My first stop on the gulf coast was to once again impose upon my mother’s cousin I’d stayed with in Massachusetts. Steve and Margaret were just beginning a three month winter relocation in the quiet town of Rotunda West. This place was a planned community designed to look frankly like a crop circle with canals and golf courses throughout. I mean, if you look at a map it stands out for sure, but it served as a great home base away from the more touristy and crowded areas.

We went out to the beach for the afternoon on a lovely island I don’t remember the name of, and went for a walk to some mangroves and spotted an eagle’s nest. Pretty cool stuff! As always, thanks for having me and for the delicious veggie dinner.

After leaving the crop circle land, I went north to St. Petersburg where I was meeting a friend who was in town helping out at the Shrine Bowl football game that weekend, so I got to crash the end of their party before taking off again with my travel buddy. Kevin and I have been on some pretty sweet trips without killing each other, so it will be interesting if that continues in my teeny van space, but the van was excited to have a new friend!

Instead of actually go see what the deal with this game is (my best understanding is that it’s senior college atheletes in a sort of allstar game with scouts, which is also mainly a fundraiser for Shriners Hospital), I elected to chill at the hotel by the beach in a little cabana chair setup. I chatted for a bit with a girl next to me who was also a frequent solo traveler, but then she tried to hype up a Christian book she was re-reading so I figured maybe we had run the course of our commonalities with the travel. Either way, she went off to the bar soon and I had a nice relaxing reading and sunning time. The clouds were beautiful, the sunset was pretty decent, and I even braved the cold water for a few minutes.

Later on I consumed way too much pizza (I’m so sad we forgot the pizza leftovers in the room) and listened to some nice lady doing decent folky covers of hit songs at the tiki bar, and later watched a bunch of adult men have way too much fun hiding a pretend turd around the room to gross each other out (okay, I may have done it too), and watched some seagulls fail to find bits of donut we so kindly gave them.

Our friend Pam’s parents were staying in Fort Meyers not for down the road, so we arranged to come by where they were staying and make Pam jealous that we got to hang out with her family without her. To those in the know, this was what we call a PWOP (party without Pam) and of course we sent her many photos of getting to be substitute children. Steve and Julie gave us the tour around town by the beach and we had a drink with our feet in the water while the people next to us played some fun music, smoked cigars and had their pirate mascot out by the beach. So random. I of course never turn down the opportunity to take ridiculous touristy photos and there were many to be had. We got to meet their friend Sue and her bird and cats, but missed the gator who roams the drainage canal out back which or course popped back out not long after we left.

On our way out of town we stopped by Manatee Park on the Phelps’ recommendation because the manatees like the warm water from the nuclear power plant next door. It took a few minutes but we definitely did see a couple of manatees and even a baby one. I was googling manatee facts and the first page I got was intended for children, and began by saying “what’s brownish gray and looks like a baked potato in the sea?” which may be the funniest way to describe any creature. Move over, sea cow, henceforth manatees shall be known as the baked potatoes of the sea!

Some longtime family friends/my mother’s longtime boss before she retired offered to let us use theri condo in Naples, so we jumped on that as we continued south. Naples is an affluent area which reminds me of my hometown just picked up and moved to the beach. It was kind of eerie how like Bethesda or Chevy Chase it was in the shopping area. We hung out at the beach and watched the pretty sunset, and had a sunset drink at a fancy hotel down the road. It was very restful, until the next morning when the landscape people were working with one of the neighbors to do some trimming around 7am. On our way leaving Naples to head off towards the southeast, we stopped in Marco Island for a bit and walked the beach in a strong wind. We saw all kinds of shells and even a coconut washed up which did not appreciate Kevin attempting to open it. Sorry, coconut. You win.

Later on in my trip I returned to Naples for a few days. A big thunderstorm was coming into the area over Superbowl weekend, and I abandoned my initial plan to find somewhere to watch the game in Miami (how often am I going to be where the game is being played randomly?) and instead zoomed back west to Albert & Diana’s condo to take advantage of covered parking for the van and to cook up some food that’s better suited to a real kitchen. I made a yummy red lentil and rice spicy curried stew one day, and some great lentil-based pasta (thanks for the ingredients, Ingalls family!) with tomatoes for a super bowl night dinner. In my wanderings through town I walked on the beach some, went to a local brewery where I had the whole patio to myself and ended up chatting with some super nice people who’d moved down from northern Virginia and had done a similar trip in an RV years ago. Good intel as usual from fun coincidence chats like these!

One day I was stationed in Naples I took a day trip to meet up with my beloved godmother (queen of the van build project) and her main squeeze Roger in the Siesta Key/Sarasota area. They’d been in the area on vacation so it was great tp be able to meet up and spend the afternoon together. We went to the Mote Aquarium and saw all kinds of sea life. One building had sea turtles, otters, alligators, and more, while the other building focused on reef life for the most part with sharks, rays, and so many cool fish and jellyfish. A few crazy highlights include a preserved giant squid named Molly, and places you can pet sharks, rays, urchins, and other things I’ve forgotten about. Super beautiful and the informational displayes weren’t just the same facts I feel like I’ve read in every other aquarium. Well done, Mote!

We had an early birthday dinner while together at a cool restaurant in an old dry dock (maybe this isn’t the right term but I’m sticking with it for lack of knowledge), which overlooked the water and was decorated with all these boat things everywhere. The waitress picked up on our little celebration and brought some birthday key lime pie so that was a treat.

So anyway, not all of this is actually in order but for the sake or organization I pulled from a few different weeks all in the same general area. Back to my buddy travel saga next!

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