Home sweet Florida

We have finally returned to Florida. It feels wonderful to be cruising down the A1A again.

It was an interesting trip from North Georgia back down the coast. We thought the storm would have moved through the area before we made it to Savannah, but we were wrong. The eye of the hurricane was just off the Georgia coast when we passed through. There wasn’t any rain, but it was gusty outside. It was odd to see the storm we had spent a week hiding from not far in the distance.

We made excellent time driving home because there were very few cars headed east or south on the freeways. They had just opened I-16 to eastbound traffic. And most of the traffic on I-95 was hurricane response teams chasing the storm north.

It is difficult not to have an emotional response seeing the thousands of utility vehicles, first responders, and search and rescue teams who had traveled to Florida to help with what could have been an absolutely catastrophic storm. We seriously saw about 150 police vehicles driving from Lake Hartwell to Palm Coast. We saw hundreds of cherry pickers from utility companies up and down the east coast and tree experts. We saw dozens of semi trucks pulling trailers for search and rescue operations. There were fire and paramedics trucks from all over.

On the southbound side, we saw semis from Operation Blessing, Pat Robertson’s charity (now run by his son), hauling food to vulnerable populations affected by the storm. They have folks on the ground bringing water and food to residents of the Bahamas too.

Living in a developed nation, we don’t often consider the vast planning and resources that go into ensuring that we maintain a comfortable lifestyle and that minimize loss of life in even the most extreme events. But it’s impossible to ignore it when it takes over one of the busiest interstates in the country. And this is happening while our nation is sending our bravest men and women to help in rescue efforts in other countries. We are truly a blessed population.

After seeing that our house was mostly as we had left it – a lot of branches down, primarily from palm trees, and many of my plants in my gardens still had flowers on them! – we decided to grab a bite to eat at one of the restaurants on Flagler Beach. We’ve been eating out a lot lately, but we figured they’d appreciate our business since the hurricane drove the tourists away. Have to support the local economy.

I ordered a dish at the Golden Lion that I had never had before (though we’ve eaten there a million times). They have ahi sliders that are seriously brioche stuffed with the contents of a poke bowl. So delicious it is unreal.

There were plenty of lunatic surfers braving the swells at Flagler Beach. No visible beach erosion, and the plants they had just put into the dunes after constructing the new sea wall were still there and thriving.

We have not found any snakes hiding in strange places since we’ve returned. But we did find this guy.

I am convinced that love bugs come out in force after crazy storms. We are getting swarmed with them post-hurricane. I am not looking forward to picking up all the debris tomorrow with them landing on me constantly. But this is a week for counting blessings, so I’ll quit complaining now.

All is right with the world. I’m looking forward to getting back to our normal routine (whatever that is). Along the way, we discovered that we only live a few hours down I-95 from Charleston, so we will be going there soon. It’s a toss up between heading there or the Florida Keys after work calms down a bit. There is no place in the world like the South. I can’t imagine being anywhere else.

An afternoon in gorgeous Greenville, South Carolina

We are likely going to return to Florida tomorrow, so we spent today walking around beautiful Greenville, South Carolina. I love this town so much.

(It would also seem like a lot of other people do too. Signs of a construction boom are everywhere in downtown Greenville. I spotted at least six cranes building luxury lofts above the Falls. If I were still a hip young person, I’d think this would be a pretty cool place to live.)

To me, Greenville is a quintessential Southern city. When I think of all of the gems of the Deep South, I think of expansive, manicured public spaces. Where garden clubs are out on a regular basis maintaining public parks. Where there’s a slow pace, people are kind to one another, and folks love meeting around tables and benches.

In the heart of Greenville is Falls Park, which is bisected by the Reedy River and a series of massive waterfalls. Yes, there are enormous waterfalls right in the middle of the city. There is a pedestrian suspension bridge built across the river to view the largest of the waterfalls, and three levels of paths along the water lined with beautiful flowers and trees. (Mental note: Go back when the azaleas are in bloom.) They have top-notch shops and restaurants lining the park, as well as outdoor venues for live music and rows of artists’ studios. It is an absolutely delightful city to visit.

We stopped in at Passerelle Bistro, a French restaurant where the patio has a spectacular view of the Falls. I’d highly recommend getting your name on the list here before wandering through the park if you go at lunchtime. But if you don’t, the restaurant is definitely worth the wait.

Here is my walnut-crusted trout with a warm kale and roasted sweet potato salad, maple vinaigrette, brousse, and cherry gastrique. I passed up a French 75 for a chardonnay, but they do have a lovely list of classic cocktails to enjoy.

I thought this was a neat architectural feature along the riverwalk. Instead of demolishing an old warehouse, they hollowed it out and incorporated it into the park. What a neat way to preserve the area’s history.

Playing in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains

So Hurricane Dorian moved through where we live in Florida at a snail’s pace last night and this morning. Based on pictures from our neighbor who did not evacuate (he works at an area hospital and was required to stay), our house is quite fine. I think my gardens are going to need *a lot* of tender loving care when we return, but that’s about it. We received five inches of rain during the storm, but there wasn’t any flooding. We watched the storm surge at Flagler Beach on the weather channel, however, and it was quite impressive. It will be interesting to see how bad our beach erosion is when we return. Our neighbor said a few year ago, the ocean brought us a bunch of sand of a completely different color after a hurricane.

I feel blessed that our house is okay, but honestly, I’m just so thankful the whole miserable ordeal is over. “Evacuation fatigue” is a real thing, y’all. Last night, I was thinking, “Do whatever you want, Mother Nature. Just please, for heaven’s sake, do it already.”

My heart breaks for the folks in the Bahamas though. We would love to donate all of the supplies we purchased for hurricane season to them. If anyone knows of a good charity or community effort where we can drop them off somewhere, please let me know. Or any reliable nonprofit that handles hurricane recovery efforts there.

***

Yesterday, we decided to get away from the lake house and go explore the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Oconee County in South Carolina is now one of my new favorite places to visit:

Oconee County takes its name from the Cherokee word “Ae-quo-nee” meaning “land beside the water.” Oconee was a local Cherokee town that was situated on the main British/Cherokee trading path between Charleston and the Mississippi River in the early 18th century. Its geographic position later placed it at the intersection of the trading path and the Cherokee treaty boundary of 1777. In 1792, a frontier outpost was built by the SC State Militia near the town site and was named Oconee Station. When Oconee County was created out of the Pickens District in 1868 it was named for Oconee Town.

We started off going to Chattooga Belle Farm to pick figs. Folks who know me know that figs are my all-time favorite treat. I can’t wait until late summer for figs to be in season. Chattooga Belle Farm had more fig trees than I have ever seen in one place. I was so happy. I also picked up some canned goods from the orchard, including moonshine jam, which is indeed made with corn whiskey. I have no idea what I am going to do with it, but I also couldn’t not buy it. When in Rome.

The orchard is also home to Belle’s Bistro, which is a good place to stop for a quick lunch if you are exploring Oconee County. They have a burger topped with fig preserves, goat cheese, and applewood smoked bacon that is out of this world.

From there, we drove a few minutes to the Chattooga River, which is the main tributary of the Tugaloo River. It bisects the Ellicott Rock Wilderness, which includes three states (Georgia, North Carolina, and South Carolina) and three National Forests (the ChattahoocheeNantahala and Sumter National Forests).

But you most likely know it as the river from the movie Deliverance.

The Chattooga River is a wild river with serious rapids that make it popular with the whitewater crowd. We found a spot to play that was relatively safe, but we could still see rafters negotiating class 4 rapids above and below us. It was an incredibly beautiful place, and Elise loved chasing the minnows around in the shallows.

After playing in the river, we decided to start visiting the myriad waterfalls in the area. There are dozens to visit, if you have the time. (Here is the Oconee County link for All Trails.)

Be forewarned – some of the roads to the waterfalls are quite treacherous (and should probably be hiked). We found ourselves driving down a one-lane gravel path snaking through a steep valley, with cliffs on both sides of the car, and precious few places where you could turn around if you started questioning your life decisions. I was trying to imagine what I would say to Rodney when we had to call him to come get us. “Where are you?” “I’m not sure exactly, but apparently Deliverance was filmed here.”

I thought this was pretty cool. At one of the parks we stopped at, they had created a kiosk where parents could borrow a life jacket to put on their kids while they played in the river.

You know you are in a daring part of the country when the special rescue units are using your trail to practice rappelling down the cliffs and getting a target out of the water.

After our adventures, we returned back to the lake house, where Elise’s Papa took her out inner-tubing behind the bass boat. With the Labor Day crowds gone from Lake Hartwell, we had the water mostly to ourselves. It was the perfect opportunity to teach Elise how to do this without worrying about her getting run over by a jet ski. Our fearless child had no problem, and was standing up and bouncing behind the boat on her first try. I think she’s probably ready to learn how to water ski.

Finally, we had dinner at the Galley restaurant on the South Carolina side of Lake Hartwell and watched a cotton candy sunset over the sailboats in the marina. I don’t think we could have packed more fun into a single day if we tried. Needless to say, Elise did not fight her bedtime.

Soon we will be returning home to Florida.

An absolutely magical day in Cocoa Beach, Florida

The storm was a no show, so we decided to drive down to Cocoa Beach for the afternoon (which turned into the evening too, as one does). It’s now one of our favorite little towns in Florida.

This, my friends, is a schefflera tree. I am going to find one for our backyard. The leaves are incredible, the blooms even more so. I can’t even begin to describe how gorgeous this little courtyard was in person.

This is what was left of the storm off of the coast.

Elise was in love with this sunken sitting area along one of the sidewalks. She made us keep coming back to it throughout the day.

We stopped into El Bodegon, a Spanish restaurant, for a (very late) lunch of tapas. It is now my mission to return on a Friday evening to see their flamenco dancing.

Here are ham croquettes and lamb with chimichurri.

Squid (one of Elise’s favorites).

This was shrimp with a cheese mixture, 3/4 Manchego, 1/4 some sort of bleu cheese.

Stuffed mushrooms.

The interior of the restaurant.

One block of the city was covered in murals like this. It was impossible to get an image of the whole thing. The murals highlight the diversity of the people living in Florida and the natural world here.

This is a toy store, believe it or not. Annie’s Toy Store has a lot of classic toys, including logic-based board games and figurines of mythological creatures. It put Cocoa Beach on the map for Elise.

There was a store where all the art was made from natural elements. I was overwhelmed by the paintings where the birds and other creatures were made from real feathers and shells.

Break for Cuban coffee. I had never understood why the folks in the Caribbean drink hot drinks in the middle of the day, but now I think I get it… The caffeine helps wake your brain after being baked by the sun all day.

We spent hours in the Village Biergarten, mostly due to the musician that was playing (no, really). He taught all the kids present to play various traditional musical instruments from different cultures. It was an odd, impromptu educational experience for Elise. Here she is playing a washboard with another child. You can tell from the look on her face how much she enjoyed it.

One of those crazy Nordic horns. I have to say, I was not expecting the sound that came out of it.

Spaten and enormous pretzels.

Learning how to play a saw with a violin bow.

This is one of the windows from The Dinosaur Store, which is full of fossils and legitimate dinosaur bones. It was closed by the time we arrived, but we plan to return for this store alone.

Some wisdom from the beach.

A brilliant weekend in St Augustine

We have had some hectic weeks with work projects lately. We decided that we would have a bona fide weekend and get out of the house and away from the computers. We ended up spending a lot of time in St. Augustine, which is one of our favorite cities.

Friday night, we drove up to St. Augustine to visit a bookstore there. Elise was in need of some more challenging chapter books to read. I have written before about how she’s something of a kid naturalist, so I have been trying to find books that play to her interests. I highly recommend Jane Goodall’s My Life With The Chimpanzees for children. It talks about being an ethnologist in an extraordinarily conversational and engaging tone, and she provides a lot of details about her childhood that children would love (living in a creepy old manor house, her uncle allowing her to ride his racehorses, her grandmother “giving” her her favorite tree in their backyard for her birthday, her dad’s Aston Martin). I think I am going to try to read The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle to Elise sometime, which Goodall says was the first book she fell in love with as a child. She read the book three times after checking it out from the library, and then was given her very own copy for Christmas. It was then that she decided she absolutely must go to Africa.

I also found Deborah Hopkinson’s The Great Trouble: A Mystery of London, the Blue Death, and a Boy Called Eel, which is a story about learning to control a cholera outbreak. It should be a fun introduction to epidemiology and a transition to our next science book, which is on the history of medicine.

After we had done our damage at the bookstore, we went to Elise’s favorite restaurant on the A1A in St. Augustine Beach, which is Tide’s Oyster Company and Grill. Elise loves, loves, loves oysters, and Tide’s gets these positively enormous oysters from the Gulf of Mexico. They remember her there, the seven-year-old who can put away a dozen raw oysters on her own. The oysters at Tide’s will separate the people who genuinely like to eat oysters from the folks who ritually choke them down “when in Rome.” They are so big you have to consume them in multiple bites. Our server told us that she’s had tables get upset before because they were so freakishly large.

It was the perfect evening to sit outside at Tide’s. There were storms all around us, but they stayed away from the restaurant’s patio. We were able to enjoy the constant, cool ocean breeze and an incredible lightning show in the distance.

Driving home from St. Augustine on the A1A, we saw an amazing moonrise over the water. We pulled the car over and walked out onto the beach at Marineland, in the dark, with only moonlight on the whitecaps.

We often refer to a line from the movie A Good Year, where Russell Crowe’s character talks about how all of his childhood memories take place at or around his Uncle Henry’s vineyard in France. “Are they good memories?” he is asked. “No,” he replies, “they are grand.” I hope this is the way Elise talks about her childhood when she is an adult. She had the kind of parents who would take her to dance on the beach under the Moon at close to midnight, because that’s important to do.

We had so much fun sitting by the beach on Friday that we decided to do it again on Saturday. In the evening, we headed over to Flagler Beachfront Winery, along the A1A in Flagler Beach. To be honest, we went there with very low expectations. Boutique wines almost always taste like Hawaiian Punch to me, and seriously… a vineyard in steamy, hot Florida? But we found a Cabernet Sauvignon and a Chardonnay that were actually quite fantastic. For dinner, we had plates of meats and cheeses and toasted baguettes. It was wonderful. Elise, obviously, could not enjoy the wines, but she had a grand time tasting and critiquing the array of cheeses. Surprisingly, I think her favorite had been rolled in ground espresso. I am constantly surprised by her palate.

The party behind us on the patio at the winery was there to celebrate a lady’s 29th birthday. It would seem more than a few of the people who showed up to the party were not, in fact, her friends and were simply there for the wine, based on some of their (rather loud) exchanges. She did not seem to be enjoying her birthday at all. Although I initially begged her not too, Elise insisted on walking up to the lady’s table and singing “Happy Birthday” in her sweet, little voice (albeit at the top of her lungs). Everyone around her whipped out their phones to record the kid serenading a total stranger for her birthday. The lady, who turned out to be a school teacher here, was so moved by all the attention that she looked like she was going to weep. “You don’t understand,” her friend leaned over to tell me, “your daughter just made her night. Probably even her year.” Here I thought we were going to be humiliated by the whole thing, but it turned out to be a wonderful act of kindness. We were joking that with Elise’s love of languages and her love of people, she’s probably going to end up an ambassador.

On Sunday, we kept the bona fide weekend going by heading back up to St. Augustine. This time, we went to the A1A Ale Works in historic downtown, overlooking the harbor and the Bridge of Lions. (The lions are a reference to Ponce de Leon, who is ubiquitous in St. Augustine.)

The restaurant/brewery has an upstairs balcony with ornate wrought iron like one might find in New Orleans. It’s sufficient shelter on a stormy night, so long as the storms are coming from the west and not from over the ocean. We enjoyed watching the city and the boats in the rain. (Though not as entertaining, a bride who was posing for pictures with her wedding party on the bridge ended up drenched and fled the downpour over muddy city streets. She will probably have to have her dress emergency cleaned before the big day. Summer storms in Florida are no joke, y’all. You have to watch the sky.)

We had a neat conversation about what kind of communications equipment to get for our future boat with three chaps who had sailed down from Savannah that day. They seemed to be contractors with the Coast Guard, as they were talking about their efforts to locate a missing boat.

Putting away the paella at the A1A Ale Works.

Walking back to our car, the Cathedral of St. Augustine was all lit up for a nighttime service. We had a wonderful view of all their stained glass windows in the darkness. I feel like we are constantly finding new and unusual spots in the Ancient City.

A wonderful weekend playing in the most beautiful corner of the world. We need to do this more often.