It was a pleasant and familiar drive. The lush landscape was unable to make up its mind, switching from tree-lined roads and sunny cityscapes to scattered lakes and ponds—and of course the occasional orange grove. My husband, Sean, and I had driven through Florida many times over the years. Sebring had always been our favorite vacation spot. The place we built memories with our children. But this year, things were different. We were empty nesters, and my husband had recently retired from his 35-year military career. This was our first trip to the Sebring area without our two kids along for the ride. Both are in college now, busy making their own memories.
Despite the quiet in the car, we were as excited as ever pulling into Avon Park, just north of Sebring, and seeing our favorite hotel come into view. Known as the “gracious lady,” Hotel Jacaranda has nearly a century’s-worth of stories to tell, and hosted some famous names like Babe Ruth and Clark Gable, and of course, our family.
We checked in, happily confirming our military discount rate, and set our things down in our room. “I miss the kids, but this almost feels like a second honeymoon,” I said, smiling at Sean.
“So where to first, my beautiful bride?” he asked.
Sean didn’t know it, but I’d done some planning before we left. I wanted to surprise him with a retirement gift, so I created an itinerary filled with activities curated specially for him.
“How ‘bout margaritas with a view?” I suggested. He knew exactly what this meant; one of our favorite places—Don Jose Mexican Restaurant.
About a 15-minute drive south from the hotel, the restaurant has covered deck seating overlooking Lake Jackson, and some of the best Mexican food in the area. We requested a table outside so we could enjoy the beautiful waterfront view and warm weather. For lunch we both ordered the shrimp El Dorado, because—let’s be honest—it’s hard to get any better than fresh shrimp wrapped in bacon and stuffed with cheese. Paired with two of their incredible house margaritas, we were in heaven.
We enjoyed our meal at a relaxed pace, reminiscing about years gone by and the beginning of this new chapter in our life. Although I missed the company of our kids, this new season with my husband was something I had long looked forward to.
“Alright, hon, finish up, I have somewhere I want to take you,” I said as Sean lazily sipped the last of his margarita. Back in the car, I took the driver’s seat and we headed to the other side of Lake Jackson. After a short drive I pulled into our destination. Sean noticed the sign in front of the building and looked back at me, beaming.
The Military Sea Services Museum, dedicated to the three military sea services — the U.S. Navy, the Coast Guard and the Marine Corps — had always been on our to-do list, but somehow we’d never made it. I was so excited to finally bring Sean, especially because he had just retired from the Marine Corps.
We walked in and were immediately welcomed by one of the volunteer guides. “Good afternoon folks, my name is John. What brings you in today?”
I shared with him that my husband had just retired from the Marines. When we discovered John had also been a Marine, the floodgates opened. The two of them shared stories and laughs for a good 10-15 minutes. It warmed my heart to hear Sean share about his service while listening to a fellow Marine share about his own.
Following their friendly chat, John offered to show us around the museum. It was filled with uniforms, artifacts, old newspaper articles, model ships and paintings, and even had a room dedicated to the USS Highlands—a ship named after the county in which Sebring resides. John was very knowledgeable and an animated tour guide, and we left feeling inspired. Outside, we paused to take in the somber “Memory Walk” around the building and read the names of veterans lost to various American conflicts.
Back at our hotel that evening, we had a leisurely swim in the pool followed by dinner at Blue Lagoon Saloon. We shared a dozen fresh oysters, and Sean ordered gator tail, while I chose the seared Ahi tuna. Following our delicious seafood dinner, while we were winding down in our hotel room, I turned to Sean. “You’ll want a goodnight’s sleep so you’ve got energy for our itinerary tomorrow.” I was having so much fun with these surprise plans.
When the morning arrived, I couldn’t keep him in suspense any longer. “Get your golf shoes on, we’re teeing off in an hour.”
“Really?” he asked, not totally sure he could believe me.
“Yes!” I said, excitedly.
The golf course was not even 10 minutes away. I had booked a tee time at Pinecrest Golf Club, a course that was built in 1926 and designed by renowned golf course architect Donald Ross. Some of Sean’s favorite players, from Sam Snead to Arnold Palmer, had played this course and I knew it had been a dream of his to play it. Our kids weren’t interested in golfing, so we’d never had the opportunity when we’d visited the area on past vacations.
“Happy retirement,” I said, kissing him on the cheek when we arrived at the first hole. I hadn’t seen Sean that content and happy in a long time. The golf course was his place of refuge and his preferred form of therapy. We enjoyed all 18 holes and a wonderful game, with the orange blossoms from nearby groves perfuming the air and the greens ruling in our favor. There’s no better feeling than a good game of golf, except maybe a good game of golf following retirement from a distinguished military career.
After lunch at the golf course restaurant—the Sandhill Grill—and quick showers at the hotel, we drove down the block and around the corner to the Avon Park Depot Museum. This quaint museum told many fascinating stories of Avon Park, from how it got it’s name from the English town of Stratford-Upon-Avon to tales of local WWI and WWII veterans. Outside sat a shiny California Zephyr Silver Palm dining car, just waiting for people to climb aboard and enjoy a meal.
As we strolled around outside, we came across a very moving War Dog memorial in front of the Community Center. We stopped to take a moment and reflect on the sacrifice of the brave canines that have served our country.
When our last day arrived, my plans were simple. We had a laid-back morning exploring the natural beauty of Florida among the solitude of the gorgeous nature trails throughout the Avon Park Air Force Range. As we stood on a boardwalk overlooking Lake Arbuckle, trees draped in moss and quiet in the air, Sean and I silently linked our hands. This new chapter of life was feeling pretty great.