A few years ago, my husband, Dan and I took a road trip from South Florida to New Orleans for our anniversary. Originally, we wanted to return to Las Vegas where we honeymooned, but due to family obligations we decided to try a road trip. We spent 11 days on our trip, but only 4 were in New Orleans. We made sure we stopped every few hours and incorporated additional destinations along the way. Hence our love affair with road tripping began.
Day 1 Road Trip to Tampa
Stop in Sanibel
We left South Florida on a Saturday around 8 am with our Dodge minivan packed to the brim. After driving 2 1/2 hours, we stopped in Sanibel. We dressed in our bathing suits prior to leaving the house, and now we went swimming and relaxed on the beach. Before we left home, we packed some sandwiches which we took out for a picnic lunch. After eating, time for a quick swim, then back in the car.
Ybor City, Tampa
2 1/2 hours later, we arrived in Tampa. We tried to check in to the Hilton Garden Inn, in Ybor City, but our room wasn’t ready. While waiting we soaked in the Jacuzzi and swam in the pool since we were still wearing our bathing suits. After a hot shower, we were ready for an evening out.
Ybor City, known for its Cuban influence, houses Florida’s oldest restaurant. The Columbia Restaurant opened in 1905. The family still uses many of the same authentic recipes today. Upon entering the restaurant, one is transported back into Havana in its heyday. With hand painted tiles and lavish decor, the Columbia holds 15 dining rooms. We reserved a table for two at 7pm in the main dining room to watch a traditional Flamenco Show. We shared a large dish of Paella to save room for dessert. Afterwards we browsed the attached shop for authentic Spanish wares. There are other locations for this restaurant, but the original is the only location with the Flamenco dancers.
After dinner, we browsed numerous bars and shops on the way back to our hotel.
Day 2, Romantic Cedar Key
Sunday morning we walked to Tampa Bay Brewing Company. We sampled various beers and then took a tour. Our tour guide educated us on the beer making process. Of course, we bought a six pack and some specialty glasses before we left.
After checking out of our hotel, we drove for about 2 1/2 hours to romantic Cedar Key, our next destination. We ate some sandwiches on the way. Once in Cedar Key we stopped off at Robinson’s Seafood to pick up some fresh fish to cook for dinner and then drove to our condo for the night.
Day 3 Road Trip to Marianna
Dakota Winery, Chiefland
After leaving Cedar Key, we drove approximately half an hour before arriving at Dakota Winery. After picnicking in our car we took a tour of the winery and participated in a wine tasting. Obviously the wine was good because we bought a mixed case to take with us. The winery sold additional merchandise such as coasters, seasonings, various flavored vinegars and oils, etc. We purchased some wine glasses and a bottle opener to go wine our case of wine.
Florida Caverns State Park, Marianna
Three hours driving in the rain and we reached Florida Caverns State Park in Marianna. Thursday through Monday, the park offers cave tours. We viewed cave formations such as stalactites, stalagmites, draperies, flowstone, soda straws, columns, and rimstone pools. After our spelunking expedition, it was time to set up our tent. We then cooked up some hot dogs on the campsite grill and heated up our leftover fish from the night before on grill mats that we purchased on Groupon.tents camping supplies
Day 4, Road Trip to Biloxi
First Stop, Destin
We woke up early, packed up our gear, and hit the road. Breakfast consisted of the usual yogurt, fruit, or a cereal bar while driving. Our goal was to drive to Destin for the morning session of parasailing. However, the morning was booked. Since we left Marianna before 8am and had less than a two hour drive, we were left with some time to kill before parasailing in the afternoon. A quick consult with Trip Advisor, and we located an old time photo shop. We passed the morning dressing up in western gear. I looked like something out of a burlesque show. Of course we bought the souvenir photos.
With still more time to kill, we wandered over to Emerald Coast Olive Oil in a nearby shopping plaza. We have been to many wine tastings but have never heard of an olive oil tasting until this. After tasting several olive oils including samples infused with rosemary, garlic, and cilantro, we made some purchases. Then we used the last of our sandwich meat to make our lunch and drove to Wet n Wild Water Sports.
We found the marina where Wet n Wild Water Sports was located. After signing a waiver, we boarded the boat. There were about ten people including the captain and first mate. The captain went into details about what to expect from the experience. I was very nervous because I am afraid of heights. A scared 10 year old boy went up with his parent before us. After I saw the exhilarated look on his face once he came down, I couldn’t wait for my turn.
Dan and I got into the tandem harness and slowly ascended into the clouds. I have only experienced that kind of peace one other time, and that was while flying in a hot air balloon in Arizona. Sadly, what goes up, must come down. This experience only lasts about 15 minutes before your legs start going numb from the pressure of the harness. I plan on doing this again.
Hardrock Casino, Biloxi
Three hours later, we arrived in Biloxi. We checked into the Hardrock Hotel and Casino, ate some leftover hotdogs in our room, and sadly fell asleep from exhaustion by 9pm. Determined not to miss out on the hotel experience, we perused the memorabilia displayed in the lobby prior to checking out.
Day 5 Road Trip to New Orleans
Initially, we planned a shrimp boat expedition in Biloxi. However, it turns out that a home school group booked a field trip that day so we were unable to go. Disappointed, we left Biloxi. With no back up plan, we started driving the 1 1/2 hours to New Orleans. Along the way we stopped at a beach to swim and picnic on our leftover hot dogs. Interestingly, the building at the beach had signs posting the high water marks from previous hurricanes.
Arrival in New Orleans
We arrived too early to check into our hotel. Fortunately, we checked with New Orleans Tourism and found the New Orleans Museum of Art. After exploring the museum and sculpture gardens we had a small picnic on the sprawling front lawn. Then we checked into The Royal St. Charles Hotel in the French Quarter. We found this hotel through Groupon for a reasonable price. We did have to pay for Valet Parking, but that also was reasonable. Situated on St. Charles Avenue, we were able to walk or take the streetcar almost everywhere. That night we boarded the Steamboat Nachez for a dinner and jazz cruise.
Day 6 Soaking up the History and Culture
Road Trip to River Road Plantations
First we ordered a muffeletta from the famous Central Grocery. Then we drove out of town, down River Road to visit several plantations. The amount of plantations can be overwhelming so research before you go to pick the ones that interest you the most. We chose Destrehan Manor House, Oak Alley Plantation, and the San Francisco Plantation. Plantation tours can be a bit pricey, but you can download the Trip Advisor app or go through New Orleans Tourism to get a deal by booking a group of tours together. Oak Alley has a beautiful lawn and picnic area where we ate our muffeleta and drank our mint juleps which we purchased at the stand outside the plantation. One of the larger plantations, it houses a restaurant and an option to stay the night.
After a day strolling plantations, we were ready to hit Bourbon Street. Just to let you know, I will not be giving you the scoop on trendy bars. In short, frozen mixes out of a machine don’t cut it for me. I prefer a classic, and New Orleans is just the place for that. So we opted for The Carousel Bar at the Hotel Monteleone. We had to wait for a seat at the actual bar, but it was well worth it. The bar itself rotates and is a replica of a carousel. Certainly, this makes a great place to try a Sazerac, a traditional New Orleans cocktail made with Rye, Absinthe, a sugar cube, and bitters.
Next, we strolled Bourbon Street to experience the culture. Subsequently, we took refuge in a small side bar that served basic mixed drinks and beer. Live music radiated from the band just inside the entrance. Meanwhile, we found seats at the bar and enjoyed some bourbon, while hanging out with the locals.
Day 7 Rum and Ghosts
French Market and Road Trip to Rum Distillery
Today, we walked to the French Market while waiting for our ride to the Old New Orleans Rum Distillery, located outside the city center. While waiting, we browsed the large selection of foods and bought some souvenirs. Then our tour guide picked us up and we went to the distillery for a tour and some samplings. In the end, we left with several bottles of rum and a bottle of Gingeroo, a bottle of ginger beer created on the premises.
Death and Ghosts
After returning from our rum adventure, we explored the French Quarter further. As a result, we stumbled upon the Museum of Death. Highlights include serial killer artwork, crime scene photos, mortician and coroner instruments, and Manson family memoabilia.
After that we embarked on a History and Ghostbusters Tour of the French Quarter. It was a walking tour lasting about 90 minutes. Subsequently, our guide imparted her knowledge of the bloody history of New Orleans. To clarify, this included murders, tortures, fires, and voodoo curses. Most importantly, we stopped at a historic bar halfway through the tour to wet our whistles. In addition, the tour ended at the oldest bar in New Orleans.
Day 8, Mardi Gras and Death
Mardi Gras World
We started the day by taking the streetcar to Mardi Gras World. This place gives birth to parade floats. Initially, the artists sketch out their designs. Then they form their ideas in strofoam. Lastly, they breathe life into them through paint. During the tour we explored the warehouse filled with hundreds of these sculptures and learned the history of the parades and the process to enter one. Also, we had plenty of photo ops posing with the sculptures.
The Garden District and Lafayette Cemetery
After touring Mardi Gras World, we boarded the streetcar and set off for the Garden District. Once there we explored Layfayette Cemetery and listened to a tour guide discuss the history of this setting and explain why the tombs are above ground.
Next we were ready to eat. We strolled Magazine Street looking for a cafe. Of course, many of them had crowds spralling out onto the sidewalk. We walked a little further to find a quieter place where we ordered a couple of Sazaracs, the traditional drink of New Orleans, and an appetizer. Then we spent the afternoon perusing the shops and the architecture of the old homes.
Back in the French Quarter
Upon returning to the French Quarter, Dan and I walked to Jax Brewery where we ordered some dinner and drinks at the bar facing the street. Interestingly enough, a parade went by. Needless to say, I ran out to grab some beads to bring home to my kids as souvenirs.
After dinner we stumbled upon Voodoo Authentica while exploring local shops. As you can imagine, potions, powders, and candles lined the shelves. We bought some candles and then picked up additional souvenirs at some other touristy shops.
Day 9 Road Trip to Florida Panhandle
Time to say goodbye to the magical city of New Orleans and head back to Florida. We had less then a 4 hour drive today, but time to kill since we couldn’t check into our hotel until 4pm. Initially, we planned to go shrimping in Mobile. However, a boy scout troup filled the whole boat so we went with plan B.
Road Trip to Mobile and the U.S.S. Alabama
Instead we stopped at the U.S.S. Alabama. After a picnic lunch of peanut butter and jelly, the only food we had left, we explored the grounds. Highlights included memorials to Alabama’s verterans of WWI, WWII, Korean War, Vietnam War, and 911. Similarly, a memorial stood commendating the canines which have served the military.
Once inside the U.S.S. Alabama we walked through a brief museum and then took a guided tour of the ship. If you are claustaphobic, do not take this tour. To clarify, we spent much of the time walking through small corridors and climbing through hatches.
During the tour our guide pointed out the fine points of the ship. We peered through doorways to glimpse the galley, office, and bunk rooms. In addition we saw the engine room and the torpedo bay. After climbing through what seemed like miles of corridors and ladders we reached fresh air. We toured several decks before climbing back inside and finishing the tour.
Road Trip to Ft. Walton Beach
After all that walking we were ready to get back in the car and continue our journey. We checked in to the Wyndham Garden Hotel which we found through Groupon. Immediately we changed into our bathing suits and headed to the tiki bar. Dan and I lounged in the pool while sipping our tropical drinks. Amenities at this hotel included beach chairs, kayaks, crafts for kids, and bicycles. We wished we had time to stay more than one night.
Afterwards we crossed the boardwalk and strolled the beach. At first, we saw people pointing across the water yelling “Shark”, but it turned out to be some playful dolphins. Nearby, a couple said their wedding vows while the sun turned orange in the evening sky. Moreover, we watched some beachgoers kite surfing. As the sun set we returned to the hotel to eat dinner at the restaurant.
Located on the first floor, our room opened onto the pool deck. Inside we had a king size bed, mini fridge, microwave, and coffee maker. Perfect for storing our leftovers. Of course we couldn’t resist a swim after dinner. We spent the evening back and forth between the pool and jacuzzi. Then it was time for bed to rest up for our long drive the next day.
Day 10 Road Trip to Deland
This morning started off with a quick swim, as we had a six hour drive ahead of us. We ate breakfast bars in the car. Then we stopped at a rest stop about half way for lunch. Once again we ate peanut butter and jelly at a picnic bench and stretched our legs. Normally, I schedule an activity to break up the drive after 3 hours. But today we just wanted to reach our final destination.
By the time we arrived in Deland, we were starving. We checked in at out hotel and headed out to get some food. We settled on Santorini Greek Cuisine after eating creole food for the last several days. Nothing like stuffed grape leaves! Then we took a walking tour of the town. A town known for being artsy, many buildings display murals on their walls.
Sadly, we arrived in the evening so we didn’t get a chance to explore all this town has to offer. Highlights include the black light room at the Gillespie Museum of Minerals. Also, Primitive Expressions where you can learn to play the didgeridoo. Then don’t forget to get a personalized love potion at Merlin’s Vision.
The Artisan Inn
Most importantly, we booked a romantic suite at the Artisan Inn. Since 1924 this historic hotel changed hands many times and was abandoned during the 1980’s. The Soety brothers began restoring it in 1996, and it underwent 5 years of restoration. Now the hotel boasts 8 suites, a restaurant, and a lounge. Paintings by local artists decorate the walls.
We booked one of the larger suites. The foyer housed a wet bar complete with wine glasses and wine. Underneath was a mini fridge. Above the bar hung a small shelf with classic literature. As we sipped our wine lounging on the couch in the sitting room I read the Legend of Sleepy Hollow aloud to my husband. Then on to a soak in the large Jacuzzi tub in the bath.
Day 11 Road Trip Back to South Florida
De Leon Springs State Recreation Area
Before heading home we stopped in De Leon Springs State Recreation Area for breakfast. The Old Spanish Sugar Mill stands in the recreation area from days gone by and is now a restaurant. We arrived around 10am, and there was still a long wait. While waiting we browsed the nearby educational area and watched people swimming and paddleboating.
Finally, we were seated. Here the tables have a griddle built into the center. The server bring out two pitchers of pancake mix, regular and multigrain. Additionally you can order mixins. We chose blueberries which were brought in a separate bowl. If you want eggs, they will be brought to you to cook as well. However, meat products are cooked in the kitchen. Then you cook your food on your table. At first my husband thought this a strange idea. But after trying it, he acknowledged that it was great fun. Of course you can always order a burger from the kitchen, but then you miss the fun.
Unfortunately, all good things must come to an end. We had to return home to our daily lives. Until next time we get to continue exploring the road.
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