PRE-CRUISE:  VISITING VERO BEACH

The idea of going on an Impact Travel cruise came from our friends, David and Melody.  They had heard of Fathom’s unique concept and shared it with us.  We were intrigued and looked forward to experiencing it together.

Unfortunately, several days before the cruise, Melody had a back injury too serious to be able to travel; so, they had to cancel out.  David and Melody still wanted us to visit them in Vero Beach prior to the cruise, so we made our way south on December 28th.

While Melody rested, David gave us a fabulous tour of Vero Beach during the first full day of our visit; so, it made it easier for Bruce and I to find our way around while exploring over the next two days.

Over the next couple of days, between poking around the galleries, visiting the McKee Botanical Garden, taking long walks along the boardwalk at the beach, and watching the manatees; we got a great feel for the area.  Bruce and I enjoyed the laid-back atmosphere and friendliness of the locals.

It just wasn’t the same not being able to share it with our friends, though; and, we were heartbroken Melody and David wouldn’t be able to experience the cruise.

On New Year’s Day, we left Vero Beach for Miami to board Fathom’s Adonia.  It was a day of mixed feelings—concern for Melody, and sadness our friends would be missing the upcoming adventure; but, excitement that our volunteer work in the Dominican Republic would have an impact in more ways than one.

The following are scenes from our visit in Vero Beach.:

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Bruce and David

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Melody, at a farm near their house, before her back took a serious turn for the worse.

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“Woody” was made out of LEGOS!  What a surprise to find an amazing Lego sculpture exhibit waiting for us at McKee Botanical Garden!  Throughout the gardens were beautiful Lego creatures constructed by Sean Kenney, the world’s first LEGO Certified Professional.  Made of regular off-the-shelf Lego pieces, the exhibition featured thirteen individual displays built with over 300,000 LEGO pieces.  This guy was the most complex and made from 4,424 pieces.  He measured 10″x 8″ x 20″.

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This life-size gardener was constructed from 34,340 LEGO pieces.

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42,164 pieces were used to build this praying mantis.

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This Monarch Butterfly has an 8-foot wing-span and was created with 60,549 LEGO pieces.  It’s the second largest sculpture Sean Kenney has every created.

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Uh-oh!  This Milk snake is about to chow down in this cute field mouse.  Both sculptures were made from a total of 12,069 pieces.

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Our national bird, the Bald Eagle is made from 42,198 pieces and measures five feet tall.

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In addition to this squirrel, there were other squirrels and birds on the fence eyeing the bird feeder above (filled with LEGO pieces!).

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31,565 pieces were used to create this huge hummingbird.

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This Giant White Triumphator Lily made from 32,514 pieces was giant, measuring 72″ in length!

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How about a life-size rototiller?  It took 20,903 pieces to create it.

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Next up:  Aboard Fathom’s Adonia

SEE YOU LATER, ALLIGATOR!

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Three years ago, we rented a beach cottage in Vilano Beach, just on the other end of the bridge from St. Augustine.  We enjoyed it so much that we decided to return to the area.  (Check out my blog posts from that trip in the “Domestic Travel” section.)

One of the things we enjoyed most during that visit was kayaking (and kayak fishing for Bruce) at the Guana Tolomato Matanzas National Estuarine Research Reserve.  (Geez, couldn’t they come up with a shorter name?)

Today, we returned to see if Bruce would have the same good luck catching fish like he did last time around.  As it became apparent that he wasn’t having any luck, I decided to wander off and paddle along the shoreline to take in the beautiful scenery.

As I headed north, I visually took in the details of the various trees directly to my left, not paying attention to what was up ahead.  Just when I reached a little beach and contemplated taking my kayak ashore to get out and stretch my legs, I happened to look straight ahead where the beach curved out toward the lake.  “WHOAAAA!” I bellowed out to nobody except for the huge alligator catching rays on the beach just twenty feet in front of me.  I froze.  Then, like any photographer would do, I grabbed my camera and shot a few photos before back-paddling the heck out of there!  See ya later, alligator!

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POKIN’ AROUND THE PANHANDLE (FLORIDA)

Since moving to Georgia, one of our favorite things to do each year is rent a cottage through one of the websites such as Home Away or Airbnb, pack up our kayaks, and head to the water. Although we enjoyed Sanibel so much we visited there twice, we decided to explore new places each time in the future and enjoy new experiences.
This time, we headed to Laguna Beach, Florida to spend two weeks kayak fishing, swimming, walking, and exploring the state parks.

The following are some of my favorite photos from our visit. The complete photo album of 79 shots can be viewed at www.ExquisiteCards.Fototime.com .

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The “Think Pink Cottages” were our home for two weeks in Laguna Beach, Florida, along the panhandle.  Our pink kayaks fit in perfectly, don’t you think?

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Bruce snagged a nice slot-sized redfish, but threw it back.  When fishing from his kayak, he is a catch-and-release fisherman.

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The view of Panama City Beach from St. Andrew’s State Park

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An alligator catching a few rays at St. Andrew’s State Park

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These guys were waiting for a handout of fish scraps from the cleaning table.

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Grayton State Park

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The view of Panama City Beach from the pier.

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Panama City Beach Aquatic Center was my training site on a daily basis.  It was a beautiful facility, and I especially enjoyed getting the opportunity to practice block starts.


CLAUDE’S CHOCOLATES: A DELICIOUS DISCOVERY!

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When one thinks of the best chocolates in the world, French, Belgian, and Swiss chocolates are usually what come to mind. And, in the U.S.A.? New York City would be a safe bet for finding the best American chocolates. St. Augustine and Ponte Vedra, Florida, are probably not even on the radar.

One taste of Claude’s Chocolates ( http://www.claudeschocolate.com ), in St. Augustine, had me asking, “How does an amazing chocolate like this end up here?”

I contacted Nicole Franques, Claude’s wife, to inquire about touring their Ponte Vedra location, where Claude makes his exquisite creations. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that, although they do not give formal tours, she would be happy to show us around the kitchen of their chocolate shop.

On our way back home to Georgia, from our St. Augustine vacation, we stopped in to meet Claude & Nicole Franques, and their assistant, Suzy.

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One step inside through the front door (and a very deep breath to take in the euphoric smell of chocolate), and I felt like I was back in Europe, visiting a French chocolate shop. The chocolates were beautiful, as were the displays; it was a feast for the eyes.

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Nicole welcomed us warmly and ushered us back into the kitchen, behind the large glass window, where we met Claude and Suzy, preparing for the days’ production.

Claude was as warm and welcoming as his wife; very open to showing us the equipment he uses to assist in his production of fine French chocolates. Between Claude and Nicole, each step of the chocolate production was explained in such an interesting and engaging way that I suggested they add chocolate tours and tastings to their business. They answered every question so graciously, even the one question most chocolate makers are too secretive to reveal: “What brand of chocolate do you use for your ganache base and coatings?” (That would be Belcolade, from Belgium: http://www.belcolade.be )

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But, the most burning question I just had to ask was how a French chef like Claude ended up in Ponte Vedra, Florida?

In 1973, Claude came to the U.S.A., from Toulouse, France, to work as a French chef. He was sponsored by Nicole’s father to work in his restaurant, in Manhattan, New York. And, that is how Claude and Nicole first met- and, where they fell in love.

Ultimately, the two continued the legacy of Rene Pujol Restaurant for 20 years, before Claude and Nicole decided it was time to retire to their chosen locale, St. Augustine.

Claude wasn’t the type to retire to a rocking chair, however; he wanted to pursue his dream of making fine French chocolates, following in the footsteps of his close friend, Jacques Torres, a well known French pastry chef, who has become a successful chocolatier, in New York City.

The two met in 1989, working as French chefs in New York City. In 2000, Jacques pursued his dream and opened his first chocolate shop. When Claude decided it was also the path he wanted to follow, Jacque invited him to work at his shop and learn the process of making fine French chocolates. So, for six months, Claude trained under Jacques, back in the kitchen, while Nicole worked in the front of the store, learning about packaging and selling chocolates.

In 2005, they opened their first chocolate shop in their original downtown St. Augustine location. Recently, they moved their main shop and production kitchen to Ponte Vedra, as well as a smaller shop at their Granada Street location, near Flagler College.

Although any of Claude’s chocolate creations can be purchased at their St. Augustine location (6 Granada Street), one visit to their Ponte Vedra location (see below for details) and a taste of one of Claude’s exquisite chocolates will convince you that Claude and Nicole learned the fine points of the entire chocolate business very well. From the Chewy Caramel with Sea Salt to the Mayan Spicy, Claude’s bonbons and truffles are decadent, delicious treats!

Visit Claude’s Chocolate at:
The Shoppes at St. Johns Oaks
145 Hilden Road
Ponte Vedra, FL 32081
Tel: (904) 829-5790

Hours:
Mon – Sat 10 AM – 6 PM
Closed Sunday

IT’S GREAT TO BE BACK!

Sanibel Island, Florida, is one of those places where, when you leave, you just know you have to go back. If you read Sanibel Island blog posts from last November (in the Domestic Travel section) and see my photos, you will understand why Bruce and I returned.

Today, we arrived for another 10-day visit and were greeted by perfect weather; it was a gorgeous day! And, the first thing we noticed when we stepped out onto the beach was that familiar scent of saltwater we enjoyed so much when we were last here; just like back in San Diego.

It’s spring now, so things look a bit different than during our November visit. There are more flowers in bloom, different birds running up and down the surf line, and less humidity- thankfully. And, no red tide!

We hear the fishing is good at the moment, so Bruce is looking forward to giving it a try in the morning, while I go for an open water swim in the perfect 78 degree water.

Just to give you a taste of what our late afternoon was like, the following are a few of my favorite photos of the day:

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Some Sanibel Scoop

We didn’t know Sanibel Island even existed until our friends, Becky and Paul told us about their vacations to Captiva Island, Florida, located just past Sanibel Island.  They couldn’t say enough great things about it though, which explains their once or twice per year annual visits.  So, we were convinced we just had to see it for ourselves.

Sanibel Island measures roughly 12 miles long and five miles across at its widest point.  Captiva Island is smaller at less than 5 miles long and a 1/2-mile wide.  Both are accessible from Fort Myers by the Sanibel Causeway Bridge.  At a bridge toll of $6 and steep beach parking fees, they are not frequented by Floridians as often as other destinations- just the way the locals like it.  So, it is not as touristy here like, say, Daytona Beach or Orlando.  Rather, the vibe is low key and relaxing.  This is where we are staying:  www.seahorsecottages.com ; a very low key place in a great location near the beach.

There are so many reasons to visit Sanibel Island; especially if you are a beachcomber.  Sanibel Island ranks number one on the continent for shelling and we could see why!  We literally saw piles of shells as we walked along the beach at sunset, on the evening of our arrival.  Due to its east-west torque of Sanibel’s south end, it acts as a ladle, scooping up all the shells that the Gulf imports from the Caribbean and other southern seas.  The abundance and variety of shells draws serious shellers from all over the world.

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 Birders are also drawn to Sanibel, because of the abundance and variety of gorgeous birds that wade in marshes and cruise the shorelines.  In our first day alone, we saw everything from two varieties of each of pelicans, herons, and egrets, to ospreys and the bright pink Roseate Spoonbill.  And, on the beach, there were dozens of willets, plovers and sandpipers.

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Even if you ignore the shells and birds, the beaches here are gorgeous!  And, that’s before I even get into what is beyond the shore.  Last evening, we saw our first bottlenosed dolphins frolicking about just 50 yards out.  From what we hear, there will be plenty more of them to see.  But, we really hope to see manatees, too, known to frequent this area.

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There is also the 6,400 acres of J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge, the natural showpiece of Sanibel Island.  After my swim at the Sanibel Recreation Center (a wonderful facility!), we visited the refuge today.  We took a guided tram ride and thoroughly enjoyed the beauty of the area and the wildlife we saw, including a variety of birds and even an alligator catching some rays in the shallow water right near the road.

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Tomorrow, we will get our kayaks out on the water, so Bruce can fish for Redfish, Speckled Trout, Tripletail, Snapper, Cobia, and/or Snook.  He plans to mostly catch and release, but I’ll try to snap a photo or two first.

Our first impression of Sanibel?  We’re hooked (no pun intended)!