Monday, January 28, 2013

A junior high school reunion

January 26, 2013
North Fort Myers, Florida
Seminole Campground

I went to junior high in the upper peninsula of Michigan during the 1960s. My freshman year of high school, I moved to Crystal Lake, Illinois, and though we kept a summer home in Michigan, my relationships with my friends from Michigan changed as the years went by. About once a decade I was able to reconnect with my closest friend from that time, Dorothy, when she and I happened to be visiting the UP at the same time. Another friend, Kim, moved to Venice, Florida and I reconnected with her about ten years ago when she was visiting my step-sister in Tampa. Fast forward to the present and I received a message on Facebook from Dorothy that she and her husband, Billy Mac, would be at an Orlando convention in January. At the time, we were in the Bradenton area and I suggested that we meet halfway in Tampa. She surprised me by replying that she and Billy would drive to Bradenton Beach to see us and that way our other friend Kim could join us. The only catch was that I had moved from Bradenton to Fort Myers, but oh well.  We went ahead with our plans to reconnect at the Beach House in Bradenton Beach and arranged to pick up Kim in Venice for our little reunion.

It couldn’t have been a lovelier day—not a cloud in the sky and temps in the mid-70s with a gentle breeze.  We all enjoyed a very long lunch together overlooking the turquoise waters of the Gulf.  Billy Mac, known for his extroverted nature, kept Vic entertained with all kinds of stories while the girls and I tried to catch up on multiple decades of life happenings. Having never been to any high school reunion, I have to admit that there is a surreal quality to relating to each other like we are kids again while at the same time realizing we are all senior citizens now.

After lunch we all took a walk on the beach as we clearly were not ready for this day to end.  Dorothy  invited me to head up to Orlanda and go to Disney World with her. I wished I had taken her up on it as it would have been ultra fun to indulge my inner child in this way—maybe next year?

After about four hours, it was time to say adios for now.  Never easy for me to say my goodbyes, but about twenty years ago I learned an affirmation that always helps: I can say my hellos and goodbyes to people, places, things, and events. And so I can, but I am also very clear about the precious value of taking time to nurture all my friendships, new and old.

group shot

Friday, January 25, 2013

Island time: Daytripping at Sanibel and Captiva

January 25, 2013
North Fort Myers, Florida
Seminole Campground

One of the main reasons we are back in Florida again for the winter has to do with the lovely Gulf beaches and warm weather. Sanibel Island definitely stands out as one of our favorite spots because it has retained its quaint charm and still is known as one of the best shelling beaches in the world.  That combination is a big draw so we have learned that the best time to go there is well before noon on a weekday. 

sanibel map

This day trip involved heading to Bowman’s Beach, about eight miles from the Sanibel Causeway (an hour trip from our campground), with our friends Mike, BJ, Steve, and Diane. I feel like a little kid when I am getting ready to spend a day at the beach—packing cold drinks and snacks, sunscreen, beach chairs, something good to read, and an umbrella. Going to Sanibel also means being prepared for collecting shells. Sanibel is a unique barrier island because of its east-west orientation which results in great sandy beaches and an abundance of shells. I finally have my own shelling rake but forgot to bring it! Mine looks like this one, also called a sand flea rake, but it has not turned up any shells this large yet. Another popular rake is a lighter weight one made of plastic called the Susick Shell Sifter. In addition to a rake, it is helpful to carry a mesh bag that you can tie around your waist, and, if you are looking for shark’s teeth or small coquina shells, it's handy to have a small plastic container.

I am still a novice sheller, unlike Mike and BJ, who come fully equipped and head down the beach as soon as we arrive and may not be seen again for hours.

There are all kinds of tips and rules for shelling, the most important one is never keep a live shell.  The best times for shelling are an hour before or after low tide, after a big storm, or during a new or full moon. I usually prepare to get wet by walking 2-3 feet inside the surf line looking for a ledge where many shells get trapped.  If the water is calm and clear, it is pretty easy to see larger shells like conches or sand dollars two to three feet underwater. The water temperature was only about 70 degrees so I wasn’t too anxious to actually swim, but by March the water should be closer to 75 degrees—warm enough to try snorkeling for shells.

Aside from looking for shells, I spent a fair amount of time looking for photo opportunities with my new Nikon Coolpix P510 camera. It wasn't the most interesting day for photography at the beach, but I found a few images that caught my attention.

We arrived early enough to have our pick of spots on the beach for our chairs and umbrella. I thought I might read my book there, but like usual, I spent most of my time looking for shells.  I found two perfect conch shells, but both of them were alive so they went back to the sea. I think we arrived an hour after high tide which might account for the slim pickings of special shells.

After about three hours of beach time here, we decided to check out Captiva Island as none of us had ever been there. The only way you can get to Captiva by car is to continue about six miles north on Sanibel-Captiva Drive.  Be prepared for a drive lined with multi-million dollar homes on either side—lots of oohs and aahs emanated from the car as we drove past decadent mansions. We continued until we reached the only beach access with parking—Captiva Beach at the end of the island. By now, this place was crowded. We had to wait for someone to leave a parking spot before we could park, but fortunately, it only took about five minutes for something to open up. Not sure what to expect, we found this beach a little less alluring than Bowman’s. It is pretty small and it seemed like there were even fewer shells—maybe because there were more people. The best part of the beach for me was watching this Great Blue Heron fishing on the shore.

blue heron in surf

I also spied this osprey nest off in the distance.

And, of course, I was captivated by watching these Sandpipers scurrying along the shore.

We only spent an hour here as we had plans to stop for a late lunch at the famous Bubble Room on Captiva (a place my mother told me about years ago). The whole restaurant is decorated with bubble lights and other memorabilia from simpler times.  The food was decent, but not great, except for their famous desserts. We all opted to share three pieces of the four layer white chocolate coconut cake and it did not disappoint.  The obvious draw to this place is the desserts and décor.  It was a great way to wrap up a lovely day exploring Sanibel and Captiva beaches.  I leave you with a Bubble Room collage.

bubble room collage

Thursday, January 24, 2013

A short side trip to Manatee Park

January 23, 2013
North Fort Myers
Seminole Campground

Last year when we were in this park, I kept hearing about people going to see the Manatees at the local power plant—especially when there was a “cold front” in the area.  I didn't realize that there was an actual park next to the power plant specifically created for viewing and learning about this endangered species. Manatee Park also happens to be less than five miles from us, so it makes a perfect afternoon adventure. 

We happened to have a bit of a cold spell here with temps at night in the low 50s and daytime highs in the low 70s (sorry to all those up north braving below freezing temps). I learned that the manatees head to the warm waters in the power plant discharge canal when the water temperature in the Gulf and rivers drops below 68 degrees. There is no charge for visiting this pretty little 17 acre park that overlooks not only the power plant canal, but there is also a boardwalk that leads to a viewing area on the Orange River. Lee County Parks and Rec has done a great job of creating native plant habitats and a variety of access points for watching the manatees in this natural sanctuary.

Even though manatees are often called “sea cows” their closet relative is actually an elephant.  They are mainly herbivores spending most of their day eating 5-10% of their 800-1000 lbs. of body weight. Because they are warm-blooded mammals, they need to come up for air and do so every 4-5 minutes. When they sleep on the bottom, they only have to come up for air every 20 minutes or so. The big challenge in trying to get a good photo of them is to predict when they are going to come up for a short breath at the surface. I have a new camera and need to learn how to increase the shutter speed as I missed most of the great shots!

Someone at the park told me there are places about four hours north of here in Crystal River where you can actually swim with the manatees. I inadvertently did so years ago when I was snorkeling near the mangroves in the Keys. Boy did that scare me when a half ton manatee rolled over next to me.  Vic and I also had a surprise in our kayaks coming in to the boat launch area at Sombrero Beach in the Keys. We were gliding right over a small herd of manatees. The sad thing is that even though they are a protected species, their number one enemy is boats—obviously ones with motors.  We must have seen somewhere between thirty and fifty manatees at this park—pretty amazing considering there are only about 2000 in all of Florida. 

As I mentioned in an earlier post, there is a canoe and kayak launch area in Manatee Park that leads down the Orange River. They rent kayaks there, but you can launch your own boats too. There are alligators on the river as well as lots of other wildlife, so it looks like it would be a great place to explore by kayak. stay tuned for some kayaking adventures. . . .

Sunday, January 20, 2013

To market, to market, to buy a fat clam

January 19, 2013
North Fort Meyers, Florida
Seminole Campground

No matter where we have traveled in the world, I love to check out the local farmer’s markets.  So it was an easy “yes” when our friends Mike and BJ asked us if we wanted to venture out with them to one of the local markets in Cape Coral—about 20 minutes away.

To make the day even more special, we started out by joining them for a hearty breakfast at the Perfect Cup Roastery and Café in Matlacha (mat’-lah-shay), a cute little artisan town on Pine Island—also about 20 minutes away. The café roasts their own coffee and offers several types of brew for customers to serve themselves. Their breakfast menu includes a variety of homemade specials like crab benedict, corned beef hash, kielbasa omelets and Greek specialties.  Great way to start the day. 

As we were leaving the café, we spotted these birds hanging out by the back parking lot of the café.

The market in Cape Coral is open every Saturday from 8-1 and is located at the Club Square in the downtown area. We were pleasantly pleased with the variety of goods for sale including local produce, bakery, fresh flowers and plants, dog treats, seafood, meats, and even a few tables with antiques and other chotskies. This market also allows pets so there was no shortage of cute pooches to look at as part of the morning entertainment.

Vic couldn’t resist saying hello to this little blue and brown eyed Australian Shepherd puppy who was soft as a lamb.

One type of plant that is often for sale at Florida markets is these air plants, also known as epiphytes.  They don’t require any soil, need very little water, and can survive temps ranging from 32-100 degrees. Because they don’t need soil, you see them in all kinds of unique containers ranging from teacups to driftwood. The ones pictured below are large but they can be small enough to fit in a small shell.

I always look for things that are local to the area. These beautiful seagrass baskets were handmade by local artisans. I am thinking about making a return trip to buy one to adorn our picnic table.

Another local flavor here was the smell of seafood cooking as you entered the market. This crab cake stand had a long line of devoted customers.

I am not sure about the Transylvania connection here, but seeing Transylvanian food offered at a market in the United States was a first for me.

We arrived back at the campground around noon with a few dollars left in our pockets. I couldn't pass up the homemade dog treats, locally grown cantaloupe, Florida sweet onions, and some zucchini. It is probably a wise practice to go the market after having a big breakfast!  I was tempted by the fresh clams but I am rather spoiled by the amazing clams from the Northwest. It did, however, inspire me to make a big pot of clam chowder for a potluck meal that night with our friends.  A good way to end our first Saturday in our new locale.

Friday, January 18, 2013

An early move south to Fort Myers

January 16-18, 2013
North Ft. Myers, Florida
Seminole Campground

Our plan was to be at Buttonwood Inlet RV Resort for the month of January, but, due to unforeseen circumstances, we moved south sooner than planned. As I am learning from more experienced full-timers, the best plans for living a life on the road are ones made in jello. The plus side of things is that the site we had reserved for the months of February and March at Seminole Campground in North Fort Myers was available two weeks early. 

We stayed at Seminole last year and enjoyed its old Florida campground feel (read: no park models and open campfires), plus we have four friends whom we met last year that are also staying here through March. They were quite the welcoming committee when we arrived. Within a couple hours, we were catching up on our travel adventures and enjoying dinner together on their patio.

The second day after our arrival, we all piled into Steve and Diane’s car (that seats six) to go to the Florida RV Super Show in Tampa. With a two hour drive each way and a long day of checking out all the goodies and motorhomes at the show, we decided to board the dogs at Aas Von Tente’s, a local kennel that we had checked out last year owned by a wonderful German couple. This is the first time we have ever left them overnight!  It turned out that we arrived back early enough that they would have been fine in our motorhome but we both agreed it was a good idea to do this one day trial.  It is amazing how much we are conditioned to having them in our lives as it felt really strange to come home to a quiet motorhome and no dogs to walk, feed, and—most importantly—snuggle with.

The show itself, billed as one of the largest in the nation, could easily take two days to see. We focused on checking out two huge arenas filled with all kinds of booths selling RV related items or promoting various resorts. We signed up for lots of potential prizes, so I expect we will be receiving all kinds of e-mail promotions in the weeks ahead.  Of course we fell for some things that were not in our plans—for me, an expensive set of orthotics to help with my high arch issues, and for Vic, a few little “necessities” from the Camping World booth.  The good news is we were not too enchanted with the latest motorhomes. The expensive ones were too blingy and ones similar to our Phaeton seemed like they had degraded in quality in terms of the upholstery and cabinet work. The Big EZ still suits us just fine.  “Whew,” says Vic. . . .

prevost motorhome at rv supershow

A big transition for me at this location is not having the great Zumba classes I found in Bradenton. This park, however, does offer lots of activities. On Mon, Wed, and Fri they have an aerobics class that follows Leslie Sansone’s Three Fast Miles DVD. I thought it would be boring but the 45-minute power walking goes by quickly and is a decent workout. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, they have a Zumba class using Wii fitness. Not my first choice, but it’s free and I don’t have to drive anywhere. I am still committed to finding a nearby location for live Zumba. 

January-March is the high season for this area, and, as a result, there are all kinds of festivals every weekend.  I am already filling in my calendar with plans to attend the Fort Myers Artfest, the Buckingham Bluesfest, and the Mullet Toss on Pine Island. We are also in a great kayaking area.  Last year when we were here we did not have kayaks, so there are all new water possibilities to explore. The two rivers right near our park, the Caloosahatchee River and the Orange River, are supposed to be great for kayaking. Yesterday someone also told me Koreshan State Park near Estero is another popular place to kayak as the water trail takes you out to the Gulf of Mexico.

Going to the beach here is more of a day trip as the best beaches on the Gulf are about twenty miles away, but with traffic it takes about 45 minutes. My goal is to head to the beach at least once a week and I will be happy. I am also looking forward to having down time, days to hang out by the pool and read or play cards with our friends.  Sometimes I have to remind myself that retirement includes slowing down rather than go, go, go all the time. (Okay, more than sometimes. . . .)

The weather here has been ideal: daytime highs in the 70s, nighttime lows in the 50s, with humidity in the 30-40% range.  I was commenting to someone that this weather reminds me of the best summer days in Oregon. It is predicted to be a bit warmer in the next few days with highs in the 80s—still pretty comfortable since the humidity is low.  The water in the park pool is kept between 82-86 degrees which still feels slightly refreshing but easy to wade into.  No complaints from me.  Vic thinks the water needs to be hovering near 90 to entice him. I think it’s a guy thing.

If our plans stay the same, this will be the longest we will have stayed in one place since beginning our full-time adventure.  It sure is great on the fuel bill, but we are looking forward to seeing new places this spring on our way back to the Northwest. In the meantime, I have to remind myself (on a daily basis!) to Be Here Now.  Thank you Baba Ram Dass for that piece of wisdom.  Ciao.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Checking out Robinson Preserve

January 15-16
Cortez, Florida
Buttonwood Inlet RV Resort

We met a couple in the park who bike nearly everyday to Robinson Preserve, a coastal park that just opened to the public in 2008. This 487 acre preserve is just a few miles west of downtown Bradenton or eight miles north of us in Cortez. The preserve has a kayak and canoe launch, a 50’ observation tower, 2.5 miles of paved trails for biking, and more than 5 miles of shell and coastal trails for hiking.  Surprisingly, to us, dogs are allowed on leashes on all the trails.

The afternoon we visited the preserve we didn't have a lot of time to hike the trails; we were just scouting the place out for future adventure possibilities. The park is free and seems to be especially popular for jogging and biking. The main visitor’s center was closed but sure is a welcoming structure. This building was originally the Valentine homestead built in the late 1800s in nearby Palmetto. The home was in danger of being demolished in its original location, so the owners, in an effort to preserve the history of the place, donated it to Manatee County and the house was transported on a barge down the Manatee River to its current location at Robinson. It then took two years of painstaking restoration to bring the home back to recreate the historical features of the home. Inside the center, visitors can learn more about pioneering life in the Palma Sola area, watch a live view from the observation tower’s camera, and see a 300 gallon mangrove habitat with live creatures. The hours of operation for the visitor’s center are 9-4 on Saturday and Sunday and it looks like it is open from 8:30-12:30 Wed-Fri, but better to check first.

The kayak/canoe launch is right near the entrance to the preserve. It winds through a mangrove inlet to the Manatee County Blueways Trail which connects to the Manatee River, Perico Bayou, and Palma Sola Bay. According to their trail guide, “a 5-mile roundtrip adventure would start at the launch and meander through the preserve to Palma Sola Bay and back.”

Just a short distance away from the launch site is the biking trail which leads to the observation tower.  There are a few places along the way that even allow fishing (which surprised me considering that it is a preserve, but it is all catch and release) or you might just want to take a rest on a bench and enjoy the peaceful setting. 

A short distance down the trail you can see the observation tower.  We didn't get that far on our exploration of the park, but I think it would provide a good view of the various ecosystems-- waterways, marshlands and uplands--and wildlife in the area.  Rumor has it that there are small beach areas along the trails with benches and picnic tables with a great view of the Skyway Bridge and St. Petersburg.

We were able to see the osprey nest that is well known in the park. It looks like there is a baby there, but I am not sure if it is a young osprey or the female.

We both agreed this place is a real gem and one we would like to explore by foot, bike, and kayak.  Another great bonus is that on your way out of the preserve, there is a great little farm selling amazing fresh produce that is mostly grown on the grounds (and the prices sure beat the local markets.)  There is also another attraction to visit nearby: the Palma Sola Botanical Park. We didn't know about the botanical gardens, but there you can visit ten acres of tranquil gardens with three lakes for free—and dogs on leash are welcome! 

I am closing with a photo I took earlier in the day at the beach (the same goes for the opening photo).  I just love the shorebirds on the Gulf. For some weird reason, this Tern reminds me our our dog Rico.