01 January – A New Year and a new destination. Had a lovely drive along the Gulf of Mexico coastline – the road for the most part went right alongside the sea. Stopped off at Carabelle for supplies and lunch at a nice picnic area. The sand throughout this region is so beautiful – so fine and white – almost like talcum powder. The water however around Carabelle was a different matter – not the azure colours like down in Key West but dark brown from the tannin laden rivers that feed into the gulf around here.
Continued on around the coast – not too much in the way of large settlements – a lot of holiday homes – the building style here must be to accommodate the wave action in hurricanes as they are built on stilts – the ground floor being often quite open to the elements.
At Apalachicola we turned on to St Joseph’s Peninsula – a very narrow spit of land with the gulf on one side and St Joseph Bay on the other. About 8 miles along is the State Park Campground. What a setting – two separate camps each with about 50 sites, the Gulf just across the road and over the dunes on one side, and probably no more than a couple of hundred metres the other side is the inlet bay. Not sure why people would want to stay in commercial parks (we saw several coming along the coast road – they are parked sided by side with no trees or any break between the sites) when you can have a nice place like this at a cheaper price. Our neighbours are not as close, plus we also have a screen of trees and shrubs as well.
Did a short explore on our bikes – again lovely flat roads so easy biking. All the way down the peninsula is a biking path so will attempt to do a bit of that tomorrow – weather permitting.
02 January – The sea fog is persisting today – so not very good visibility, very humid but at least it is not raining. Took the bikes out for an airing on a short ride out of the park; for seemingly flat roads we seemed to be going slightly uphill all the way to an ice-cream shop where sadly the coffee wasn’t up to much. Back home after some five miles and I can’t say that it felt like we were going downhill returning (obviously something to do with the curvature of the earth!), but it was easy enough riding.
Took a walk later in the afternoon on to the wilderness at the end of the peninsula. The trail was accessed by a hike along the beach; we had that to ourselves – lovely firm white sand for as far as we could see in either direction with flat calm sea on the gulf side. Over the dunes at the designated crossing and into the the trail in the middle – it was now harder going though, as it was on soft loose sand. Plenty of evidence of deer even right down on the sea shore but none to be seen in the flesh until we were almost back to camp where we surprised a white tailed buck. That was enough fresh air for the day – nice to get back home and relax.
03 January – Off on the road again – nice drive for the first half hour or so, not very built up, but from Mexico Beach onwards it deteriorated. We stopped for lunch at a local diner which had basic but nice fare. On again along the coast road into Panama City and beyond to Panama Beach. Yuk – high rise hotels, apartments, tacky theme parks but it did have a Wallies who were happy for us to stay, so it is redeemed. Decided it was time to cook up the lobster which has been sitting in the freezer since Nova Scotia, so spent the best part of an hour trying to find the suitable ingredients in Wallies. Lo and behold after nearly a year in the good old USA I have finally found where they keep cooking cream (it is in the Hispanic section!). In NZ, Kraft make a really nice light cooking cream but it is just not available here – they only make all manner of cream cheeses none of which are really suitable for cooking with. Disappointed with the lobster – quite chewy but at least the sauce was nice. Still have the heavy foggy air sitting around us – at times the 18 storey hotel across the road has shrunk to only a few visible stories. Everything feels damp and sticky. We are keeping an eye on the weather reports as there is forecast to be a very cold snap or “polar vortex” on the way, so we are planning to be in a campground with power on the projected cold days and nights.
04 January – After a sticky hot and quite noisy night, awoke to a very queer coloured sky – yellowy grey – the reason became clear quite quickly as the heavens opened and we got a thunderstorm. Waited around until after lunch for the rain to clear before continuing westward. Bob read in our USA guide book that road 30A along the coast from Panama City was not be missed as it was Florida’s most lovely drive. No wonder the writer of that little gem comes from a Lonely Planet – it was a ghastly drive – 40 miles of beautiful coastline decimated first by highrise apartments, followed by lower level townhouse/condo’s and ‘villages’ with perhaps two glimpses of the Gulf in the only places that weren’t built on. The speed limit was between 25 and 35mph with an occasional 40mph if we were lucky.
The price of petrol has been dropping ever since we got back into the States and our last fill was down to $2.19, but Murphy always prevails when we fill up and of course just down the road it was down to $2.15: this is for a US gallon (just 80% of an Imperial gallon or about 3.6 litres) for those poor folks back home.
We followed this coastal highway almost to Navarre where we got back on to Highway 98 before heading north up alongside the Eglin Airforce Base and to a FWC camp a bit off the beaten track. It entailed nearly 5 miles of red dirt road (we could have been in OZ or East Africa!) before we reached the Bayside Campground – a primitive camp with 12 sites right on the Blackwater Bay in the Yellow River Marsh Aquatic Reserve – pretty spot, our front door is only a few feet from the water’s edge. The storm that we had just a few hours earlier in Panama Beach had been through here and the dirt road was a little dodgy in places; poor old Wanda is now a pretty shade of pink.
05 January – Nice lazy day, with a walk along the beach at low tide. Checking out all the different animal prints in the sand – decided after studying our book that one lot was from an otter and the others were from a coyote.
06 January – Bob a bit incapacitated today with a painful foot so it was a driving day. The road out had dried out a lot so it was a much easier drive back to the main road although we still managed to pick up a lot more red mud. Stopped off at Navarre for drugs for the foot and then at Camping World managed to refill our propane. Had a drool over some of the new RV’s on display – for a cool $90,000 we could have easily swapped Wanda for a very flash rig. It was then on to Pensacola and the Big Lagoon State Park. Very impressed with Florida’s Parks – this one was a little way back from the lagoon in pine trees and sand dunes. With only about 10 of the 70 sites filled it was pretty quiet. Booked in for a few nights as the cold snap was on it’s way and we wanted to have power so we could run the heater during the night and not freeze to death.
07 January – R&R for Bob while the inflamation subsides. I went for a nice bike ride around the park which took me through to the Lagoon and through a nature trail. The nature trail was a hiking trail and I had to push the bike for a lot longer than I would have liked as it was really soft sand which kept trying to throw me off the bike. Forecast tonight was for a hard freeze, so we blocked up the windows and cranked up the heat.
08 January – Brrrrhhh! That was a cold night at 19 degF (-7 degC) – our test pot of water left outside was frozen solid along with something in our internal water pipes (that wasn’t meant to happen as we kept the inside warm all night!). Fortunately as soon as we got moving it cleared and no damage was done. Drove down to the US Naval Air Station and their museum for the first of our visits. What an amazing place – greeted at the door by docents dressed up to the nines in navy blazers and ties, welcomed and asked where we were from and had a nice little chat before moving into the museum. First up was an IMAX film – on the Blue Angels – the Navy’s exhibition pilots. It was like being in the plane as they did all their manoeuvres in F18 Super Hornets.
Spent the next part of the morning in the mezzanine floor going through the various exhibits. Another movie experience complete with wind and motion shook us as we sat on the deck of an aircraft carrier and watched the planes coming in to land and take off. That would take nerves of steel – they have to land on this tiny deck and catch the plane’s tailhook on the third out of four wires which brings them to a screaming halt. If they catch the first line (they are way too low, the second not quite as low, and the fourth – too high). If they miss altogether it is called a bolter and they have to go around and try again. After each squad has landed they all go to the ‘ready room’ and each pilot’s landing results are listed on a board, green for wire No. 3: no-one wants to have the black marks against their name for everyone to see!
There were some excellent models of the Air Craft Carrier Enterprise (both the modern and the WWII versions) with a good documentary on a smaller screen. Further on was a mockup of a Pacific WWII base and another doco screening. It was time for lunch after all that excitement and then back upstairs again to the wartime displays until it was time for the next IMAX movie on D-Day. A very comprehensive and interesting doco-film – again spectacular on the enormous screen.
09 January – Another cold night with a good freeze – we were prepared this time. As recommended, we hooked up our water to the mains and let it run very slowly through our inside tap and all was well.
Back to the museum – first up this time was the guided tour through the ground floor with all the planes. An ex-pilot and incredibly knowledgeable docent led us on a 90 minute odyssey of their treasures extolling the virtues of the “world’s” best museum and of course their totally unbiased view of America’s involvement in the World Wars. The museum is privately funded (around $90 million raised from corporates, state and private donations of which over $20 million alone has come from Enterprise Rental Cars. No borrowed money is used for their restorations, the work is done by volunteers – they have over 1100 aircraft with only about 100 on display here and several hundred on loan all around the nation.
After the tour we then went through it all again on our own to check out the ones not covered in the tour as the extension hanger was closed for the day, after which it was home time. What a great place to spend a cold winter’s day.
10 January – A much warmer night with no frost. Back again to the museum to inspect the second hangar which was closed yesterday. First did a tour of their ‘waiting for restoration’ boneyard via golf cart. The wind was a bit parky but at least we had a nice sunny day. Only a fraction the size of Pima but still interesting to see them close-up with a good explanation as we went around.
The second hangar had more modern planes, but again a lot of screens with doco’s going on so it was quite time consuming. One of the good things about this museum was that they didn’t mind if you touched the planes and you could get up close and personal with them all. Many exhibits had an additional cockpit section sitting beside the full plane so that you could sit in them and play at being a pilot.
The Naval Air Station itself is set on a beautiful bit of coastline – those pure white dunes and blue seas.
11 January – Overcast but a lot warmer. Time to move on again, so left our nice camp setting, travelling along Perdido Key with a lot of high rise apartments and non-stop development all the way to Foley, where we changed to Highway 98.
Had a real bit of “CULTYAH” when we stopped for lunch at Lamberts Cafe. Saw signs coming into Foley saying it was ‘home of the hand throwed bun’. We expected that meant home made buns – they were, BUT the hand throwed was literally that – they threw the buns at you. The place was a bit like Wall Drug in South Dakota that we visited quite a while ago. The meals were “BIG” and they had what they called the ‘pass around’ – on a continual trail around the restaurant was the bun thrower, someone with molasses or apple butter to spread on your bun, fried potatoes and onion (YUM), fried okra, black eyed peas and cabbage. You could have as much of any of those as you wanted on top of your meal which came with two sides of your choice. Just as well they supply take-home boxes as it was way too much for us. Suitably replete it was then on up to Daphne and a nice quiet Wal-Mart stop for the night. Back again in Alabama and even cheaper petrol – it is down to $1.89 (that is nearly half what we were paying at the beginning of the year and we like it!) We are close to Mobile and the WWII battleship USS Alabama which we will have a look around tomorrow.
12 January – Phew, it has finally warmed up again but the fog has descended and our trip over to the Alabama was a bit eerie as we couldn’t see anything. The USS Alabama was also shrouded in fog when we arrived and it was not even possible to see from one end to the other when on board. We spent 3 hours going from top to bottom on the ship – a battleship housing 2500 sailors. Three huge triple 16 inch gun turrets fore and aft with many 5 inch guns as well as an impressive array of all sorts of other weapons. The noise when they were all in action would have been terrifying. Went up about eight levels from the deck up to the bridge and conning tower and had good views out over the city once the fog finally cleared, and down several decks to the bowels of the ship where the sailors mainly slept and worked. Were also able to go inside the big gun turrets to see how they operated and to view the early electro-mechanical computing systems which enabled the guns accuracy up to 21 miles. Two Kingfisher float planes were also carried for target spotting, being launched from rails and picked up again after landing alongside the ship.
As well as the Alabama, there was a hangar with about a dozen aircraft including the evil looking Blackbird and a B52 Stratofortress bomber (many of the planes were on loan from Pensacola Naval Museum). Also there the WWII USS Drum submarine which you could tour through. On outside display was a replica of the Confederate submarine ‘Hunley’ from the US Civil War, which was powered by eight men turning handles to achieve 4 knots! With all that completed we decided to head back to Wallies for another night as it was too late to try and find somewhere new. Tiring work walking around all day!
13 January – Departed from our Wallies camp and headed over the border to Mississippi. Stopped off en-route at the Welcome Centre and on picking up brochures decided that Plan A would need to go to Plan B as there were some things to see in Biloxi which meant that we wouldn’t go straight through to New Orleans. First stop was a Sandhill Crane preserve and a small walk which turned out to be not very interesting as it was just through some pine trees and a small glimpse of a bayou. Travelled along to Biloxi – found a good spot over the road from a casino in their parking lot – nice and quiet with about 10 other rigs. It was too cold and miserable to even bother leaving the warmth of Wanda and heading over to the casino so settled in for the night.
14 January – Time to explore the 3 things on our ‘to do’ list for the day. Seabees Museum at Gulfport Naval Base was a disappointment as most of the museum had been damaged and relocated to California after Hurricane Katrina, with just a small number of poorly presented exhibits left to view. Although attached to the Marines, this group would be equivalent to our Army Engineers, building bridges, airfield, camps, etc. in the war zone. Next stop a small car museum with an unusual collection of British and American cars as well as a handful of motorbikes. Final stop was a collection of 4,000 models of aircraft, ships, cars, military weapons and vehicles. This was a collection of a lifetime of one gentleman – he passed away several years ago but his son had rehoused them as his father’s house got destroyed in Katrina. It was only open on request – the son came down and opened up for us and took us on a little tour – tickled pink to get his first Kiwi visitors. The models were mostly plastic kits which his father had painstakingly constructed throughout his life.
On the road along the coast evidence of Katrina was now becoming obvious, with many vacant lots showing just the foundations of buildings. The beaches all along here still have the lovely snow white sand and were deserted (too cold for beach activities).
With all our visits finished sooner than expected, we were left with enough time to tackle the New Orleans traffic before rush hour to get to the Bayou Segnette State Park about 11 miles to the east of the city. Crossing over into yet another state, Louisiana. with a short visit to their visitor welcome centre to get the guff for New Orleans. Our aim is to stay here for a few days and drive down to the ferry over the Mississippi River each day which will take us straight into the French Quarter – the most historic part of New Orleans. Our warm weather has been short lived and thankful that we are again hooked up with power – the rain has also just started to fall on our roof.