Feb. 9, 2010:
Palm trees enjoy the wind on the beach at Hollywood, FL. Photo courtesy of Bill and Cindy Ware.
We left home in Mississippi to visit friends from Pipestone, MN. They were staying in timeshares in Weston, a western Ft. Lauderdale suburb.
We first met our friends when they stayed with us in 2004. We are all members of the Affordable Travel Club (ATC) (www.affordabletravelclub.net). Let me explain this travel club. It is for people over 40. For a $65 annual fee members are eligible to stay in other members’ homes for $20 a night ($30 overseas). You stay as invited guests not customers. You make arrangements a few weeks prior and report your planned arrival time the day before. A breakfast is provided as well as suggestions for dining out and local attractions to visit.
There are other travel clubs but ATC has more overseas members. For example, there are 108 in England and 33 in Germany. There are about 2,300 members worldwide. It is like visiting family members you have heard about but never met. Since 2004, we have stayed with more than 20 families in the United States, Canada and several European countries. It suits us, as we like to rent a car and travel about the smaller towns and experience the local culture.
Now back to our trip. Our first stop was with ATC members in Chipley, FL, in north Florida on Interstate 10. We met them at their door, presented with the $20 for one night stay and proceeded to get acquainted. Our hosts were a retired civil engineer and a school teacher. They had traveled extensively and we had much in common. We went out to eat at a local family restaurant with good food and full of local people. Their lovely rural home backed up to a unique state park. We talked way into the evening about life experiences.
The Singing Tower at Bok Tower and Gardens. The 205-foot marble, neo-Gothic and art deco carillon is manually played on a regular basis. The tower sits in the more than 100-acre garden, on a ridge 298 feet above sea level in Lake Wales, FL. Photo provided by Bill Ware.
After a big breakfast and more chat, we left for Lake Wales, FL and another ATC member’s home. Lake Wales is about 50 miles south of the Tampa/ Orlando line on Hwy 27. As much of our travels are generally to see what that spot on the map really looks like, therefore we enjoyed our time on Hwy 27 which goes down the middle of south Florida. Many of the towns down there are retirement communities. Lake Wales is the citrus belt and the home of Florida’s Natural Brand of orange juice factory, which has tours. Lake Wales also has the Bok Tower and Gardens that have been voted Florida’s Best Garden, a most beautiful spot (boktowergardens.org). Our octogenarian ATC hostess was most gracious and hospitable. After presenting her with the $20 she offered us some refreshments while we got acquainted. Since she is a patron of the gardens, we went as her guests the next day, Sunday. The 205-foot marble neo-Gothic and art deco Singing Tower carillon is manually played on a regular basis. The more than 100-acre garden is located on a ridge 298 feet above sea level. We highly recommend that you visit if you are in central Florida.
The Singing Bok Tower. Photo courtesy of Bill Ware.
Feb. 12 to 14:
We drove on down Hwy 27 to Weston, FL. After Lake Wales there were miles and miles of orange groves and retirement communities. From there to I-75 and Weston the terrain changes from mostly citrus trees to low, watery, uninhabitable land. Weston is a planned, landscaped and gated community of nice homes and upscale timeshares and condos. We stayed with our friends in their time-share and toured Ft. Lauderdale. It is called the “Venice of Florida” with the waterways lined with nice homes and yachts. We had hoped to drive down to Key West and stay on the Navy base, but lodging was not available on such short notice. It was just too far to make a day trip down, so we toured the Hollywood, FL, beachfront. They have a long, paved pedestrian walkway called the Boardwalk between the oceanfront buildings and the beach.
Thomas Edison’s workshop at his winter estate in Fort Myers, FL. Photo provided by Bill Ware.
We headed west on I-75 thru Naples and up the coast to Ft. Myers. We visited Thomas Edison’s Winter Home, garden and workshop. Henry Ford had a home next door. It is well worth seeing. We continued on up I-75 towards Tampa. We saw that from Naples to beyond Tampa there are many retirement communities and towns. We stayed on I-75 to miss a lot of the stop and go traffic. It was a beautiful drive.
I had called the Gateway Inn at MacDill AFB, FL, on the 13th and arranged for lodging for two days. At MacDill we found very nice quarters were on the second floor and no elevator. Cynthia has a bad hip and knees and does not do stairs well. There were no ground floor rooms available that night, but the nice folks at the desk found us one the next day. The two-room suite with kitchenette and WiFi was only $39 per night. The next day we relaxed and drove around the base and city. It is a very busy base. As the headquarters of the Air Force Central Command, it commands the activities in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is a multi-nation and service so you see many countries represented on base.
Banyan Tree at Thomas Edison’s Winter Home, Ft Myers, FL. Photo provided by Bill Ware.
We departed for Tyndall AFB, FL. We planned to avoid I-10 and travel up Hwy 98/19 all the way to Tyndall. That is the scenic route near the coast and through the pine forests albeit they are often replanted trees. I want to point out a must-see attraction along this route, Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park. It is located about 45 miles southwest of Ocala. It was originally a private zoo-like park for all the native animals of Florida. After you pay admission and tour the museum you take a boat ride through natural canals to the well- organized and maintained wildlife park. It displays the animals in an ‘up-close’ fashion. You wander among the animal enclosures along tree-shaded paths. It also is about the best place to see manatees year round. It is a sanctuary for injured and orphaned manatees that cannot be released into the wild but live at the head of a clear warm spring. We visited there last year. This year we headed to the fish camp/village of Homosassa for an air boat ride. We discovered this place last year, but could not get a ride because of threatening weather. The hour and a half ride was wonderful. We traveled thru old canals, clear rivers and among the small islands out to the Gulf of Mexico. There are no beaches along this section of Florida, but there are miles of low islands and clear streams lined with fish camps and fine homes. It could not have been a nicer facility and operation.
Sunset at a restaurant near Panama City, FL. Photo provided by Bill Ware.
We continued up Highway 98/19 to Tyndall AFB arriving about six o’clock. It is a large base and we finally found the Gateway Inn in the dark. This time I asked for a downstairs room and got a nice ground-level, two-room suite with kitchenette. I think the quarters are also used by new PCS’ers. They did have available typical two story quarters. The base is transitioning from a training mission to an operational F-22 fighter wing.
The next day we enjoyed another day of discovering the base and touring Panama City. We ate twice at a restaurant on Hwy 98 between the base and Panama City, called Rodeo, a seafood and steak restaurant. We recommend it.
We attended church service at Chapel #1 which had a traditional service. We were surprised find it was predominately attended by retirees from the RV park (FAMCAMP) on base and the local area.
Back on the road again, we took a short cut up to I-10 to avoid the traffic between Ft Walton Beach, Pensacola, and Mobile. We had done a lot of volunteer work along the Mississippi coast following the path of Hurricane Katrina so we wanted to see how it looks now. We got on Highway 90, the coast road, just out of Pascagoula. I had called earlier to get quarters at Keesler AFB in Biloxi but none were available for that Sunday night. I did arrange for a room at the Seabee base called Naval Construction Battalion Center Gulfport. It is also the home of the 20th Seabee Readiness Group. It is a Seabee mobilization base and logistics support center and a training center.
The Navy Lodge has modern, ground-level kitchenette suites with two queen-sized beds for $59 per night. Navy bases also have separate lodging facilities call Navy Gateway Inns and Suites.
After leaving the base we continued on along the coast road viewing the destruction and reconstruction in Long Beach and Bay St. Louis. We got back on Highway 90 and stayed on it all the way to Pearlington, MS, and Louisiana. That part of Mississippi, from Pascagoula on, which covers about 80 miles, was equally impacted by the storm. There is now evidence along that entire length of improving conditions, but still much proof of the hundreds of destroyed homes and businesses. There are new shops and businesses everywhere, but you cannot miss the concrete slabs where buildings were and the great swaths of trees gone.
We continued onto the visitors’ center at I-10 and Hwy 90, which is also the visitor’s center for visiting John C. Stennis Space Center. We had planned to take a tour but found they were closed for tours until April. So we got on I-59 to head on to Brandon by way of Hattiesburg. By the way, if you are ever in the Hattiesburg area, the Mississippi Military Museum at Camp Shelby is well worth a stop.
Bill and Cynthia Ware Brandon, Mississippi firstname.lastname@example.org
Reprint from July-Aug 2012 • Volume 42, No. 4