To Panama City Beach … the Long Way!

The gulf at St. Andrews State Park

We were excited to be returning to St. Andrews State Park in Panama City Beach again this year, but it took something of a circuitous route this time.  You see our future daughter-in-law was having a wedding shower in Memphis just as our trip was to start, so we had to go west before going south. Turned out just fine, however.

We didn’t want to make the entire drive to Memphis all at once, so we made our way northwest through Huntsville, Alabama and stopped for the night at Joe Wheeler State Park along the Tennessee River.  We prefer state parks when we can, since it is reasonable and you discover some cool natural areas.

Not much of a campsite …

Jackie made the reservation for a pull-through site, since we didn’t want to disconnect the car and tow dolly, but we discovered this was more of a pull-aside site.  Maybe just a wide spot in the road, an extra bit of shoulder . . .  It was long enough, there was plenty of room between sites, we had full hookups and a nice view of the lake, but it had a few problems.  First off, we weren’t facing the campsite.

Sites are usually situated so your right side faces into the site, with utilities on the left.  In this case we faced the road, fairly tightly, too.  Putting the awning out was out of the question and we barely extended the bedroom slide – just enough to get around the bed and into drawers.  Stepping out the motorhome door meant looking both ways for sure. And if we had wanted to use the picnic table, well that was way off thataways.  But, it was only one night and easy to pull out the next morning.  Overall it was a very nice campground and Kodi enjoyed the evening walkabout to meet children and other dogs.

At least the site next to us was empty.

After driving across northern Alabama and into Tennessee, we pulled into our site at the Agricenter International RV Park, a multipurpose fairgrounds in Shelby Farms Park in Memphis, Tennessee.  While it was a basic gravel lot, it did have full hookups and an onsite Farmer’s Market that was fun to wander through.  We met up with Alex, Bethany and her parents and they took us to Central BBQ for some Memphis-style ribs and barbecue.  I had a plate of ribs, half dry half wet (rub and sauce) that was fall-off-the-bone good and Jackie tried the pulled pork nachos with some good hush puppies to share.

Farmer’s Market

Next day Jackie’s sister and niece arrived from Nashville and the ladies went off to the shower.  Alex, Jim and I took Kodi and their two terriers to another part of Shelby Farms Park for some exercise, with a stop at a dog-friendly outdoor gear shop.

All the dogs …

Once again, Kodi was a hit with the kids (he is such a friendly dog).  Jim and Dawn hosted us all back at their home for a delicious (and I mean delicious) cookout and then it was back to the camper with Judy and Rachel for the night.  However …

Wow did we get a thunderstorm that night!  Everything was buttoned down tight, but the wind was rocking the van pretty good and the rain was quite loud on the roof.  We had the paddleboards strapped to the roof of the car, but while we are parked I usually loosen the straps a bit to let the boards relax and flex.  The wind was so intense I found myself peeking out the bedroom window to check on them, only to see them bouncing around more than I liked.  I had visions of them slipping out from under the straps and snapping or just blowing away.  I certainly couldn’t sleep with the thought, so I ran out to tighten them down and got totally, totally drenched.  But the boards were safe.  Unfortunately, the outside radio compartment popped open and I wondered how the speakers and radio would hold up when dry …

Just a spot for the night

Heading south through Alabama, we stopped at Birmingham South Campground for the night, again with full hookups and a pull-thru site.  Easy access to the highway and a rather nice park.  It was entirely full, since this was now Memorial Day weekend, and we were glad we made an advance reservation.

Nice spot at St. Andrews

Finally hit the road on the last stretch through Alabama and into the Florida panhandle to arrive at St. Andrews State Park.  Got ourselves settled into the campsite and took Kodi on a walkabout to check out dogs, kids, deer and everything else around camp.  While inside the van I suddenly heard loud voices outside and was a bit confused.  Stepping out I realized that the radio had turned on, muffled as it was behind the hatch door.  Odd.  It mysteriously turned on and off a few more times during the trip, so I guess the rain must have short-circuited something.  Just another project for back home.

Lagoon paddleboarding and watching for dolphin.

Let’s see, what did we do for the next few days?  Well, we paddleboarded in the Grand Lagoon out to the inlet, where there is a gorgeous spit of sandy beach and clear water for swimming.  We always manage to spot fish below us and a few dolphin around us.

Lagoon side beach and children’s “pool”

Gulf side beach (awesome)

At the St. Andrews Beach you have a choice of the Gulf side beach or the lagoon side, which has a great spot of water perfect for kids and jetty snorkeling.  Depending on the water conditions, you can snorkel the Gulf side jetty, too.  So we alternated between both, since the water was a refreshing 81 degrees, clear and clean.  Amazing.

Patches Pub Patio

One of the first nights in town we wanted to try a local spot that was always crowded and seemed like fun: Patches Pub.  The patio had live music (not as good as Blind Fate, mind you) and there was a nice selection of craft beer, but no open table.  We were asked to join a couple and promptly learned that they were regulars and were also staying in a motorhome nearby.  They headed out and we ordered a second round and some food, only to look up and see a few ladies who had come out on the patio and were without a table, too.  “Why don’t you join us” we asked, and we were soon sharing stories about the local scene and what was going on.

Peeps at Patches

One of the gals was from Kennesaw, — about 3 miles from our house!  Turns out, two were sisters in town to visit their mother Henrietta, who declared that at 92 she was ready to party.  Her condo sits next to the party spot LaVela, which bills itself as the largest nightclub in the US. Apparently she can catch the action from her balcony, some of which she described in pretty wild detail.  As we were chatting, she swapped her plastic glass of wine for one of her daughter’s glass stems (adding her red to the remaining white for a nice blush wine…) declaring “it’s just classier” and we all laughed and enjoyed our newfound peeps.

How was Kodi in camp?  He was great, and he certainly had his fan club.  Every walk around camp involved meet and greets with kids and dogs – he even got the hang of being walked/run on the leash while Doug was riding his bike (a disaster-in-the-making, according to my brother).  Later in the week we had folks saying “Oh there’s Kodi, Hi Kodi” around camp. Crazy that he became so popular.

Beach Buds

My brother Jeff and sister-in-law Vickie (you will recall them from our cruise posts) joined us for a few days and we had a total blast.  Our mission was a search for the best oysters around, plus some good snorkeling.  But first we had to hit our favorite beach bar Sharky’s for grouper sandwiches and drinks.  It was as good as ever, with a table at the rail along the beach.  So of course there is a bit of a story, too.  Jeff ordered a frozen margarita and was asked “large or small?”  Large of course, and it arrived in a big plastic beer stein with a lid.  Okay then.  I ordered a ‘Shark Attack’ for Jackie and I to split, large of course, and got the same plastic mug.  Cool.  Well, during dinner we learned that refills were cheaper if you had the mug, so heck, why not?  Even better, the mugs were good at two other spots that had the Fat Tuesdays bar setup.  So keep that tidbit in mind for later.

Beachside at Sharky’s

Jeff rented a pontoon boat from the park for a day and off to Shell Island we went.  Shell Island is just on the other side of the inlet and the lagoon side was waist-deep clear water along the jetty.  Amazing to see so many bait fish – clouds of them in the water, plus mullet, pinfish, tang, and others that we really couldn’t identify.  “I can’t believe we have this place to ourselves” was the refrain that morning, since it was indeed a quiet spot.

Thumbs Up for sure!

Oysters discovered!

Mmm, fish tacos

Lunch was the main event, however, and our quest for the best oysters took us to Old St. Andrews Marina and we tied up at the dock.  Within sight was our destination: Hunts Oyster Bar.  This local spot was busy, but we got a table pretty quick and put in an order for a pitcher of beer and two dozen oysters on the half-shell.  Bam! We had our oysters before we had the beer.  Cold, sweet and awesome beauties from the Apalachicola Bay.  Jeff and I worked through them pretty fast and ordered up another tray, while we also asked for their fish tacos.  I have to say that the tacos were really, really good.  Jeff and I marveled at the speed of oyster shucking and he determined he was going to get some for later.  Since we had the rest of the day on the boat, we decided to wait on the oysters to go.

Schools and schools of baitfish

Back onboard we returned to snorkel at Shell Island and then across the inlet to the sandy spit for a quick swim and then back to the marina.  A great day – and I recommend the boat rentals from the park.

Next morning Jeff was pondering the whole question of a box of oysters to take home.  “Dad’s gonna love them, but I don’t know if I want to drive around to Hunt’s to get them.”  Those oysters were calling our name, so we decided to try the closer Treasure Island Seafood Market and bought 100 fresh oysters (hey, they were a good deal), piled in a box and filled with ice.  Hmm, don’t have a clam knife in the van – guess we need to hit Winn Dixie.  Oh, and what about that bloody Mary mix over there?  Perfect!  Back in camp it was time to shuck oysters (Jeff’s job) and serve up bloodys (Doug’s job).  Ouch, that knife was sharp and the oyster was tight … well, 12 oysters and a bloody thumb later we had to rethink.  88 to go and “how exactly did they shuck those guys so quick?”  Ah well, time to snorkel instead.

Grilled oysters

Before he left for home, Jeff left me with about a dozen to fight with.  Grilling seemed to be the answer and that worked out for the next two nights – they were much easier to open when they had been steamed on the grill for a bit.  Jeff later texted from home that he also steamed them and Dad polished off most of them himself (maybe his secret for reaching 90 years old?).  Well done.

Oysters and Dad

I should mention that there was much boating activity that weekend, mostly due to the 3 day season for red snapper in Federal waters.  Best place to see them was at the fish cleaning station, where Jackie pretended that she caught a big one.  I recall those fish-cleaning days on the Jersey shore when we came back in with barrels of bluefish and I didn’t envy the guys who were filleting them at the dock.  But snapper is good eats!  Made me also think of the lionfish cleaning in the Keys from last fall (see the post: Island Hopping).

Did you REALLY catch that?

Fish cleaning

So what is left to say about the remaining week at the beach?  Let’s see, we changed campsites after a week and a visit to the dump station.  New site was closer to the water for a great view.

Dinner for two at the next campsite

Two days of rain – but that was really an excuse to have lunch beachside at Pineapple Willy’s for some amazing grouper po’boys (oh, and a refill rum drink using our special mugs).

Gotta get that refill on a rainy day

Pineapple Willy’s and po’boys

More snorkeling (and my GoPro, since I finally got the batteries charged) and great swimming, since the water was amazingly clear and the bait fish were all over the place.  A last refill rum drink in our special mugs (I mean, we just HAD to check out all the options) and grouper sandwich at Hammerhead Fred’s.  Good times.

Hammerhead Fred’s and the refills

So, despite the 8 hour trip home – never fun at the end of a vacation – we are all set to plan it again for next year.  Remember, those 8 hours include the time it takes to hook up and then unhitch the car and tow dolly and some traffic snarls in Dothan, Eufaula and Atlanta.

I have to start editing the pictures and video from my GoPro, which may take me a few days, so I’ll make them a separate post.  There are some teaser shots in the gallery below.  You can check back later for more of the snorkeling shots and videos.  I updated Happenings with news of our deer and Merlin says he made some comments on Mews, so be sure to give them a look.

And thanks again for following our adventures – we have fun with it and I enjoy writing the stories.

UPDATE:  I have now posted some snorkeling and paddleboarding videos on the “Places” page, so go check them out.

 

 

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