Mike and I took a road trip last week with my parents and siblings. We started off by going to Tampa and then making our way back up the coast to DC, stopping in Charleston along the way. Mike had never really been on a road trip before besides driving to move out here, and it had been forever since my family had been able to coordinate time off together on a vacation like this in a few years, so it was really great to be able to do this with everyone! We really packed it in and took advantage of everything we could, so it was a bit of a whirlwind, but it was the most fun that I’ve had in a long time.
We started out the trip on Saturday in Tampa, Florida. Mike, Natalie, and I drove down there, and my parents and my brother flew in from Colorado. What should’ve been about a 12.5 or 13 hour drive turned into an even longer day – we started off with some heavy rain and lots of traffic, then we made an extended dinner stop to eat fried chicken at Bojangles after strong recommendations to make sure you try it if you’re in the south (it was delicious).
We made it to Tampa just in time to see a late night showing of Jaws at the Tampa Theatre, a historic movie theater downtown. The inside was really cool – there were stone carvings everywhere and the ceiling was lit up to look like the night sky. It almost reminded me of something like the Great Hall at Hogwarts! Somehow I’d never seen Jaws before (same for Natalie and Mike), but we all understood why it’s a classic! It was about midnight by the time the movie got out, so it was a very long day, but lots of fun.
The next morning, we headed over to Honeymoon Island State Park. The weather forecast told us that the day would be sunny in the morning and rainy in the afternoon, but it ended up being the exact opposite. It was a very windy, rainy, and stormy morning at the beach, but it was still a great view! Florida water is also incredibly warm – nothing like the ocean in California that I was used to from trips growing up.
Since our beach plans were a bit of a bust as far as swimming goes, we headed out after about an hour and took the long way to our next stop by driving over the Skyway Bridge, which stretches more than 4 miles over the ocean. It was kind of a crazy experience since it was absolutely pouring and there was a high wind advisory. I just about chickened out and made Mike pull over at the start of the bridge until some of the weather blew over, but my parents were driving ahead of us (along with lots of other cars – I’m sure it was much safer than I was feeling), so we went through in the storm. I got almost the same feeling as when you’re making the initial ascent in a roller coaster – I saw the arch in the bridge rising up in front of us and couldn’t tell what was over the other side. It was a lot of fun in hindsight once we were safely through to the other side. We even pulled over at the next rest station for coffee.
It started to clear up almost as soon as we were off the bridge, so we drove to the historic neighborhood of Ybor City, which was known for its cigar factories. We walked around and got lunch at Columbia, which is apparently Florida’s oldest restaurant – it even had it’s own gift shop in a separate building next door. The food was a mix of Spanish and Cuban and it was really good! There were great soups and salads for lunch and all of the guys got classic Cuban sandwiches that the cigar factory workers would eat for lunch back in the early 1900s.
We went back to the hotel for some napping after such a packed morning, and when we got up, we headed over to Lettuce Lake Park. My brother Michael’s one goal for the trip was to see an alligator and they were rumored to be there. The park was unlike any other park I’ve ever seen – it was almost all swamp and marshland with wooden paths and bridges elevated over the ground. We saw all sorts of large water birds like herons and egrets and three alligators all hanging out in the lake.
We even picked up a geocache along the way! Even though we weren’t doing much more than walking around and talking, I think it was one of my favorite parts of the trip for that reason – I don’t know the last time I got to spend eight days straight with all of my immediate family (probably three years ago when Mike and I moved out to DC), so it was really wonderful to get some time like that in. And the scenery was beautiful!
The next morning, we headed over to the Clearwater Aquarium. This isn’t a normal aquarium – it’s primarily a rehabilitation center for marine life. Injured sea turtles, dolphins, otters, and the like are brought to the aquarium to be treated and nursed back to health, then are released back into the wild whenever possible. The only ones that are kept are the ones who, for whatever reason, would no longer be able to survive on their own.
Look at how cute this otter is (cleaning itself?)!
But apparently the big draw to this aquarium is a dolphin named Winter, who was found in a crab trap that was cutting off the circulation to her tail. They eventually fitted her with a prosthetic tail and rehabilitated her – the movie Dolphin Tale is based on this whole story (now that we’ve been to the aquarium, we’ll probably rent it one of these days just for fun). Dolphins have been my favorite animal for a long time and I always have a soft spot for them, so I really enjoyed hearing about the different personalities of Winter and the other dolphin at the facility named Hope.
After the aquarium, we headed over to Pier 9 in Clearwater to make a second attempt at the beach. We spent most of the afternoon there and got beach-side burgers, pizza, fudge, and saltwater taffy (we wanted to make sure we ate healthy on this trip). We parked in a garage attached to a store called Surf Style, which had a really stupid jingle that played on the loudspeakers that got stuck in Mike’s head, then subsequently stuck in my head when he kept singing it to me (♪~~Surf Style~~Surf Style~~da dee da da da dee!~~♪).
Later that evening, we sadly had to drop Natalie off at the airport since she couldn’t miss too much of her internship, so she didn’t get to head to Charleston with us the next day. Even though we were only in Tampa for two full days, I feel like we got to do and see a lot – it was a fun city and even more fun because of the people we got to be with!