Monday, February 4, 2013

Back Home

We left the Fort Lauderdale Travelodge around 5:30 am to get to the Fort Lauderdale/Hollywood Airport.  When we arrived last week, the flight crew advised us to arrive at the airport at least two hours in advance of our return flight since the check in process takes a while at that airport.  We returned the rental car at Enterprise by 6 am and made our way to the Allegiant desk.  We learned that Allegiant Air doesn't check passengers in before two hours prior to departure.  We waited until 7 am and checked in with no problems.  The rates of about $50 for the flight is excellent but Allegiant is certainly no frills.  

After checking in we made our way to security.  We couldn't believe the line!  People were lined up across the street then winding around before the TSA checkpoint.  It took about an hour to get through the process and put us at our gate well in time for our flight.

As with our flight to Florida last week, our flight had few. if any, vacant seats.  I am certain that Allegiant has to keep their jets filled.  There was a crying baby early on but it didn't last long.  We all took a snooze on the flight. 

We arrived at Huntington TriState Airport around 11 am.  Mary picked up our checked bag while I got the van out of parking.  Going out in the cold and snow after our week in the warmth and sunshine was a shock.  We made a quick stop at Kroger for groceries then came home to get ready for the week ahead.
We had an excellent week in Florida and think that we spread our time well.  We liked the Key West area but wouldn't have wanted to spend more than a couple of days there.  If would have had more time in the Keys, we would have spent a day at the Dry Tortugas National Park.  It is a long ferry ride but we understand that the island is beautiful and has some interesting historical locations at Fort Jefferson.
It is not surprising that we enjoyed the Everglades more than any other part of our vacation.  The Anhinga Trail and the trails at Shark Valley were both excellent places to walk and photograph alligators and birds from literally inches away.  Our day at the Gulf Coast Visitor Center at Everglades City was also excellent since is showed a very different part of Everglades National Park.  We tend to enjoy nature and history oriented vacations rather than sitting on a beach for a week.  This week was a good mix of things to do.

View Larger Map

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Last day of winter 2013 vacation

All good things must come to an end and our vacation has been very good.
We left the Florida City Travelodge around 9 am. When we checked out, I chatted with the motel owner, Mr. Patel, who said that he would give us a free room upgrade if we return there in the future. We may just do that since we really liked the location and the rooms were very quiet, clean and comfortable. The rates were about half what we were paying for a room on Key West. Granted lodging is more expensive on Key West but in Florida City we had a great hot breakfast that was included.
We drove up through Miami which was hectic driving even on Sunday morning. I can't imagine what driving would be like on a weekday. We drove much of the way to Miami on Old Cutler Road passing through Coral Gables and Sunrise Harbor. Once we were out of the city center we drove through Miami Springs, Hialeah Gardens, Miramar and Pembroke Pines. We stopped for a couple of geocache hunts along the way including one in Brian Piccolo Park. Piccolo, who played for the Chicago Bears in the late 1960s, was the subject of a popular movie, Brian's Song following his death in 1971. We arrived at the Travelodge on Sunrise Blvd. in Ft. Lauderdale a little after 1 pm.
We were able to check in on our arrival. The room is acceptable but the Internet is sketchy and there is no place at the motel for guests to print boarding passes. The bed is comfortable and the area seems quiet so far. That will be important since we plan to leave at 5 am tomorrow. We understand that the check in process at the Ft. Lauderdale airport takes a long time.
After resting for a bit, we drove down to A1A along the Ft. Lauderdale Beach area and parked. A nice Canadian family was leaving and gave us their parking pass with a good bit of time left. We walked along the beach past the usual bars, T-shirt shops, restaurants and souvineer shops across from the beach area. The beach here is very narrow. Not surprising since Florida really had no natural beaches. Mangroves were cleared from the coast many years ago when developers wanted to attract tourists and their money to coastal Florida. Of course, once the protective mangroves and sea oats were cleared away, beach erosion became a perpetual problem. The sandy beach areas that are in Florida were created by pumping sand up and making an area where people can wade and sunbathe. Whenever a major storm comes through fresh sand has to be pumped back up on the beach. If there were no beach here the economy would cease to exist. Walking along the beach for a couple of hours was about all we were interested in doing. Traffic along the beach was crazy so we were just as happy going back to the room and getting ready for the return trip home.
The temperatures today were in the mid 70s and sunny. The forecast for tomorrow is in the mid 80s here. We have been perfectly happy with temperatures in the 70s here, especially since there is snow, wind and cold back home. All schools in the area around home were closed last Friday and it is expected that many will be closed tomorrow.
Mary normally checks Road Food, Diners, Drive Inns and Dives and TripAdvisor for dining tips. Recently, she has found that TripAdvisor has been a reliable source of information for eating, lodging and attractions. She found another good spot for dinner tonight called Zona Fresca. It appears to be a local chain of a few locations in the Ft. Lauderdale area. In appearance it is a little like a Chipotle but they specialize in Latin food that is healthier. She had the fish taco that she said was very good. I had chile rellenos that were filled with cheeses and roasted. Every other place that I have had them batter dips and deep fries the filled chiles. Not that batter dipped and deep fried is a bad thing but these were very good. My meal came with black beans and rice on the side. They have a salsa bar so I added habanero and tomatillo salsas. It was a very good dinner.
We came back to the Ft. Lauderdale Travelodge after dinner to finish preparations for our early morning departure while we watched the Ravens and 49ers play in the Super Bowl.
As with any vacation, we are sorry to see it come to an end. Thanks to advice from Sarah and Greg, Debby (across the hall at work) and my pal, Joe, we were able to target many of the "must see" locations in South Florida. While going back home and to work is always rough, we both have busy times ahead at work with much to be done. Taking a week off for some time away in "the Sunshine State" was just what we needed.

View Larger Map

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Groundhog's Day

We didn't leave the Florida City Travelodge until nearly 9 am this morning for no other reason than we were being lazy.  The day was warm and breezy with abundant sunshine.  Even when we left the motel, it was in the mid 60s and beautiful.  The nice weather we are enjoying makes us feel a little bad for family and friends back home facing several inches of snow and wind chill temperatures well below zero.
We took the short drive to Biscayne National Park on the coast.  Most of this park is underwater since it is on the world's third largest coral reef.  Turns out that the area was threatened with major development in the 1960s but when the property was made a National Park in 1980, it was protected from development.  There is a nice visitor's center and a short but interesting boarkwalk.  There were TONS of bicyclists on the road to the park since it roads are flat and don't receive a lot of automobile traffic.  
It didn't appear that this park gets the volume of visitors that come to many other parks.  However, many local people come here to fish for grouper and mullet along the banks in the park. There are a lot of picnic tables and places to relax in the park too.  The temperature warmed to the mid 70s while we were there but the breeze kept walking comfortable.
After leaving Biscayne National Park, we drove to Zoo Miami to spend most of the day.  The zoo is very large but the layout is logical and well organized.  The main path of the zoo is in a "figure 8" and the majority of animals are organized by continent.  We were amazed at how few visitors at the zoo were speaking English.  In fact, on the few English speaking groups that we saw there were tourists from England!
The animals at Zoo Miamo seem to have a lot of room and there is a nice assortment.  We watched a couple of red river hogs chasing each other around and enjoying the day.  They had excellent enclosures for the Asian and African elephants.  They had a large collection of tortoises and an area to feed giraffes.  There was a lot of walking at the zoo but we enjoyed our day.
After leaving the zoo, we were in the mood for a snack so we went back to Robert is Here.  It was even more of a zoo!  We could not believe the number of people packed into that little farm stand.  They make milkshakes from fresh fruits and other ingredients. Mary had a fresh coconut and I had a key lime milkshake.  They were both excellent and filling.  Mary bought some key lime chocolates for the guys at work and I bought some guacamole that they make there at the deli.  The guacamole had big chunks of avocado and other goodies.  We enjoyed munching on it on tortilla chips. 
We crashed in the room for a bit to shower and change before dinner.  There are many great choices for dinner here but we figure we can get good Mexican, Chinese or seafood back home.  However, we can't get Cuban food any place close to home so we went back to Mario's Latin Cuisine for dinner.  We had the same friendly and helpful waitress as Thursday night.  Mary had passionfruit juice again and I had mango this time.  For her main course, Mary had the Cuban sandwich which had generous portions of ham, pork and cheese on grilled Cuban bread.  I had the tamal appetizer as my meal.  The Cuban style tamale was a block of seasoned pollenta with slices of pork, ham, cheese and pickles.  Everything was very good.
We retired to the room and watched "Groundhog Day" on AMC which just never gets old.

View Larger Map

Friday, February 1, 2013

Gators, gators and more gators

We left the Travelodge in Florida City around 8 am after a good breakfast at the motel.  Although the parking lot isn't nearly full, there is a "No Vacancy" sign at the registration desk.  Like the motel in Key West, we have noticed a lot of Europeans here.  We have heard a lot of people in the breakfast area speaking French and others speaking some Eastern European languages.
As we drove toward Everglades City, I had a conference call for work to set up a training session with RCBI and NASA on March 9.  The call was productive and only took about 30 minutes, long enough for us to get to US 41 which we would be on for most of the day.  Route 41 is sometimes called the Tamiami Highway since it runs from Tampa on the Gulf Coast to Miami on the Atlantic Coast.  The first 11 miles of Route 41 were under construction and down to one lane in many areas.  The construction didn't slow us down much.

Our first stop of the day was at the Shark Valley Visitor Center in Everglades National Park.  There was a strong breeze making the air seem cooler than the actual temperature in the low 70s.  The trail along a small canal was a great place to see many interesting birds and TONS of alligators.  The birds and alligators were nearly as good for viewing as the Anhinga Trail that we visited on Thursday.  There were several types of ergets, storks, herons, and Purple Gallinules that we had been looking for earlier in the week.  There were alligators everywhere sunning in the morning light.  The trail runs 14 miles to an observation tower along a canal.  There is a tram that takes visitors along the trail or people can walk and bicycle there.  Since we wanted to get to Everglades City, we choose to not walk or tram to the tower but rather move on west.  
Our next stop was at the Oasis Visitor Center in the Big Cypress Preserve where a nice boardwalk paralleled the Tamiami Highway (US 41) and a canal where many huge alligators basked.  We stood in one place and counted 18 alligators, most of which were over 8 feet in length.  We saw several that were at least 12 feet long.  The canal also had many Florida gar, walking catfish and several types of freshwater turtles.  The water was clear enough to provide good visibility of life in the canal.  There was a volunteer ranger on the boardwalk who was very helpful in identifying the fish and other wildlife in and around the canal.
We drove on to the Big Cypress Visitor Center that was small but had an interesting short boardwalk.  There was a lot of information on the cypress trees of the area and the creation of the park in the early 1970s to preserve them.  On the boardwalk, there was a canal where we didn't see alligators but there were manatees.  They were difficult to see since they only came up briefly for a quick breath.  Mostly, you could see bubbles from the paths of the manatees underwater. 
Just before we got to Everglades City, we stopped at the H. P. Williams Picnic Area where there were a number of alligators out in the sun.  We watched anhingas feeding including on that caught and swallowed a large cichlid that left a lump in the anhinga's throat.  It was a tiny area but was an interesting stop because of the concentration of alligators.
We made it to Everglades City a little before noon and checked in at the Gulf Coast Visitor Center.  We learned that a tour boat around some of the mangrove islands in the Gulf would be leaving at 1 pm.  We couldn't resist the opportunity to go.  The boat had about 20 people on board and traveled around many of the islands and to rookeries and areas frequented by dolphins.  Only Mary and one other person on the boat managed to see a dolphin but there were many types of birds and the 90 minute ride was nice.  After returning to Everglades City around 2:30, we drove around the area and to the old Smallwood Store in Chokoloskee.   The store has quite a history since it was built in 1906.  There is a small airport in Everglades City that mostly brings private planes with visitors to the Park.  We learned that the airport had a very different purpose not long ago;  In the 1970s, over 80% of Everglades City's residents had a drug conviction!  With the presence of the Park Service in the area, the drug trade in town decreased dramatically.  
We left the area and continued northwest on the Tamiama Highway toward Naples.  We found a well reviewed seafood restaurant in Naples called Randy's Fishmarket.  In addition to the restaurant, Randy's sells fresh locally caught seafood.  Since we just had snacks for lunch at the Gulf Coast Visitor Center at Everglades City, we were pretty hungry.  At 4:30, the other diners in the restaurant were mostly senior citizens.  The population of Naples is generally very wealthy and very old.  On our way to the restaurant, we passed dealerships for Bentley, Porsche, Mazzarati and Land Rover.  Since we are here in stone crab season, we started with an appetizer of stone crab claws.  To harvest the claws of the stone crabs, fishermen collect the crabs in traps and remove the claws in such a way that the crabs are released unharmed to regenerate claws.  For our meals, Mary had crab cakes with a baked sweet potato and green beans.  I had pan seared mahi mahi on a bed of whole wheat penne pasta with garlic olive oil, portobello mushrooms and wilted spinach.  We both had good spring salads with blue cheese dressing. After our meal, the waiter brought us each a complementary slice of Key Lime Pie since were were first time visitors.  We would recommend Randy's as a place to eat when in Naples.
We left Naples around 6 pm and drove back to the Florida City Travelodge arriving at 8:30.  
In checking the weather back home, we see that the Tri-State is being hit with a blanket of snow and that schools across the state are closed.  It sounds like more snow is coming for the rest of the weekend.  That sure makes us happy to be in The Sunshine State this time of year!


View Larger Map