St. Augustine: From Church to the Grave

Every time I visit the area I enjoy it more, from the  Oldest City's historic charm to the beautiful beaches and natural areas nearby. This region of northeast Florida  is a haven for wildlife -- particularly birds migrating through here along the Great Florida Birding Trail -- and a center for wildlife research.

Hiking the GTM Reserve in search of birds./Marcia Biggs

The annual Florida Birding and Photo Fest, a 5-day extravaganza of  seminars,  offers programs and field trips that draw  participants  from across the state and the country. Festival  headquarters is the education center at the Guana Tolomato Matanzas (GTM) Research Reserve north of St. Augustine about 8 miles.  It is one of 28 National Estuarine Research Reserves around the country focused on researching, educating and protecting the natural biodiversity within the estuary. The GTM Reserve encompasses 74,000 acres of natural habitat along the ocean from south of St. Augustine to north in Ponte Vedra.

Memorial Presbyterian Church
During three days, I kayaked and hiked in the Guana River Reserve, both pleasant although the birds were pretty scarce (wrong time of day?). The next day I embarked on several photography field trips --  Historic Places of Worship and Cemeteries at Sunset. I love taking photos, and after all, St. Augustine is considered one of the most haunted cities in the nation. Shooting old churches and graveyards seemed like a great way to explore the city and maybe get a shiver or two.

Both tours were led by St. Augustine resident photographer Jackie Kramer, whose pictorial book "Sacred St. Augustine" reveals  most of the historic churches and graveyards in exquisite detail. I highly recommend spending time exploring the many churches and cemeteries which are each such an integral part of the history of St. Augustine. This can be a fascinating way to spend a morning or afternoon  -- as well as an awesome history lesson!

The next festival is scheduled for April 21-25, 2021.  For more information, go to

Tour de Shine: St. Petersburg Art Murals by Bicycle

I love discovering incredible destinations in my own backyard.  Downtown St. Petersburg has become well-known in cultural circles not only for its world-class museums, but also for its growing collection of art murals.

This fall the Shine Mural Festival brought in artists from across the country, including Canada and the Caribbean, to add 15 new murals. It's easy to stroll along the alleyways and side streets in the Central Arts District to find many , but it's even better to take a guided bicycle tour so you can see even more.

Guided walking tours of the art murals are offered every Saturday from Florida CraftArt, but the guided bike rides are only offered occasionally. I was lucky enough to grab a coveted spot on the recent Tour de Shine bike  ride sponsored by St. Pete Bike Coop. Some 80 art lovers  cruised around the streets of downtown on a lazy Sunday afternoon, discovering amazing murals and learning about the talented artists behind them.  It was the best $10 I have spent in a while!

You can't help but love downtown St. Petersburg, which has evolved in the last decade into a super cool, laid-back and creative community. I love exploring the many art galleries and museums, restaurants and nightlife ... and now I am adding Sunday bike rides and art murals to the list.

I am not sure when another Tour de Shine will be offered but you can contact the St. Pete Bike Coop and they will probably know.  Happy trails!

North Carolina is for Winos

Shelton Vineyards at sunset. Photos by Marcia Biggs
So many travels, so little time. The Getaway Girl  has some catching up to do! On a long summer weekend I found myself back in North Carolina to explore the wine region of the Yadkin Valley. Just a few hours northwest of Raleigh in the Appalachian foothills, the Yadkin Valley is gaining recognition  as an up-and-coming wine region. Some 40  (and growing) vineyards and wineries are now in operation year-round in the valley. Most are open to the public on weekends for tastings; some even have restaurants offering everything from five-star dining to pizza.

Actually, across the state of North Carolina, wineries have been multiplying steadily in the last decade in three viticultural areas which provide ideal climate, elevation and soil for growing grapes.  Savvy entrepreneurs are taking a leap of faith and turning farms and former tobacco fields into vineyards, creating a wine industry and attracting tourists at the same time.

The scenery around Round Peak looks like Napa Valley!
 Touring Yadkin Valley wineries can be a fun and relaxing weekend getaway and a chance to explore the many charming towns, arts and culture of Surry County.  No need to be a wine connoisseur to plan your own Yadkin Valley Wine Trail. Make your home base in Dobson, NC, at the modern, centrally located Hampton Inn & Suites at Shelton Vineyards. If it's fall, you'll  be able to enjoy the wine harvest and those famous North Carolina fall colors!

 All of these wineries are within an hour’s drive:
  •   Just a few miles up the road from the Hampton Inn lies the venerable Shelton Vineyards. Considered the godfathers of area wineries, the Shelton brothers, Charlie and Ed, opened the valley’s flagship winery in 1999. It’s now the largest family owned estate winery in the state. Plan to take a tour, enjoy a walk along the lake and treat yourself to an amazing dinner at the Harvest Grill. Ask for a table on the patio to enjoy an exquisite sunset over the vineyards.
  •   Head over to historic downtown Elkin for an afternoon of browsing the quaint antique shops and a stop at Brushy Mountain Winery located right on Main Street. With its jazz club ambiance, this intimate wine bar is all about charming –  and a delightful surprise for its knock-out wines.
  • At Elkin Creek Vineyard you’ll find yourself in a modern tavern surrounded by vineyards. On the grounds are an historic mill, cabins and meandering river. Brick oven pizzas are served on weekends from an authentic wood fired oven.
  •      You’ll think you’re in Napa Valley with the rolling vineyard views from  Round Peak Vineyards in Mount Airy. Gorgeous vistas from the back patio, outstanding wine (and craft beer) selections, and lots of locals who gather here on weekends to hang out and sip make this one stop you won’t want to leave. 
  • The tasting room at Jolo Winery
             Plan to stay a while when you visit the beautiful JOLO Winery and Vineyards in Pilot Mountain. Set in a gated estate on a small lake with a view of the mountain, JOLO entices with an outdoor patio perfect for relaxing and a comfortable tasting room with a view of the open kitchen. On weekends, the intimate End Post restaurant offers prix-fixe gourmet dinners prepared by executive chef Brian Brown. 

    Wineries are open year-round, however may close for a few weeks during winter season. Be sure to call before you go. For more information on Yadkin Valley wineries and traveling to this area of Surry County NC, visit


Rocky Mountaineer: Seattle to Banff Canada via Luxury Rail

Come along with me on a train ride along the Puget Sound north of Seattle and east from Vancouver into the Canadian Rockies ... all in 4 short minutes.

For more information on the Rocky Mountaineer, go to

Cayman Islands: In Love With Sea Turtles

Breeding Lagoon
The Getaway Girl and her family took a cruise to the Caribbean this spring, landing in Cayman Islands one day. Since I love being one with nature and wild critters, the highlight of the trip was on Cayman Islands where we visited the CaymanTurtle Farm and the famous Stingray City sandbar for some uno-y-uno with the giant stingrays. (See Stringray City posting).

Nesting Beach
I am glad to say the Cayman Turtle Farm is not an accurate name. Thinking it would be a big pond full of turtles in someone's backyard (hey, it's the islands, mon), I was surprised to find the "turtle farm" is actually a large, 23-acre modern marine park and research center  dedicated to sea turtle breeding -- along with a marine  education center, an aviary, a nature trail ... and the largest swimming pool on the island. It's owned and managed by the Cayman Island government, which obviously helps with funding and establishing this facility as a world-renowned sea turtle research center.

Upon entering the park, I was astounded by a massive lagoon filled with hundreds of sea turtles! Across from the viewing area is a long, sandy beach for the females to lay their eggs. Our guide said this "breeding pond"  holds several hundred female green sea turtles and about 100 males. The staff monitors the beach each morning to see if there are any new nests. If so, they remove the eggs, they are incubated, and within a few months new baby sea turtles are born.

Cute little guy!
Each year, thousands of hatchlings are tagged and released back into the warm waters of the Caribbean. This tagging method is tremendously significant as it is the only method whereby a tiny sea turtle hatchling may be identified as a 300 pound adult more than 15 years later on a nesting beach. This tagging may allow scientists to discover whether or not sea turtles actually return to the beach from which they hatch to nest.

In addition to the green sea turtles, the farm has a large collection of holding tanks where they have rescued and care for loggerhead and even rare kemp's ridley turtles. There's even a "touch tank" where visitors can hold young sea turtles ... guaranteed to give  a  warm, fuzzy feeling.

For more information, on the Cayman Turtle Farm, go to

St. Simons Island - Coastal Georgia's Golden Isles

View of Jekyll Island from St. Simons Island

I rolled down my windows as I exited I-95, smelling the salty sea air as I headed east toward the Atlantic Coast.   Passing through the small port city of Brunswick, I  turned into the bluebird sky and vast salt marshes that welcomed me here to the Golden Isles of Georgia. In the distance, a mighty suspension bridge loomed like the Titanic, waiting to whisk me to my destination of St. Simons Island.

Located about an hour south of Savannah and the same distance north from Jacksonville, Florida, the Golden Isles are comprised of St. Simons Island, Little St. Simons Island and Jekyll Island.  The lovely barrier islands may just be the best-kept secret in the Southeast, where Southern charm and hospitality are alive and well and a world of relaxation awaits.

King and Prince Beach and Golf Resort
I spent 3 nights at the historic  King and Prince Beach and Golf Resort on St. Simons Island and spent my time exploring the islands and indulging in fresh and fantastic seafood. It was hard to leaving this sprawling seaside resort -- King and Prince is a charmer with 3 pools, a spa, golf, a beachside patio and the only oceanview dining on the island.

But it's hard for the Getaway Girl to stay put. There is too much to do and see on  St. Simons Island, which has a year-round population of nearly 20,000. I hopped aboard the Lighthouse Trolleys for a  tour and to learn about the history of the island. Fifteen plantations once grew cotton here, and you can still find bits and pieces of them, along with a historic fort, churches and graveyards amid picturesque live oak trees dripping in Spanish moss. There are shops to browse, a pier to fish off, and  many miles of bike trails.

If you like fresh seafood, you'll be in heaven here on the Golden Isles. As Cap Fendig, lifelong resident and owner of Lighthouse Trolleys told me, "we love to eat here on St. Simons Island ... that's why you see so many restaurants ...  going out to eat is something we do nearly every day." Indeed, fresh shrimp is served everywhere, along with grits,  crab cakes, oysters and lots of Southern soul.

Trawling on the Lady Jane brings up a baby sea turtle!
One of the most interesting side trips I took while here was a shrimp boat excursion on the Lady Jane out of Brunswick. This renovated shrimp trawler takes out tourists into the salt flats,  brings  in a few loads and dumps then right in front of you.  It's almost shocking to see the diversity of live sea critters the net unleashes  ... all kinds of fish, crabs, rays, even a sea turtle (don't worry, they all go back into the water). A marine biologist does a show and tell with all the slimy critters as Edna the pesky pelican stands over his head and trys to snatch the booty (great entertainment!).

If you are looking for a super relaxing ocean getaway, I highly recommend St. Simons Island.  I'll post on my visit to Jekyll Island and the Georgia Sea Turtle Center next.

Summer in Switzerland

Click on the arrow above to view a 4.30 minute video 

By Marcia Biggs

The Getaway Girl was recently invited back to visit her favorite European country --  Switzerland! This is my fourth visit to a place that reminds me of a National Geographic calendar at every turn.  

In past visits, I have hiked and biked and skied the mountains and valleys.  I have soaked in hot springs and sipped wine at the vineyards and soared in a hot air balloon.  And still, the prospect of returning to Switzerland set my heart aflutter.

 The impetus for my journey this time was the introduction of non-stop flights from Tampa International Airport to Zurich on Edelweiss Airlines.  My group of travel writers was invited to spend one week exploring the country from Zurich via train and other public transit with a Swiss Pass.

Traveling by the rail system is the only way to go when in Switzerland.  The Swiss Pass is also good for free or discount tickets on most city buses, trams, boats and funiculars (mountain cable railways), as well as admission to most museums.

Less than two hours by rail from the Zurich airport we arrive in Fribourg which has two distinct personalities  – old and new, French and German. The bustling city center with its museums, fine restaurants and outdoor cafes is young, vibrant and smart.  In the Old Town, which dates to the Middle Ages, covered bridges cross the narrow River Sarine, leading us through winding cobblestone streets.  

Old Town, Fribourg
Not far from Fribourg is the town of Gruyere…yes, as in Gruyere cheese.  We visit the cheese factory or La Maison du Gruyere (the House of Cheese we take a Disney-esque tour of the Cailler Chocolate Factory. The highlight of Gruyere, however, lies on the cliff overlooking town. The Castle of Gruyere is the centerpiece of a walled city dating to 1270 and completely restored from cobblestone streets to quaint hotels, restaurants, and caf├ęs.  The castle, Chateau de Gruyere, is now a museum with original murals, paintings, furnishings and even a collection of armor.
The medieval village of Gruyere 
Just an hour from Fribourg by train lies Interlaken, a lively town and international tourist destination if a packed Hooters smack in the middle of town means anything.  It’s also a center for adventure, with sports outfitters on nearly every corner offering everything from waterfall hikes to zip lining, bicycle tours, canyoning and white water rafting. The obvious favorite, though, is paragliding. During summer months, locals and tourists alike drop by the hundreds every day into the meadow in the center of town.

Wilderswil near Interlaken
I decided to forego the paragliding and rent an electric bike.  The Flyer bicycle is hugely popular in Europe. Unlike a scooter or Moped, the Flyer is an “electric assist” bicycle. Three levels of assistance help propel you along: Eco for flat roads,  Standard and High for uphill climbs. I spent an aftenoon exploring the nearby village of Wilderswil, and found the Flyer easy and fun.

A variety of steamboats offer delightful scenic cruises on the two lakes that border Interlaken.  We boarded a steamer on Lake Brienz to the spectacular Giessbach Falls and the grandly restored Victorian Grandhotel Giessbach.

Chapel Bridge
A  two-hour train ride from Interlaken takes us to the Medieval city of Lucerne. The city’s iconic 14th century Chapel Bridge and Water Tower may be one of Switzerland’s most recognized landmarks.  Crossing the River Reuss, the bridge draws tourists and locals alike who gather along the shore to watch the swans and relax at outdoor cafes.

If you are considering a European vacation, you can't go wrong with Switzerland. Scenic beauty, history and culture abound at every turn. I highly recommend researching and booking your trip through the Swiss Tourism web site at Here you'll find one-stop shopping for everything from lodging to a Swiss Pass. 

A sidenote: A great lodging option that allows you to save some money is by staying at a Swiss Youth Hostel. You can find modern, clean rooms at historic inns, castles and ski resorts across Switzerland for $50-$100 a night.