Monthly Archives: December 2017

Alligators and Wild Horses

This week, we explored several parks near our Kingston, GA campground, including the Okeefenokee Swamp Park and the Cumberland Island National Seashore.

067Okeefenokee Swamp Park  is part of the Okeefenokee National Wildlife Refuge which encompasses nearly a half-million acres and provides the headwaters for the Suwanee and St. Mary’s Rivers. The Park offers wildlife shows and exhibits, a boat tour, train ride, boardwalk nature trail to a look out tower, and pioneer island homestead. The park also decorates for the holidays, offering special “light show” train rides nightly during the season.

054The boat tour offered an entertaining mix of natural beauty and swamp life history. Our guide was an area native and shared many stories about the region. He was also very familiar with the resident alligators and their characteristics. The current undisputed king of the swamp is a large male known as “Crazy” (pictured).  He patrols the swamp diligently to defend his territory against any males and safeguard his harem. The train tour makes a stop at a “pioneer island homestead” which displays restored buildings, live farm animals, and exhibits depicting pioneer life.

IMG_3447Entrance to the Park is located 8 miles south of Waycross, GA on Highway 1. Entrance fees are $17 without the boat tour and $27  including the boat tour. The park offers a thoroughly entertaining half-day of fun. If you go, wear comfortable shoes and take sunscreen and insect repellant. Although we were there on a cool December day, summers would undoubtedly be very buggy!

25498280_10212560787388456_4631538019624889549_nAnother highlight of our time here was an all-day excursion to the Cumberland Island National Seashore, Georgia’s largest and southernmost barrier island. The island includes miles of pristine undeveloped maritime forest, marshland, and beaches. The only access to the island is by boat; a 45-minute ferry ride services the island. There are no paved roads and the only way around the island is on foot, by bicycle (rent one or bring your own) or by pre-booked van tour. We chose to take our own bicycles, although riding on the sandy main road was sometimes a challenge. We only went halfway up the island and still clocked a tiring 18+ miles in our day. It would be very difficult to see the entire island (14 miles end to end) on a bicycle, so if you want to see everything you should book the all day van tour.

IMG_3469Natives, missionaries, enslaved African Americans and Wealthy Industrialists occupied the island over the centuries, including members of the Carnegie family that built several estate homes here. One of their former homes, Plum Orchard, is available for tours. Built in 1898, the 20,000 square foot mansion boasts  impressive modern features including electrical lighting and numerous indoor bathrooms in an era where indoor plumbing was quite rare. The basement structure was designed to capture inrushing flood waters and channel it out through piping to a nearby river. The home is fully equipped with period furnishings and the free tour was absolutely fascinating.  That was my favorite part of the day.

IMG_3467Other sights include the ice house museum and ruins of one of the large mansions that burned down in 1959. As we toured on our bicycles, we encountered several of the feral horses that roam the island. I was aware of wild horses out west, but didn’t know there were wild horses this far east! The island also provides primitive beach front campgrounds, for tent camping. There were quite a few hardy campers, braving the cool weather and the challenges of manually hauling gear from the dock to campsite!

It’s definitely an all-day trip. Ferries depart at 9 am and 11:45 am, return ferries at 10:15 am and 4:45 pm.  There’s also a 2:45 pm return during the summer. The ferry cost is $28 round trip per person plus tax, and it is an extra $10 to take your own bicycle on the ferry. Bicycle rentals on the island are $16 per day, but supply is limited. Entrance fee to the park is an additional $7 per person, but we used our annual National Park pass.

There are no concessions on the island. You have to pack in your own food and beverages, although drinking water and restrooms are available in limited locations. You will need sunscreen, comfortable layers, and bug spray! Even on a chilly December day, the gnats were bothersome at times.

After a long and tiring day of touring the island, we had an excellent seafood dinner at St. Mary’s Seafood and More restaurant. Located just a couple of miles from the dock, the delicious dinner and adult beverage certainly hit the spot!

Next up:  Wrightsmanpalooza family holiday celebration takes it “on the road” to Charleston!

Campground Review: KOA Jacksonville North / St Marys, Kingsland, GA



  • Name: KOA Jacksonville North / St. Marys
  • Dates of stay:  December 18-24, 2017
  • Location: 2970 Scrubby Bluff Road, Kingsland, GA 31548 (I-95 Exit 1 in Georgia)
  • Type of campground: Private – KOA
  • Cost: $47.85/night with KOA ValueKard discount for a FHU pull through site.
  • Additional fees: premium internet available for a fee (Tengo Internet)
  • Stay limit: none
  • Accepts mail / packages: Yes.
  • Cell reception:  AT&T had OK signal, web surfing was somewhat slow
  • Website:
  • Pros: decently sized wooded pull through sites plus amenities like daily free breakfast!
  • Cons: low water pressure, bath house showing its age

Full Review

Compared to the last KOA we stayed at, this campground was rather quiet. However, there are some very nice features and amenities.

This KOA is located just north of the Florida border, off of I-95 Exit 1 in Georgia and has around 100 pleasantly-wooded pull-through full hookup sites. There are also tent sites, several Kamping Kabins and even three Teepees for rent! Amenities are many including a camp store, pool, two laundry rooms, playground, jumping pad, miniature golf course (extra fee), fitness room, basketball court, dog park, game room, even a petting zoo area! Basic internet is available for free and premium internet is available for a fee ($4.95/day or $15.95/week) – but we used our own hotspot. One unusual perk is the free daily breakfast:  waffle or pancakes, juice and coffee (bacon or sausage available for a fee). We took full advantage of that perk! The campground also offers food for sale including pizza, nachos, and pulled pork / chicken / ribs that are smoked on the premises. You can have your dinner delivered right to your camper door!

Our gravel campsite was more than long enough for our big rig and spaced so that we didn’t feel too cramped by our neighbors. The grounds are wooded, but not so heavily that it impeded our DirectTV signal. During our stay, the campground was rarely more than 1/3 full. Due proximity to the highway, we found that many folks use this KOA simply as a quick overnight stop. The sites are long enough for most rigs to pull in and stay the night without having to unhook their trailer or tow vehicle, making it easy to pick up and go the next morning.

On the down-side, the water pressure was low to barely-adequate and smelled a bit sulfurous. Jeff took a shower at the bath house and due the low pressure, the water temperature was poorly regulated, varying unpredictably between too hot and too cold. The bath houses are also showing their age, although they are kept clean. Also, this general area isn’t exactly a hotbed of activity, although there are some nice parks to explore nearby and Jacksonville is about a half hour away. We found that a week was ample time for us to explore the area. There weren’t any planned activities here at the campground during our stay, but it was “off season”, maybe there will be more activity during peak times.

Bottom line: It’s a pleasant campground, but there aren’t enough activities around the area to hold our interest for long.

Theme Park Mania!

IMG_3386What do you do when you’re in Orlando?  Why, go to the theme parks, of course!

In our two weeks in Orlando, we ended up buying passes for 8 days of theme parks, which was a bit more than we originally intended! Here’s how it happened — Disney has 4 parks, so we figured we needed a day each. We had a one-day park-hopper pass left over from a previous purchase, so bought a 3 day pass for me and 4 day pass for Jeff.  Universal Studios has 2 parks (well, 3 if you count the new water park) and the parks are smaller so using the same logic, 2 days of passes would do, right? BUT, Universal Studios had this super Florida resident special where you bought a 2 day pass and got 2 additional days for free! How can you say no to two free days?? So, there you go, 8 days of theme parks!

IMG_3418If you come to Orlando and want to play in the theme parks, definitely check out the pass options online before you arrive. There are always a variety of options and often special deals, especially if you are a Florida resident. Universal Studios passes are discounted if you purchase online and you can pick up your tickets easily at the will-call kiosks located outside the entrance to each park, however if you purchase a Florida resident ticket, you will have to show your ID at guest services.

It was great fun! All of the parks decorate and have special themes and shows for the holidays. We were here during the first two weeks of December, which is touted as being “less busy” than other times. We found that Universal Studios wasn’t too crowded, but Disney always got busy by mid-day. The rides at Universal rarely had lines exceeding 30 minutes or so, but the most popular Disney attractions (such as the newly-opened Avatar section) could quickly build to queues of two hours or more.

IMG_2994Universal Studios / Islands of Adventure highlights:  The Grinchmas Who-liday Spectacular, Harry Potter areas (Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade) and the Hogwart Express train that connects them, the holiday projection light show against Hogwart Castle, Universal’s Holiday Parade, and all of the usual fun rides (the Hulk, the Mummy, Men In Black Alien Attack, RipIt RockIt Roller Coaster) and shows. The regular shows, such as the Blues Brothers, offered a special holiday version. It was great fun, but 4 days was more than we needed to cover everything. 2 big days or 3 mellow days would do it. We ended up spending 2 long days and 2 half days there. On our last day, we were tapped to participate in market research: we simply watched 20 minutes of video, answered questions about one of the commercials and received a $20 Universal gift card each! Cool!

IMG_3436There are 4 Disney parks:  Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Hollywood Studios (formerly, MGM) and Animal Kingdom. 4 days is simply not enough time to see everything! The parks are large and you have to rely on Disney transportation to get from one park to another (as opposed to Universal Studios where you can walk from park to park). There are so many highlights it’s difficult to single out just a few, but I’ll attempt: The new Avatar area of Animal Kingdom, Holiday around the World at Epcot’s World Showcase, Jingle Bell Jingle BAM! projection/fireworks show at Hollywood Studios, Happily Ever After projection/fireworks show at Magic Kingdom, and the Candlelight Processional at Epcot. We purchased a Candlelight Processional dining package for the four of us (Sean, Marissa,  Jeff and myself) which guaranteed seating at this hugely popular show. I absolutely loved it!

It was exhausting but, I have to say it … magical!

IMG_34298 days in less than 2 weeks was probably a bit too much, even for us. I averaged around 20,000 steps each theme park day! 8 days in three weeks would have been about right. We did have time to fit in some other activities. Sean and Marissa were able to join us for some fun at the Disney parks and we are going to see the new Star Wars movie later today in IMAX 3D! Jeff also cashed in a 15 year old coupon for a Richard Petty Driving experience at the Daytona Speedway. He was quite impressed! We also enjoyed a few activities here at the KOA including Bingo night and Friday night line dancing.


Hogwart’s castle at night

If you go – here are a few theme park tips:

  • Budget for parking – it’s $20/day which really adds up!
  • Snap a photo of your parking location – you’ll be thankful for that reminder at the end of a long, busy day!
  • Pack in your own snacks and save on food purchases. You can also take an empty water bottle and re-fill at drinking fountains.
  • The casual sit-down restaurants don’t cost much more than the fast “window” service, and the food is much better. However, you may need reservations during busy times.
  • Go early and head for the most popular rides first. It takes a little while for the lines to substantially back up. This is a place where the early bird definitely catches the worm!
  • Download the apps. Both Universal Studios and Disney have apps that provide maps, wait times, show times, and locations of dining and restrooms. If you don’t have a smart phone, printed guides are available just inside the entrance of every park.
  • At Disney, take advantage of FastPass. You can snag FastPasses through their app or at kiosks in the park using your admission ticket. If you stay at one of the Universal Studios resorts, your guest key acts as a fast pass for everything!
  • Here’s super secret time saver:  Getting out of a packed Magic Kingdom after the night time spectacular show means long lines for the monorail or ferry back to the Transportation Center. Instead, get on the “Resort” monorail. It stops at the Contemporary Resort, but the second stop is – the Transportation Center! There’s usually little or no wait for this monorail and you’ll get back to your car much quicker.

Next stop – Jacksonville! Maybe we’ll have a little down time, or, maybe not!

Campground Review: KOA Orlando SE / Lake Whippoorwill, Orlando, FL



  • Name: KOA Orlando SE / Lake Whippoorwill
  • Dates of stay:  December 4-18, 2017
  • Location: 12345 Narcoossee Road, Orlando, Florida 32832
  • Type of campground: Private – KOA
  • Cost: $75/night plus tax typically, we paid $60.75/night for 2 weeks with weekly rate and KOA ValueKard discount for a FHU deluxe pull through site.
  • Additional fees: none
  • Stay limit: none
  • Accepts mail / packages: Yes.
  • Cell reception:  AT&T robust 3 bars, adequate for video streaming
  • Website:
  • Pros: Immaculately kept facilities, friendly staff, many amenities / activities
  • Cons: cost (unless you stay a month or more), typically tight commercial campground-size sites

Full Review

047Many of the campers I’ve spoken to don’t like KOAs because of their perceived value (or lack thereof). It’s true that the cost is substantially higher than many other options for a site that is fairly tight. We chose this KOA simply because it was the closest campground to our Orlando house where our son lives. There’s just nothing else suitable that is anywhere nearby. We had stayed here on our way home from New Orleans when we originally purchased our rig and had a good experience. So back we came, for two weeks this time.

043After the ginormous site we had at Alafia River State Park, the smaller site here at the KOA seemed much tighter by comparison. But the size was adequate for our rig, and typical of commercial campgrounds. Our row was never full during our stay, so we didn’t feel over-crowded. And since a cold front blew through during our stay, we didn’t sit outside in the evening anyway, it was too chilly!

Thanks to the numerous friendly and hard-working workcampers here, the landscaping and facilities are immaculate. The amenities include a pool, hot tub, boat / fishing dock, dog park, showers/restroom, recreation hall, KOA store, and large coin laundry facility. You can rent canoes or play ladder golf or horseshoes. Trash is picked up promptly, right from your site. The campground wi-fi is decent, sufficient for email but not intended for video streaming. However, our AT&T signal was so good here, we were able to actually stream movies on Amazon Prime.

052This KOA offers a full calendar of activities.  During just our two weeks here options included: Bingo, Zumba, yoga, Bible study, Movie night, Game night, Line dancing, water aerobics, a pot luck, Christmas Cookie exchange with Ugly Sweater Contest, and a holiday pet parade. And don’t forget the every Saturday all-you-can-eat Pancake breakfasts for only $4! Activities appear to be reasonably well-attended due to a significant percentage of repeat seasonal residents that have bonded into kind of a seasonal “family”. It made for a nice, homey atmosphere.  It should be noted that this is advertised as a Christian owned and operated facility and alcoholic beverages are not to be in evidence at any time.

Being on the south-east edge of Orlando means that everything you need is close by. Shopping and dining options are available literally across the road from the KOA park, including WalMart, Sam’s Club, and Starbucks. The theme parks are only 30-40 minutes away. There is no lack for things to do in the area!

Bottom line:  It’s pricey, but may be worth it to you if you are able take full advantage of the amenities and activities. However, I checked the monthly rate, and it was much more reasonable at $865/month plus metered electricity. That brings the nightly cost down into the $30/night range, less than half the short term rate!

This park can be a destination in itself with all of the things to do. However, Jeff and I over-scheduled ourselves, with 8 theme park days crammed into a two week stay! Between that, and spending time with our son, we really weren’t at the campground all that much. I did have the opportunity to play Bingo, where I won 3 times! That was pretty awesome. We also participated in the Friday night line dancing, which was a hoot.

We will likely come back again, primarily because of its location. But next time, I will allow more time to simply enjoy all that this campground has to offer.






Alafia State Park week recap

I’m a little slow getting to this, because we’ve been busy!

Our week at Alafia State park was spent in glorious weather – cool nights and warm, dry days. The park itself was absolutely beautiful, and mostly un-crowded. The parking lot at the bike trailhead got busy on weekends, but the campground was never full.

We spent quite a bit of our time simply staying and playing in the park. Jeff romped on the bike trails and I explored most of the 20 miles of equestrian/hiking trails. Stepping outside my door onto hiking trails was a true pleasure. As hiking trails go, they were pleasant, but not spectacular – mostly flat, some parts wooded, some parts grassy field.

lithia springsWe did explore areas outside the park as well. One day we hopped on the motorcycle and drove to St. Petersburg beach for lunch. On the way there, we swung into Lithia Springs Park, an out of the way gem that boasts a swimming area filled by a crystal-clear flowing spring welling up from the ground. At a constant 72 degrees year round, I can see how this swimming hole would be a popular place in the summer! The park also had a campground which was beautiful, but probably a bit tight for our big rig.

Our good friend Jose drove up from Miami on Friday night to join us for the weekend.  After romping on the trails Saturday morning, the boys kicked back and watched the many college football games on the big screen TVs – first inside and then transitioned to the outside TV as the sun set. A campfire behind you, big screen football in front of you plus a beer in your hand = big boy heaven!

Columbia-Ybor-City-la-fonda-dining-room-2On Sunday, the three of us traveled over to historic Ybor City, just northeast of downtown Tampa. It was founded in the 1880s by Vicente Martinez-Ybor and other cigar manufacturers and was populated by thousands of immigrants, mainly from Cuba, Spain, and Italy. Today Ybor City is a shopping and entertainment district that retains much of its old-world architecture and charm. After wandering through a local cigar festival and stopping for a quick beer at a nearby Irish pub, we ate dinner at the Columbia Restaurant. Founded in 1905, the Columbia is Florida’s oldest restaurant and the largest Spanish restaurant in the world. The photo shows the dining room we ate in – one of 5 that are each distinctly different in décor. My Basque-style grouper was tasty and the sangria hit the spot!

Before leaving Ybor City, we made a quick stop at the Coppertail Brewing Company. Jeff had discovered their beer at the local Publix grocery store, and picked up a six-pack of their “Unholy” brew.  He bought it because he liked the name, but we both liked the beer! You have to be careful though, because at a 9.2% alcohol content, it can quickly make its unholy effects felt! We had the opportunity to taste some of Coppertail’s different offerings, which were widely varied and creative.

The next morning (Monday), we packed up and headed to Orlando, where we are currently parked at a KOA. The next two weeks are devoted to theme parks!!

Bike Trail Review: Alafia River State Park

This is a guest post by Jeff!

IMG_3291If you look up flow in a modern dictionary, Alafia River Mountain Bike Trail would come up as a synonym. Resist the temptation of applying the brakes and you will be rewarded with seemingly effortless transitions from peak to peak as you navigate the plethora of drops and climbs throughout the trail. From the campground, travel east to access the trail, and if your skills allow it, my recommendation would be to take the first left off the fire road into North Creek Trail (intermediate) toward Twisted Sister. However, be advised that you will need your game face on immediately upon entering Twisted Sister, which can be seen at the trail junction on the right.  If leaving from the trail head parking lot, head east from there, then take the first trail to the right into North Creek Trail.

IMG_3302If you are out on a leisurely Sunday drive, then take the first right from the fire road onto the River Loop (easy), followed by Rock Garden and Sand Pine. The end of Sand Pine gets a little sandy during the dry season (generally winter in Florida), but all of it is rideable. This trail has it all, including a great balance of easy, intermediate, difficult, and double-black runs. Spending a week out here just leaves you wanting more. The mountain bike trail was a gift from the Phosphate mining industry who piled up overburden in their quest to access the deeper phosphate minerals to later sell as fertilizer, after processing. This overburden was then crafted and shaped by trail artisans, and the trail was born.

IMG_3366After finishing Twisted Sister, follow it up with Magic Island, and Buzzard Bay, and by the time you exit North Creek you should be fully warmed up for the remaining adventure. After that take a left off the North Creek exit and finish out your run with Gator Back (Double Black!), Bridges, Rabbit Ears, Roller Coaster, and if you are not too tired, give Moonscape a go. After completing all of these intermediate, black, and double-black trails, 14.5 miles were logged.

This trail definitely ranks as one of the top trails in Florida, and the SWAMP club should be proud of this masterpiece.