jax beach surf lessons

When you think of Jacksonville, Florida, what first comes to mind? Maybe the Jaguars NFL team, the Florida-Georgia college football game played there each year, or is it the beach that kicks off the rest of the coastline of the Sunshine State?

For me, it will now eternally conjure up memories of surfing lessons with my daughter, a funky, renovated motor coach inn, and bike rides on the beach.

While on a recent ‘lobsters and lighthouses’ road trip down the coast with my daughter, my friend, and her daughters, we made the Jacksonville area our first overnight stop.

Amelia Island Lighthouse

We popped in at the Amelia Island lighthouse, but our timing was off to see much of it. It turns out that the oldest existing lighthouse in Florida is tucked away in a little corner of a neighborhood of Amelia Island, and is only open to the public for a few hours each Saturday, or as part of a tour every other Wednesday. The 68 foot light was built in 1838 and is the only light from the Territorial Period that has survived without major rebuilding. Yes, that means the light was shining before Florida was even a state! We could only see it through a chain-link fence, so we didn’t get a great view, though we did see it better as we left the neighborhood for the nearby beach.

About an hour later, we made our way down to Atlantic Beach and our home for the night, the Hotel Palms (video above). From the outside, it doesn’t look like much, but once you step foot inside its swinging gate, you’re met with a modern, beachside motor court hotel. It’s about three blocks from the ocean and within walking distance to the shops and restaurants of Beaches Town Center, a beachside community in the heart of Atlantic and Neptune Beach.

hotel palms room chimney

The boutique hotel has been renovated with care, using reclaimed wood headboards, palm trees, concrete floors, and uncluttered design touches that you’ll want to duplicate in your own home. There were five of us and we were hosted in two rooms…one with two queen beds and another with a set of bunk beds. Each room had its own bathroom. There’s a fireplace outside for everyone to gather around and a couple of beach cruiser bicycles you can borrow for a trip down to the shore. That little touch made all the difference for us in our stay, and we used the bikes both at night and the next morning, to catch the sunrise.

hotel palms room

hotel palms bunks

hotel palms other part of room

fire pit

bike ride on beach

After watching the sun rise we geared up for our swim lessons over at Jax Surf and Paddle, just a couple blocks from Hotel Palms. We had no idea how much fun we’d have when we pulled up for class.

lessons on shore

When we first met Walker and Amelia, our surf instructors, it was hard not to be intimidated. Both 20-something and super fit, I wondered whether I needed to be in their shape to learn to surf. They reassured me that I’d be fine, and they were right.

We were each given boards, shown how to pop them up on and balance them on our heads, and then headed down to the sand.

Amelia guided us through all the how-to’s, had us give it a try on the sand, and then sent us out into the water.

About an hour after we started lessons, I was on my board with Walker at my back, demanding, “Paddle, paddle, paddle!! And go…”

I caught my wave just as my daughter caught hers, and as we both stood on our boards, our eyes met in sheer glee, laughing at the fact that we were surfing together. My 12-year old and I were riding a wave into shore. Then, mom-mode took over and I realized I didn’t have the first clue on how to control my board to keep from colliding into hers, so I threw myself down into the water, board attached at the ankle. But there was no wiping that grin off my face after that quick thrill.

We rode wave after wave after wave that day, in the surf of the Atlantic Ocean (this region is ideal for gentle waves, making it perfect for beginners). We enjoyed it so much that we even bought our own board to come back and surf again some day (video below of our day on the water)!

des surfboard on head

We checked out of Hotel Palms and headed down to St. Augustine after that. We climbed the lighthouse there and were rewarded with stunning views of the nation’s oldest city. Bonus: there’s a nice, cool breeze at the top. This light was built in 1874 and is 164 feet tall. That translates to 219 steps, in case you’re counting.

St. Augustine lighthouse

We continued with our road trip down the coast after this, but will forever remember our trip to Visit Jacksonville as one that filled our hearts with memories that we know will last a lifetime, though we’re eager to go back and make more.

lobsters lighthouse sand toes

(Note to readers: The Visit Jacksonville CVB arranged our visit, including hotel stay and surfing lessons. I was not otherwise compensated for this review, and as always, my opinion remains my own.)


Margaritaville Resort

Just as a margarita is the perfect mixture of salt and sweet, the Margaritaville resort in Hollywood Beach is the ideal combination of classy and casual…comfy and chic. To be perfectly honest, if there was ever a hotel I’d like to make into my own home, this would be it.

single king margaritaville

double bed margaritaville

Maragaritaville pays tribute to singer, songwriter and author Jimmy Buffet, but you don’t have to be a Parrothead like me to appreciate its beauty. There are touches of Buffett throughout, and it’s really tough to walk anywhere in the resort without starting to sing one of his tunes. The lyrics are subliminal in some ways, and boldly in your face in others, and it’s hard to imagine anyone feeling other than totally laid back, just as Buffett would be. But even if you’ve never heard a note of his music (impossible, I believe), you’d still enjoy what the resort offers—a comfortable place to play, eat, and stay right on Hollywood Beach’s famed ‘Broadwalk’—or boardwalk—that buffers the beach.

margaritaville pool

While on a recent ‘lobsters and lighthouses’ trip down the coast with my daughter, my friend, and her daughters, we spent the night at this resort and really didn’t want to leave. It would have been fine with us if we’d spent the entire week right here, dining on ‘cheeseburgers in paradise’ at his Margaritaville restaurant (though I would love to try the JWB Prime Steak and Seafood on my next trip).

Margaritaville Resort pool

Our room overlooked the pools below, along with the Landshark Bar and Grill, and the Hollywood bandshell, where we heard live music playing while kicking back on our private balcony.

You can see a video of our stay here, along with the details below.

We stayed in a two bedroom/2 bathroom suite that I truly would duplicate in a home design of my own. We had a living room area, dining area, mini-frig and bar. The balcony was massive—meaning it stretched almost the entire length of the suite. The décor was a beach lover’s dream, complete with pillows that pay tribute to Buffett’s ‘Changes in Attitudes, Changes in Latitudes’ hit.

margaritaville resort lobby

And the lobby. Oh, that lobby. I’m typically one to get in and out of a hotel lobby as quickly as possible, but the Margaritaville Resort lobby is the kind of place where you could kick back and talk with friends for hours. It’s like a fun living room, with chandeliers of margarita glasses and a massive statue of a ‘busted out flip flop’. Buffett fans will understand its significance, but others can read the sign next to it if they need an explanation.

bike riding hollywood beach

The Margaritaville coffee shop and gift shops downstairs were perfect for grabbing a bite to eat and a small souvenir, but we spent most of our time at the pool and slide, and using the free bicycle loan program to ride up and down the broadwalk (they don’t have smaller bikes, for little ones, but you can rent one at a nearby bike shop).

There’s also a FlowRider surfing simulator on property that you can pay extra to try if you’re up to the challenge. Or, you can rent a kayak or paddleboard and then kick back in the St. Somewhere Spa on property.

Kids can take part in the Parakeets kids club, which has activities throughout the day, or just jump in with the pool side fun that the resort organizes.

Rates range depending on which room you select (there are some with ocean views and balconies, and some with intracoastal views), how many beds and how many rooms you prefer, along with the time of year. You can look for dates and rates by clicking here—and know there’s a current special for 1 night free if you pay for three. I’m all for more time at Margaritaville!

The sunrise was beautiful…and the sky around sunset…stunning.

sunrise margaritaville

sunset margaritaville

(Note to readers: We paid a media rate for our room and were provided with a free meal at the Margaritaville restaurant. We were not otherwise compensated for this review. #DestinationParadise)

We took the entire trip in a 2017 Toyota Sienna. If you want to read more about that, click here.


2017 Toyota Sienna Review and Road Trip: VIDEO

by Desiree Miller on August 10, 2017

Toyota Sienna by the sea

In some cars, you just want to get from point A to point B as quickly as possible, but when you’re in a Toyota Sienna, especially as one of the passengers in the back, it’s all about kicking back and enjoying the ride. These minivans are set up with the equivalent of your daddy’s recliner in the middle row, complete with footrest when you’re truly looking to relax. To me, this turns the Sienna into one deluxe way of soaking up the sites from the road, so the question really becomes, WHAT WILL YOU SEE FROM YOUR SIENNA?

inside a Toyota Sienna

We took one on a trip down the coast ‘with the girls’…me and my 12 year old daughter, my pal Cindy (with SurvivingMommy.com) and her two girls, now 12 and 4. We called it Lobsters and Lighthouses II, because it was part two of a trip my daughter and I took last summer up the coast.

lobsters lighthouse sand toes

The goal: to see as many lighthouses and eat as much lobster as possible, all while making memories that our girls will never forget.

We failed miserably at the eating lobster part. I think we forgot that was part of our mission, because we were having so much fun at the other goal: the making memories part.

I’d say we saw enough lighthouses to get us through another year. Maybe. We definitely climbed enough (those lighthouses can get hot in the summer heat, and we discovered right away that Cindy doesn’t do too well at those heights).

lighthouses in florida

This trip crossed into South Carolina, through Georgia, down the Florida coast all the way to Key West and the Southernmost point of the United States. At one point, we were about as close to Cuba as we were to Miami. And the entire trip was epic.

keywest sign

We couldn’t have picked a more comfortable ride. When Toyota offered us the Sienna to review on our journey, I think they feared these moms were looking for something other than a minivan. Not at all. After all, this is what they call a Swagger Wagon, remember?

Toyota Sienna dash

They call it that because it is fully loaded with all the bells and whistles that make it ultra cool to drive, plus, all the technology to keep us up to date on what we needed to know on the road (ahem, weather forecast!!).

southernmost point

Its 27 mpg fuel average on the highway kept our expenses down—leaving more money for the sweet souvenirs we kept finding along the way to the country’s southernmost point and back.

We drove through plenty of sunshine, but a few storms, too, where we couldn’t see the cars in front of us and were thankful for the all wheel drive, projector beam headlights and LED taillights.

sienna back seats

The three climate control zones were helpful, since we used all three rows. And the dual-view blu-ray disc entertainment center did its job of helping keep the kids occupied when there wasn’t something to see on the roadside. The dual moonroof was also a nice touch.

Toyota Sienna with surfboard on top

We had plenty of room for all of us, and for the surfboard we decided to buy after our surfing lessons in Jacksonville. We strapped it to the top first, then moved it inside the minivan (what other vehicle would let you haul a nine foot surf board over your heads INSIDE the car?). According to the manual, depending on how the seats are configured, you can adjust cargo volume from 39 cubic feet behind the third row to a whopping 150 cubic feet with the second and third rows folded. Can you even imagine all the fun stuff we could have picked up on the trip if we hadn’t brought our daughters (only half joking here)?

reclining seat with footrest in Toyota Sienna

There are plenty of safety features throughout, including 8 air bags, the star safety system of a suite of six active safety features, blind spot monitor, and rear cross-traffic alert with audible and visual indicators to warn you of oncoming vehicles. There are parking assist sonars and a pre-collision system that automatically applies the brakes.

Toyota Sienna driver easy speak

You can use hands-free calling and stream your music. There’s even ‘driver easy speak’ that allows you to chat with passengers in the rear seat using a built-in microphone up front that picks up your voice and transmits it to the back through the rear speakers.   I have to admit, when we tried it, we couldn’t tell if the four year old in the back was hearing our normal voices in the front or if she heard us through the speakers. We probably should have tested it with the adults split up, but I take Toyota’s word for it that it could be cool.

My dad wouldn’t forgive me if I didn’t mention the 296 horsepower 3.5 liter V6 direct-injection engine with direct shift 8-speed automatic transmission (sorry—I’ve always been more about the comfort inside than what’s under the hood, but I know I’m not everybody). Oh, and fully loaded the way we drove it, the price is about $47-thousand.

St. Augustine lighthouse

We were in the minivan comfortably for days…literally…stopping at lighthouses from Amelia Island (not much to see, I have to say—the St. Augustine light was much nicer) on down to the one in Key West, right next door to Ernest Hemingway’s home.

We took surfing lessons with our girls in Jacksonville (a must do with Jax Surf & Paddle if you’re ever in the area, and stay at Hotel Palms, a very cool motor coach inn that’s been renovated into a super chic retro hotel).

Hotel Palms

We helped a newly hatched turtle make it to the ocean in Vero Beach and swam in the waters near a shipwreck from decades ago.

baby turtle hatching

We spotted a submarine off the shore north of Miami while staying at the Margaritaville Resort in Hollywood Beach (where yes, indeed, we did eat a Cheeseburger in Paradise) and slept in paradise, too, in a room and resort that makes the most of its ties to Jimmy Buffett and all that makes him such a legend. It’s truly impossible to walk through the resort and not sing at least one of his songs.

Margaritaville Resort pool

We drove over the seven-mile bridge leading down the Keys and celebrated sunset in Mallory Square in Key West, in all its funky glory. We swam at the spot where the Gulf of Mexico meets the Atlantic and soaked up all the sunny good vibes along the way.

7 mile bridge on phone

We saw it all, thanks to our epic ride in the Toyota Sienna.

Sure, we missed out on eating lobster, but we absolutely won big on the making memories part.


Here’s a video of our fun in the Sienna. I hope you have as much fun as we did!!!




hall of justice capes

After five decades in Atlanta, Six Flags over Georgia continues to add new rides and fun to the amusement park that draws thousands to the area—and a combined 300 million dollars to the local economy in the last year alone.

hall of justice tips

The 4D Interactive Action Ride JUSTICE LEAGUE: Battle for Metropolis opened at Six Flags Over Georgia at the end of May. The ride features interactive laser fun that creates competition among the entire family. There’s nothing that loops (ok—there’s a virtual loop, but that’s so not the same thing) or flips, so it’s safe even for the youngest children in the group, along with those who don’t share the love for more daring, thriller coasters. The ride features iconic DC Comics Super Heroes and Super Villains—and you can even buy a cape at the end of the ride in the gift store you pass through as you walk out (and for about $8, that makes one heck of a souvenir in my book).

Here’s a video of some of the highlights:

The laser gun fun reminded my crew of the Buzz Lightyear ride at another famous park, merged with some of the fun you can find on the Spiderman at that park’s biggest competition in the same city (hint—both parks are based in Orlando—quite the drive from the ATL).

But in this case, you get to battle with BATMAN™, SUPERMAN™, WONDER WOMAN, THE FLASH and GREEN LANTERN against Lex Luthor, The Joker and his henchmen, all while you are hit with wind, fire, mist and fog effects, plus life-like animatronic characters.

hall of justice welcome

Of course, there are plenty of other thrill rides at Six Flags over Georgia to enjoy, but if you’re going in the summer, be sure to throw a swimsuit and towel into your bag so that you can cool off at Hurricane Harbor. It’s the free waterpark that is part of Atlanta’s Six Flags and, to me, is a must for cooling down after spending a couple hours in the Georgia heat racing to rides.

Recently nominated as one of the 10Best Outdoor Water Parks by USA Today, the water park features a 38,000 square foot wave pool and the world’s first Tsunami Surge water slide with a perpendicular wave wall and 50 foot drop. You can see a video of that by clicking here.

There’s also a new store fans with a sweet tooth will want to check out:   Coaster Candy is a 4,000 square foot candy store features chocolate dipped marsh-mallows, gourmet chocolate dipped pretzels, candy apples and homemade fudge, among other sweet treats. Coaster Candy is located near the front entrance of the park.

Six Flags Over Georgia is open daily through August 6. Season Passes and All Season Dining Plans to Six Flags Over Georgia and Six Flags White Water are available online at www.sixflags.com/overgeorgia.

Cobb County recently honored the park for its economic contribution to the area, commemorating its 50th anniversary with several special events for fans and employees.

Six Flags over Georgia 50th Anniversary flags



Nova Scotia: What to See and Do Near Halifax

by Desiree Miller on June 22, 2017

Peggy's Cove lighthouse near Halifax, Nova Scotia.

From breathtaking views of sunrise and the chilly splash of water on the rocks of the lighthouse at Peggy’s Cove, to the tombstones of those lost at sea when the Titanic went down, Nova Scotia offers sites you’ll long remember after a brief visit to the region.

Halifax is the capital of this Canadian province and where you’ll find several museums and memorable landmarks. A trip through the town still shows remnants of the Halifax Explosion in 1917, one of the greatest disasters in Canadian history, when a cargo ship carrying munitions collided with another ship, resulting in an exposition that wiped out an entire district of the city, killing about 2,000 people and injuring 9,000 others.

Citadel Hill in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

You can stop by Citadel Hill for a great view of the city’s downtown area and walk along the waterfront, or Halifax Harbourwalk, for some of its fun eateries and shops.   A must-see along the boardwalk is the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, where you can learn more about the city’s critical role in the Titanic disaster, along with other notable facts of its maritime history. The boardwalk is also where you’ll catch a ride for many of the whale-watching tours that you can enjoy on your visit. For me, a day of walking the waterfront was plenty, including the visit to the museum. Another day should be set aside to actually get out on the water on one of the paid boat tours where you’ll learn more about the environment and history of the coast. Also, be sure to carve out time to stop by the Fairview Lawn Cemetery where you’ll find the graves of many of those who died at sea in the Titanic sinking, including the ‘grave of the unknown child’ (now known to be ‘the Goodwin child’, through testing done in the decades since the tragedy). There are 110 monuments there, and it’s hard not to tear up when walking by that particular marker.

unknown child

Grave markers for Titanic victims at Fairview Lawn Cemetery in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Set aside at least one other day to explore the surrounding region, especially Peggy’s Cove. Grab a meal at the restaurant at the foot of the light, famous for its lobster, but leave plenty of time to climb the rocks near the lighthouse and simply relax. Steer clear of the black rocks at the bottom. The waves are dangerous in those spots and people have been carried out to sea while standing in those areas, despite signs warning them of the danger. However, the rocks above those wet ones are ideal for an hour or so of sitting and appreciating all of nature’s glory.

This video highlights many of the things you’ll see on a visit to this special coastal region of Canada.



Strawberry Laser Liposuction: Does It Work?

June 2, 2017

When I mentioned to others that I was trying Strawberry Laser Liposuction, they immediately asked if it really worked. Well, take a look at the photo above and tell me what you think. I tried four treatments around my mid-section and lost more than two inches each time. However, it didn’t add up to eight inches total because sometimes, between treatments, some of it showed up again around my waist. That’s important to note, since my findings show the treatment only works if you’re willing to do the work to […]

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To Kayla: An Open Letter of Love as You Graduate

May 23, 2017

Dear Kayla-bear, In just a matter of days, you’ll be walking across the stage, collecting your high school diploma, the start of a new chapter in life. And as you hurl your way into the future, I can’t help but look back. You were just a little thing when we met. The quiet, sweet child who wrapped her tiny arms tight around my leg, reminding me immediately of a baby koala bear, and quickly earning you my special nickname of Kayla-bear, which still sticks. I remember, as if it happened […]

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Strawberry Laser Lipo: An Easy Way to Lose a Few Inches

May 9, 2017

With a cruise scheduled in about a month and less and less time left to lose a few inches, when Spa 810 in Buckhead reached out and offered for me to review their new Strawberry Laser Liposuction treatment, I just figured it was serendipity. I immediately asked them to tell me more. I then went to my good pals Google and YouTube to do a little research of my own, and was relieved to hear it was a ‘non-invasive, painless and speedy’ treatment that even the FDA has cleared for use. […]

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Carmel-by-the-Sea, Where Dreams Start

May 5, 2017

Strolling down Ocean Avenue, savoring the chocolate-covered macaroon I’d just treated myself to at the Carmel Bakery, I realized this little one-point-one square mile city known as Carmel-by-the-Sea is a land unlike any other. It’s a tiny little corner of slow calm in a world of fast-paced chaos, an area filled with back alleyways that lead to flower-filled gardens, a food-lover’s dream where each corner has another quirky, often quite romantic, restaurant. It’s an art lover’s mecca, complete with a gallery where a world-famous sculptor stands in front of you, […]

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Birmingham: Food, Fun and Unique New Ideas in the Magic City

May 5, 2017

Driving through Birmingham at least a dozen times over the past few years, it never occurred to me that this little Alabama town would house so many amazing shops and eateries, including a speakeasy-inspired bar that can instantly transport you back to the days of Prohibition. And it certainly didn’t occur to me that there would be so many fun options for fun with the family, from a massive beanstalk to climb to a ropes course that will challenge every muscle in your body at Red Mountain Park. Birmingham is […]

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