Friday, January 25, 2013

gulf wildlife

drawbridge between islands

out of the gate

race to the finish line

Honeymoon Island beach

Canadian/American snowbirder flag
This week we started out by taking the Suncoast Trolley from Clearwater along the barrier islands of Clearwater Beach down to St. Petersburg Beach.  At some points you can see the Gulf on one side and the Intracoastal Waterway on the other.  At the wider parts there are houses and hotels as well as businesses.  It is a beautiful area, a place we would like to return to sometime for a springtime beach vacation.  We stopped at a shopping area called John’s Pass to eat lunch on the boardwalk.  We are still surprised at how less crowded the beach areas are in Florida compared to what we are used to in California, even in winter. 
Later in the week we went to Tampa Bay Downs to see the thoroughbred racing.  The horses were beautiful and fun to watch.  I didn’t do too well at picking winners though, oh well.  We also went out to the beach on Honeymoon Island.  It’s a beautiful island you drive to over a causeway, and then you can drive right onto the beach.  All we needed is a kayak.  Today we drove south to our next stop in Punta Gorda.  The RV park here has a dock in the back where you can launch a boat or kayak into a waterway that leads to the harbor and then into the gulf.  Its warmer here too, beach weather.

Friday, January 18, 2013

sponge shops

sponge boats

Howard Beach

beautiful skies


stacked boat storage

We enjoyed the warm weather here, mid 80s, for the first part of the week.  We went to a nice beach that was on a small barrier island on Saturday.  Then we walked around the small town of Tarpon Springs that is known as the “sponge capital of the world”.  The docks are called the sponge docks because sailors go out from there to harvest sponges that grow in the Gulf of Mexico.  The community was settled in the early 1900s by Greeks that were skilled sponge divers.  There are many shops that sell sponges that were brought in and processed (trimmed and cleaned) there.  We returned on Tuesday to take a two hour cruise on a tour boat that goes out into the bay.  We docked on a small island where we could collect shells that wash up on the sand; I got a bag full.  Then we went out a bit farther and saw dolphins swimming all around us.  After we docked, we ate gyros at one of the many Greek restaurants along the waterfront. 
On Wednesday we went into Tampa to an inlet where the power company has a manatee viewing center.  The manatees congregate there in winter because the water is warmer there by the power plant.  But since it has been so warm, most of the manatees were out in the bay, so we only saw a couple of them.  Then we went to the Florida State Fairgrounds for the biggest RV show in the country.  We looked at a few of the 1,100 RVs, but mostly went to get info about campgrounds and RV accessories. 
The weather changed dramatically on Thursday, ruining my plans to lounge on the patio and read.  The temperature dropped about 25 degrees and there were some fairly strong winds.  But that was forecast, that’s why we did the ocean stuff earlier in the week.  Instead we did some shopping and I saw “Life of Pi” since I’d read it in book club.  Usually I like books better than the movies of them, but in this instance I think the transition to screen was great, it made for a visually stunning movie.
A nice thing about Florida this time of year is that it is full of seniors that make me feel young in comparison, haha.  Also there are lots of activities geared to the retired crowd.  We went to a free jazz concert put on by retired musicians that get together to perform because they love to.  They were excellent.  We decided to stay here for another week.  It’s a great place to relax and enjoy the winter, and there are a couple more things we want to do here.  Till next week….

Friday, January 11, 2013

Historic Pensacola museum

We took it a little slower this week in Florida.  There were two very nice places we visited in Pensacola.  First was the Historic Pensacola area that had preserved and/or restored buildings as well as museums about the area’s heritage.  We learned that Pensacola is also known as the “five flags city” because it has been ruled by Spain, France, England, the Confederacy, and the USA.  The area is run by the University of West Florida, and they have done an admirable job of putting everything together. 
The other major attraction for Pensacola is the Naval Air Museum on the Navy base there.  It is their main one in the country, with over 150 planes displayed.  That is the base where Naval aviators train now; my friend Fran has a son who was stationed there for training a few years ago. We also went down to Pensacola Beach, with its beautiful white sands, and had some gulf seafood there.  Pensacola claims to have 340 days of sunshine per year, but we only got one of them (luckily it was our beach day).  So we moved on to Tallahassee, which wasn’t sunny either.  But they do have an excellent Museum of Florida History.  Chuck commented about Florida that he now realizes he was raised “tree deprived” in California.  Everywhere in this area is wooded, which makes the driving much more enjoyable.
A couple more reflections from the road.  We love Skype and Facetime to keep up with the growing grandkids.  The pace we’ve been going has been nice, allowing us to see each area well without getting too road weary.  We joke that as soon as we get to know our way around the area, it’s time to move on.  Also, you meet lots of interesting and nice people in RV parks.  We met a British couple that was doing a two year tour of the US, and a man who didn’t have an answer to where he was from because he’s been traveling for 20 years.  So we’re still novices I guess.  Now we are in Port Richey, just north of Tampa.  It’s sunny and warm here; mid 80’s today and warm this evening.  So this area has lots of “snowbirders” that come from the northeast and Canada.  License plates around us are from Nova Scotia, Quebec, Ontario (not Ontario, California, haha), Michigan, Pennsylvania, etc.  But one lesson learned: never take recommendations for Mexican restaurants from people that aren’t from California or Arizona.  We’ve decided that maybe we should stick to Taco Bell until we get out west again.  Till next week….hope all is well with everyone.
Old Pensacola home

Historic, but I don't qualify

Naval Air Museum, big plane

Pensacola Beach

Naval Museum, fast plane

Friday, January 4, 2013

Two more reasons to love Louisiana: the food and the music.  For me, it’s especially the music – I love the blues and jazz, but the food is sometimes more spicy than I like.  We arrived at New Orleans on Saturday and drove through the French Quarter so Chuck could see what I’ve been talking about (I’ve been before).  It’s certainly not the Disneyland version, not clean or new.  But the real place is fascinating, from the old buildings, the narrow streets, and the people.  It’s not a great place to drive, and finding parking takes a miracle.  So we went back the next day by parking at the end of the street car line and taking that into town.  The street cars are classic, and they go through areas like the Garden District that is full of beautiful homes.  Then we walked around the French Quarter.  There are street musicians throughout the quarter to enjoy.  We also walked through the French Market, one of the oldest marketplaces in the country. It is full of vendors of food and merchandise.  The “shop till you drop” applied more to my feet than my wallet, but it was lots of fun. 
The next day we drove to the other side of the Mississippi River, up the River Road that is also known as Plantation Alley.  We toured the Oak Alley Plantation that has 28 oak trees that are 300 years old and form an arch up the walkway.  In the early 1800’s, it had 100 slaves working in the sugar cane fields and another 20 as domestic help.  That night, New Year’s Eve, there were fireworks going off all over the city all evening.  It was quite a sight.
New Year’s Day we drove by the historic above ground cemetery with its massive tombs.  There are many cemeteries like this; at one point on the I-10 you can see one on each side of the highway.  We also drove through the lower ninth ward, one of the areas hardest hit by Hurricane Katrina in ‘05.  Although there is much rebuilding done, there are still lots of abandoned homes and destroyed buildings.  The area continues to be one of the poorest areas in the US.  We passed through there on the way to the Chalmette Battlefield and National Cemetery (two cemeteries in one day).  This was the site of the Battle of New Orleans, the final major battle of the War of 1812.  The cemetery has 15,000 graves that are mostly from the Civil War.  Over 6,000 of them are unidentified soldiers marked with just a number.  When we drove back through town, we got lucky enough to find a parking place, so we walked around the French Quarter again.  This time we ate at a PoBoy shop, and I had an alligator sandwich!  Chuck was too chicken to even try it even though I assured him it tastes just like chicken, only a bit more chewy. 
French Quarter

street musicians

French Quarter

New Orleans street cars

Chalmette National Cemetery

Oak Alley Plantation

Mississippi River boat & cruise ship

Spotted Cat Music Club
Our last day in New Orleans was especially fun.  We went on the Natchez Riverboat jazz lunch cruise.  We learned a lot about the Mississippi River, like that 2/3 of the US water drains there, from 31 states.  We also had a good lunch of southern foods such as fish, gumbo, red beans & rice, okra, and bread pudding.  After that, we walked again through the French Quarter over to Frenchmen Street where we’d heard the best jazz clubs are.  For the cost of two drinks (Diet Coke of course) we were treated to a set of .jazz with a lead singer that was reminiscent of Billie Holiday.  Wonderful end to a great week.  Today we drove through the gulf coast sections of Mississippi, Alabama, and into Florida, all in about 200 miles of driving.  So now we begin Florida adventures.