04 March 2018

Florida Vacation

Last week, my family surprised me with a vacation to Sarasota, Florida to stay with my grandparents. On Saturday, I awoke at around 4 AM, since my flight left around 6 AM. When I arrived at the airport, I printed my boarding pass and was assigned a seat for only the first flight, since my previous route to Charlotte had been cancelled due to a lack of people, so I was transferred to a completely full flight to Atlanta, where I would need to register for my second seat to Sarasota. On the first flight to Atlanta, they had accidentally stocked the plane with only Starbucks coffee and bottled water, which was fine with me since I only wanted coffee. Due to high winds, there was a lot of turbulence, but we arrived in Atlanta early, which gave me more time to register for my second flight to Sarasota. I had never been to Atlanta Airport, so I asked the flight attendant which gate I would be leaving from, and she gave me directions. I had to go to the opposite end of the airport, so I went down the escalators and hopped on the train, which took me to my gate after several stops. I made it in time and went up to the desk to make sure I was at the right gate, and he informed me they would be registering people momentarily, so I would be the first one. Once I was registered and guaranteed a seat, I relaxed and called my family to update them. We soon boarded, as people were scrambling to get seats at the last minute; thankfully, my spot had already been guaranteed. Once I found my seat and stowed my bags underneath the seat in front of me, the plane took off, headed for Sarasota. This flight was much less bumpy, and we arrived in a little over an hour. Once we landed, I called my grandparents to see where they were, and met them on the other side of security. As we embraced for the first time in months, the smell of chlorine overwhelmed me, which was trademark of Florida. We walked to the baggage area to get my suitcase and then hopped into the car to drive into the sunshine. Once we got to the house, I quickly unpacked and then made lunch and promptly headed out to the pool to swim. We stayed out for several hours, then decided to go to a small Mexican restaurant called Mi Pablo for dinner. Once we had placed our orders, the food arrived within minutes, fresh and steaming. Once we were done eating, we headed back to the house to relax and enjoy each other’s company.

          On Sunday, it was gorgeous outside, as it was every day, so I headed up to the pool early to swim and get more sun. I fell asleep laying by the pool and ended up getting slightly sunburned, so I went back inside to take a shower and get ready for dinner. I was in the mood for sushi, so we decided to try a local Chinese buffet, where they were known for their fresh sushi assortment, as well as a large variety of foods for those who didn’t like sushi. I filled my plate with sushi and fresh shrimp and decided to be adventurous and try fresh oysters, which unfortunately ended up being less than appealing. Once our bellies were full, we headed to the grocery store to pick up some Florida goodies, then went back to the house to watch the closing ceremony of the Winter Olympics.

          On Monday, my grandma and I visited a local produce market, where we purchased some freshly grown strawberries and other fruits and veggies, as well as freshly baked bread, deli meat and cheese. My grandparents then went to a local friend’s house for a potluck dinner and to watch slides of a man’s trip across the US on his tractor. I opted out of going and instead stayed home and read some books I’d downloaded, as well as watched a Netflix movie I’d been longing to see.

          On Tuesday, it wasn’t as nice outside as the days prior, but we decided to be adventurous and check out the beach, hoping the clouds would have disappeared out there. We packed a lunch and put on sunscreen and drove out to Lido Beach, where the sun had appeared and made its entrance. The drive across the ocean was breathtaking and we just took in the scenery around us. Once we found a parking spot, we unloaded the car and found a spot along the beach, among many Amish. We laid out along the shore for about an hour, and then ate the lunch we’d packed; as soon as we got the food out, the seagulls went crazy and kept trying to steal it, so we quickly finished our lunches then walked along the water’s edge, looking for shells. There were many people out fishing and one man happened to catch one, but unfortunately had to throw it back since it was less than an inch too short. We watched the boats and jet skis go by, then headed back to “our spot” to lay out some more and watch some local Amish families board and un-board a Pontoon boat. Once we’d had our fill of the sun, we packed back into the car and headed back to the house to get ready for dinner. We decided to go to Sweet Tomatoes, where we saw some neighbors from Ohio. We filled our plates with fresh vegetables and other salad toppings, then paid at the counter and found some seats outlooking the patio. They also served homemade soups, pasta, breads and pastries, fruit and desserts, which we filled some more plates with. Once we’d tried everything appealing, we filled our cups with fresh coffee, then headed out to shop at some local stores. I tried on many armfuls of clothes and looked through each shelf, only to end up purchasing a floral dress and kimono. We then headed back to the house to relax and unwind.

          On Wednesday, we decided I’d gotten enough sun for a while, so my grandma and I headed out to do some more shopping, where we spent the entire morning. We then headed back to the house to get ready to take my other grandpa, who was renting an apartment just down the road, out for dinner. We went to Anna Maria Oyster Bar for all you can eat fresh grouper, which was nothing short of outstanding, then drove out to Longboat Key to watch the sunset. While we were sitting along the shore, a huge group of ducks swam by, feasting on fish until there was no more, or so it appeared. We watched them feed for a while, then walked further down along the beach to watch the sunset, which was breathtaking.

          On Thursday, we went swimming at the pool in the morning, then got ready to have dinner and visit with some of my grandpa’s brothers and their wives, who were also vacationing in Sarasota. First, though, the neighbor lady had invited my grandma and I over to create things with shells, so we ended up crafting several creatures out of shells she’d collected over the years along local beaches. 

It was then time to pick up my grandpa’s brother and his wife, who were staying just down the road from us, and we drove to Pincher’s Crab Shack, which was a favorite among many. We arrived first and saved a table, then waited for the rest of the gang to arrive. Pincher’s was famous for their fresh shrimp, so I decided to try it, and was far from disappointed. It was fun catching up with family I hadn’t seen in years and once we’d all finished eating our fresh seafood, we decided to get together at one brother and his wife’s house, which they’d just purchased. On the way, my grandpa’s younger brother decided to be spontaneous and took a surprise turn to Orange Leaf, which was a local frozen yogurt shop, where they offered countless flavors and toppings unique to Florida. Even though our bellies were full of seafood, we each filled a cup, combining unique flavors and toppings to each person’s liking. I decided on coffee and cheesecake, topping it with brightly colored sprinkles. We enjoyed our concoctions inside the shop, which was brightly decorated with an ocean theme. Once we’d each satisfied our sweet tooth, we drove to the house where everyone else had already arrived and begun visiting. We toured the house, then sat down in the living room to visit and catch up. Once it’d passed everyone’s bed times, we said our goodbyes then headed back to my grandparent’s house to unwind.

          On Friday, it was supposed to rain, so my grandma and I planned to visit the Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium, which I’d been longing to experience due to my love of sea-life and aquariums. I’ve always been intrigued by seahorses, which Mote Marine dedicated a special laboratory to raise and educate about, as well as many other locally found sea creatures. I needed energy to start out the day with, and had found a local coffee shop just downtown that was famous for its unique and locally grown coffee blends, but my grandma wasn’t up for the adventure, so we decided instead on making a pit-stop to Starbucks, which was just down the road. I found a cute Florida mug and ordered my favorite cold brew to energize me, and then we drove the rest of the way to the aquarium. Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium, in my opinion, is a must-see, and offers unique sea-life displays created out of recycled materials found along the beach, including boots and milk jugs. They also had countless displays of both fresh and sea water fish and other animals inside. At eleven o-clock there was a shark feeding amidst the shark tank, filled with a wide variety of sharks and other fish. The trained workers used PVC pipes and targets to attract the sharks, where they then lowered the “fish food”. Once all the sharks were fed, we headed to the other end of the aquarium, where they had a touch tank, where I touched sea urchins, starfish and several types of stingrays. We then visited the seahorse laboratory, where they were raising many different types, including the rare dwarf seahorse. They also had several types of jellyfish, as well as many other tropical fish and creatures. We then walked across the street to the other building, where they had manatees, sea otters and many types of sea turtles. Once we’d seen all the exhibits, we visited the gift shop, where there was a vast array of souvenirs and ended up each purchasing a colorful and sparkly glass sea turtle made in Guatemala.

 Once we were finished, we drove back to the house, where I got ready to meet my aunt and her two sons for coffee at the coffee shop I’d been dying to visit. My cousins picked me up and we drove through downtown Sarasota to the cutest coffee shop called Buddy Brew Coffee, which I’d seen on the internet and fallen in love with. Buddy Brew is a “specialty coffee roaster with a passion to Brew Good and Do Good”. Their specialty coffee is grown on farms from countries across the globe, including Guatemala, Rwanda and Brazil, and infused with unique flavors including blackberries, pomegranate, walnuts, dates and green apples, to name a few. Once my aunt arrived, we went inside, and each chose a signature drink to try, then found a seat outside among many couches. It had been over five years since I’d last seen them, so we spent awhile catching up and enjoying each other’s company. My aunt then had to leave to go to a birthday party, so my cousins decided to be my tour guide, and gave me a tour of downtown Sarasota. We walked along many fancy, street-side restaurants, and stopped inside an expensive, high-end local art gallery, where they were featuring bright, colorful 3-D acrylic paintings. We also visited my cousins’ favorite toy shop, called Toy Lab of Sarasota, where they sold a large assortment of unique toys and gadgets, as well as pranks. I was still looking to find some unique souvenirs, so we decided to head on to St. Armand’s Circle, where they were known for their unique shops. Since it was after dark, the parking lot was packed, and we had to drive around awhile to find a parking spot but managed to spot one at the last minute. We first visited Le Macaron French Pastries, which was a cute shop with hot pink walls and high-end chandeliers, where they sold fresh macaroons of all colors and flavors, as well as gourmet chocolates and gelato. We then stopped in at Woof Gang Bakery & Grooming, where they made their own dog treats in unique shapes for all occasions, including birthdays. There were many unique little shops along the road we stopped in to browse through, but then ended the night at their favorite chocolate shop called Kilwins, where they make their own fudge, chocolates and ice cream of all varieties. We settled on three unique fudge flavors, then drove back to my grandparent’s house so I’d be back in “good time”. I absolutely had a blast visiting all the cute, unique shops and just walking through downtown Sarasota at dark, while there were countless beautiful lights and heaters lit along the road. It was truly an experience I’ll never forget!

          On Saturday, I spent one last morning up at the pool and then received a text from my grandpa who was staying just down the road, informing me I had a surprise date scheduled for four o’clock. I quickly packed up my suitcase, then got ready for my special date. My grandpa was running late due to some unexpected circumstances, so he picked me up around five o’clock and we drove to our surprise destination, which neither of us had visited before. We ended up at Yogurtology, which is a cute, modern frozen yogurt shop with countless unique flavors and toppings that my aunt had told him about. He told me to fill up my cup to my heart’s desire, so I settled on kiwi strawberry and cheesecake, after tasting many unique, tropical flavors. My grandpa claimed to be a “chocaholic” and came up with a concoction of mint chocolate truffle, birthday cake and some other chocolatey flavors, as well as kiwi strawberry. They had a large assortment of toppings including many different shapes and flavors of gummies, as well as chocolate candies, fruit, nuts, donuts, brownies and blondies, cheesecake, sprinkles and then sauces of many flavors and last of all, whipped cream to top it off.  Once we’d each created our own masterpiece, we found a seat on the sofa along the wall and chatted while enjoying our yogurt. We talked about my grandma, who had recently passed away suddenly from a massive heart attack, and recalled favorite memories, as well as grieved her loss. He also encouraged me to pursue God and His calling and to always pray first, before doing anything too spontaneous which I’m known to do. I enjoyed spending quality time with him, but sadly “all good things must come to an end”, so he dropped me back off at my other grandparents’ house so I could finish packing to leave in the morning.

          Since my flight was scheduled to leave at around six o’clock AM, I set my alarm for four o’clock AM, to give me plenty of time to check in, go through security and find my gate. My grandparents drove me to the airport and we said goodbye outside the front doors. It was still too early to check in, as no one was yet at the desk, so I waited in line behind one other person. Finally, around five o’clock AM, several attendants opened the desk and I registered and checked in my bag, which almost knocked me over. I then went up the escalators, through security and found my gate, where I waited to board. We took off into the sunrise, overlooking the palm trees, which was breathtaking, and I said goodbye to sunny Florida. After about an hour, we landed in Charlotte, where I had time to stop at Starbucks for my favorite cold brew, as well as browse some other shops. I then found a seat at my gate and a young Indian boy sat next to me, and we talked about each of our trips. He was coming home to Ohio for college vacation and we discussed each other’s careers. It was then time to board, so we said goodbye and boarded our last flight to cold, snowy Ohio. I sat next to a friendly older man who’d also been visiting family in Florida and we talked until the plane took off. After about another hour, we were on the ground in the all familiar Ohio airport, located close by to my hometown, where my younger sister picked me up.

          All in all, this week was one of the best of my life and one I will treasure forever. I enjoyed spending time with long-lost family and making countless memories, realizing just how incredibly blessed I am!