Archive for August, 2012

The South Walton Beach Bliss Sweepstakes

Imagine beaches that are thick with sugar sand, heaped into dunes so white they look like snow-covered mountains. Imagine emerald-hued waters playing against the shore in their ancient melody.  Imagine dune lakes, mysterious and dark, swirling with fish.

These are the beaches of South Walton, and they are undoubtedly the stuff bliss is made of. If you’re lucky, you can visit them. And if you’re very lucky, you can visit them for free.

Just enter the South Walton Beach Bliss Sweepstakes. You could win a six-day, five-night stay at a beachfront condo, courtesy of My Vacation Haven. The lucky winner will receive:

  • Five nights in a Westwinds beachfront condo
  • $100 Silver Sands Factory Stores gift card
  • Round of Golf for four and cart rentals at Indian Bayou Golf Club
  • Beach Mini-Session, eyeCandi Photography
  • $100 Mitchell's Fish Market gift certificate
  • $85 Fusion Spa Salon gift certificate
  • Up to six bike rentals from Coastal Cruisers

Insider’s tip: I’d advise you to enter before the next high tide, because the sweepstakes ends Aug. 31, 2012. I’ll have all of my fingers and toes crossed for you!





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Continue reading The South Walton Beach Bliss Sweepstakes »

Summer in Northwest Florida: Not Over 'Til the Bell Rings

August, in fact, brings on some of the best deals of the year as merchants and accommodations welcome the last of the summer’s visitors.

Shop-n-Play Vacay

Make back-to-school shopping fun. At Destin Commons, families can truly shop and play. Kids can splash in the interactive fountain and will shriek with delight at the new DC Kids Zone’s bounce houses, games and rides (open through Aug. 12).

To shop and play grown-up style, waterfront HarborWalk Village goes far beyond stores and restaurants with live entertainment venues and a fleet of charter boats to take you fishing, snorkeling, diving, parasailing or just sightseeing out on the sparkling emerald-green waters. August is prime billfishing season, so get ready to hook the big one.

At The Boardwalk on Okaloosa Island, you will find even more shops. The Boardwalk’s restaurants and clubs mean you can play day and night. There’s also nearby Gulfarium Marine Adventure Park, a 57-year-old landmark that re-opened this summer after major renovations that included new dolphin, ray and seal encounter programs. {pullquote}

Vacation Procrastination Payoff

It may not earn good grades during the school year, but putting off your getaway until the end of summer is going to earn you big savings in August along the Emerald Coast. The following resorts and rentals are shaving 10 to 45 percent off nightly rates.

The Breakers of Okaloosa Island
Purchase 3 nights and the 4 night is free or receive 15% off your stay.
Valid: From Aug.12-Oct. 31.
*The special is not valid during Labor Day weekend.

Comfort Inn, Wingate by Wyndham and Hampton Inn in Destin
Save 45 percent in August for your last-minute family vacation.
Valid: Aug. 12-31, 2012.

Dale E. Peterson Vacations
Save an additional 10% off our already low rates on quality beach front accommodations in Destin or Fort Walton Beach.
Valid: On stays between Aug. 11-29, 2012 for 3 nights or more.
*To redeem, mention Visit Florida Newsletter.

Newman-Daily Resort Properties
Guests who stay between Aug. 6 and Sep. 2, 2012 will enjoy up to 30 percent off standard summer rates. As a bonus, guests who book with Newman-Dailey will also receive a gift card good toward area activities, including golf, Big Kahuna's Waterpark, free movie rentals and more.
Valid: Aug. 6-Sep. 2, 2012.

Resorts of Pelican Beach
Up to 25% Off regular rates on stays of 3 to 6 night stays or 20% off weekly stays. School is back in session in many places but summer continues on at the beach.
Valid: Aug. 1-Sep. 3, 2012
*For Reservations and more info visit or call 888-735-4226.

ResortQuest by Wyndham Vacation Rentals
Stay Aug. 6 – Aug. 30, to save on accommodations at condos, townhomes, villas and private vacation home rentals across Northwest Florida. Rates start as low as $95/night at select properties.
Call: 1-800-GO-RELAX
Valid: Travel dates from Aug. 6-30, 2012. Book By 08/27/2012.
*Minimum night stay of 3 Nights. Use promo code LATE10.

SeaCrest Condominiums
Save 10% off website rates at
*Use rate code SC-81.

Venus Condominiums
Save 10% off website rates at
*Use rate code VC-81.

Late-Summer Events

The Emerald Coast parties on throughout the month of August. HarborWalk Village hosts weekly celebrations such as its New Orleans-fashioned Pardi Gras on Tuesdays and Rock the Docks on Saturday nights. For kids, check out the SummerWILD Children’s Camp throughout the month and the Summer Slam Skatepark Contest Aug. 10-12. On Aug. 17, the monthly Fort Walton Beach Art Walk brings a vivacious crowd to downtown for live music, local art and old surfing movies on the lawn.

Last-Chance Suntan

So forget the pencils, books and teachers’ dirty looks for now. Concentrate on this assignment: Finish off your summer on the Emerald Coast, and make memories that will keep you warm 'til next summer comes around.

This article was brought to you by the Emerald Coast Convention and Visitors Bureau. To plan your trip to the Emerald Coast, visit

Continue reading Summer in Northwest Florida: Not Over 'Til the Bell Rings »

Climb the Ponce Inlet Lighthouse by the Light of the Full Moon on Aug. 31

It made my backside and calves whine. I was huffing. But climbing the Ponce Inlet Lighthouse — Florida’s tallest – was worth every one of the 203 steps it took me to reach the top.

The Lighthouse is a handsome, red-brick structure outside, and it’s strangely beautiful inside, too. It has a spiral staircase that seems to go on forever. It twists smaller and tighter the higher you climb, and when you look down, it curls in an endless ribbon. Your voice echoes off the thick walls when you talk. It feels mysterious and old. And that’s just the tip of the sandbar.

When you open the door at the top, the experience literally takes away your breath. You can feel the wind and the gasp of fresh air. The world spreads below in a vast panorama; you can see the caps on the ocean waves, boats cruising the inlet, even the high rises of Daytona Beach towering to the north.

So I can only imagine what it’s like to do it by the light of the full moon.

You can enjoy this incredible adventure, dubbed Climb to the Moon at Ponce Inlet Lighthouse, from 6:45 – 8:45 p.m. Aug. 31, 2012. The old lighthouse keeper will lead you on a journey into the past, explaining the unique history of this National Historic Landmark. At the top, you’ll toast the setting sun with sparkling cider and hors d'oeuvres provided by Inlet Harbor Restaurant.  

Insider’s Tip: If you want to go, you should snag your tickets before the next high tide, because this special event is limited to 25 lucky participants. Tickets must be purchased in advance; call 386-761-1821, ext. 10.

Note: The Ponce Inlet Lighthouse is located at 4931 South Peninsula Drive, Ponce Inlet.

Continue reading Climb the Ponce Inlet Lighthouse by the Light of the Full Moon on Aug. 31 »

Shrimp & Seafood Festival Surfs into New Smyrna Beach Aug. 16

Shrimp is the fruit of the sea. You can barbecue it, boil it, broil it, bake it, sauté it. There's, um, shrimp kebabs, shrimp Creole, shrimp gumbo, pan fried, deep fried, stir fried. There's pineapple shrimp and lemon shrimp, coconut shrimp, pepper shrimp, shrimp soup, shrimp stew, shrimp salad, shrimp and potatoes, shrimp burger, shrimp sandwich… That's, that's about it. ~ Forrest Gump

Adore shrimp? Love lobster? Keen on crabs? If the answer is yes – and I can't fathom it being no – New Smyrna Beach is offering up a tasty treat of an evening.

The Shrimp and Seafood Festival surfs into Flagler Avenue 5 –9 p.m. Aug. 16, 2012 . For $3-$5 a sample, you can nosh on seafood from award-winning area restaurants.

What? You say you’ve never been to New Smyrna Beach?

Check out my slide show on the second-oldest city in North America and the closest beach to Orlando. The pictures definitely do some talking.

Continue reading Shrimp & Seafood Festival Surfs into New Smyrna Beach Aug. 16 »

Photo: Jungle Erv’s Airboat Rides, Everglades City

Mother and daughter enjoy an airboat tour at Jungle Erv’s in Everglades City.

Continue reading Photo: Jungle Erv’s Airboat Rides, Everglades City »

Everglades Legacy of Airboats and Alligators at Jungle Erv's

Erv Stokes' grandfather came to the Everglades during World War II to serve as pastor of the Chokoloskee Church of God. His daddy Odalph stayed in the Everglades and made his living hunting, trapping, skinning and, occasionally, wrestling alligators.

Erv, born and raised in the Everglades, used to dive for the gators his daddy shot. He didn't care much for the work, so he became a school teacher, but in 1984, he opened Eden of the Everglades, and started offering airboat rides through eight acres of swampland he owned along Panther Creek near Everglades City.

He built a boardwalk so visitors could take a comfortable stroll through the swamp. He opened a gator pit, too, where "Odie," his father, would wrestle the reptiles. Eventually the younger Stokes changed the name of the business to Jungle Erv's Airboat Rides.
"Some guys said, 'You should just call it Jungle Erv's,' and I liked the sound of that," Erv said, "so I did."

But trouble came to paradise. The business was pretty much blown away by Hurricane Andrew, which passed right over Everglades City in 1992, and battered again in 2005 by Hurricane Wilma.

Now Jungle Erv is rejuvenating his business. He has rebuilt his boardwalk, which wends its way through six miles of the Everglades. He has ordered "swamp buggies" – vehicles with enormous tires that can drive over the boggy terrain of the Everglades – so he can provide tours. And he plans to expand the gator show too, which will always remind him of Odie, who died in 2010 at the age of 81.

Odie began wrestling gators in his son's gator pit in 1989 and kept right on going as he lost his sight to macular degeneration. He claimed he could see murky shapes, which was enough for him to subdue his opponents. "Once I get ahold of that sucker, he's mine," he told a reporter in 1999.

Odie had been effectively blind for two years before he finally decided, at the age of 70, to give up gator wrestling. By then the National Enquirer had written about the blind gator wrestler, and ABC's Good Morning America had covered the phenomenon, too.

The gators had been good to Odie. Although he considered himself a fisherman, he would turn to gators when the mullet weren't running. He would hunt, trap and skin the creatures, and then sell the hides for around $5 a foot, which provided quite a windfall when he landed a 7- or 8-foot gator. Odie even spent some time in prison in 1969 for selling the hides across state lines.

"We're not ashamed to admit it," Erv said, casting a glance at his mother, Laverne, sitting nearby in the new gift shop at Jungle Erv's. She married Odie when she was 15 and spent years helping him fish, but she didn't complain about the gator poaching, which fed the family.

Laverne's mother, according to family legend, was "sweet on" Edgar Watson, the tall, handsome, red-haired, blue-eyed serial killer who was gunned down by his neighbors at his 35-acre plantation at Chatham Bend, about 20 miles southeast of Chokoloskee Island on Oct. 24, 1910. Watson reportedly hired itinerants to work on the plantation, and then murdered them. He had been implicated in numerous other murders too. (You can read all about him in Shadow Country, Peter Mathiessen's novelization of Ed Watson's life.)

Odie probably never would have been caught and prosecuted for gator poaching – a commonplace crime at the time – if two events hadn't conspired against him. First, alligators were placed on the endangered species list, which caused law enforcement officers to pay more attention to poachers. Second, Odie's name turned up on a list kept by a man in Atlanta who sold gator skins.

So when his son opened Jungle Erv's, Odie figured he might as well make some money wrestling gators since he had been doing it for most of his life anyway.

Meanwhile, the airboat business took off.

The airboats that Erv operates are ungainly machines that consist of light aluminum skiffs powered by muscular automobile engines mounted on the back, above the water line. The engine spins a large propeller at high speed. The pilot sits on a tall stool in front of the caged engine and propeller, steering the boat with a pair of rudders mounted behind the engine to catch the high winds blowing backwards.

The revved engine gives off a deafening roar (riders are offered sound-muffling ear protectors), and the boat skims at high speed like a car on a vast, rain-soaked tarmac. When the pilot turns left, the boat skids sideways without losing any speed.

Then, for thrills, the pilot may suddenly shoot down a narrow alley lined with mangrove trees, or slide over some exposed ground and back into the water on the other side.

But the pilot also stops from time to time to talk about the gators, the wild pigs and other wildlife that frequent the area. Some of the animals – presumably either deaf or indifferent to the roar of the airboat engine – even make an appearance, which always delights the riders.

Bryan Sanders, who was in the first-grade class Erv used to teach, delivers mini-lectures on the flora and fauna. He might display the leaves of a mangrove tree and explain how they dispose of the salt from the sea water soaked up by the tree's roots, or point upward to show how the wings of vultures form a "v" when they fly, while hawks and other raptors maintain their wings in a straight line.

"All of my guides are native to the area," said Erv. "Most have worked here for years. They know what they're talking about."

Everglades Airboat Rides

Jungle Erv's Airboat Tours
804 Collier Ave, Everglades City
Boats Tours Depart Daily
Open 9 a.m. – 5 p.m.
Reservations suggested but not required
1- 877-695-2820

The Original Coopertown Airboat
22700 Southwest 8th Street, Miami

Corey Billie's Airboat Rides
20610 Tamiami Trail East, Naples

Captain Doug's Everglades Tours
One Mile Past the Bridge on SR 29, Everglades City

Everglades Island Air Boat Tours
Turn right on Dupont Street (off SR 29), just before the Everglades City Bridge
1-866-Manatee (626-2833) or 239-695-2333

Everglades Private Airboat Tours
23 miles east of Naples on Highway 41, one mile before State Road 29

Speedy's Airboat Tours
621 Begonia Street, Everglades City
239-695-4448 or 1-800-998-4448

Wooten's Everglades Airboat Tour
32330 Tamiami Trail East, Ochopee
239-695-2781 or 800-282-2781

Continue reading Everglades Legacy of Airboats and Alligators at Jungle Erv's »

Photo: Jungle Erv’s Airboat Rides, Everglades City

You’re bound to see plenty of wildlife on your airboat tour at Jungle Erv’s in Everglades City, especially alligators.

Continue reading Photo: Jungle Erv’s Airboat Rides, Everglades City »

Which is Florida’s Best Beach?

I can almost hear the protests. Some beaches are better than others, right? And it’s more than reasonable to pick a superb section of seashore for your Sunshine State vacation.

Don’t get your beach towel in a twist. I’m here to help.

First, here's a better question: Which beach is the best one for me?

Step One: Choose your general location and the time of year you want to visit.

  • Gulf of Mexico beaches tend to have white sand and calmer waters (which is great for really young children or for those timid about the water).
  • Atlantic beaches tend to have golden brown sand and waves (which are great fun if you like to surf, skim-board, etc).
  • The Florida Keys are great fun but less renowned for their beaches, with the exception of Bahia Honda. Many of the Florida Keys’ beaches are manmade or are just a layer of sand over a sliver of limestone. (If you want superb scuba diving and snorkeling, you cannot beat the Keys.)
  • The north is almost always cooler than south, something to remember in both summer and winter. To find out the average temperature of a destination, just scroll to the bottom of VISIT FLORIDA’s home page. You’ll find a place to enter the city’s name plus the month.

Step Two: Figure out the general vibe you’re looking for. Do you want a big city? A charming town with shopping and cafes? A beach where you see almost nobody else? Someplace upscale? Someplace old-fashioned? Do you like miniature golf and T-shirt shops?

A few articles you may find helpful:

To further research any destination that you find interesting, put its name into the search engine on the VISIT FLORIDA homepage, and it will give you lots of info that you can filter by blog, article, photo or video, to help you decide which one is the best fit for you.

I’m happy to help you find exactly what you’re looking for, too. Just write me.

Continue reading Which is Florida’s Best Beach? »

Ocala Mountain Biking Video: Will I Crawl in the Cave?

Paul was insistent, and I understood it would make the video more interesting – but I wasn't very excited to crawl into a small, wet limestone cave that looked to be a favorite haunt of creepy-crawly-critters.

Check out my mountain biking video of the Santos Trailhead by Ocala to see if I crawled in the cave.

About the Santos Trailhead: It boasts more than 60 miles of beautiful trails marked according to ability, skills areas, and lots of events. Plus, it's free to ride there. It’s only about an hour from Orlando, and it’s a great change of pace from the theme parks.

Continue reading Ocala Mountain Biking Video: Will I Crawl in the Cave? »

DeLuna Fest Dances into Pensacola Beach

Raise a toast to America’s original settlement! Raise a toast to America’s original beach bash! Raise a toast to DeLuna Fest!

This end-of-summer beach music festival boogies into Pensacola Beach Sept. 21 – 23, 2012, promising three-days of beach-friendly bands and musicians. It features a mind-boggling four stages — two of them planted squarely on the sands of Pensacola Beach — plus live music featuring a diverse blend of genres.

Imagine it: dancing with sugar-sand wedged between your toes, reveling in the diverse mix of live talent, and admiring Florida’s breathtaking sunsets.

Now that, that smells like fun to me.

The Talent: As my husband (under) stated, “DeLuna Fest really does it up.” These famous artists are no means a complete list, but they’ll give you an idea of the caliber of musicians.

  • Foo Fighters
  • Zac Brown Band
  • Florence And The Machine
  • Band of Horses
  • Jimmy Cliff
  • Dwight Yoakam
  • Fitz and the Tantrums
  • Ben Folds Five
  • Joan Jett and the Blackhearts
  • Diplo
  • DJ Jazzy Jeff
  • The Joy Formidable
  • The Gaslight Anthem
  • The Wallflowers
  • Superchunk
  • Guided By Voices

A Fact to Twirl Your Beach Towel: The average high temperature during October in Pensacola is 79 degrees. I’m just saying.

The First ‘DeLuna Fest’: Spanish conquistador Tristán De Luna knew how to throw a flip-flopping-crazy-good beach party. In fact, he and his crew threw Pensacola’s – and America’s – original beach bash in 1559 after surviving a perilous journey across brutal seas.  As DeLuna Fest’s website points out, "It was the beach party to end all beach parties, literally, as the settlement was blown away by a hurricane shortly after."

Continue reading DeLuna Fest Dances into Pensacola Beach »