An Ode to Disney Springs

Okay, I have to admit I was pretty skeptical when Disney announced they were retheming (and RENAMING) Downtown Disney. Apparently I don't really like change much. But now that Disney Springs is really starting to come together and most of it is open, I have to say I'm pretty darn excited about it! It's so pretty!! I posted a photo of it on instagram the other day and said "I'm sorry for ever doubting you would be great, Disney Springs!" 

It's so much more fun now with the new construction open. Plus there are so many neat stores and most importantly a lot more food options!! That was what Downtown Disney was lacking in my opinion. We've tried a few different places and I'm sure we'll continue to try more. 

So far we've tried Blaze Pizza which is super yummy! You design your own pizza then they flash bake it in like 3 minutes! YUM!

We've also tried D-Luxe Burger which was ok. It is a huge burger which isn't my favorite, I rather like the thinner patties. 

We tried The Daily Poutine and man was it good! I've never had poutine before but dang I'm going to have to do it again! 

Kayla and I tried Frontera Cocina last weekend and it was pretty good as well if you're interested in Mexican food! 

There are a lot more stores to shop at including some of your favorite brands like Sephora and Anthropologie, as well as new ones I'd never been in before. There are so many good restaurants to try I'm sure we'll continue to try new ones as we explore Disney Springs more. I really want to eat at the Boathouse!

Weeki Wachee and Tarpon Springs!

When my mom, sister and her kids were here this summer we headed over towards Tarpon Springs to stay for a few nights and go to Weeki Wachee. Mainly because my niece (and I) love mermaids. 

Ever since I read a fiction book about Weeki Wachee it's been on my list of places I wanted to see. The main story behind it is they have "real live mermaids" they breathe using hoses and were famous in the 1950's for drinking coke and eating bananas underwater. 

Nowadays the springs are a national park, but they still put on a mermaid show a few times a day. It's a neat day trip and it doesn't cost a ton of money. 

The springs themselves are gorgeous and clear, although we didn't swim, we were told they are pretty chilly year round. 

We also stopped in Tarpon Springs which is famous for their sponge docks where the ships that harvest sponges come in. There are some cute and interesting shops, as well as a bunch of sponges for sale! 

EPCOT's International Food and Wine Festival!

It's Food and Wine time in Orlando!!! Well, it's almost over actually. But I didn't get to experience much of the fun until the last few weeks. I had actually never done Food and Wine before and I really enjoyed it! 

I've now been three times (with one more trip planned for the final weekend) and the results are in! 

Favorite drink: The Martini Slush from France (Runner up being the Szarlotka from Poland which I have no picture of!)

Favorite food: The Buttered Chicken with Naan from Africa! 

I also snuck in a picture of our pizzas from Via Napoli! OMG I love that place more and more every time I visit! 

What are your favorite things to eat and drink at Epcot's Food and Wine??

Tampa Bay Area

Next up in our Exploring the Sunshine State Series! I went to the Tampa Bay Area at the end of October!! And I'm just getting around to finishing this post in February!! 

We stayed in a two bedroom condo at Sunset Vistas Beachfront Suites on Treasure Island that was right on the Gulf of Mexico which was very nice! It had a pool and hot tub as well as a kids pool, too. 

The view from Bongos on St. Pete Beach

Above was the view from dinner one night when we headed down to St. Pete Beach to eat at Bongos Beach Cafe. We ate beachside and the sky put on a great show! The restaurant is around the back of the hotel, on the beach. 

Downtown St. Pete

One of our first days we wandered around downtown St. Petersburg which is super cute and pretty pedestrian friendly. There are a fair amount of shops and restaurants all within walking distance of each other. 

We ate brunch one morning at Clear Sky Cafe on Clearwater Beach and I got this excellent waffle! We didn't actually spend any time on the beach at Clearwater Beach, but there is a pier there you can walk on and beach access as well as some beach shops and restaurants. 

Downtown St. Pete art murals

Ybor City!! I was not hipster enough...

We took a walk around Ybor City one afternoon and stopped in the most amazing vintage shop called La France. I wanted to buy everything in there and also move in. Oh to have unlimited money. 

Treasure Island beach

University of Tampa

Downtown Tampa

Downtown Clearwater architecture

When I started researching food for our trip to the Tampa Bay area of course I had to include some doughnut places!! Here are our doughnuts and cronuts from St. Pete Bagel Co. I had a really awesome blueberry bagel from them too! I love a good bagel. Almost as much as I love a good doughnut. The cronuts were really lovely as well! This was my first time eating a cronut, so i will definitely have to try again somewhere else to compare!! 

Overall, we spent a lot of our time in Tampa at the beach and laying by the pool which was very lovely and relaxing! The weather was gorgeous in October, in the 80's most days. We also spent a fair amount of time in the car driving around the Tampa Bay area exploring all the different towns and cities like St. Pete, Clearwater, Tampa, Treasure Island, Largo, etc, etc. 

 

Labor Day Weekend on the Gulf Coast

Kayla, Rachael, and I headed to Gulf Breeze for Labor Day weekend. It was so nice to spend some time at the beach since we hadn't been since May!

We ate at Sidelines, Peg Leg Pete's and Cactus Flower but sadly I have no pictures of it because I really fell down on the picture taking this trip. I do have a ridiculous amount of snapchats though.. 

We went out on Kayla's mom's new boat! 

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A pirate ship?? And we look naked.. 

Reenacting Titanic

Pensacola and Gulf Breeze

Next up in the Exploring the Sunshine State Series:

Pensacola and Gulf Breeze

Ohhhh hometown glory!! I mentioned that we grew up in Florida right?? So of course we can’t leave our hometown out of the sunshine state series! It’s pretty darn awesome, though we might be a little biased.

This will have to be a multi part story because there are a lot of great places to eat and hang out in Pensacola!

I know everyone knows about Destin as the place to go for vacation when you live in the Midwest, but Pensacola Beach is the undiscovered gem of the Gulf Coast (well until that recent article naming it one of the best beaches in Florida…). Anyway the sand is just as white and the water is usually a gorgeous blue/green. Plus there’s less traffic (sometimes) than Destin and quite a bit to do!

Where to Stay

The beach! DUH.

Portofino is a well loved option (although I’ve never stayed there)

There are tons of great places on P’cola Beach. Check out the options on VRBO.

Downtown Pensacola is getting cuter and cuter, but you will be two bridges away from the beach (two traffic filled bridges in the summer).

To Do

The BEACH! I mean c’mon look at this water. There is also live music on the beach during the summer at Band’s on the Beach

Festivals like the Greater Gulf Coast Arts Festival in November and the Seafood Festival in September are two big ones that come to mind.

The Blue Angels: Pensacola’s Naval Air Station is the home of the Blue Angels and you can catch their huge show on the beach in June.

Fiesta of the Five Flags: Happens in May every year to celebrate the fact that Pensacola was settled by explorers from five different countries before it became part of the US. Fun fact: Pensacola is the oldest city in Florida but it was wiped out by a hurricane, thereby losing it’s historic slot to St. Augustine. There are treasure hunts and parades for the festival.

The Bushwacker Festival happens every year towards the end of the year if milk chocolate alcoholic drinks are your thing. Bushwackers are available year round at many different places on the beach.

Mardi Gras happens in the early spring every year. Obviously not a big as it is in New Orleans, but there are a variety of parades and parties that happen each year downtown and on the beach.

See more at the Visit Pensacola website. 

Downtown Pensacola

-       Seville Square

-       Gallery Night

-       Browsing the many shops and restaurants.

To eat

Fish House/Atlas

            This is two restaurants in one. It’s on the bay in Pensacola and is gorgeous at night, sitting on the deck. If you like sushi you should definitely go on Tuesday nights because Atlas has half price sushi rolls. There is live music many night on the Fish House side and amazing food all around.

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Peg Leg Pete’s

            Peg Leg Pete’s is probably my favorite place to eat on the beach. Great seafood, views of the sound, and really great drinks.

Sidelines

             I don’t really remember when the first time I ever went to Sidelines was, it feels like it has always existed in my childhood memories. It’s one of my favorite places to eat on the beach, even though it’s a sports bar and not a true “beachy” restaurant. They make some killer wings and pretty much all of their other food is awesome as well.

Cactus Flower

             Cactus Flower is a newer favorite place, and they serve some delectable Mexican food! Our absolute favorite place for mexican used to be Cancun’s in Gulf Breeze but they got shut down for selling drugs (whoops.. maybe that’s why their food was so dang good??). So alas, we’re left with Cactus Flower. Their location on Pensacola Beach is on the boardwalk so it’s pretty, but all their locations serve great food.

Santino’s            

           If you are looking for a non chain place for pizza and grinder’s Santino’s is your place! Mmmm. I love their pizza.

Bagelheads

            The only bagel place I truly love, everything else just pales in comparison. Bagelheads has been around for almost 20 years and oh my goodness is it amazing. You can buy a huge variety of bagels, muffins, baked goods, sandwiches and soups. And of course coffee. Pretty much everything there is amazing, but if you love fruity bagels you’ll definitely want to try the Blueberry Cobbler bagel which is coated in a cinnamon sugar glaze.

There's just a few of my favorite parts of Pensacola and Gulf Breeze. I'm sure there will be more posts to come, because there's no way to cover these in just one post. 

What's your favorite thing to eat and do in the Pensacola area?

Ft. Myers and Cape Coral

It's travel Tuesday!! So how about the first installment of the Exploring the Sunshine State series??

I have documents full of travel research. Places I’ve been to and place I dream of visiting. Sometimes I’ll read about something on a blog or in a magazine article and add it to the plethora of information I’m saving for someday, just in case.

Sanibel Island

This is one of my favorite parts of traveling, the anticipation and the research. I love research; a trait I definitely inherited from my father who we always joked should be a fact-checker.

At the end of 2013 I was in the final stretch of a Bachelor’s degree in nursing, a 16 month marathon program. I decided that I was definitely rewarding myself for finishing the mother of a program so I started researching warm places for January and February. After trying desperately to find somewhere semi-affordable in the Florida Keys we settled on Cape Coral, which was still far enough south to be warm, but not as expensive. 

Sanibel

My one time victory roll accomplishment for sunday morning

            We rented a 4 bedroom/2 bath house with a private pool and hot tub through VRBO.com. Then I slogged through the end of my degree, managed to pass all of my classes, and actually graduated! We departed Indiana where the wind chill was about -8 and landed in Ft. Myers where it was 82 degrees. Hallelujah! The best part of getting on the plane in Indy was that the demographics of our plane to Ft. Myers was about 95% senior citizens. I joked to my sister that we were definitely on the party plane. (Little did I know that Ft. Myers as a whole would continue to be made up of about 95% people over 60).

            We arrived and got our rental car before heading out to our house, which was in a normal residential neighborhood. Although what the listing forgot to mention was that they were currently in the middle of putting city water and sewer throughout the neighborhood so the roads were all red clay. If we hadn’t had an SUV we might not have made it through some of them. But we persevered and proceeded to stock up on groceries and random stuff from the 5 different Publix grocery stores we visited over the course of two days (I mean I’m a fan of Publix but even for me this was bit much).

            Sunday morning we got up and went to the Arts Fest in downtown Ft. Myers. I’m a big fan of arts festivals, Pensacola has a huge one every year. I usually don’t buy anything but its fun to walk around and look at all the interesting and amazing artwork that’s on display.  

After the arts fest we headed to Ft. Myer’s Beach to do what we came to Florida to do, lay on the beach. We ate dinner at Nemo’s on the Beach and I had the best chicken teriyaki sandwich. Plus we got an appetizer of some of the biggest nachos I have ever seen.

Ft. Myer's Beach

            The next day we headed to Sanibel Island to hang out at the beach. Sanibel is a much different feel than Ft. Myers Beach. Sanibel feels much more deserted and there are multiple little access points up and down the island so you can feel like you have the beach to yourself whereas Ft. Myers Beach you are pretty packed into one small area with lots of people. Sanibel Island also had more wildlife and a less commercial feel.

            After that it’s more of a blur of beaches, shopping, time spent in the pool and searching for good places to eat.   

Places to Shop:

Tanger Outlets

            These outlets are on the way to Ft. Myer’s beach so their a nice stop after you’ve been out in the sun all day.

Bell Tower Shops

            This is an outdoor shopping mall in Ft. Myers. It’s a bit older and doesn’t have a huge variety of stores but there are some unique ones worth checking out.

Coconut Point

            This one is actually in Bonita Springs, south of Ft. Myers. It is a newer outdoor shopping center. It has a ton of variety in stores and lots of food options as well. This one is definitely the winner out of all the shopping we did in the area.

Things to Do:

Manatee Park

           My sister loves marine animals so we definitely made it a point to visit the Manatee Park in Ft. Myers. From the website it’s a “Non-captive warm water refuge for the florida manatee”. The best times to see manatees are December, January and February. There is a fair amount of paved nature trails and you can also rent kayaks. Parking is $2/hr or $5/day. Free admission.

Ford and Edison Estates

            We actually didn’t have time to do this but I wish we had! You can visit their winter homes in Ft. Myers and see the lab where Edison worked on his inventions.

 Places to Eat:

Heavenly Biscuit

            If you go to Ft. Myer’s you MUST GO to Heavenly Biscuit. My cousin had recommended we try this and waxed poetic about the giant cinnamon rolls and biscuits. I’m all about the baked goods, so of course we had to make this a priority. I will tell you, make sure you go early because they do sometimes run out of cinnamon rolls. Also be prepared for a line out the door no matter what time you go. This place is tiny too, so don’t count on getting a table. I had the cinnamon roll and Rachael got the biscuits and gravy which I could hardly photograph she was eating them so fast.

Artsy fartsy photo of Heavenly Biscuit

Ford’s Garage

            Ford’s Garage is another must visit if you’re in the Ft. Myers area. There are a couple of different locations and we went to the Cape Coral one. The theme is a garage during prohibition. It’s super cute and my favorite features were definitely the old Model T’s inside the restaurant and the sinks in the bathroom! I had a turkey burger and it was out of this world!  

Rachael's burger

The sinks in the bathroom at Ford's Garage

Bennet’s Fresh Roast

            We went here one morning to get doughnuts (because of course I couldn’t go to a new city and not try a doughnut!!). I got a peanut butter glazed one that was fantastic! I don’t drink coffee so no idea what theirs tastes like.

Ice Sssscreamin

         Yes I swear that is actually the name of this ice cream place in Cape Coral. I got an amazing dipped cone there! 

Now for some pros and cons of a trip to Ft. Myer’s/Cape Coral 

Pros

-       Warm during the winter (70’s and 80’s while we were there the first week in February)

-       Lots of options for eating and shopping

-       Not a ton of cultural options (though I’m sure there were more than I looked up)

-       Lots of different options for beaches in the area. Some more populated and touristy, others more deserted, lots of good opportunities to get seashells.

-       Lots of vacation rental options if you’re interested in a house with a pool rather than a hotel and cheaper than further south in florida.  

Cons

-       Most of the visitors to Ft. Myers (or at least in the winter time) are older adults. We saw very few families and pretty much nobody in their 20’s. Which is fine because it wasn’t like we were there to party, but if you are Ft. Myers may not be the place for you.

-       If you are staying in Cape Coral know you are at least a 45 minute drive to pretty much any beach that I could find. So, take that into account when picking a place to stay if being close to beach is important to you.

-       Traffic getting on and off some of the beaches is bad as many of the bridges and roads are only two lanes (often par for the course to get to beaches). 

Here's a video of our time in Ft. Myers! 


Exploring the Sunshine State Series

It starts early each spring, before it's warm. The longing for beaches, hot summer days, sunshine, and saltwater. No matter how many times I visit the beach in the fall and winter, there's always this insatiable longing for the beach in the summer. It has a different flavor when the temperatures are higher.

Florida calls me back. I read some gothic Florida lit that described that longing to return to Florida as "you've got sand in your shoes" and I connected with that on a visceral level, that this was the feeling I was experiencing. That, while I hadn't really appreciated growing up there that much, I now spend what feels like every moment trying to get back there. I am constantly dreaming of beaches, pool days, seafood, and sunsets over the water.            

 

            Florida gets in your blood and even when you’re remembering the annoyances like the bugs, hurricanes, swamps, the heat, and everything else, you still yearn for it. It still haunts your daydreams and fills your mind with what ifs. It fills your browser history with searches for cheap flights, beach house vacation rentals, and what the weather’s like in Tampa this time of year.

            Because once you start it’s almost like an affliction. You can’t just go once a year on vacation. You crave it most all of the time. And you can’t stand feeling like a tourist when you want to scream, “It’s okay! I used to live here!” as if that somehow rectifies the situation.

            All of this is to say I have spent a lot of time in various parts of Florida and wishing I was somewhere in Florida. So I get the other-earthly standards we hold this place up to, how it’s not always quite how we imagine it. But sometimes it is better than we imagine, and the stars line up to provide us with perfect Florida moments.

 

So anyway, all of this to say we’re going to be doing an Exploring the Sunshine State Series. Some of the posts will consist of previous trips to different Florida cities and places and other will include new trips to both new and old cities!

Cities that are coming up:

 Pensacola
Ft. Myers & Cape Coral
Orlando
Destin & 30A 

Places I’m dying to travel to (or revisit since its been a LONG time):

Tampa
St. Augustine & Jacksonville
Miami & The Florida Keys 

Old tobacco barns and shifting wooden houses rotting on the side of the streets, buried in tall grass beneath shady live oaks and pine trees with their ghosts and their people, how ‘you’ll always come back to Florida, darling — you got sand in your shoes’
— Tumblr (see link below)

Which cities are you most excited for?? Which ones do you want to see? Got any wonderful recommendations for places we should go, food we should eat or things we should do?? Leave them in the comments.

 **Link to Florida gothic writing here