Friday, December 27, 2013

The Best Christmas Present Ever!

Well, the best Christmas present was actually last year when we had all our children with us for the holidays at Sun 'n' Fun. Nothing beats having every single one of your kids and their families all in one place for the holidays. We had a ball last year and got to have our families together for a whole week! But we couldn't manage it again this year as much as we would have liked to have done that.  This year, Eldy knew Sparky would be having a tough time without snow and family to make it a white Christmas, so he did some researching on cruises…Sparky has never ever been on a cruise. Eldo has been on about 20, as he used to be a cruise agent for Cruise One about ten years and further back. If you are a Florida resident, and willing to take your chances on booking something late, you can get some fantastic deals, if you are over 55.…How about 149.00 to go to Grand Turk in the Caribbean for four days? Or how about 179.00 for a four day trip to the Bahamas and Key West? These deals change from day to day and depending on how fast you jump on something and what kind of amenities you are willing to accept or forego. AND--if you have been a cruiser in the past, that helps get you some extras too. It's great that we could drive to the port, Port Everglades in Fort Lauderdale, about three hours to get there from Bradenton. No flight costs to get there!

letters sculpture
Yep, Eldo gave Sparky a four day cruise to the Bahamas for a wonderful Christmas present! And we just got back! It was terrific! We were on the Celebrity Constellation ship. It has been remodeled in the past couple of years, it was beautiful! Beautiful art work on board, like this Chihuly glass sculpture (above) in the atrium along with many gorgeous Christmas decorations…..

He bumped up our accommodations from an inside cabin to a balcony/little veranda cabin, which was really really nice…..The Celebrity Constellation can accommodate 2034 guests and they said our cruise was full! It's a 91, 000 ton ship, a medium sized ship as far as cruise ships go, says Eldo. He really did his research as he always does-- a VERY thorough job of searching out the best deals. If anybody has any questions about cruising, send us an email. Eldy will be happy to answer questions. He really knows his stuff!

The food was wonderful! We could have had specific dinner seating times--usually the choices are 6:30 or 8:30 PM. That's the way cruises use to do things. You'd sit at the same table every night with the same people. But with a last minute booking, only 8:30 PM dining was available. Kinda late for us. Eldy chose select seating where it's like a restaurant. You can make reservations, or you can just go in at your convenience to eat. You can sit with a group, or you can have a table for two. We did both and enjoyed having the choice. 99% of the meals were fantastic at the restaurant/cafe and all your meals are included in the cruise price. The portions were very appropriate, leaning towards the small side which was just perfect for us. No reason to overeat! In the old days, Eldy said food was served differently, and it was possible to order multiple servings of something you liked. Sparky could have had multiple salads one night, it was so good! (fresh creamy tarragon dressing). There was a general buffet also open just about all the time, and that was ok….Your usual buffet stuff….There are other dining options as well. There were specialty restaurants where you pay for the meal which is not included in the cruise price. We didn't try any of those….
Celebrity deck
Sparky had a little trouble sitting in the dining room and eating the first two nights. The dining room was at the back of the ship and although the cruise was quite smooth, you really can feel the movement of the ship in the dining room. Sparky thought "Uh-oh!" But she never felt like she was going to be sick, just a little dizzy.. and after the first two days, it didn't bother her any more. But she always had to say, "Did you feel that? Wow, that was quite a roll." And Eldy would say, "That was really nothing, sweetie…I've been on some cruises where everybody is just lurching back and forth in the hallways and things are almost rolling on the tables."

There was some great entertainment…the best dancing music  was from the Miami D.J's Live, and unfortunately, they only played at the going away party for about 45 minutes and just as Sparky wanted to get her mojo going, they quit! Then they didn't play again until 12:00 AM in one of the lounges…Phooey! There were wonderful opportunities to participate in all kinds of stuff: learn how to make crepes, team trivia, music trivia, art auction, wine tasting, fitness classes, a Fun Factory for kids, a sports court where people played basketball, the casino--one of the biggest Eldy has seen on any cruise, several pools, a spa, a library, boutiques, eight restaurants, seven entertainment venues, and ten bars (!). Sparky had her first one and only strawberry daiquiri which everybody at the bar laughed at Sparky's incredulous reaction to the size of it! "Holey moley!" she exclaimed when they set it down in front of her….

After all this smorgasbord of eating, Sparky did zumba exercise class twice…whew! That was enough!   Check out some entertainment...There was a great water volleyball match between the captain's bridge staff and the hotel crew….The captain was CUTE! He's 35, and Greek.

A little later in the ship's agenda, was a Liar's Club Comedy show with the captain and some of the entertainment staff- the cruise director and activity manager who were natural comedians. The announcer gave a real word of obscure recognition and the captain and the other two had to give a definition. Two were lying and one was telling the truth. It was hilarious! The captain had a wonderful sense of humor which was quite evident throughout the trip as well. He kept prefacing his definitions with the word was "a Greek word meaning….".and he'd launch into a hilarious personal tale about what the word meant. In case you didn't know, "pismire" means a urinating ant. He fooled the audience with his tale of an ex girlfriend on a picnic with him whose food was ruined by pismire. We thought that was so outrageously out there, that we voted for the guy who said it was a marketing strategy gone awry.

And….there are always shore excursions which are almost always pricey…We did two…One was a flat bottomed boat to the reef out of Nassau which was 29.00 a person…Really wasn't much to see in the reef on that particular day, but a nice ride out on the ocean with some historical background information about the residents of Paradise Island in Nassau…Tiger Woods, Barry Bonds, Oprah Winfrey, the owners of Lloyds of London, Michael Jordan all have homes on Paradise Island, an island you pass on the way to the reef. Whoop de doo! But still fun to see….We saw the natives hawk their wares on the docks and in the Straw Market.
conch shells (correct pronunciation is "conk", Sparky was informed)
The straw market used to be a bunch of shacks, now it's in a building and the wares are piled high to the ceilings with baskets, hats, tee shirts. Everybody is in competition to sell you stuff, so they call out to you constantly, trying to engage you to buy something. Everybody there selling something is making something at the moment.

Nassau accommodates a LOT of cruise ships. There were six in the harbor at one time while we were there… You should see the captains BACK some of these ships into their docking positions. Yep, turn 'em around and BACK them in. Pretty impressive. These things are BEHEMOTHS!  HUGE! HONKIN' HUGE!

The second tour we did was the Key West Extreme Adventures Shark ECO Tour..Now that was cool! 79.00 a person, we felt it was a great tour. However, it was unremarkable as far as seeing lots of different wildlife today…As the "winter" season is upon us here in Florida, the abundance of wildlife that you might see in the spring is greatly diminished in the winter. We saw a couple of turtles on the way out to the "back country" as our guide, Ken, gave us lots of information about sharks. Ken was a fishing guide for 32 years and he had his boat especially built for going into shallow areas in a certain area of Key West… He and his son are dedicated to promoting the education and conservation of sharks and marine wildlife. The boat had lots of great vantage points, and today there were about 19 people aboard which made for a very pleasant viewing experience. No jostling at the rails to see the sharks. The guys bait a pole, and lemon sharks come and take turns feeding…legal as plenty of people sport fish for sharks in the Keys…..There's no hook involved so you get to see the sharks up close and personal..Sparky means REALLY up close! Ken, the guide, said you could jump in on the other side of the boat and the sharks could care less if you were there…Anybody want to jump in? he asks. He was just joking but serious about the sharks not being interested in people, only fish….Hmmmmm….says Sparky. What about the surfers and swimmers who lose arms and legs every year to sharks thinking they are seals?

The end of the excursion trip resulted in seeing some dolphins playing and swimming around. Just caught this guy out of the corner of my eye and camera. Never get tired of seeing dolphins!

The cruise was over before we knew it, but it was wonderful to get back home to our beautiful home in Bradenton, only to find out we have BATS! Where we don't want bats! Stay tuned for "Batty in Bradenton"…..Hope you had a wonderful holiday….

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Keepin' Busy…..

What have Sparky and Eldo been up to lately?

A boat parade in Sarasota….Always hard to get a good photo at night, but there were a lot of wonderful light displays on a wide variety of boats from little ones to big yachts. It's been an annual tradition for the past 28 years….

Sparky has been subbing in the schools a couple days a week…The most fun last week was first grade, with a heated discussion that popped up as we were writing letters to Santa. One little guy started a tempest with the comment, "Santa Claus isn't real." WHOA, little buddy! Not so fast! Sparky didn't even get a chance to deliver her "defense of Santa" speech before the rest of the class pounced, hollering, "Yes, he is!" All Ms. Sparks, a.k.a. "Miss Sparkles" (as some little ones call her) could do was quickly change the subject and try to get the class moving in a different direction. She did…. Whew!

The farmer's market in Sarasota on Saturday mornings…..There's always a LOT of entertainment going on…You never know what you might see at the market. This week we saw a guy playing the Australian instrument, the didgeridoo….The sound this instrument makes is VERY cool!

Sparky always likes to see the big Java coffee truck station. Even though she doesn't drink Java (Coke is her morning beverage), she really likes the smell of coffee!

There is so much organic produce and amazing products and stuff to eat for serious foodies (like Sparky), that we never get tired of going to the market. Crepes, Italian bakery delights, teas and coffees, plants, hormone and antibiotic free meats, crafts, and lots of other stuff are there for everyone's enjoyment. Eldy has bought a Vitamix for us and we are starting to make veggie/fruit smoothies, something new for us and a little more of a healthy breakfast than what we normally eat. So we'll be visiting the Saturday morning market more often now….

We visited a Total Wine store for the first time…Interesting place! The colors and shapes of the bottles captivated Sparky along with the names.

We met up with Vick and Pam Matthews, of Travelin' in the Big EZ….They are in Cortez for the winter, so we hope to see them several times! Always great fun, and we met them at one of our favorite  music venues, Ocean Blues, to see a great powerhouse female vocalist, whose name Sparky has temporarily forgotten at the moment.

Sparky's been riding her bike at least a couple times a week averaging about ten miles each time in the neighborhood which might as well be considered a bird sanctuary with the number of birds that fish in each residential pond and marsh. There are a lot of buffering wetlands between the housing developments so that really ensures good bird watching just about every time. Sparky got off her bike on the latest ride to watch a snowy egret, an ibis, and a great blue heron fish. She sat down and snapped a few. Nothing too special happening, so she decided to get back on her bike. All of a sudden, the blue heron snapped up a fish, spread its wings and headed towards Sparky! WHOA! Sparky grabbed the camera and managed to get a couple of shots in as the heron landed practically at her feet with the feet and proceeded to gulp it down! Awesome! Patience paid off! And luck, as the action happened so fast, Sparky wasn't sure she even captured anything on camera. It was truly just a "point and shoot" moment and she got lucky!

And that's it for now…See you later…Eldo has a big surprise for Sparky for Christmas this year…The next time you read us, you'll hear all about it!

Saturday, December 14, 2013

How to Find a REAL Christmas Tree in Florida

Oh, the search was on….Once we decided we were going to have a REAL tree in our first REAL house since living in the motorhome for three years, we started doing research on where to find a real one. (AHEM!) Uh, oh yeah... Eldy started doing research on where to find a nice one. Yes, you can find real trees on lots around Sarasota and Bradenton, but they aren't in really good shape. They've been cut weeks ago, having been sitting on lots for awhile, and they look like some of them might have even been sprayed to preserve their color.

Most of the real Christmas trees delivered to Florida come from the Carolinas. A guy at Lowe's admitted that his last truckload of trees had been cut SIX WEEKS ago…YIKES! What an admission to make to a possible customer. He had a load right in front of him that had come in, and he was arguing with the truck driver on who was going to unload them. We were turned off by that admission and the condition of the trees we saw. People were buying them from Lowe's but we just wanted something a little fresher than that…Eldy saw an ad for Hazeltine Nursery on North River Road in Venice…It said that their trees come in on refrigerated trucks. That sounded good, so we thought we'd go check them out.

Once we got there, we learned that not only do they bring the trees in on refrigerated trucks, they make a fresh cut off the bottoms and then stick them in water and water them every day. Terrific! We thought that was a step above and beyond the normal lot treatment of Christmas trees that come from up north. They had tons of Fraser firs and they were beautiful! We picked out an 8 footer, it was about 65.00, managed to get it inside our Honda CR-V and home we headed!

Sparky LOVES decorating the tree each year with handmade ornaments made by her.

Half of her collection is still up north in a storage shed, but she managed to get quite a few made and on this year's tree. Lots of little sweaters are on the tree, mittens, little socks, and Santas….
And hand embroidered rustic wool ornaments….
Sparky's got the garland up on the architectural shelf in the great room...
We've got our light pole wrapped outside….

And that about wraps things up for now….See you later…We're off to meet blogger friends, see the Sarasota boat parade and a bunch of other things!

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

It Was a GRAND Thanksgiving

Eldy's son Brian and his family came for a few days at Thanksgiving…He has two children, Trevor and Cate. They had their first plane ride to come and see us, and they were so excited! It was a good thing the winds which had been quite strong until right before they came, settled down..Otherwise it might have been the last time they wanted to get on a plane to come see us!

Trevor's first thought was to hit our little pool…never mind the water temp was under 80 degrees, he jumped right in and had fun.

A big Thanksgiving dinner cooked by Sparky went off without a hitch…which was pretty amazing since Sparky hasn't cooked a big family dinner in YEARS..Of course, she had a little help from Sister Schubert--her yeast dinner rolls (the frozen kind but which are delicious!) and a ready made pumpkin pie. (Sparky only bakes cookies now and then…) We did the turkey in a simple electric turkey roaster which made it really moist and delicious.

A trip to Busch Gardens…Sparky's first….Guess it used to be quite the alternative animal kingdom to Disney's comparable park, but now it's much more amusement rides than animals…It seemed a little dated, but still you could see efforts to keep it fresh and interesting….Sparky LOVED the flamingoes!

The kids LOVED the rides…Busch Gardens had a special going. If you come during the week, it's 50.00 a person instead of 90.00, AND they had a "Christmas Town" special--It's November 29th -December 23rd, a separate ticketed event…come at 6:00 PM when the park closes, pay the same 50.00 price as the day time special, and take advantage of the park rides with little to no wait, from 6:00 PM to 11:00 PM. The park was decorated with LOTS of colorful, lit up Christmas trees and lights. Coca Cola had a snow park for the kids, complete with an area to roll around in the snow and indoor tubing run…What fun for kids who have never seen snow!

The kids rode and rode the roller coasters and rides, but Sparky and Eldo declined…Sparky NEVER rides roller coasters, and Eldo not as much as he used to, after getting jerked around and feeling discombobulated with some ear problems and vertigo after the last roller coaster ride awhile back. Brian and Lori bought our tickets to the park for us as a Christmas present, so that was very sweet. This was a GREAT time to go to the park. We had seen hour waits earlier in the day, but once the bulk of the crowd went home, there was NO WAITING in lines to get on the rides. Five minutes or less…YAHOO! said Trevor and Cate. "Let's go on the coaster again, Dad!"

Of course, there are gators at Busch Gardens…Great big FAT ones, the biggest ones we have ever seen. And they had been fed regularly during the summer months while they were active. The gator guy said that they weren't going to feed them again until March or April as they didn't need to be fed. He's not worried about the gators, is he? (There was a second guy armed with a big stick waiting and watching, just to be sure.) We got to see an unusual tussling biting match for a few seconds between two big ones where one seemed perturbed that the other one was in his space. That was cool and caught the attention of the gator guy. He said that was VERY unusual to see from these zoo gators.

Sparky loved the pavilion Christmas house display that was wired for an electronic light show, sort of like the Gangnam style light show that has shown up on Facebook this last year or two. Incredible Christmas light show timed to a classic Christmas carol music medley….She watched that while the kids rode the coasters.

Hmmmm…what else did we like about Busch Gardens? These two boys with rain slickers on who sat under the roller coaster ride that sprayed a HUGE rooster tail water SWOOSH as it came through the last turn. Anybody standing under the coaster ride got wet, a nice touch on a very hot day. But it was VERY cool today, as the evening came on, so we stood clear. But not these two guys! They had a ball! We kept hearing, "This is AWESOME, man!" every time they thoroughly got soaked. The little redhead would crouch down in that "duck and cover" school position we always had the kids assume when it was tornado drill practice, and he waited for the big SPLASH of water to come crashing down on him. The other kid just stood there and soaked it up each time.

This angel statue was beautiful. As we were walking by, a lady went up to have her photo taken right next to the angel. All of a sudden, the angel came alive! She put her arms gently around the lady, and everyone gasped. She had been so still and was so perfectly painted white you could not tell she was alive.

Then as the lady decided she was ready to move on, she started to duck from out under the angel's arms. The angel gently moved and enfolded her arms to hold her close so she couldn't get away. By this time, a crowd had gathered and we all laughed. As she finally let go, the angel arranged herself once again into a motionless upright statue.  Very cool!

We had a wonderful time today at Busch Gardens, Tampa…..One more day with the family, and they have to leave to head back home to Indiana, the home of cold and snow….Sparky is starting to feel just the tiniest feeling to be glad where it's warm and not icy. (WHA-A-A-T???? Did I just hear correctly? What did she just say? asks an astonished Eldo.)  :-)    What's he talking about? I didn't say anything. I still LOVE cold and snow…..Just not ice and sleet….shhhhhhhhh…….hehehheh…..