On our August 2018 RV roadtrip, we started planning our Summer 2019 family vacation to celebrate birthdays for Bill’s 70th, Mandy’s 39th and Blake’s 7th. In email exchanges with our grown kids, we suggested either a Colorado – cooler temperatures trip or a beach trip and the majority voted for the beach. By October 2018, after researching several possibilities including the Destin Florida Scenic 30-A area and the slightly closer Orange Beach Alabama area, we reserved our Heavenly Sunset VRBO Beach House (https://www.vrbo.com/307200). Sunset is half of the “Heavenly” large duplex with the other side named Heavenly Sunrise. The two duplexes were very similar, but Sunset had the bed-configurations that best accommodated our family of 12.
We wanted to make this fun trip a memorable one so I ordered matching t-shirts for everyone with plans for the “reveal” Christmas Day by wrapping as a Christmas gift. CustomInk is a shirt vendor located inside Walmart and they did a really good job on the design and production of the shirts. I ordered the Tri-Blend, a level or so up from their standard Hanes Tagless, and that turned out to be a great choice. The fabric is much-softer and a lighter-weight than the standard. CustomInk sent an online order preview before finalizing to print and I noticed the image set to be printed on the large adult size t-shirts’ looked disproportionate compared to the image set for the smaller child size t-shirts. Thankfully, I caught it and it was corrected before final production. We received all the shirts in time for Christmas. We were so pleased with the t-shirts’ design, using the same image, I ordered a large (4’ x 6’) vinyl banner from Vistaprint to hang outside on the beach house balcony railing.
Bill likes to take family photos with his tri-pod and professional camera equipment; however, it can become a bit stressful with him trying to get the perfect photo with our large group. In polling the kids on whether each family wanted to chip-in towards a professional photographer or have Dad take the family photos, everyone unanimously agreed on engaging a professional. I researched several professional photographers online and chose Angela Mott, https://angelamottphotography.com/, whom I booked in February 2019. Her prices are posted on her website. Angela assured me that she could get all the photos we wanted of the group and the individual families within the 30-minutes, with traditional photo poses versus candid-action type photos. However, I was concerned that 30-minutes would be too rushed and everyone would not have the opportunity to get all their desired selections. Fortunately, due to windy weather conditions, we rescheduled our photo-shoot from Sunday, 07/14 to Wednesday, 07/17, and Angela was able to increase our slot to a 60-minutes. It will be 4-weeks before we receive the link on Dropbox to access the proofs, but here are a few taken by our cell-phones while at the beach for the photo-shoot as a sneak-preview:
The days before and on the day we actually left for our trip, Tropical Storm Barry was the headline news and the forecast advised that prior to landfall it would most likely become a Hurricane. The warnings were more directed for New Orleans and the southern Louisiana area, with widespread flood warnings and extremely windy conditions for all of the southeast Gulf coast. It looked like we could make our drive from the Dallas area on a northern route thru Shreveport then turning south Mississippi to Alabama. With that route, we avoid most of the heavy storm areas. As it turned out, we did drive through some heavy rainfall in Mobile, AL with flood warnings.
Our trip was planned with 7-family members riding all together in our large 3-row SUV, a 4-family member group in their SUV and lastly our daughter, Mandy, who lives in California would be flying into Pensacola National Airport from Burbank, CA. The eleven of us traveling by car decided to leave Friday afternoon, stayed over 1-night in Shreveport, and made the final drive into Orange Beach on Saturday. Our daughter arrived at the airport late Saturday night and took an airport shuttle to the beach house.
The beach house check-in was 4 pm on Saturday, July 13 and we made it into Orange Beach at approximately 4:30 pm. Having only viewed the house’s online photos and descriptions, we were pleasantly surprised when it turned out to be even better than expected. The inside was perfect for us and though the online photos showed the beach house (duplex) painted green, it had been freshly repainted to a creamy-white.
Our son, Shahn, had a surprise of his own and Sunday morning he brought out a couple dozen custom drink koozies imprinted with a 50-year old photo of younger Bill. It was a sweet, good idea and we all enjoyed using the koozies all week, they will be a great souvenir.
Tropical Storm Barry turned into a Category 1 hurricane and made landfall in Louisiana on Saturday, July 13. It was very windy when we arrived and the ocean tides were high. There were double red-flags posted along the beach. We unpacked and went to the beach for a few hours, the kids were playing in the water but were staying very close to shore because of the high waves, it wasn’t long before the lifeguards drove by in a jeep and told us everyone was to get out of the water, no swimming at all. They did tell us that most likely, the next day (Sunday) would be better. You can see in the photos below how high the waves are in the ocean on day one (July 13) versus how calm they are on day 4 (July 17).
Our arrival day was also Blake’s 7th birthday and we planned on going somewhere fun to celebrate. Lulu’s (https://lulubuffett.com/) was the location selected and it was a fun first night. Lulu Buffet (Jimmy’s sister) has a large complex named appropriately “Lulu’s.” The place is very kid-friendly with sand volleyball, a high walk rope maze, arcades, a nice gift shop, live music, and a restaurant with a variety of food options. The arcade gave Blake a $10.00 game card for his birthday that he and his Mom had fun using on games.
Most of every day was spent on the beach. We brought a 12’x12’ canvas canopy, however, there are rules that require that your canopy be posted behind marked posts which place your canopy at a distance about 40 yards from the beach breakwater. We would put the ice chests, beach toys and a few chairs under the canopy. Beach umbrellas have no such rule and you can place those right up to the waterline. So with our beach umbrella we brought plus the one we found in the rental’s box of free use for guests collection, we crowded under the beach umbrellas most of the time. There are rental companies with 10’x20’ canopy rentals which they set-up for you. They are allowed to leave theirs out all week whereas you have to bring your private canopy in every night. We planned on renting the large canopy to save the hassle of setting ours up every day, but the storm brewing made us change our mind since we would have to pay $230 for the week whether we used it or not. Since our house was located beach-side and there were a few younger, stronger guys in our group, we were glad to have set our own canopy up and take it down daily. The last few days we didn’t set it up at all since it really was not being used.
The boys were excited to take their flashlights and nets and go sand crabbing at night. New to us, apparently this is very popular to do in the evenings along the beach. From our beach house balcony, you could see dozens of people scouring along the beach with flashlights looking for small sand crabs. Addison caught the biggest crab but was afraid to take a photo with it because it kept trying to crawl out of her bucket. Parker wanted to keep his crabs, but we convinced him to let them go. A few days later, Parker caught a very small hermit crab that he kept for a few days while trying to convince his parents to let him bring it home, but in the end, he also put it back into the ocean.
The rental included access to the house’s nice private pool. A few of us spent some time in the pool and one evening all the grandkids wanted to swim after dark using glow-sticks. At first, we could not find how to turn the pool lights on and it was too dark (no lighting in or around the pool). I called our maintenance contact and was told there should be a timer for the pool. After looking everywhere we could imagine, we did finally find a small switch outside the pool gate entrance. Only one pool-light worked and it was still dark around the pool, but the kids had a good time.
By Monday, the waves had calmed down and the wind slowed down, and the red flags were removed. What a nice beach day! We saw dolphins almost every single day while at the beach, many times very close to where people were swimming. It was very cool watching them although difficult to get a good photo. The dolphin activity was accompanied by large schools of fish jumping in the surf. This brought out a couple of young boys with their fishing gear. The boys were catching lots of fish, 40 or so they said. Most were released with the exception of the one they gave to Parker at his request.
Our plan was to purchase breakfast and lunch items to enjoy at the beach house and cook a few dinner meals to avoid eating out too much. We had a delicious taco bar one night, complete with a few choices of protein, refried beans, rice, queso, and guacamole. There were left-overs for lunch the next day. Another night we had a delicious spaghetti dinner (always a hit with the kids) with green beans and garlic bread which we enjoyed at least 3 times, on the last night adding a few pizzas.
One of the things we learned, on our first trip to Orange Beach, was that all of the restaurants have 1-2 hour wait times for a table and very few allow reservations. We can laugh about it now, but at the time, frustration levels were pretty high one evening while out looking for a place to eat. The Gulf restaurant (http://www.thegulf.com/) boasted nice ocean-views with fun outdoor activities and we decided to have dinner there. With no table service, you stood in line to place your order. We were having a hard time because no tables were available for a group our size. No matter, it turned out that the majority of our group of 12 decided they did not like the menu options anyway. The bartender recommended we try Tacky Jacks, so we split up between the two cars to meet up at our new location for dinner. One group was still driving, following the GPS directions to Tacky Jacks when the second group called asking where we were . . . as they had already arrived at Tacky Jacks . . . this is when we discovered there were two Tacky Jack locations. There was a 2-hour wait for Tacky Jacks, so it was decided we would abandon Tacky and instead meet-up at another highly recommended place to have dinner, Doc’s Seafood Shack (https://www.docsseafoodshack.com/).
Yes, it happened for the second time in the same evening . . . one group arrived at Doc’s and since it was only a 1-hour wait, we decided to put our name on the wait-list, after the second group didn’t arrive within a reasonable time-frame, we learned they were at another Doc’s Seafood Shack location with an even longer wait, so they came to ours and once all of us were together, a group sitting at the bar trying to make the best of the long wait, while a few played ring toss in the outdoor area where it was quite hot and humid. Finally seated for dinner at 9 pm, the dinner service was slow. Promoted as “listed as one of the top 10 seafood shacks in America,” when the food finally came, it was worth the wait. Food was very good and perhaps their advertising which claims “the best seafood in the civilized world” could be true! After dinner, we made the evening more fun for the kids by taking them for a go-kart ride at Adventure Island (https://www.adventure-island.com/). We barely got there before their closing.
Tuesday evening we had our spaghetti dinner at the beach house, then went out for a few hours to the Hangout (https://www.thehangout.com/). They have live music, a bungee trampoline that Luke and Parker had fun doing, they have a pit of foam that the kids can play in, ping-pong, announced games that everyone can participate in, like they’ll ask everyone who has a July birthday to stand on the table and dance, another was to have all the Dad’s stand on the table and dance. There were big chairs to take photos, and Shahn challenged Luke to hang from the pull-up bars (cost $5.00), 2-minutes won you a prize, but no one we saw made it the full 2-minutes.
Wednesday evening we all had fun at our scheduled photo-shoot with Angela. She was really good, she asked everyone to be casual, be limber with no locked-legs, and just be relaxed. She was able to get fun candid shots and we felt she was able to capture good photos for everyone. She used a high-speed professional camera set to burst mode. When we finished she said she had taken about 800 shots and from those, she will select and edit to produce the 50 or so finals. Her post-processing will take about 4-weeks before we get the notice that finals are uploaded to Dropbox where we will be able to download high-resolution digital to order our own prints.
Bill, Mandy and Blake’s combined birthday celebrations were on Thursday, July 18, Bill’s actual 70th birthday. A Beach Retreat themed marble-fudge and butter-crème icing cake was ordered through Publix. Dinner was pre-planned to have at Cobalt (https://cobaltrestaurant.net/). Wanting a large table with ocean-views and knowing there would be a 1-2 hour wait, the girls went to the restaurant to get on the wait-list while the guys went to play putt-putt golf. After the 1 ½ hour wait for a table, we were taken to a very hot and humid table on the out-door patio with no views. We complained and worked with managers until we were finally seated inside in their over-flow “reserved” area at a table large enough for all 12 of us where we were the only ones being served. The view, the food, and the birthday cake were all good. (I regret not having a photo taken of all 12 of us at the Birthday dinner, just totally forgot about it).
Friday, July 19 was our last full day to enjoy the beach. Mandy’s flight was scheduled for late that afternoon, so she was able to spend some early time on the beach before leaving at 1:30 pm for drop off at Pensacola Airport (approximately 1-hour’s drive). Bill and I decided we wanted to drive her instead of shuttling, giving us more time to visit before she flew home to California.
We met-up with the rest of the group at the Wharf (https://alwharf.com/) where Luke Bryan was scheduled to perform that night. A few of us rode the Ferris Wheel with the grandkids, we walked around the shops, and Bill was able to get his favorite treat . . . ice cream. It was our last night, so we all needed to be home early enough to pack, load up the cars, etc., for our trip home the next day. We clearly communicated which Tacky Jacks’ (https://www.tackyjacks.com/) location we were going to meet for dinner to make sure we all got to the same location which happened to be the one closest to the Wharf and on our way back to the beach house. We avoided the 1-hour wait when they allowed all us to eat at the bar’s open seating. The kids set at small round-top tables behind us. Uniquely, Tacky Jacks allows their guests to take a strip of their colored duct tape, writing something on the tape and sticking it on any wall space throughout the restaurant. So they all did a wall strip, then the kids had fun secretly putting messages on each other’s backs. Shahn had a nick-name for Luke he had given him early in the week, and he secretly placed it on Luke’s back while he was sitting at the bar. Luke did not discover it until back at the beach house which was quite funny. Luke was a good sport in the fun!
We had an awesome week, no rain or bad weather, until Saturday, our departure day where I woke up to thunder and heavy rainfall. Thankfully, we loaded the cars up the night before and just needed to get ourselves loaded into the cars and leave. By-the-time everyone was dressed and ready to leave, the rain stopped long enough to get down the road a bit before we hit rain again from just outside of Orange Beach to Hattiesville, MS where the sun came out and it was dry, clear sun shining weather.
God is good and I am so thankful to Him for our family and the times we have to spend together.