Dare I even start? This trip was the main reason I got behind in blogging and has been kind of looming over me for a while now. But it was a trip we have dreamed and talked about for five years and was truly even better than I imagined it would be. So here we go!
After we had such a great time on our five-year anniversary cruise, Ryan mentioned how it would be really fun to do another cruise for our ten year anniversary. And how it would be especially amazing to go to Florida for a few days first to see all the areas he served on his mission, then go on a Carribbean cruise. I concurred--because that would be amazing--and one or the other of us brought the idea up again every once in a while, but we never really discussed it in concrete terms.
Then in February of this year, we decided that we were going to do this thing. And by "this thing" I mean go on our Florida/cruise trip! We knew we had a bonus coming that would more than cover the cruise. And 10 years deserves to be celebrated in grand fashion. So we started planning. First step was finding a babysitter. We were going to have our moms tag team, but Ruth offered to watch the kids for our entire trip--she retired in the summer, and if she watched them the whole time, my mom wouldn't have to take any work off. We found the perfect cruise on the perfect dates--just after tax season. We booked flights. We started making an itinerary for Florida. We were in a trip planning zone--and our trip wasn't even going to happen until October!
Then June and July happened and we were a little bit worried about our trip. First we were worried about changing flights--for both us and Ruth--because we thought we were moving to Salt Lake. Then we were worried about WSRP saying "peace out" to Ryan on October 18, then not paying him for his last two weeks of work--because his last two weeks of work were an already-approved vacation. Why would they pay him to take a vacation when he would literally only work one day when he got back? Then there were some phone worries because our phones were part of WSRP's plan. SO MANY ISSUES. But we plugged through alllllllll the things, planned like we've never planned a vacation before, and on October 18 we kissed our babies goodbye and boarded a plane. TO FLORIDA.
Our flight was a red eye. We were traveling on Spirit Airlines so the seats were tiny and the leg room nonexistent (even for a shrimp like me!) And we were moving to a time zone three hours ahead--so we left Vegas at 10:30 p.m.and got to Florida at 6:45 a.m. Neither of us slept very well on the plane. In fact, it kind of felt like we didn't sleep at all. But when we got to Florida we were not about to waste our first day snoozing, so it was go time! We picked up our rental car, asked Siri for directions, and were off to our first stop of the day: Lake Trafford Marina.
When Ryan served in Immokalee, he did service at Lake Trafford every single week. The owners of the marina often offered the missionaries a free ride on their air boats to thank them for their service--but, being missionaries, riding in boats was something they couldn't do. People would step off these boats saying it was the most amazing experience of their life. So Ryan was more than a little excited to ride an air boat. It was something he'd literally been waiting 15 years to do! When we paid, we found out that the lady who originally ran the marina had passed away (which was really sad, Ryan was looking forward to seeing her)--but the lady at the counter had worked there when Ryan was a missionary! We had fun talking to her for a few minutes. She was very kind and very Southern. After talking to her, we went outside and saw our VERY FIRST GLIMPSE OF AN ALLIGATOR. Like not even that far away from us. I was kind of starstruck, if one can be starstruck by an alligator of no notoriety.
Soon we were on the boat! Air boats are very low--very close to the water. They have huge fans on the back that propel the boat through the water--a traditional propeller below the water would get tangled in all the roots of the water plants and trees. The fan is terrifically loud, but you get used to it pretty quickly. We cruised down a little inlet for a few minutes, seeing some beautiful water fowl. Then we hit the open water and we started flying. I've got no idea how fast we were actually going but it was truly exhilarating. Ryan and I had scored with front row seats and the air whipping past us and the birds exploding up out of the foliage was breathtaking.
After we'd crossed the lake, we slowed and wound through some paths in the plants/reeds/grasses/who knows what they were. We saw a Large Blue Heron that was, true to its name, quite large. We almost saw a bald eagle (our tour guide saw it, but we missed it). We saw white osprey and several other varieties of water fowl I've forgotten the names of. Water fowl are, by the way, amazing. Watching them take flight was cool every time we saw it, even though we literally saw hundreds of birds take off during our tour. There were some crazy birds that I didn't catch the name of that would dive bomb the water from these low growing trees--that were literally growing out of the water--and CATCH FISH. IN THE WATER. And not come up for water for a while. Because apparently birds that fly can also swim underwater now.
I think just seeing the birds would have been amazing. But then there were the alligators. At first, I was a little worried we wouldn't get to see many alligators--the water was high and warm, which meant that the alligators were perfectly happy to stay under the surface rather than coming out to warm up in the sun. But I shouldn't have worried, because we ended up seeing seven alligators total! My first favorite sighting was the baby alligator we saw. The tour guide said he was probably about 3 months old--the tour guide had kept an eye on the nesting site and got to see the alligators when they were even tinier! My very favorite alligator sighting was the alligator I was half afraid was going to attack us. Our tour guide had just slowed down to point out an alligator and we were all straining to distinguish the alligator from the floating lily pads and foliage when he suddenly burst up out of the water RIGHT NEXT TO OUR BOAT. I'm not even exaggerating. It was so crazy. And so cool! Also a little bit terrifying because our boat was so close to the water. I got a video of the alligator, which hopefully I'll be able to post here.
After the marina, we wanted to go see Immokalee. Immokalee was the first area Ryan served in as a missionary. It's a small town, which was cool because it all felt familiar to him. Our first stop was in Farmworkers Village, just outside the main part of the town. The "village" is filled with small, identical homes that at one point (still?) housed all the pickers who came to the area during picking season. Ryan taught people there, and it was literally the first thing we came to and a great way to start the memories flowing. From there, we visited his apartment, discovered that a shortcut the missionaries used to take is now covered in water--not a lot of water, but water all the same! We drove around the water to try to find the other side of the shortcut, which we eventually did locate.
One of the big highlights of the day was seeing the LDS church that was built just a few years ago in Immokalee! When Ryan served there, the members met in a middle school. The new church is beautiful and it's really cool that the members and missionaries have built a strong branch in Immokalee. Another highlight was eating gorditas at La Placita. Ryan was really, really hoping La Placita still existed because it was one of his favorite places to eat in all his areas. We were both happy to see it was still there! The gorditas were delicious--the best I've ever had, for sure.
After lunch, we were ready to move along--so to Naples we went. Just a few miles outside Immokalee we saw a nature preserve that mentioned something about jaguars, so we pulled right over. The place was absolutely deserted, and when we walked through the gates we felt as if we'd stepped into the jungle! The foliage was so green and lush and thick--it was super foreign to me. We walked the nature trail, which was about a mile or so and saw a lot of interesting plants and bugs, and fortunately (unfortunately?) didn't cross paths with any jaguars.
At this point, my lack of sleep during the night started to catch up with me. Ryan was feeling the effects of not sleeping, too. We decided to make an "emergency" stop for some caffeine. Ryan asked me to look up the nearest place to get a Dew and I unlocked my phone--then dropped it in my lap because I'd fallen asleep! Literally 30 seconds after talking to Ryan. And I was sitting upright, DOING something. So yeah, we were tired. Happily, there was a Circle K only a mile up the road and, once we'd had a little Dew, we were both much perkier!
We made it to Naples without further incident. We drove over the bridge onto Marco Island, oogled some ridiculous real estate, then went to find Ryan's Naples apartment. His Naples apartment was by far the nicest he lived in. I honestly don't remember a lot about the rest of the day (sorry Ryan), but I do remember that we wanted to get some ice cream for dessert, so set off in search of a scoop shop. We ended up in a Publix (I've never shopped there before, so this was kind of momentous), where we got a half gallon of ice cream and some fried chicken because why not? We searched in vain for a place with beach access so we could picnic on the beach and ended up at a "park" we found in the maps app. Said park was not so much a park as a single picnic bench that was on a patch of grass next to a very, very sketchy looking boat launch. But it worked out and we weren't even attacked by alligators or anything. So that was happy.
That night we collapsed into bed. And slept soundly until day two of our trip...
++Normally a post like this would have TONS of pictures. Unfortunately, I was the main photographer for the trip and my photos are currently lost somewhere in the cloud. Fortunately, Ryan did take some pictures and also uploaded some to facebook--and the facebook photos were his favorites anyway. We used our old iPhone 5 on our actual cruise, so I'll just have to post extra pictures when those posts come to make up for the lack of photos here!