A Weekend Getaway at Weeki Wachee

I hadn’t been to Weeki Wachee since I was a child, or so I thought, but nothing looked familiar and I think I might be remembering Silver Springs instead. Located on the corner of US 19 and SR 52, we headed north, over the Sunshine Skyway Bridge

Sunshine Skyway Bridge

I booked a room for two nights at the Spring Hill Marriott. Or so I thought. Turns out I booked a hotel room in Tampa, NOT Spring Hill…the name of the hotel was “Spring Hill Suites at Marriott”. We were about 45-60 minutes away. The hotel service was excellent, the room modern and comfortable, and it was a non-refundable deal, so we decided to stay.

Well, wouldn’t you know it? I should have. Our weekend getaway to Weeki Wachee coincided with a major bike rally. For some reason, bikers decided that the land of mermaids was the place to display their colors and tattoos. I was extremely uncomfortable having to walk through a crowd of at least 1,000 bikers to get to the entrance. I found out later that the rally was for a police officer dying of a tumor. Police! Dressed up like thugs! Later, inside the park, they held a raffle. For guns. In a kids’ park. It just seemed bizarre to me.

The park’s entrance fees were reasonable, I thought: $13 for adults, $5 for kids. We headed right, toward the swimming area, which turned out to be very nice, with picnic areas, a white sand beach, two large water slides, and lots of room for swimming and tubing down the inlets.

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The spring is shallow, the water a constant 74 degrees. There are several concession stands, a shop that offers swimsuits, sunscreen, etc., restrooms and volleyball courts. There is also a fenced off pool for toddlers.

We explored the other side of the park after that. The Wilderness River Cruise does not last 25 minutes as advertised. It’s more like ten minutes. We did not find King Neptune’s daughter, Princess Wonderous, or her home.

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The space is shared by canoes and kayaks, so it was crowded during our visit. Any wildlife had long been scared off, save for the fish.

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The Underwater Theater show was cute. We watched the “Fish Tails” program.

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“The Little Mermaid” show is offered twice a day, as well. The young people who perform are very talented.

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This young woman dove 117 feet down to the source of the spring, against currents strong enough to push her face mask off, holding her breath for over 2 ½ minutes.

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We also saw mermaid try-outs and according to the two middle-aged women who sat beside us, there are mermaid camps for girls of all ages. They were participating in one.

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Water ballet used to be popular back in the 1940s, when Weeki Wachee was first developed. Back then, the women would line up in bathing suits beside the highway, waving in the cars that passed. Even if the audience only had one person in it, they performed.

The grounds are well manicured and peacocks and pea hens roam freely.

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We skipped the Wildlife show. We were at the wrong end of the park and missed it, but did enjoy the short Tranquility Trail.

The park is an excellent choice for families, particularly those with young children, and most definitely for families with little girls who dream of a life “under the sea”. We thought the value was excellent. For around $50, a family of four can spend the entire day swimming and tubing in the spring (a triple tube is $15, less for singles and doubles) and ride the wilderness cruise and/or catch a free underwater or wildlife show when they need to escape the sun.

Dakin Dairy Farm-Wholesome Food and Fun

Dakin Dairy Farm, Wholesome Food and Fun in a Rural Setting

Established in 1973, Dakin Dairy Farm is located on Betts Road, off SR 70, east of Bradenton, Florida. No true seeker of Finding Florida would overlook the state’s rural areas and since there are only 150 dairies still in operation in the state of Florida, this producer of superior dairy products should be high on the list of “must-see’s”.

The family-operated dairy embraces old-fashioned values coupled with today’s technology and modern farming practices. Some milk is bottled on site, some is sent for processing in Miami.

Dakin DairyDakin Dairy Farm is a “sustainable farm” and composts its own fields. Mixing the grasses (harvested twice daily), homegrown hay and fresh grains creates a diet rich in beta-carotene, Vitamin D & E. The cows are closely monitored by a qualified nutritionist, for optimum health for the cow and more nutritious milk for the consumer. The CLAs (conjugated linoleic acids) are natural cancer inhibitors and improve healthy milk-fats. The proof is in the taste, deemed sweeter and high above that of competitors, large or small. An added benefit is a creamier texture.Dakin Dairy Farm/Organic Approach

The Dakin family takes an organic approach to dairy farming, allowing the cows to come in for milking as they choose. The philosophy is that when cows are allowed to set the pace according to their instincts, stress is reduced and milk production increases.

 

 

The on-site farm market carries a full line of milk products, honey from local bees, homemade ice cream, and small gifts. Milk choices range from whole, 2%, 1%, fat-free, and chocolate milk. Cream, heavy or half & half, is also available, as is eggnog and orange juice. All products are 100% all natural, with no artificial ingredients.

Milk can be purchased at the Dakin Dairy Farm itself or statewide at Whole Foods stores, as well as local Sweetbay grocery stores. Additionally, over 150 local restaurants and farm stores offer Dakin Dairy Farm products, as well.

Milk products are not all that Dakin Dairy Farm sells, though! Compost (15 yards or more) is also available for purchase, as are bull calves (heifer calves are not for sale).

Educational and hands-on “Agri-Tours” and school field trips are available October through April. Visitors can see the process of milk production from cow to bottle, take an informative hayride (or the cow train!) through the ranch, and bottle-feed a calf. Autumn brings additional treats of corn and hay mazes, and, for those interested, fossil digs. Birthday parties are a popular choice. Don’t miss out on one of their picnics for a true Myakka City experience, where you can order up anything from boiled peanuts to pulled pork sandwiches to S’Mores over a campfire.

For those seeking a rural Florida experience, Dakin Dairy Farm in Myakka City is a good place to start. Y’all come visit, they’ll make you welcome.

Additional photos may be seen at Julie North Photography (permission granted), whose daughter has become so accustomed to the taste of Dakin milk that she thought a competitor’s had gone bad!

 

 

 

 

 

 

King Mango Strut in Coconut Grove

Bring Your Enthusiasm and Sense of Humor to King Mango Strut in Coconut Grove, Miami, Florida

King Mango Strut is an annual event held in Coconut Grove, Florida on the last Sunday of the year. Since its beginnings in 1982 as a poke in the ribs to the Orange Bowl’s King Orange Jamboree Parade organizers who snubbed The Mango Marching Band. For some odd reason, they didn’t have any use for a couple of Grove residents who used kazoos and other eclectic “music makers” to entertain the crowd as they marched along wearing conch shells on their heads.

In retaliation, the King Mango Strut was born. Turning bitterness to laughter, King Mango Strut is no ordinary parade. Instead, it offers participants and onlookers an irreverent tongue-in-cheek review of newsworthy events of the past year. Oftentimes described as “the weirdest parade in the universe”, its participants vow to “put the NUT back in Coconut Grove”. Be sure to bring your sense of humor to this event, because boundaries of good taste are oftentimes tested!

If you visit Florida this year, and you are in the metro Miami area, don’t miss the 32nd annual King Mango Strut held on December 29th. The parade starts at 2 PM (come early for a good seat) and the “After-Strut-Party” continues until 6 PM in Commodore Plaza. It’ll be quite a party.

The good citizens of Coconut Grove know how to celebrate (photo courtesy of Michael Wayne Cole studio).There’s something here to appeal to every sense of humor, from political (Michael Wayne Cole studio) to protest (photo courtesy of flickr.com/lurker), whether complaint (photo courtesy of Michael Wayne Cole studio), environmental concern (photo courtesy of Michael Wayne Cole studio) or personal entreaty (photo courtesy of flickr.com/lurker).

Some of the marching bands, such as the New Orleans Funeral Marching Band, travel some distance to join in the revelry. Others, such as the Grove Jugglers, are local. And if you’ve ever had a longing to be Grand Marshall, you may bid for that honor on ebay.

No mangoes were hurt during the parade? Well, THAT’s a relief!

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(photo courtesy of Michael Wayne Cole studio)

If you wish to participate, download the entry form from the King Mango Strut website. Entry is free (however, donations to help defray costs are happily accepted) and there are no other requirements (except safety rules) for qualification to participate. Whether onlooker or participant, if quirky, good-natured fun is for you, come strut your stuff with other zany fun seekers at the King Mango Strut in Coconut Grove, Miami, Florida.

 

Tate’s Hell State Forest is Heavenly for Some Visitors

Many Visitors Think Tate’s Hell State Forest is Heavenly

Despite it’s name, many visitors think Tate’s Hell State Forest is heavenly. Not everyone thinks Cebe Tate was correct when he emerged from the woods and declared he’d been through hell.

Today, the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, Division of Forestry manages the land (some areas are managed by the State of Florida) that encompasses Tate’s Hell State Forest and surrounding areas, with a goal to restore natural habitat while still allowing recreational use and limited commercial use. Slash pine stands have been thinned to a more natural setting or cleared altogether and replanted with longleaf pines better suited to the habitat. 15% of all revenue earned from the timber industry, recreational use, hunting, and other sources of income benefits Franklin and Liberty counties.

Birders watch for barred owls, the red shouldered hawk, wild turkey, bald eagles and red cockaded woodpeckers. Hunters stalk wild boar, bobcat, nutria, gray squirrel, beaver, and other wildlife, while photographers hunt wild deer and small game.

Other habitats within Tate’s Hell State Forest include the Dwarf Cypress stands found there: although well over 150 years old, the trees are only 15 feet tall. An elevated boardwalk takes visitors through the stands and the observation tower offers panoramic views of the trees. A six-mile hike along the High Bluff Coastal Hiking Trail takes hikers up ancient sand dunes that offer stunning views of the forest and St. George Sound or you may choose the educational eastern trailhead that offers information on the various ecosystems as well as the history of the turpentine industry that once thrived here.

Tate's Hell Forest #4As is usually the case with the unusual places featured in Finding Florida, odd names are attached to the place. Waterways within Tate’s Hell State Forest include Gully Branch, Sunday Rollaway, Alligator, Deep, and Cash Creek, as well as Whiskey George Creek. Road names are just as amusing: Jet Engine Road, Nero Road, Billy’s Road, Car Body Road, and Lake Morality Road are just a few that bring a smile to your face.

Hunting and fishing are strictly regulated here, and valid licenses, permits and stamps are required! Hunting is only allowed in designated areas at designated times. The Division of Forestry and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission establish the areas appropriate for Still Hunt and hunting with dogs. Off highway vehicles must have a registered decal and are restricted to designated areas.

While some find the supervision oppressive, most people who respect the habitat appreciate the balanced approach the federal and state government employ when managing access and resources and preserving the beauty within Tate’s Hell State Forest.

 

Is Tate’s Hell State Forest Really Hell?

Is Tate’s Hell State Forest a Bad Place to Visit?

So how bad is Tate’s Hell State Forest? That depends on perspective. Archeological research reveals that Native Americans didn’t use the area very much, probably because it was mostly swampland that drained into estuaries of East Bay and the Apalachicola River, and more fertile ground was found nearby. Logging/lumber/and wood product companies took ownership and attempted to drain the land in the 1950s, inadvertently endangering the environmental health of the bay.

Tate's Hell State ForestCebe Tate fought insects and suffered a snake bite while searching for the Florida panther who was preying on his livestock. He probably also shared the swamp with alligator snapping turtles and eastern box turtles, snakes, including the Apalachicola king snake and the eastern diamondback rattlesnake, and alligators and bears.

Old Cebe Tate slogged through acres of wetlands rife with biting insects before he finally found his way out. Tate’s Hell Swamp makes up 70% of Tate’s Hell State Forest, but prairies offer dry footing and host a wide variety of pitcher plants (designed to trap and digest insects) and other wildflowers, as well as a variety of grasslands.

The Florida black bear, once almost hunted to extinction, is making a comeback these days, and human-bear confrontations can be just as dangerous today as it was for Cebe Tate then. When in Tate’s Hell State Forest or Swamp, use caution when encountering a Florida black bear. Do not crouch or lie on the ground. Instead, speak calmly and assertively and back up slowly. Noise will often scare the bear away, as well.

Tate’s Hell State Forest is 187,710 acres of rugged country and a four-wheel drive is recommended. Amenities such as trash containers are non-existent, so be sure to take all garbage with you when you go. Caution is strongly advised when swimming or boating, and diving into streams and rivers is prohibited. Primitive camping is available in selected areas for a nominal fee and there are 12 tent camping sites at the Womack Creek recreation area, which also offers a bathhouse with hot showers.

Tate’s Hell State Forest is definitely rugged country, but that’s part of its attraction. We’ll explore those in the next post.

Tate’s Hell State Forest Name Origin

How Tate’s Hell State Forest Got its Name

Tate’s Hell State Forest is named after Cebe Tate, a 45 year old local farmer plagued by a panther that kept attacking his livestock. The year was 1875, a time when Florida was experiencing a population boom as homesteaders moved in on land formerly controlled by Native Americans. Although most Seminoles escaped the Trail of Tears by disappearing deep into the swamp that makes up most of Tate’s Hell State Forest, many Native Americans were rounded up for relocation in Oklahoma.

Tate's Hell State Forest #3

The homesteaders didn’t have an easy time of it and rogue panthers were unwelcome pests. Cebe Tate decided to do something about his problem and headed into the forest with his shotgun and hunting dogs.

It didn’t go well. After just a few hours, he became separated from his dogs. Lost in the swamp, he lost his shotgun. When he sat down at a tree stump to rest, he was bitten by a snake.

Lost and disoriented for seven days and seven nights, he suffered greatly. Water was scarce, the mosquitoes were relentless, and the heat was stifling. Cebe was forced to drink the muddy swamp water. Finally breaking through the underbrush to a clearing near the town of Carrabelle, nearly 25 miles from his home, and barely able to speak, he walked up to two men. “My name is Cebe Tate,” he said, “And I’ve been through hell.” With that, he collapsed at their feet and died.

What to Expect During a Visit to Tate’s Hell State Forest

Tate’s Hell State Forest is typical Florida terrain, made up of woodland and swamp. Today’s visitors to Tate’s Hell State Forest have well marked paths, including a boardwalk that winds through a dwarf cypress forest of ancient trees.

Tate's Hell State Forest #1

 

There is a dirt (mostly sand) road through the forest, but a four wheel drive is strongly suggested, and, since many areas flood during rainy periods, hiking may be your only option. It is well worth your effort. Once commercially forested, Tate’s Hell is now a wildlife management area and abuts the Apalachicola National Forest.

 

Tate’s Hell State Forest is a popular place for hunters and campers alike.

Gulf of Mexico Wildlife

Wildlife in and Around the Gulf of Mexico

Sometimes, wildlife in and around the Gulf of Mexico visits you when you least expect it. Not all the dangers are in the Gulf waters, though. Alligators in mating season tend to roam, oftentimes ending up in a backyard swimming pool or taking a siesta under the family sedan.

Alligator mating season 2

Snakes are about. A friend was sleeping in his bed, felt something cold on his leg and found a black snake curled up next to him. Bears are a problem  from time to time, as well. One family’s car was torn apart when a black bear from the Ocala National Park entered it, probably searching for food, and became entrapped when the door closed behind it.

Sometimes it is man himself who harms the environment, as in the case of Beggar, the bottlenose dolphin who used to reside in this part of the Gulf of Mexico. Also known as “Mooch”, Beggar hung out in the Intracoastal, near the Albee Point Bridge and was popular with boaters who delighted in feeding him.

Beggar was a poster dolphin for man’s encroachment on animal habitat. Most dolphin cruise over large areas of the Gulf of Mexico, but Beggar hung out in the Intracoastal and became used to begging.

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Feeding dolphin is against the law, but few boaters can resist that cute face and friendly attitude (of course, Beggar probably felt no affection. He was just hoping for a handout) and unless the Marine Patrol was out and about, Beggar got fed everything from bait fish to Dorito corn chips. Drunk people would try to pour beer down his throat and worst of all, those who find themselves with no food or drink will sometimes throw a non-food item…a piece of plastic, perhaps, or a pop-top…and Beggar, who knew no better, consumed it all.

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When people buy a boa constrictor or a monitor lizard and release them into the wild, it upsets Florida’s fragile ecosystem. When they swim with the dolphins and smear their human germs on them, it harms wildlife. They toss marshmallows to alligators and then wonder why the alligator ate their dog.

Fortunately, not all encounters with Florida wildlife are so intimidating. I was awakened the other morning by a ruckus at my window. It sounded like a cat climbing the screen, probably chasing a lizard, I thought, and rolled over to go back to sleep. The scratching on the screen continued.

I got out of bed, raised the shade and came face to face with a great horned owl! It was a baby, still full of downy gray feathers, and was as surprised to see me as was to see him. I grabbed my digital camera, but it turned its head each time until I stopped and we just stared at each other. I tried one more time…

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…and succeeded. My visiting owl finally had enough and flew away.

 

 

 

Whether in or out of the Gulf of Mexico, Florida’s wildlife never ceases to amaze.

 

 

Snook Haven, a Retreat to “Old Florida”

Snook Haven: Retreat to an Earlier Era in Venice, Florida

Snook Haven is accessed from the intersection at Old Venice Avenue and River Road in Venice, Florida (exit 191 off Interstate 75). A sign at the entrance of a dirt road points the way in. The drive takes you deep into the jungle that leads to the banks of the Myakka River, just upstream from the Gulf of Mexico, and the small clearing known as Snook Haven.

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History still rests here, despite the modernization of running water and electricity and yes, even an unpaved parking lot. First used by indigenous Native Americans, it became an excellent smuggling site and hideaway for rumrunners in the 1920s and 30s and a perfect watering hole for the locals who knew how to keep their mouths shut.

As prohibition waned, other interest moved in on Snook Haven. A New England businessman was the first to develop the area, building a house by the river for himself, and several cabins for his fishing pals. He also generously kept the place supplied with willing young ladies whose job it was to keep the guests happy. Today, the property is not nearly as nefarious and is under the ownership of Sarasota County. The on-site restaurant is still rustic and serves up local cuisine and the cabins house the boat rental and other businesses, none of them selling moonshine or favors of a different sort.

The site caught the eye of Hollywood scouts as the perfect location for jungle wilderness movies, such as “Prestige” in1931, a movie about, of all things, the French Foreign Legion. One of the Tarzan movies was filmed in the area around Snook Haven, as well as the 1947 “Revenge of the Killer Turtles”, and, of course, as with an artistic endeavor, many of the movies did not reach such heights of glory.

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I must admit that I’ve never encountered a killer turtle on any of my canoe trips up and down the Myakka. Most of them seem pretty laid back.

 

Swamp Walk #5

 

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I do keep a close eye on the alligators, though, and keep a respectful distance.

 

 

Alligator hunting season started a few weeks ago and it opened with a bang when two Venice fishermen caught a 12 ½ foot alligator in the Myakka not far from the Snook Haven landing (photo courtesy of wwsbtv).

It took an hour to overpower the massive alligator and the men feared the giant gator would sink their 14 foot fishing boat. In true “Old Florida” style, once the taxidermist is done, the men plan to donate it to the Snook Haven Restaurant, which seems fitting.

It hasn’t arrived yet, but the new managers of the restaurant are displaying other impressive examples of local habitat. If you’re lucky enough to go today, you’ll enjoy live country music entertainment from 11 AM until mid to late afternoon.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Red Mangroves Abound on Island Nature Trails

Red Mangroves Protect Island Shoreline Nature Trails

We spent the next morning exploring the red mangroves that grow in abundance along Palm Island nature trails. Red mangroves grow closer to the coast and black mangroves grow in the swamp. They produce no flowers and propagate by dropping pods that are already formed as small trees.

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The root system of the red mangrove is interesting. The stalks you see hanging overhead are actually roots that grow downward toward the ground, where they create safe haven and rich ecosystem for fish and other wildlife.

Exploring the Red Mangroves in the Palm Island Nature Trails

Our walk was relaxing and I could feel the tension slipping away. Like the seedpod that drops off the red mangroves, floating lazily down the waterways that flow through the island and re-rooting itself elsewhere, I mentally re-planted myself and my future, changed, but deep down, still the same.

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After an early morning walk on the beach and amongst the red mangroves, we came back to the condo and my husband made breakfast. I took a shower and did my best to tame my unruly hair, which, after days of flying in the breeze on the beach and various nature trails, looked like Medusa’s nest of snakes. I did a small load of laundry and read a magazine on the balcony. I took a nap. I did a bit of packing and stripped the sheets off the bed, gathered wet towels, and left them in a heap on the floor as agreed upon.

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We left at 4 pm and drove onto the ferry. The dock master thanked us for bringing Baby Blue, our T-Bird, onto his ferryboat. He said it made his and the captain’s day. My car makes people smile. I like that.

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As we left the dock and moved into the intracoastal waterway, I took one last look at the barrier islands where the red mangroves make their home.

 

 

 

 

Palm Island, Placida, Florida

Palm Island, Placida, Florida Vacation Paradise

Palm Island lodging is not only limited to the Palm Island Resort. There is a range of rentals among the private residences on the south end of the island.

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The beach is surprisingly empty, but Palm Island is semi-private. During our walk, I was reminded of my childhood summers at the beach, when the world seemed less populated. We found shark’s teeth and fiddler crabs that scurry in and out of holes in the sand, panicking at the sound of your approach. The sandpipers skitter away, as well, and you feel your presence interrupt their world.

Traffic is mostly golf carts, since there’s nowhere to drive. People who live on Palm Island year round need cars to commute, but the farthest you can drive on the island is from the ferry dock straight to your home or to the Palm Island Resort parking lot, 3 miles due north.

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A Palm Island Home

Palm Island Beach Time

Friends arrived and we sat on the Palm Island beach together, four aging baby boomers in their beach chairs, and talked of the things we usually talk of: their dogs, our kids, houses and property values, the war, the economy, the way sweeping statements on the internet aren’t always based on hard facts, whether buying a sports car means you’re having a midlife crisis or just making the kids jealous, and other deep topics.

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Later, we drove to the Palm Island Resort parking lot and they took us on the courtesy golf cart the rest of the way to the general store, since no cars are allowed beyond that point. Non-resort visitors are welcome, but the pool and tennis courts are off limits. The men bought their beer and I found a hat that matches Baby Blue, the T-Bird that we travel to Florida destinations in, so I bought it, too.

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(No, we didn’t leave it on the beach)

 

 

 

After our friends left on the last ferry out of Palm Island at 11 PM, we fell asleep to the sound of surf outside our open windows, rolling rhythmically onto the sand, then pulling away, gently rocking us into the land of dreams of a little Palm Island hideaway of our own.

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