Topsail Hill Nature Preserve State Park
Santa Rosa Beach, Florida
We spent the winter in Florida. Well, really it was only a couple of weeks in February but it sounds swankier if I say we wintered at the beach. Like we’re part of the jet set or something instead of the RV snowbird crowd. Which, come to think of it, is pretty cool, too.
Our winter getaway destination was Destin, Florida. Mostly because it’s the closest beach, but also because Destin has lots of touristy fun. I freely admit that we’re suckers for tourist traps – the tackier the better. And our cousins were game for anything, so we made the rounds of all that Destin had to offer.
We’ve spent a wonderful week at Topsail Hill Preserve State Park in Santa Rosa Beach, Florida. (map)
There are several state parks in the area and Topsail is by far the largest. In addition to a couple hundred RV sites, the park is also a 1600 acre nature preserve with pristine dunes along three miles of oceanfront on the Gulf of Mexico.
When the gray skies of February become too much to bear we look to the South for sun and surf. For us the closest beach is the Florida Panhandle. It’s a couple of states away and a long drive on Interstate 65.
Panama City Beach
We’ve been spending our vacation at this beach community during the off season. There’s a lot of advantages to visiting this area before the Spring Break degenerates descend – the restaurants are nearly empty, shops and services are waiting for customers, and the beaches have plenty of room to stretch a blanket.
Of course the disadvantage of off-season camping is the variable weather. We were fortunate to catch a week’s worth of mild and sunny climate, but then the day we were scheduled to leave, Tuesday, the elements changed. A strong front was surging from the west, bringing a string of tornados from the Panhandle up through the Wire Grass (mid-Alabama). The storm was tracking along the same route that we would need to travel home, and the following day was expected to bring fierce winds. So a quick decision was made to extend our stay an additional two nights here at St. Andrews State Park in Panama City Beach. It was a wise choice, as tornados did crop up all around us last night, ripping through an RV park in Pensacola, just west of here, and killing a bunch of campers. Yikes!
We’ve spent the day indoors today, snuggling in the new motorhome as the winds whip across the lagoon and swirl through the campground. It’s given me a chance to sort out our vacation pictures and catch up on some paperwork.
Here’s the highlights of our trip –
The food has been suburb in this area, and we’ve gorged on seafood at every opportunity. Recommended restaurants are Schooners (Sunday brunch with a beach view), Hammerhead Fred’s (50 beers on tap), Sharky’s (good lunch spot), and Half-Baked (oyster dive). We also boiled up a pound of fresh-caught Gulf shrimp using local spices and their recipe – boil for 5 minutes, soak for 25. Don’t skip the soak!
Many creatures were spotted in and around the state park, including tame deer that are so small the buck looks like a reindeer. Sea birds of every type ply the waters of both the lagoon and the gulf. Lizards, frogs, and snakes are found in the margins of the marshes. And the nastiest creature we encountered was our own puppy who is busy cutting her adult teeth. Makes her very cranky and disagreeable for a few days.
St. Andrews, where we are camped, is a large park with diverse ecosystems and plenty of walking trails. The Gator Lake area is a fresh water pond with looping trails through hanging Spanish moss. And, yes, there are alligators in that water. I think Coco could take one with her new set of choppers.
At the end of the park’s peninsula is a salt water marsh with many hiking trails that twist through the bogs of saw palmettos and wander among sandy brackets. We spotted odd formations of button moss and found wild rosemary and licorice-smelling sage. It was a two-hour stroll around this area, which proved to be more strenuous than the puppy could manage so she needed to be carried home the last half-hour.
This was an enjoyable off-season beach vacation, and I even got to spend a few afternoons on the shore with my sand chair and a lavish appointment of sun screen. And it will be a comfortable ride home tomorrow under sunny, calm skies.
Panama City Beach
We bought six new tires. They are attached to a brand new Thor Ace motorhome.
Talk about a souvenir from Florida!
We traded in our nearly 10 year old Coach House (Class B+) for this new 29-foot Thor Ace (Class A – gas powered).
The new rig is huge compared to our old RV. It sports two slide-outs and a large bedroom with enough closet space to fit a Hollywood wardrobe. It’s fitted on a Ford F53 chassis, which is a bus frame, so it will ride a lot smoother with less road bumps compared to our old “Bread Truck” style frame.
The Ace has a decent size kitchen including an oven, a big bathroom with roomy shower, couch, dinette, and the driving seats swivel around to become a cocktail area with a table between. There’s also a motorized sleeping loft above the cab that drops down – a good place to stuff the puppy when she gets rowdy!
On the outside are half a dozen giant storage bins. You could pack a whole band in there. And there’s some other outside features that we will probably never use – like an outdoor TV, and a second kitchen with fridge & sink. One thing I do like is the special BBQ grill that hooks up to the RV propane tank – no charcoal needed.
Overall the Fit & Finish quality of the Thor Ace is a bit below the luxury appointments of our old Coach House. But it’s roomy and brand new. And after three rear tire blow-outs, I was ready to move into something newer and safer.
So we are spending the rest of the week in Florida camping in the new rig. Quite the vacation souvenir!
Panama City Beach, Florida
After two days of short driving due to tire issues, we made the final long distance run to the Florida Panhandle on Tuesday, settling into camp just at dusk and flopping into bed at 9:00.
The rest of the week we’ll be Taking Care of Business (TCB) in Panama City Beach (PCB).
Our campsite in St. Andrews State Park has a stunning view across the Grand Lagoon to the mainland. In the dark blue waters pelicans dive for fish and sailboats gently rock in their moorings. At night the lights of Panama City twinkle across the bay.
Dawn brings a naval-orange sun over the lagoon. I know this because I was up that early. Coco and I took a long walk around the camp in the thin morning hours, shambling over to the boat launch. In the summer months a water taxi embarks from here for excursions to the mainland and nearby Shell Island, also part of the state park.
After finishing up the rest of the morning in a lazy loll of pajamas and coffee, we all took a stroll through the sandy brackens up to the park entrance to meet the rental car chauffeur.
I reserved a cheap-o compact car from Enterprise ($99 for the week) but received a swanky new mid-size Chrysler 200 instead. No complaints there!
So now we’ve got the whole week to run around this swell beach town, eat at every seafood place we can find, and spend a good chunk of time each day on the sand.
TCV – Taking Care of Vacation!
After a long journey I feel the need to look back and gain some perspective. “What did you like best?” is the question we always ask. So here’s some finishing thoughts on my solo excursion…
A Long Ride
I live in a part of the country that requires a long haul to get to any seashore. It’s a couple of days drive at the minimum, longer if you want to reach the warmest beach regions. That was probably the loneliest part of my solo trip, the road yawning on and on without much to keep my mind occupied. And while the dog listens well, he’s not great on reciprocal conversation.
The stark landscape of Gulf Islands National Seashore is both terribly beautiful and desolately lonesome. It’s so far out there, with nothing else around, that you can feel puny and insignificant against this mighty backdrop of sea and sand. You need a well-entrenched sense of self to maintain equilibrium and not feel swallowed up by the isolated setting.
Like anywhere in late winter, the weather in Florida’s Panhandle was ever variable. I wore a parka and then a bathing suit – all in the same week. Rain and chilly winds came and went, and I spent a couple of days hunkered down in the motorhome checking weather apps for the promise of a sunny day.
Make Any Friends?
Not really. I’m kind of guarded with strangers, especially when traveling alone. This is a habit ingrained from 30 years on the road as a consultant where I just don’t engage a lot with outsiders. And while other campers were friendly enough, our conversations tended to be limited to Where ya from? and How do you like your trailer/motorhome/tent?
Giant Gulf shrimp, fresh caught and boiled up with some local spices.
Do It Again?
Absolutely! But I will pick a better month when the weather is more cooperative. And perhaps a state or two closer to home.
Gulf Islands National Seashore
A sandy trail from the campground winds through pine brackens and across a backwater marsh. It’s an easy 20 minute walk to Fort Pickens historical site. The ruins of this old army fort are open for visitors, and I had a good stroll around today.
Fort Pickens was one of several barrier island forts built in 1829 for defense of New Orleans, should the British ever come a’knocking again. It was constructed of umpteen million bricks, locally made, and was built by slave labor under direction of the army. The walls are 4 feet thick with brick and are formed in a series of archways. Why bother with arches, you might ask? Because only an arched structure could carry the weight of the huge cannons on top.
The interior of the fort is a series of chambers and underground magazine vaults where black powder was stored. At one point a fire roared through the fort, ignited the black powder, and detonated the west wing into dust. Shards of brick from the explosion were found three miles away on the other side of Pensacola Bay. That’s a big boom!
Other than the magazine exploding, the only action Fort Pickens ever saw was during the Civil War, thwarting the Confederates from taking possession of this area.
At the turn of the century, in 1898, the fort was updated to accommodate “modern” artillery. A disappearing gun lobbed 1000 lb. projectiles up to 8 miles away. Then the carriage would drop down and the gun would disappear behind the fort walls to prevent enemies from targeting a retaliation. Colossal iron fittings for this gargantuan contraption are still affixed to the walls.
It was a good tour and a pleasant walk. On the way back to camp I took a side trail and saw several osprey nests in tall pines, the birds very active feeding chicks. Later in the afternoon as I soaked up one more day at the beach, the same ospreys were hunting the Gulf waters and carrying back long silver fish to their nests on the bay side.
Tomorrow will be stormy and I intend to hover indoors and wait for the RV repairman. Hopefully he can get my electrical hookup working and I’ll be able to enjoy a hot shower again!