Our February exit from Florida had a little bit of everything: Beautiful parks, terrible drives, and some nice surprises.
SeaLife Orlando Aquarium
Our trip to the Kennedy Space Center, which I wrote about last post, coincided with my dad’s visit to see us in Florida. We spent two days with him at the KSC which left one full day to do something else. While Florida’s entertainment options are limitless, my father is 80, so strapping him into the Tower of Terror didn’t seem like the best idea, and he was less than enthralled by my suggestion that we take an airboat ride through an alligator filled swamp.
In the end, I found Orlando’s Sea Life Aquarium, and we were really impressed with our visit. Both the exhibits and the staff were top notch and we felt good about supporting their conservation and public education efforts.
If you find yourself in Orlando looking for something to do that doesn’t involve the Disney Corporation and which focuses more on education than entertainment, this is a good stop.
Westbound on I-10
As I mentioned a few weeks ago, in January, we bought a 2014 Honda CRV to replace our old Xterra. One of the downsides of that decision was we had to get a new towing system installed on the car. This includes sturdy attachments under the bumper, electrical lines that tell the CRV’s lights to come on whenever Barney’s lights are activated (ie: brake lights and turn signals), and a secondary braking system that manually activates the CRV’s brakes when we slow down the motorhome.
It’s a good sized job and one that has to be done right because the consequences of screwing it up can be enormous. In the end, we decided to just have “the pros” do it, and took Barney and the CRV to General RV in Dover.
A day and a half later, they finished up and sent us on our way.
After a brief stopover at O’Leno State Park in High Springs, we headed west.
We knew we’d be blowing through our usual daily mileage limits, but I-10 through Florida is, generally, a really good road and we figured we’d just suck it up to get where we were going.
It was a bad drive from the start.
Soon after we headed out, we ran into a ton of what we, initially, thought was smoke.
But then we started seeing police vehicles and signs that said visibility was reduced due to “blowing dust from nearby fields.”
Florida never runs out of wacky crap, I tell ya.
Next thing we knew, the state police closed I-10 entirely, forcing all of us off the highway and onto tiny, two lane country roads.
Not surprisingly, this quickly led to gridlock and we sat in traffic for several hours.
And just about the time we finally got back on the highway, severe storm warnings began popping up on our phones.
Followed by tornado watches.
By this point, we knew we weren’t going to make it to our campground and we just needed to get somewhere safe.
We pulled off in a service area and I fired up my go-to app in such situations, AllStays. Fortunately, we were just down the way from an ideal solution. A Stone’s Throw RV Park is a tiny, self service campground right off the highway, east of Tallahassee. It’s not fancy, but it was a perfect place to shelter for the night.
Little did we know, however, that our long day wasn’t over yet.
When we disconnected the newly installed braking apparatus in the CRV, we realized the car’s battery was dead.
So, as the sky continued to darken, Kevin got to work troubleshooting.
Turns out, the new system was miswired.
So much for going to the pros.
(In their defense, Kevin said it was an easy mistake to make, but still… Come on, man…)
Anyway, after he rewired it and jumped the battery, we drove around for a bit, and, just as the skies really opened up, we went inside and called it a night. Well, first we had a strong cocktail. Then we called it a night. We were over 150 miles from where we expected to be, but at least we were safe and dry.
Fortunately, the next day was smooth sailing as we made our way to another Florida state park gem.
Topsail Hill Preserve State Park
The last Florida State Park we visited this winter was one of our favorites. Topsail Hill Preserve is located along the same stretch of pristine coastline as another long time favorite – Grayton Beach State Park. Topsail is different, though, because it used to be a private campground, so it has a lot of amenities that other state parks don’t have. For example: full hook up sites, a swimming pool, and wifi. And our site was terrific!
I think the correct term to use here is “nestled”:
Used in a sentence: “Look at that swirly purple motorhome, all nestled in its space…”
Like Grayton and the other Florida parks we so thoroughly enjoyed this year, Topsail boasts miles and miles of hiking trails, well maintained boardwalks to pristine white sand beaches, pretty lakes, and stunning nightly sunsets. In our view, it is one of the best of the best.
However, fair warning, not all campsites are created equal. While many look like this:
Others look like this:
So, it’s worth doing your research (campsitephotos.com is a good place to start).
While visiting, we also got to catch up with old friends Nancy and Betsy whom we hadn’t seen since way back in 2017. We spent hours and hours chatting with them and had a great time catching up. Sadly, our visit was pretty short so we only got to hang out once, but we hope to see them again down the line.
Pensacola Beach is part party-town beach destination and part pristine waterfront nature reserve. The downtown area is full of fun restaurants, bars, and other mainstays of coastal vacation destinations, while other portions of the island are part of Gulf Island National Seashore.
We stayed at Pensacola Beach RV Resort which is one of the few RV parks in the country that doesn’t use the term ‘resort’ ironically.
We were able to walk to numerous restaurants and bars and sample lots of delicious food. While the campground was packed the whole time, much of the town was quiet. For reasons I don’t fully understand, the panhandle just doesn’t get very busy during the winter. It’s nice because the beaches are empty, but you can tell the businesses are operating way under capacity most of the time.
We got a pretty good idea of what busy season must be like, though, from looking at the menus. Not only are the drinks insanely cheap:
But their pours are enormous:
And if you’ve ever thought, “Man, Long Island Iced Teas are pretty good, but they’re kinda weak.” Well, fear not! In Pensacola Beach, they DOUBLE them…
But you’re only permitted to consume two of these booze bombs, so 16 shots of alcohol better be enough to take the edge off because if not, you’re out of luck.
Honestly, they must just find hordes of people face down in the sand every morning in the Summer.
Anyway, when not marveling at the city’s potential for alcohol abuse, we explored some of the dog friendly trails in Gulf Islands National Seashore and let Thor get some laps in. He loved every minute.
We had one more lengthy drive to get to our next destination. While it wasn’t particularly exciting, we did learn two very important things that are worth sharing.
First, if you’ve ever been in a group of RVers discussing various roads and routes, you’ve probably compared notes about some of the particularly awful stretches of various interstates around the country. There will be talk of I-90 in Indiana and I-95 through the northeast, etc. But if you’ve ever driven an RV on I-10 through Louisiana and the question is asked: “what’s the worst road in the entire country?”, you know the answer is: “I-10 in Louisiana.”
There’s just nothing to discuss.
I-10 in Louisiana is so mind-meltingly atrocious, when driving on it, concepts of time and space melt into a sickening toxic brew of hopelessness and despair. The relentless thumping of the wheels going over perfectly spaced seams grates on one’s nerves and is only interrupted by the crashing and banging of your home hitting potholes so big, they seem to swallow the whole rig. Insulation rains down from the ceiling, random screws roll around on the floor behind you, and anything not properly held down in a cabinet is all but guaranteed to come crashing down.
There is simply no hell like the hell that is I-10 in Louisiana.
Or… to be more accurate, there WAS no hell like the hell of I-10 in Louisiana.
Turns out, I-10 in Louisiana is now… perfectly fine.
Unbeknownst to us, the government has spent the last three years repairing, repaving, and widening the entire road and it’s now FINE!!!!!
We drove and drove waiting for it to turn into the soul crushing nightmare experience of yesteryear and… it just never did.
We’re still amazed.
Second, we found a great place to stop that’s worth sharing. Island View Casino is located just west of Biloxi, in Gulfport.
We’ve stayed at a couple other casinos and have generally found them to be good options for overnight stays. Why? They’re free, you don’t have trucks driving in at all kinds of hours like at Walmarts, and they usually have security driving around.
Island View is even better. First, they have a huge, level parking lot reserved just for RVs, second, they encourage you to stay for free for as long as you want, and third, their restaurant offers all you can eat crab legs which made it easy and appealing for us to go patronize their business without having to sit in a smoky, depressing casino.
After a good night’s sleep in Gulfport, we hit the road once more, headed for the biggest party of the year, but before we could even make it to New Orleans, we saw this…
These are parade floats heading from New Orleans, where they’re manufactured, to other cities that have their own Mardi Gras events.
Next up: What you’ve probably got wrong about Mardi Gras.
Where we stayed:
A Stone’s Throw RV Park, Lamont, Florida
Topsail Hill Preserve State Park, Santa Rosa Beach, Florida
Pensacola Beach RV Resort, Pensacola Beach, Florida
Island View Casino, Gulfport, MS