ESCAPING THANKSGIVING - FUN AND SUN IN FLORIDA

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Having completed our first big RV trip the month before, and with winter approaching, we were set on letting our RV rest until the spring comes. So, we diligently winterized our RV for the season – drained the pipes, emptied the water tanks, filled it with antifreeze and all that other nice stuff we learned from YouTube videos and RV forums. Being first time RVers, we were pretty excited of having had it all figured out and were proud of our accomplishment. We could now take it easy for a while. That is, until my husband dragged home from work one night and announced that it was getting dark too early, the days were too short, it was too cold and he didn’t want any Thanksgiving at home. Apparently, his solution was to escape to Florida where the days are brighter, the weather warmer and the sun shines longer… 

On such short notice, over holiday weekend, there weren’t too many options left for available camping sites, so we snatched up the last spot available (literally) at St Andrews State Park near Panama City Beach, and so it became our new mini vacation destination…. And with that, all of our hard work of winterizing our RV was un-done in an instant.

We planned to depart Memphis around 1pm on Wednesday (the day before Thanksgiving) so that we could make the 8hr drive and get to the park the same night. However, due to several factors (not packed in time; husband still cooking turkey to take along; camper out of propane; forgot the boys’ shoes at home and had to turn back etc.) we eventually hit the road only at 6pm. That made for a looong, dark drive and we reached our campsite only around 2:30am. Of course, the boys had slept most of the way, and once we parked and were ready to FINALLY go to sleep, they were up and thought it was time to play. It took a while to get them back into a sleeping mode. 

As we had 4 full days to explore St Andrews State Park where we were camping, we decided to visit the nearby Panama City Beach on the first day, and then just spend the remaining 3 days relaxing by the ocean near our campsite. 

Although I did not have high hopes for the city itself, I was actually pleasantly surprised. The main tourist area was very festive, decorated with Christmas ornaments and lights. There was a Santa Claus statue in flip flops and sunglasses; dolphin sculptures balancing Christmas bulbs on their noses; and a big, bright Christmas tree standing tall right next to palm trees. Holiday music was playing through loudspeakers and, at the same time, the sun was bright, the sky was blue and it was 75+ (24C) degrees outside. The festive and cheerful spirit definitely lifted our mood. 

Already when approaching Panama City Beach, we noticed the big SkyWheel dominating the skyline, so we figured it would be fun to ride it and check out the ocean from up above. After the first full loop my fear of heights disappeared and I could enjoy the views. We could see the pier stretching far into the ocean and set that as our destination. 

I was a little surprised to find out that there was an entry fee charged to just go walk on the pier. At first taken aback a little, we decided to still do it, and I am so glad we did!!! The views were absolutely amazing and just when standing over the water and looking down we could see how crystal clear it was! The color of the water was so beautiful! Although many consider it to be the ocean, the inner Florida Panhandle actually borders the Gulf of Mexico which is a mix of the Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean Sea.

The pier is also where we saw most of the wildlife – there were many seagulls and pelicans lazily basking away in the sun on the pier’s railings. We saw a group of stingrays and manta rays swimming around hunting for food. There were dolphins in the distance doing their jumps and flips. Also, jellyfish slowly made their way around the clear waters and we watched them for a while. But most of all, I was excited to see true wild sea turtles swimming in these clear waters, diving under the pier and then coming back up above the water, glancing at the people, and then just carelessly continuing their daily routine. These were definitely the best $3 I spent during the whole trip!

 

On our way back, we stopped for some ice cream and the boys talked us into going on a kiddie choo-choo train ride through the town! I barely fit in there and had to fold my legs in ways I did not even think they bent, but those are the ''sacrifices'' we make for our children, right?! :-D 

Afterwards, we drove back to the campsite to celebrate Thanksgiving – turkey and all. Yes, although our goal was to escape the traditional Thanksgiving, we did not quite give it up completely. We had pre-cooked the turkey, stuffing, pie, mashed potatoes and taken along some other traditional food staples in order to have a proper Thanksgiving meal. Only – this time it was with an ocean view and palm trees. 

The remaining 3 days of the trip were spent exploring St Andrews State Park. With the Gulf on one side and St. Andrews Bay on the other, there is plenty to do here - swimming, snorkeling, fishing, boating, paddle boarding or surfing – activities for any taste. Kids especially enjoyed the Bay side of the park where the water was protected by a rock jetty and was very calm with no waves. They could safely wade in the water, carry bucket-loads of water to their sand castles and run around the shore collecting seashells. We spent countless hours here sitting in our beach chairs, soaking up the sun and just watching the boys play. 

And just to get our lazy bones moving again, my husband decided to rent a paddle board and talked me into getting on it. With no waves, it was actually easier than I thought and we even took our boys for a little spin around the Bay. 

Although the Bay lagoon was great for kids, the 1.5-mile (2,5km) long ocean (or Gulf) side of the beach was actually my favorite. The water here was crystal clear and the sand was sparkling white and soft.

I loved just walking along the shore looking for seashells and enjoyed the waves splashing over my feet. With the currents being much stronger here and waves much taller, there was no swimming for the boys here, but we all enjoyed some leisurely walks and sun.

Another added bonus was that the beach at the end of November was not crowded at all – there were no problems finding parking and no problem finding a secluded spot to lay (or sit) down. I am sure summer is a whole different story with long parking lines and absolutely no privacy on the beach. I guess it is another reason why we loved and enjoyed this place so much – it was just a great respite from the holidays, tourist (and shopper) crowds and all the hustle and bustle!   

Besides all the water activities, St. Andrews also offers the chance for visitors to stroll through pines, dunes and coastal plant communities. We took the opportunity to go and explore one of the park’s trails called ‘Gator Lake trail’. As the name suggests, there is a lake with alligators in it, and although we were looking for the gators very diligently, we did not get to see them.

We did get to see some amazing coastal Florida scenery though with interesting trees, palm-like grass and white sand for dirt. 

Park’s beaches and coastal areas are also popular sea turtle nesting spots, and the visitors center had several displays portraying animal life in and around the park. 

Once all the big and little people grew tired of the beach, we enjoyed spending our afternoons and evenings at the campground cozying up by the fireplace, building gingerbread houses and trying to make friends with the local resident deer herd.

The absence of TV and just being out there opened our eyes to some amazing sunsets.

Although unplanned, it was a very nice escape and the sun and warm weather charged us up for the long winter season to come… As we were leaving the campground ready for our way home, my husband turned to me and said: ''Maybe we should do this every year…’’ Yes, maybe we should! 

 

Expenses:

  • Campground 4 nights: $132.14 (St Andrews State Park - with water views. How else would you get a B&B in Florida for $33/night with the sounds and views of ocean lulling you to sleep? Gotta love camping, right?!)
  • Gas: $313 (1050 miles / 1690km)
  • Food: $0 (The benefit of having an RV is that we had our own kitchen with us and we did not have a single meal at a restaurant during our whole stay. We brought all of the food and snacks with us from home and cooked our meals at the campground – from morning coffee to Thanksgiving turkey.)

 

More photos from this trip can be seen in the following galleries:

St Andrews State Park, Florida

Panama City Beach, Florida

 

My other travel stories about Florida:

The Space Coast of Florida (Kennedy Space Center, Daytona Beach, St Augustine, Ocala National Forest)

Tropical Key West, Alligators in the Everglades, Miami Beaches as well as Dentists and Dermatologists - Our Adventures in Florida

Florida's Emerald Coast (Destin and Ft Walton Beach)

Return to Florida (Deerfield Beach, Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Boca Raton)

 

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