Tuesday, October 17, 2017

#476 Try Bubble Tea

On a recent trip to State College to visit my son, I had the opportunity to try Bubble Tea. I was pretty sure I wasn't going to like it but I felt that way about many foods at first. I thought I would hate sushi, Brussel sprouts, asparagus, mussels, Pad Thai, rice pudding, Easter pie, Chicago dogs and chow mei fun. They are actually some of my favorite foods now. I still hate calamari though. Breaded rubber bands are not tasty to me but a lot of people love it so I do not judge.

Bubble Tea
Bubble Tea from Cafe WOW in State College
Anyways, this quest for bubble tea began back in December of 2016. My son wanted to treat my daughter to a Bubble Tea for her birthday. Three times we went to the Bubble Tea place and three times they were closed. It was holiday break and spring break so we understood why they were closed. No students equals no business. It made sense but at the same time, we began to believe we were never going to try this elusive Bubble Tea.

Then finally, on my most recent visit to State College, the Bubble Tea place was open. Hooray!!! Let's do this. We entered into the cute little Bubble Tea cafe called Cafe WOW. They offered tasty looking Taiwanese pastries, smoothies, milk teas and fruit teas. You could select either a clear based tea or a milk based tea for your Bubble tea. The kiddos picked their teas. They chose milk based teas. I also wanted to try a milk based tea. As they were waiting for their beverages, I studied the menu a little longer. They offered delicious flavors such as Honeydew, Vanilla, Banana, Peach, Strawberry, Papaya, and Pineapple.

However, I wanted to try a unique flavor. A few listed flavors definitely intrigued me. What did Taro taste like? What was Red Date Longan? How would Lavender or Jasmine taste in a Bubble milk tea? Red Date Longan and Taro just kept jumping out at me for some reason. The barista at the counter was waiting patiently for me to decide. I was struggling to make a decision so I went with Red Date Longan because that was the first one to really jump out at me.

Once we all had our beverages, we took a seat outside at a little metal bistro table. Nervously I studied my drink. The bubbles in the tea were black. I pictured them being translucent, like real bubbles. Why were they black? They were also a lot bigger than I was expecting. I am not a fan of tapioca but for whatever reason, I was expecting clear, tiny tapioca bubbles in my tea. These were large, tapioca, jelly like bubbles. There was a slightly red, beige tint to my tea as well. It looked a little like chocolate milk to be honest. Unfortunately, it did not taste like chocolate milk.

The kiddos enjoying their tea.

I stabbed my wide purple straw through the plastic covering of my tea and nervously took a sip. A bunch of "bubbles" came through the straw. Slowly I began to chew them, expecting them to taste like squid ink or something. The texture was definitely a little weird, but not horrible. It was a starchy texture. To be honest, they really didn't have much flavor to them at all. If anything their flavor reminded me of the little Japanese dough covered ice creams called Mochi.

Turns out, I didn't mind the bubbles at all. The taste of the red date longan was just okay though. There was date pulp in the drink along with the bubbles and the flavor just wasn't sitting well with me. For whatever reason it did not dawn on me when I ordered my drink that red date longan was a type of date. Why did it not occur to me? I mean the word date was included in the name of the flavor right? Right. That will go down as one of the world's great mysteries along with all the other idiosyncrasies I have made in my lifetime.

Anyways, I am not a big fan of  dates. They aren't terrible or anything but I don't really prefer to eat them. My daughter allowed me to sample her vanilla bubble tea and I really enjoyed that flavor a lot more. It was really creamy and they definitely used some real vanilla bean in her Bubble tea. One of my most favorite flavors is vanilla with real vanilla bean. It's heavenly. I am also still curious about Taro. A good friend of mine highly recommends that flavor. She said it is her favorite. She has good taste so next time, I will definitely give Taro a try.

In closing, Bubble tea is a fun drink that you have to sip slowly in order to avoid choking on the bubbles.


Wednesday, October 4, 2017

#87 Be A VIP

The bride and bridal party. Amazing ladies!

One of my favorite ladies, Miss Jere, was getting married to her longtime love Chris, on July 4th, 2014. I had the honor of being a bridesmaid so I got to experience all of the festivities of this amazing wedding. Of course, one of the planned festivities was the Bachelorette Party. It was going to be held the Friday before the wedding. It was no ordinary bachelorette party though. The Maid of Honor, Sybil, wanted to make sure our bride, her bridal party and her best girlfriends got the VIP treatment.

Let's just say, this amazing woman did one hell of a job making us all feel like princesses. I was left in complete awe not only of her thorough eye for detail but also her selfless generosity. This astonishing woman made sure we were taken care of the entire night. Seriously. From start to finish, she not only had every single detail covered but she gave Jere and us ladies an unforgettable night of excitement and cherished memories.

She arranged all the cabs for transport to and from the hotel. She booked reservations for all of the places we were visiting. She decorated the hotel room. She had beverages, snacks and party favors for all of us to enjoy. She gifted us these fantastical hangover remedy kits which were so cute, cool and useful. She arranged for us to be VIPs at the Cell Block Dance Club for the night. She just blew my mind completely. Not one stone was left uncovered.

The hilariously naughty goodies. 
We started our VIP experience at the hotel where we were staying for the night. We enjoyed some adult beverages complete with penis straws while noshing on some penis shaped chocolates. They were delicious I must say.

We admired the penis shaped balloon display on the bed. Within an hour of posting that pic on my Facebook page, the picture was reported for being obscene. We had our fist scandal of the night ladies and gentlemen. ( FB eventually deemed it not obscene and let me keep my picture on display.)

We all had a good chuckle over the Hangover Survival Kits. They contained all the necessities every gal needs for a night of clubbing and alcohol abuse. We were given a bottle of water, a multigrain bar, tums, ibuprofen, tissues, wet wipes, gum, tissues, hair ties, mouthwash and ear plugs. This was a genius gift that I loved very much. We all did.

Hangover Survival Kit! Brilliant!!

After we got all gussied up and ready to party, the cabs arrived to take us to the Bull Frog Brewery for dinner and cocktails. Our cabbies were really awesome. They took our pics while we posed like the classy chicks we were outside the Bull Frog. Once inside, we relished in the laughter, great conversations and savory buffalo chicken mac and cheese. This place was great. The food was delectable and the drinks were strong. The prices were also very appeasing as well. I would certainly recommend the Bull Frog Brewery to anyone.

What a send off for our bride. We had so much fun!

After dinner, our party strolled around historic downtown Williamsport. The night was clear and beautiful. The temperature a perfect 72 degrees. Sybil mentioned that our cabbie pics were a hit on Facebook. People were already commenting about my rack and Jere's tanned long legs. Everyone loved how awesome we all looked. Not exactly scandalous but we were making a statement. We were sexy ladies, we knew it and we were flaunting it. We all need to feel that way once in awhile.

Buffalo Mac and Cheese. Oooooh!
We made our way over to the Brickyard Ale House. A band was playing in the street while the tables lining the walkway were filled with patrons enjoying the music and refreshing brews. This place was a beer lover's dream. Another very impressive place that I would recommend to anyone. We still had an hour to spare before heading to the Cell Block so we grabbed some oil and took our place along the bricks to enjoy the sounds.

The band noticed Jere's "Bride To Be" getup and dedicated a song to her. " Keep Your Hands To Yourself" by Georgia Satellite. The whole crowd got a kick out of that. Jere was too cute out there dancing in the street. She was sporting the sash and crown Sybil got her but the buzz she was rocking was all Jere. It's not often a band takes it upon themselves to dedicate a song to you. Our girl enjoyed every single note of that song, She deserved too. She deserved a night like this. This sweet little moment made the night even more memorable.

Photobomb fun! Everyone there was having a great time. 

That's right girl! Own it!

As the sun began to set into the late June sky, we finished our drinks at the Brickyard and made our way to the Cell Block, formally known as the Lycoming County Jail. We were early. It was only a little after 9pm. The club didn't really get jumping until after ten. The first thing I noticed was an outdoor courtyard situated between a brick wall and an old stucco wall. It was decorated with cushioned lawn furniture, tables, heaters, torches and a bar. It was very cozy and inviting. I would so much be spending some time out here. It was too beautiful not to.

The Cell Block
I was already so very impressed with the Cell Block thus far and we had only been there like two seconds. We ascended the stairs into the giant, stone building/former county jail. Before us stretched a long brick corridor. It ran parallel to the empty dance floor, which was also very long and huge.

The ceiling of the corridor was arched and alcoves lining the corridor displayed mug shots of famous criminals. Mobsters such as Al Capone, Walter Smith and William Morrish shared the wall with Hollywood criminals like Charlie Sheen and Lindsay Lohan.

The mobsters looked scary, the Hollywood elite, not so much. I tried to keep pace with the rest of the party but there was so much to check out. We were being shown to our VIP area. Like I mentioned earlier, Sybil had told us she booked the VIP package for Jere's Bachelorette Party. I was excited about this but I was not sure what to expect either. I figured maybe we would get a special table near the dance floor. That would be convenient. We would not have to worry about anyone stealing our seats. That alone had me excited.

Our VIP Lounge!
Let's just say, I was way off about what our VIP experience at the Cell Block was going to entail. Way off! Our host led us to the end of the dance floor where a huge elevated lounge sat. Oh kids.......it's about to get real.

Our host opened the red velvet rope, allowing us access to our VIP area. We had a red velvet rope people!! Red.Velvet.Rope. The only velvet ropes I have ever experienced were the ropes used at the bank to form a line to the tellers.

It may not seem like a big deal to some but to me, this was outstanding! I got to hang behind the red velvet rope. It gets better though. The lounge was furnished with very comfortable black leather sofas and silky grey curtains. On the black wooden coffee table near the sofas sat a bucket filled with Moet chillin' on ice. Shut the Front Door! We were so much going to be popping bottles like a G6. I don't even really like champagne but you better believe I was going to drink some VIP champagne. Why wouldn't I?

Our host then showed us to a private room off to the side of our VIP lounge. It was also furnished with a black leather sofa as well as an authentic jail cell which was on display behind glass. We were given two rules we had to abide to or else face banishment from the establishment.

Rule #1: Do not try to break into the jail cell. It was for display only.
Rule #2: No having sex on the couch.

A real jail cell. 

Okay. Seemed fair. Our host then informed us that she was going to be our personal waitress for the entire night. She would get any and all drinks for us whenever we wanted. We had her permission to keep her running all night. She also stated that we were allowed two rounds of shots of our choice, on the house, as well as more bottles of champagne.

Chillin with the Moet! 
This was too much! And just when I could not be more impressed with this entire VIP experience, we had one more surprise. A big hulking man made his way over to the VIP lounge. He introduced himself as our personal bouncer for the evening. Say what??? He was there to open and close the velvet rope for us. He was there to prevent anyone from coming up into the lounge. He was there to make sure we were safe and comfortable.

He did explain that there were going to be people, especially guys, asking to come up into the lounge with us. Unless we said otherwise, he was not permitting anyone without a VIP bracelet access to our lounge. He also stated that if we were trying to dance on the main floor and guys were bugging us to bring them up to the lounge, we were to notify him and he would warn the guys to not bother us or risk being removed from the establishment.

Our personal bouncer! Holla!!! 

This was insane people!! Insane! I must admit, I was apprehensive about all of this. There was no way he was going to stay by our lounge for the next four hours. He was just sayin' that. He would disappear and we would never see him again. I was definitely wrong. He did stay the entire night. The only time he left was to take a break and when he left, another bouncer would come over to take his place. In fact, by the end of the night, we had two bouncers watching our lounge. It was wicked cool. And they totally opened and closed the ropes for us.

Cheers to us!!! VIPs! Salud!
What an amazing night we were having being VIPs. We danced our hearts out. We drank too much. We laughed. Some of us passed out for a spell on the couches. There were definitely guys bugging to come up to the lounge with us like the bouncer had mentioned. In fact one group of guys was pestering us all so much that the bouncer came over to us, pointed to the guys and said they keep bugging to come up. Do you want them to come up?

We all said no. The bouncer told the guys they were SOL and to leave us alone. We were there to have a good time for Jere's bachelorette. Most of the gals there had significant others. As for the few of us that didn't, we were old enough to understand that we weren't going to find the love of our life in any bar. The only thing we could possibly find would be five minutes of nothing special followed by days of regret and stress over such a bad decision. I was over that shit a long time ago.

Dancing Queens. We're so fancy!
Besides, we had our own dance party going on in our lounge. It was a total riot watching us all fall apart more and more with each drink we threw back. I haven't laughed that hard in a long time. When we needed a breath of fresh air, we would visit the courtyard.

Our waitress even came out there to deliver drinks to us. She was really fabulous. The courtyard was definitely more chill and laid back. The night air was the perfect remedy for over heating on the dance floor. The fresh air also made the buzz more potent.

My head was spinning. I needed to calm myself but once I get on that train, it's hard to get off. The drinks start going down like water but you don't realize you're drowning until 4 or 5 drinks past your limit. When it hits you, it hits you like a freight train. By 1:30 am, I was finally waving the red flag.

My feet were screaming. I was dripping with sweat. My speech was slurred and my stagger was wild. I plopped down into the comfy leather couch and allowed it to envelop me. So this is what it feels like to be a Rap God, a Rock Superstar. I finally get what Cypress Hill and 50 Cents were putting down. I've "Gone Sovereign" as Corey Taylor would say. This is mine!!!!!

What a great group of ladies. We had so much fun! I love them all. 

Our bride to be Jere was having the time of her life. She smiled the entire night. That was the most important thing. She was our queen and we were her court. She was the #1 VIP. This could not have been a more fabulous night. I remember thanking Sybil several times for everything she had done. I told her she missed her calling as a party planner. She did a beautiful job with Jere's shower and this VIP bachelorette party was the bomb. She was the ultimate maid of honor. She also genuinely cared that we were all happy. It was awesome to see her let loose too.

7 inch heels and a blow up male appendage. What more could you ask for?
In closing, after saying goodnight to the beautiful bride I laid down in the comfortable hotel bed. I love hotel beds. I always get the best sleep in them. My thoughts drifted. I thought about the entire day and how wonderful it was. We got to be VIPs for real in a club. No it was not some fancy NYC Club where famous celebs loom behind the velvet rope but it was outstanding nonetheless.

As my eyes got heavy and my breathing relaxed, I thanked the good lord for blessing me with so many amazing people in my life. They are the real VIPs, all day, every day. I would gladly open the velvet rope for my nearest and dearest any day because I honestly don't know how I would have made it this far without them.


Thursday, September 28, 2017

#7 Do A Couple of Laps Around A Race Track at Full Speed

When I turned 30, as a present, I got to do something pretty adventurous to ring in the upcoming 4th decade of my life. That present was the Stock Car Experience. I was going to have an opportunity to experience what it felt like for NASCAR drivers when they raced around the track at Pocono International Raceway in Long Pond, Pennsylvania. How freakin' cool was that? It was way cool, that's how cool it was.

At the time, I was still a huge NASCAR fan and was so ecstatic to have a chance to ride in a real stock car.

Used to be a huge Mayfield fan! Everham Racing. 
Before I get to my experience though, here is a little rundown of the Pocono track. Pocono Raceway is 2.5 mile superspeedway with the unique characteristic of having 3 turns rather that the typical 4 turns at most speedways. It has also been called a road course disguised as a racetrack by many racers who have graced the asphalt at Pocono. This is contributed to the difficult degrees of banking on each of the different turns as well as the amount of shifting needed to drive the speedway. In other words, It's not the easiest raceway to drive.

Pocono Raceway has a reputation in the racing world as either being loved or hated among racers. Most believe the love/hate relationship with racers is attributed to each individual racer's style, course experiences and preferences. None of that mattered to me though since I would not be driving the track. ( I have driven on part of the track before but, it was with my Pontiac 6000 and I was finishing the overnight shift of guarding Gasoline Alley during race weekend. That's for another blog though.)

Back to this experience, I was not going to be driving so you can all breath a sigh of relief. And, after having this experience, I also know there is no way in hell I could ever drive a race car. I am well aware of my limitations but, I'll get to that later. For this experience, a professional race car driver was going to take me for 3 laps around the raceway at speeds of up to 175mph. Holy fast car batman. Maybe I should wear a diaper for this experience. ( I did not. I was able to control myself. It was all good.)

Me getting ready to shake, rattle and roll in Long Pond.

Before showing up at the track for my ride, I had to register a date and time for my stock car experience. I chose the first Saturday in October 2003 for my experience. I also had to give my weight and height (for safety reasons.). FML! I always hated giving my weight and was not above lying about it my entire life but, in this instance, I couldn't lie about it since it was for safety purposes. Didn't want to risk a possible injury over my reluctance to reveal my true weight to complete strangers. I sucked it up and wrote my weight down. That hurt.

I was a little nervous but super excited. This was what living life was all about! When that Saturday rolled along, the weather was typical for an autumn day in the Poconos. The air was chilly and breezy. The sky was gray but thankfully it was not raining. We arrived at Pocono for my 10:30 am car ride a little early. We were lead to pit row where I was assigned to race car #6. Mark Martin immediately popped in my head. I liked him. He was a great driver and a cool guy. I was totally down to ride in #6.

The staff fitted me for a helmet, explained the rules and had me sign a waiver. They pointed out that my driver was taking another person for a ride, then he would be over to pick me up. I clutched onto my helmet nervously as I watched the race cars pull in and out of pit road. There were quite a few people here. I wasn't expecting that. It wasn't a bad thing, just unexpected. Several race cars were racing around the track while some driving school students were getting lessons on Pit Road. The sounds of the revved up engines circling the track was music to my ears. I always loved that sound. Fast and loud! Rev it up!

The Dork is strong in this one.  Me not knowing what the hell I was doing.
The #6 car pulled into Pit Row. My guide came over and walked me to the car. He informed that he would help me get into the car. I looked at him dumbfounded for a moment. Of course a bell rang in my head when it dawned on me that there would be a strong chance I would need assistance getting into the car. Stock cars don't have doors genius. You have to climb into them via the window. These short legs were going to struggle to do that. Of course, I wanted to try and do it without assistance first.

The net on the passenger side of the car was unhooked for me. My first error was trying to climb into the car while wearing my helmet. The guide strongly urged me to not wear the helmet until I got into the car. My second error was throwing the helmet onto the seat before entering the car. Yea, it was tight in there. That was not going to work either. Thankfully my driver not only had experience in racing cars but also had experience in dealing with complete morons. He grabbed my helmet off the seat so I could climb in.

3 hours later.......I am in the car. God Bless America!
He also got to witness the train wreck of me climbing into the race car. While I did not kick him or anything, it certainly was by no means a graceful or smooth entry into the passenger seat. There was a well defined struggle trying to hoist both my legs into the car without falling awkwardly half in and half out of the car.

The guide was walking back over to assist me, probably because he wanted to save me the one ounce of dignity I had left, but somehow I managed to get in without pulling all the muscles in my body. I only pulled about half of them. Fortunately the excitement and adrenaline pulsing through my veins masked the pain but trust me, I would feel it later. ( I swear I should have bought stock in Motrin with the way I injure myself.)

Once I was in my seat, I noticed immediately that it really was super tight in there. The seat was molded almost completely to my body. After I put my helmet on and rested my head against the seat, which was cradled by a neck support, my guide buckled me in. My mobility was pretty much non existent as of that moment. Naturally my thoughts went to the race car drivers. How the heck do they drive these cars at high rates of speed while being glued into their chair?  How do they maneuver? How the heck does Jimmy Spencer or someone super tall like Bill Elliot even fit into these cars? They obviously had crazy mad skills.

My driver asked me if I was ready to go and I gave him the thumbs up. He asked me how fast I wanted to go. I told him as fast as he was allowed to drive. We slowly began taking off down the straightaway towards turn one. Then he revved the engine, shifted gears and stepped on the gas. The sound of the engine from inside the car gave me chills. The rest of the ride was just insane. The car was shaking, the view out the windshield was blurry and the grin on my face was so big it hurt.

And we are off.......
The driver yelled out the speeds as we hit turns and straightaways. Shakily, I would occasionally glance at the speedometer. I saw it hit 175. Madone! This was crazy. I started laughing insanely with complete joy and amusement. In the back of my mind I was also wondering how the hell the race car drivers were able to drive at these speeds and make the maneuvers and passes that they did.

Being a spotter in NASCAR must have so much pressure attached to it. They are literally the eyes of the race car drivers, telling them when to pass, where to move on the track and what cars to avoid. A huge wave of respect and admiration for these drivers and their crews washed over me. This was a dangerous sport indeed.

But, I can also see how it could be so addicting for a driver. The rush was wicked. I also realized that there was no way I could ever safely drive a car at this speed. Even with training, I would never trust myself. And with anything, there are different types of fears. Some of those fears are rooted more in anxiety while some of those fears are rooted more in capability and the trust you have in yourself. If you are honestly afraid you are not capable of safely accomplishing something, don't do it.

I'm all for living on the edge, trying new things and having outrageous adventures, but I also want to survive them. Some people have a natural affinity or natural skills for certain things, some people acquire them from years of practice and some people just are not meant for certain things. I am not saying this in a negative way, I am just saying there are so many things out there to experience and try. Know your capabilities but also know your limitations.

That's me in the car going 50 million miles per hour.

But enough lecturing. I may not trust myself to drive an actual race car at a high rate of speed but I still got to experience a race car at a high rate of speed. See? It's all about perspective. And to this day, the stock car experience is still one of the coolest, most exciting things I have ever had the opportunity to experience. It was a total blast and I would highly recommend it to anyone who is looking for a safe but adventurous adrenaline rush. One other thing, I think the price was well worth the experience.

Gentlemen, start your engines!!!! Let's go!!


Tuesday, September 19, 2017

#156 Try Deep Fried Alligator

Last summer my daughter and I went on a road trip. We didn't go far. We drove a few towns over and visited Centrailia and Knoebel's Grove. Okay, so we were searching for Pokemon and Knoebel's had tons of monuments. We were hoping to hit the mother lode of pokeballs and maybe catch some rare Pokemon in the process. Whatever. We all have our guilty pleasures. I only played the game for a short time but had a lot of fun doing so.

The Knoebel's Bridge
Anyway, little did I know in my quest to find Pokemon that I would also have an opportunity to accomplish another item on my Bucket List. While walking around Knoebel's feeling very frustrated because the Pokemon server was down, we decided to have lunch. Knoebel's has an international cafe near the Phoenix roller coaster with some very good food. As we made our way over, I noticed a big green Alligator sign. There was an opening where you could stick your head through to take a picture. Above the opening were the words "Gator Bites".

GTFO!! I did not know Knoebel's offered Alligator Bites. Then again, it had probably been about  6-7 years since I had last visited Knoebel's. My decision was made. I was so much going to order Alligator Bites. My daughter was not nearly as excited as I was for the opportunity to try Alligator and decided to order Mexican instead. She headed over to the Mexico counter while I headed towards the World counter.

While standing in line at the World Cuisine counter waiting for my turn to order, I noticed a food item for sale called Zombie Fries. Whoa! I love Zombies and I love fries. I felt very strongly that Zombie Fries would be the perfect companion for my Gator Bites. I placed my order for bites and fries, grabbed my receipt and found a table. Patiently, I waited for my number to be called. As soon as I heard it, I jumped up with excitement. As I retrieved my tray, I examined the bites closely. They were really dark brown. They looked a little burnt to be honest. Oh well. Maybe they are supposed to be cooked that way.

Alligator Bites and Zombie Fries

Nervously I brought the first alligator bite to my mouth. I took a bite, apprehensive about the flavor. As I began chewing, the texture struck me as that of lobster or shrimp. As for the taste, everyone who has tried alligator has always stated that it tastes just like chicken, and it does, to an extent. They definitely did not have a fishy flavor to them, but the chicken flavor was very mild. To be honest, they didn't have much flavor at all. The only flavor I was really pulling from the bites was from the breading.

I struggled to eat them. Not because they tasted bad. They did not. I struggled because they were playing tricks on my mind. My brain did not know how to process alligator. Here was this food with the texture of a lobster but the flavor of bread crumbs and chicken. It was kind of trippy. I started dipping the alligator bites in ranch dressing hoping it would help my brain digest this food. The ranch helped a little but I was still tripping out.

I managed to eat maybe four or five bites before my stomach said enough. This rarely happens to me but once in awhile I will try something that just messes with my head too much and my stomach decides it wants nothing more to do with it. This happened years ago when I tried the Thai dish, Pad See Aew. It tasted good but my brain told my stomach to get nauseous because the flavor and the texture were too freaky to comprehend.

I took some solace in my Zombie Fries. They were fantastic. Battered, deep fried strips of onions and jalapenos were definitely not trippy to me. They were amazing! They also came with the bloomin' onion dip that I love so much. After I felt satiated and my daughter finished her meal, we headed back out in search of pokemon. Unfortunately the server was still down. Zoinks! I was not gonna catch them all, after all.

In closing, I will probably pass on trying alligator ever again. I promise, they are not awful, they are just weird. Also, this experience will not deter me from trying new cuisines. I have a broad and adventurous palette. I am always discovering new foods and fusions that I absolutely adore. Sometimes a food I am not too fond of becomes magical when combined with other ingredients. It's all about taking chances and in the food arena, I am always down!


Sunday, August 20, 2017

#21 Take A Road Trip Through The Florida Keys

So, unlike my blog about driving the Overseas Highway, this blog is dedicated to all the Keys we visited during our adventure. This is my final post in the Florida Keys Chronicles. It was pretty awesome to have crossed so many things off my Bucket List on this trip. Unfortunately I was not able to cross snorkeling off my list this trip, but I will accomplish this feat one day. Hopefully, it will be accomplished in the Keys.

The Mystical Mermaid. Beautiful shop!

This trip also inspired me to add a few more goals to my Bucket List. We were in Florida for 5 days. Our first day was dedicated mostly to flying, being delayed and driving. So, we really only had 4 days to explore. It was not nearly enough time to see and do everything. I also wanted to make sure we had genuine relaxation time on this vacation. I have found that to be important.

My daughter had just graduated Penn State. My son was coming off another tough and hectic semester at Penn State. Me, well I work full time, I'm a single parent and I am a grown up. LOL! Do I need any other excuse for wanting to step away from a stressful, hectic life full of bills, curve balls and responsibilities? No. I do not.

Besides, what I did learn on this trip is that the visiting the Florida Keys is a reasonable trip I can take again. When we visit places like Europe, Australia, Asia, Africa, even Hawaii and Alaska, of course we are going to want to jam pack as much as possible into these trips. Most trips of these type are once in a lifetime trips to many people. Why? It's more difficult to venture to a foreign country or far away place. There are different laws, customs and requirements involved in visiting another country. Not to mention, a lot of these places are rather expensive to visit.

Flying between European countries is affordable. Actually it is ridiculously cheap. However, flying from the US to a starting point on another continent, yea, not so cheap. It's not impossible to find a cheap flight but you also cannot be picky about the time of year you are visiting. Can you tell a trip to Europe is weighing heavily in my mind? Actually two trips to Europe are weighing heavily on my mind. Anyways, when on a once in a lifetime vacation, we do want to see and experience as much as possible because for a lot of us, that will be our only trip there. So, relaxation often times takes a back seat on these trips. It's understandable though.

Enough talk of Europe though, let's get back to the 1700 islands archipelago that is the Florida Keys. Granted, most of the islands are not habitable. Some of them used to be habitable, like the Dry Torugas Islands, but storms and tide shifts submerged some of the islands back under water like Southwest Key and Bird Key. Also, some of the islands are private such as Shark Key and some are only accessible by boat or plane such as Sunset Key. Some Keys are available for purchase as private islands.

Dolphin Jump Key near Marathon was recently purchased by some lucky person with a few mil to spare. Pumpkin Key near Big Pine Key is on the market. For a mere $95 million you could buy your own private island. Not all islands are that pricey though. On the lower end of the scale, Quiet Cove Key, off the coast of Marathon, is available for just under a million smackers.  This is good info to know for that day when I hit the Powerball. I will nickname my island Chrissy Key. I will also have to invest in some boating lessons as well.

Enough dreaming though. Let's get on to the Keys my kiddos and I visited.

My son chillin'. The Queen in the background.
I wrote about Key Largo in a separate blog since it was a stand alone Bucket List goal for me. You can read about Key Largo here. I will share my favorite picture from my adventures on Key Largo.

We stopped at a McDonald's in Tavernier. Hahahaha. Fancy I know. Not gonna lie, I am usually anti fast food on vacation unless it is a fast food joint we have never tried before or do not get the chance to enjoy very often. Like if there was a Bojangles chicken joint down there, we would have so much stopped. I love their chicken. There was not though. The reason I stopped at this McDonald's was because I was thirsty and did not want to pay $3.00 for a bottle of soda out of a vending machine or at a quick mart.

I was so happy to see they were offering all Large drinks for $1 here like they were back home. Sometimes the McDonald's in touristy spots, like the Wildwood boards, have higher prices and do not follow franchise specials. It was nice to know I could get cheap drinks in the Keys. I felt a little relieved because I had a go to place if necessary. LOL!

ISLAMORADA KEYS - These keys are part of Islamorada, Village of Islands.

Creekside Inn
The Creekside Inn. Lovely place.  
We stayed at the Creekside Inn, which is situated in Islamorada between Tavernier and Plantation Key. This hotel was very pretty and very clean. They had two pools, a restaurant and docking for fishing boats. We were fortunate to stay in a room facing the canal. My daughter and I spotted a momma and baby manatee swimming along the canal. We also got to watch schools of fish swirling around in weird circles in the water as well as a large iguana exploring the patio of a house across the canal.

A few guys that must have been fishing all day had their boat docked at the hotel along the canal. They were cleaning and filleting their daily catch at one of the bait and cleaning stations the hotel provided. ( I think that is very awesome.) I was sitting on the Adirondack chairs near the bait station observing the sites along the canal. Much to my amusement, a very persistent egret kept trying to sneak up on the guys cleaning their fish a few feet away. I think this egret was looking to steal one of their fish. It was hilarious. He thought he was being so sneaky.

I went back later that night to sit and watch a gorgeous sunset over the canal of Tavernier Creek. It was the forth sunset in a row where I was able to relax and witness the sun going to sleep. My first was while flying in the plane over North Carolina. My second was the sunset at Mallory Square in Key West. My third sunset was on the beach while enjoying a drink from the tiki bar on Sugarloaf Key. It is small moments like this that make it all good in my world.

This sneaky egret trying to steal fish. It was hilarious watching him try to sneak around. 

Creekside Inn
The pools were so nice!

Creekside Inn
Gorgeous clean room. 

A creek side mansion. 

This big guy was exploring the mansion grounds. 

Manatees swimming in the canal. So amazing. That scar is from the propeller of a boat. :(

A really cool attraction we visited on Plantation Key in Islamorada was the Rain Barrel Artisan Village. You can't miss this colorful Art Village when driving down the Overseas Highway. Mostly you can't miss it because there is a 30ft high, 40ft long lobster named Betsey in front of the Village. She is ginormous! She is also very friendly. Not once did she try to pinch us with her giant lobster claws. I must say, she is also pretty photogenic too. She just stood their letting everyone snap hundreds of pictures of her. Not once did she complain.

Rain Barrel Artisan Village
Betsey guarding the Overseas Highway
And after the initial shock and amusement of seeing the world's largest lobster sculpture wears off, you can walk inside the weathered, wooden shingled main store to check out vibrant metal sculptures of geckos, crabs, fish, turtles and seahorses. The sculpture garden next to the main building was so cool and colorful.

There were hundreds upon hundreds of metal sculptures, lawn ornaments and mosaic planters scattered about. We experienced our first lizard "in the wild" sighting in this garden. A salamander was posing on a ceramic pot. I think it was a salamander. Maybe if was a gecko. I am not very versed in the lizard species but I seriously could not get over how photogenic all the creatures were here.

After exploring the main building and garden, you could journey out back to a shaded courtyard where more stores offered crafts such as clay pottery, sea glass artwork, wooden wind chimes, beaded jewelry, watercolor paintings, Caribbean clothing and just about every other craft know to man. The village also had a tropical food shack that offered quintessential Florida Keys cuisine such as key lime pie, lobster rolls and Cuban Cafe con Leche. We made a special trip back to this shanty on our last day for a delicious, smooth Cuban coffee.

I definitely enjoyed The Rain Barrel Artisan Village. It was very quaint, quirky and pretty. It is a very good example of Florida Keys culture and a nice spot to pick up a few souvenirs to bring home. The inspiration for creating my own beach garden came from visiting the Rain Barrel. I wanted to bring the Florida Keys back to Pennsylvania, and the Rain Barrel was, in my opinion, the perfect blend of Florida Keys life. In fact, the little green metal gecko chillin in my yard was purchased at the Rain Barrel.

Scenes from The Rain Barrel. This place captured the personality of the Keys wonderfully. 

This little lizard was modeling for me. Strike a pose. 

Theater of the Seas
Theater of the Seas. 
Windley Key is home to Theater of The Seas. We visited Theater of the Seas on our last day in the Keys. All I can say is it was an unexpected wonderful experience. Theater of the Seas is a rescue and sea life conservatory that has interactive shows and experiences for the guests to enjoy. And while it is not a huge park, and the snack bar in the park is horribly over priced, it is an amazing experience that I highly recommend.

You need three hours to enjoy the entire park and all it offers in the general admission. The shows are timed in a way that if you miss one, you can work your way around the park and catch it later. I really liked that. So many parks offer shows either once or twice a day and they space them out so far apart that it is hard to catch either one. They also tend to have different shows occurring at the same time. I especially see this in larger parks. You miss the first show. The next one is in three hours but in three hours you are a mile away in a different part of the park.

Do you make the hike all the way back to catch the show? Do you hang around the area where the show is located and miss out on other parts of the park due to timing? Do you not get to see any shows? It shouldn't be this stressful right? My family has had issues with this happening at Busch Gardens in Williamsburg, Hershey Park, Historic Philly and the Baltimore Aquarium to name a few.

Because Theater of the Seas is a smaller park that did not have competing venues, we were able to catch every single event the park offered. And while the park is mainly shows and experiences, there are a few ponds and observation areas where you can check out extraordinary, huge sea turtles, barracudas, nurse sharks and exotic birds. Below are photos of everything we got to enjoy at Theater of the Seas.

This was one of our most favorite parts of our trip. Theater of the Seas did not disappoint. 

Robbie's Marina is a must if you are driving by Lower Matacumbe Key. They have fishing charters, snorkeling and huge ass tarpons! I am talking HUGE. And, for a ridiculously small fee, you can feed the fish. It was under $10 for the kiddos and I to each get a bucket of feeder fish and access to the docks. That was the best deal yet in our Keys adventure.

We each grabbed our bucket of fish and made our way to the beginning of the dock. My mouth dropped when I saw these long, giant fish floating around the crystal blue waters. They were amazing. I then noticed a sign saying to watch for the pelicans because they bite. I glimpsed down the dock and noticed several huge brown birds with really long beaks quickly making our way towards us.

I wanted to stay near the beginning of the docks because the water was not deep. It was maybe a foot or two in depth. My son can't swim and the mom in me did not want him getting spooked by a pelican and falling into the water. Staying on this end to feed the fish would be best. In the five seconds that thought went through my head we found ourselves almost completely surrounded by pelicans. One of the dock workers walked up and shooed the pelicans away but informed us we would be better off at the end of the dock.

Nervously, we made our way down the dock to where a charter boat was parked. I glanced at the water again. I could no longer see the sand beneath the turquoise water. I told my son to stand near the boat. The pelicans were now approaching us again. There were other people on the dock laughing and throwing fish in the water, trying to dodge the pelicans. The pelicans were brazen though. They gave zero f@cks.

We began tossing our fish into the water. Sometimes a tarpon got the fish, sometimes the pelican intercepted it. Then there was a battle royale. Tarpon vs. Pelican. It was like slow motion. All I saw was a fish flying through the air, a bunch of pelicans flying off the dock towards the flying fish, then 3 huge tarpons exploding out of the water. One of the tarpon literally stole the fish in mid air just as the pelican's mouth was clamping down to capture it. You could literally hear the snap of both the tarpon's mouth and the pelican's beak.

It was fricken' wicked.

After all of our buckets were empty, we called it a draw. Half the fish made it to the tarpon, the other half were captured by the asshole pelicans. No wonder they are so huge. They are vultures of the sea. Can't say I blame them though. They know where the food is so they might as well partake in the wealth. I mean if someone was throwing perfectly good slices of fresh, hot, pizza at a bunch of pigeons, I would not hesitate to swoop in there and intercept a few for myself. I'm not above doing something like that.

We walked back down the dock and turned our buckets in. We began roaming the grounds. Just like the Rain Barrel, Robbie's had artisan tents set up along the grounds. We did some window shopping, admiring all the beach life themes. There was a really cute wooden seahorse garland I was eyeing up, but I could not bring myself to pay $30 for it. $15 yes, I would pay that, but not $30. I knew it was not handcrafted. Some of the sellers need to make sure they remove the made in Taiwan and made in the Philippines stickers off their wares. Not only is it deceiving to the customer, but it looks bad on the genuine crafters present on site.

If you are going to sell that type of stuff, so be it, but do not charge hand crafted prices for it. With the exception of that little downside, we all had an awesome time at Robbie's.

Crazy birds and Big Ass Fish! All part of the Robbie's experience! So much fun!

We only really stopped in Marathon to visit one of the several Sandal Outlets advertised on billboards all over the Keys. It was a nice store with all things name brand from Uggs to Adidas. The heavily advertised 4 for $10 T-shirt deal is limited to one rack in the back of the store. It's a draw to get you in  the store. The products were high quality yes, but do not go in there expecting to find cheap t-shirts and souvenirs.

The old Seven Mile Bridge from the new Seven Mile Bridge. 

Sandal Outlets up and down the Keys. 

No Name Pub. 
Big Pine Key and No Name Key are home to the endangered Key Deer. My kids and I went seeking them out. We saw a few on the sides of the road or in front yards. They are a little smaller than your average deer. I don't know why but I was expecting the Key Deer to be these teeny, tiny deer. They were not. The Key Deer are also not really phased by people. They just keep going about their business rummaging for food or strolling along the street. They are also wildly protected by not only law enforcement but the locals as well.

I did notice that these two particular keys had a lot of scrub. Especially as you drove further into the keys and along the waterlines. It was kind of creepy but also really cool. I do know that I would certainly not get out of the car and explore unless I was with someone familiar with the area because this definitely terrain I am not at all familiar with. It's great to be adventurous and all but you also have to be smart. My most favorite part about these keys was visiting the brothel turned restaurant called No Name Pub. I gush all about it here. It was definitely worth going off the beaten path and I have no doubt I will visit there again one day.

Wildlife of Big Pine Key and No Name Key

Key Deer wondering around a residential yard. 

Roosters galore!

Ramrod Key is named for a ship that wrecked not far from the coast of this key. It is a small, residential key but is very pretty. They have a wonderful Cuban bodega which I rave about here. My first experiences with conch and the heavenly Cafe Con Leche occurred on this key. There is also a very pretty, thatched roof, open air restaurant on this key called Boondocks. Live bands play every night in this restaurant. And while the atmosphere was wonderful and the service super friendly, I found the food to be less than stellar for the the prices they charge.

Boondocks in Ramrod Key.

Sugarloaf Lodge
I absolutely fell in love with Sugarloaf Key. Sugarloaf Key is actually separated into two sections. Upper Sugarloaf Key and Lower Sugarloaf Key. Both parts of Sugarloaf Key have this laid back, tropical feel to them. The vibe of this key is more like working class paradise. It's quieter here, but not at all boring. I thought it was a perfect retreat from the more bustling Keys.

And, it was only 15 minutes from Key West. You could enjoy all the fun and excitement of Key West for as long as you wanted, and then when you had enough, you could retreat to Sugarloaf Key to enjoy the more rustic nature of the Keys. I was so thrilled at this unintentional balance I had created on our vacation. It was so perfect.

We stayed at the Sugarloaf Lodge in Lower Sugarloaf Key. It is the only hotel on the Key. It was a nice property situated along a canal. Every room had a view of the water. The first floor had sliding glass doors with patios and the second floor had sliding glass doors with balconies. We stayed on the second floor. I am not gonna lie, I got my money's worth out of that balcony. I spent a good deal of time out there just enjoying Sugarloaf Key's nature.

The lodge itself is not the most fancy. However, it is very clean. The beds are very comfortable. There was a large flat screen TV, fridge and free wifi. The grounds had an outdoor pool across the parking lot. 24 hour swimming was permitted. There was a creek with mangroves growing abundantly along the water and a sitting area next to the lodge. There was a hammock perched near the canal for guests to enjoy. I immediately fell out of it.

Two people sitting out on their patio got a good look at my ass since I tried very hard to fight rolling out of the hammock and falling to the ground completely. In that process, not only did I still fall out, I also landed awkwardly on my ass with my dress up to my waist and one of my sandals laying in the dirt a few feet away. I like to call this piece of work, "Godzilla in a dress trying to lay on a hammock."

Chrissy and hammocks do not mesh well obviously. but I do love them. That was also the only attempt I made to lay in that hammock during my stay. I'm lucky I fell out on the lodge side and not the canal side otherwise I would have rolled right down the slope into the canal. And that canal was deep near the lodge. The drop off was at least 1000 feet.  ( I have no idea how deep it was to be honest. All I know was you could not see the bottom.)

The lodge was also home to  thatched roof Tiki Bar with great drinks. It was open to the public so a lot of locals would come hang there. They were all very nice people. The lodge had docks to park boats and jet skis. People would ride up, visit the Tiki Bar, then go on their merry way again. There was also a private beach. Now granted, you could not walk into the ocean from this beach. The beach lead to the concrete barrier of the canal and swimming was not permitted, but it was awesome to be able to chill on the beach nonetheless. The mosquitoes also liked chilling on the beach, and my neck, and my legs, and my arms, and my face.

I truly enjoyed Sugarloaf Key and would love to stay at the Sugarloaf lodge again.

The grounds of Sugarloaf Lodge on Lower Sugarloaf Key. Old Florida at it's finest which is exactly what I wanted! What an experience! 

The famous buoy of Key West. 
The creme de la creme of Keys. It was so beautiful and so fun. I know I will visit here again and again. This was a huge dream come true for me and it was everything I thought it would be and more. I gush about Key West here since it was #100 on my Bucket List.

I have many other Keys I would like to explore on future visits to paradise. I will be sure to add them to this blog as well. For now, however, this is the end of a what was a wonderful adventure. A dream come true! This trip helped me in more ways than you could even imagine. When you realize one of your dreams coming true, it is one of the most beautifully emotional experiences one could have. To all the dreamers out there, keep at it!

Until next time Florida Keys..........

Creekside Inn
Rain Barrel Artisan Village
Theater Of the Sea
Sugarloaf Lodge
Sandal Factory Outlet
National Key Deer Refuge
Sugarloaf Pizza
The Mystical Mermaid
Five Brothers Grocery Two


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