Friday, January 10, 2014

Returning Home from Tampa

We got out of bed early and drove the short distance from the Bayview Plaza Waterfront Resort south to Pass A Grille beach for sunrise.  When we got to Pass A Grille around 6:30 the temperatures were already in the 70s and the fog was starting to lift.  We had a nice walk along the beach and enjoyed the start of our last day of winter vacation. 
We went back to the room after sunrise and put a few things together in preparation for our return flight home.  We listened to the news of a chemical spill at home that closed schools and businesses throughout the Kanawha and Teays Valleys.  The story made the national news but we really don’t know much yet.
Since our Allegiant flight was at 11 am, our drive to the airport was easy and with little traffic.  We were at PIE by 10 am and took the rental car to the return lot.  By the time we had our bag out of the car the Enterprise agent had the car checked in.  There were no problems at check-in and security.  Our flight was pretty full including the Marshall Swim and Dive team returning to Huntington. 
We arrived at HTS a little after 1 pm and made our way home.  The first thing we did was to check the plumbing.  Before we left we turned the water main off and drained water from the pipes.  The water to the washer in the utility room froze last Saturday when temperatures were in the low 20s so we didn’t want to take a chance when the forecast was below zero while we were gone.  We were pleased to have no burst pipes.
It will take some time to get back into “work mode” but since I have a meeting on campus on Saturday, I had better get adjusted quickly.  Mary hopes that things return to normal soon in Putnam County and that the water problems get resolved over the weekend.  A national state of emergency has been called for the area so hopefully there will be a resolution soon so schools and hospitals can reopen. 
As always, it is great to go on vacation but it is great to get back.  While part of me would love for a vacation to continue, another part is happy to be back in the familiar surroundings of home.  In addition, the demands of work don’t stop during vacation so there is always a lot of ground to make up on the return back to the office.  We may take a late spring/early summer vacation this year.  We are thinking about a local trip, perhaps to Canaan Valley or another part of the state.  We are also interested in visiting some scenic locations in eastern Kentucky like Natural Bridge or Red River Gorge.
Without a doubt the best thing about vacation is that we get to just hang out and do things together.  We enjoy just walking or driving through areas where we haven’t been.  We like to discover new places together and revisit places where we have been.  The usual demands of work and home detract from the pleasure of just spending time together.  A vacation can allow us to get beyond the day to day tasks to appreciate the things that are most important to us.

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Thursday, January 9, 2014

Crystal River and Homosassa, Florida

We both slept well last night and woke later than usual.  After eating a quick breakfast in our room at the Bayview Plaza Waterfront Resort we drove north toward Crystal River.  We drove through a lot of small towns and had stop and go traffic most of the way. When we arrived at the town of Homosassa we were ready for lunch and stopped at a roadside vendor cooking peanuts.  We bought a large cup of regular and Cajun flavored peanuts for our lunch.  We were both pleased with the nuts.  They were boiled in the shell and had a enough salt to be good and the Cajun had a little spice kick.  The peanuts had a flavor very much like a type of cooked dried beans which isn’t surprising since peanuts are actually a legume bean. 
We continued our drive a short distance to the Crystal River Preserve State Park.  There wasn’t much to see there but we chatted with a couple from Eastern Kentucky.  Not far from there was the Crystal River Archeological State Park that had a nice walk around some of the many burial and ceremonial mounds.  The temperatures were in the low 70s and there were periods of sprinkles of rain.  However, the rain was not hard enough to interfere with our walk.  The visitor center had displays of artifacts found in the area from cultures dating back as far as 500 BC.  It was an interesting stop and a nice way to get out and walk around.  A ranger we met there told us that the Homosassa Springs Wildlife Park was worth visiting so we headed that direction.
When we arrived at the Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park we spent some time in the nice displays at the visitor center.  The large springs in the area pump millions of gallons of warm fresh water into streams that empty into the Gulf of Mexico.    When water in the gulf cools down in winter the manatees come up into the river for the warm springs.  To access the park from the visitor center, we rode in a boat with an informative volunteer guide. 
The center had nice displays of Florida wildlife somewhat like the French Creek Game Farm back home.  The displays included Florida panther, bobcat, river otters, bald eagles, several species of owls, flamingos, whooping cranes, black bears, alligators and of course manatees.  The displays were large enclosures giving the animals a lot of room.  We also enjoyed the many animals in the park that are just “freeloaders” that are wild birds and mammals coming to the park for an easy meal.  The wild animals have become very tame.  I just couldn’t resist coming up behind a squirrel and pulling a hair on its tail.  Needless to say the squirrel wasn’t very happy with me and turned around and gave me a dirty look.
We stayed at the park until 3:30 then took the short boat ride back to the visitor center and our rental car.  The people on the boat were mostly retired people from the Northeastern US.  Some of them were permanent Florida residents who moved south in retirement while others are snowbirds who are here for a few months in the winter.
We drove back down US 19 to St. Pete Beach and walked over to the beach to take some snapshots of the sunset on our last night here.  Several people were walking along the beach and enjoying the end of a beautiful day.  The temperature was still in the low 70s at sundown and the clouds made the sky look beautiful.
For dinner, we decided to go back to Crabby Bill’s since they have stone crab claws.  Stone crab claws can be harvested from mid October through mid May.  The harvest is a very sustainable practice since fishermen remove the edible claws from the crabs and return them to their habitat so the claws can be regenerated without killing the crabs.  While we enjoy crab claws, eating them is a lot of work and expense for not much meat.  Breaking the claws always spatters me so badly that I have to go straight to a shower after eating them.  Having crab claws once every few years in fine but we usually prefer other items at seafood restaurants.
After dinner we went to an interesting ice cream place.  They have a variety of hard scooped ice cream flavors available.  They also have soft serve yogurt, fat free, sugar free and regular ice cream.  You pick your size, cone or cup type and add-in flavor.  They portion out the vanilla base then mix in the flavoring and put it in the cone or cup.  Mary had hard scoop pumpkin ice cream that she reported was very good and had a lot of cinnamon and spice flavors.  I had soft serve yogurt with coffee crunch flavor.  Both of us enjoyed our desserts.
We returned to our room to prepare for our departure in the morning.  We have enjoyed our visit to the Tampa area and are already considering where we may want to come on our next Florida trip.  We are thinking that we may fly Allegiant to Sanford then drive over to St. Augustine or down to the Space Coast. 

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Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Manatees Galore!

We had a late start this morning since we both had work related telephone calls and emails to make before getting on the road.  We left the Bayview Plaza Waterfront Resort around 10 am and headed toward the Manatee Viewing Center near Apollo Beach in Tampa. 
Hundreds of manatees in the water
The viewing area and visitor center is operated by Tampa Electric and has excellent educational displays and several overlooks to places where the “sea cows” congregate in winter.  When the power plant’s cooling water is returned to the bay, it warms the water making it desirable for the manatees to stay. 
A curious manatee
When we arrived the parking lot at the visitor center was nearly full.  Locals and tourists were flocking to see the unusually large number of manatees in the bay this week.  The recent cold snap is bringing many more manatees than can usually be seen.  When we were there, we saw literally hundreds of manatees in the water.  There were animals of all sizes with some moving about and others conserving energy by floating in the warm water.  On a walk out to one of the viewing areas we noticed the thermometers on either side of the causeway.  On the power plant side of the causeway the water temperature was 72 degrees while on the side toward the bay the temperature was about 50 degrees.  For obvious reasons, there were many more manatees on the warm side. 
After watching the manatees, we went through the gift shop and made our way back to the car.  As we were leaving we saw a number of cars coming in to the visitor center and looking for a parking place.  We really enjoyed our visit since I can’t imagine seeing that many manatees in one location.
After leaving Apollo Beach, we drive toward the pier at St. Petersburg.  It appears that work was being done there and many of the shops were closed so we kept moving and drove by the Salvador Dali Museum.  Since we had been driving during lunch we just ate some of the snacks we had packed.  We stopped at the Sunken Gardens in St. Petersburg.  We really enjoyed our walk through the gardens looking at the well displayed plants and water gardens.  Most of the labeled plants on display are common Florida vegetation that is either native or, like most of the palm trees, widely planted non-native plants that are commonly seen in the state.  It would be nice to come back here in the summer when the plants are all at their peak.
When we left the Sunken Gardens, we drove to the Fort De Soto Park.  We were interested in learning that the fort and military structures were built in the around 1898 during the Spanish American War but the fort was abandoned by 1923.  We walked along the beach and out of some of the piers finding some shells and pieces of coral.  We found a few geocaches in the area and took some snapshots of the attractive beaches in the area.
We left Fort De Soto around 5:30 and drove back to St. Pete Beach to find a place for dinner.  Trip Advisor gave good reports to Dockside Dave’s for local seafood.  We were not disappointed with the food.  The restaurant is obviously frequented by locals since our waiter, a fourth grade teacher, knew most of the customers.  We had some great onion rings as an appetizer, which were free since the waiter felt bad because our order was taking longer than expected.  Mary had the local grouper dinner prepared country style with a light cornmeal breading.  She has cole slaw and steamed vegetables on the side.  I had the blackened Captain’s Platter that included grouper, shrimp and scallops with cole slaw and seasoned rice on the side.   We heard that their key lime pie is excellent but we far too full to consider dessert.
On the way back to the room we stopped Publix to get Mary’s breakfast for Thursday and Friday since I had plenty of fruit and cereal for the rest of the week.  She has taken a liking to the ciabatta bread made with muesli, whole grains and craisens.
We had a great day today with beautiful weather.  The past couple of days were a bit cool but not bad considering the sub zero weather back home.  Today was sunny and warm with a soft breeze. 

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Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Tampa and Ybor City

We awoke around 6 am this morning at the Bayview Plaza Waterfront Resort and had a breakfast of the food we bought at Publix last night.  Since our room has a fully equipped kitchen, breakfast was easy.  We watched the morning news and did a couple of German lessons on Duolingo before heading toward Tampa for the day.  Our room has a nice balcony overlooking the bay where we hear that manatees can be frequently sighted.
Our first stop was the Florida Aquarium in downtown Tampa.  We parked at the parking garage across the street and walked over and was pleased that the aquarium was not at all crowded.  The parking garage uses chip coins as a way of metering parking which we found interesting. The aquarium is about the size of the Newport Aquarium in Cincinnati but is specific to Florida fish, birds and wildlife.  
One large tank had a wide diversity of fish native to the Tampa Bay including drum, permit, sharks and a huge goliath grouper that is about 800 pounds. The fish were so well fed that we saw a several bits of cut bait fall to the aquarium floor uneaten.  There was also a nice display of sea horses some native to Florida and others from Australia and the Pacific.  We also enjoyed watching the river otters romping in their displays. We both enjoyed our visit there until around 12:30. 
We drove a short distance to a part of Tampa called Ybor City that was the center of cigar production in the area for many years.  The docent at the museum there gave us some tips for places to visit and things to see in Ybor City as well as a brief history of the community.  Ybor City was founded in the 1860s largely by immigrants from Spain.  The town is named for industrialist Vicente Martinez Ybor who founded some of the area’s largest and most successful cigar factories in the late 1800s.
For lunch, we went to La Tropicana that appeared to attract mostly locals with many working class people enjoying their lunch there.  La Tropicana has been a local dining and social spot in Ybor City since 1963.  We both had a Cuban Sandwich which is a cold cut sandwich with a variety of meats with pickles, lettuce, tomatoes and sauces on toasted bread.  I finished my meal with a nice cup of cafĂ© con leche.  We walked around Ybor City a bit more then drove over to the Lowry Park Zoo nearby.  We didn’t want to visit the zoo but walked around Lowry Park a bit. 
Since it was after 4 pm we decided to make our way back toward St. Pete Beach.  We drove through Largo then back to St. Pete Beach.  We took a short drive south to an area called Passa Grille that is a mostly residential area of St. Pete Beach but has some nice beach areas. 
We stopped at our room briefly and set up to take some snapshots of the sunset over the Gulf from the beach as part of the Bayview Plaza Waterfront Resort which was a nice vantage point for photos.  It is a very photogenic area and has beach chairs, corn hole and other activities for guests. 
After shooting the sunset, we went a short distance to Crabby Bill’s for dinner.  Crabby Bill’s is a local chain with four locations all the in Clearwater/St. Petersburg area.  We both had the soup of the day which was crab corn chowder which was very good.  Mary had a grilled crab cake that she says had a lot of lump crab meat.  I had fish tacos that had a nice blackened whitefish and sweet potato fries on the side.  We both enjoyed our meals.  Crabby Bill’s is a fairly typical beach fish house, not unlike Joe’s Crab Shack or many others of that type.  I want to go back for the stone crab legs here before we leave.

After dinner we returned to our room to sack out and prepare for Wednesday.  Although the day was cool by Florida standards, we didn’t find it unpleasant and the temperatures are expected to rise throughout the week.

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Monday, January 6, 2014

Winter Trip to St. Pete Beach

When we left home the temperatures were in the single digits and falling fast.  Schools throughout the area were closed due to extreme cold, icy roads or power outages.  The forecast for the evening is for the coldest night in several years, as low as six below zero (-6 F) which seems pretty cold to me.  We knew when the cold front (being called a “polar vortex”) came through last night when we had a blowing rain and a rapid drop in temperature around 10:30 as we were preparing for bed.
There was a light coating of snow this morning but the rain made a coating of ice underneath.  The extreme cold made the salt ineffective on the roads.  Main roads were fine since the sun came out but the air temperatures remained in single digits and the wind was brutal. 
To prepare for our departure, we set the furnace to keep the house at 60 degrees in our absence.  We also turned the water heaters off then turned the water main off and drained the pipes, especially the lines to the washing machine on the second floor.  Those water lines are more exposed to the cold and we didn’t want to come home to a mess this weekend.  It just seemed like a good idea to drain the pipes as a preventative measure.
We were uncertain about our flight with the cold and wind but everything went just fine.  We departed HTS on schedule but heavy headwind made the flight take about 10 minutes longer than scheduled.  We had only one screaming baby on the flight, about five rows in front of us but we managed to sleep off and on through much of the flight.  Allegiant is certainly no frills but at a little over $50 each way for our seats we are happy with the flight.  The seats were roomy and comfortable. I guess it shouldn't have surprised us that there was a large percentage of the passengers who were elderly.  Our supposition is that they are snowbirds who came north to visit relatives for the holidays and are returning back to their winter nests.  As we sat in the Huntington Tri-State Airport, we watched the expressions on the faces of people as they deplaned on their return to Huntington.  When they left PIE on Monday morning the temperature was in the low 80s.  Wind and 11 degree temperatures met them on the tarmac at Tri-State.  Many of them were better dressed for Florida than the Ohio Valley so they walked briskly to the terminal.
It didn’t take long to get the rental car from Enterprise.  They upgraded our car which isn’t a big deal to us.  They gave us an ugly black Impala.  We would have been far happier with a little Corolla or something but this car is fine.  Although it has less than 9000 miles on it, the car seems worn and has a sloppy ride.
The drive from the airport was only 15 miles but we enjoyed the scenery and warmer weather.  People here aren’t happy with the “cold snap” here but we think the temperatures in the 50s and 60s are fine.  Before checking in at the Bayview Plaza Waterfront Resort, we drove along Gulf Boulevard which goes through a lot of the little beach communities between Tampa Bay and the Gulf of Mexico.  It was a pretty drive.  We checked in at the Bayview around 6:30.  The girl at the registration desk needed our license number from the rental car and apologized that I had to “go out into the cold” to get the number.  We just laughed.
For dinner, we walked to a nearby place called Mad Fish.  It didn’t look like much since it is in an old diner type building.  However, the food was excellent.  Mary had Grouper Tzatziki which had feta cheese, broiled shrimp and a veggie mix.  I had Mahi Oscar which was a broiled Mahi steak with lump crab and asparagus.  We both had a nice salad of mixed greens with craisens and green goddess dressing as well as a side of garlic mashed redskin potatoes.  They gave us complementary key lime pie for dessert which was very good.
On the walk back the the room we stopped at Publix to do some shopping.  We got some navel oranges, local bread, cereal, yogurt and some berries.  Our room has a full sized refrigerator, a two burner stove, toaster, microwave and coffee maker as well as a sink.  It is really pretty nice and a bargain since it is so near many of the attractions that we plan to visit.

Since tomorrow will still be cool and windy, we plan to do some sightseeing that is in Tampa and keep some of the more outdoor things for later in the week when the temperatures are back in the 70s here.

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