Trip Reviews

Lovers Key State Park

If you are a regular reader of Stretchingittotravel you know we love activities that are low cost.  State parks are great places to visit due to their cheap cost and many activities.

We spent a few nights at Fort Myers Beach with the intention of visiting Lovers Key State Park.  We arrived around 9am Christmas morning to a rapidly filling parking lot.  Admission for the day is $8 a car and the park is open from 8am to sunset daily.

Lovers Key State Park

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We waited a bit for a trolley to drop us near the waterfront.  There was some confusion as to if the trolley ran on Christmas so we ended up walking the short path to the beach.

The park has well over two miles of beautiful sandy beaches to walk.  We walked from the boardwalk around to Big Carlos Bay by the bridge and back.  A nice clean, wide beach to explore.

Lovers Key State Park

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Later when the sun was really hot we walked the nature trail to view the canals.  The island was being developed to become a resort but sold to the state in the 1980s.

We saw many gopher turtles on our walk and their holes.

Lovers Key State Park

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There are opportunities to rent bikes, kayaks, and stand up paddle boards for use inside the park.  They also offer kayak tours and rent beach gear.

We spent most of our day relaxing at Lovers Key.  Relaxing by the ocean is one of my favorite ways to spend the day.

More information on Lovers Key can be found here: https://www.loverskeyadventures.com/

 

 

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Everglades Airboat Tour

Over a few trips we have tossed around doing an airboat tour.  The family always thought it would be fun but generally I could not find one at a cost I was happy with. This is not the case in the Everglades.  Competition is fierce and prices are lower than any others we had seen to date.

I also could not chose between taking a grassland tour or mangrove tour.  Then I read about Captain Mitch’s tours.  They offer a tour that visits both on their property.

 

Captain Mitch’s Airboat Rides

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I was able to secure a reservation online a couple of weeks in advance of our December trip for an afternoon tour.  This location is just outside of Naples.

Captain Mitch’s

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Captain Mitch’s

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Our tour was so much fun!  We started out in the mangroves and ended up in the grassslands.  We saw a few gators, a gator nest and many birds.

Captain Mitch’s in mangroves

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Flying through the mangrove channels is a very unique experience.

Captain Mitch’s grassland

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The one hour tour is forty dollars for adults and twenty dollars per child.  There is also a coupon on the website for three dollars off per person.

After the airboat ride you can go inside the office and meet an alligator.  You can take pictures and hold it.  We had a great time and would love to ride again.

More information here: http://www.captainmitchs.com/

 

 

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Three Sisters Springs in Crystal River

After a change of plans to include manatees on this Florida trip we had some free time on Saturday in Crystal River. We had our amazing swim in the morning, and a little warm up time in the hotel hot tub afterwards.  I had heard that Three Sisters Springs was the place to see manatee so we drove five minutes up the road to the address online.

Parking is available at City Hall.  We had just missed the shuttle and had an almost 20 minute wait.  This gave us time to sit in the sunshine and to grab sweatshirts from the car.

Three Sisters Springs

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The Crab Plant Restaurant

We have found the restaurants on the Gulf side of Florida to be unusually busy early in the evening.  Where we are from( and most of the places we travel to) if you want to eat at a particular restaurant you can show up at 5:30 and have no issue.  It is a little early for our family to eat dinner but it is usually our vacation plan to have no wait.

Except for on this trip. After running into jam packed restaurants at 5:30 we started to look as we drove around.  Some parking lots were plenty full at 3:30pm.  Back home that is happy hour times for a beer, not a full meal.  We needed to eat even earlier then!

Knowing we wanted to eat at the Crab Plant on a Friday we made sure we arrived horribly early.  The restaurant was really easy to find and maybe five minutes from the Best Western in Crystal River.

We took the last open parking spot and then open table at 5:10pm.  So early!  Families arrived after us and started queuing up for the next open tables.  By 5:45 people would enter, see the wait and leave.  This is not normal so early in the Midwest, oy!

The Crab Plant

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Swim with Manatees in Florida

I am going to ramble on about the amazing thing our little family just got to do in Florida.  I want to go back and do it again as soon as possible, it was that incredible!

While fishing in Florida a couple of years ago we had a mother and calf swim past our boat and surface near us.  I was pretty excited.  They are enormous gentle creatures.

This winter we planned to go back to Florida and spend some time lower on the Gulf Coast.  Husband wanted to see the Everglades and Daughter wanted a nice beach.  I had the plans all set, hotels booked and a shell of an itinerary.  We would be in Fort Myers Beach, Naples and end around St. Petersburg.

I stumbled on a trip review that said  you could swim with the manatees.

Then I watched a video on Facebook and was determined to make this work three weeks before we traveled.  I read up a little more on the tours and knew I wanted a 6am tour for the best luck.  A little more shuffling and I had our vacation plans reworked and found a reservation that I was thrilled about.

We were able to use points to stay at the Best Western in Crystal River.  The hotel was two minutes drive from the Birds Underwater Dive Center.  They offer a noon check out and they have a large hot tub for guests in the pool area.

To make this work we had a long drive from Lido Key the day before.  No matter how I worked this trip we had to cover more miles than I usually want to deal with on vacation.  We set out with the intent to try to break it up into smaller chunks, that really did not pan out for us. We did spend the afternoon in Homosassa State Park and saw many manatees in the river there, so I was really hopeful.

Then “winter” hit Florida.  When we left the Sarasota area it was a nice sunny almost 80 degrees.  It was a cold, cloudy and barely 60 in Homosassa when I got out of the car.

Birds underwater

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Saravilla Bed and Breakfast in Alma

Daughter was invited to a scholarship interview at Alma College.  If you are not familiar with the area you will quickly find out Alma is a very small town. There are no chain hotels, just a couple of old Mom and Pop places. Mount Pleasant is a larger town with several chain hotels but it is over twenty minutes from the college in good weather.   The only real option for us with the impending snow was to stay at Saravilla Bed and Breakfast.

Saravilla Bed & Breakfast

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Guest parking and the entrance were in the rear of the very large house.

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Terra Nova Bed and Breakfast in Grove City

We have previously stayed at the Terra Nova Bed and Breakfast back in 2016.  We found the two room Collegiate Suite to be perfect for family travel.  This year when my Daughter was doing an overnight visit at Grove City College I invited my Mom to travel with us.  It can be so boring to travel alone and it is nice to have someone awake in the car to keep me company as I drive the hours to Pennsylvania.

Once again I was able to book the Collegiate Suite for our stay.

Terra Nova

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The suite occupies the upper floor of the bed and breakfast providing two bedrooms and a bath.  The main bedroom has a king size bed, chair, tv and a dining table with four chairs.  The smaller bedroom has two twin beds.

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Christkindlmarket Chicago Evening

I have wanted to visit the Christkindlmarket in Chicago for several years.  Somehow we never made to Chicago over the holidays.  Too much going on, too much snow, and too little time kept us from Chicago after Thanksgiving.  This year I was determined to make it to the Christmas market, it was the one thing I wanted to do on this visit.

We arrived in Chicago on a Friday evening just before the rain started.  We almost made it to the Radisson Blu (free Friday night stay thanks to their last fall promotion) when the heavens opened up.  Trying to crush through the crowd under the entry awning with luggage is no fun in the cold rain.

We enjoyed our room for a couple of hours and hit the business lounge for some snacking.  I was a little resigned that I was not going to be able to visit the Christmas market on Friday night. We were contemplating hitting the hot tub vs putting on pjs and ordering food.

Around 7:00 it looked like the rain was letting up.  By 7:15 I had convinced Daughter to put on the coat, hat and gloves to brave the weather.  The rain was down to a light drizzle as we walked to Daley Plaza past the window at Macy’s.

As negative as the weather seemed it was perfect for visiting the market.  The wind was not too bad in the plaza and the crowds were pretty small.

Christkindle Market Chicago

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Visiting Cades Cove

On our trip out to Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg I was really looking forward to visiting Cades Cove.  It did not disappoint!

We stayed in Townsend since we wanted an easy and less congested entrance into the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.  This area is perfect for accessing Cades Cove!

Arriving early is your best bet for wildlife viewing and to avoid other people.  We left at 7:50 for our twenty minute drive to the cove with very little traffic.  This was the least busy park day we would have on our trip!  There were a few light rain showers that I think helped keep the crowds away that day.

I was driving on Laurel Creek road almost half way to the cove when a huge bear darted in front of our car and up the hillside.  He was bigger than I thought local bears would be and he was running faster than I thought they could.  I was very glad I did not hit him with the car and it reconfirmed why the speed limit is so low in the park.  After seeing the size/ speed of him I was rethinking my desire to see a bear in the park.

Cade's Cove

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Once you reach the gate the road through Cades Cove is eleven miles long and while it offers a couple of cut through roads plan on spending at least a couple of hours on it.

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Friendly Falls in Wears Valley

If you leave Pigeon Forge via Wears Valley road to Townsend you will have a very picturesque drive.  An alpine coaster, cabins, resorts and little shops line the road. Halfway to Wears Valley on the left is a little stop called Friendly Falls.

Friendly Falls

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Friendly Falls offers their location as a place to stretch your legs, enjoy a cold drink by the falls and you can even get married there.  We stopped on Sunday morning on our way to Townsend just before noon.  Usually I am about vacation on the cheap side, however there is something to be said about paying a small amount for some quiet time along a waterfall with a cold beverage.

Friendly Falls

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Admission is $2 for adults OR you can purchase something from the store and enter for free.  Cold pop is $2 and beer is $3.  They also offer items like hot dogs, chips, ice cream, or sandwiches.

You can wade in the river between the two falls, be careful the rocks are slick.  The water was very refreshing on a hot day!

Friendly Falls

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They offer gem mining for kids in a flume, tables and chairs for relaxing with your food/drink and even a resident chicken. There are areas decorated with gnomes and fairies.  It’s cute and it is prefect for relaxing.  We spent over an hour people watching and enjoying our beverages along the river.

You can find more information here: http://friendlyfalls.com/

2135 Wears Valley RdSevierville, TN 37862
+1 865-429-2139

 

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