back in St. Pete on Sunday, we went to the Dali Museum and drove down for sunset at Clearwater Beach.

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It was crazy to think we were on our first full family vacation (one lap child, one in utero), and it’s a memory I’ll always cherish.

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Freedom Weekend

There I stood, sandwiched between the U.S. Capitol building, the Washington Monument and a mall full of marching bands and red-white-and-blue floats. Free to wear a skirt and ride a bike and Instagram about it. America.

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We spent Independence Day weekend in D.C. and the Virginia wine country, thanks to a wedding invitation and my mom’s willingness to watch Emmett while we flew out for the fun, which also coincided with our fourth anniversary.

Highlights of the #freedomweekend: 

Hitting up the happy hour at District of Pi, the D.C. outpost for a favorite St. Louis deep dish spot, with my brother and his girlfriend.

Hotel sheets and a full night sleep.

Meeting up with some favorite college friends and having an awesome Pimm’s cocktail and hearty breakfast at Founding Farmers together.

Deciding on a whim to hop onto the Capital Bikeshare cruisers and cycling down Constitution Avenue when it was closed to traffic for the parade. The street was lined with people waving flags, and of course I waved back at the kids.

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We swung through the parade staging area, so I felt like we got to see the parade without waiting in the sun. I get all teary-eyed hearing patriotic songs and this was a pretty nice consolation for missing out on the Yankee Doodle Pops concert back home. (Did you guys go?)

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Geeking out at the Newseum. Can’t beat celebrating the First Amendment on Independence Day, right? So many of the exhibits offered reminders of how wonderful – and hard won – all of our freedoms truly are.

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The hotel pool at the Holiday Inn Express with the best view of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Watching my beautiful friend Mara marry her best friend. Mara has impeccable taste, and the wedding at Early Mountain Vineyards was gorgeous, thoughtful, delicious and fun! 20140705_195351Dancing the night away with my high school crew. They own the dance floor.

10368316_10102113350770140_313293401580712690_oAnd just spending some quality time with Joe. Cheers to 4+40 more years!

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Touchdown, DSM

I can’t wait to catch you up on our adventures in Hood River, Oregon, where we spent the past five nights on a family vacation to celebrate the wedding of my cousin. Hood River is about an hour outside of Portland, and the area is rich with fruit orchards, breathtaking views and kite surfers out on the Columbia River.

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We picked peaches, enjoyed a picturesque wedding at the most amazing organic garden, stopped at a lavender farm, went on a bicycle adventure and brewery tour and generally soaked up time with our family. I’ll be sharing some of the fun in the coming week – my last few days of maternity leave!

P.S. Emmett was a champ on the plane rides and Joe and I surprisingly had ourselves organized enough to avoid meltdowns or hassles. Most people say flying is relatively easy with a two-month old because at his age, they sleep most of the time. We had him in the Ergo on the flights and were also able to gate check the stroller for free.

Emmett earned his wings at 8 weeks

Emmett earned his wings at 8 weeks

I’d say our smartest move was to invest in a big canvas sea bag from the Army Surplus, into which we jammed the Pack’n’Play, two small duffel bags, the Boppy and assorted diapers. It weighed in just under the 50 pound limit and saved us money on checking an extra bag or two. We rented a carseat from the rental car place, but it didn’t fit him as well as his one from home, so that may have been a wash.

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Boots and a bump: Nashville trip recap

Hey y’all. (Please read that in your best Tami Taylor drawl.) I got back from Nashville last night and wanted to give you a recap in case you have plans to visit Music City sometime soon. Me, waiting for my 6 a.m. flight:

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My high school ladyfriends and I try to reconnect for an annual spring break trip when possible, and this year we chose NashVegas. Although the weather didn’t exactly cooperate (it was 18 degrees colder than average for this time of year, and rainy), we still had a good time and made some funny memories, which is what it’s all about, right?

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Staying put and getting around: We stayed in the Midtown/West End area, which is walkable to downtown — especially in daylight. Just remember it’s downhill on the way there and uphill on the way back. We stayed at the Aloft, which was unfortunately under construction during our visit and doesn’t have a pool, but there are plenty of other hotels in the area that could be nice and affordable. (We walked past Union Station on our way downtown and stopped in the lobby — if you’re looking to spend more for a romantic getaway, maybe, that’s a swank and historic spot.)

Instead of renting a car, we decided to do a combo of cabbing it, walking and purchasing a day bus pass ($5.25). We definitely got our money’s worth out of the day bus pass, although it may have made us a little too ambitious. The cab ride to the airport is a flat $25, even though it’s only about 10 minutes from downtown, but the bus also stops there.

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Sightseeing: When we arrived, we walked around the Vanderbilt campus, which is gorgeous – filled with Magnolia trees and close to cute independent shops in Hillsboro Village. We rode the bus out to Belle Meade Plantation for a tour (totally scored a Groupon discount!), which ends in their little wine tasting room. On a nice day, this would be a great place to bring a picnic and hang out on the grounds. We went to the Frist Center for the Visual Arts for a culture fix, too. If you’re looking to do tons of daytime activities, the Music City Total Access Pass ($50 for four attractions) might be a good option. We weren’t super ambitious on this front due to weather and apathy toward country music iconography, but I went to a wedding at the Cheekwood Botanical Garden a few years ago and had it been sunshiney totally would have tried to go back.

Dining: We whiffed it with our first dinner at Cabana. It was chock full of bachelorette parties and the food wasn’t anything to write home about. Not worth the hype, although when I was there a few years ago for another Nashville wedding, I remember it being better. We had lunch at Urban Flats in The Gulch, which is supposed to be Nashville’s up-and-coming neighborhood and is also a wine bar. It was good, but in retrospect we should have gone to nearby Whiskey Kitchen, which I’ve heard rave reviews about. We tried to have dinner on Nashville’s East side, which is apparently supposed to have more of a hipster vibe, but got off the bus at a sketchy spot and abandoned that plan. Instead we stumbled upon Fat Bottom Brewing, which was my favorite from the trip although also a slight torture because I couldn’t sample the goods.

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OK, I had one sip of their red and it was amazing. There was a live band out in the beer garden, really cool decor and we shared a cheese plate and beverages while we plotted our next move. We had some good luncharitas (virgin Strawberry daquari for me) at Chuy’s near our hotel. Apparently it’s a chain, but they did a good job keeping the freshly made chip baskets overflowing.

Our last night, we had dinner in the street-level Merchants bistro downtown.

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Their classic black-an-white decor was a beautiful contrast to the neon of Broadway. They have a solid classic cocktail menu and delicious peach cobbler dessert, too. Breakfast our last morning was at the famous Pancake Pantry. We waited half an hour in the cold to get a table, but you have to love a sweet stack. (I kind of wish we’d gotten lunch up the street at Fido at some point, because I once had an amazing salad there.)

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The main drag: Spring break in Nashville was bustling, despite the weather. The first place we stopped in was Rippy’s to watch some March Madness and eat onion rings. There may be photographic evidence of a mid-afternoon drunk best man from a bachelor party pulling me out of my seat to dance to live music. My humongous belly made everyone in the place laugh.  We enjoyed karaoke at Lonnie’s Western Room (karaoke in Nashville is for serious singers) and hung out at Tootsies on our last night. (The band kept asking for a “holler and a swoller,” which I thought was hilarious.

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There is a constant stream of live music that spills into the streets. We didn’t exactly shut the bars down any of the nights, which was just fine by me! I love that my friends and I graduated 10 years ago and still enjoy traveling together. The Nashville trip was a fun last fling before the baby this spring.

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Chicago to Savannah: Family Road Trip Recap

My mom turned 60 the week of Thanksgiving, and so my brother, Kevin, and I decided that we would plan a family vacation — something we really hadn’t done in the better part of a decade — to celebrate. I love to give people experiences instead of stuff. This vacation was a chance to be in the moment (I barely glanced at e-mail all week), give back as adults and create some great memories with the fam. It was awesome to include Joe in a family event less emotionally fraught than wedding planning, too. Grab a mug of tea for a recap with all the details!

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We chose Savannah because we were interested in going somewhere that would be warmish in late fall, that had sightseeing potential (but wasn’t super cheesy touristy) and since my mom had always talked of visiting neighboring Hilton Head and Savannah is the birthplace of Girl Scouts, it felt like the right fit. I’m so glad we made this our destination! We had just the right amount of time to explore, and the city was super easy to navigate. And Spanish moss. Everywhere.

Kevin and I wanted to cover most of the trip expenses because, let’s be real – it’s not much of a present if you’re like “Yay! We’re taking you on a vacation! Now buy your $500 plane ticket!” but we’re on a budget and so we started to look into driving the nearly 1,000 miles there. I got a pretty sweet deal on a Ford Escape by calling and pre-paying with Avis (unlimited miles) and we listed all four adults as drivers for the 14+ hour trek. Kevin is a consultant who has a ridiculous stash of Marriott points and gets government hotel rates, so he hooked us up with lodging. Of course, we downloaded Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil audiobook and listened to part of it on the way there.

Day 1: Chicago to Asheville, NC. With a spontaneous pit stop at a fried chicken place worthy of a historical marker.

We decided to get the long drive out of the way first, stopping at a rest area for a picnic lunch and then making a spur-of-the-moment decision to visit the original KFC/Colonel Sanders Cafe in Kentucky, which was just goofy and random enough to make us feel like we were on a genuine road trip.

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We stayed at the Grand Bohemian in Asheville, which was pretty luxe (thanks, Kev!) and right outside the Biltmore Estate. The hotel sent up champagne and snacks to help toast my mom, since we’d set out on her actual birthday, and we were able to get a late dinner of awesome burgers at the Village Wayside, a short walk down the street. (It was tempting to go to the fanciest McDonalds and Hardees we’d ever seen, but I’m glad we stuck to local flavor!)

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We got up early and headed to the Biltmore for a tour of one of the country’s oldest and most opulent privately owned residences. I assumed it was owned by a nonprofit Foundation, a la Des Moines’ Salisbury House, but not so. Tickets are pricey, plus you could pay an extra $10-20 for an audio or guided tour. But the grounds and home are a marvel and my mom really wanted to go. We started in the gardens and then wound our way through the two-hour self-guided house tour. We scoped out downtown Asheville quickly, “fueling up” at Asheville Brewing Co. before we hit the road. Note: Planning a trip through Asheville and Savannah while pregnant and unable to partake in the alcoholic beverages is a mild form of torture.

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Mega spring/summer salad

Nothing puts spring in my step quite like knowing there’s something tasty waiting for me at the end of my workout.

Joe and I are training for the Drake Relays Half Marathon in order to get swimsuit ready for our trip to the Dominican Republic this May. It’s sort of working, because we’re doing a pretty good job of motivating each other to lace up the shoes and get in our miles and my clothes feel looser. The pizza from El Chisme we split after a Friday evening 10-miler and this amazing BLT-inspired gargantuan post-run salad, however, might not be hastening the slimming process.

Super yummy BLT inspired salad!

But it was SO GOOD. I played sous chef, chopping and washing the greens. Spinach and thinly sliced cabbage (left over from some delicious roast cabbage wedges we did for St. Patrick’s Day) were the base, and then we piled on chunks of watermelon, avocado, some little tomatoes, grilled green onion and asparagus and, of course, bacon. The dressing was a mix of Ranch and Greek yogurt, and the whole wheat pitas were toasted and sliced on the side.

I think we’ll continue to make some variation of this salad all summer long, with more seasonal ingredients. (Raise your hand if you can’t wait for roast sweet corn to make its triumphant return!) I could see adding some Feta, too.

As far as the training goes, we’re actually using a real plan this time. It’s one Joe found on his friend’s “Bad Angels Rules for Running” blog. I’ve felt pretty good on our long runs, but surprisingly it’s the mid-length runs that are hardest for me. I even wrote in to Coach Jenny to see if my bad form is going to destroy me now that I’m about to enter my late 20s. (And she answered!)

Are you a runner? What are your favorite post-run meals? When I was in Cross Country in high school, my best friend and I used to joke that any calories we consumed within 30 minutes of practice “didn’t count.” Ten years later, I’m still holding onto that myth!

Oh! And we’re starting seedlings for the first time, using the cool plant stand Joe spray painted and gave me as a gift. I love watching them sprout!

Sure hope we're doing this seedling thing right! This area gets lots of sun in the afternoon. We can never keep our window boxes alive.

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