Is it fall? Is it summer? Let’s examine the evidence. First, it’s after Labor Day and students of all ages are back in school. Score one for fall. However, second, it’s still danged hot outside, and Boot Day — that first wonderful crisp and chilly morning when you can wear those cool new boots you snagged for 75 percent off this past April — seems like weeks away. So, a point for summer. We’re tied at one-one. Are Halloween decorations in local stores? Fall. Are people still swimming in their outdoor pools? Summer. It’s two-all. Football? Fall. Baseball? Summer. Three-three. Even produce markets seem confused, giving us juicy and sweet watermelons along with plump orange pumpkins & marigolds along with impatiens. Conclusion: Here in the mid-South, September is the month with an identity crisis combined with minor climate disorder. September needs a good counselor. And a meds refill.
Recently my whole family — all 15 of us — got together for a beach week on Santa Rosa Island, Florida. Pensacola Beach is one of my favorite places: The sand is beautiful and it’s the perfect vacation mix of fun-things-to-do versus nothing-to-d0-but-sit-on-the-sand-in-peace-and-quiet. My daughters and I spent many summer weeks here when they were younger, and in recent years we’ve draggedcoerced brought Husband JP and Older Daughter’s Husband along, too. We loved introducing “our” spot to other folks in our family — Pensacola‘s blend of history, architecture, shopping, food, music and sports (baseball, surfing, paddleboarding, disc golf) as well as all things Blue Angels meant everybody in our group found something intriguing to explore. Of course, our three younger members — age 4, 2 and 8 months — were content to stay at Family HQ and chase crabs, dig sand and throw shells back in the surf (okay, our 8-month-old grandson wasn’t too impressed with the surf and really only wanted to eat the sand, but still). We did all the Pensacola things — ate at Peg Leg Pete’s Oyster Bar (where our 4-year-old grandson was slightly disappointed to find out that the pirates there were good pirates), McGuire’s Irish Pub (home of the best fried potatoes anywhere. Anywhere.) and Native Cafe (which we feel paternal towards since we ate there when it first opened and have stuck with it through slow service, lackadaisical service and no service because the food is that good); visited the Naval Air Museum; watched the Blue Angels perform practically in our backyard; shopped at Joe Patti’s Seafood; wandered through Fort Pickens and browsed up and down the happening Palafox Street and Palafox Market. But, of course, as with any family vacation, the highlights involved people more than places: Taking my mom to the World War II exhibit at the Naval Air Museum to see the full-sized recreated Pacific-theater camp similar to one her Seabee father lived in during the war; making sand cities with our 4-year-old grandson; teaching our 2-year-old nephew how to “dibble, dibble, shot,” although since his parents are skilled and accomplished soccer players, he’s much better than me; playing disc golf with-our nephew watching my 13-year-old nephew and his dad zip through a disc-golf course; learning how to-stand-up paddle board watching our two daughters conquer the surf on stand-up paddle boards; getting drenched in the rain at the outdoors Palafox Market with Younger Daughter yet still eating soggy almond croissants baked by an actual French person; and riding around in a golf cart with my husband and the king of Santa Rosa Island — Santa Rosa Island Authority executive director Buck Lee. Good times, good times.
I’m not sure which is the more startling: Driving past our local marina and seeing 15th-century masts towering over the more-usual fishing boats or stepping onto one of these replica ships and realizing that people actually crossed a big scary ocean and lived for months in something smaller than most people’s closets. Well, the closets of really rich people, anyway. But, still. These replicas of Christopher Columbus‘s Nina and Pinta are tiny, tiny, tiny. See the guy to the right of the center in the photo on the left? He practically can touch both sides of his ship when he stands in the middle and stretches out his arms. Truly. Built with hand tools in Brazil and owned by a British charity in the British Virgin Islands, these ships are making their way along the Mississippi and Tennessee rivers. When they dock in local harbors, the captain and his volunteer crew open the ships for tours. They’re here in Florence, Alabama, through Monday. Come take a look. You’ll be amazed. These ships come to my town every few years or so. They previously were here in 2003, and I remember because they were at the marina when my now-husband officially asked me to marry him … on a day that happened to be Columbus Day. And why that strikes me as funny — that I got engaged on Columbus Day — I have no idea. Help!!!
We’ve made it three for three. For the past three years, my husband and I have driven down to Pensacola, Florida for the annual Crab Cake Cook-off. The food frenzy and fundraiser at Seville Quarter – a block of restaurants and bars in downtown Pensacola – benefits ARC Gateway, the local association that helps people with developmental disabilities. Our son-in-law is the one who found the cook-off three years ago during a family beach vacation, so Husband blames him for our annual addiction. But can you blame us? I mean, you get to help a worthy cause AND eat all the crab cakes you want. Let me say that again: All. The. Crab cakes. You. Want. I mean, you get to sample crab cakes from about 20 local restaurants and caterers. I’m only sad that it’s only once a year. I absolutely love having so many different crab cake recipes and techniques all in one place. And it’s such a diverse offering. You get everything from simple crab chunks with hardly anything masking the fresh crab flavor to artfully arranged plates featuring salsas and sauces. There are spicy crab cakes, sweet crab cakes, flat and crunchy ones, thick and soft ones — anything you can dream of, crab-cake-wise, you can find at the cook-off. Before we walked in this year, we agreed to learn from past mistakes and take it slow — perhaps sharing crab cakes instead of each of us having one from each vendor. I immediately dropped that plan, however, when faced with the treasure of unlimited crab cakes. Maybe next year … You can click here for cook-off results, here for info on ARC Gateway and here for more about Pensacola’s Seville Quarter. (Also, I wanted to show off that I finally figured out how to do links the correct way. Thank you!!!)
When it comes to travel, my husband and I are pretty laidback people. It takes a lot to rattle us. And by “us” I actually mean “my husband,” who traveled all over the world in his former job as a sportswriter and handles just about any glitch with style and grace. And even though to me “roughing it” means having to make do with generic brewed coffee at the breakfast buffet and “adventure vacation” means choosing between the pool and the beach (as in “sitting and reading at”), I’m not that demanding. Really, I’m not, despite the evidence of us going through three rooms in one night during a recent trip. But none of them were my fault. The first one had plumbing problems, so before we could even unpack I stayed in the room while he went to the front desk to get another one. It took him several minutes, though — because the second room we were given unaccountably had people already in it. So back he went to the front desk for the third time and we finally got a room with working plumbing and nobody else in it. Except the spider my husband found in the bed while I was brushing my teeth — and didn’t tell me about until the next day when we were back on the road. “It was a little one, though,” he said, “and if I’d found another one we would have gotten another room. I just really hated to go back to the desk a fourth time.” I secretly think even a second spider wouldn’t have done it — a third one, maybe.
For folks in middle Tennessee and north and central Alabama, a summer road trip to Florida means driving south on Interstate 65. And that means a stop at Priester’s Pecans in Fort Deposit, Alabama, at exit No. 142 about 35 miles of Montgomery. A gift shop and rest stop and restaurant, Priester’s is best known for its free-sample bowls of its famous flavored pecans. Now, I never get up in the morning dreaming about pecans — I’m not even a big fan of pecan pie — but if we’re anywhere near Priester’s, I have to stop and nibble on such taste treats as Key Lime, Peach and Honey Glazed pecans. This truly is marketing genius, because you can’t sample without thinking, “You know, the one thing that would make the rest of my vacation complete is a bag of Cinnamon Pecans.” There also are all sorts of Priester’s-made candy and even plain ol’ unflavored pecans there, plus a cooler stocked with homemade frozen casseroles to make the first night at your beach rental much more convenient and plenty of souvenirs and gifts for when you’re headed back home and you’ve forgotten to get something for the grandkids. These Priester’s folks think of everything! Go yourself and you’ll see: http://www.priesters.com/
You know how when you go on a vacation that involves sharing a space with a bunch of other people who are mostly related to you and there’s always a point when you declare that you absolutely positively never ever will go to the beach or anywhere else again with your cousin Michelle? The key is to be prepared. Look, you plan the food and you organize the packing and you get the car ready for the trip so do the same thing for family dynamics. You know somebody will be the Worrier and somebody will be the Worker and somebody will be the Fun-Lover, so proceed accordingly. Just make sure the Organizer does her job. Read more at my weekly newspaper column, http://www.timesdaily.com/article/20100716/ARTICLES/307169994.
Fellow fans have begged me to not say this, but as a journalist I’ve sworn to tell the truth and nothing but the truth, so I have to be honest and tell you all that you’ve got to to go to Apalachicola and St. George Island, Florida, for your next vacation. Here are the things these towns are not: Big. Crowded. Noisy. Full of high-rise condos. Here are the things these towns are: Small. Quiet. Peaceful. I have to admit that there can be a crowd at the Seafood Grill in downtown Apalach if you time it wrong, but you can sit outside and watch the world go by while you wait for your table, so no worries. And with only one tiny grocery store and a handful of eateries, St. George Island is even smaller than its across-two-bridges sister town. Slow-paced and easy-going, SGI offers casual beach houses with no roof-line higher than three or four stories. If you want total relaxation with the only stressful decision having to decide between shrimp and oysters for supper, then this is your place. Visit http://www.apalachicolabay.org/ and http://www.resortvacationproperties.com/ to learn more. We were there just a couple of weeks ago, and I’m ready to go back.
This looks like we had our car all packed up and ready for family vacation, doesn’t it? And we did … although we really hadn’t started packing yet. Fourteen folks in my family were headed to the beach in various cars and at various times and turned out Dear Husband and I had the fewest people and the most room in our car. So of course when we were all in the pre-packing stage, I told everybody, “Sure, we’ll take those chairs/boxes/bags for you if you don’t have room. No problem.” I was happy to help out and it wasn’t a problem — until I realized I’d almost offered out all available space and left only a few square inches for Husband’s and my bags. But some creative shifting freed up the necessary room. And, as usual, I overpacked, anyway. Anytime I’m lucky enough to go to the beach, I end up being totally minimalist and pulling on whatever’s easiest — T-shirts and shorts over swimsuits most of the time – and not even caring if I’m wearing the correct white top-with-black-capris combo accented with appropriate jewelry and handbags I usually do during Real Life. (Hey, I’m a Southern girl. Appropriate handbags are in our DNA, you know.) Sadly, I forget that and always persist in carefully packing coordinated outfits that end up unworn in favor of the wrinkled three-days-in-a-row tank top. And I bet there are lots of you all who suffer from Vacation Overpacking Disorder, too. We should band together and start a support group. And of course the only cure for our afflication is — more vacation packing! Who’s with me???