Before this year, all but two of my Christmases have been spent in Minnesota.
One year, when I was maybe 10 or 11, my family went to Florida and Disney World for Christmas.
And in 2006, I spent Christmas in Hawaii with Matt and his family.
The rest of my Christmases have been spent at home.
This year, because Erica and Tony moved to Florida at the end of the summer, we all decided to head south for the holidays to celebrate together.
It couldn't have been better timing as the frigid winter weather descended upon Minnesota with a vengeance. Going from 0 degree weather to 80 degrees in a span of 4 hours is such a weird concept. Air travel blows my mind sometimes.
It was so fun to visit St. Pete's and the areas that Erica and Tony now call home. I have been to Florida dozens of times over the years with all of our spring break trips to visit my grandparents, but I don't know that I'd ever been to the Tampa area before.
We walked and explored the beaches, looking for shells, sand dollars and sharks teeth. We visited the clinic that Erica and Tony will open their chiropractic clinic in, ate out at different restaurants, visited my aunt and uncle in central Florida and went on a fun airboat ride. But mostly, we spent quality time together.
On one of the beaches, we came across a crab trap that was washed up onto shore. There were two crabs inside, so we freed them.
But not before Matt tested their aggressiveness and made them fight each other.
We went and visited one of Tony and Erica's favorite spots - a neat pier with great shops and restaurants, and amazing dolphin sightings!
It's so crazy to me to think that these are wild dolphins, and that people see them daily in Florida!
The dolphin in the photo below has a split fit. You can see it's different than the rest of them. I am not sure why.
We had a delicious Christmas dinner compliments of the chef - Tony!
We also went to a stunningly beautiful Christmas Eve mass at their church. The singing was so phenomenal, it moved me literally to tears. The perfect worship for Christmas.
On Christmas Day, we explored another beach, looking for sand dollars. Matt decided to swim in the ocean. For 9.3 seconds.
We watched the sun set over the ocean that evening as a family.
In lieu of buying Christmas gifts for each other this year, we decided to all do something together when we were in Florida instead.
Mom, Dad and I had been on an airboat once before on our 2011 Florida trip, but the the rest of the group hadn't been on one before.
I LOVE airboat rides!
I'm very used to being in a boat on our Minnesota lakes, but an airboat is so different. It's got a car or other large machine engine blowing a huge fan on the back of the boat, and it can go over water OR land.
The first time I was ever on one, we were cruising down the river. Then the driver turned toward land and revved the engine. I about had a heart attack as the land quickly approached. But we just went right up and over it, onto the river on the other side! It was wild!
Our tour explored the beginning of the Florida Everglades - sections of river and marsh that can only be accessed by airboat. Untouched wilderness that most tourists don't get to see.
I love cypress trees, and think it's so cool how they can grow up out of the water like they do.
I also have an obsession with spanish moss hanging from the trees. I am sure people who live in the south where this is common don't even notice it. But I can't help it - I don't know why it strikes me as so fascinating, but I just adore it!
We came across a Water Moccasin, one of the most poisonous snakes in Florida. It is one of the only snakes that will aggressively try to attack you if you make it mad.
Our tour guide poked it with a stick so needless to say, it was a little angry!
There were free range cows all over the shores of where we toured. Apparently these are free range, completely grass fed cows that aren't bothered with, but are instead left to live on their own in these areas. The ranchers come once a year to collect some of them to bring them to harvest, and the rest stay out there to live.
In today's world where grass fed beef is so popular and everyone is trying to get organic everything, this is about as close to totally natural as it could get!
Our guide laughed because we were so excited to see these cows. He said "It's like you've never seen a cow before!" I think it's just that we didn't expect to see dozens of cows on our rural airboat tour.
The cows seemed a little wary of us.
This pink bird is of an extremely rare species.
The guide said at one point, they escaped from Cypress Gardens, one of the old theme parks/zoos in a nearby city and since then, have been populating in the wild. But there are not many around, and he said it was super awesome that we were able to see not only one [pictured below] but two! The other is off to the right a little, further away.
The airboat stopped and the guide threw some cheesy crackers out to these sandhill cranes and this bird. I think it's maybe a relative of a falcon or something like that. They knew treats were coming - they came racing up to the boat.
The weather wasn't too hot during our tour - maybe upper 60's? The alligators like it hot and so we weren't having much luck seeing many gators. I think we were all thinking maybe we wouldn't see any, which would have been disappointing.
Then, we turned a corner and this was lying on the edge of the river.
The guide said it was 15 feet long.
We were maybe 7 or 8 feet from it as we quietly floated past.
Alligators are really fascinating. They truly do look prehistoric, like a dinosaur up close.
They also are quite terrifying if you ask me.
If you find yourself in central Florida, I highly recommend the Alligators Unlimited Airboat Nature Tour company.
We had so much fun and were amazed at how knowledgeable our guide was. He is a 3rd or 4th generation airboat tour guide, and has lived on the everglades his whole life, so he was the perfect guide.
The next day, we headed south to Sarasota, to see Erica and Tony's clinic space.
We visited Siesta Key on the way - a favorite beach of many in the southwestern parts of Florida.
My dad was excited to try a little fishing on our trip.
Fishing in Florida is a lot different than the type of fishing we're used to though. You use different bait [mini crabs in this case!] and catch different types of fish.
He did catch a few though, so he was happy!
The trip passed too fast. Soon, it was over and we were headed back to subzero weather. We got into Minnesota in a snowstorm and battled horrid traffic to get home. We've been missing the Florida weather every day since!
This was the last time we would all be together as the 6 of us, because Tony and Erica will be adding a little addition to their family in May! So, it was a precious time for all of us, right before lots of major changes happen all around.
I am thankful we were able to make this trip happen.