While I managed to pop home for various family events in the midst of last year’s official RTW journey, I didn’t have much money after flights for birthday gifts and whatnot. I felt especially rotten because my baby sister turned 18 last year and I couldn’t splash out for anything really special for her. (To be fair, she has expensive taste – she wanted a car!)
Now that I’m traveling part time and working part time, I decided to make up for last year with an RTW 19th birthday journey of her own. Only, since she’s in the middle of her first semester of college, I had to get a bit creative with locations… I decided to share here because, hey, we can’t all travel the world all the time and sometimes we have to find our adventures in our own backyard. Rachel had no idea what we were up to for the day, so she wasn’t thrilled about leaving the house at dawn to drive to who-knows-where. She spent the whole ride trying to guess – and she managed to figure out our first stop once we passed a billboard for it along the way. Fortunately, most of my geography clues were useless because blessed little sister is not quite as maptastically inclined as I am.
Stop 1: The St. Augustine Lighthouse
Grabbed some Starbucks, did a bit of light yoga, spotted some local wildlife and listened to many more misguided guesses about what the day’s activities might hold.
Stop 2: The Alligator Farm
While the First Coast is expansive in size, it’s not terribly full of fun, adventurous things to do, so when I heard about the new Crocodile Crossing, a 7-acre obstacle and zipline course that takes you zooming over exhibits filled with alligators and crocodiles, I just had to do it. You know I love predators!
I wasn’t quite sure if Rachel would be into it (she did NOT enjoy our trapeze lesson in NYC a few years ago) so I was apprehensive about springing it on her as a birthday surprise, but she really wowed me! She was so excited to scurry up the ladder and get started – probably more so than me. I’ve never been the biggest fan of ziplines.
There are more than 50 obstacles at the attraction, and it took Rachel and I about two very sweaty hours to complete both the Sepik River Course and the higher Nile River Course. Fortunately, we were very early and thus the first people on the course that day, because I’d imagine it gets busy and rather annoying waiting for others to complete the obstacles and zips.
It’s definitely a bummer that you can’t take your camera with you – you know I like to document every moment of the day on Instagram. But I understand – they can’t have dropped cameras splashing into gator habitats! There is a staff photographer who will follow you around for a bit to capture some of the adventure, but like any activity, the pro photos are gonna cost you. For 5 digital prints we paid $30. Unfortunately all those shots are from below, so I don’t have any of the dozens and dozens of ginormous creatures we zipped over.
Needless to say, this is one of those attractions that offers some perceived risk, but very little actual risk. The biggest danger is that the course is self guided, so it’s up to you to clip your harness on correctly and follow instructions. I think if there were ever a place to pay attention and follow the rules to the letter, it’s here. Falling from 50 feet into a patch of crocodiles would probably wreck your day.
Tips for your trip: If you want to check out Crocodile Crossing, go early! It’s cooler in the morning and there are bound to be fewer people on the course, giving you ample time to zip over the gators at your own pace.
Stop 3: The Columbia Restaurant in Downtown St. Augustine
There was a surprise in store for Rachel at the Columbia Restaurant in historic downtown St. Augustine – our grandma! We met for a lovely ladies lunch and chowed on Spanish-influenced food in the oldest city in the USA. The experience at the Columbia is so authentic and the giant pitchers of sangria are pretty good, too.
I think growing up on the First Coast it’s easy to forget how historically significant St. Augustine is. Our very short visit to St. George Street reminded me that I need to visit more often with fresh eyes!
Stop 4: Old Tyme Photos
I hinted to Rae that we might be going back in time, and this is what I meant. After lots of discussion on which era’s clothes were the most flattering, we ended up choosing “saloon girl chic.” Our photo shoot lasted all of 15 minutes but the final photos are a treasure well worth the price.
Stop 5: Massages
We were exhausted already by the time we made our way to the next stop, about 45-minute drive north in Jacksonville Beach. I tried to psyche Rachel out by telling her to put on tennis shoes and get ready for more heavy adventure in Bali, but once we pulled up to Massage Envy, she knew exactly what was up.
It was her first massage ever and I warned her that it would change her life. The blissful look of relaxation on her face afterward said it all – we’ve got another spa addict on our hands, folks.
Stop 6: Jacksonville Beach
The day had been so much fun but so intense so far, it was all we could do not to fall asleep during our 30-minute stop on Jacksonville Beach. We sprawled in the white sand and soaked up the sun, enjoying our freshly unknotted shoulders and the blue sky.
Stop 7: Nipper’s Bar & Grill
There’s only one other Nipper’s in the world – the original – in The Bahamas. As a former publicist for the country, I’ve spent my fair share of time at its beachy restaurants and bars, so I couldn’t wait to try out our local version of the famous Abaconian hotspot.
And guess what – there was another surprise! Our brother Alex met us for a birthday dinner of conch fritters, Bahamian mac and cheese and fresh fish tacos. It was pretty tasty but I have to confess, Jacksonville Beach doesn’t have anything on the real Bahamas.
Stop 8: Adventure Landing
Just across the way from Nipper’s is Adventure Landing, a small waterpark, arcade and golf cart destination that my family has patronized since it opened when we were kids. Rachel & I were pretty wiped out by the time we arrived, so we played SkeeBall & all those cheesy games, collected our mountains of tickets and came home with pirate eye patches and mustache necklaces. And I’d say those are probably the best birthday gifts of all. Way better than a car! (Right, Rae?)
Ultimately, we transversed a whole lot of space and time in our eight stops around Florida’s First Coast – The Nile and the Amazon, Colonial Spain, the Caribbean, Indonesia. It was a perfect way to celebrate the beginning of Rachel’s last teenage year and another testament to the fact that there are adventures close to home if only you’ll keep your eyes open.
Rachel has travel dreams, too, so keep an eye on her on Twitter!