Monthly Archives: February 2015

2015 Trip 1, Feb. 27, Florida in Winter

Steinhatchee, FL Friday Feb. 27

Two red birds along our North End Trail hike

Two red birds along our North End Trail hike

All along Florida highways, we have viewed road signs indicating ” The Great Florida Birding and Wildlife Trail”. We are not “birders”, we can not identify most birds and have no special equipment to spot them. Yet, it is enjoyable to be in the woods with birds singing and flying around. Today, at Manatee Springs State Park, we seemed to see and hear more small birds than the other parks we have visited recently.

Manatee Springs

Manatee Springs

Manatee Springs is a first magnitude spring; that is, the springs pump out between 35 and 150 million gallons of water daily. In comparison, the City of St. Paul MN produces less than 50 million gallons of water per day for the city and suburban population of 450,000 it serves. Florida has more first magnitude springs than any other state or country in the world, 33. Of these 33, depending on calculation method, Manatee ranks 25th.

Manatee Springs State Park also frequently hosts manatees during the winter months. In fact, noted naturalist William Bartram, in his 1774 walk through Florida, commented on the manatees here. During our visit, we observed two manatees-and one snorkeler in the water with them. As noted in the last post, the constant 72 degree F water helps the manatees survive. The water from the spring flows into the Suwanee River, just a quarter-mile down stream from the springs.

Along the run leading to the Suwanee River

Along the run leading to the Suwanee River

Cypress Trees

Cypress Trees

The area by the springs has swamps and bottomlands that had an abundant population of birds, mainly small birds, not the herons, egret, ibis, pelicans. We walked along the area enjoying view and sounds. Then we headed out to the North End Trail. We are beginning to observe trees leafing out and flowers beginning to bud.

Along the North End trail

Along the North End trail

The North End Trail is a series of trails that wandered through wetter areas with saw palmetto and cypress to the “higher” elevations with numerous pines with oak and magnolia trees and various brush, shrubs, etc. Much of the undergrowth has been part of the prescribed burn process that the state uses to replicate nature’s frequent forest fires. It is interesting for us older folks to remember the days of Smokey the Bear and the thought that all forest fires were bad. Now we recognize the important role they play in maintaining certain ecosystems.

Replica of a chickee hut used by the Seminole Indians when they were pushed into the woods and swamps during the Seminole Wars

Replica of a chickee hut used by the Seminole Indians when they were pushed into the woods and swamps during the Seminole Wars

Early in the hike we encountered our first wild pig. This one came across our path from a group of saw palmetto thirty feet in front of us and kept moving into the vegetation on the other side of the trail. It happened so quickly I was unable to get my camera out in time to take a picture. In height, it would have been between my knee and my waist. When we got to the spot where it had crossed, it was already lost in the undergrowth. Wild pigs (also called wild hogs, feral pigs, or feral hogs) are almost universally disliked due to their rooting for food that destroys ground cover. These pigs were brought to the America by the Spanish. Of course the Spanish also brought over horses and cattle which are almost universally liked. We kept looking for more, but only saw the one.

Snorkeler in Manatee Springs with two manatee

Snorkeler in Manatee Springs with two manatee

Our North End Trail hike was about 6 miles and a little over two hours. We returned to the manatee viewing area where the park concession stand was serving fresh roasted pork sandwiches. We assumed the pork was farm raised pig, not wild.

Tomorrow, we spend most of the day driving to, and getting settled in, our next location. Ruskin is in the Tampa/St. Petersburg/Clearwater/Sarasota area of Florida, on the southeast side of Tampa Bay. We will be there for three weeks.

Ed and Chris Feb. 27th 7 PM

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2015 Trip 1, Feb. 25-26, Florida in Winter

Steinhatchee FL Wednesday and Thursday Feb. 25-26

Wednesday Feb. 25

Travel is educational. For instance, although we lived in the East for several decades, I always had this impression of lumber coming from the West and northern Midwest. Growing up in Minnesota and hearing stories of the timber harvests there and in Wisconsin, and then in the Northwest, I tended to minimize Eastern forests. Big mistake. The little data I have found on-line indicates the eastern U.S. produces more lumber than the West, and numerous Eastern states produce more than MN and WI combined.

Florida lumbering has been evident throughout this trip, from the panhandle over through the north central part of the state. As we drove to Gainesville yesterday, we passed logging roads, trucks with logs, sawmills, recently harvested tracts of forest, and plots of newly planted trees. In some ways the ride was boring, the flat sandy soil was not covered with wildflowers or blooming gardens. Small towns that were less than vibrant. The state and county roads were flat and straight; it was surprising that there were so fewer speeders. We saw very few state troopers out; on I-75 and I-10 they had been everywhere.

One very small portion of the butterfly specimens at tthe Museum of Natural History Gainseville

One very small portion of the butterfly specimens at the Museum of Natural History Gainesville

Our Gainesville destination was the Museum of Natural History located on the campus of the University of Florida. The exhibits were informative, covering Florida fossils, native Americans, butterflies, waterways and wildlife, etc. They have one of the largest butterfly research departments and specimen collections in the world. We did not visit the butterfly garden, it was raining and the staff indicated the butterflies don’t particularly like the rain and seek shelter. Thus, the viewing was projected to be poor.

a part of the 60 acre nature area at the university of Florida campus

a part of the 60 acre nature area at the University of Florida campus

Instead, after the museum we walked around their 60 acre outdoor natural area. This tract of land is used as a teaching laboratory for ecology and biodiversity. We had to turn back from one path since it was being used by students in a forensic biology class.

The day was finished with a trip to the Harn Museum of Art, also on the campus. The art museum was having an exhibit on Monet and American Impressionism. There were only four Monets that I saw, the major emphasis was on American painters and how they interpreted Impressionism. A quick walk through several other galleries ended the Gainesville adventure.

Mother Nature provided a further adventure that night, though. Rain was off and on during the day but as the evening went on winds increased. Thunderstorms were projected and a tornado watch was in effect. Most of the action occurred from 10 PM to 2 AM. The storm reminded me of our adventure houseboating on Lake Powell in AZ/UT last May when there were concerns by some that the houseboat would float away from its moorings.

Thursday, Feb. 26

A nature day. Of course, we had to decide to choose Lower Suwanee National Wildlife Refuge which requires traveling over an hour to reach this specific nature site rather than somewhere closer to our lodging. By the time this trip is over, I believe we will know Florida better than most of its residents.

The Suwanee River

The Suwanee River

The refuge was established in 1979 and protects the lower 20 miles of the Suwanee River. It is one of the largest undeveloped river-delta estuarine systems in the United States. It has hardwood forests, swamps, tidewater marshes, scrub ridges, etc. The river starts at the Okefenokee Swamp in Georgia which we visited last April. The Suwanee is the second largest river in Florida and more than 50 springs contribute to its flow.

Nature trail at Lower Suwanee with recent  prescribed burn area at right

Nature trail at Lower Suwanee with recent prescribed burn area at right

The refuge is on both sides of the river, which is not a problem if you have a boat. We did not. We stayed on the south shore of the river, starting at the ranger station and taking a nature hike to the river itself. A couple of guys were out hunting wild pigs without any luck.

looking up a section of the Shell Mound at Lower Suwanee National Wildlife Refuge

looking up a section of the Shell Mound at Lower Suwanee National Wildlife Refuge

close up of shells making up Shell Mound

close up of shells making up Shell Mound

After a nine mile nature drive through the refuge, which other than being a dirt road, had scenery similar to most of the roads in this part of Florida, we drove to the Shell Mound unit. This area right along the Gulf was a site for early Americans. There is a 28′ tall mound exposing millions of shells used by the ancient cultures to build the more than five acre mound. The mound was constructed between the period of 2500 BC to 1000 AD. Much of the mound is covered by vegetation but you can see that the “soil” is primarily shells and not sand.

Lower Suwanee National Wildlife Refuge

Lower Suwanee National Wildlife Refuge

Lower Suwanee National Wildlife Refuge

Lower Suwanee National Wildlife Refuge

We hiked along trails going into the woods and back along tidal marshes. The day had cleared up and the temperatures were in the high 50s F. A great day for walking and very few insects.

Looking out from Cedar Key island

Looking out from Cedar Key island

A late lunch was at Annie’s Cafe in Cedar Key. Cedar Key consists of several small barrier islands connected by causeways. As usual, it too has a claim to (past) fame. The Florida Railroad Company built the first cross-state railroad from Fernandina Beach (Jan. 2013 trip) to Cedar Key in 1861. The shipping business made Cedar Key the second largest city in Florida for a while. Now its population is 700 and 95% of the U.S. farm raised clams are grown in the waters around here.

There is also a Cedar Keys National Wildlife Refuge consisting of 13 islands. Since you need a boat to reach the few islands open to the public, we did not partake of that opportunity.

Ed and Chris Feb. 26 8:30 P.M.

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2015 Trip 1, Feb. 24, Florida in Winter

Steinhatchee, FL Tuesday Feb. 24

For “branding” purposes, Florida goes wild over naming the various coasts. Today we are in the “Nature Coast”. In case you are interested, the others are (from NE Atlantic Coast down and around to the Gulf of Mexico): A. First Coast-St. Augustine, etc; B. Space Coast-Cape Canaveral, etc; C. Treasure Coast-Palm Beach, etc; D. Gold Coast-Fort Lauderdale & Miami, etc; E. Paradise Coast-Naples etc on the Gulf; F. Cultural Coast-Sarasota, etc; G. Sun Coast-St. Petersburg, Clearwater, etc; H.Nature Coast-this next section north of St. Pete with rivers and springs and not too many people; I. Forgotten Coast-that stretch from St. Marks over through Apalachicola to Panama City,etc; and J. the Emerald Coast-Panama City to Pensacola. Whew, that is a lot of coast and I hope I got it correct.

Our 1 BR unit aaaat Steinhatchee Landing Resort

Our 1 BR unit at Steinhatchee Landing Resort

We left Orlando in clouds and drove through rain to reach Steinhatchee late this afternoon. No check in time was stated on our email confirmation so we had a late lunch/early dinner in a small town called Chieflands at a local Bar B Q restaurant. One advantage of small towns, eating out is usually inexpensive. After the meal, we finished our drive to Steinhatchee and drove around the town to understand where the grocery store and restaurants were. We arrived at Steinhatchee Landing Resort just before 5 pm. The check-in office closes at 5 pm. But this is a small town (population 1,100), if we had not arrived before the office closed, our information would have been outside of the office and our key inside our unlocked unit.

These two came flying in to greet us at Steinhatchee Landing Resort as we walked around

These two came flying in to greet us at Steinhatchee Landing Resort as we walked around

Steinhatchee Landing Resort is a collection of about 50 individually owned second homes, with 1 BR through 4 BR units available for rent. There is a boat dock and boat/canoe rentals. Fishing is about the only major activity in the area. We are here because of a good lodging rate and it is an area we would not otherwise see. President and Mrs. Carter vacationed here in 1994 for a family, fishing vacation.

Only 4 of the units have residents who live here year round. We met one of them while walking around. He spends much of his time fishing; he is in the process of building a home on the property but after two years here is just beginning to get the building under way. He rents from a friend for now. He indicated scallop “fishing” is big here in the summer; the Gulf waters are extremely shallow for miles out; hundreds of boats will go out and the people scuba dive and harvest scallops. There are numerous marinas in town and charter boats are big business with guides who will take you out fishing.

But just so you know how hard we work to keep our readers informed, we stopped at the Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park on our way here. The rain was coming down but we had our rain jackets and umbrellas to fulfill our obligation to report to you.

Lu the hippo

Lu the hippo

Homosassa Springs Park started as a privately owned fish, animal, and springs attraction. It was one of those early American roadside attractions that were popular in the post WWII era. The state took it over 25 years ago and cleared out the zoo animals that were not native to Florida, except for Lu. Lu the hippo is over 50 years old and when the state took over the park, there was such an outcry about his possible ejection (hippos not being native to Florida after all) that the then Governor of Florida (Lawton Chiles) declared Lu an official resident and he lives on in his watering hole.

Manatees at Homosassa State Park

Manatees at Homosassa State Park

Homosassa is one of several manatee visiting areas in this section of Florida. Manatees are big, slow-moving mammals that live in the ocean and rivers, eating grasses, and spending most of their time underwater. Normally you only see their snout sticking out of the water to breathe. When the weather is cold, they will frequent warmer rivers. When the weather is hot, they are farther out in the ocean. The Homosassa, and several other rivers in this part of the state, are spring fed and are 72 degrees F year round. Depending on the day and the temperature, you might see just a few manatees or throngs of them in the rivers. We have met people on this trip you were touring on cold days and saw throngs of manatees. We saw only two today. Since they are normally underwater, our best photo of them only shows a blur.

Flamingoes at Homosassa Springs

Flamingoes at Homosassa Springs

The rest of the park has numerous Florida wildlife. We saw panthers, bobcats, black bear, alligators, and lots of birds. Since these animals were in captivity, we were less thrilled to view them then if we were out hiking. Most of the animals were here as part of an animal rescue program; they had been hurt or were in too close of proximity to urban dwellers.

Schools of fish at Homosassa Springs State Park

Schools of fish at Homosassa Springs State Park

As mentioned, the Homosassa River is spring fed. The park has placed an underwater viewing pod just over the spring and you can observe schools of fish, and sometimes manatees, hovering around the spring outlet. Today there were no manatees but thousands of fish just lazing around the spring.

Tomorrow may be more rain and our current thoughts are to drive to Gainesville and take in a museum.

Ed and Chris 2/24 8:45 pm

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2015 Trip 1, Feb. 22-23, Florida in Winter

Orlando, FL Sunday and Monday, Feb. 22-23

The last two days we did what many Northerners long to do when they come to Florida; lay under the sun by some water. We have been in Florida for three weeks and the last two days were the first two days of sunbathing weather. Fortunately, we were still at the Hilton Grand Vacation Club site in Orlando which afforded great pools and lounging areas.

Our building at HGVC-Tuscany Village Orlando

Our building at HGVC-Tuscany Village Orlando

Sunday we started the day with 9:30 Mass at Mary Queen of the Universe basilica, which was right across from the Hilton property. When we first came to Orlando with the girls in the mid-1980s, we stayed at Disney’s Polynesian Resort. Mass at that time was held in the luau area of the resort. Over the years, Mass in hotels needed to be replaced with a church for vacationers. Mary Queen of the Universe Basilica, consecrated in 1993, can seat 2000.

Sunday afternoon was at the pool, with hamburgers grilled pool side. The temperature hit the low 80s. Monday began cloudy and cooler but by noon it had warmed up again and the skies, while sometimes cloudy, were generally fair and the temperature again hit the low 80s. We spent the afternoon Monday poolside also.

Our sojourn in Orlando ended tonight with dinner at B.B. King Orlando, a restaurant featuring a house band playing the blues and a southern style menu. The food was good, the music good and it was a pleasant way to end this portion of Trip 1. Three weeks down and five weeks to go.

Ed and Chris Feb. 23 10 pm

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2015 Trip 1, Feb. 21, Florida in Winter

Orlando FL, Saturday Feb. 21

Part of the  zip line course at Forever Florida

Part of the zip line course at Forever Florida

So where is this envelope we are pushing?? Because Saturday was zip lining. Now for some of you that may be old hat. But I get vertigo when looking down from lofty, and some not so lofty, heights. Chris did her usual thorough research and found a zip line site that had multiple zips, did not require us to use hand brakes, and was run by an eco/naturalist conservancy so we could feel good about where our dollars were going to boot.

The Allen Broussard Conservancy was established by the parents of a young man who died of complications from Hodgkins disease at age 29. It consists of over 4700 acres of longleaf pine, wire grass, wet and dry prairies, sloughs, etc. The land was available because until the 1940s it was harvested for the pine timber and the products from the sap used for ships, particularly wooden ships. When the land was left barren, a Miami development company bought it and sold vacation lots to individuals. Since there were no roads and the land was zoned agricultural, the buyers were fleeced and the land later reverted to the state.

In 1969, the Broussards (William and Margaret) came here from Louisiana where the family had long been involved in ranching, including cattle and horses descended from the Spanish (remember Paynes Prairie a few days ago?). They still maintain a working ranch whose land will eventually be attached to the conservancy. The cattle on the ranch are grass-fed and the hamburgers we ate afterwards came from ranch cattle.

Their son, Allen, died in 1990 and the conservancy was born shortly thereafter. It is home to native trees and grasses, is a bird refuge, offers nature tours and summer eco-camps, and zip line adventures. Forever Florida is the adventure/camping arm. It is located about an hour southeast of Orlando.

One of the bridges we crossed

One of the bridges we crossed

Our adventure began with a ride on a swamp buggy to the zip line location. Our driver pointed out various animals and birds; our first alligator of this trip, an anhinga, green heron, egrets, etc. Several zip line adventures are offered, we took the basic seven zip lines, three skybridges, and ten connecting observation/loading/landing platforms. Overall, the zip line took about two hours plus assorted waiting times, harnessing up, etc.

Chris and one of our guides

Chris and one of our guides

The starting platform was 100 plus steps up into the tree tops. For us, some of the most nerve-wracking times were standing on these platforms as they swayed from the breeze and movements of the group of us. There were 11 zippers and two guides. At each location, the guides would explain the next zip, how to take off, and how to land. One guide would go to the next landing platform and “catch” us as we arrived. The other guide would harness us up to the zip line.

Chris on the zip line

Chris on the zip line with old line and landing site to the lower left

Their set-up involves dual line ziplines. It seems this is a rare type, most are a single line. The dual line creates less spinning. In addition, the landing set up allows one to land on the platform; Forever Florida’s previous, now outdated, zipline, ended in a post at which you had to stop yourself before running into it. Ouch!

The first zip was relatively easy, sort of to let us get used to the process. Once you realized that you could just sit in a crouch and that the harness would support you, your worries about holding yourself upright went away. Only two of the 11 people had ever zipped before. Only one of our group got sick/queasy during the seven zips-not Chris or I. Luckily that person was able to finish the course rather than being rappeled down.

Ed all suited up

Ed all suited up

Several of the zippers became adventurous and tried out various poses while zipping; Chris and I were more basic. You might sway a bit and supposedly the two harness straps would allow you to steer left and right but I was not very good at that. On one zip, we went backwards. Halfway through, we had to climb up from the landing platform to a second, higher platform to gain additional elevation to continue the journey.

I did manage a few pictures. You had to keep items safe in zipped pockets or in lockers at the starting point. Luckily my traveling pants have several zipped pockets as does my shirt. The weather was overcast so the pictures are not as sharp as I would have preferred.

Our next major event of the day was not until 7:30 pm so we walked around the property for a bit, had a late afternoon meal, and then drove back to Kissimmee, half-way to Orlando. The Kissimmee-Silver Spurs rodeo has been going on since 1944, with two rodeos per year. This is ranching territory. It bills itself as the largest rodeo east of the Mississippi. They had a full house last night, looked to be about 7000 people in the arena. I do not know how the largest is computed; the rodeo we went to once in St. Paul had more attendees and seemed to have the same general line-up of events.

The quadrille dance on horseback

The quadrille dance on horseback

Anyway, we arrived as the doors opened at 6:30 (remember, we did not have a lot else to do) and people watched for the next 60 minutes. The rodeo began with a very Christian opening prayer and an honoray salute to emergency responders. With my usual way of viewing things, I was not sure that having 8 guys in camo rappelling down from the balcony and aiming automatic guns at the spectators was a particularly great way to honor emergency responders but it was not my show to run.

The 50+ rodeo participant

The 50+ rodeo participant

We watched the usual events, bull riding, steer wrestling, tie down roping, etc. We were impressed with one contestant. He had been a rodeo cowboy, went to law school, became a judge and at 50+ went back to participating in rodeos. He did not place in the tie down roping contest. In saddle bronc riding, one contestant, Tyler Corrington, is from Hastings MN. We had seen him participate in the Calgary Stampede two years ago. However, he was scratched tonight and did not participate.

At the Kissimmee Silver Spur rodeo

At the Kissimmee Silver Spur rodeo

There were several instances of where the bull or horse was the center of attention when the cowboys riding shotgun could not control the animal after the event and were chasing it around the arena. One other time, a steer banged the clown in the barrel around half the arena before no longer being interested in the barrel.

A pleasant, but long, day. Today, Sunday, the temperature is likely to be in the low 80s with partly cloudy skies. We are going to take a day off from our work (traveling and seeing) to just take life easy, hopefully by the pool.

Ed and Chris Sunday Feb. 22 Noon

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2015 Trip 1, Feb. 20, Florida in Winter

Orlando, Friday Feb. 20

Orlando is more than Disney and Universal but it can be tough for alternate attractions to generate attention among the buzz for the theme parks. Today we traveled to Lake Wales, FL, a town of 12,000 people about an hour south of Orlando. The town sits on a high ridge that provides a view of the surrounding area, including citrus groves. It was because of this ridge that the Bok Tower Gardens was created in 1929.

Bok Gardens, Lake Wales FL

Bok Gardens, Lake Wales FL

Another rich Northerner developed the gardens and the 205 foot tall neo-Gothic and Art Deco Tower carillon, Edward W.Bok, born in the Netherlands and raised in New York. He advanced himself and became the editor of the Ladies Home Journal at age 26. The Ladies Home Journal became one of the most influential magazines of its era and he cemented his position by marrying the only daughter of the Curtis family that owned it. He was the editor for 30 years, from 1889 to 1919. His wife founded the Curtis School of Music in Philadelphia, which provides to this day tuition free education to all of its students.

As is often the case when visiting these places, the founder is a “noted philanthropist”. In this case, Chris and I wondered how the Bok money was created and controlled. The Bok Tower Garden is all about Edward Bok. Did his job provide that much money? How much came from his wife? Was it joint control or did he manage all of the family income? Those details were not provided to us; leaving us only to speculate. The opening of the Gardens and Carillon in 1929 was a big deal; President Calvin Coolidge came and spoke.

Bok seems to have had a positive impact in many areas; his motto was to “make you the world a bit better or more beautiful because you have lived in it”. A one example, he made a major impact in the building of small bungalows, providing building plans at low cost. He believed the suburbs were the best place to raise his concept of the well-balanced life with the wife as homemaker and child-rearer and children raised in a healthy, natural setting (Wikipedia). Easy enough said for a guy with lots of money who wintered in Florida and built a garden and carillon tower for the pleasure of it.

Bok Tower Gardens

Bok Tower Gardens

So enough editorial comments. The gardens consist of about 50 acres; the organization controls several hundred other acres around it. Frederick Law Olmstead Jr was the designer. This location was chosen because it is the highest point in central Florida. Olmstead transformed the arid hill into a magnificent garden, with trees and flowers imported after an irrigation system was installed.

"The Singing Tower", carillon at Bok Tower Gardens

“The Singing Tower”, carillon at Bok Tower Gardens

The 205 foot carillon, dubbed the Singing Tower, adds a central focus point with composition of marble and coquina. It has grace and beauty, with intricate ironwork and ceramic tiles and sculptures near the top of the tower. There is a full-time carilloneur who performs two 30 minute concerts six days per week.

detail from top of Carillon

detail from top of Carillon

We arrived at the site in time to have an early lunch, then join a 60 minute guided tour that ended at the carillon for the 1 PM carillon performance. Both the camellia and azaleas were in much better bloom than at Leu Gardens earlier in the week. We continued walking the grounds, including the nature trail that went on a lot further than we expected. The gardens are undergoing a $12,000,000 restoration and expansion that did not diminish our experience.

With travel time, we spent most of the day here and found it a very worthwhile experience. On our way down, we stopped at Davidson of Dundee, a local, family owned candy company. The family grew citrus fruit and later expanded into candy, particularly citrus candy. We bought some candy, citrus and chocolate. Unfortunately, to our taste buds, the idea was more tasty than the reality.

Dinner was at a local restaurant with cousins of ours from Minnesota who also happened to be in Orlando at this time.

Ed and Chris Feb. 20 10:45 pm

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2015 Trip 1, Feb. 19, Florida in Winter

Orlando, FL Thur. Feb. 19

Universal Orlando Resort-Islands of Adventure receives a more positive rating than Universal Orlando Resort-Universal Studios Florida. But we have not changed our minds that one visit here is sufficient.

Hogwarts at Islands of Adventure

Hogwarts at Islands of Adventure

Recognize that we are in our mid-60s and roller coaster rides are not high on our travel list. Islands of Adventure is more into roller coaster rides, in our opinion. It was built after Universal Studios and has more color, more landscaping, more pizzazz. It has its own Harry Potter section which continues to attract large numbers of the visitors. The colors in the Seuss Landing were bright and cheerful, in some ways it made me think of the Art Deco district of Miami Beach. (Colors only, not life style.)

Today was cool, even cold. The temperatures ranged from high 30s when we left at 8:30 to 50 degrees F in mid-afternoon. Winds were 10-15 mph. When you were in the shade and with wind, it was cold. In the sun, and protected from wind, it was quite nice. Most visitors today were prepared for the weather. It was busy, which surprised us. Websites had predicted today would be less crowded and we thought the weather would chase people indoors. I guess if you are here on vacation, particularly with children, you go to the parks no matter what. We did observe large groups of teens traveling together. One large group consisted of girls from Argentina celebrating their quinceanera (15th birthday, a Latin custom).

We chose to arrive a little later than yesterday, 9 AM, and found no back-up at the gates but the sign board indicated the Harry Potter rides already had a 60 minute wait. We went instead to the Spiderman 3-D ride which a family from Toronto that we met yesterday had recommended. No wait and Chris handled the ride okay-since she kept her eyes closed.

Chris in Seuss Landing

Chris in Seuss Landing

Islands of Adventure has themed sections: Super Heroes, Cartoons, Jurassic Park, Lost Continent, Seuss Landing,and Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Several of the rides are water rides. We passed on those, as did most, but not all, visitors. Other rides and areas are only for kids and while Chris wanted to borrow some kids so she could go on the rides as their supervising parent, we passed on that option also.

The Caro-Seuss-el at Islands of Adventure

The Caro-Seuss-el at Islands of Adventure

As you might have guessed, Chris prefers tame rides. So we rode on the Caro-Seuss-el (merry-go-round), the High in the Sky Seuss Trolley Train Ride, and The Cat in the Hat. We watched the Eighth Voyage of Sindbad Stunt Show and experienced Poseidon’s Fury, an indoor walk-through attraction with fire and water special effects. Poseidon’s Fury was dark inside, you worried if your eyes would ever make the transition from outdoor sun to the indoor darkness before you tripped over something or someone. The special effects were good, the story lame.

View of Hogsmeade street from the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Islands of Adventure

View of Hogsmeade street from the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Islands of Adventure

The Wizarding World of Harry Potter has a fantastic roller coaster that we stayed far away from. The stores had similar merchandise to the Harry Potter stores we saw yesterday. We never did check the price on those wizard robes that were everywhere around us-but it was good to observe an article worn equally by girls and boys.

Flight of the Hippogriff ride

Flight of the Hippogriff ride

Chris really went out on a limb today in the Harry Potter world. Having already experienced the Spiderman ride, she went on two other Potter rides that had been recommended and which she thought might be tame. Both turned out to be eye closers. The Flight of the Hippogriff is termed a “family friendly roller coaster”. In my mind it was pleasant, certainly had some fast turns but very doable. For Chris, it was definitely a challenge, eyes kept closed and “let’s take a break” after the ride to settle her stomach.

Inside Hogwarts while the line moves on

Inside Hogwarts while the line moves on

However, the Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey ride was over the top. Again, the family from Toronto had recommended this, and since they steered Chris clear of others, she thought it would be doable. A portion of the time you are in line you walk through a recreated Hogwarts Castle. This is very well done with the picture frames with talking ghosts, a hologram of Harry, Ron and Hermione, etc. For the flight simulator ride itself, Chris made it through-barely. The ride spins, twists, dips, is dark, fast, and moves in unexpected ways. We really had to rest after that one. I thought it was great. I don’t particularly like rides with deep descents or huge twirling motions but I handled it okay. I thought it was the best ride of the two days. When we got back to the Hilton Grand Vacations lodging, Chris looked up the ride on the Internet and huge numbers of commenters complained how the ride made them ill. So congratulations to Chris. Not that she will repeat going on the ride, though.

We left at 4, pretty much having done the rides that interested us. We can check Universal Orlando Resorts off of our list.

And so our travel adventures continue

And so our travel adventures continue

Ed and Chris 2/19 10:15 pm

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2015 Trip 1, Feb. 18, Florida in Winter

Orlando, FL Wed. Feb. 18

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Universal Studios Orlando. That was our day today. We have been to Disney World Orlando four times and loved it each time. (2013, 2008, and about 1993 and 1986.) We thought we should give Universal Orlando Resort a try. Universal is much less expensive (although certainly neither is cheap); 3 day basic passes were $144 each compared to $274 for Disney World. Disney has four theme parks, Universal two. Today we did Universal Studios Florida. Thursday we will do Universal Islands of Adventure.

That being said, Disney is far better in our minds. We just found so many ways that Universal was not impressive for our interests. Today’s weather was breezy, very cool (below 50 degrees F) early and late, pleasant in mid-day. Tomorrow should be cooler. But this did not affect our thinking; we were prepared for the weather. What follows is a variety of thoughts, reporting, and opinions; not in any particular order or in any priority.

When you first enter through the gates, signage is lacking to direct you between the two parks. We very nearly went to Islands of Adventure, which was not our plan for today.

We arrived around 8:30 and the gates were opened around 8:35. The entry process is slow as each person’s ticket and finger are scanned; a small number of gates meant it took 15 minutes just to have your ticket processed.

Diagon Alley of Universal Studios Florida

Diagon Alley of Universal Studios Florida

The Harry Potter experience is a big reason to do Universal, it is better done and the visitors are excited about it. Wizard capes and wands were everywhere throughout the park. Without the Harry Potter aspect, we would not find the day worth it. Even with the Potter experiences, based on just the first day, we do not see any reason to ever make a return trip here.

The building exteriors and store displays are well done. The landscaping is very basic with nothing dramatic for picture-taking.

Diagon Alley store

Diagon Alley store

We were strolling by the Men in Black ride at 9 AM as it opened so we were its first riders of the day. Pleasant but not overwhelming. This delayed our arrival at The Escape from Gringotts ride; Chris chose not to go on the ride, realizing it provided more motion and thrills than she prefers. I found it a good ride, although the clarity of the voice projections here and on several other rides was poor.

The wait at the Escape from Gringotts was 30 minutes; this was about average for the day. You probably know the drill; a long line snakes circuitously around a series of barriers, you finally turn a corner to face another series of barriers, then (maybe) you enter a holding area where there may or may not be something to entertain you, then you enter another holding area where the turn off cell phones/take no pictures/move all the way over or watch your step spiel is repeated, sometimes with an announcer that tries to get audience participation going. It is the second price (time vs money) that you pay for the experiences but you know it in advance.

Beetlejuice Graveyard Review

Beetlejuice Graveyard Review

During the day we also hit The Blue Brothers, Shrek 4-D, Simpson Ride, Ollivanders Wand Ship, Disaster, E.T. Adventure, Terminator 2, Twister, Beetlejuice Graveyard Review, and the Parade. I am sorry to say it but the parade is nothing. I could not believe it was over so quickly. Twister, about tornadoes, promised some real thrills but was lame and a disappointment. Blue Brothers would have been a pop up show at Disney, I think they performed for 20 minutes on a street corner after being listed as one of the major shows of the day.

E.T. was cute and enjoyable. Disaster was not too bad; although Chris and I differed on it. She thought it was comparable to the Disney show, I thought it was shorter and less dramatic although still enjoyable. Beetlejuice Graveyard Review was decent. Shrek was enjoyable but the hype before while you were waiting for the show led you to expect a different story line inside.

After the 5 pm parade we caught one more show and decided not to wait for the 7 pm nightime lagoon show. It was getting cold but we were prepared to have dinner on-site and watch the day-ending lagoon show. Even if it was better than the parade, it was unlikely to justify our waiting around.

This may make it sound like our time was wasted. No, we are glad we went, we enjoyed our day. But we were disappointed and not likely to visit again if we return to Orlando in future years.

Ed and Chris 10:30 pm

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2015 Trip 1, Feb. 16-17, Florida in Winter

Orlando, Monday Feb. 16

The morning was boring. Well, breakfast at the Sweet Magnolia Inn was nutritious, tasty, and provided good company. But the first 2/3 of the trip to Orlando was two lane road through small towns with the scenery changing from aggregate mining/lumber harvesting to dairy and cattle ranching with scrub forests in between. Seen it before, not all that exciting.

Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park

Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park

We tried to ratchet up the excitement factor by stopping at Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park. It is just south of Gainesville, Florida. This park is a vast grassland (prairie), similar to those out west except for the swampy overlay. Slight uplands provide small forests around its edges. However, it is better known for re-introducing three animals that were present here in the 1700 and 1800s; bison, swamp cattle, and Spanish horses.

Part of a trail at Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park

Part of a trail at Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park

Bison in Florida? Ubetcha! Along with the horses and cattle introduced by Spaniards, the three animals exist in small herds in this park. The park also is home to alligators, feral pigs, and numerous birds plus your usual rodents, etc. The possibility of one place in Florida combining bison and alligators was too good to be passed over.

Part of the horse herd at Paynes Prairie

Part of the horse herd at Paynes Prairie

Alas, we either walked in the wrong areas or did not spend enough time here. We did see the wild horses but no gators, pigs, or bison. This park may have to be a destination for another year.

We arrived in Orlando just before dark. Our home for the next eight nights will be a small unit at the Hilton Grand Vacations timeshare in Orlando. It is basically a hotel room with a kitchenette. The smaller room allows us to stretch our time share allocation into 8 nights here along with four more nights in Miami Beach at the end of March. We are right off International Drive, so a quick trip to Publix for groceries was easy to accomplish.

Orlando, Tuesday Feb. 17.

Leu Gardens Orlando FL

Leu Gardens Orlando FL

Rain and high winds are forecast for this afternoon. We took advantage of the morning warmth (70-78 F) and partially sunny skies and made a visit to the Leu Gardens in Orlando. This is a botanical garden, so flowers and plants are on display but they also try out new plant species and varieties to determine if the plants will thrive in the Orlando climate. Azaleas and camellias were out but most camellia bushes seemed to be past their peak. The gardens are set alongside one of the Orlando lakes.

Leu house

Leu house

One of the frog sculptues, Leu Gardens

One of the frog sculptues, Leu Gardens

Harry Leu ran an Orlando hardware store and sold agricultural machinery that became a large industrial supply distributor. In 1932, he married his 20 years younger secretary and they became the fourth owners of the house and its grounds (almost 50 acres). They traveled and they enjoyed gardening at the home, which at that time, was “out in the country”. They donated the land, gardens, and remodeled home to the city in 1961. Now it is a lovely garden and the home is open for tours. The gardens currently have a special sculpture exhibit throughout the grounds. The artist, J.A. Cobb, has created copper frogs in various poses.

One of Cunningham's paintings, from a brochure

One of Cunningham’s paintings, from a brochure

After the gardens and lunch, we went to the Mennello Museum of American Art. Marilyn and Michael Mennello are Orlando philanthropists (I never received an answer as to exactly what Mennello did to make his money.) The museum shows exhibits of American art, with its major focus the works of Earl Cunningham. Cunningham, who died in 1977, painted folk art, sometimes his work is called primitive work, primarily landscapes. He painted scenes as he saw them or wished to see them, not trying to paint a realistic depiction. We found his use of color and imagery quite enthralling. The museum shows a video about him, his life and his works. The Mennellos were early enthusiasts who, some years after his death, began acquiring large numbers of his work to put on display. The Mennello Museum is the result of that and is now owned by the City of Orlando.

The Mennello also displays rotating exhibits. The current one is the works of Dale Kennington. Her work is realistic, she takes photographs of scenes, normally focusing on people in everyday activities, and then her painting may be a composite of elements from many photographs. Her work was also striking, frequently including subtle social messages. All in all, a pleasant time at a small museum. (We could not take photographs inside the museum; the photo included here is from a brochure.)

By this time, the afternoon was moving on and the clouds and winds had moved in. We decided to forego another museum and returned to our lodging just before the rain.

Ed and Chris Feb. 17

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2015 Trip 1, Feb. 14-15, Florida in Winter

Port St. Joe, Saturday Feb. 14

Frost on the car window as we headed out this morning. Reminds us once again that not all of Florida is warm and sunny all of the time. As the day progressed, the temperatures rose to 60 or so during the middle of the day.

Looking from shore to Cape San Blas

Looking from shore to Cape San Blas

The “Forgotten Coast” of Florida is heavy on fishing, wildlife refuges, rivers, long bridges,and, of course, beaches. Shrimping, scallops, oysters, and fresh fish are on the menu at many establishments and we have been enjoying it (except the oysters, neither of us are fond of oysters.) The Gulf of Mexico waters are clear, the beaches here are starting to show signs of sea shells along the shore. No where near as heavy as you find around Sanibel and Marco Island, but enough that the bare foot walking we did on the Emerald Coast would have to be accompanied with more careful footwork to avoid stepping on shells.

We are not visiting every park and wildlife refuge, there are so many. Saturday AM we headed out to St. George Island, home to the St. George Lighthouse and St. George Island State Park. SGI (St. George Island) is 28 miles long, a barrier island,and has beach front development and a pristine, unspoiled state park. The development is primarily single family homes, not high-rise condos. At the west end is a private, gated community. In the middle are individual homes and a small commercial area. At the east end is the state park, our destination.

St. George Island State Park hike

St. George Island State Park hike

This state park opened in 1980. A long bridge crosses the Apalachicola Bay, giving access to another one of the areas used during WWII for military training activities. We hiked along a trail in the interior of the park and paid a visit to the dunes and beach area. Birds were much more evident today and the park was nearly deserted. There was a home tour on the island that attracted throngs of people; the tour only happens once a year, but the park is open daily.

St. George Island Lighthouse

St. George Island Lighthouse

Lunch was at the Blue Parrot on SGI, more fresh grouper. We took a few pictures of the lighthouse but did not climb it. This is the third lighthouse on SGI. Previous two were destroyed by storms. This one actually was re-constructed. It was de-activated in 1994 and beach erosion eventually caused it to collapse in 2005. A fund-raising effort was able to raise enough funds and volunteer labor to re-construct the lighthouse further inland. The reconstruction used 22,000 of the bricks from the collapsed lighthouse. The lighthouse museum displays demonstrated that the shape of St. George Island has changed dramatically over the last 200 years as erosion and storms have been powerful forces at work.

Fishing boats along the wharf

Fishing boats along the wharf in Apalachicola


Seafood processing

Seafood processing in Apalachicola

The afternoon and evening were spent in the town of Apalachicola (2200 people). Way back when, this was the third largest port on the Gulf. Cotton, lumber, sponges, and fishing have all contributed to its past glory. Apalachicola oysters are supposedly the best. This area produced 90% of Florida’s harvest but the take has dropped precipitously in recent years to the point the bay fishing may be shut down for 18 months to regenerate the oyster beds. Locals blame Georgia for draining off too much of the fresh water flowing down the Apalachicola River (which begins in Georgia) before it reaches Florida. The balance between fresh water and salt water in the estuaries around the Apalachicola produces an abundance of marine species. This battle over water sounds like a replay of western water rights wars.

3/4 scale replica of first ice making machine

3/4 scale replica of first ice making machine

Apalachicola is famous for another reason. It is the location where the first patent was awarded for an ice-making machine, laying the ground work for air conditioning. John Gorrie was a physician during Apalachicola’s glory days. He believed that cooling the rooms of patients with yellow fever would help them heal and/or deal with the illness. His device worked to cool their rooms and he received a patent on the device in 1851. He was unable to market his invention. Air conditioning ended up being one of the major reasons for the rapid growth of Florida in the 20th century, particularly after room air conditioners were invented in the 1930s.

Orman House State Park in Apalachicola

Orman House State Park in Apalachicola

We also visited the Orman House State Park; unique in that the lumber for the home was pre-cut near Syracuse NY and shipped to Apalachicola by ocean sailing vessels. Downtown Apalachicola is combining the fishing industry and tourism. For those of you from Minnesota, think of a smaller version of Stillwater. We walked around, had some ice cream, and even bought an Apalachicola t-shirt.

Dinner was at a tapas restaurant and then we went to the Dixie Theater. The Dixie was built in 1913 and survived until 1967. 31 years later it was re-incarnated as a local theater. We saw a performance of Doo Wops and Beauty Shops; a 90 minute show based around songs from the 1960s. The audience, all white and retired, enjoyed it immensely. It was light-hearted and entertaining. A great way to wrap up a long day.

Sunday Feb. 15th
St. Marks FL

We checked out of the Main Stay in Port St. Joe and said good-bye to the dogs. Main Stay is pet friendly, at least to dogs of less than 25 pounds. Thus, it seems to attract a preponderance of customers with dogs. The place was okay, breakfasts were a little light but everything worked.

Originally we were planning to stay in Port St. Joe for three nights but a few days ago decided to spend Sunday night in St. Marks, about 90 miles further east. One activity we had on our wish list was to bike the 16 miles Tallahassee to St. Marks Bike Trail. It did not make sense to drive 90 miles back west to Port St. Joe after spending Sunday afternoon biking. Chris found a great bed and breakfast in St. Marks, the Sweet Magnolia Inn.

The drive to St. Marks was primarily along the coast, but then we veered inland for the last portion. Given that we would be biking for several hours and the light breakfast at Main Stay, we stopped for brunch at St. James Bay Golf and Resort Community by Carrabelle FL. The grill was open to the public and we had a buffet breakfast/lunch. The staff was pleasant but stumbling a bit; last night’s Valentine’s Day crowd was overwhelming and all of them had worked it. The food was fine and on the way out we picked up a brochure; they have rental villas and the costs were extremely reasonable. Maybe in a future year???

St. Marks (population 300) had Spanish development going back to 1528. We had visited the area a year ago when we stayed at Wakulla Springs Lodge State Park and visited the lighthouse and national wildlife refuge here. Today our purpose was to bike the Tallahassee to St. Marks bike trail. The trail was the first rail to trails path in Florida, following the path of the first railroad in Florida which hauled cotton from plantations to shipping.

Chris near the trail head in St. Marks of the Tallahassee to St. Marks trail

Chris near the trail head in St. Marks of the Tallahassee to St. Marks trail

Nina and Pinta replica at St. Marks FL

Nina and Pinta replica at St. Marks FL

The bike trail is 16 miles long, it is flat, and it is paved. The trail runs through forests with areas of watery sloughs on either side of the trail. It has plenty of rest rooms and benches. The trail was well used today, possibly because there were replica ships of the Nina and Pinta docked in the St. Mary’s River at St. Marks.

Along the bike trail, I did not  have any treats to give them when they came over to see us

Along the bike trail, I did not have any treats to give them when they came over to see us

Our hosts at the Sweet Magnolia Inn had bikes and helmets for us to use free of charge. They stated that the restaurants in town, including theirs, had run out of food yesterday and expected to do so again today due to the influx of visitors. Certainly the parking areas and line to get on board the ships were evident of a very popular destination this weekend day.

Along the Tallahassee to St. Marks bike trail

Along the Tallahassee to St. Marks bike trail

Sunday afternoon jazz at Sweet Magnolia Inn St. Marks FL

Sunday afternoon jazz at Sweet Magnolia Inn St. Marks FL

The bike ride went for 22 miles, we did not go the last five miles into Tallahassee. Still it was 50% longer than our ride in Milton FL. The ride was pleasant, temperatures in the mid-60s with a light breeze. When we got back to the Sweet Magnolia, their Sunday jazz brunch was underway and we spent an hour listening to the musicians. Eventually we went up to our room where I am working on this-and still listening to the music from downstairs.

Ed and Chris 2/15 7:50 pm

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