Over our five days vacation to the sunny Florida coast, two couples consumed eight pounds of deep blue sea deliciousness including crab, shark, salmon, shrimp, and scallops that we largely cooked ourselves.  In fact, aside from one decadent night out, that included hush puppies, crab legs and blackened scallops, we cooked all of our vacation dinners at home.

As a vegetarian traveler, I often get tired of eating out every meal and the options are usually quite limited.  Cooking in allows for many options on any sized budget, especially when traveling and visiting.  Besides budget, food quality and creativity, it is fun to learn new techniques from other cooks.

Our hosts, my boyfriend’s sister and her boyfriend, worked great as a team in the kitchen, wonderfully orchestrating pasta dishes laden with seafood surprises and mouth-watering feasts.  Including wine, we successfully fed the four of us for under $10 a piece on most nights; a huge success in a more tourist-oriented town.  As a vegetarian, the trip was a protein-filled feast of a beach vacation and I enjoyed every delicious second of it.  The lack of decent seafood in local restaurants was shocking.  We joked about finding that hidden gem that foodies dream of, but the reality was that the best meals were the ones dreamt up in the kitchen.

Other than food and suntans, we enjoyed a few fun side trips including a fantastic visit to the Marine Science Center where we got to pet stingrays and hold a sea cucumber.  Several of the stingrays were really friendly and would come right up to your outstretched fingers (etiquette says that a two-finger stroke is best for dealing with touch pool swimming rays).

At first, it was a bit nerve-wracking to stick an arm in a pool filled with stingrays and other aquatic life (we like to pretend that they do not share the ocean we enjoy, but I digress), however after a while I got used to the unique, slimy texture of the rays.  Although I could have easily spent another 20 minutes petting the amiable sting rays, there was so much left to explore.

The science center also featured a seabird and turtle rehabilitation center where animals are brought back to health before being released into their natural habitats.  The majority of the staff at the center is volunteer based — I mean, who wouldn’t want to spend an afternoon with a sick sea turtle?  A gentleman and his voiceless owl friend gave a short speech, and one of the volunteers helping in the turtle rehab center took some close-up, behind the scenes pictures of turtle healing in action with my camera.  There were also two bald eagles and pelicans enough to make you smile.  It was a friendly afternoon visit with plenty of wildlife interaction, although I am still skeptical about the validity of that sea cucumber…

The flea market, which, remarkably, has its very own webpage, did turn up some hidden gems including a delicious thai restaurant, cleverly called Thai Cuisine.  I had my only coco-rico soda of the trip, and watched as my boyfriend devoured mounds of noodles and curry.  Everything you never wanted was at this flea market including wigs, as-seen-on-tv kitchen gadgets, and quarter sized turtles.  The people watching and Thai food surprise was well worth the visit.

Back in the daily grind of chilly Chicago, I cannot help but daydream on mounds of coconut shrimp and long runs on the beach.  Send me a postcard if you go for a visit and say hi to the sting rays for me.