Road Trip: Tampa, Legoland, Honeymoon Island and Savannah

I had this whole post typed up about the responsibility of meat eaters to know where their food comes from. Bla, bla, bla… Spent an hour writing it and linking lots of informative sites. Then realized it sounded a little preachy and a bit like vegan or PETA propaganda. I’m not vegan. I’m not a member of PETA. And I hate propaganda, so I deleted the entire thing. Instead I’ll just say this: You should watch this footage of a Butterball turkey plant located in my home state of North Carolina. And here’s the story from the Chicago Tribune that led me to it. Enough said. I’d rather post about our recent road trip to Tampa, Legoland, Honeymoon Island and Savannah.

We rarely travel during the winter, especially during the holidays. And when we did (many years ago) it was to go north to Pennsylvania to visit relatives there. It’s usually frigid and the last time there was a ton of snow on the ground. I love snow, but it’s bitter-sweet when it’s too cold to play outside. Beautiful to look at though.

But this time we traveled south to visit my sister in Tampa. We took the kids to Legoland (thanks Mom) and spent New Year’s Eve on the BEACH!! It was 78 degrees and my kids were in bathing suits and swimming in the gulf. It was kind of surreal to spend New Year’s Eve on a beautiful, warm beach. Aside from the strange, eerie fog that covered Honeymoon Island most of the day, it was wonderfully refreshing for my soul, not to mention all kinds of fun.. and relaxing.

Legoland just opened in October and it was crowded. All of the theme parks in Florida were crowded according to the news broadcast that morning. I’ve made the mistake of going to Disney during spring break and now I know that winter break is only slightly less crowded. But still we had plenty of fun. I had no idea that the Cypress Gardens were in the park and going in there was like warping into some kind of magical garden. It was quiet, peaceful and beautiful – a stark contrast to what was going on outside the garden. Cypress Gardens was Florida’s first theme park back in 1936. (I wish I had visited it before it was part of Legoland.) The Banyan Tree was one of the oddest, most magnificent things I’ve ever seen. You could sense the quiet awe from those of us admiring the tree. Roots literally fall from the branches in search of soil. Mother nature never ceases to amaze me. This horrible cell phone pic doesn’t do it justice. I got a new DSLR camera, but didn’t want to lug it around all day. I realized that it was a big mistake as soon as I stepped foot in the gardens. You should see this tree in person, if you ever get the chance.

We left Tampa on New Year’s Day and headed for Savannah. I love this city. The history. The architecture. The natural beauty. Spanish Moss hanging from nearly every tree. The people. We’ve visited quite a few times, but this is a town you want to keep coming back to.  (And I took my camera everywhere this time.) We splurged a little and stayed at the Hilton Savannah DeSoto in the middle of downtown so that we could walk out the door in the morning and start exploring. The hotel itself was beautiful and grand. The view from our balcony and the sound of church bells the next morning were breathtaking. (The biting cold and wind hadn’t arrived yet.)

We headed out in search of breakfast and bumped into to a local senior out walking his dog. He could tell we were looking for something and kindly offered to help. Apparently we were headed in the wrong direction if we wanted a good breakfast. He suggested Clary’s Cafe. The restaurant was established about a hundred years ago. The breakfast menu was amazing. I wish I had tried a bite of ‘someone’s pancake with the Georgia Cane Syrup, but I was just too full from my veggie omelette. Thank you to the gentleman that directed us there.

After breakfast we headed toward Forsyth Park. Beautiful. We were there for at least an hour and got some great photos.

Then we headed toward River Street to check out the shops. The wind began tunneling through the buildings.

Eventually we got to the cobblestone streets near River Street. The wind was downright painful by then and we ducked in and out of shops as quickly as we could and sought out sunny patches anytime we had to be outside for more than a minute. The Mad Hatter was a fun stop for the girls. They tried on some funky hats. I didn’t notice the sign restricting photos until my sister-in-law pointed it out, after I’d already taken a few. I’m glad I didn’t.

We visited an art gallery and I found some strikingly beautiful photographs taken at Bonaventure Cemetery. We also passed a couple of Savannah College of Art and Design student galleries that Haleigh (my budding artist) and I wanted to visit, but we were running out of time and the wind and cold was finally unbearable. Next time Haleigh. SCAD, the galleries and Bonaventure Cemetery will be our priority. Maybe our first mother-daughter trip.

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Real Food, Busy Week, Charleston, SC

What a great week! Brian surprised me. He had planned a trip to Charleston for our anniversary. He arranged everything. Sitters were lined up. Hotel booked. We would leave on Friday, as soon as we could wrap up the work week. Meals were a little more hurried throughout the week and Haleigh’s rehearsal schedule is throwing me off. I’d forgotten to thaw the pizza sauce one night (which was leftover from a batch I made a couple weeks ago). Since we don’t have a microwave to thaw it fast, I had to come up with Plan B: a white sauce. I made a roux of one part butter and one part whole wheat flour. Added whole milk, fresh garlic and goat cheese. Too much milk. I reduced it, but not enough. It came out runny and practically disappeared into the crust. But the pizza was still awesome because the sauce and the toppings were so flavorful.

Homemade whole wheat crust, white sauce (flour, butter, milk, goat cheese), sauteed shiitake mushrooms and onions, aji dulce peppers, a few leftover chopped tomatoes, arugula and prosciutto.

My mom makes this wonderful dish with pork, kielbasa, hot dogs and sauerkraut served with mashed potatoes. It was one of my favorites growing up. Since we’ve cut back on the meat around here, I usually choose one of the three meats. This time it was kielbasa. And to put my twist on it and to save time, I made it a one pot dish with diced diced veggies and cubed potatoes, instead of mashed. I threw the sauerkraut on at the end just to warm it through.  This was quick and tasty.  Everyone loved it.

Sausage, Peppers and Potatoes

One day for lunch I used leftover rice to make fried rice. Saute onions in oil or butter. Push them aside then scramble some eggs  (we like a lot, so I use two per person).

One pot meal!

Add sesame seeds and rice. I like to get the rice nice and browned for great texture and flavor. The rice gets a little chewy and even a bit crispy in places. Sometimes I have to add a touch more oil and crank up the heat to get it that way. They don’t call it fried rice for nothing. Then I add the soy sauce and cook it for a little longer. A  tablespoon of butter right on each plate before serving is my little twist. Butter and soy sauce are so good together.

These bars are my “candy” and one of the few processed foods I buy regularly. They are filled with sugar, but the natural kind – from fruit. Dates. There is no added sugar, and usually five or less ingredients. I’ve only been able to find the Coconut Chocolate Chew flavor at Healthy Home Market. Luckily I don’t go there often. The Cashew Cookie is easier to find and has slightly less sugar. It’s good, but cashews and dates don’t tempt me the way chocolate and coconut can.

Chocolate Coconut Chew Larabar

Only five ingredients: Dates, Almonds, Walnuts, Unsweetened Coconut, Unsweetened Cocoa Powder -but 22 grams of sugar!!

This is a healthier snack. One I have more often… and guilt free! Apples dipped in peanut butter (no added oil or sugar, only ingredient is peanuts) and shredded coconut.

My apple dippers with peanut butter and shredded coconut.

And as for the weekend in Charleston… calming and delicious. I researched some restaurants before we went (something I always do before a trip these days) and we visited a few. If you’re ever in the Charleston/Mt. Pleasant area try The Glass Onion (my favorite restaurant – I had fried quail, greens and grits, also tried the deviled egg which comes highly recommended), Crave (I had scallops, lobster risotto and green beans) and Charleston’s Cafe (for breakfast I had the Southern Benedict – eggs, fried green tomatoes and bacon on french bread topped with hollandaise – one warning: “chippers” are potato chips, yummy but not a fan of chips for breakfast). There were so many great restaurants in the area. We visited the Charleston Farmers Market at Marion Square in Downtown Charleston and had lunch there. Brian had a delicious crepe from Charleston Crepe Company (in high demand, we waited around 15 minutes for this crepe) and I had a bowl of homemade lemon, chicken and rice soup. I love exploring places through food! Check out this Chihuahua we found occupying Charleston Saturday morning:

Naples and Exploring Natural, Organic Markets and Restaurants

Naples. Naples. Naples. I can’t wait to go back. As I mentioned in my previous post, we were in Florida visiting my sister last week. We decided to drive three hours and spend a few days in Naples during the work week. We stayed at the Best Western Inn & Suites which was highly rated on every site we checked. I can confirm that it was definitely a great place. The kids were thrilled. They were expecting the usual one-room-with-two-beds hotel room and had no idea what a “suite” was. (We’ve stayed in them before, but apparently they don’t remember.) It had a separate bedroom, large bathroom and small kitchen. The living area was nice and roomy all the rooms were very nicely furnished and decorated. There was a balcony with a couple chairs and a table. It was screened in, which was nice. Though the view was just of the pool and adjacent building… hey it was Florida. The pool is surrounded by lush, green trees and plants and brightly colored tropical flowers. So our view was what I’d call “tropical rain forest”. Oh and the building was made of beautiful stones, not some drab brick or stucco. I wish I had taken a picture. The first morning I woke up and looked out the sliding glass doors I felt like I was in paradise.

There were two separate pools and hot tubs (both nice) and they served a continental breakfast… which was nothing to brag about. I think I ate two hard boiled eggs while I was there and only to sustain me. They had white toast, waffles, apples, juice, cereal, oatmeal – nothing I want my family to eat in the morning. Haleigh usually ate toast and an egg. Linsey and London ate questionable waffles with “pancake syrup” (not to be confused with 100% Real Maple Syrup). I had a stash of organic apples, so we skipped their conventional ones.

Just a word about “pancake syrup” and sweeteners… Pancake syrup is usually made of corn syrup, sometimes high fructose corn syrup (sometimes both), and artificial coloring and flavoring and other disgusting additives and preservatives. (Click here for Aunt Jemima Ingredients and Nutritional Info.) My kids prefer it over real maple syrup which baffles me. At home Brian, London and I use the real the thing. I have made the girls pancake syrup the way my mom did when I was growing up – sugar, water and artificial maple flavoring – but won’t be making it again when this last batch is gone. We don’t use it much anyway and they’ll just have to learn to like the real thing, or go without. Luckily they also like fresh fruit and even peanut butter on their morning pastries. 100% Maple syrup is better for you than pancake syrup, but it’s still sugar. We rarely eat pancakes or waffles  anymore because I don’t believe they are healthy. Once you add the syrup, they pretty much become pastry. Newsflash: Pastries aren’t good for you. Pastries are a rare treat at anytime of day, especially breakfast.

I also don’t buy refined sugar at all anymore. We use mostly raw, local honey and 100% pure maple syrup for sweeteners when needed. I also use sucanat (whole cane sugar) or muscavado (unrefined brown sugar), which I get at a health food store, Healthy Home Market, and very rarely (mostly Brian’s coffee) we use evaporated cane juice. I usually buy organic and fair trade certified sweeteners. All of these cost more than refined white table sugar, of course. But we still spend less on it than we used to, because we eat so little of it – which is the way it should be really. I cut sugar out completely or at least by a third in almost every recipe.

While we were in Naples, we decided to kick typical vacation food to the curb and attempt to eat what we would if we were at home. To our complete surprise, we were right next to Naples version of Healthy Home Market, Nature’s Garden. And they had a cafe that served cold sandwiches, salads and a few hot dishes (chicken, rice and soups). We ate lunch there, twice. We tried to eat at a local restaurant that serves fresh, local and organic foods, but we were too late and it was a little more upscale than we expected. Not the kind of place you take three young kids on vacation. We ended up the Cheesecake Factory (blech!) that night. (Click here to see my review on Urban Spoon.)

Also across the street, though we didn’t get to explore it until the morning we checked out, was a group of stores called Food & Though 100% Organic Market. There was a small, boutique-like clothing and bedding store, gardening center, grocery store and cafe (wish I had known about this earlier in our stay). The organic clothing and bedding store was something new for me. I found my new favorite t-shirt – a 100% organic cotton “Eat Local” t-shirt. I would love to buy the bedding, but WOW! Not. Cheap. Eventually, I’ll replace all of ours, but that will take some time and planning. I also bought several packets of organic, heirloom seeds from the gardening center. I planted them yesterday!

The beach and the people in Naples were fantastic. What a melting pot. It was refreshing to be around such a diverse group and in such a beautiful place. In fact, many of the families we encountered weren’t even speaking English. Spanish, French, Italian, and others I can’t name. It truly felt like we had stepped into paradise.  We arrived late in the  afternoon on Tuesday. We had planned to walk out on the beach for a quick look and then go out to dinner. But after stepping out onto the beach, we changed our minds. We went and grabbed some sandwiches from that Nature’s Garden, ate and changed into our bathing suits. It was the best decision ever. We stayed to watch the beautiful sunset. When the sun finally disappeared completely, the people on the beach oohed and aahed and broke into applause. It was worthy.

After exploring Naples’ and Tampa’s natural, organic markets and restaurants, I realized that I have not done this enough in our own home town. I’m sure Charlotte has similar shops, and I know they have several restaurants I’d like to try. I mentioned that I was going to explore more of these stores in Charlotte to Brian and his response was, “I’m already ahead of you.” He found an app on his phone that lists “natural” places in Charlotte. At least once a week I plan to check out a new place. I may try the Healthy Home Market on East Boulevard this week. I’ve been to the one on Independence, but I’m thinking the East Boulevard store might have more to offer. We’ll see.

Tampa, Food and Surprises

Last week we visited my sister and her family in Tampa, FL. What a beautiful city! The weather was perfect. It was a nice 85 degrees most of the trip and the humidity hasn’t set in yet. We visited Tampa’s Lowery Park Zoo. This is the best zoo I’ve ever been to. Sadly Linsey and Brian missed out on it this trip. Linsey contracted a stomach virus and they had to leave almost as soon as we entered. She broke our hearts, crying in disappointment and discomfort when she finally decided to throw in the towel and go home. She’d been looking forward to the trip all week. She is finally feeling like herself again, five days later.

Next to the sick kiddos, the hardest part of the trip was finding real food. Luckily Tampa, just like Charlotte, has also been affected by the slow food movement. And thanks to a long growing season, it was no surprise that there were several local, organic, real food restaurants to choose from. Unfortunately many of them were expensive and too upscale for kids (of course) or inconvenient while vacationing and on the road. We shopped at Greenwise (Publix version of Whole Foods) for groceries. We found some grass fed beef there, which we used to make delicious burgers one night, and most of our usual staples. I wish Harris Teeter would open a similar, greener and healthier version of their stores. Maybe they could do it better. I still see things at Whole Foods and Greenwise that shouldn’t be on their shelves – typically in the middle aisles, where there is still too much processed food.

My sister planned a secret girls’ night out for us while we were there. What a surprise! She took me to a cooking store of sorts. They sell cooking supplies, but they also have a kitchen in the back where they have classes and demonstrations (fun!). Everyone was so nice. They had an “instructor” there that was into natural cooking. I so want to be in her class. The owner, our host, was funny and very entertaining and the “bartender” – a sweet, 70-something year old southern belle with bright red hair – carded me. (That’s right! As in asked-for-ID.) We were there for a charity event benefiting a temporary home for kids who are abused, neglected, etc. There was food and wine and shopping for cooking supplies at a 10% discount… yipee! If this store were in Charlotte I would definitely look into cooking classes or demonstrations. In fact there must be something like it here. I’ll be looking into that soon. Thank you so much Heather for a fun, memorable night.

Another surprise (I’m switching gears now) was a full-fledged, small, private farm smack in the middle of Heather’s residential neighborhood. We walked to it – twice. They sell fresh, pastured eggs, raw milk, honey and a few other things. The coolest thing is that you can just walk onto the farm and check it out. The first time we went a little girl that lived next door was our tour guide. There were chickens running around everywhere. The cows were in a small pasture and a few pigs were in a pen (not a good one on any level). We got there at milking time, so the girls (and I) got to watch the entire process – moving the cow into the stall, feeding it hay to keep it calm and happy, cleaning the underside and hooves of the cow and then attaching the pump to the udders. I was hoping they would offer us a taste. I wish I’d asked. I really want to taste the warm milk, fresh from the cow, just as it is described in a book  I recently read Growing a Farmer  by Kurt Timmermeister. It was neat to see the things I had read about in action. I’ve visited farms before, but not since reading this book and not on this small, yet diverse scale. The first time we only went for the orange blossom honey. It was yummy with a light floral taste and a hint of citrus. It’s even slightly orange compared to other honey. (Click here for an interesting article about the farmer, Marion Lambert, and his honey.)

Here a cluck. There a cluck. Everywhere a cluck, cluck.

Later in the week we needed eggs, so we decided to visit again. The girls were so excited and Brian wanted to see the farm as well. This time I brought my camera. We ran into the farmer on this trip, Marion Lambert. He explained in more detail what the cows ate -mostly alfalfa and grain. I wouldn’t exactly call these grass fed, though they are pastured cows. He only has a few acres, not enough to grass feed his small herd. And he doesn’t use organic feed. This is a simple farm. Not the idyllic, perfect one I have in my head. There are only a handful of those. But still, this is a natural farm. One I’d be happy to support if I lived nearby.

Several neighbors help out on the farm. The first time we visited we met a mother and daughter that volunteer and also benefit from the farm. They were walking and feeding a donkey who had some health issues. She mentioned that one of the pigs were hers. Which brings me to one thing on this farm that I would not support. The pigs are not well cared for. (It’s always the poor pigs that are mistreated! Usually the smartest and probably most aware animals on a farm.) There are three or four of them in a small pin, lined with some sort of metal floor along most of the pen. The back side is not lined with metal, and this is the pigs only mud source. There is no shade and no place for them to root – a pigs favorite past time. They looked listless and sad and they were filthy (pigs are surprisingly clean animals). I know that pigs are tough to care for, but it didn’t seem like anyone really cared at all. I wanted to ask about it, but I thought it would be rude to mention it on my first or second visit to the farm. Then again, maybe it wasn’t right after all – to keep quiet and look past the cruelty to the pigs, even though everything else on the farm seemed pretty good – and just to be polite.

It was a good trip (as usual). Visiting family is always fun, but when they live in a beautiful city like Tampa, it’s even better. During the week, when my sister and her husband were working anyway, we also visited Naples for few days. Wow! Great hotel, great location and a beautiful sunset. (More on that in a future post.)

Ballast Point Park in Tampa

Ballast Point Park in Tampa