Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Monday, January 8th, 2018 – From Beach to Snow Shoveling (Back to Canada)

Our noon flight meant we didn't have a whole lot of time in the morning for much, so we slowly got ready, had breakfast in the room, and left around 9am. We didn't know how bad the traffic was going to be, nor what the airport queues would be like, but all was calm and we were checked in and at the boarding gate shortly by 10:30.

The flight home was slightly delayed, but once we got underway was smooth and trouble-free. Both Ana and I had short naps during the flight while the kids kept themselves busy with their books and devices. Our arrival at Pearson was fast for a change and those new automated machines for passport control actually worked very well. By 4pm we were in our van and headed for home, expecting snarls of traffic, but shocked to find an easy, fast drive all the way back to Paris.

The only real surprise came when we pulled up to our driveway to find 7 inches of snow! Back to winter...

Sunday, January 7th, 2018 – John's Pass and St. Pete's

Our last full day of the Power Weekend. Even though we had absolutely no plan, we had no time to lose. Magnus woke up in a rotten mood because of the bed altercation the night before so we just left him alone. We turned on the tv to watch the American cable news channels, although what you get mostly are ads for lawyers and medical prescriptions. Because we cancelled our cable a long time ago the kids don't often see "regular" tv, so were a bit mystified at the quantity of commercials. All that was on the news channels were stories about Trump, which were interesting, but in a Hollywood comedy sort of way. We did find a channel with a show the kids loved called "Lone Star Law" which is all about game wardens in Texas and their adventures checking hunting licenses, issuing citations, rescuing animals, and speaking in outrageous southern accents that are only outdone by the trailer bush hillbillies lying through their teeth about their hunting practices. But enough was enough, it was time to embrace the day.

Magnus went out to the car first, which gave me time to have a little chat with Stella. She was unwilling to extend any sort of olive branch to her brother, but after some persuasion she reluctantly agreed to apologize for the bed incident, even though she said she wouldn't mean it. The three of us continued out to the car, got in, and Stella immediately said to Magnus, "Sorry. Well, do you accept my apology or not?"

Magnus said, "I accept your apology."

Everything was good after that, proving that sometimes even an insincere apology can work just fine. We took off headed north on Gulf Boulevard and pulled over when we spotted a cool looking café with moisture dripping down the insides of the windows, perhaps suggesting the presence of warm bread ovens. It was quite cold outside, but at least the sun was out. We ordered up hot drinks and warm muffins and enjoyed a nice, slow chit chat where we started talking about the goals each of us have for 2018.

Because I am a planning and spreadsheet nerd, throughout the year I keep track of practically every dime we earn and spend, and then at the end of each year I do a great deal of analysis on our financials – how much we spent on various detailed expense categories, how much money we earned and where it came from and how our investments performed. I also review all of the goals we set the previous year (usually in the categories of Safety, Personal, Work/School, Financial, Travel) and make a judgement on how well we did on them. I put this all into a Powerpoint presentation and we sit together in the living room and go through it all together, and then make new goals for the next year. Well, we did the first part back in Canada, but had decided to save the goal making for Florida. We started talking about our goals, but didn't get too far before somebody came up with the idea of going to the Wagon Wheel flea market. We put the goal making on hold and jumped back in the car.

Florida is known for its flea markets, and the Wagon Wheel is a big one. We have been here a couple of times before, but each time we visit we find completely different vendors with different things so we always have a lot of fun browsing around and people watching. The US is such a great place for people watching as the folks here are so much less reserved than they are in Canada, resulting in some very colourful characters.

Each of us found something interesting to buy – I found several pairs of work gloves and a bag full of soon to expire medicines, Magnus found Magic cards and incense, Ana found a purse, and Stella found a new case for her iPhone, a fine haul indeed. We were tempted to stay for lunch when I found a sausage vendors cooking up some delightful looking, oiled-up snarlers, but instead we decided to drive over to John's Pass to have a more civilized lunch on the boardwalk.

John's Pass is a lovely little shopping area near the bridge between Treasure Island and Madeira and it's one of our favourite places to go. We had lunch at a small café on the boardwalk and then spent an hour or so browsing around the shops, enjoying the sun that had finally heated up. In fact, it had heated up so much that I gathered the troops and insisted we go back to the hotel to get our shorts on and try to soak up as much sun as possible before having to return home.

Although the temperature was only about 18 degrees, the sunshine felt great so Ana and I got set up in lounge chairs while the kids went for a swim in the pool, which they were shocked to learn was actually heated! They gleefully leaped into the pool, I sparked up a fat, coffee-coloured H. Upmann robusto cigar, Ana pulled out a magazine, and we each cracked open a bottle. I hadn't done too well at all on those Presidente beers we bought the first day, so I made it my goal to drink as many as possible. When I got to my fourth one, Ana said, "You're not going to be driving us to dinner, right?" I nodded and smiled. Hello designated driver!

As the sun dipped down below the palm trees we moved out to the front of the hotel where we could absorb the last of the day's sunshine. It was also a perfect opportunity to play some beach soccer so we dug net lines into the sand and started a game of two on two. Stella was on my team, and we all played magnificently, but she made me promise that I would not reveal who won the final championship. Playing soccer on that beach was the biggest moment for me on the trip. Even though there are always reasons to be sad, or angry, or pessimistic, when your family has a moment of organic happiness and satisfaction you just have to stop for a second and recognize it for what it is and stamp that memory on your brain. One thing Ana says she wants to do more of this year is to "Appreciate the moments" and this sure was a great one to start with.

For our final dinner we went to the Olive Garden restaurant, which seems to have become our family favourite. It is so consistently good and we just keep returning, and are never, ever disappointed. Throughout dinner we again started talking about our goals, and Stella began to record them on the back of a small sheet in crayon, but there was only space for three goals each so that's what we decided to do. Both Ana and Magnus decided on theirs, but Stella and I couldn't decide on ours, so we kept the sheet and will get back to it soon.

We drove back to the hotel, put the kids to bed and then Ana and I went out to a crazy, late night club, did tequila shots, danced on tables, partied with Drake who happened to be in town visiting his grandma, and ripped up the town all night. We got back to the hotel around 7am, exhausted, but happy that we still know how to party hard. Wait a minute, I just checked with Ana and I guess that whole last part must have been something I dreamed. Makes sense, because I was sound asleep by 10!

Saturday, January 6th, 2018 – Sanibel Island

After a blissfully long sleep I was up at 6am to do some writing. The rest of the gang started to surface around 7:30 and Ana told me that she had been contacted by our friends Jacquie and David, who have a winter property in Sanibel Island, and they invited us down for a visit. Since we had absolutely no plan for the day, we were thrilled to have the opportunity to see them.

We hit the road and drove along the I-275 interstate all the way down to Fort Myers, which took a couple of hours. Magnus was keen to check out a gaming store for Magic cards so we pulled over at a mall and were happy to find a Total Wine and a TJ Max nearby. Total Wine is fantasy land for adults as they seem stock every beer, wine, spirit and mixer ever made. This particular store also had a humidor with a lovely selection of cigars so I loaded up with stogies, bought some drinks for our hosts, and left feeling quite sad that we weren’t going to be in Florida long enough to sample a lager selection of fine liquors. But it sure was fun being the youngest customers in the store by at least 20 years. Florida is one of only two places in the world where you can be 60 years and have people in shops refer to you as "young fella". The other is Japan, but there you can be 70 and still be labelled as a whippersnapper.

We arrived at our friends’ place on Sanibel island shortly after 1pm and got huge hugs and kisses from Jacquie. David was still on the golf course when we arrived, but he pulled up in his golf cart shortly afterwards. It was great to see them both, as it had been three years since we’d met and spent some time together cruising around in the North Channel on Lake Huron. We were also happy to see their dog Parker - a black lab, but he had slowed down considerably since we last saw him. I had bought Parker a cool chew duck at the TJ Max, but after seeing the trouble he was having getting around, I suggested to Jacquie that she throw it for David instead, to keep him in great shape.

We jumped in the car with Jacquie and drove down to the Lighthouse restaurant, located right in the Port Sanibel Marina, then sat down and enjoyed drinks and a delicious lunch on the outside patio. We were in a perfect position where the light wind was blocked and the sun was beating down, making the 15 degree day feel much warmer. We caught up on our news over lunch and then Jacquie took us for a tour around Sanibel while David returned to the house to do a few things. We went first to see the lighthouse, and then went for a long walk on the nature trails and then the beach where we saw many ospreys and picked up a bunch of shells. We then drove to the J.N. Ding Darling Wildlife Refuge - a huge nature reserve where we were treated to a low tide, which meant hundreds of birds and other creatures were easily seen picking around in the mangroves. Ana and the kids were especially impressed with the beautiful, pink spoonbills preening themselves and putting quite the show for the onlookers. I spent most of my time hanging around the local fishermen who were catching fish called sheepshead. A couple of the fisherman had strong, southern American accents that were very tough to understand, but were laughing wildly at times and having a lot of fun. On the way out of the reserve Jacquie spotted a wild alligator sunning itself just off the shoreline, so she pulled the car over and we were able to get quite close to it, in fact too close for Jacquie’s comfort as she didn’t want us to get eaten, so we stood back and watched it from a safer distance.

As dusk was approaching, Jacquie called up David to have him meet us on one of the more remote beaches for a sundowner. Of course the west facing beaches in this part of Florida offer amazing sunsets if you are lucky enough to get a clear day, which we had. We arrived earlier so took a long walk on the shell-covered beach and picked up a few nice ones. David showed up with a bag of goodies so we poured glasses of wine, pulled out the popcorn, and chatted on the beach as we watched the sun slowly sink down into the horizon. Of course, it was an amazing sunset, and after the sun had dropped, a hot pink flame-shaped light appeared where the sun had been so we took a few pictures to capture the moment. Every sunset is unique, but this one was especially good!

With the sky starting to darken, we gathered up our things and drove back to the house, taking care to watch for tortoises that like to cross the road at night. Greater than half of the island is preserved as a wildlife refuge and the locals are adamant about nature preservation, even discouraging streetlights so as not to interfere with turtle nesting.

They had invited us to stay overnight, but because we wanted to get an early start Sunday, we instead settled for drinks and some delicious pizza at their house. They had bought the house over ten years ago and then stripped it down to the guts and completely remodeled it, creating a modern, spacious, and very comfortable living space. While we enjoyed gin and tonics, Stella worked on David's puzzle in progress and Magnus mostly hung out with the dog. At one point Jacquie asked him to take Parker out back to relieve himself, but didn't realize that the yard was not fenced and Parker disappeared! A frantic search ensued, and belive me when I tell you that it is not easy trying to find a black lab at night on an island with no light. Fortunately, he didn't get too far and I caught sight of two white doggy eyeballs that revealed his location. I'm not sure if he had time to relive himself, but our shoes came up clean so perhaps not.

We said our goodbyes and promised to visit them soon back at their home in Toronto. It was only about 9:30 when we left, but the drive back to St. Petersburg was hallucinogenic, as both Ana and I were so tired we could barely keep our eyes open so had to encourage each other on as we took turns driving. We sang songs, ate sunflower seeds, sprayed water on our faces, did car yoga, and poked each other in sensitive areas. The techniques worked and we did not crash into an alligator swamp, but made it back to the hotel by 11:30. Because Magnus and Stella slept the entire way, they had enough energy left for a huge argument about which side of the bed they were entitled to. In the end Stella won, but instead of winning gracefully she then suggested Magnus sleep with me and she offered the “good” side of the bed to her mom, which enraged Magnus, but he internalized the fury, hopped in with me, and that was it for Saturday.

Friday, January 5, 2018 - St. Petersburg, Florida

Ana and I began our 2018 vacation planning shortly after returning from our big trip this summer. The monstrosity of that epic adventure to SE Asia diverted our attention away from our family policy of always having two trips in the hopper, so when we arrived back in late August we had nothing planned. So before long we had lined up a two week trip to Azores and Madeira in April and a two week sailing trip to Lake Ontario in July, which would use up the bulk of our available vacation days and vacation budget.

So in mid-December when Ontario turned into the Arctic, the skin on our knuckles began cracking, everybody picked up colds, and twisted, bloodied spirals of nostril-shaped Kleenex wads started appearing in the wastebaskets around our house, Ana asked me what I thought of booking an early January trip to Cuba.

“I’d love to go to Cuba, but we already decided on our vacations for the year,” I said.

“Oh, come on. Let’s just go,” she insisted.

“Nope. Not going to happen. We need to stick to the plan.”

Now I’m not one to poo-poo vacation ideas, but there are practical limits on vacation days and funds, not to mention pulling kids out of school. So somehow she let it go, which is very uncharacteristic of her. A week later the temperature had plunged further, it was a darker in the morning and the colds were keeping everybody up coughing every night. Our surroundings had changed too. A milky blue glacier was pushing its way into our cul-de-sac and a mess of penguin droppings had appeared on the ice slick where our driveway used to be. Over breakfast Stella noticed two polar bears sparring in our backyard and magnificent Northern Lights…at 8 in the morning. I hitched up the sled dogs and we made it into work and school, but that evening, after we had arrived home, Ana went straight to the computer and found a hot deal on a three night trip to St. Petersburg, Florida. Without any hesitation I said, “Book it.” Ana did the most remarkable happy dance around our kitchen and suddenly life seemed so much better.

On Friday, January 5th Ana’s alarm clock started clucking at 1:30 am and she jolted out of bed to begin her morning operations. Mine went off twenty minutes later and I got ready, rallied the kids, threw our bags in the van and soon we were rocking down the highway to Pearson Airport to catch our 6am flight. Let the Power Weekend begin!

The only thing you can count on with the early morning flights at Pearson is that it will be a shit show. No matter what time you arrive, the airport is packed, which is why you really do need to arrive three hours ahead of your flight. The last two times we flew at this hour, we barely made it to the gate in time, so we didn’t want to chance it. They have also introduced new technology at the airport to further delay processes. After checking in with the airline we were directed to walk to the far end of the terminal to drop our bags. After waiting in line for a while we reached the automated bag chutes where you stuffed in each bag, waited for a hidden robot to measure, weigh, and photograph it, and then had to scan your boarding cards. Thankfully we only checked one bag, but others with multiple bags were there for a long time as they had to do each bag one by one with significant lags between each. The next step was to wait in the line to enter the US immigration hall, and then show our boarding cards and passports. The next line was for security and here we had to remove our shoes, empty our pockets and put every individual item into a plastic bin to be send through the scanning machine. Between the four of us we must have used 12 buckets. This took a very long time as there were only two or maybe three people working there, and most of their time was spent walking empty buckets from the end of the line back to the start. The next line was to wait to use one of the new automation passport control machines. Here each of us scanned our passport, answered a dozen questions on the screen and then were photographed, with significant lags between each step. We each got summary printouts and were directed to go to a lineup for secondary processing, along with what looked like over 80 percent of the others checking in. We waited there for a long time and then were finally directed to a human immigration processor who then scanned each of our passports, asked us some questions and then sent us to an office for further processing. There we were asked a few more questions and then finally allowed to proceed. By this time you are feeling guilty of…something, though you are not sure what. In the end we made it to our gate with 45 minutes to spare, so all in all, it was an excellent airport experience.

After a delayed boarding, delayed fueling, and delayed ice clearing, we finally began taxiing out to the runway, 90 minutes past our scheduled departure time. In the interim both kids had fallen asleep, but as the plane was moving down the runway, Magnus woke up, looked out the window and said, “Is this Florida or Alaska we’ve landed in??”

I laughed and replied, “Bad news buddy, we haven’t even taken off yet – still in Toronto.” He looked at me, shrugged, and fell back asleep.

We had never before flown into St. Petersburg airport, so were happy to find a small, easy to navigate place, and within 20 minutes we had secured a rental car, collected our bag, and were on the road in search of an IHOP (International House of Pancakes) restaurant for brunch, as this had been Stella’s single request for the trip. Apparently the IHOP is very well regarded in her social circles. The food was indeed delicious, and plentiful, and much better than the last time we visited an IHOP - probably a decade ago.

Fueled and caffeinated, our next mission was to accomplish my single request for the trip – visiting the new Salvador Dali museum. Salvador Dali was a zany, prolific, and incredibly influential Spanish painter, and the St. Petersburg gallery owns the largest collection of Dali originals outside of Spain. I have been here twice before, but since then, they had constructed a brand-new gallery to house the collection. The entrance fee was quite steep, so Ana decided to give it a miss and instead take the kids out shopping while I visited the gallery.

“Are you sure you don’t want to go? It’s going to be awesome!” I said as we cruised into downtown St. Petersburg.

“No thanks. I don’t even like Dali’s work that much.” 

“You know, if you listed to more Primus, you’d probably understand and appreciate those surreal paintings a lot more.

“That’s not going to happen.”

I was dropped off at the gallery and spent an amazing two hours browsing through the works. The ticket price included an audio device where you could listen to short, interpretive audio clips about many of the art works, so I took my time, looked at every single painting and listed to the entire audio set. Now Dali was a real weirdo, so most of his paintings require more than a little interpretation, but even without this, his mastery of the art form is obvious.

We went for a short walk downtown, enjoying the sunny but cool day. But even at 10 degrees it felt glorious compared to the -20 we left behind in Canada. It was just after 4 pm so we drove to our hotel – the Dolphin Beach Resort on St. Pete’s Beach, got checked-in and then went for a walk to explore the area. The hotel was right on the remarkably wide beach that stretched as far as the eye could see in both directions. The kids found a shuffleboard area so began sliding red and black pucks across the concrete surface while Ana and I kicked off our shoes and went for a walk down the beach. The sand was cool and reminiscent of icing sugar. An airplane flew by dragging a long sign that proclaimed “ALL YOU CAN EAT CRAB  4 – 8PM OYSTER SHUCKER” and we couldn’t think of any other place in the world where airplanes pull advertising banners through the sky. The sky was cloudless and the sunshine felt wonderful as its magical rays began healing our cracked, grey, wintery skin. As dusk was soon approaching we returned to the hotel, and then walked across the street to the Publix (or “Pubix” as Ana refers to it) and picked up six Radlers, a box of Presidente beer, Vitamin Waters, Arnold Palmer Arizonas, and some popcorn and plantain chips. We were all set.

The hotel had a nice beachfront seating area so we set up there, did a cheers, and enjoyed a toast made by Magnus to our Power Weekend. By now the clouds had rolled in, so we did not get much of a sunset, so to keep ourselves entertained Stella suggested we do timed sprints on the beach to the lifeguard post and back. Though sprinting and drinking don’t often go hand in hand (unless the cops are chasing you), I gave it a go and surprised myself by beating both of their times. Of course, I was close to cardiac arrest by the time I finished the 19 second course, but that’s the price you have to pay to win against fit kids.

For dinner, we decided on the Conch Republic at Redington Beach – an amazing seafood restaurant and one which we’ve visited every time we’ve been in this area. We placed our orders and the super-efficient server soon delivered enormous plates loaded with grilled grouper, mahi, conch fritters, lime shrimp, zucchini fries, Cajun chicken, and mussels diablo. We ate well beyond our normal capacity and waddled out of there feeling quite pleased with ourselves.

Bedtime came early for everybody and we were all asleep by 10. A full day indeed.