As we headed toward the panhandle, there were 3 stops along Florida's Nature Coast that we really wanted to see. Luckily, they are all pretty close to each other so we planned our route to stop at each one where we got to a experience a slightly different side of Florida.
Snorkeling with Manatees in Crystal River
First up on our list and what I was most excited about was Snorkeling with Manatees in Crystal River. While we couldn’t find an open RV site in Crystal River, (a common problem we have experienced in FL in January...I would complain about all the snowbirds but pot calling kettle and all that) we managed to get a spot at B’s Marina and Campground in Yankeetown, about 30 minutes away. B’s is a strange little place. The owners are very nice, the bathrooms are updated, clean, private and what almost brought us to tears (happy tears) was the BLAZING fast WiFi, seriously it's hands down the best internet we have had this trip. The sites are close together, there is absolutely nothing to do in Yankeetown, and our neighbors were kinda rowdy but it was available and we’d sacrifice a lot for good internet.
Anyway, we were very excited to add Manatees to our list of animals we've snorkeled with: Great White Sharks in South Africa ( we were in a cage off a boat and to be honest it was slightly terrifying), Dolpins in the Keys, Stingrays in the Caribbean.
So, after some research on different outfitters in the area, we decided to book a snorkel tour with Riverventures. They offer tours in the mornings starting at dawn through 1015 a.m. and again in the evening. Because of the cold snap we were experiencing, we decided to go with 915 tour, hoping it would be slightly more bearable in the water. The 915 was better than the 6am (when it was in the 30's), but it was still only in the 40’s, which generally does not encourage me to jump in the water. But when in Crystal River and all. The staff also told us that the colder temperatures would make our experience better as manatees are more likely to congregate and be active in the springs when it’s cooler out, there would be less people out braving the chilly weather and better news, the water is always between 72-74. It felt better in the water than it did on the boat.
The winter is the best time of the year to go snorkeling because a large population of manatees all come back to the springs for protection and warmth. During other seasons you might be able to catch one or two, but are much more likely to see more of them in colder temperatures.
After a really quick boat ride, we hopped into the water and saw a couple of manatees snoozing at the bottom of the spring. It was a good first introduction, because they really are quite large and it takes a few minute to get used to. They come up for air every so often and swam past us a couple times looking for a comfier place to nap. We hung out with 4 of them for a bit hoping they would wake up but it seemed they were more interested in sleep so we moved on to a different spot.
The second area had a bunch of Manatees who were much more active, they were eating, swimming around, spinning onto their backs and several came up to us to say hi. These ones were for some reason also MUCH larger than the first group. Manatees average about 1500+ lbs and can be bigger. We saw a female who was super pregnant, she was pretty intimidating because of her size. They are so sweet, friendly and gentle but let me tell you it’s kinda hard not to panic a bit when they swim right at you to you to say hello. They are pretty funny looking but they have what I think is a sweet puppy dog face. Not sure why they are called sea cows, they remind me much more of Elephants.
We really enjoyed our time swimming with these guys and thought Riverventures was great. The staff really friendly and clearly enjoy what they do. The wetsuits, snorkels and masks they provided were clean and in great condition. The tour cost $64 a person. We have already recommended this experience to a few people we know are passing through the area. The only thing I will say is we were told that the tours at dawn have the most active and interactive manatees and there are rarely any other people out in the water so it’s very quiet. So, if the temperature isn’t too chilly, waking up earlier is something I would consider.
Rainbow Springs State Park
This state park was a recommendation and we tried to reserve a campsite there, but it is a very popular camping spot. After exploring it, we can understand why. We spent an afternoon there with our dogs. It’s $2 a person to get in and all the trails are dog friendly (but they aren’t allowed on the docks or in the water). We first took a walk around the gardens, stopping at the waterfalls and then took the Yellow hiking trail which is a short 1.75 mile loop. There are a couple other trails as well but nothing over 2 miles. Kevin was disappointed that we didn’t come across any bears on our walk through the woods but I was relieved. It was a nice walk but nothing special to see.
The beauty and standout in the park is definitely the head spring, which is roped off with a dock and you can jump right in for a swim. The water is always about 72 degrees. You can also rent a kayak/canoe, snorkel or go tubing down the river. We had planned to come back another day so we asked about pricing for the kayaks which are $22 an hour. Unfortunately we weren’t in the area long enough and the weather didn’t cooperate so we couldn’t go back.
If you can get a campsite there, I would definitely jump at the opportunity, it’s quite beautiful and very different from some of the other Fl state parks we have stayed in.
Devil’s Den Prehistoric Spring
Devil’s Den is in Williston Florida. It is essentially a huge sinkhole that is fed by underground springs. It is a private scuba diving training facility but you can also go into the Den to snorkel. We were also happy to find out that they have a small campground area for RVs with full hookups for very reasonable rates.
Devil’s Den is kinda in the middle of nowhere, so besides the Den, there is not much around to do (there is a Botanical Garden next door that we went to, but we were disappointed as the whole lower level was flooded out and there was nothing really to see. We both felt it was a waste of money) Their campground is on the smaller side, so it wasn’t packed with RV’s which was nice and we had a little more room outdoors than we normally do at an RV park. But there was no bathhouse/showers near the RV’s and our internet (their Wifi and our own Verizon JetPack)/cell reception (T-Mobile) was really lousy so it had its pros and cons.
We stayed Thurs-Mon and we decided to snorkel on Friday. It is cheaper M-F than it is on the weekends. It is $15 per person to snorkel and an additional $10 per person if you are renting a snorkel, mask and fins. On Sat & Sun its $20 per person to snorkel and as we saw, the weekends are very crowded.
The experience of snorkeling is very strange (in a good way). There is normal ground that you are walking on in the main park area and then there is just a hole in the ground with a staircase leading down into the cavern, it really looks so out of place. We went down at about 230 p.m. and for a while we were the only ones down there, which was kinda eerie. It is about 50 feet down normally but there was about an extra 7 or so feet of water down there because of all the rain so even the main platform and stairs were all underwater. It’s about 72 degrees which is pretty chilly in a cold dark cavern without a wet suit. You just have to psych yourself up, jump in and let your body adjust.
Once you are in the water, you can see all these cool shapes and formations that the cavern walls and floors have and how it mushrooms out at the bottom. The main opening (not where the staircase is but deeper in) is beautifully draped with ferns and lets some rays of sunshine in which helps as it is pretty dark down there. I wouldn’t say it is a very exciting place to snorkel, besides a couple of fish and one turtle, there wasn’t really any marine life or anything to see and we enjoyed just swimming around exploring with our snorkels off more. Unfortunately we were having some technical issues with our GoPro so we didn’t get great photos. Overall, Devils Den is a unique and in a way other worldly place to take a swim, so it’s worth checking out if you are in the area.
We had a fun and adventure filled few days exploring some unique places on the Nature Coast. All 3 of these places are within an hour of each other and definitely worth a detour if you are passing through.
By Ashley Quiambao
Savannah, so many people recommended that we visit it on our travels and we were excited to see what all the buzz was about. My parents came for a visit and we got to spend a long weekend in an airbnb, which was a nice break from Wanda’s close quarters. Continuing our trend of bad luck with the weather, we had some wind, rain and cooler temps to contend with but we still had a great time.
We explored the town, did several tours and ate at several restaurants and came up with a list of our top picks of things to do and places to eat (all while I sang Savannah oh na-na, half of my heart is in Savannah oh na-na on a continuous loop in my head for our entire trip, totally wrong place but hey the song still works)
Anyway, here’s are our top 5:
Hop on Hop off Tour with Old Town Trolley Tours
As is our pattern, the first day we arrived in Savannah we took a hop on hop off tour to give us an overview of the city.
The historic district is made up of 22 squares and parks and the trolley tour goes around most of them. We got to hear stories of who the squares were named for, the war heroes memorialized in many of them and some interesting background on how the city was originally laid out.
Stops include: Forsyth Park, City Market, River Street, Ellis Square, Bull Street Corridor, Massie Heritage Museum, Davenport House, Bay Street, Ships of the Sea Museum, Madison Square, Cathedral of St John, Pirates House and the Exchange Bell. Check out a map here.
We got off at Forsyth to stroll through the park. The trees, the grounds, the statutes and the fountain are just beautiful...it’s a great spot to snap some pictures.
Our next hop off was at River Street. River Street is a row of of little boutiques, restaurants, candy shops and bars in
what used to be cotton warehouses along the Savannah River. We spent a while eating our way through the peanut
shop, Savannah’s Candy Kitchen and River Street Sweets. All this sugar obviously made us quite thirsty, so we had to
stop off for a cocktail at Vic’s on the River.
The tour is $33 for a 1 day tour but if you purchase online, you can get tickets for $29.70.
Bonaventure Cemetery Tour with Don
If you do only do one tour during your time in Savannah, I would hands down choose this one. While you can wander through the cemetery on your own, you will lose out on so much of Bonaventure’s interesting history, how it used to be a plantation but was later transformed into a cemetery, the interesting “marketing” tactics the original owner of the cemetery engaged in to get the upperclass residents of Savannah to purchase plots there and bios on its most notable residents.
All four of us enjoyed this tour so much and agreed it was the best thing we did in Savannah. A lot of that is due to Don. Don has a unique connection with the cemetery as his family is buried in it and he is a member of the Bonaventure Historical Society. He is a terrific storyteller and keeps your attention while giving you so much history and information. He doesn’t simply recite a script. He gives you accurate descriptions instead of the somewhat fanciful tales you may here on other tours (we passed another tour group, and I listened to the guide for a few minutes to compare and found it to be over the top in an effort to be more dramatic and spooky).
A really smart business tactic Don uses is that it’s a name your own price tour. After wandering through the beautiful cemetery (although it’s strange to call a cemetery beautiful, it truly is) for several hours with him listening to his lively dialogue, he allows you to choose the amount you pay. He leaves it up to the customer as to how much they can afford and what they think he deserves. I imagine he does very well this way. We were so impressed with him that we paid more than we had originally planned on. (And if our testimonial isn’t enough to convince you, he has plenty of outstanding reviews on tripadvisor)
You can find more information on Don and book his tour here
Owens-Thomas House and Slave Quarters
There are several house tours that you can take in Savannah but unfortunately there isn’t really a great package deal for them like we found in Charleston. But we knew we wanted to see the Owens-Thomas House and if you purchase that ticket for $20, the Telfair Academy and Jepsen Center are included.
The Owens-Thomas House is very unique. During the tour, you go through the mansion, gardens, carriage house and slave quarters. It was the only house tour we have done where we got to see preserved slave quarters, which definitely gives you a different perspective on what life must have been like back then. We were also all pretty shocked to find out that the Owens-Thomas house had indoor plumbing. It was built in 1819 and had two toilets, multiple sinks, 3 bathtubs and at least one shower. That was pretty wild for that time, the White House didn’t even have running water for drinking and bathing until 1833, that's 14 years later! Another interesting element is the bridge staircase, pretty fancy to have a bridge connecting the front and rear hallways of the second floor.
Tybee Boat Tour
Since we grew up on Long Island being near or on the water is always appealing to us. We took a 3 hour private boat tour with Sundial Charters called Little Tybee Unplugged. Our captain was Rene who was very knowledgeable about the area and accommodating. We had booked the boat trip and within 10 minutes of departing it was raining and pretty miserable so she took us back free of charge and we rescheduled for the following day. The boat trip works with the high tide to take you deep into the preserve, creeks and beaches. We saw pods of dolphins and all kinds of birds. We then landed on a beach and took a stroll along the water collecting shells and sand dollars. We had a really great time, even though it certainly was a bit chilly.
This tour cost $295.00. They also offer several other tours.
Alligator Soul Restaurant
This restaurant was a recommendation for us and we can understand why, our meal was outstanding! It's downtown near Telfair Square in what was once a grain warehouse so it’s a beautiful rustic setting. It is a farm to table fine dining restaurant. Our drinks, dinners and desserts were delicious. We had frog legs shrimp and grits, scallops, gumbo and a sweet potato pasta dish. There is a pretty large menu of traditional southern dishes as well as some eclectic and adventurous choices but they also cater to those who are gluten free and vegetarian/vegan. Check out their menu.
Green Truck Neighborhood Pub
This is a small casual pub with excellent burgers and delicious salads. Be prepared for a wait, it is a popular place and doesn't have too many tables but it's worth it.
So, that’s our roundup of must see and eats in Savannah, how did we do? Did we miss anything? Let us know.
By: Ashley Quiambao
We had been looking forward to our stop in Charleston, SC since we left NY, and it did not disappoint. It was the first stop we really felt the history and charm of the South. Despite two days of rain, we packed as much as we could into our long weekend.
So many people gave us great recommendations we didn't know where to start! One thing we like to do when getting to a new city with a lot of things to see is to take a walking tour to get our bearings. We knew Charleston would be a more expensive stop for us, so we tried to save $$ where we could and opted for a self-guided walking tour we found online by Free Tours by Foot (the audio tour for Charleston is only $1.99) So, we set out with our headphones and visited the 17 stops, while getting a great overview of Charleston's history. It helped orient us and we saw a lot of the popular destinations like Rainbow Row, the Four Corners of the Law, the Old Slave Mart Museum, and the Dock Street Theater.
Walking around the cobblestone streets, seeing the beautiful old architecture and colorful houses, the historic buildings and the battery waterfront had us quickly throwing around the idea of moving to Charleston.
There are so many houses, plantations and museums in Charleston to tour, and it can get pretty pricey. In doing our research we came across The Heritage Passport. Purchasing a passport gets you into: Middleton Place, Drayton Hall, the Edmondston-Alston House, Nathaniel Russell House, Aiken Rhett House, Joseph Manigault House, Heyward-Washington House, Gibbes Museum of Art and Charleston Museum. You can get a 2 day pass, 3 day pass or 7 day, we went with the 2 day for $62.95. Considering how costly each of these are individually (Middleton Place is $29, house tours are $12 each) if you plan on visiting a few, buying the passport is your best option.
As far as plantations, we went to Magnolia Plantation and Gardens (not part of the passport) and Middleton Place, both of which were so beautiful, even in the winter. Magnolia plantation has a romantic style garden, meaning it cooperates with nature and there is a relaxed flow to it, where Middleton place has more formal and shaped garden and "controls" nature. We can only imagine what they looks like in full bloom in the spring.
We walked the Magnolia Gardens on our own but at Middleton Place, they offer free walking tours at different times of the day which was great. Our guide explained all of the different types of flowers and trees like the camelias, crepe myrtles and azaleas; highlighted some of the different focal points of the gardens such as the lakes shaped like butterfly wings; and explained the reasoning and purpose behind the different designs in the gardens. The stable yards are also open and if you walk through you can get blacksmith and carpenter demonstrations.
We toured the Nathaniel Rogers House, Edmonston-Alston House, and the Joseph Manigault House. We like learning about the history and people much better with these types of tours rather than museums (We both tend to struggle a bit with museums, we get bored easily since there's no interaction and its harder to get a feel how life really was. So, we weren't impressed with the Charleston Museum). We found that the tour guides were very knowledgeable and were excellent story tellers. We were impressed with the free standing staircase at the Rogers house, the harbor view from the 2nd floor piazza of the Alston House and the spiral staircase and beautiful entrance way of the Manigault house. All three houses were slightly different styles of architecture and we were shocked by the detailed plaster work in each, it must have taken forever to do by hand.
The only other tour we did was the Haunted Old City Jail Tour with Bulldog Tours ($28 a person), which we recommend. It isn't any crazy haunted house stuff, but is a very interesting walk through a jail built in 1802, tales about some infamous criminals who were incarcerated there, a bit of history about the conditions and punishments prisoners experienced all in a pretty creepy environment.
We stopped in at Gin Joint for a drink. It's a bit hard to find, as its a small place and pretty tucked away on E. Bay Street. But if you are looking for a good old fashion or a unique cocktail, this is the spot. It has a 1920's vibe, and the bartenders take a lot of pride in what they create and whip up some pretty crazy drinks. Kevin opted for "The Corner Store", a seasonal take on an old fashion, and I went with Bartenders choice (I got a Haitian Divorce), both were delicious.
We splurged on two dinners, one at Magnolias and the other at Husk. Magnolias was our favorite, it was so good, true Southern comfort food at its finest. We started with boiled peanut hummus and for our entrees Kevin tried catfish and I had a roasted brussel sprout salad. We also had cornbread and an amazing pecan pie (we have eaten so many pecans since arriving in the south, it is becoming a problem). Husk was more of a fine dining experience, so it was pricier than Magnolias. We both really enjoyed our meals, I got a vegetarian platter and Kevin had shrimp and grits and a strip steak. Definitely expect to pay decent money for your meals in Charleston but the food is outstanding and definitely worth it.
Between the history, the tours, the beauty of the gardens, the grand old buildings, and the food, we really enjoyed our time in Charleston and would love to go back someday in the spring to see all of the gardens in bloom.
Have you been to Charleston, SC? Let us know your favorite parts!
By Ashley Quiambao