April 27, 2011

4/25/11 - De Soto NM

American History was a long, long time ago.  (Hmm…I guess that’s a pretty good definition of “history”, isn’t it?)  Well, as I was saying, I remembered de Soto, sort of, but I couldn’t have told you where he explored.  He was Spanish—I remember that, as if the name wasn’t a dead give-away.
The De Soto National Memorial is in Bradenton, FL, where the Manatee River, Tampa Bay and the Gulf of Mexico can all be seen.  Once again, our timing was bad:  there’s a really cool replica camp set up where costumed interpreters do demonstrations of the weapons and give talks about the expedition.  The last reproduction was the weekend before we were there…
There’s a huge gumbo limbo tree near the monument 400-year.  Gumbo limbo.  Isn’t that a cool name?  I don’t know whether you’re supposed to eat it or dance under it!
At the Visitors Center we watched a video about Hernando de Soto and his expedition of 1539.  The conquistadors were not nice people, especially those who were in search of gold which they were sure the natives knew about. 
There were conquistador artifacts, and really knowledgeable volunteers to answer the myriad of questions I had.  My favorite was the section where they had dress-up armor for kids to try on.  I tried it on.  J
Just outside the back door is the start of the Memorial Trail.  It’s a self-guided nature trail, with numbered posts that correspond to descriptions of plants on the brochure.  They have life-sized photograph placards of the conquistadors and natives along the trail, so you can get a glimpse of the living history players—you know, the one we missed.
I saw my first mangrove forest there! We learned about 3 different kinds of mangroves (they come in red, black and white); strangler figs and Sea Grapes, as well as other trees and plants along the way.  Sea Grapes have big leathery leaves, and de Soto’s men used them for playing cards.  Until the postal regulations changed, tourists wrote on the leaves and mailed them as post cards! 
Before we left, we cleaned the lovebugs off the front of the truck.  They're black bugs with a red patch just behind their heads.  It's mating season, and after mating they remain coupled for 3-4 days, flying slowly around together, and becoming a major nuisance!  They congregate in masses alongside the roads and swarm in such numbers they can totally clog a car's radiator, so you have to be careful.  Their body chemistry is acidic and if they're not removed immediately they can pit the paint on the car.  They don't bite, but they're still a pain when you sit outside.
 Link to more pictures:  DeSoto NM

April 20, 2011

4/16/11 – Disney World

Although we were staying at a 1000 Trails/Encore resort in Clermont, we weren’t planning to go to Disney World.  George hadn’t enjoyed Disneyland—the crowds were impossible when we were there in December and it certainly wasn’t the Disneyland I remembered.
Turned out our “next-door neighbors” at the RV park had both retired from Disney World.  In fact, Sally had played the Mickey Mouse character.   When she heard that we’d never been there, she asked George if we’d like a day pass to Disney World.  He waited until I got home from shopping to ask me.  (Well, duh! Are you kidding????)
She suggested we’d like Epcot because it’s more relaxed than Magic Kingdom, but said we should go there on the monorail to see how much bigger Cinderella’s castle is than Sleeping Beauty’s castle in California.  (Wow!  It really is…)
Turned out that HGTV International Flower & Garden Festival was going on, so there were special floral exhibits all over the place.  There were lots of topiaries of the Disney characters too.  I liked it that they weren’t all together in one exhibition, but placed all over the place.  You’d come around a corner and there’d be topiaries of Cinderella or Mickey Mouse.  Lots of wonderful fragrant plants too.  I loved it! 
 We did like Epcot. The atmosphere is quieter, not so crowded and rushed.  Maybe because it’s not so focused on all the rides, or maybe because the International Pavilions seem designed more for adult interests than for children.  George wasn’t as happy with the Circle-Vision movies as I was.  I'd loved the old Bell Telephone "America the Beautiful" exhibit from Disneyland’s Tomorrowland back in the 60's; he got a little queasy­ watching 360 degrees of action. 
It was fun but by the end of the day, I was totally exhausted!  Apparently old ladies get as worn out there as small children do.  I honestly can’t imagine going back several days in a row with little kids!

Link to more pictures at Epcot:  Disney World 
Link to more garden & topiary pictures:  Flowers & Topiaries 

April 12, 2011

4/9/11 - Manatee SP

Manatee Springs State Park is near Chiefland, and home to home of Florida’s largest freshwater springs.  Named after the West Indian Manatees that winter there, I really hoped to see them—but the ranger said we missed them by about 2 weeks!  That seems to be SOP on the trip, either a week or two early or late for the local hot spots.
The springs is a first magnitude spring—that means it discharges at least 65 million gallons a day.  That’s a whole lot of water as far as I’m concerned.  The temperature is 72 degrees year round, which is why the Manatees like it.  It’s an amazing color, almost turquoise.  It was Saturday, and there were a lot of campers, adults and kids playing in the water. 
We crossed the bridge and went a little ways on the North Trail.  It wasn’t very interesting, sometimes hard to even see where the trail was going, so we turned around.  I did like the fungus that looked like oysters though.
We followed the boardwalk through the cypress swamp along the spring outlet, down to the Suwannee River (that’s the Swanee River Stephen Foster made famous in the “Old Folks at Home” song).  The mullet were running (that’s a kind of fish that jumps a lot) but I could hardly see them.  The colorful mini-kayaks were more fun than fish anyway.
At the end of the boardwalk was a fishing pier.  We hung around there for awhile, just watching the activity on the river.  Didn’t see any manatees; didn’t see any alligators; didn’t see any gulf sturgeon.  It wasn’t a bust—there were a whole bunch of turtles floating in the green gunk.  Not sure if the stuff was moss or algae, but it was in great clumps all around the pier.  The turtles would come up under it, and it would drape their shells.  Looked awful...
I really wanted to see a Manatee!

April 11, 2011

4/8/11 – Lower Suwannee NWR

We decided to go out for dinner then first night we stayed at Old Town Campground.  It was a Thursday evening, and around 6:30 when we drove to Old Town.  Hmmm….only one place seemed to be open and it was in the process of closing.  We turned around and went back the other direction—found a tavern.  I asked the waitress if they served tourists—then when George said we were from Seattle, she called him a “yankee”!  Turned out they didn’t serve food, so we headed on up the road.  Found a little diner and had good food for little money, and lots of good conversation with the owners.
The next day we drove to Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuge, which is managed by the US Fish & Wildlife Service.  We went to the Headquarters first—I think we were the first visitors in weeks.  Not a lot of traffic to this particular place…  We talked to the ranger quite awhile about our trip.
First sent us over to walk the River Trail, and the Boardwalk across the swamp.  I found some pretty cool wildflowers, and wild indigo. 

 Next we explored the Lower Suwannee Nature Drive, a nine-mile loop.  A Great Egret was stalking lunch along the roadside, but flew off when we got closer.  Some funky little crabs scuttled across the road in front of us.  Of course, I had to get out of the truck to check them out...
When the road circled back to CR #347, we drove south, then west to Shell Mound.  There’s a mile long loop trail around and up on to the 28’ tall mound, and a big fishing pier right on the Gulf.  The mound is a 5 acre midden of millions of shells used by ancient cultures.  Talk about a long-term garbage pile!
There’s a fishing pier out across the salt marshes, right on the Gulf, where you can watch the wading birds watch the fish.
After we left there we drove across the causeway to Cedar Key.  Cedar Key itself is quaint little town, famous for the oysters they raise.  Ten islands make up Cedar Key NWR, but you can’t get there without a boat.  We walked around town for awhile, then stopped for dinner.  I didn’t realize that George had never had oysters before—he was game, but he didn’t like them!  We saw dolphins playing out in the water; the window was greasy from fingerprints of everyone pointing at them all day long! 

More pictures of the day:  Lower Suwannee NWR 

April 6, 2011

4/5/11 – Panama City FL during spring break

Oh, come now—you don’t really think you’re going to get spring break pictures from me, do you??? 
We stayed at a nice little RV park just outside of Fountain, FL, miles and miles from everywhere.  It’s in the Florida panhandle, and 25 or so miles from Panama City.  I wanted to walk on the beach, so we headed south.  Yes, we’d seen the signs at businesses welcoming Spring Breakers, but it didn’t really register until we got to Beachfront Drive.  We were definitely too old for that crowd!

It was a cool day.  The sun was shining, but the temperatures really didn’t warrant bikinis—at least not unless you’re 19.  There were hundreds of kids—walking, riding on scooters, on the beach.  We were definitely outnumbered.  We headed inland, then south.  All I wanted was a beach to walk on…
We ended up at Camp Helen State Park.  It was right on the Gulf and next to Lake Powell, a coastal dunes lake.  It had been a summer home in the 1930s, then an Alabaman textile mill’s summer camp for employee families, and finally purchased in 1996 by the state.  Better than being another site.  They’ve left the old lodge, “rainbow cabins” and other outbuildings in place. 
There are hiking trails too, but all I wanted was to walk on the beach. 

Pictures from the park and beach:  Panama City & Camp Helen

April 3, 2011

4/1/11 – Fontainebleau SP

This is the day that we didn’t go to the French Quarter in New Orleans.  George was being persnickity and didn’t think it was safe unless we went on a tour bus.  He didn’t want to park the truck anywhere downtown NO.  I made the mistake of selecting an RV park on the north shore rather than in New Orleans proper, so no handy-dandy tours were available.  NEXT TIME we’ll stay at Lake Pontchartraine RV, which has their own buses to take you downtown.
Anyway, rather than spending the day at the trailer in a pique I found a state park on our side of the lake.  It was built at the site of an old plantation, but the only thing still remaining from that period is the old sugar mill.  Exhibits at the Visitor Center explain about the history of the plantation, sugar mill and the owner.
The remains of the sugar mill are right outside the Visitor Center—just a couple of tall chimneys and a few brick walls fenced in so you can’t wander around the crumbling brick.  Everything is leaning precariously, but it’s still amazing that anything is left after 150 years of neglect.
We decided to take the Alligator Marsh Boardwalk trail through the sweetgum and cypress trees.  Wildflowers are starting to bloom, but you have to hunt hard to find them.  There are 2 boardwalks when you get to the end, so you can look for fish and alligators and waterfowl.  We found a baby alligator floating in the gunk (semi-technical word for moss and algae that makes the water a mess). 

We checked out the rest of the park after the hike.  They’ve got a lot of camping sites, and down by the lake is a fishing pier and a big pavillion.  No wonder this is the busiest state park in Louisiana.

To see the baby alligator and more park pictures, click here:  Fontainebleau SP