Swept Away by Captiva Island’s South Seas Island Resort

Disclosure: A huge thank you to South Seas Island Resort and The Beaches of Ft. Meyers & Sanibel for their hospitality during our sponsored stay. As always, the opinions below are my own.

Disclosure: This post contains an affiliate link to Amazon with no additional cost to the customer.

“What has made the day so perfect? To begin with, it is a pattern of freedom. Its setting has not been cramped in space or time. An island, curiously enough, gives a limitless feeling of both. Nor has the day been limited in kinds of activity. It has a natural balance of physical, intellectual and social life. It has an easy unforced rhythm.”

Anne Morrow Lindbergh, Gift from the Sea

Never underestimate the healing power of a room- with- a- view of sea and sunrises. Of island sunsets that make strangers friends. Of connecting with family after an unimaginable year. On making a wish on a seashell and feeling like a kid again.

Sunrise seen from our balcony at South Seas Island Resort

Not since we spent a month together on another island in 2016, had Taylor–my adult daughter–and I had a chance to get away together. Because she cares for the elderly, we couldn’t see each other for months in 2020. We’re both vaccinated now, but getting our school and work schedules together–as it is for most families– is a perennial problem. We needed some island time, so we took it. At the South Seas Island Resort on beautiful Captiva Island, we discovered within the U.S. borders a breathtaking part of Florida we’d never seen. Though I did work-by-day and she did school-by-night, our sharing an office with the view and exploring 330 acres of natural nirvana (and beyond) was an escape we’ll never forget. Here’s a few reasons why South Seas Island Resort was named a Top 10 North American Island by Conde Nast Traveler and families return year after year…

(Photos in Gallery Above Courtesy of South Seas Island Resort)

Nowhere else in the US have we stayed this close to the water and seen so much wildlife and sea creatures. The sanctuary has 230 species of birds, such as egrets and the white ibis, bottle-nosed dolphins, rabbits, Cuban anole lizards, and West Indian manatees.

Only in paradise would bunnies live in bushes just around the corner from the bird who lives here. (Unless otherwise noted, photos and videos by Cindy and Taylor McCain).

We loved hopping beaches and cruising shady paths. Sunny Island Adventures offers bicycle rentals for a few hours or the length of your stay to enjoy 20 miles of bike trails.

Taylor and Cindy McCain
deserted beach
Deserted beaches at South Seas Island Resort Photo Credit: Taylor McCain
Blue house and palm trees
Captiva Island Photo: Taylor McCain

This area and neighboring Sanibel Island, which since 1937 has hosted the largest and longest running Shell Fair and Show in the United States, is famous for shelling. It was the inspiration for one of my favorite books, Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s Gift from the Sea where the Gulf of Mexico delivers over 250 types of shells which you can learn more about here. Sanibel Island was featured on the April 2021 cover of Southern Living by the editors as one of The South’s Best Beach Towns. Children love the Sanibel Sea School where every day is a field trip. I eavesdropped on a group exploring the beach by my balcony and not only learned a lot but saw a boy find a starfish in the the few minutes they were there. Offerings for children and adults are here.

We flew into Fort Meyers on Southwest Airlines at the Southwest Florida International Airport located 35 miles from the resort. I’ve been a fan of Southwest for years but because of open seating the fee for early boarding is worth it–especially during high season or if you have a connecting flight and need to get off quickly. We had a great experience with Dolphin Transportation, the largest independently owned fleet of luxury vehicles serving Fort Myers, Naples, and Bonita Springs, who picked us up in a Suburban where I met a fellow writer based in Atlanta and returned us to the airport in a Lincoln Continental. They have bus and van options as well. We didn’t need a car with the trolley and bikes, but the property is so massive–20 tennis courts, 2 community pools (and 17 private ones), 9 dining locations, and other attractions the first day or two you’ll need to use a map and/or the App (which has a Trolley Tracker).

A short drive or ride away are area attractions including J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge, Lighthouse Beach and the spring training facilities of the Boston Red Sox and Minnesota Twins. In addition, the resort is half a mile from downtown Captiva with its shops and restaurants, including the Bubble Room and Mucky Duck.

South Seas Island Resort Trolley Time Photo by Taylor McCain

There are 434 guest rooms, villas, and waterfront private homes. We stayed in one of the 30 newly renovated waterfront suites at North Pointe Village overlooking Pine Island Sound. We appreciated the huge marble bathroom with closets and mirrors– great for two women :), the espresso machine, the wood-inspired floors, comfortable bedding and seating, but forgot to turn on the huge television because we were too busy watching an even bigger world of turquoise waters…coral, blue, and pink skies…boaters, fishermen on the dock, and wildlife from our balcony.

South Seas Island Resort Credit: Taylor McCain

On the bay behind us were rooms overlooking the Yacht Harbor.

For a large family, there are vacation rentals and uber luxurious two-six bedroom Homes of Distinction. Family portraits are available and fantasy wedding venues.

MUST- DOs, MUST- EATS, and A DON’T MISS

Excursion to Cabbage Key

Just 10 miles south of the resort is a tiny island that is old, old Florida at its best. There are no cars or roads–just a few rental cottages where anglers and artists can get inspired. Boaters stop in for breakfast, lunch, or dinner so if alone time gets old, there are always new people to meet. The restaurant is known for its food, a famous customer, and a tradition dating back to the days when fishermen wrote their names on dollar bills and tacked them to the wall for times when they might have no luck and need credit. Behind the bar is Jimmy Buffett’s bill.

You can board the Lady Chadwick of Captiva Cruises at the Yacht Harbor for a one-hour sail to the island. I loved the 70s music and 80s music I heard as we disembarked and headed up the hill.

Dolphin Watch on Lady Chadwick of Captiva Cruises
Cabbage Key Aerial Shot Photo:
Cabbage Key, Florida
Guests have attached dollar bills to the walls of the main dinning room of the Cabbage Key Inn.
Cabbage Key Inn is hopping, so put in your name upon arrival and explore while you wait.
Loved eating on the terrace overlooking the water
Cabbage Key Inn’s Cheeseburger in Paradise
Stone Crab Claws
The Planter’s Punch, Red Snapper, Their Special of the Day, and slaw-Delicious
After lunch, I explored on my own which included climbing to the top of the tower seen here in the background. See the video above for my bird’s eye view.
Ok, when I saw the sign below I decided to take the road less traveled AFTER I went back and grabbed a couple of friends. For someone who considers herself a mermaid, I sadly also have a thing for shark and gator movies 🙂

We learned a lot on the cruise from the ship’s captain. There’s said to be $75000 on the Inn’s ceiling and the $10-$15,000 that falls off each year is donated to charity. I learned that the back bay waters are estuaries for wildlife, fish, crab, oyster beds, and stone crabs which fishermen catch, declaw, and throw them back. Their claws regenerate. I saw where Captiva was split by a hurricane in 1921, destroying farmland there. Other history pertaining to the Native Americans on the barrier islands, to English, then Spanish rule, to Cuban fisheries and cattlemen, some of which is here. I learned the namesake of our boat, the shopping center on Captiva, and some of South Seas Island Resort’s origin. The area was bought in the 1920s by Clarence and Rosamond Chadwick, inventor of the check watermarking process and an opera singer, who made it one of the most successful key lime plantations in the world. In 1961 the Captiva Island Company bought the property for $225,000.

The islands between Cabbage Key and South Seas all have a story–North Captiva which has 11 vacation homes and uses solar power, La Costa with homes run on propane and solar, Pine Island which exports palm trees and has off-the-grid art galleries, and Useppa, base for the CIA during the Bay of Pigs and once vacation escape for Theodore Roosevelt, Herbert Hoover, Shirley Temple, and Mae West. Captiva Cruises offers options for exploring Useppa, other islands and types of excursions.

YOGA

I LOVED doing sun salutations on the Kings Crown Lawn as bunnies bopped in and out of the bushes behind me and boats bobbed past. Ambu Yoga was the best way to start the day and warm up for kayaking later (though Taylor did most of the rowing). If you’re not into yoga, the seaside golf course looked amazing.

Warming up for the Day with Ambu Yoga

MUST EAT

The Harborside Bar and Grill

If you didn’t see the video above, check it out. Our meal there was the event-of-the-week from the Cucumber Smash to the champagne toast to the crème brûlée served beside a fire pit glittering with sea glass. The mixes of their artisan cocktails are hand-pressed and blended, and the spirits infused in-house. A Tennessee girl born in Kentucky, I loved that their focus isn’t rum– as is the case with most island drinks–but bourbon and whiskey. The most impressive presentation I’ve seen was of the The Captain’s Smoked Old Fashioned I had to try. Our server said she did her nails especially for it. 🙂 Another surprise was that the hit of the starters was the Yacht Line Candied Bacon–torched tableside. Other delicious dishes were the Romesco Garlic Shrimp, Kung Pao Calamari, the Cuban Bread, and always my favorite–Spanish Octopus. I had the Mahi Mahi and Taylor enjoyed the Lobster Tacos.

Also the oysters and scallops at Doc Ford’s (see video) are great.

DON’T MISS

THE #1 thing to do at South Seas Island Resort is their signature Sunset Celebration at Sunset Beach. In the video above, singer songwriter Danny Morgan who has toured and played with about everyone from Jimmy Buffett to The Beach Boys, visited the area in the 80s and has been playing to multi-generational crowds since. Rather than wish upon a star, we wished upon a shell as the sun melted into the ocean.

hammock and palm trees
Sunset Beach, South Seas Island Resort Photo by Taylor McCain
Final Sunset with New Friends
Beach dinner by Tacos and Tequila followed by S’mores
Jalapeno Margarita Toast on Sunset Beach

I have only two regrets: One, that a regatta pulled the sailboats from the island. We were excited about taking our first sailing lesson.

Next time. Two, that our time at South Seas had to end.

Anne Morrow Lindberg’s Gift from the Sea

Stay tuned for the Anniversary Celebration of Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s, Gift from the Sea, one of my favorite memoirs. I am excited and grateful to be one of the writers invited to work on my memoir on Sanibel Island for this event where she was inspired to write hers–a dream come true.

Behind-the-Scene Tour of The Ringling, Crown Jewel of Florida’s Cultural Coast

Disclosure: Thank you, VisitSarasota.com and partners, for the hospitality, education, and fun. Readers, as always, the opinions here are my own.

 

This last feature of a 3-part series celebrating Florida’s Cultural Coast pays tribute to Sarasota’s crown jewel, The Ringling. The 66-acre complex of world-class art and circus museums, an educational center, a glass pavilion, historic theater, arboretum, gardens, and  palatial mansion is a place where lovers of all kinds can wander away from crowds. More a destination than an attraction, The Ringling alone is worth a trip to Sarasota County. It’s also a cultural center for local members and a dream venue for romance and weddings.

I took a three-hour private tour with Virginia Harshman, Ringling Public Relations Head, M.A. Harvard University in Museum Studies. She gave me a behind-the-scenes look, unlocking secret areas with keys, masterful storytelling, and passion for the property and the people who built it. I left wishing that I’d explored this hidden gem and national/global treasure a long time ago and looking forward to a future visit.

The Ringling is beautiful in any season. It’s not too late to plan  the perfect Valentine’s, Spring Break, Remote School, or Summer Getaway.

Who loves The Ringling? 

The Ringling Art Museum Courtyard

I Do! I Do! And if you’re one of these 10 Kinds of Lovers, you will, too…

1) Lovers of Love Stories & The 1920s American Dream

Even before I heard the love story of John and Mabel Ringling, American Royalty who owned the Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus, I fell in love at first sight with their home. Ca’ d’Zan transported me to my favorite era, the Roaring ‘20s, and two of my favorite places on earth. Its Moorish arches took me back to Morocco 

and its overall design to Venice where I started another new year. Inspired by the Doge’s Palace on the Grand Canal, the five-story Venetian Gothic Revival mansion overlooks Sarasota Bay. 

Doge’s Palace, New Year’s Eve, 2015

Doge’s Palace

Ca’ d’Zan Photo Courtesy of The Ringling

The exterior’s stucco as well as many glass windows and bedrooms are pink hues. My favorite color,  the breathtaking property, and  John Ringling’s story reminded me of one of my favorite characters, Jay Gatsby, and his pink suit. John Ringling, like F. Scott Fitzgerald’s protagonist, had humble beginnings and both tenaciously pursued The American Dream. I could imagine Jay Gatsby’s Rolls-Royce, called a “circus wagon,” parked in the driveway beside John Ringling’s Rolls-Royce, now on exhibit in the Sarasota Classic Car Museum.

Walking the grounds, I could imagine legendary ‘20s parties around Gatsby’s and on the Ringling terrace.  John and Mabel frequently entertained celebrities, like Will Rogers who had his own guest room, movie directors, politicians, and actresses, such as Billie Burke, better known as Glenda the Good Witch in The Wizard of Oz.

Jay was “The Great Gatsby”and “John was King of The Greatest Show on Earth.” Both built romantic palaces for the women they loved, but here the parallels end. Daisy rejected Jay and his new money. John and Mabel had similar values–maybe because she, too, came from a modest family. They were kindred spirits in their shared love for culture, art, and travel, as well as their desire to give back. Their legacy is now the State Art Museum of Florida administered by Florida State University. 

Though Ca’ d’Zan means “House of John” in the Venetian dialect, it has been called John’s “love letter” to Mabel. They built it together, getting ideas as they traveled the world for twenty-five years buying art and new circus acts.  She collected in an oilskin portfolio photos and sketches of architecture, gardens, and design. See the video below of my behind-the-scenes tour where I learned more about Mabel and why everyone at The Ringling adores her.

John and Mabel Ringling

2)  Lovers of Architecture and Design

In 1911, John and Mabel began spending winters in Sarasota on 20 acres of waterfront property they purchased. They continued buying real estate and at one time owned 25% of the town. In 1924 they hired architect Dwight James Baum to design and Owen Burns to build the 36,000 square-foot Mediterranean Revival of their dreams. In addition to the Doge’s Palace, Ca’ d’Oro and the Grand Hotel d’Italie Bauer-Grünwald  inspired the plans. 

Ca’ d’Oro, Venice taken New Year’s Day, 2016

The roof was made of 16th century tiles John found in Barcelona and sent home in two cargo ships. The marble bayside terrace –now used for weddings, yoga classes, and other gatherings– was used by the Ringlings for entertaining. The orchestra played for guests from their yacht, Zalophus, beside Mabel’s gondola which bobbed in the bay. Their dining room table seated 22, and cocktails were served in style at parties and in John’s Man Cave. 

Ballroom Ceiling

John’s Man Cave

Virginia gave me a look at the upper floors of the house which were closed due to Covid. I felt like I was a kid again–Nancy Drew on a snoop–when she showed me the secret Playroom. Overlooking Sarasota from the 82-foot tower is a moment I won’t forget. (See video below.)

Everywhere you look there is regal beauty. John Ringling’s bedroom

Mabel and John painted on The Playroom ceiling

Some guest rooms, such this one where Will Rogers often stayed, were closed due to Covid

Everyday feels like a holiday at Ca’ de’Zan

 

3) Lovers of Art and History

After Ca’ d’Zan was completed, John built a 21-gallery museum modeled from the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. In the courtyard stands a cast bronze replica of Michelangelo’s David purchased from the Chiurrazi Foundry outside of Rome, Italy.  It’s now the symbol of the City of Sarasota on Florida’s Cultural Coast.

The Ringling, Sarasota, Florida’s Cultural Coast

Ringling Courtyard Photo Courtesy of VistSarasota.com

 Inside are collections of Classical and Modern Masters. In 1931, two years after the death of Mabel, John opened the museum to the public to promote “education and art appreciation, especially for our young people.” In 1936 he left it to the state of Florida upon his death. See the video above on the Rubens Gallery, the family crest John had designed, and Modern Art exhibits, such as the photography series, A Girl and Her Room . A world-class cultural center, The Ringling Art Museum was just awarded another grant–this one from the Andy Warhol Foundation.

At the Museum of Art and Education Center budding artists,  Artists in Residence, and teachers find resources, professional development, and inspiration. 

4) Lovers of Theater/Performing Arts

The Historic Asolo Theater itself, once in the castle in Asolo, Italy of Queen Caterina Cornaro, Venetian-born widow of the King of Cyprus is a MUST-SEE.

It has been restored and moved into the John M. McKay Visitors Pavilion, designed by Yann Wemouth, architect for the Pyramide du Lovre, East Wing of the National Gallery in D.C. and the Dali Museum in St. Petersburg, Florida. See performing arts schedule here.

5) Lovers of Glass Art

Grouped by country of origin, works of art from the studio glass movement from the 1940s to the present are in the Glass Pavilion here.

5) Lovers of Gardens and Gorgeous Landscapes

In the 66-acre paradise are waterfront gardens and a Level II Arboretum with 100 different species of trees to hug. John and Mabel are buried in the Secret Garden below.

Secret Garden

6) Lovers of Cinderella Stories, Business, and Finance

The Ringling family story is fascinating. In 1927 John Ringling, one of the wealthiest men in the world, made Sarasota the winter headquarters for the circus. In addition to owning “The Greatest Show on Earth” he invested in oil, railroads, Madison Square Garden, and his community. When he died his estate appraised at $23.5 million, and he had $311 in the bank. Business Insider gives an in-depth analysis here.  

7) The Circus and Circus Movies

Ok, I admit it. I’ve saved the best for near-last.  One of my favorite movies as a child wasThe Greatest Show on Earth  which I watched again this week while writing this piece. Director Cecil B. DeMille traveled with the circus for research and John North, John Ringling’s nephew, plays himself in the film as he tries to save the show in changing times. I loved seeing Sarasota where it was filmed–especially the parade down Main Street which included locals as extras. When it was made, there was no Walt Disney World; time under the Big Top was the premiere happy place for children. The movie was the highest grossing film of the year. Though some critics didn’t agree with it winning Best Picture, I’m with  Stephen Spielberg, another fan. He said it was the first movie he ever saw and it inspired his film career.  Since my mom’s generation, kids would say, “I’m goin’ run away and join the circus!” Swinging from a trapeze in sequins and feathers still looks pretty fun to me. 

Check out Sarasota’s Circus Legacy and Circus Museum here. Don’t miss the world’s largest model circus (see video) and special exhibits, like Circus and Suffragists

9) Lovers of Visionaries, Dreamers, and Muses

John was one of eight children of a German immigrant. Mabel grew up in a small farming community in a family of eight. John began in a small circus as a clown. 

After making his fortune, he bought Saint Armand’s Key to develop it into a center for shopping, restaurants, and art. Though the Great Depression deferred his dream, it was fulfilled later by others. Today his statue overlooks Saint Armand’s Circle, a global destination. Here statues he donated to the city  transport visitors to other cultural centers, like Rome and Athens. Other plans he had for Sarasota were thwarted by the times, such as a residence for a U.S. President and a Ritz-Carlton on Longboat Key. The statues today in The Ringing Art Museum Courtyard had been purchased for the hotel.  One thing is for sure. He shared his love for mythology and was a muse and myth maker himself.

St. Armands Circle

10) Lovers of Photos Ops

If you are vacationing with teens and they aren’t convinced yet to do The Ringling, tell them it’s Instagram heaven. You can also book professional  portraits  here. 

 

MORE OPPORTUNITIES

Until you can visit in person, virtual options are here:

https://www.ringling.org/events/virtual-talks-lectures

https://www.ringling.org/events/learn-home-anytime

Valentine Celebration

Spring Break Treat April 1–my favorite artist on the Big Screen here.

Florida’s Cultural Coast: Part 1

Part 2

 

 

 

Sarasota County, Florida’s Cultural Coast, Offers Best of All Worlds: Part 1

Disclosure:  A big thank you to VisitSarasota for the gracious hospitality. As always, the opinions here are my own. 

Please note: Decisions about traveling during the pandemic are important and personal. CDC guidelines are here.  As I do when home, I take precautions, such as choosing restaurants and activities with outdoor seating/spaces, and on planes wearing a mask, sometimes with a shield.  When planning a trip, check for the latest updates on what is open and closed in Sarasota County due to Covid-19 or weather conditions here

In this series I’ll explain just a few reasons why Sarasota County has won so many awards. In 2020 Tripadvisor’s Traveler’s Choice™ Awards ranked Siesta Beach #11 of the Top Beaches in the World and #1 Beach in the US. In 2020-21 Sarasota was named #1 Best Place to Retire and #16 Best Place to Live by US News and Report.  In 2020 Southern Living ranked it #7 Best Beach Town for Retirement. In 2019 Conde Nast Traveler ranked it #2 for the Best Places to Retire and Rent.com named it the #1 Best City for Vegans in America.

Unconditional Surrender Statue, Photo Courtesy of VisitSarasota.com

I was swept away by Sarasota County on a quick trip there last summer when I saw its beauty and  learned that it is Florida’s Cultural Coast.

I wanted to start 2021 in this sunny place for a brighter year. I especially looked forward to returning after quiet holidays when my family couldn’t gather as usual because Nashville was too cold for us to meet outdoors.

Snowbird friends nest in this area yearly. My sister and brother-in-law spent their honeymoon in Sarasota, and we hope to gather our adult children, cousins, and moms for a multi-generational reunion there one day.  Since I was a child, Florida has been my Happy Place.  My children loved it too. The Destin area is only 7 hours by car from Nashville so many families from here make it their go-to vacation spot.  But over the last couple of years, I’ve been working my way down the west coast. Sarasota County truly offers the best of all worlds—the most beautiful beaches in the country, a welcoming community of locals focused on health and fitness, AND a big city art and culinary scene.

When planning a vacation, we can feel forced to choose between two types we love– exploring a new city or relaxing on a beach. The liberal arts instructor in me likes to nerd-out in artistic centers.

I’ve been moved by paintings in Paris, Amsterdam, Rome… 

The Ringling Museum of Art, Sarasota, Florida

ballet in St. Petersburg and Bratislava… theater in New York and London…

Venice Theater,  Photo Courtesy of VisitSarasota.com

sculptures in Athens and Florence…

The David at The Ringling Courtyard, Sarasota

 palatial architecture in Marrakesh, Venice, and Rome.

Ringling Museum of Art Courtyard, Sarasota, Photo Courtesy of VistSarasota.com

Sarasota County offers all of these experiences. 

Sometimes the free spirit in  me just wants a dozen raw oysters and live music, a transcendent sunset, days spent gathering seashells and crashing on powdered sugar sand. 

Siesta Key Beach, voted #1 in the US, is that place, too.
If you enjoy walking or biking to patios of locally-owned coffee shops and cafes …

Lila, Sarasota

checking out craft beer breweries

Big Top Brewing Courtesy of VisitSarasota.com

…or having a cocktail on a rooftop looking down on city lights and an ocean bay… 

Art Ovation Rooftop Photo Courtesy of VisitSarasota.com

Sarasota County is your place.

Family members have different interests and priorities… shopping vs golfing, playing beach volleyball vs working out, eating vegan vs grilling steak or seafood, exploring nature vs hopping beaches, watching dolphins vs watching the Braves. Here everybody gets to do his or her thing.

Sarasota County also makes the ideal remote classroom. It’s why some parents working from home have moved their children’s virtual learning to Florida’s west coast. Here family bonds over all kinds of field trips–opportunities providing education and wellness for mind, body, and spirit.

Selby Butterfly Garden Photo Courtesy of VisitSarasota.com

 

Research shows that just planning a trip makes us happier. Even just a long weekend away can reduce stress. Sarasota is only a 2-hour flight from Nashville and much of the southeast. I flew Allegiant as I’ve done in the past and been very pleased. Last fall Allegiant added 8 new cities with flights to Sarasota/Bradenton International Airport. Other departures include Asheville, NC; Fairfax, VA; Louisville, KY; and Knoxville, TN. 

Below is my 3-day itinerary of starting 2021 in Sarasota County. Please check out highlights in the video below. 

The Pineapple Drop  was cancelled but should be back to bring in 2022. Ubers were booked for the weekend. I had better luck scheduling ahead with Lyft. Other than wanting to stay longer…like a month…a year…I wouldn’t have changed a thing. 

(Those I recorded in video removed masks  for interviews only).

Day One
Arrive in Sarasota County at SRQ Airport

Photo Courtesy of VisitSarasota.com

Check In Art Ovation Hotel, Autograph Collection 

Art Ovation Hotel  is located in downtown Sarasota, the heart of world-class culture and cuisine.  Florida Studio TheatreSarasota Opera House  , other venues and Main Street are steps away. The boutique hotel itself celebrates and inspires creativity with exhibits of contemporary artists throughout.  I felt at home the minute I stepped out of the taxi when I heard salsa music playing throughout the lobby and Overture Bar where rotating art exhibits represent global cultures. Cuban art was in the spotlight  while I was there– inspiring workshops, the menu,  and the playlist.

Upon arrival I was given a guide inviting guests to ten events over the weekend including the New Year’s Eve party on the rooftop, tours led by cultural curators of art galleries throughout the property, live musical performances by Motown and jazz artists, and the weekly Vino Y Arte class where a local artist paints live, then teaches participants her/his techniques as they sip wine and create masterpieces of their own.

Art Ovation Hotel Photo Courtesy of VisitSarasota.com

Sarasota Opera Production of Romeo & Juliet Photo Courtesy of VisitSarasota.com

 

Florida Studio Theatre, Photo Courtesy of VisitSarasota.com

Photo Courtesy of VisitSarasota.com

 

Lobby Lounge

 

The hotel provides courtesy bikes and beach chairs. After the New Year’s Eve party I was tempted to grab a cabana poolside but instead took a bike to my yoga class, to lunch, and to check out the neighborhood.

The staff are consummate professionals. They were gracious and helpful with ordering a quick breakfast in the room, scheduling rides, and  and providing insider tips on venues for Latin dance. My King Guest Room was on the 6th floor with  a view of the city lights. In addition to luxurious bedding, walk-in shower, and bath products, in each room is a ukulele for  find your musician within. Their commitment to inspiring creativity extends to all ages, even after you’ve returned home.

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9 pm Dinner at Columbia Restaurant

Since taking a quick spin around St. Armands Circle last summer, I was on a mission to eat at this award-winning institution. Being there on NYE was a real treat. Columbia’s, founded in 1905 by Cuban immigrant Casimiro Hernandez, Sr., has additional locations in Tampa, St. Augustine, and Clearwater.  It has been owned and operated by 5 generations and is  known as Florida’s oldest restaurant, the largest Spanish restaurant in the world, and was named one of the most historic restaurants in the country by USA Today. Like the food and service, the guest list is stellar–  Babe Ruth, Jack Dempsey, Marilyn Monroe, Liza Minelli, Bruce Springsteen, Steven Tyler, and George Clooney.

After living in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic I  miss  favorites enjoyed in my Piantini neighborhood and at  Pat’s Palo in the Colonial Zone . Columbia’s has empanadas, croquettes, paella, sangria –oh my!–and so many other choices on the dinner and wine menus choosing is difficult.  My server, Roxy, helped with this. I had  the Ybor City Devil Crab Croquettes, the Original 1905 Salad, the Filet Mignon, and a glass of Don Cesar 2011 Ribera del Duero Spanish wine. Roxy recommended for another day one of their most popular dishes, Salteado . Was I pleased with my experience? See the highlight video above. Reservations recommended, and they offer catering.

Roxy, my amazing server, is new to Sarasota and loving it. She makes me want to move here, too. Another server stopped by to say he grew up in Budapest and has been to all 50 states. He settled in Sarasota and says, “I know it’s a cliche, but this IS paradise.”

The Original 1005  salad is worth the hype. It would also be perfect for lunch with a dessert.

 

I can’t believe they share recipes for their signature  salad (above), popular Cuban sandwich, Mojitos and more here! Columbia’s makes not only guests happy but also servers and management who stay. Manager Richard Appelgren told me he came here from Chile in 1984: “It was my first job and I never left. I love it here.” When I asked how Covid-19 has affected business, he said they adhere to  all safety  measures and fill tables at 50%. He added, “People trust us, and that’s why they keep coming back.”

Columbia’s Manager, Richard Appelgren

NYE Party for Guests on Art Ovation Rooftop–See story on Instagram Highlight. 

Day Two
11:00-12:00 AM Pineapple Yoga + Cycling Studio 

(In this outdoor cycling/yoga class we wore masks unless on our mats or bikes, and class size was restricted to follow social distancing guidelines. More about Yoga and Lila in Part 2.)

1:00 Lunch at Lila
Afternoon on Lido Beach
Dinner at Element. Steak. Seafood. Pasta. 

Around here exceptionally talented creatives aren’t just found on stages. They are found behind-the-scenes making magic.  I love the stories of Executive Chef Nils and Chef Michelle . These culinary artists, a top-tier staff, an extensive wine list, and gorgeous setting make Element a favorite of local foodies and out-of-town guests. The modern dining rooms and candle-lit terraces make this restaurant a haven. Manager James Harries makes sure all feel welcome. My fun server, Phillipe, suggested the scallops. They were served on parmesan farro risotto with a citrus herb crumb topping and cucumber mint relish. The dish was incredible, and so was the white wine he turned me onto– a Sancerre named for the Upper Loire Valley in France. See highlights in video above. Recommendations recommended.

Element’s elegant dining room

I loved the terraces at Element for their quiet, private spaces.

Day 3
Morning Check out of Art Ovation Hotel  
Private 3-hour tour of The Ringling with Virginia Harshman 
An incredible behind-the-scenes look at the museums and Ca’ d’Zan will be featured in Part 3 of this series. 
Check in at Sarasota Surf & Racquet Club 

My condo was spacious–perfect for a family vacation. As always, my favorite room was the screened in lanai overlooking the pool, beach, and sea. I wasn’t there long enough to buy groceries or grill out, so for lunch I took a trolley a couple of miles down Midnight Pass Road to Siesta Key Village for oysters.  (See video for highlights.) The sunset behind the Club was beautiful as expected, and I hear there’s a drum circle on Siesta Key Beach on Sundays at sunset. Check out other things to do here.

Nightlife in Siesta Key Village, Photo Courtesy of VisitSarasota.com

8:30 Dinner Ophelia’s on the Bay on Siesta Key

Ok, this is a  Must-Do. Please see the video above with highlights. I understand why Ophelia’s on the Bay has received recognition from magazines such as Gourmet and Food and Wine. And why it is a popular wedding venue. In fact, a ceremony had just ended before I arrived. Owner Daniel Olson started working in his father’s restaurant in  Maryland at age 14. In 2000 he moved to Sarasota and in  2004 became Executive Chef. His passion and creativity sustains  a loyal  following  of locals and of tourists who always come back.

I loved eating under twinkling lights and a full moon reflected on the bay. I was thrilled to learn that my server, Cassy Belliveau. lived in Nashville six years and worked at one of my favorite restaurants there. She recommended what I believe was the best salad I’ve had in my life. The lobster and pasta made in-house are perfection. The creamy Champagne sauce made the dish so rich and delicious that I saved a bit to carry away for breakfast. Other recommendations are the Maryland Crab Cakes and the Eggplant Crepes, made with Mascarpone, Ricotta, Fontina, spinach, basil, and San Marzano Pomodoro Sauce–staples on the menu for twenty-five years. Reservations recommended.

Ophelia’s on the Bay, Photo Courtesy of Visit Sarasota.com

~  Lioni Latticini Burrata Con Panna Mozzarella ~Heirloom Tomato and Heart of Palm Salad, Prosciutto di Parma, Country Olives, Roasted Peppers,
Black Truffle Marcona Almonds, Black Truffle-Dijon Vinaigrette

1 ½ Pound “Lazy” Maine Lobster, Butter Poached, Handmade Fresh Tortellini, Champagne Lobster Sauce

Day 4
Morning Check out of Sarasota Surf and Racquet Club
Depart from SRQ Airport  

MORE PlACES TO STAY AND PLAY

See the Official Visitors Guide containing a a map, activities for younger children, and MUCH more: digital version and additional guides to download here. 

First, FESTIVALS, My Favorite Thing

See the calendar of annual events in Digital Guide mentioned above — Pages 36-37. Below I’ve highlighted a few festivals and events happening in the next few months (one in November below) to get you started…

FEBRUURY

4th Annual Taste of New Orleans

Thunder by the Bay–Music and Motorcycles Fest for Local Charities

Sarasota Ski-A-Rees–Ski Show normally every weekend February-May. On hold but check back for reopening.

MARCH

Suncoast BBQ & Bluegrass Bash

APRIL

Venice Shark Tooth Festival

MAY

Myakka River Blues Festival

JUNE

Sarasota Music Festival

2022

SarasotaHighlandGames.com

Sarasota Music Half Marathon

More Places to Stay

Luxury, Boutique and More here.

Longboat Key

The Resort at Longboat Key, Winner of the Condé Nast Traveler 2020 Readers’ Choice Awards

The Resort at Longboat Key, Photo Courtesy of VistSarasota.com

 

Zota Beach Resort, Winner of the Condé Nast Traveler 2020 Readers’ Choice Awards

Zota Beach Resort, Photo Courtesy of VistiSarasota.com

 

Lido Beach

Lido Beach Resort

Lido Beach Resort, Photo Courtesy of VisitSarasota.com

 

Hotel Indigo

Don’t forget the fur babies…

Hotel Indigo Courtesy of VisitSarasota.com

 

Legacy Hotel

Legacy Hotel, Photo Courtesy of VisitSarasota.com

Other Places to Learn and Play

 Mangrove Tunnels at Lido Beach

Mangrove Tunnels Lido Beach, Photo Courtesy of VisitSarasota.com

Sarasota Farmer’s Market

Sarasota Farmer’s Market, Photo Courtesy of VisitSaraosta.com

Sarasota Jungle Gardens

Sarasota Jungle Gardens, Photo Courtesy of VistSarasota.com

Civil Rights Tour , Photo Courtesy of VisitSarasota.com.

 

Other possibilities for beauty, adventure, Education and fun include Mary Selby Botanical Gardens, MOTE Marine LABROTORY & AQUARIUM, Civil Rights Tour, and Siesta Key Water Sports.

More Places to Eat

Places to ShopSt. Armands Circle & Beyond

L. Boutique–See all of their designers. I fell in love with kaftans in Morocco so no surprise I LOVE Camilla’s Kaftans and her story. 

T.Georgiano’s  

Influence Style

Island Pursuit

Molly & Zoey

Apricot Lane Boutique 

Fixxation Boutique,

Lotus Boutique,

Pineapple Lain Boutique

The Bazaar on Apricot and Lime 

Camilyn Beth

In the next 2 posts I’ll focus on Health and Wellness Getaways and the Biggest Attraction in Town.

 

 

Local’s Guide to Tarpon Springs, Florida: A Greek Village for Travel Bucket List or Retirement

*Did you know the 12 Days of Christmas are December 25-January 5 anticipating The Epiphany/Three Kings Day on January 6? Did you know the largest Epiphany celebration in the northern hemisphere is in Tarpon Springs? Join me on a podcast tour of Tarpon Springs with Dr. Vincent Huth to learn more, plan a trip, plan a new life. See links below post for your Travel Bucket List to his Must Sees, Must Dos, and Must Eats. 

When a friend and fellow world explorer told me he’d decided not to retire on the southern coast of Spain or Ireland as he’d planned–that he, in fact, was moving to the Gulf of Mexico in the US, I was surprised. But with the enthusiasm of Ponce de León, he told me about discovering Tarpon Springs, Florida  a Greek Village of 24,000 so relaxed and affordable that he’d changed his course.  Thanks to Anastasios Papapostolou of GreekReporter.com for permission to use this video:

I love Greece, so on a road trip to Anna Maria Island with my friend, Traci, we stopped  to check out his new home. We caught up with fresh salads and a seafood pizza from Jimmy’s (which I’ve longed for since) at a seaside picnic table minutes from his house.

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The pines swayed in the ocean breeze on that hot July day as did boats tied to the sponge docks we walked past after lunch. Along the historic main street we strolled past Hellenistic statues and quaint Greek shops. We stopped for dessert at Hella’s Restaurant and Bakery which alone is worth the trip. Sorry, Italy, but a cone of their Banana Foster is the best gelato I’ve ever had!

I plan to return for more walking (and biking and boating) to drink in more of the natural beauty of parks, beaches, and lakes surrounding a European-style city center of Victorian homes.  Though the ancestors of  Epicurus make this a place to eat, drink, and be merry, we somehow left feeling lighter. As for Vince, it’s obvious perfect weather, performing arts, gorgeous cathedrals and a close community quickens the spirit. Away from the madding crowds, such a Florida find is a sip from the fountain of youth and a taste of nectar from the gods.

Tarpon Springs, Florida, less than an hour from crowded Clearwater or Tampa, was built by Greek immigrants in 1875 who made a quaint village on the Gulf of Mexico the sponge capital of the world. Today the city still has more Greek-American residents than anywhere in the US and the largest Epiphany celebration in the Western hemisphere. January 6 typically draws over 10,000 visitors to watch boys dive as their grandfathers did for a cross thrown into the ocean.  

What to See in Tarpon Springs

Vince’s Must-Eats discussed on Podcast

Nearby events and destinations Mentioned on Podcast

 

 

Anna Maria Island: World Class Beaches with Old Florida Charm

Bradenton Beach, Florida
Beautiful Bradenton Beach on Anna Maria Island–pristine and peaceful place to spread out, relax, breathe.

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The sea, once it casts its spell, holds one in its net of wonder forever.Jacques Yves Cousteau

What can I say? I’m a Pisces and was caught in the ocean’s net long ago.

When my spring break trip to Sicily was cancelled by Covid and borders began closing, I planned an escape to another island–this one in the US.  My sister and brother-in-law love Anna Maria Island, Florida where they vacation (and Sarasota where they married just down the road).  We grew up doing summer sojurns with Mom and our grandparents to Panama City, then took our own children to build sandcastles in Destin, also on Florida’s northern “Emerald Coast.” I’ve explored Florida’s east coast from Daytona to Miami to the Keys so began last year chasing the legendary sunsets on beaches in  the Tampa Bay area and southwest Florida. 

I’m drawn to all kinds of water–whether it laps the beach gently or crashes against its rugged rocks.  While living in Morocco I escaped the city to inhale, exhale with the tide in Essaouira, Agadir, Taghazout, Asilah and Tangier.  I’ve been thrilled by coasts in Spain, Portugal, Ireland, France, Monaco, Greece, Italy…Costa Rica and the Bahamas…California, Hawaii, Tybee Island, Folly Island, and Hilton Head.

But if you want an island escape with sand, white and soft as powdered sugar, and clear, green/blue waters,  check out the Cies Isles in Europe; The Dominican Republic, where I lived for a year in the Caribbean, and Anna Maria Island. This US destination provides gorgeous sunsets; major shelling; live music; dolphin and manatee sightings; no high rises or food chains, a trolley to take you all the way to Sarasota, and a laid-back Old Florida vibe.  I now understand why residents call it Paradise and travelers become pilgrims who return yearly. Woman on shore of Bradenton Beach

Beaches on the 7-mile island include Anna Maria City, Bean Point, Holmes, Bradenton and Coquina. We stayed on a private section of Bradenton Beach where there was plenty of room for social distancing.

I went with my friend, Traci, also a teacher, who has to plan vacations around school. When our spring breaks were cancelled, we made plans for June, then postponed them to July thinking Covid would calm down. It didn’t.  Florida became a hot spot, but we’d chosen an area that wasn’t. We’d booked a condo which had a kitchen for meals and deeded  beach  property. We also drove rather than flew, did dinners in restaurants with outdoor/open spaces maintaining social distancing, and wore masks in the few enclosed public spaces we went. We also stayed in touch with friends who are Florida residents and kept us current on the situation. There was no heavy traffic or long waits at restaurants. As with any vacation in the pandemic era, be sure to check the latest information on health-related sites. This one might also be useful for  Covid-19 Travel Information for Florida.

Where to Stay

Location. Location. Location. Our comfortable, spacious condo was located in Bradenton Beach on a bay beside Cortez Bridge.  It had paved paths both to its deeded beach property across the street and to Historic Bridge Street a couple of blocks away where the clock tower calls locals and tourists to a hub of fun. Owner Morgan Henderson is an amazing host who after months of staying in touch now feels like an old friend! She had everything we needed in the 2 bedroom, 2 bathroom space including a wagon to carry coolers, an umbrella, beach chairs, and towels to the beach. If you book with her, please say hi for me!

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We enjoyed the calming decor of the condo– blue hues of the Gulf. The living area windows and sliding doors to the lanai illuminated the space with a view of the bridge and bay.
Bradenton Beach Condo overlooking bay
Here mornings begin with a cup of coffee and evenings with a glass of wine. On a rainy afternoon, a dolphin joined me.

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Where to Play and Relax

The Beach of Course!

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Entrance to Historic Bridge Streeta couple of blocks away

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My favorite hangout was  listening to music on the water dockside at Bridge Tender Inn..

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Dan Signor IS a “big shot” the way he tears up the keys and strings at Bridge Tender Inn. He had me from the moment he played Van Morrison’s “The Mystic.”
Anna Maria Oyster Bar–great raw oysters outside on the water with a view. This place was so good we went twice!
Surround me with water!
Loved walks in the quirky local neighborhood between our condo and Bridge Street.
Meanwhile, back at the condo…
Next door was a GREAT place for Mexican food, Wicked Cantina. They also have a restaurant in Sarasota. We went away with leftovers and stuffed.
MUST DOs are the margaritas and guacamole bites –freshly made guac rolled in a fried tortilla chip crust served with Jalapeño Ranch sauce
The shrimp burrito was so good!
Gulf Drive Cafe was across the street on the beach. Great place for ocean view, drinks, “food, and fellowship” as we say in Kentucky and Nashville where we’re from.
After a rough 2020 we were in a girl trip crash-at-the beach and relax- near- the- condo mode. We saved the north end of the island for the last day and did get to places below, but rain thwarted plans to do Bean Point (named for the first permanent resident ), then a late lunch or dinner at The Sandbar . Though the restaurant has a parking lot, getting to the northernmost beach is daunting due to lack of public parking near there. Better to take the trolley rather than a car unless you can hike, bike, or golf cart it . Traci is  bringing her family to AMI later this year, I can’t wait to be back with mine, so no worries… next time.
Cutest store ever is the Shiny Fish Emporium where you can paint a sand dollar for $15, find a bohemian or vintage frock, and eye the green velvet couches for an island nap. We enjoyed chatting with Grace who works there and gave us the scoop on navigating Pine Avenue and her end of the island. In addition to popular restaurants, like The Donut Experiment and Poppos Taqueria next door, there’s Beach Bums for renting bikes, golf carts, and water gear.
This Latin dancer’s dream…cha cha cha
Shiny Fish Emporium
Our last night we went for more live music at Island Time. I enjoyed my lobster tail and steak and hearing Robert Garcia play favorites by Cat Stevens and Rod Stewart while heckling the audience.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TDUPiUy0w5I

Traci’s friend, Pam, who recently moved to Florida joined us for beach time, dinners on Bradenton Beach, and on our excursion to Sarasota. She suggested for future stays Lazy Lobster and Dry Dark Waterfront Grill in Longboat Key. We’d already tried Mar Vista there and loved eating by the water under the trees. The scallops were amazing! Down the coast (a 30-minute drive from AMI) we took a quick spin around St. Armands Circle in Sarasota, bought by Charles and John Ringling of the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus in 1917. In 1927 they moved the circus to Sarasota as their winter headquarters. John Ringling’s permanent art collection was left to the public. Guests can tour the galleries, now the State Art Museum of Florida, and the Ringlings’ Mediterranean Revival-style mansion on the Ringling estate. I can’t wait to further explore “Florida’s Cultural Coast”--hopefully during the Sarasota Highland Games and Celtic Festival celebrating Scottish roots. I want to know more about Sarasota’s intriguing history and that of Anna Maria Island.

So what have I learned in the year of the Great American Road Trip after being grounded from Europe? I’m told in Sarasota I’d normally hear languages from around the world as I do there. I miss that! But I’m discovering incredible natural beauty in my home country–a place of diverse, gorgeous landscapes; immigrant influence; and indigenous roots. So much more to see…

2020 has been a stormy year. None of us can know when this pandemic will end–when borders will open and global travel resume. We keep watching the sky, but I believe with God’s help, we can weather the storms–even find beauty in the midst of them– and more than we dare dream on the other side.

Disclosure: I received a discount on my accommodations, but as always, the opinions on this blog are my own.

Spring Break in Mermaid Cove


Just another day in paradise. Today we pull up anchor and leave Mermaid Cove. It won’t be easy. How will I start my days without drinking coffee while writing by the rosemary on our condo’s patio? Each morning the sun draws its line, making a band of light, a visible boundary, I must respect. It lights the opposite side of the courtyard while the kids are still asleep, then sundials its way across the lime green grass, heating the pool then advancing to our side of the lawn. By the time its full-court press reaches our patio, Taylor is at the pool and I know it’s time to join her.

I’d been so excited planning our trip to Seagrove. I wanted to do “old Florida”—a studio hideaway, a pool with concrete tables and benches, an unpretentious place like my grandparents and mom took my sister and me when we were little. Then the day before our trip, something unexpected happened. I interviewed a respected author/ filmmaker and actor. Then I filmed a scene in their movie. Surreal. It’s fitting I try to explain it in the early morning mist—a mix of salt, sea, and sand rising with the dew.

I’ve realized again how much I love writing—how it doesn’t feel like work. And I’ve realized I must write—even on vacation. Who was it… Lord Byron?…who said “If I don’t write I’ll go mad.” Normally writing is a release… but here… at least after the first day or so when I relearned how to relax, I’ve still felt the need to write this story…then share it… because I believe in the work of this director and actor. So even on vacation, I get up early to tap away before the kids get up. But I’ve also learned balance…how to leave the laptop, hang out with them at the pool and head to the beach when they’re ready.

Days spent on the sand reading Loving Frank as Taylor reads my favorite Southern writer, Jill McCorkle. Of course she likes the feisty woman in Carolina Moon just as we all liked Sandra Bullock’s character last night in The Blind Side. Cole had wanted us to see it. Like we did at the Hard Rock Hotel in Orlando when they were little, we’d eat out at night, then watch movies—Cole from the fold-out couch and Tay and me from our bed. Difference is this vacation is retro. DVDs…not Pay Per View. No hot tub or amusement parks. Just five days of blue skies, cooler on the beach, a baked ham in the fridge. We needed this trip. Who knows when we’ll all have Spring Break together again.

Thank you, Lord, for a perfect location. Seagrove is cool…Seaside about a mile away. Throngs of kids on bicycles and on foot—loosed by parents in this protective cocoon by the sea. Cole talks for the “bicycle gangs”: “Hey guys, it’s 8…think we better call it a night?” But some are misbehavin’—boys with dead jellyfish on their heads—while younger children dig furiously in the sand closer to moms and dads.

Water Color… Grayton…Blue Mountain…Santa Rosa. Deer grazing along the interstate as we drive to Destin. I learned to relax with the kids behind the wheel…that Taylor is happiest when quietly reading and Cole when lying on the couch watching the NCAA Final Four or checking out the pool house. We’ve listened to hip hop, eaten at Hurricane’s oyster bar, Red Bar (where a sixty-something man danced drunk with a twenty-something woman as all watched smashed—and not by alcohol—in a place that obviously ignores fire codes). As gas rose 20 cents a gallon during our stay, I learned a “decent meal” now costs between $20-$25 per person. Funny that Crab Trap in Destin—a place I’d taken the kids since they brought home the plastic buckets and shovels– was still a favorite. Angelina’s take out… an experience…Bayou Bill’s in Panama City our least favorite meal but a fun night in the booth. Cole had gator and liked it—Tay and I tried it but didn’t. They made fun of me…always good times when they are the closest. Taylor is a dark brunette these days—black hair and beautiful. Cole towers over us both, his hair flipping out from under his UK gangsta cap, something girls and Cats’ fans have complimented.

Yesterday after the kids went to the room for showers I stayed alone on the beach…flour white sand glistening with dead jelly fish. Emerald coast flickering with reflection. Fishing poles in a line, kayak grounded before the life guard’s station, red, then yellow and blue flags. I think of a Louisville couple at the pool who said they’re staying down here till September. I’d napped earlier…but I began to dream. They saw me writing and said there’s a sign in a Seaside window: “Writer for hire.”

Crows are calling…gotta run. Hate that it’s over. They say, “All good things must come to an end.” That’s why I hate them.

But then… I remember I can simply disagree. We can do other getaways. And as hard as it is to return to grading papers and drinking my coffee from a thermos, thanks, Lord, for a job…where students will want to know what I did over the break. Thanks for Brooke who suggested I read Loving Frank, a book about a woman who needed not just a man—Frank Lloyd Wright, an artist no less– but a creative career of her own. Thanks for family and friends who’ve checked in over the miles. Life truly is good…and I choose to believe it can get even better. Cole asked me later if I wanted to go look for that sign. I’d said it would be fun to work for our supper…or beds and breakfast…for a summer adventure. Though born Southerners, we’ve all three come to realize that home isn’t a physical place—it’s wherever we are together.