Fun in the sun: “Love is the food of life, travel is the dessert”

Dana and Jeff Sanders are pictured with Jason Zucker of the Minnesota Wild before a game against the Florida Panthers in March. Submitted photos.

Dana and Jeff Sanders are pictured with Jason Zucker of the Minnesota Wild before a game against the Florida Panthers in March. Submitted photos.

It was September of 2018 and my husband, Jeff, was looking into outdoor hot tubs. Since moving out to the country in Zim six years ago, we had talked about getting a hot tub for the backyard. It would be so great to sit, soak and relax together under a starlit sky at our own country oasis.

After shopping around, my husband found the dream hot tub that included all the bells and whistles one could wish for—it also came with quite the price tag. We talked over our finances and had a choice to make: Jeff had money saved for either the hot tub of our dreams or an annual tropical vacation we typically take in March. We couldn’t afford both. My husband said that if we had the hot tub, we could vacation in our own slice of heaven every night. How could I refuse that?

A few weeks later, we had our new hot tub and were enjoying it very much together. There is nothing comparable to hot-tubbing in our wooded backyard under a starlit sky—with the exception of a starlit Florida sky, palm trees and ocean waves crashing in the distance.

Dana and Jeff celebrated their 15th wedding anniversary and also enjoyed a visit to the Everglades while in Florida.

Dana and Jeff celebrated their 15th wedding anniversary and also enjoyed a visit to the Everglades while in Florida.

It was late October and the holiday season was fast approaching. I was busy planning upcoming festivities and wrapping up the rest of my Christmas shopping. (Yes, I am an early shopper.) Each year, I typically purchase Minnesota Wild tickets for a joint Christmas gift for my husband and me. I was looking at different games scheduled at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul. On a whim, I started looking at outof state games. I came across Minnesota Wild/Florida Panthers tickets for March 9, 2019, in Miami. How fun would it be to take in a hockey game in a warmer climate? We had never been to a professional hockey game outside of Minnesota.

I then remembered the travel vouchers my husband and I received from Sun Country Airlines the year prior. We were on vacation in Punta Cana and our plane broke down prior to departing which delayed our travel home. They accommodated us with $400 in travel vouchers to be used prior to March 11, 2019. I called my travel agent, Cathy, at Plan-It Travel. I told her I was looking into a mini vacation to Florida—a Thursday to Monday trip where we could utilize our vouchers—and asked her to work her magic as this trip would have to be within my financial means. It would be a surprise for my husband for Christmas.

Cathy came back with a deal I could not pass up! Our airfare was next to nothing with utilizing the travel vouchers. Basically, I had to come up with money for the hotel, rental car and game tickets. I could do this! I would just have to behave during the holiday season and not go overboard on decorations and additional gifts. I’m horrible when it comes to buying for others (I don’t have a lot of self-control), which would be why I don’t have a savings account like my husband’s.

It was the night before Thanksgiving. I had our upcoming trip paid in full and Cathy sent me a copy of our itinerary. I also had our game tickets. My second downfall next to overspending on gifts is waiting on surprises. I’m the worst. I get way too excited and I can’t wait to share or give! It always brings me so much joy! I decided I was going to give my husband “our” special Christmas gift that night, Thanksgiving Eve. There were smaller gifts that he could open on Christmas. This was just too special to wait on!

I had it all planned out. I had a Thanksgiving card for Jeff and enclosed were emailed copies of our Minnesota Wild/ Florida Panthers tickets. I had a separate envelope with a copy of our travel itinerary. It said Florida Vacation on the outside in red writing with a red bow. I would first give him the Thanksgiving card and game tickets. I thought it would be funny because he would see the tickets and think I accidentally purchased away tickets. I could just hear him: “Rella!!” (My nickname.) “What were you thinking? You bought away tickets. How are you going to get your money back on those?” Then, I would hand him the Florida Vacation envelope. It would be hilarious!

We finished preparations for the Thanksgiving celebration that we were hosting the next day and decided to hit the hot tub. I had a hard time relaxing as I was eager to get back in the house to give Jeff his surprise. Jeff even asked why I was so anxious as I usually become comatose in the hot tub as the warmth of the water, massaging jets and fresh air are intoxicating. Not tonight. I couldn’t quiet my mind or slow down my energy level.

We finally got back inside and were cozied up in our living room. I told Jeff that I had something for him. I handed him the Thanksgiving card. He opened it up, read the card and then looked at the tickets. He had a puzzled look on his face. He asked, “We are going to a Wild/Panthers game in March? Cool.”

I then realized he did not see where the game was and probably presumed it was at the Xcel. The Panthers aren’t a typical team we would go to see play the Wild. So, I then gave him the Florida Vacation envelope. He looked at the envelope and said, “We’re going to Florida, Rella?” He was so confused!

I told him to read the game tickets again. He told me to find his glasses for him because he couldn’t read all the details! I gave him his glasses and he read the tickets and exclaimed, “We are going to see the Wild play the Panthers in Florida!! Are you kidding me? Is this for real?” Jeff was so excited and had the biggest smile on his face. That—in itself— was a priceless gift for me. Jeff then shook his head and said, “Rella, now we have to wait three months in anticipation?”

He thanked me and gave me the biggest hug and told me I was the absolute worst at keeping surprises!

Three months later, it was Thursday, March 8, and we were on the plane to Miami. The timing couldn’t have been more perfect. We both were overdue for a break from our careers. We both work for an insurance company. Jeff is a systems engineer and supports several locations and I am a supervisor at a call center. October through February is our busiest time of year. In addition, it had been a brutal winter with cold temps and an abundance of snowfall. We were both looking forward to relaxing in 85-degree weather for the next few days.

We landed in sunny Miami at noon. It was so nice to see palm trees and no snow. We picked up our luggage and rental car and headed to Sawgrass Mills, about 30 miles from Miami. We arrived at our hotel, the Sunrise-Shannon Lake Estates. Cathy really worked her magic as the hotel was absolutely, gorgeous. The grounds had a gated courtyard that accommodated an outdoor pool and hot tub surrounded by palm trees and tropical flowers. This was a different slice of heaven and ours to enjoy for the next few days.

By the time we unpacked and got settled, it was late afternoon. We opted to dine at the hotel restaurant and later unwind in the hot tub and plan our next few days. Typically, we go on longer vacations and I have a detailed itinerary in place. I am not one who can just sit each day and lounge when on vacation. There is always so much to see and do where I want to take it all in and rest in between! Being this was a long weekend get-away, I didn’t have any set plans in place other than the hockey game.

While sitting in the hot tub, we planned our next couple of days. We decided to drive to Central Beach in Fort Lauderdale the next day to soak up some sun prior to heading to the game. I told Jeff that I really wanted to go to the Everglades on an airboat tour on Saturday. It has always been something that I wanted to do. He told me he was game for that. I was thrilled that Jeff was open to going on an alligator adventure with me! Sunday, March 10, would be our 15-year wedding anniversary. We thought it would be fun to have a full-day at the beach and go out for a nice dinner. Our plans were set!

Friday morning, we enjoyed a lovely breakfast at the hotel and then made our way to Fort Lauderdale. Our hotel was in the best location. We were 20 minutes from Fort Lauderdale, 15 minutes from the Everglades and five minutes from BB&T Center in Sunrise, FL, home to the Florida Panthers.

Central Beach in Fort Lauderdale was brilliant. We were enticed with the many delightful shops and restaurants along the boardwalk and decided to take a walk before finding a spot on the beach. It is amazing what warm weather and Vitamin C rays can do for one’s soul. Everyone we encountered had a smile on their face. We did some souvenir shopping and made our way to the beach. The water was a vibrant blue and the sand on the beach was crystal white. We were in paradise.

Later, we headed back to the hotel to get cleaned up, get on our Wild attire and grab a bite to eat before going to the hockey game. We were dressed in our finest Wild apparel and super stoked for the game! When we were walking through the hotel, we passed by a conference room and Jeff told me he could have sworn that he saw Bruce Boudreau, the head coach of the Minnesota Wild. When we walked out of the hotel, there was a bus out front and a walk way roped off. We asked a hotel attendant what was going on. She said the Minnesota Wild players arrived at the hotel the night before after their game against the Tampa Bay Lightning.

She said we could stand behind the rope and watch the players get on the bus and take pictures if we wanted. Well, heck yes, we wanted to! My husband is a huge sports fanatic and Wild fan. He knows all the players, their positions and can recognize all of them without their helmets on. I told Jeff to tell me which player was coming through the door. Out came, Eric Staal. I was not just going to snap pictures; I called out to Eric asking if I could have a picture taken with him. He said, “Sure you can!” Outside of the rope I went! I asked Jeff if he was going to get in on this or stay behind the rope? Jeff joined us and I had a random fan take our picture.

Next came, Jordan Greenway. He was just as friendly. Jeff snapped a picture of Jordan and me. Then came Jason Zucker. I called him over and asked if Jeff and I could have our picture taken with him. He came right over and welcomed us to the other side of the rope. Jeff was speechless as Zucker just had a hat trick the night before and is one of his favorite players. I had become the fan from hell passing my phone off to random strangers to take our picture! As we were posing with Zucker, Zach Parise beat feet for the bus! After our photo op with Zucker, I told Jeff I would be right back as I was hopping on the bus to call Parise back out! Jeff reined me back in and sent me back behind the rope.

We were beyond elated at having the opportunity to meet players from the Minnesota Wild and have pictures taken with them. Jeff and I were so giddy walking to the BB&T Center, which was totally rocking with music and high energy. I was in my element! It was out of the ordinary for us to be walking to a hockey game in warm temps and seeing people tailgating. We are used to being dressed in layers and running to the arena to escape the bitter cold.

The Wild didn’t nearly have as good of a game as they did the night before. They ended up getting their backsides handed to them with a final score of 6-2 Panthers win. Nonetheless, we still had a blast! It was fun to watch the Panthers fans and hear the roar of the panther throughout the center when their team would score. I was also impressed with how nice everyone was to us being the fans of the rival team. A good time was had by all.

The next day, I was up early and psyched for our Everglades adventure. Jeff asked why I was up so early and reminded me we were on vacation. I answered, “Because today is all about me!”

His response: “It’s going to be a long day.”

I eventually got him motivated by enticing him with dinner reservations at Texas de Brazil, an all-you-can-eat extraordinaire meat restaurant.

When we arrived at Everglades Holiday Park, I was shaking with anticipation. I couldn’t believe I was finally getting to do this. We boarded the airboat with about 20 other passengers. I made sure I got a spot on the end by the water! Jeff had no problem obliging my request. Before taking off, our guide went over some rules, safety precautions and some history of the Everglades. I was so intrigued.

He shared that the Everglades was once made up of 4,000 square miles of freshwater marshland. It’s now about half that size. Our guide also shared that there are approximately 200,000 alligators in the Everglades, but over 1.5 million in the state of Florida! He also said the Everglades is home to many pythons, piranhas and exotic birds. Our guide was going to take us on an hour tour through some beautiful marshlands and to some hotspots where there are generally alligator sightings.

He started the motor and in no time we were off and flying through water and high grass! It was so loud and exhilarating! With the wind blowing through my hair, all I could hear was the theme song from CSI Miami playing in my head (The Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again) as they always started the show with that song playing while flying through the Everglades on an airboat!

We slowed down as we arrived at our first destination. We were in luck, there was a 15-foot alligator floating near our boat. This was incredible! It is so cool to see alligators in their own habitat. We were lucky enough to spot a second smaller alligator at another site. When we got back to shore, we attended an alligator show and were even invited to hold a baby alligator. Being that the day was all about me, I made Jeff hold the gator with me!

I was on an adrenaline rush and chirping away at Jeff about how great it would be to come back and canoe through the Everglades someday. I was even doing my best Steve Erwin (The Crocodile Hunter) impressions to sway him to get on-board with this idea. Jeff just shook his head and laughed and told me to plan that adventure with my oldest daughter, Nina, as she would be totally up for that being the outdoor extremist/adventurist she is.

We spent the rest of our day lounging by the pool at our hotel and went out for a fantastic dinner. My husband couldn’t have been happier at the restaurant, Texas de Brazil, as he is a true to heart meat and potato man. I was more excited about the sushi bar and Mediterranean couscous salad!

Sunday, I awoke early but didn’t pressure my husband to get up. I lay quietly beside him watching him sleep. It was 15th wedding anniversary. I thought to myself, “God I love this man.” We have been on quite the journey together and weathered so many storms. We are not only true soulmates but best friends. How very grateful I am. We are too young to be considered living the Golden Years; I would say we are living the Joyful Years.

We eventually started our day with an enjoyable breakfast and intimate conversation. We made our way back to Central Beach in Fort Lauderdale. It was another gorgeous day and our last day of vacation. We wanted to just kick back and relax in the sand and sun. The beach was heavily patrolled with police officers and drug dogs. Alcohol and marijuana are prohibited on the beaches. Jeff and I were quite entertained at the young spring-breakers getting arrested for under-age drinking and illegal contraband.

While on the verge of almost dozing off in the sun, I was startled by a canine sniffing my beach bag a few inches from my face! Jeff and I sat up in alarm as there were three officers and a canine standing over us. One officer asked if I had anything in my bag? I replied, “Just water and sunscreen but maybe some puppy treats from a previous adventure with our dogs!” I told them to feel free to check.

The canine was moving my bag out of the way and digging in the sand. The officers started laughing stating it’s not my bag he’s after but remnants of contraband previously left in the sand. I told the officers that we just got a dose of karma as we had been laughing at others being searched and hauled away! The officers had a chuckle and wished us well.

Later that evening, we went to The Cheese Cake Factory for a wonderful anniversary dinner and the best cheesecake ever. We ended the night relaxing in our hot tub away from home under a starlit Florida sky, lost in contentment, appreciation and love for one another.

Sometimes, even the simplest of vacations can be the most heartfelt and memorable. Life is truly a precious gift, full of the most joyful adventures, chances and opportunities.

Dana and Jeff Sanders live in Zim, MN.

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