Viva La Difference

5/13/2013

By Jim and Lisa Favors

While cruising the Tennessee River last fall, we frequented marinas about a third of the time, spending the balance anchoring out. Clifton Marina in Clifton Tennessee, Grand Harbor in Iuka, Mississippi, just off the Tennessee River and on the Yellow Creek, and finally Joe Wheeler State Park Marina in Rogersville, Alabama were the last of our marina stays during this trip. Each of these marinas have different qualities and personalities, ones that appeal to us, it’s why we chose to stay with them. When you get right down to it, if all marinas were the same, like going to a chain restaurant, staying at them would become routine and boring. Most marinas offer dock space, electricity and water, so it has to be the little things that count, ones that enhance the ambience or charm of a marina. We tend to lean towards marinas that possess unique personality traits; anything out of the ordinary goes a long way with us.

During our visit to Useppa Island, we felt like we were on an island in the Bahamas than on Florida’s west coast. The private island is small enough to have a "no car" policy making our stay even more relaxing.

When choosing a marina, the nightly charge per foot is a consideration but, in and of itself, it’s not the driving force to selecting one marina over another. During our eight years of long-distance cruising, we occasionally spent more per foot, than we might have liked and may have been less satisfied with our experience. Most times though we find the cost per-foot equation works out evenly, at either the high and lower ends of the scale. However, as my mind was playing mental gymnastics with this comparison, I thought of two marinas we stayed at in Florida. We have fond memories of both, for very different reasons. They were both at the upper end of the price per foot spectrum, but each possessed a character different from the other, at the opposite ends of any measureable range, however we have to say that our satisfaction with each was equal, but for different reasons.

The most we’ve ever spent for dockage at a marina, per foot, per night, anywhere, was at Useppa Island on Florida’s West coast. Useppa is a private island resort and club, with the Collier Inn at the marina and Bahamian type cottages littering the island, our arranged stay ran $3.50 per foot in 2008 (we had the 40-foot Fathom at that time, making our one night stay $140.00). Our dockage included access to their swimming pool, private beach, walking trails, horseshoes, lending library, restaurants, and bar, all in a perfect tropical island setting. Our stay was definitely worth the price of admission, but we looked at it as a special treat, one we wouldn’t want to have to keep up financially on a regular basis.

Kismet is standing sentinel in front of Whidden’s Marina, located in Boca Grande, Florida, a very unique and historic establishment with loads of personality.

Just a few miles north of Useppa Island is Boca Grande, on Gasparilla Island, Florida. Boca Grande is a very trendy small town that’s worth a visit either by land or, in our case, by boat. At Boca Grande we opted to stay at Whidden’s Marina, a family run marina, first opened by Sam Whidden in 1926. Whidden’s is a bit rustic today, eclectic and a little bit like traveling back to another era. Although situated in a neighborhood littered with huge, expensive homes, the marina has an outside shower stall that more resembles an outhouse. You can see where the dance hall was once located, just off the marina office, the walls and the store’s shelves are lined and almost dripping with artifacts highlighting the marina’s glorious past, the outside is cluttered with old marine memorabilia and unusual animal pens and displays (goats and pigs). Whidden’s is a little too rustic for some boaters, but for us, it was a chance to take a peek back in time while enjoying the current owner’s (descendants of Sam Whidden) folksy hospitality. We wanted to experience some of the historic personality of this old-time marina while it is still standing, before it gets raised for a multi-million dollar house. In the end, we had power to our boat and slept comfortably tied up to a marina dock. Both marina stays met and both far exceeded our expectations, but for very different reasons… ah "viva la difference!'

The sign is a little remnant of the by-gone “Dance Hall” era still in tact for us to appreciate during our initial marina tour at Whidden’s Marina.

Let’s return now to our current trip, cruising south on the Tennessee River with three marinas left to enjoy before we reach the end of our trip in Rogersville. We were headed to Clifton Marina, at MM158.5, a return trip for us because it’s on our list of “must visit again” marinas. As we negotiated the bend in the river, with the city of Clifton in sight on our port side, we began preparing our lines and fenders to dock. Sonja, the harbormaster, cook, bottle washer, and dockhand, with her southern charm warming up the radio waves, answered our call on the VHF as we radioed to request dockage instructions. As we inched towards our assigned slip it was Sonja, with a big smile and a sunny disposition, waiting to grab our lines and welcome us to Clifton. A great start to our stay started on a very positive note; it’s the little things that make a difference.

This is the multi-talented, friendly, and hard working harbormaster at Clifton Marina, Sonja. What a great smile she has!

Looper Bruce, on the sailboat, Tango, to the left, and Jim, on the right, were both enjoying Sonja’s gumbo. Seconds anyone!

Shortly after we made our way to the office to register, (Sonja takes care of that as well), we noticed the transient docks were almost full, something special is going on, I thought to myself. One central building acts as the office, a small convenience store, bathhouse/laundry, kitchen, and informal dining area. When we entered the building, Sonja was standing behind the kitchen counter chopping and adding ingredients to a slow cooking gumbo she was preparing for that night’s dinner offering.

After registering and paying for our dockage we noticed that Sonja was back on the docks welcoming and helping new arrivals get settled in. By this time the place was packed and I was starting to worry that there might not be enough gumbo to go around. We decided to get there early to avoid the rush, soon after we sat down to some of the best gumbo we’ve ever tasted. To round out the meal Sonja had also whipped up some fried cornbread, which was a treat all on its own. The marina is set up with lots of tables and chairs inside and out, providing plenty of space for people to congregate and enjoy some social interactions. The meal, Sonja’s charming disposition, and the folksy atmosphere created by the staff and people in attendance, were wonderful additions to our stop in Clifton leaving us with a warm spot in our guts and our hearts.

A few days later, after passing through the Pickwick Lock and Dam, we were heading to Grand Harbor Condominiums and Marina for a couple of days. Grand Harbor sits on the borders of Mississippi and Alabama, a few miles south of Tennessee and situated at the start of the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway. Lisa and I have been to Grand Harbor before, twice while cruising the Great Loop and were looking forward to a return visit. With that said the things we like about Grand Harbor are completely different than Clifton Marina, not better, just different. This marina is more of a resort destination than just a convenient stop on the river. This is a great place to linger for a few days. With a pool, spa, tennis courts, marine store, fitness center, loaner vehicles, free wi-fi and cable TV, Grand Harbor has lots of amenities to enjoy.

Grand Harbor Marina is an impressive stop for Loopers as they finish the Tennessee River portion of the Loop and get ready to start the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway.

When we made our starboard turn onto Yellow Creek, from the Tennessee River, we hailed Grand Harbor. Barry Shaw, the harbormaster, was quick to reply with a warm welcome, a slip assignment, and an offer of docking assistance. When we finished registering in the office, he made sure we knew about their loaner car, in the event we decided to run into Corinth, Counce or to up the nearby Shiloh National Military Park. Southern hospitality, resort amenities and a free loaner car... what’s not to love?

The last marina stop on our Tennessee River adventure was at Joe Wheeler State Park, outside of Rogersville, Alabama. Like Clifton and Grand Harbor, Joe Wheeler was another return visit for us. Needing a pump out, after days spent on the hook (we have a somewhat small tank), our first stop at Joe Wheeler was the fuel dock, where Danita, the harbormaster, met us. After the not so pleasant pump out chore I went up to the office to register and pay for our stay and pump out. Much to my surprise, I found out pump outs are free at Joe Wheeler. The marina at Joe Wheeler is just a small part of this massive State Park. In addition, there is a golf course, a Lodge with banquet facilities, a nice swimming pool adjacent to the marina, rows of permanent, covered dockage, waterside cottages for rent, boat launch ramp, full restaurant and hiking trails. To give you an idea how big this place is, you’ll drive about five miles from the marina before you can exit Joe Wheeler State Park. Along the drive you’ll want to keep your eyes peeled for the many deer you’ll undoubtedly see along the park’s roadside. Little things do make a difference, both in a boater’s pocket book and how they feel their business is appreciated and valued. When we boat we want to be able to take away a special memory and feeling from every place we visit. We always feel the love at Joe Wheeler.

Joe Wheeler Marina and Resort offers boaters the chance to cool off, when the weather cooperates, in their beautiful pool, located right next to the transient docks.

In all, we spent a full week at Joe Wheeler; most of it spent attending the American Great Loop Cruisers Association (AGLCA) Fall Rendezvous. This stop provided a reunion of sorts with all the Loopers we met as we cruised south on the river this trip, concluding with a big reunion party of sorts at the rendezvous with approximately 260 people in attendance. During the rendezvous, we met up with a few old friends and also made some new connections with people who are either currently doing the Loop or in the planning stages.

Good friends, Robert and Kay Creech, on C-Life (we spent a lot of time with them on our second Loop in 2008/2009) were the 2012 recipients of AGLCA’s Harbor Host of the Year Award.

After spending a week participating in the AGLCA Rendezvous’ social and informative sessions, we prepped Kismet for going back on the trailer for her ride back to Michigan and winter storage. Lisa and I will be living vicariously through other people’s boating adventures over the long, cold, Michigan winter. Since we have a big trip planned for next summer, we thought we should stay home and take care of future trip planning and some business and personal projects.