Wind and Whim Update: January and February 2024

The front of the Thunderbird Inn in Savannah
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Last Updated on: 4th May 2024, 04:36 am

Greetings from London, where Steve and I have spent the last seven weeks waiting for nice weather. I hope wherever you are, spring is already working its magic.

We ended 2023 by spending Christmas with our daughters, Steph and Laura (aka the girls), and Steph’s roommate, Jeff, in Jacksonville, Florida. It was the first time we’ve been together at Christmas since 2019.

In January and February, we spent time in Jacksonville and Orlando, Florida; Savannah, Georgia; Asheville, North Carolina; and Tonawanda, New York (a suburb of Buffalo).

Here are the highlights of our travels for January and February 2024.

Florida Fun

Our Florida visit included spending as much time as possible with Steph and Laura. It is rewarding to see the lives they’ve built for themselves. Even if we are just sharing a meal or watching a movie, any time together as a family is the best.

We got to see a few family members and friends in Florida, but as always, our return to Jacksonville included a lot of doctors’ appointments and shopping, so we didn’t get to see everyone we had hoped to.

Here are some of the best parts of our Florida visit.

Making Sushi

Steve thought we should try making sushi while in Jacksonville. I thought this project was destined to fail, as it is an art.

After gathering the ingredients at an Asian market, Steve prepared the sushi rice. The next day, we got to work, each of us making one variety of sushi. I think we were all surprised at how well it turned out.

Steph had hoped to use salmon, but we soon learned that it would require at least a week to prepare salmon fillet so it is safe to eat raw. Here is information on how to do that.

Two photos of women making sushi
Steph crafting her sushi, and Laura showing off hers

Catty Shack Ranch Wildlife Sanctuary

Catty Shack is the #1 thing to do in Jacksonville on Trip Advisor, with good reason.

Steve, the girls, and I visited Catty Shack, a big cat sanctuary in Jacksonville. To say we were blown away would be an understatement. The animals are well cared for, and we could see how much the staff loved them. Catty Shack has been in operation for 30 years. I can’t believe we never went to this wonderful place when we lived in Jacksonville.

Catty Shack’s mission is to give forever homes to endangered big cats. You will also see foxes and coatimundis there. You can learn about the residents here.

Some of the animals have impressive enclosures like the one below. I imagine the pools would be tempting not only to the animals but also to the staff on hot summer days. Not all residents have luxury accommodations yet, but judging by what we saw, it’s just a matter of time.

A tiger at the Catty Shack Ranch Wildlife Sanctuary
Adrian, a female Siberian Tiger, in her decked-out home at Catty Shack

Even though we weren’t on a tour, we saw staff members and volunteers throughout the complex, and they were happy to share information and answer questions.

If you’re in the North Florida area and love animals, check out Catty Shack.

Barbie, The Movie

The girls, Steve, and I decided to watch Barbie. I wasn’t sure I would like it, and I couldn’t imagine Steve sitting through the entire movie. Boy, was I wrong. We all enjoyed it. I didn’t want to miss a word. Even if this isn’t your type of movie, you might want to give it a try.

The Lightner Museum in St. Augustine

Our long-time friends Greg and Terry came down from Tennessee for a long weekend. We did several things together, including touring the Kingsley Plantation and attending an improv show at First Coast Comedy, where Greg volunteered to go on stage and brought down the house with an inappropriate utterance.

We also visited the Lightner Museum in St. Augustine, the oldest city in the U.S. It is less than an hour’s drive from Jacksonville but a world apart with its strong Spanish influence.

The museum’s stately Spanish Renaissance Revival style building began life in 1887 as the Hotel Alcazar, a resort hotel commissioned by Standard Oil founder Henry Flagler.

The hotel closed in 1931. In 1947, the building was purchased by Chicago publisher Otto C. Lightner, who turned it into a hobbies museum. Today, it holds an eclectic collection, from furniture to fine art, from salt and pepper shakers to newel post finials. Many items are from America’s Gilded Age (1870s-1890s).

Four photos inside the Lightner Museum
Inside the Lightner, clockwise from upper left: the former swimming pool, a lead glass panel, “Woman on Garden Bench,” artist unknown, a lead glass panel, “Cupid,” artist unknown, and a view of the cut glass collection

Kingsley Plantation

Kingsley Plantation is not large, but it packs a powerful punch. The plantation includes the planter’s house, the separate kitchen house (to reduce the risk of fire in the main house and keep the heat away from it), the slave quarter ruins (and one that has been restored), and the barn.

Owner’s house and slave quarter ruins at the Kingsley Plantation
The owner’s house and slave quarter ruins at the Kingsley Plantation

As always, it’s the stories that make history come alive, and Kingsley Plantation has some good ones. The plantation was built in 1797 by Zephaniah Kingsley, a slave trader and shipping magnate. He lived there for 25 years. Kingsley had four slave wives and nine mixed-race children.

His main wife, Anna, has a fascinating history. She was the daughter of a leader of the Wolof ethnic groups in modern-day Senegal. Her family were slaveholders.

Slave traders captured Anna when she was 13. She was purchased by Zephaniah Kingsley, who soon married her. He freed her from slavery when she turned 18. Spain controlled Florida at that time. They recognized three classes of people: white people, free persons of color, and enslaved persons.

Zephaniah died in 1843. After sorting out some legal hassles, the plantation ownership passed to Anna.

So Anna went from being the daughter of a slaveholder, to an enslaved person, to a free person of color and slaveholder herself.

It is free to visit the plantation, and an audio guide is available. Staff and volunteers are happy to answer questions and share their knowledge. It is a 35-minute drive between Kingsley Plantation and Catty Shack, so the two could easily be seen in one day.

A Short Stop in Savannah

But we weren’t done with January yet. The month ended with a few nights in Savannah. Our sightseeing included wandering Colonial Park Cemetery (the city’s oldest cemetery), dining at the Pirates’ House, lunching at Paula Deen’s restaurant, The Lady and Sons (good food, uninspired decor), strolling the near-empty streets at night, and taking an incredibly corny ghost tour.

We didn’t go to Bonaventure Cemetery once we discovered the Bird Girl statue is no longer there. It is now in the Telfair Museum of Art.

Here are two of our favorite things about Savannah.

The American Prohibition Museum

Children scooping up alcohol dumped by Prohibition agents
Children scooping up alcohol dumped by Prohibition agents (photo from Getty Images)

Our favorite activity was the American Prohibition Museum. It starts out a little hokey, but as you progress, there is a lot of memorabilia and interesting information.

Prohibition lasted 13 years, from 1920 to 1933. It banned the production, importation, transportation, and sale of alcoholic beverages. The consumption of alcohol wasn’t banned, and any alcohol people possessed before the start of prohibition was theirs to keep.

Before Prohibition, the alcohol industry was the 5th largest in the U.S. It is estimated that $11 billion of tax revenue was lost during Prohibition. New York State lost almost 75% of its tax revenue.

Prohibition also contributed to increased organized crime and the loss of jobs in related industries such as trucking and barrel making. Restaurants suffered because people preferred to eat at home, where they could also drink.

You can read more about Prohibition in this History Channel article.

The Thunderbird Inn with George Monk

When Steve and I were looking for a place to stay in Savannah, we blew off the Thunderbird Inn, fearing it would be substandard. We’re glad we reconsidered. This is not a luxury hotel, but it was clean and comfortable.

The Thunderbird dates back to the 1960s, and despite being remodeled in 2018, it has kept the relaxed 60s vibe. Popcorn, Moon Pies, RC Cola, and 60s tunes await your arrival. The hotel doesn’t serve a hot breakfast, but they have decadent donuts for the guests.

If you stay here, you can reserve the hotel’s mascot, a sock monkey named George Monk, and photograph him around town. George was well-behaved in public but got a little rowdy at night.

A sock monkey with two glasses of beer
George trying to steal our beer

On to Asheville

After Savannah, we drove to Asheville, North Carolina, for our first pet sit. It was a huge success. We cared for a medium-sized dog named Aspen and saw a little of the city. I will be writing more about our pet-sitting experiences in another post.

The highlights included the Biltmore Estate and the Pinball Museum.

The Biltmore Estate

Four views of the Biltmore Estate
The Biltmore Estate clockwise from top left: the grand dining room, the library, the conservatory, and the entry hall

In Asheville, we toured the Biltmore Estate. At 179,000 sq. feet or 16,600 sq. meters, it is the largest privately owned house in the U.S. I was shocked to learn the grand dining room is larger than our entire Jacksonville house.

The estate consists of the house, the grounds and gardens, a winery, and Antler Hill Village, which has shopping, dining, and live music. Visiting Biltmore is expensive. As of this writing, a ticket to the grounds (everything except touring the house) ranges from $50 to $85, depending on the day. Tickets to everything, including a house tour with an audio guide, range from $80 to $115. As pricey as the tickets are, the estate is well worth seeing. Our Asheville pet parents gave us ground passes, so we paid $47 each to add the house tour.

This Gilded Age mansion was built by George Washington Vanderbilt II from 1889-1895 in the Châteauesque style. The house cost $180 million in today’s dollars to build. Members of the Vanderbilt family lived there until 1956.

The estate grounds were open to the public for a fee before the house was completed. During the Great Depression, the house was opened to the public to raise revenue to run the estate and boost tourism in the Asheville area. Learn more about this in this article from the Winston-Salem Journal.

Biltmore House played a role in WWII when 79 pieces of art from the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, were stored in its Music Room. The room was closed off from the rest of the house as tours continued. You can read more in this article.

The Second Floor Living Hall in Biltmore
Paintings in the Second Floor Living Hall pay homage to Richard Morris Hunt, Biltmore’s architect, and Frederick Law Olmsted, Biltmore’s landscape architect

The Asheville Pinball Museum

Steve and I love finding quirky things to do, and Asheville came through with the Asheville Pinball Museum. You can tour the museum for free or play as long as you like for $15. Some machines are display only, but there are still about 35 playable machines and 35 classic video games.

The pinball machine collection goes back to the 1930s. The machines are changed out to keep the experience fresh and do maintenance work. We saw the first machine with flippers, the 1947 Gottlieb Humpty Dumpty, and the best-selling machine of all time, Bally’s 1992 Addams Family.

Two pinball machines at the Asheville Pinball Museum
A machine from 1935 and Humpty Dumpty, the first machine with flippers

There is a snack bar where you can grab a soda or a brewski and a light bite. You can also buy T-shirts and other souvenirs. Here’s more about the Asheville Pinball Museum.

Even if you aren’t a pinball wizard, this place will awaken your inner gamer.

Shuffling Off to Buffalo (Well, Flying)

When Steve and I decided to try pet sitting, we intended to do it in Western Europe, Australia, and New Zealand to keep costs down in those notoriously expensive places. However, the first sit that caught our eye was in the Town of Tonawanda, a suburb of Buffalo. I grew up there, and Steve grew up nearby. We still have many relatives there, so we applied and got the gig.

You may question the wisdom of someone choosing to go to the Buffalo Area in February, but since we grew up there, we figured we could handle anything Mother Nature threw at us.

I was hoping to get snowed in, but there was very little snow during our three weeks there, and that disappeared quickly as the temperatures climbed well above freezing. Steph and Laura joined us for a week and were there when it snowed. Neither has seen snow since they were wee babes.

Steph and Laura in the snow
Laura and Steph enjoying snow flurries, and Steph throwing a snowball

We stayed in a comfortable house full of eclectic art while we cared for Baer, an older terrier, and Nikki, a shy cat. We spent most of our time visiting family, including several members we hadn’t met. Because of his genealogy work, Steve connected with dozens of relatives we hadn’t known of.

One sad note was that Steve’s second oldest brother, Bob, passed away suddenly shortly after we arrived. He didn’t want a funeral, so most of the family got together at a local bar for an impromptu wake.

We were too busy visiting and eating all the yummy Buffalo food to do any sightseeing.

New on the Website

With all this exploring and family time, we only published one post:
Sinaia, Romania: A Great Addition to Your Bucharest Trip

Until Next Time

I hope you found this post interesting and inspiring. Drop a comment below and let Steve and me know if you’ve visited any of the places above and what you thought of them.

Happy traveling,

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