Tuesday, January 26, 2021

Geocaching at Myakka River State Park

Mary signs the log at a gadget cache
As in previous nights here, we slept very well last night. We turned in at 9 pm and were asleep before our heads hit the pillows. We awoke at 6 am and had the predicted raisin bran and yogurt breakfast then left for Myakka River State Park about 20 minutes away. We had been to Myakka on Thursday but didn’t come close to seeing everything that we wanted to see. This is a huge park with many miles of trails, so we decided to visit some hiking trails that we hadn’t been to before. We also thought that we might try to find a few of the many geocaches that are hidden in the park. The first cache that we found was a “gadget cache,” which is a container that may be easy to find but requires some problem solving to open. Mary had not been much of a geocaching enthusiast before, but the Myakka geocaches from Perez8, the cache owner really won her over. We spent most of the day finding geocaches on several trails. Before we knew it, we had found about two dozen geocaches and walked over seven miles in the park.

Cool gadget cache
We took a break for our standard Ritz cracker and peanut butter lunch then walked on a power line trail for a few last geocaches. Just as we started on the trail, we saw five huge turtles basking beside an alligator. We continued to the end of the trail where we found the cache and saw a red shouldered hawk sitting on a branch just a few feet above us.  As we noticed before, there was a lot of damage in the park from the feral hogs.  It is clear that the state park system is trying to eradicate the hogs, but their reproductive rate gives the pigs an advantage.  The ground in some areas appeared to have been tilled by a giant tractor.  

Wild hog trap
We left the park at 2 pm and drove back to the apartment where we showered and packed for our departure on Wednesday morning. At 6 pm we left for Walt’s Fish Market in Sarasota. Several people recommended it to us as the best seafood in this part of the state. Since Walt’s has been in business as a fish market and restaurant since 1918, we supposed that they must be doing something right. We arrived at 6:30 but learned that we would have about an hour wait for an outside table. That was fine with us since we were not in a hurry and we preferred to stay outside so we could remain socially distanced. We were seated at an outside table that was about 20 feet from another table. We both had the “choose two” basket options. Mary had local grouper and coconut shrimp with coleslaw and fries. I had the local oysters and clams with onion rings and fries. Neither of us finished our meals but split a slice of their key lime pie. Because the computers were out, we paid with cash to make things easier for our waitress. We both enjoyed our meals especially since it was our last Florida meal for at least a year.

Alligator basking in the afternoon sun
As always, our time in Florida was fantastic. Spending a week here each year in midwinter is just right for us. We always leave wishing we had just a few more days to spend here and planning for next year. Although we try to come to a different part of the state each year, we prefer the Gulf Coast over the Atlantic Coast since the weather tends to be warmer and more predictable in winter. We are hopeful that the COVID vaccines are effective and we can take more trips. We aren’t certain that we will be back to Florida next January since we may go out west or elsewhere. However, we certainly enjoy our time here.

We were very happy with our AirBnB apartment. The hosts parents who lived in the house on the property were pleasant and helpful. The apartment was clean and convenient to the things that we visited. The rental car, our 2021 Corolla, was just right for our needs and gave us great 41 mile per gallon fuel economy for our time here. Because most of our travel was confined to the Tampa Bay area, we didn’t drive nearly as much as in some years.

We were happy that we came when we did because the Tampa Bay Buccaneers made it to Super Bowl LV which, coincidentally, would be played at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa. Although attendance will be much lower due to COVID restrictions, it is certain that the area will be a much different scene in two weeks.

All in all, this was one of the better Florida vacations that we have taken. Part of the reason is the perfect weather we had this week, part was visiting dear friends that we seldom see and part was that we confined our travels to a limited area and spent less time driving. However, we were much more liberated on this trip. We didn’t have anything hanging over us at work or home when we returned. We were much more flexible in our scheduling and took time to enjoy each day. We would be leaving the state in the morning returning to snow and forecast temperatures in the teens. However, we can eagerly look forward to coming back and exploring other areas of the state.

Monday, January 25, 2021

Kayaking at Lido Key

After waking at our AirBnB apartment, we had our raisin bran and yogurt breakfast then prepared for a trip to Lido Key Beach. On the short 20 minute drive we noticed the number of Amish and Mennonites living in the area. We had seen them before riding bicycles, especially the three-wheel cycles, shopping at area stores and eating in local restaurants. As we drove, we observed houses with bicycle racks but no cars in the driveway.

Kayaking at Lido Key
After arriving at Ted Sperling Park at Lido Beach, we reserved a tandem kayak from Kayaking SRQ for three hours. We reviewed the map of the area while the liveryman brought our kayak to the water’s edge. The kayak was surprisingly maneuverable even with our lack of experience. The area is well known for the mangrove tunnels, dense growths of the mangrove trees that cover the narrow channels through the area. We made our way easily through the mangroves viewing ibis, herons, egrets, anhingas and a raccoon. The birds had little fear of us in the kayak, so it was easy to get a good view. 

Green Heron in the mangroves
The kayak bottomed out in a few places since it was near low tide. At one place, we had to get out of the kayak and push it through the shallow area. In another mangrove tunnel that was not much wider than the kayak, we were fighting the current from the incoming tide.  problem was made worse because the channel was not wide enough for us to paddle the kayak. We ended up using the paddles as poles to get us back into open water. 

We stopped at a small beach area where we could pull the kayak up onto the sand and rest our arms. We met a pair of kayakers from Boston who were disoriented so we pointed them in the direction of the launch site for kayak rentals. As noon approached and the kayak was due back, we made our way to the drop off point and returned it to the Kayaking SRQ employee.

Great Blue Heron at Lido Key Beach
We had our peanut butter and crackers lunch near the launch site then had the bananas and apples as we drove to the parking for the beach area of the park. After parking, we kicked our shoes off and walked the length of the beach all the way to the small beach where we stopped in the kayak. There were several groups swimming, fishing and sunbathing at Lido Beach. We noticed several Amish families fishing, although we didn’t see many fish being caught. 

The thing that really impressed us was the texture of the sand. It was softer and finer than flour, almost like walking in corn starch. It was very white and loose. We took a few snapshots of shorebirds as we walked and enjoyed the beautiful 80-degree weather. We were happy that we had kayaked earlier while the temperatures were still in the 70s.

We left the Lido Beach area around 3 pm and returned to the apartment to get dry clothes and prepare to go to another park. We decided on Oscar Scherer State Park that has excellent hiking trails. We found a few geocaches and walked parts of the legacy, blue, red and green trails and found several caches. We left the park and went across the Tamiami Trail highway to find a geocache in Shoreland Park.

By then we were tired and starting to get hungry, so we returned to the apartment to shower, change clothes and prepare for dinner. We decided on J. R.’s Old Packinghouse since we had enjoyed such a good meal a few evenings ago. Although the restaurant was very busy and the parking lot was overflowing, we were seated outside immediately upon arrival. Our table had a palm tree growing up through the middle of the table. As before, J. R. greeted us warmly and the waitress took our orders. Mary had the Cuban roast pork with beans and rice and chicharrons on the side. I had the shrimp Po-boy with fries and coleslaw on the side. Like our previous visit, the food arrived quickly after we ordered. Both of us were very happy with our meals and were somewhat disappointed that they were out of key lime pie. It is probably for the best since we were both really full.

We returned to the apartment where we relaxed and took care of the things that we needed to do before bed.

Sunday, January 24, 2021

Visiting in Sebring

Once again, we were able to sleep in until nearly 6 am. After our raisin bran and yogurt breakfast we looked at options for the remaining days of our Florida vacation. We were pleased to have a video call with the Koehler’s a little before 8 am. It was great to see them.

At 8:30 we left for Sebring to visit our friends, Steve and Marcia. We stopped at a Racetrac gas station to fill the Corolla rental car. This is the first fuel that we had to buy since renting it on Wednesday afternoon. We were happy that we had used less than 10 gallons of gas in all the driving that we have done this week. The first part of the 90-minute drive to Sebring was a little foggy, but the sun cleared the fog about 45 minutes into our drive. As we neared Sebring, Mary spotted a group of wild hogs in a pasture. We stopped the car and saw about 25 pigs including a large boar, several sows and about 20 piglets of varying ages and sizes. Although we had seen a great deal of damage from the feral swine at several of our hiking locations, this was the first group of pigs that we had seen this week.

We were so busy visiting that we forgot to take any
photos so this is one of Steve & Marcia from 2020
We hung out with Steve and Marcia for over an hour then went to lunch at Dimetri’s Restaurant near their home. We have been there several times before and have always had excellent meals. This visit was no exception We were happy to ride in Marcia’s “hippy bus,” a 1977 Volkswagen minibus painted in a psychedelic theme. Marcia had the shepherd’s pie, Steve had the fish sandwich, Mary and I had the special which was two local grouper filets. One was stuffed with spinach and the other with crab. Everyone enjoyed their meal.

After lunch we went back to their house for a visit, leaving around 3 pm. As predicted, our time with them was a highlight of our trip to Florida. They are great friends, and we treasure every minute that we are able to spend with them.

We took a southern route back to Sebring through the town of Arcadia and stopped at a small park near Saratoga called Rothenbach Park. We walked the 2.7-mile nature trail around the park to get our daily walk in. We left the park just before they closed the gates at 6 pm and stopped at a nearby Publix market to get breakfast items and fruit that we would need for the remainder of the trip. We really like Publix and find that the quality of their food items is typically good.

We arrived back at the AirBnB apartment before 7 pm and watched the recorded service from our Georgetown United Methodist Church. We are considering kayaking tomorrow but our options for the day are open.

Saturday, January 23, 2021

Venice Beaches

Enjoying the sunshine at Blind Pass Beach
After walking nearly 12 miles yesterday, we slept very well last night. We managed to stay awake until 9:30 and slept until nearly 6 am. We had our usual travel breakfast of raisin bran and Greek yogurt and planned our day. Because our feet were still sore from all the walking on Thursday and Friday, we were looking for a day with less walking, so we looked at area beaches, especially on Manasota Key in Venice and Englewood.

Great Blue Heron on Blind Pass Beach
We left the apartment around 8 am in shorts and t shirts because the temperature was already nearly 70 degrees. We drove from Sarasota onto the barrier island near Venice. We have always heard about visitors finding attractive shells and fossilized shark teeth in the surf. Mostly we just wanted to get out in the sunshine and enjoy the beautiful warm and sunny day. Our first stop was at Blind Pass Beach, where we parked and walked south along the beach for a couple of miles. 

Most of the people at the beach were near the public access point where there were lots of beach chairs and umbrellas. Several families were fishing in the surf, and many people were looking for shells and shark teeth. Most people had long-handled strainers allowing them to scoop material from the surf and sort for teeth and shells. These fossilized teeth ranged from 2.5 million to 200 million years old and ranged in size from nearly as small as grains of sand to as large as dessert saucers. We took our shoes off and waded in the surf walking to the south end of the public beach area. We collected about 20 fossil shark teeth from ¼ inch to ½ inch in size. We returned to our rental car around 10:30 for a snack and rest.

After our usual Ritz crackers, peanut butter and fruit, we walked back to the beach and walked north for about an hour before returning to the car in the beach parking area. We drove south on the key to Manasota Beach where we walked on the beach briefly, but it wasn’t much different from the Blind Pass Beach. We continued north to Casperson Beach which is probably the most popular beach in the Venice area. As with the other beaches, lots of people were sunbathing, fishing and tooth hunting near the beach access. After we walked a couple hundred yards along the beach, there were very few people. The sand here was much finer than at the other beaches although there were a lot of large rocks in the sand at the surf line. There is a short nature trail that winds near the beach but there were no interpretative signs or other aids to visitors.

Great Egret at Venice Rookery
We left Casperson Beach for the short drive to the Venice Area Audubon Society Rookery. There were a number of birders around the pond at the small sanctuary some with serious lenses and camera equipment. However, we didn’t see any birds that one wouldn’t see in any neighborhood park in south Florida. We walked around the pond and took a few snapshots then drove back to our apartment in Sarasota.

When we arrived, we met the parents of the AirBnB host who live in the house in front of our apartment. Dave and Sara are a nice older couple who gave us a lot of information about the area. They told us to call on them if we needed anything during our stay.

As soon as we got in the apartment, we both got showers and changed clothes. We were still covered in sand and saltwater from wading at the beaches. Getting showered refreshed us and we started thinking about dinner. Mary found Heinrich’s German Grill in Sarasota that is only 5 miles away. We were seated immediately on arrival. Mary ordered a veal schnitzel prepared cordon bleu style. I had the veal jaegerschnitzel which has mushroom gravy. We both has red kraut and spae
tzle on the side. Both of our meals were very good but was the only meal on this trip for me that wasn’t some type of seafood. This was the most expensive meal we have had on this trip by far, but it was very good so we have no complaints.

Friday, January 22, 2021

John and Mabel Ringling's Gardens

Although I had fallen asleep a little after 8 pm, I managed to sleep in until nearly 6 am. I can’t remember when I had 10 hours of sleep. We had our usual travel breakfast of raisin bran and yogurt with a banana. Mary looked up places north of us where we could do some hiking and sightseeing. We had some time since the Ringling museum and gardens are only a few miles away.

Winter home of John & Mabel Ringling
We arrived at the home of John and Mabel Ringling a little after they opened at 9:30. This was not only the winter home of the Ringling but was where training and headquarters for the circus was located. We weren’t really interested in touring the home, art museum and circus museum so we paid the $5 per person fee to tour the large gardens on the property. We were impressed by the number and variety of trees from all over the world. The fact that we were seeing monarch caterpillars on the milkweed plants in January was fascinating to us.  Mary also appreciated that she saw some of the milkweed species that we planted last year.  Everything was clearly labeled with species and geographic distribution of the plant. Mabel Ringling’s rose garden was quite extensive as well. We walked around the exterior of the house and admired the walkways paved with stone from around the world. The back patio had a dock for visitors arriving by boat. The house window glass was all hand blown stained glass. The garden of dwarves had dozens of statues of little people in various roles. We were especially impressed by some of the gigantic banyan trees dotting the grounds.

Mary in the Ringlings' rose garden
After two hours we left and drove north to Bradenton where we found Robinson Nature Preserve. The nearly 700 acre area has miles of walking trails through a variety of habitats. Our lunch was in a screened gazebo where we enjoyed our usual peanut butter on Ritz crackers with an apple. We walked a lengthy trail through wetlands, mangroves and prairie and saw a large number and type of birds. There were several active osprey nests and other birds of prey in the bay area. We met a couple there originally from Huntington, and the woman, Gwen Russel, taught at Milton Middle for a number of years. We chatted with a couple from northern Illinois who were kayaking in the waterways in the preserve. From the observation tower, we could see a lot of the surrounding area.  As at Myakka River State Park, there was a great deal of damage to the area from wild hogs.  Large tracts appeared to have been tilled with tractors from the rooting on the feral pigs. We were tired after the long walk and were happy to be back at the car a little after 2 pm.

View from the observation tower at Robinson Nature Preserve
We started driving north across the Sunshine Skyway Bridge stopping at the fishing piers on each end of the bridge. Lots of people were fishing as well as picnicking and walking, all enjoying the beautiful day in the upper 70s.

We arrived at the home of Pat and Jackie Collier at 3 pm. We knew the Colliers when we were at Bates Memorial Presbyterian Church. Jackie is the church secretary, and Pat is now the minister at Kenova Presbyterian Church. After visiting a while, we went on a walk in the park that is nearby where they usually walk. Clam Bayou Nature Preserve is a nice park in a residential area of St. Petersburg. We saw egrets, herons, pelicans as well as ospreys. It was great visiting with them and seeing their new condo. By the time we were back to their place, we had walked nearly 12 miles today.

On our way out of St. Petersburg we stopped at. Beall’s outlet and bought University of South Florida shirts since Emily is finishing her doctorate here.

Along the drive south there was an accident on the Sunshine Skyway Bridge causing a slowdown, but it was cleared up quickly and we continued on our way. Since it was nearly 7 pm, we were hungry and decided to go back to KaCey’s Restaurant where we had eaten on Wednesday.

Despite being busy we were able to get an outside table right away. There were propane heaters outside warming the air. Our food came out very quickly after we ordered. Mary had the fish and chips , which she reported were very good since the fish was lightly breaded and the fries were hot and prepared just right. I had the cod-zilla sandwich which had a generous serving of blackened cod on a ciabatta roll with French fries on the side. We both had a tasty serving of coleslaw. We were hoping to share a slice of key lime pie, but they were out of pie this evening.

We returned to our apartment before 8 pm and relaxed before bed. We were both very tired and planning on sleeping well.

Thursday, January 21, 2021

Deep Hole at Myakka River State Park

We both slept well at our AirBnB and were able to sleep until 6 am, which is an accomplishment for us. We had the raisin bran and yogurt that we bought at the Winn-Dixie last night. We decided to go to Myakka River State Park today since it is less than 10 miles from our apartment.

Birds and gators at Deep Hole
We arrived at the park and paid the $6 per car admission then checked on the trails in the park. The volunteer who checked us into the park suggested that we get a pass through the wilderness area to the area of the park known as “Deep Hole.” We were pleased to get there when we did because the park only permits 30 visitors per day into the wilderness area. After we got our passes there were only 2 passes available for the day, and we were there before 9 am.

Dozing alligator at Deep Hole

We drove the short distance to the parking area for the wilderness trailhead entering the code at the gate to gain entry. We packed cameras, water bottles, binoculars and bird identification guides and started on the walk. Most of the 2.5 mile walk to the deep hole is through a dry prairie that the park burns every two years to replicate the natural conditions of the prairie. There were more black vultures flying and roosting in trees than we have ever seen. We passed a few people on the trail, but with a limit of 30 per day it was not well traveled. After the 2.5 mile walk over the flat terrain, we passed by a small lake that was connected to a water filled sinkhole that is reported to be 140 feet deep. Several people stood near the Deep Hole watching and photographing the wildlife. About 100 alligators there, some swimming and others basking in the warm morning sun. Black vultures walked dangerously close to the snouts of alligators warming on the bank. Although we were hoping to see a scene from Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, the birds appeared to know just how close they could get.

Black vulture playing chicken
We were amazed at the variety of wading birds that were along the shore from several specials of egrets and herons to spoonbills, storks, pelicans, ibis and many others. We chatted with several people watching the birds and alligators then started on the 2.5 mile walk back to the parking area.

Once at the car we drove back to the visitor center, returned the wilderness pass and found a shady spot for a picnic lunch. The temperature was already in the upper 70, and we were both ready for lunch and a bottle of water. Our usual store brand Ritz crackers and creamy peanut butter made a good lunch along with an apple from last night’s shopping.

Mary at the Birdwalk
We drove to the end of the park where there is an area called The Outpost with a restaurant, canoe rentals and a gift shop. We didn’t stop but started driving back to a short trail called The Bird Walk. There were a lot of birds in the shallow marsh, although not as many as in the Deep Hole. However, this area was much more accessible requiring only a short walk on a pier rather than a 5 mile hike. Mary met a lady there from Versailles, Kentucky while I talked with Steve Minor in the cell phone. We hadn’t had a cell signal most of the day, so I took advantage of being able to reach him. We plan to visit them on Sunday. We were happy that we had worn shorts and T-shirts because the temperature seemed very warm.

Large turtle basking on the nature trail
Our last stop in Myakka River State Park was at the William S. Boylston Nature Trail. This nature trail is less than a mile long but has a Canopy Walk with a 76-foot-high tower and a suspended walkway in the palm forest. It was pretty neat. We met a group there from Braxton and Calhoun Counties in West Virginia. Although the trail wasn’t long, we spent some time reading the interpretative signage and generally exploring the area.  On this and most of the other trails in the park, we noticed a great deal of damage from wild hogs.  It is difficult to imagine the extent of the habitat damage these feral hogs are causing in the area.  

We enjoyed the bananas that we packed as we drove out of the park and back toward our apartment. We made a quick stop at a Target along the way to buy some fresh sunscreen.

We crashed at the apartment for a couple of hours before heading to dinner a little before 6 pm. Mary had read a review of J.R.’s Old Packinghouse that their Cuban sandwich was vote the best in the state of Florida. We took the short drive a few blocks to the restaurant and got a table outside on the front porch. Propane heaters were running despite what we believed was a warm evening. I got the special, blackened catfish over jambalaya, and Mary got the Cuban sandwich with tortilla chips. We both enjoyed our meals and shared a little of each other’s plates. The owner, J.R., came over to chat and was very pleasant making sure that we enjoyed our meals and felt welcome. We were pleased that the meal was less than $30.

We returned to the apartment and relaxed after the hikes of nearly 9 miles today and a large dinner. Tomorrow we hope to visit the home of the Ringling Brothers in Sarasota.

Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Arriving in Sarasota

Since we didn’t fly until afternoon, we were able to do last minute packing and preparing for our trip before leaving at 9:30 on Wednesday morning. We made the drive to the Hilton off Turfway near Cincinnati airport arriving around 10:30. We parked beside the hotel, check at the front desk and took the shuttle to the airport. Onestopparking always proves to be a good option for us.

We ate our packed lunch after we checked our bag but before we went through security. Because of our Global Entry status, we used the TSA PreCheck line and went through security quickly. Afterwards we walked around the airport to get some exercise. We were struck by the lack of passengers in the airport. We speculated that there would be a surge in travel once more people are vaccinated and are more comfortable traveling. 

Our flight boarded and departed on time. The flight wasn’t full but had more passengers than we expected based on the number of passengers in the terminal. There was a seven-month-old baby in the row behind us, but she was happy for the flight. We would never have known that she was there. Another girl on the flight had a small dog in a carryon bag that yipped constantly. It didn’t even sound like a dog but more like a squirrel barking. Through the flight we both read eBooks. Mary got me started on Nevada Barr’s Anna Pigeon books set in National Parks. This one, Track of the Cat, is set in Guadalupe National Park. So far, I am enjoying it. 

We arrived at the St. Petersburg Clearwater airport by 4 pm, so Mary got our checked bag while I stood in line to get the rental car from Enterprise. We got a 2021 Corolla which is just right for us and gets good fuel economy. The hour drive from the airport to our AirBnB in the Fruitville area of Sarasota. The lodging is a separate one-bedroom apartment with a full kitchen. We are happy with the apartment and especially the price we had to pay. 

After getting our bearings we went out for dinner and to get grocery items for breakfasts and lunches. Mary found a local eatery called KaCey’s nearby. Mary got the crab cake dinner with broccoli and sweet potato fries, and I got the cod and shrimp basket with fries and coleslaw. We swapped cod and shrimp for a crab cake, and both of us really enjoyed our meals. The restaurant was small but by using outside tables and spaced inside small tables, they were able to keep a good business going. 

After leaving the restaurant we stopped at Winn-Dixie for the usual raisin bran, yogurt and fruit for breakfast and peanut butter and crackers for lunch. We registered for a Winn-Dixie card to get the discounts. 

After the store we returned to our apartment to relax and prepare for our day tomorrow.