Tag Archives: tourist attractions

Oysters are King in Apalachicola

Apalachicola, King of the Forgotten Coast

We’d cancelled our reservations at the Gibson Inn for the murder mystery weekend in Apalachicola, mainly because the theme was football-based, which did not interest me. After we drove past it, we felt we’d made the right choice, since it sat right in the middle of town with traffic on all four sides. Great for shopping, but relaxing by the water would have required compromise. Instead, we chose the Apalachicola River Inn, which reminded me of a riverboat since the building sat out over the water.

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The view from the private balcony:

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That night, the reflection of a full moon shimmered over the still water as the buzz of distant insects played in the background, broken only by the splash of breeching mullet that landed with a plop.

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Early morning river commute:

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Later the same day:

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We’d had our complimentary drink in the bar the night before and took full advantage of the free breakfast the next morning. I ordered eggs over easy, shrimp and grits, and juice. Shrimp and grits sounds better than it is. I found it too spicy for early morning.

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The rest of the morning was spent in historical downtown Apalachicola. The art museum was closed (we tried on our way home, too, but they were still closed) so we just poked our heads in shops and galleries.

Naturally, we stopped at Boss Oyster for lunch:

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In fact, we had oysters, in one form or another at almost every meal during our too-short stay and we could not resist purchasing more to take back home. I don’t know why the Apalachicola bi-valves taste better than those harvested from other areas, but I assure you, the difference in taste as well as in size is remarkable.

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The town itself is quite beautiful with many historic homes and buildings, yet carries a certain ruggedness that only a true fishing village can. From the late 1800s to early 1900s, Apalachicola’s sponge trade was booming, helping it to grow into the third busiest port in the nation. Today, it might be less well known if not for its reputation as a source of superior oysters and shrimp. My husband offered to take me on a boat ride, but I thought the offer was rigged:

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After all, papa was a rollin’ stone:

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Funniest name I saw on a boat? “Breakin’ Wind”. I asked my husband if that was his boat, but he said it couldn’t be because the “Pain in the Butt” wasn’t moored close by!

We had a lot of fun in Apalachicola and I look forward to a return trip and more oysters. On my to-do list for our return visit: Fort Gasden in the Apalachicola National Forest, part of the Florida Black Heritage Trail, and a closer exploration of the islands that protect the Apalachicola Bay: Flag Island, Sand, St. Vincent Island, St. George Island, and Cape St. George Island.

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A Visit to Gulfport, Florida

Gulfport, Florida is a Step Back in Time

Our trip to Gulfport, Florida, nestled next to St. Petersburg, was a trip down memory lane! Little has changed over the years here and yet it has kept up with the times, offering the best of both worlds: family-friendly safe as well as eclectic Key West-style lifestyle.

We headed for Gulfport’s waterfront district, on the edge of Boca Ciega Bay. The city of 12,000 is an art community, as well as a beach community, and the seaside cottages are painted in bright colors that lift the soul.

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As I stepped through the doors of the Gulfport Casino Ballroom, small, by today’s standards, and into the Quonset hut shaped building, I could almost hear the Big Band sound wafting from the stage and instead of tables and booths filled with Florida memorabilia, I could see the pretty girls in their rolled and pinned up hair waiting by the sidelines for a boy in uniform to ask her to dance.

The building sits by (on?) Williams Pier, which juts out over the bay. The crystal chandeliers and the worn wooden floorboards brought me back to the days of shuffleboard and bocce ball and old men feeding seagulls from park benches.

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The Tierra Verde shoreline and the Don Cesar Hotel, aka “The Pink Palace” across the bay, offer pleasing views, whether wiggling your toes in the water or soaking in the sun on a beach towel. The “Don”, originally built as a hotel in 1928 and used as a hospital for recovering soldiers during WWII, reverted back to hotel use in 1973. We stayed there once. The view was fantastic and we watched a beach wedding from our window. It is, however, a historic building and all the quirks are there, including very small guest rooms.

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Gulfport houses and stores are quaint, no high rise condos here, folks, even the library is vintage 1950s. Maybe 60s. It wasn’t terribly crowded, but it was busy. We were all there for what had been billed as “Florida’s largest show” of vintage Florida souvenirs and memorabilia. I found many treasures including a “Florida Queen” cigar box and a matchbook with matches intact. Its outside cover offered “a choice Florida home site (Only $195 per lot, no money down! Purchaser paid $5 per month per lot.). Other finds included a “Graham for Senator” political button, a quilted hat made by Seminole Indians, and shipping labels from a couple of Florida citrus companies.

I priced some textiles, but passed them up. Later, we crossed the street and had lunch in one of the many restaurants in the area. There is a wide variety of cuisine choices here and the area has been recognized in the past as a strong contender in “Best Dining Experience”-type competitions.

Ours was a day visit, so we did not get to see all the area had to offer. Next time, I’d like to explore the Clam Bayou Nature Preserve and stroll the grounds of nearby Stetson University.

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A Visit to Cocoa Beach on the Florida Space Coast, Part Two

A Visit to Cocoa Beach on the Florida Space Coast, Part Two

Since the previous night’s entertainment had not kept me up too late, I arose early and enjoyed my cup of tea while sitting on the balcony watching the morning surfing dudes trying to catch very small waves and a grandmother supervising three youngsters, one digging a hole to China, the other two kicking the sand back in. An hour later, we went and had our free continental breakfast, otherwise known as the feeding frenzy.

Free food seems to turn people into territorial animals. One family unit commandeered one of the two available toasters, so the rest of the crowd had to wait politely while Dad cooked up each child’s bagel (or toast), then did the same for his brother’s family. One of his kids later complained about the slim pickings (3 kinds of cereal, hard boiled eggs, the usual pastries…not the fanciest, not the sparsest I’ve seen) and Dad responded (in a loud voice) that if another Democrat got the Presidency, she’d better get used to it. Lovely. Threaten your kid over breakfast.

We did not go to the usual Cocoa Beach sites, such as the Kennedy Space Center, opting instead for beach time and just one or two stops, but there are plenty of attractions on the Florida Space Coast to appeal to all tastes, from the Ron Jon Surf School to the Cocoa Beach Spa to children’s attractions, such as The Dinosaur Store Adventure Zone.

There are numerous nearby parks, including the don’t-miss Thousand Islands Conservation Area in the Indian River Lagoon. Ninety percent of the conservation space is accessible only by boat, and kayaking and canoeing are popular here. I believe the Earth Day Festival is this weekend, April 20th, from 10 AM to 3 PM, in nearby Titusville. Whether your interest lies in learning more about the Indian Mound Station Sanctuary, Buck Lake Conservation Area or the Grant Flatwoods Sanctuary, the Florida Space Coast is steeped in Florida nature and historical preservation. And, really, who wouldn’t want to check out the Enchanted Forest Sanctuary?

Even though we did not visit Cape Canaveral, I thought I’d share some images of previous space shuttle launches. Usually all I get to see are the contrails:

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The February 2010 launch:

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Space Shuttle February  8 2010 #4

Space Shuttle February  8 2010

We zig zagged our way home using the smaller back roads. 441 is an interesting road, lots of back country, few lights, no cars. Some orange groves, but mostly dairy land…one VERY fancy ranch (on a different state road…can’t remember which one) with giant golden statues of stallions, some reared up on back legs, front legs pawing the air, on either side of the double wrought iron gates. It was a sod ranch, so it was hard to tie horses and sod together until I settled on fertilizer.

Too soon, we were home again, dreaming of our next Florida escape!

 

Florida’s Space Coast Destination: Cocoa Beach

How to Find Peace and Solitude in Florida’s Space Coast Destination Cocoa Beach

Welcome, new readers! This blog explores varied and beautiful areas of Florida. While my emphasis is on quieter, out of the way spots, we sometimes find our solitude in crowded areas. A recent trip proved that theory true. After a stressful week, we looked forward to loading up the T-bird and heading out for a few days. Destination? The Space Coast on the east coast of Florida.

The trip up was the usual wild ride on I-4. Traffic wasn’t too awful, but there are always one or two drivers that leave you shaking your head and wondering how they’ve been able to survive this world so long. There was Mr. Lawful Citizen, messing up traffic for miles because he’s going the speed limit and is going to make the rest of us drive slow, too. He was in the middle lane, nose stuck up in the air and just so pleased with himself. Everybody had to maneuver around him. At the opposite extreme, we also shared the road with Mr. I’ve-Got-a-Big-Truck-and-Know-How-to-Use-It, who tailgated while weaving in and out of traffic, getting nowhere fast.

I also spotted a lot of people who were texting while driving, but that bad habit may soon be a thing of the past, as Florida joins 44 other states and outlaws the practice. Unfortunately, texting while driving in Florida is a secondary offense so the person must be stopped for another reason first before the driver can be charged with texting and driving.

Cocoa Beach Light Show

After stopping in Orlando to visit our son, we headed for the east coast and managed to snag a lovely suite directly on the ocean in Cocoa Beach. Unfortunately, our late departure from Orlando meant a late check-in, so our nightlife consisted of a quick trip to the poolside bar for a couple of drinks to be carried back to our room. We sat on the balcony and listened to the waves and enjoyed the feeling of chilled skin.

The entertainment came to us. Turns out our end unit overlooked the beach AND the public beach access, which turned out to be the hangout for the hip hop crowd, who opened the van doors and turned up the volume on the boom box. I thought it would be a disaster, but the music, while a bit too “new-age” for my taste, wasn’t obnoxious…some had sort of a concert sound to it…maybe it was techno…who knows?

The kids themselves weren’t loud and when they began their light show with lasers, I thought they were quite creative. They’d play the laser light over the sea grape leaves, making them look as if they sparkled, and then shine the lights over the waves or shoot them in long lines down the beach access lane. Fun to watch from six stories up and I was sad to see them move down the beach, but also glad I wasn’t going to be kept up until the wee hours of the morning.

Part Two of our visit to Brevard County will be posted tomorrow.

Other Spots of Interest in the Salt Springs Florida Vicinity

Salt Springs, Florida Tourist Attractions Off the Beaten Path

Ocala National Forest is a Florida tourist attraction as well as an oasis of solitude and offers a wide variety of activities. Salt Springs sits in its upper half, nestled between Lake Kerr and Lake George. Nighttime activities are mostly limited to hot dog roasts and star gazing unless you care to venture into a nearby bar. You will, however, find restaurants, gas stations, post office, laundry facilities and shopping in the town of Salt Springs, lest you think this might be too much wilderness for your tastes.

A quick trip to the visitor center will familiarize you with the area and offers a chance to learn about on-going efforts to protect this natural habitat from deterioration. If you’re interested in exploring the origins of Paleoindians and the days of mastodons and saber tooth tigers, this is the place for you. Nearby Welaka Maritime Museum is well-known for its hand-crafted wooden boats, but time did not allow, so it is added to our “Must See on the Return Trip” list for this magical area of Florida.

The Salt Spring Recreation Area between the St. Johns and Ocklawaha Rivers and nearby Lake George teems with activities. The campground offers full RV hookups as well as a tent area. Salt Spring vacation rentals abound, as do homes and land for sale, for those who find this area fills their soul with peace and harmony.

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Salt Springs Activities

Approximately 82 feet wide and 25 feet deep, the spring bubbles from the west bank of the Withlacoochee River. Rising deep from underneath the earth, the natural mineral spring water is laden with potassium, magnesium and sodium, giving its name to the area: salt.

Swimming and snorkeling in the crystal clear 74º (F) waters offers up glimpses into a primeval past and certified cave divers explore to their heart’s content. There is no boating or fishing allowed in the swimming pool which is lined with sidewalks and concrete walls that allow for easy access.

Others are attracted to the boating and fishing. Salt Spring, Lake George and surrounding area boat rentals are easy to find and range from paddle boards, canoes, and kayaks to power and pontoon boats. Anglers also enjoy fishing the four mile long Salt Spring Run (downstream of the swimming area and marina, of course).

For those who prefer to discover the area on foot, 1400 miles of scenic trail await you. Besides hiking, you’ll find amenities such as basketball and horseshoes.

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Life is decidedly slower in the forest and time slips away before you get your fill of nighttime bear-watching and wild flower arrangements.

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St. Augustine, FL: European in Flavor, Yet Uniquely American

St. Augustine, Florida: Sights and Sites

Rich in history as the oldest, continuously occupied settlement in the U.S., the historic district of St. Augustine is charming. Unlike Key West’s tropical island atmosphere, St. Augustine is decidedly more European in flavor. The city has wisely preserved the colonial buildings, which lean heavily on the Spanish/Moorish influence. In ways, it reminded me of a seacoast New England, with houses hard up on the cobblestone roads.

We started our explorations at The Fountain of Youth, reportedly the only freshwater spring in the area. Because Florida is very close to sea level and built on limestone, our fresh water supply comes from the aquifers that run through the soft limestone, unlike the deep artesian wells up north. The untreated water smells and tastes like rotten eggs. I’m told the hard water, full of minerals, is good for the heart. I like mine just fine after it’s been through a water softening system, thank you very much. Still, I bought 10 bottles of water in the gift shop to bring home to all my girlfriends. When I got home, I saw that, written in itty-bitty print on the side of the label, were the words: “Not For Consumption.” HUH?!?

The grounds were pleasant and the artifacts discovered over the years were fun to look at. We then went to Old Florida Museum, which is small, hands-on, and better for kids. The Old Fort, or Castillo De San Marcos, is made of coquina, a local compressed shellrock. The short history: The Spanish took the land from the Timacuan Indians, claimed all of North America as “Florida”, then left for home. The French came over and tried to take over as squatters, but the Spanish returned and drove them out. They built a fort; pirates or the English knocked it down, so the Spanish built a new fort out of coquina shell. The soft coquina walls absorbed the cannon shot from invaders, rather cracking them. At night, when the shelling stopped, the settlers would leave the fort, dig the cannon balls out of the walls and lob them back at the ships the next morning.

The lighthouse museum was our next stop, with heavy emphasis on World War Two and the story of the four Nazi spies that landed on the beach there. I loved the architecture of the lighthouse keeper’s home. Its brick basement is unusual for Florida and being so close to the shore, I was surprised it wasn’t flooded. The basement held two of the largest cisterns for rainwater that I’ve ever seen. Guess they didn’t like Ponce DeLeon’s water, either!

The afternoon was spent at the San Sebastian Winery. We bought a case. I also picked up a very cool cork remover that compresses so that you can recork the bottle. After the winery, we went shopping in the historic district, where I found a great clay urn that was perfect for the garden.

We finished the day with a lovely dinner overlooking the bayfront, then back to the hotel room for champagne and chocolate. A longer visit is in order for next time. There were a lot of sights we skipped, many museums we sighed over as we passed them by, and jazz and coffee bars left unexplored.

Key West, A Different World

Welcome to the Unique World Known as the Florida Keys and Discover them all, from Long Key to Key West

The key to the Florida Keys is to embrace diversity and adopt a laid-back, island attitude. The turquoise waters of the Caribbean are always close by and it is easy to find scenic stopping spots along the way, and the strictly enforced speed limits help to encourage a sudden urge to slow down and enjoy the scenery:

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Some Keys had small State Parks, some quite woodsy. I told my husband that I wanted to live on Boca Chica just because the name was so fun. Long Key State Park offers interesting mangrove estuaries, nice beaches, good swimming and fantastic campsites right on the beach.

We did eventually make it to Key West and, of course, the pilgrimage had to start at Sloppy Joes, Hemingway’s fishing guide and favorite bar keep. Restaurants and drinking establishments abound on Duvall and neighboring streets. Just remember that the “Duvall Crawl” may result in the “Hangover Shuffle”.

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We could not overlook the Hemingway House and were glad we took the time to tour the property. The descendants of Hemingway’s Maine Coon cats, unusual for their six-toed paws, were everywhere, very independent and keeping a cool distance unless they changed their minds. The home was elegantly furnished, right down to the Murano glass chandelier:

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I loved the other rooms, as well:

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In the spirit of freedom and independence, chickens and roosters roamed free in the town.

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The homes are incredible and much time was spent exploring and admiring the architecture from grand mansions to funky cottages to a community of houseboats:

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Charter boat trips to out islands are scenic and varied from sailing ships to catamarans to ferry rides. Make sure to book at least one excursion:

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The Island people take their independence very seriously, many still claiming allegiance to the Conch Republic, created in 1982 in protest to police blockades that threatened Civil Rights, along with tourism and trade. For a few hours, Key West did indeed secede from our nation, and their blue flag can be seen everywhere on the island.

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People here are social activists within the community, no matter which side of the coin they’re on:

Key West Trip #1

Key West’s “Official Philosophy” is on a bumper sticker that someone handed to me: “All People Are Created Equal Members Of ONE HUMAN FAMILY”. You can get one, too. Just send a self-addressed, stamped #10 (legal size) envelope to: One Human Family, P.O. Box 972, Key West, FL 33041 USA or go to their website: www.onehumanfamily.info

Key West 2007-Panorama

If planning a Florida vacation to Key West, my best advice is to pack sunscreen along with your clothes and don’t forget a loving heart and an open mind and, no matter what your personal preference, know that there is something for everyone here, from roadside art, all manner of water sports, and an immersion in maritime history, to enhance your island vacation in the Sunshine State!

The Seminole Reservation

No Trip to the Everglades Would be Complete Without a Visit to the Seminole Reservation

The Billie Swamp Safari on 41 offers about the same things as the Big Cypress Seminole reservation on I-75, but the airboat rides are cheaper and longer. I stopped at a roadside stand and bought some sugar cane juice to take home to my mother, a third generation Florida Cracker, who was under my care at a nursing home for dementia at the time. I also purchased a Seminole cornhusk doll, just like the ones she used to buy me when I was a little girl. She was very pleased with both surprises.

We saw numerous Chickee Chobees:

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Most Seminole homes have at least one in their yards. The fanciest shelters have are enclosed or at least screened, others are nothing more than four posts and a roof. These were available for rent for $35 per night, but that price may have changed. I was quite taken with the thatched roof:

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One of the guides (who informed my husband that I was a very cool lady, which I’ve been saying for years), explained the thatching process for me, so guess what one of my NEXT projects is? I’ve decided to make a chickee for Baby Blue, my 2003 Thunderbird, to park under. The first palm fronds are folded in half and then nailed to the pole frame:

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I spent many wonderful hours in the shops and highly recommend the AhTahThiKi (it means “a place to learn”) museum. I thought about buying a skirt pieced by the Seminole women, but paying $700 for a skirt just goes against the grain. Not that I don’t appreciate the hours of work that goes into such a piece, but I had my husband with me, making it hard to justify so I didn’t even try. I DID buy a ceremonial staff, with lots of beading and feathers and leather talismans. I intend to shake the rain out of the clouds. The saleswoman didn’t know how much to charge for shipping, so she said she’d mail it and I could send a check. I offered to pay for the staff, but she told me she trusted me.

Shopping on the reservation was like being a kid in a candy store. I bought some beautiful jewelry, lots of fun beaded things, and three books, one of poetry, another of the history of the Seminole and Miccosukee Indians, another book on their art.

My husband eventually dragged me out of the swamp and we headed south again, this time landing in Key Largo.

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Unfortunately, we didn’t get to explore the Gulf on the “It’s a Dive” scuba boat, but that just gives us a good excuse to make a return trip.

Next up? Key West, of course!

Alligators in the Everglades

I managed a few pictures that capture the vast area, but nothing really does it justice. I felt (and was) very small in the middle of acre upon acre of saw grass and mud flats and a few inches of water. We were 8 miles from where the ValueJet plane went down. The boat captain told us that some parts just got sucked right into the mud, never to be seen again. If I’d gotten out of the boat, the water would have been less than knee deep, but I would have sunk in up to my thighs.

Everglades Airboat Ride

Our boat captain teased the little alligator at the dock.

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Then he took us to meet Tiny. He knows Tiny is a female (sexing an alligator requires an internal exam) because there is a bigger gator in the same pond and if Tiny were male, the bigger alligator would have driven it off.

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This is the bigger gator:

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His name is Rambo.

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He’s been in a recent fight. His back leg is injured, but is healing. Scientists are quite interested in this ability to heal in fetid waters.

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The boat captain would hold out his hand and as the alligator rose its head up, the captain would rap his fingers on the top of its snout and the alligator would open it’s mouth.

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“Rambo’s” head was inches away from my knee when I snapped this picture. They seemed almost tame. I still don’t trust them, but I wasn’t afraid. See that black line that runs back from his eye? That’s his ear. Oh, and they hiss.

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It was kind of creepy the way they’d circle the boat.

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And then slip underneath.

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Only to appear again. This time in the front of the boat. I may have lost sight of them, but they never took their eyes off me. Not once.

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Florida is the only state where the American crocodile still exists. You can tell the difference between alligators and crocodiles by the shape of their snouts. The alligator’s snout is rounded while the crocodile’s snout is elongated. Neither one have tongues.

Most of the eggs in this alligator nest will be eaten by surrounding wildlife, some before hatching.

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Of those that make it, the eggs at the top of the mound will be male and at the bottom of the mound, the emerging baby gators will be female. Temperature decides the sex, the hotter the egg, male, the colder the egg, female. Sounds wrong, doesn’t it? Anyway, the baby gators still aren’t out of the woods, er, swamp, yet. Predatory birds, raccoons, other alligators, yes, even the one that fathered them (talk about life cycle!), pick off unwary babies. Mother gator does what she can for about a year. After that, it’s every gator for him/herself.

That attitude of independence seems to have bubbled over into all of South Florida’s denizens, as we were about to discover during our trip to Key West, but that’s another post for another day. Later, Gators!

An Airboat Ride in the Everglades

An Airboat Ride in the Everglades

When it comes to finding out-of-the-way corners in Florida, it doesn’t get much more secluded than the Everglades and the best way to find those spots is to treat yourself to an airboat ride. You’ll find numerous charter companies along the highway as you drive US 41, better known as the “Tamiami Trail” along the coastline south of Naples, but I suggest you curve inland, where the highway becomes known as “Alligator Alley”, cutting through Big Cypress National Preserve and Everglades National Park, and catching your ride at the Seminole reservation for a more authentic experience.

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The airboats are fascinating. We rode in a flat bottom boat, a skiff that had two rows of seats bolted to the bottom. Behind the seats, the boat captain sat on an elevated seat. The engine was located beneath his seat and it ran a huge caged fan directly behind the captain.

Airboat #2

I’m not much of a dare devil, but wasn’t nervous about riding in the airboat, and truly, it was no different than skimming across the lake in a speed boat, except that it banked more sharply and the spray was quite high, adding to the excitement.

Skimming the Swamp

Since everything mechanical is located above the waterline, the boat can glide along on mere inches of water, a good thing when drought conditions hit the area hard. I was amazed at some of the places we made it through, such as this narrow passageway!

Airboat Ride

Walking Trees

Notice the waterline on the Mangrove roots below. When the fresh water dries up, salt water moves in. Mangroves (those are Red Mangroves, to be precise) get rid of the excess salt in their diet through the leaves, turning them yellow in the process.

Mangroves

The Seminoles called them “Walking Trees”. Mangroves regenerate by dropping their green pods (actually long seeds with roots on the bottom and a fully formed, tiny mangrove at the top) in the water below and the pods are carried away by the current. The seedpod is so perfectly balanced that it drops into the water in an upright position and remains that way as it is washed downstream. If it gets tipped over, it rights itself. When something finally stops it, the pod immediately roots, thus continuing the process. Easy to see how Indians would interpret this as “walking”!

Mangroves #2

I tried to capture the way the boat would bank real fast around the bends in the waterway and spray would rise up above my head, curving away back into the water, but all the pictures came out looking like I was just holding the camera wrong and the water’s spray just looks…well, not very interesting. I should take an online photography course on nature. There must be a trick in how to photograph those moments. Then again, how do you photograph touch? Like trying to make one sense do the job of the other. Still, I try. Mostly with words, though.