By PARIS WOLFE
The past two winters my partner Gary and I have followed the sun. On January 7, 2018, we got up to -2 F temperatures, coaxed the engine to life in our 40-foot Tiffin Phaeton RV and raced the snow to Interstate Route 71 South. Our destination: the Southwest, mostly California and Arizona. On January 3, 2019, we left a dusting of snow to explore the Sunshine State of Florida. A curious person and travel writer, I look for adventures along the road. Some experiences are cliché, some quirky, some unexpected. Some of our favorites, beyond the obvious, include the following.
Palm Springs, California … Once the winter destination of Hollywood’s elite, the Greater Palm Springs area is nearly perfect January through March. The region is sunny an average of 269 days per year and it only rains an average of 15 days. Per year! That weather makes Palm Springs one of our favorite winter RV destinations. We spent more than two weeks there in February 2018.
If you’re planning a winter visit, include a Thursday evening. That’s when artists, farmers, food vendors and entertainers line Palm Canyon Drive for the Palm Springs Street Fair. Get there early for a happy-hour Bloody Mary at a local restaurant. Enjoy people-watching and shopping.
The foodie in me was fascinated that the area is date central … as in the fruit of the date palm tree. In fact, with arid landscape, artesian water and high temperatures it’s the best date-growing area in the United States. While only one or two date varieties are usually found at Northeast Ohio food purveyors, at least a dozen date varietals are sampled at the Palm Springs Street Fair and even more are available at the Riverside County Fair and National Date Festival February 14 to 23, 2020.
Las Vegas, Nevada … We found a KOA RV park in Las Vegas and spent a week in Sin City visiting with family. One mid-February happy hour found us at the 107 Skylounge – the 107th floor of the SkyPod tower – drinking in the view and half-price Dublin mules. Outside the sky-high windows, crazy tourists were falling 855 feet via controlled decelerator to a landing pad below. Watching them fall past the lounge windows is a little freaky at first, but not as freaky as making the jump. (We didn’t join the long line of folks paying $129 for the experience.)
I spent one morning at Dig This, where I played in the largest sandbox ever operating a full-size excavator through several precision exercises. The guided experience was empowering. In the afternoon, I toured the seven-year-old, 41,000-square-foot Mob Museum aka the National Museum of Organized Crime & Law Enforcement. Housed in a 1933 courthouse and post office building, the museum displays artifacts and offers interactive exhibits that give perspective to organized crime from vintage Las Vegas to Cleveland connections to today’s cyber situations. There’s a romance noir and eeriness to the experience.
Meanwhile Gary and his son-in-law spent the entire day racing through the desert on four-wheelers. As beginners often join the morning session, Gary recommends booking the entire day to fully enjoy the four-wheelers’ performance.
Phoenix/Mesa … The desert is refreshingly different from Northeast Ohio. Mesa gets 301 sunny days per year, while Cleveland gets 166. During our winter 2018 visit, Gary and I spent as many days as we could outside soaking up sunshine.
The Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix is a crash course in desert flora… with cacti and flowering plants so different from Northeast Ohio’s lush greenery. Just 52 of the garden’s 140 acres are under cultivation, showing off 50,000 plants, representing 4,500 species. You’ll need a map because it’s easy to get turned around in the meandering landscape.
For a corresponding course in desert fauna, my favorite experience was exploring the Sonoran Desert by horseback with Native-American guide Robert Pablo, 21. In 2018, Pablo was working with his father’s business – Chuck’s Trail Riding Adventures at the Koli Equestrian Center at Wild Horse Pass. Guides lead small groups of riders on trails through 1,000 acres of ancient tribal lands on the Gila River Indian Reservation. The entire reservation, home to Pima and Maricopa tribes, covers 372,000 acres about 20 miles from downtown Phoenix. While wildlife highlighted our ride, the best part of our morning was spotting wild horses – including a three-day-old foal.
Saint Augustine, Florida … Founded in 1565 by Spanish explorers, St. Augustine is the oldest continuously occupied, European settlement in the United States. There visitors have access to more than 60 historic sites and attractions, national monuments, and architecturally rich buildings. They range from a 17th century fort to Gilded Age hotels.
Perhaps the most impressive artifact of Spanish history in the coastal city is the Castillo de San Marcos. Made of coquina — an indigenous building material of compressed tiny shells — the Spanish fort marks the northeast edge of downtown. The current Castillo, completed in 1695, was preceded by nine wood-and-earth forts, all destroyed by the city’s enemies.
Speaking of enemies, across the street from the Castillo is the whimsical St. Augustine Pirate & Treasure Museum. Both historically accurate and playfully fun, the Pirate Museum mixes reality and romance. The exhibits feed “bad-guy” fascinations of children and adults alike.
Moving around the corner and forward to 1888, visitors can tour Flagler College, the former Hotel Ponce de Leon. The Gilded Age luxury hotel was the work of Standard Oil co-founder and railway tycoon Henry Morrison Flagler. An hour-long tour shares how Flagler built the four-story, 540-room hotel in just 18 months. Visitors observe opulent architectural details from gold-leafed George Willoughby Maynard ceiling murals to the largest private collection of Tiffany glass in the world. The Ponce was one of the nation’s first electrified buildings, four years before the White House was wired.
Sarasota, Florida … We parked the RV for a month in northern Sarasota County and found entertainment from Saint Petersburg 40 miles north of the city to Venice, 25 miles south of the city. The beaches, state parks, upscale shopping, dining and theater were all part of our busy February 2019.
The winter home of The Ringling Brothers Circus from 1927 to 1959, the circus museum is here. The Ringling, actually, is a collection of buildings on 66 acres on Sarasota Bay offering art collections and circus history. It is built on the legacy of circus entrepreneur and art collector John Ringling and his wife Mable.
When it comes to art, though, it’s hard to compete with Saint Petersburg for inspiration. The city of 260,000, is home to both The Dali Museum and The Chihuly Collection at the Morean Arts Center. One day is enough time to visit both.
The Dali Museum was formed around the collection of Clevelanders A. Reynolds and Eleanor R. Morse who were friends of the surrealist artist. In fact, the Morses operated the first Dali Museum in Beachwood, Ohio, in the 1970s. Then, in 1982, their collection moved to Saint Petersburg as part of the permanent museum. Today the museum houses more than 2,400 works, including nearly 300 oil paintings, watercolors and drawings.
Nearby, a 10,000-square-foot gallery at the Morean Arts Center displays a collection of work by 20th/21st century American glass artist Dale Chihuly. Lighting is strategically oriented to bring out the energy and emotion of Chihuly’s vibrantly colored glass sculptures.
On yet another day we drove south of the Sarasota to the small beach town of Venice. After passing through a street lined with small boutiques, we parked near the beach. While the area is known as the shark tooth capital of the world, my beachcombing failed. The only tooth fossils I found were for sale at local retailers.
Key West, Florida … I spent my first 30 minutes on the island taking pictures of roosters. The birds and their female counterparts are wild and prolific for legendary reasons. After I acclimated, I focused the lens on Key West’s colorful and historic sites.
To get the most from our weekend in Key West we bought tickets for the Old Town Trolley Tour. It stopped at all the highlights and we didn’t have to park repeatedly. The Ernest Hemingway Home & Museum is one of those highlights. Hemingway, his second wife Pauline and their two sons lived there from 1931 to 1940 with a random collection of polydactyl (five-toed) cats. While touring the home, visitors can pet descendants of those historic felines.
When not in official use, The Harry S Truman Little Whitehouse is open to tourists. Built in 1890 as naval officers housing, Truman used the 8,700-square-foot home as the winter White House. He spent 175 days of his presidency there from 1946 through 1952. Visitors learn about the president and how he managed the issues of those times.
We found the sunset at famed Mallory Square is about much more than the colorful rays fading into the ocean. During the event the square is full of vendors selling food crafts as well as musicians and stunt performers.
P.S. Lake Erie sunsets are just as pretty!