Saturday, January 29, 2022

Home from Florida

Despite all outward appearances of the Ft. Myers Howard Johnson, our room was surprisingly comfortable and we slept well waking a little after 5:30 am. We did our German lessons and watched a couple episodes of Counting Cars on television while we waited to hear from the rest of the group. We did out last minute packing and preparation before piling in cars at 8:30 to stop for breakfast at First Watch in Ft. Myers. Mary and I both had eggs Benedict and enjoyed them although we would have preferred the eggs to have been cooked slightly longer. We both like the eggs a little gelled rather than the whites and yellows completely runny.

After breakfast we drove to the Ding Darling Nature Preserve on Sanibel Island. We had been here several times before and always enjoyed the visit. Today was cold and very windy by southern Florida standards. The temperature was in the mid to upper 50s but seemed much cooler with the wind coming off the water. We spent about 30 minutes at the visitor center looking at the displays and reading about the area’s history of bird species preservation. At the gate to the wildlife drive we were admitted free with our Senior National Park pass and drove to stops along the way to view the birds of the area. Because of the wind and colder temperatures, there were fewer birds out and no alligators or turtles. The birds we saw tended to be low in the mangrove thickets. We took the few short walks that are available in the preserve including one along a power line path to the water. We didn’t stay there long because the wind off the water was so intense and there was no visible wildlife. Our last stop was at ancient middens dating back over 3,000 years. There was a mountain of shells that had been piled up by the many ancient cultures after gathering native shellfish. We made a quick stop at a Walmart where Cindy got some Zicam chews and we picked up a turkey sub and some bananas for our evening meal.

We started toward Punta Gorda Airport for our 5:30 flight. After goodbyes, we went to the Allegiant desk where we learned that the flight to Cincinnati was delayed about an hour and that we couldn’t check our bag until after 3 pm. We sat outside security for a short time until we checked our bag and walked the short distance to security where our Global Entry status allowed us to take the TSA PreChecked line. We moved quickly through the process without removing shoes, jackets or taking tablets out. However, I was randomly selected for a partial check; my carry-on electronics were swabbed which took very little time. We sat at the terminal until our flight was ready to board around 6 pm for our flight home. The Punta Gorda terminal is very small with six gates in one room. We enjoyed our sub and bananas while we waited, taking walks to stretch from time to time.

We arrived at CVG around 8:30, Mary picked up the bag from the carousal while I tried to catch the shuttle for the Florence Hilton. I missed that shuttle, so I had to call the desk again and get the next one in 30 minutes. The temperature was 16 degrees, quite an adjustment from our two weeks in Florida. We made the drive home from the Hilton and were in bed by 11 pm, tired but glad to be home after a great vacation.

Friday, January 28, 2022

Leaving the Florida Keys

We awoke at the Pelico Paradise rental house for our last morning in the Florida Keys. I made tea and did my German lessons. Mary made steel cut oats for breakfast, then we finished packing and loading. We started the dishwasher with the breakfast dishes and washed a load of the towels we used for the week.

We left the house by 8:45 and drove east on US 1 driving by Castaways on Marathon Key that was recommended to us on our way west while stopping at Long Key State Park. We stopped at a McDonalds in Marathon so Cindy could get a latte, and we could all go to the bathroom. We weren’t at McDonalds long then continued on US 1 toward Florida City stopping at a gas station on Key Largo for gas which was quite an ordeal. Several pumps were out of order; the pump we used wouldn’t accept credit or debit cards. Once we fueled up, we continued through Florida City to the Tamiami Highway. We stopped at VooDoo Grill in the Micccosukee Reservation for Indian fry bread with honey. It was a nice snack since we arrived at noon. We appreciated stretching our legs and having a treat.

We drove the short distance to the Shark Valley area of Everglades National Park. Mark, Jodie, Mary and I walked out the trail along the stream while Grant and Cindy napped in the cars. While walking we saw many more alligators than the day we were here last week. We saw four clutches of baby alligators, a black snake, many basking turtles and lots of Florida gar as well as several invasive fish species. While Jodie was cautiously watching a large alligator, I couldn’t resist touching the back of her ankle with my toe. She shrieked and hopped excitedly to our amusement. We met Cindy as we were walking back and told her what we saw. After talking with a ranger, we learned that the trees in the National Park parking lot with the large green nut-like fruits are mahogany trees.

From Shark Valley, we drove to the Oasis Visitor Center in the Big Cypress Preserve where we saw dozens of very large alligators as well as gar and invasive fish that are similar to the plecostomus, commonly sold for freshwater aquaria. Mark spotted two flamingos flying overhead which made us all happy since flamingos are not common in the area. We left the Oasis Visitor Center and drove a short way to the Ochopee Post Office which is the smallest post office in the United States. We were there only long enough for a photo then continued on toward Ft. Myers.

Mary saw that Interstate 75 had a slowdown due to a collision, so we decided to stop for dinner at a Perkins restaurant while the crash was cleared away. The meal was good and about half the price that we had paid for most meals on the trip. Mary had an avocado and chicken salad, and I had fish and chips. After dinner we drove on to the Howard Johnson in Ft. Myers. The office was closed for remodeling, so we checked in at a window. The motel was unimpressive but did appear to be clean and quiet so we were okay with the rooms. We were tired and ready for bed. There was cool weather forecast for Florida tomorrow that will play a role in our plans for the day, but we hoped to go to Sanabel Island and the Ding Darling Bird Sanctuary tomorrow before having to go to the Punta Gorda Airport for our flight home tomorrow night.

Thursday, January 27, 2022

National Key Deer Refuge

I got up at 5:30 since Steve Minor wanted to get on the road to Sebring early. We visited while he had his breakfast and enjoyed chatting. He got on the road by 6:30 for his five hour drive home.

I did my German lessons and responded to some email until the rest of the group awoke. I had a bagel, and most of the others had steel cut oats. As we had breakfast, we decided that we needed a more relaxing day than we have had on most of this trip. We sat around the house until nearly 11 am when we drove to a nearby nature preserve here on Sugarloaf Key hoping to see Key Deer. Mark, Cindy, Mary and I piled into Grant and Jodie’s Highlander while Grant stayed at the house to work on his research with We parked at a locked gate in the National Key Deer Refuge and walked 1.5 miles into the preserve. While we did not see any deer, we spotted several interesting birds. There were a few locals walking or bicycling on the closed road but we mostly had the area to ourselves. After our three mile walk we returned to the house to go to another area to look for the tiny Key Deer.

We made the short drive to Big Pine Key which is famous for their protected Key Deer population. We parked at the Blue Hole Nature Preserve and walked out to see a couple of large alligators swimming or basking. We saw about six tiny adult Key Deer, and we believe that all of them were bucks. It was strange to see adult male deer that were smaller than a collie with a full rack of antlers.

We attempted to go to lunch at Morita’s Cuban Cafe, a well rated Cuban restaurant, but they had closed for the day by the time we arrived at 2 pm. We drove a short distance to The Square Grouper, where we were at the end of lunch service but too early for dinner. Mary and I had the grouper sandwich that was topped with a Key Lime sauce and a few shredded fried onions. Our sandwiches were very good and filling. The waiter gave us a complimentary mango ice cream to share, and Mary and I ordered a slice of Key Lime pie to share. Mark had the giant brownie with ice cream, Cindy had Key Lime pie, and Jodie had the carrot cake. The waiter gave us recommendations for restaurants on other keys, and we headed back to the house. Cindy and I walked out to the mouth of Pelico Road past the flock of feral peafowl just to walk off some of our lunch.

After we returned to the house, most of us took a quick nap before gathering around the dining room table for games. Jodie brought one called Left, Center, Right in which players roll three dice telling them to pass dimes to players on their left or right as well as to the pot in the center. When a player is out of dimes, they are out of the game. The last player to have any money wins the pot in the center.
I made mojitos and whiskey sours for anyone wanting a mixed drink while the others played Mexican Train dominoes.

After the games we packed and prepared to depart the Pelico Paradise rental house around 9 am. We plan to spend a couple of hours at the Shark Valley Loop of Everglades National Park before driving to our Howard Johnson motel in Ft. Myers.

Wednesday, January 26, 2022

Dry Tortugas National Park

We awoke at 5:30 and finished preparing for our trip on the Yankee Freedom ferry from Key West to Dry Tortugas National Park. We were to check in at 7 am for an 8 am departure. The trip was scheduled for 2 ½ hours placing us at Fort Jefferson by 10:30 am. We were able to get over $100 of deposit for the group refunded since we had National Park senior passes. On boarding the vessel, most of our group seated inside the catamaran where masks were mandatory.
Mark, Steve and I went to the ship’s bow where were had a great view of the trip in the wind of the fast moving ship. About an hour into the trip the crew asked everyone standing at the bow to take a seat in the ship’s interior due to rough seas. 

Unfortunately, Jodie and Grant both battled seasickness, but the Yankee Freedom crew was very attentive taking their used seasick bags and providing them with fresh ones along with ginger ale. They were starting to feel better by the time we arrived at Fort Jefferson.
We started our visit with an informational tour of the fort by Yankee Freedom interpreters. They provided great information about the fort, including a mechanism on the cannon doors that opened because of the air pressure from the cannons. Then they closed as soon as the projectile passed, making the time that the door was open only a fraction of a second. We also learned about Dr. Mudd’s time in the prison. Some say that Mudd was not a Confederate conspirator but nearly a physician fulfilling his Hypocratic Oath by treating the injured man’s broken leg. Unlike many involved in the Lincoln Assassination, Mudd was given a life sentence rather than hanging. Mudd is reported to have redeemed himself by saving many lives of prisoners and guards for the yellow fever epidemic.
Because so many people at Fort Jefferson were dying of yellow fever the army built facilities on a nearby key that came to be called hospital island. Medical thought at the time was that yellow fever was transmitted directly from person to person; the mosquito was not known as a vector at that time. Moving soldiers, prisoners and medical staff to hospital island did not slow the death rate due to the epidemic. When the medical staff had died, Dr. Mudd offered to assist in providing treatment to those infected. He kept meticulous notes and came to see a pattern that soldiers who were quartered on the upper levels of the fort were infected at a far lower rate than those sleeping on the parade grounds surrounded by the fort. When we suggested that everyone be moved to the highest elevation of the fort, the yellow fever abated saving many lives of prisoners and the guards subjecting him to hard labor at the fort. Even though he didn’t know it was mosquitoes causing the disease, he found a workable solution. Because of his dedication, the soldiers at the fort sought and won a pardon for Dr. Mudd after four years of his sentence.
After the hour-long fort tour, we returned to the Yankee Freedom for lunch that was included in the fee. We had turkey subs from Jersey Mike’s as well as two coconut cookies. Cindy got some Dramamine chewable tablets for Jodie and Grant. After lunch, Mary, Cindy and Jodie took a walk around attached Bush Key to the overlook at a rookery for the Magnificent Frigate Bird, which has the largest wing area per pound of weight. 
Grant’s leg was hurting so he stayed near the dock with the bags while Steve and I snorkeled in the shallow water around the key. We met up around 2:30 to board the Yankee Freedom ferry for the return trip to Key West. Mary, Cindy, Grant and Jodie got the same seats for the 2 ½ return trip. 

Thankfully, neither of them became seasick on the trip. Mark, Steve and I stood at the front of the bow where the wind and cool spray felt good. We stayed there until the ship entered an area of rain with about 30 minutes remaining in the trip. We arrived at the Key West ferry dock a little before 5:30 and made our way to the cars to drive to dinner.
We decided to return to Mangrove Mama’s since it is so close to our rental house. Our meal there earlier in the week was good, so our choice was easy. The restaurant was short on kitchen staff and waiters so we had a short wait for a table. We wanted to sit inside since there was live music at the outdoor dining area and we wanted a quieter place to talk. We were seated close to the band where it was very loud. They were actually pretty good, especially considering that they were not actually a band at all but musicians who had just met and were playing a lot of classic rock. Musicians came and went throughout the evening, and it was actually enjoyable although we would have appreciated a lower volume. Because we were outside, several diners were smoking which was unpleasant for us but we dealt with it. Everyone enjoyed their meal, mostly of local seafood. I had the blackened grouper sandwich with onion rings which was very good.
After dinner we returned to the house where Steve and Mark looked through photos of Mark and Cindy’s trip to South Africa last fall while Mary, Cindy and Jodie played Skip-Bo. We turned in a little after 10. 

Tuesday, January 25, 2022

Key West

Today was a much more laid back day than we have had on this trip. We awoke at 5:30 but did things around the house until after 10 am. Cindy had to send several emails for her volunteer work with a nonprofit group in Oregon. We were happy to have some down time and walked around the property here at Pelico Paradise. Mark and I decided that the alarm for the night before was a pump for the sewer system. There hadn’t been a problem since, so we didn’t do anything with it.

We took two cars into Key West on the 30 minutes drive and found a parking space on the small island. We were able to get a spot not far from Duval Street for four hours, giving us all the time we thought we would need to visit the tourist area. We walked along Duval Street and it didn’t take long to get enough of the shops with cheap souvenirs, loud bars and strip joints, so we detoured by Mallory Square then to Whitehead and Truman Streets where Ernest Hemingway’s house stood. Mary and I had taken the tour when we were in Key West in 2013 and found the most interesting part to be the polydactyl cats, so we opted to pass on the tour.

While Mark and Cindy did the tour, we walked around town and met a guy from Ironton, Ohio and someone from Cabin Creek, WV. We stopped at the Mile 0 marker for US 1, then went to the CVS on Duval Street to buy postcards for the Koehler boys and Gran. We were leaving the Key West post office when Cindy called to tell us that they had finished the tour. We returned to the cars and drove the short distance to Higgs Beach to walk out the White Street Pier. We chatted with a family whose daughter attended Marshall and looked around, enjoying the beautiful warm day. A fisherman on the pier was feeding the small fish he caught to a great egret named George.

We left Key West heading to Castaways Restaurant on Marathon Key to meet Steve Minor for dinner. Steve arrived before us and said that Castaways was closed, so we opted to try Seven Mile Grill at the northern base of the Seven Mile Bridge on Marathon Key. We all enjoyed our meals, with most of us having local seafood. It was great to see Steve. He returned to Pelico Paradise with us, where we chatted until 10 pm while Mary, Cindy and Jodie finished the Phase 10 game then played Skip-Bo. We packed for our trip to Dry Tortugas National Park tomorrow.

Monday, January 24, 2022

Long Key State Park

We slept very well at our last night in the Homestead Travelodge. After dressing and doing some German lessons, we walked to the motel’s breakfast area for tea and cold sugar cereal. It was busier than yesterday with a family of five, two couples and a grouchy old guy. He was clearly a Florida resident since he was wearing a puffer coat despite temperatures in the upper 50s, but he certainly had a northeastern accent and attitude. He was talking loudly on his cell phone in speaker mode. He was having a dispute with someone over a credit card surcharge. It was impossible to hear anything in the room other than his rants. We finished our food and returned to the room.

Mark and Cindy went to the nearby McDonalds for breakfast then picked up a dozen Dunkin Donuts, including an apple fritter for me. Mary and I were in the Genesis with Cindy while Mark rode with Grant and Jodie. We made a detour to Robert is Here, a mega fruit stand and tourist attraction between Florida City and the Everglades. We took some snapshots and bought some snacks before driving to US 1 to drive south on the Keys. We made a brief stop on Key Largo at an information center that turned out to be a tourist trap, so we broke out the box of doughnuts and continued our drive. 

We stopped at Dagney Johnson Key Largo Hammock Botanical State Park where we walked the two mile loop through the park, stopping to read labels on many of the plants. We continued south but were running early and couldn’t check into our rental house until 4 pm. We stopped at a couple of state parks, looking for a place that we could spend a couple of hours with something interesting to do. The state parks all charge a fee to enter so we wanted to choose well.

We had driven about halfway down the Keys when we came to Long Key State Park. Mary looked it up online and it appeared to be a good place for us. It was a little after noon so the timing was perfect to find a lunch spot. We had quite a spread of lunch choices between all of the things we picked up at Aldi and what Jodi and Grant brought. After lunch, I helped a family find a geocache in the park and gave them one of the geo coins that I brought to Florida with me. A friendly park employee stopped by and gave Mary, Cindy and Jodie information about hiking trails and interesting things to see in the park.

We took the advice of the ranger and walked the nature trail along the island’s perimeter. With the sun up and the temperature in the 70s, we were very comfortable on our walk. The park has great campsites that are typically reserved over a year in advance. There are plenty of picnic spots and a few wading areas. The Keys have few beaches like the mainland, but there are small areas for wading. While walking we spotted a large iguana. These nonnative lizards have become very common thriving in the warm climate of the Florida Keys. After our walk we asked the helpful ranger for dinner recommendations in the lower Keys He suggested Castaways on 15th street, near the Seven Mile Bridge on Marathon Key.

We got organized and continued driving south on Route 1, stopping at one of the fishing piers that are on most of the bridges between the islands. The air had warmed considerably into the mid 70s, but there was a breeze making a long sleeve shirt feel comfortable. We stayed at the pier only long enough to shake the dust off and stretch  before finishing our drive to the rental.

Finding our accommodations, Pelico Paradise, was easy since Sugarloaf Key isn’t large. The house is on a Pelico Road not far from the island’s school. It is a large two story home on concrete piers situated on a spacious lot.
 It has a sitting area, kitchen, dining area and master bedroom on the first floor. The second floor has four additional bedrooms including another master suite. Two of the bedrooms had an individual outside deck as well as spacious decks on the front and rear of the house. The house is well equipped with everything we might need for our stay. There is a fire pit in the yard, a small pond with small fish and even kayaks under the house. We were certain that we would be comfortable here for our stay. Mary and Cindy found the house on Vacasa which is like AirBnB and VRBO. We relaxed for a bit and walked around to familiarize ourselves with the property before making dinner plans. As Castaways was 20 miles back on Marathon Key, Mary found Mangrove Mama’s with good reviews just a short distance from our rental house.

We arrived around 5:30 and had no problem getting a table. We ordered drinks, mostly margaritas, then our meals. Mary had Mahi tacos, and I had a seafood quesadilla. We shared our meals and enjoyed them. My quesadilla reminded me of the seafood enchiladas that a had in the southwest several years ago. Grant and Jodie enjoyed their grouper sandwich and chicken quesadilla respectively, but Mark and Cindy didn’t think their meals were anything special. Cindy had the broiled grouper, and Mark had the Angus hamburger with onion rings.

We chatted and told stories for about an hour then Grant turned in for the night. I called Steve Minor with directions to the rental and with our plans for Tuesday. Mary, Cindy, Mark, Jodie and I played Phase 10 until after 10 pm. We had one interruption in the game when an alarm sounded outside. Mark and I went outside to the source of the alarm where a bright red light was flashing. There was a sign on the alarm telling how to silence it, giving us an idea that this occurs frequently. The sign also directed us to not use any water for 15 minutes after silencing the alarm. We later learned that the alarm was related to a pump for the wastewater system. As usual, Mary dominated the game and I was in a distant last place when we paused the game at 10 pm.

Sunday, January 23, 2022

Everglades National Park

We slept well at the Florida City Travelodge. The motel checks all of our important boxes: clean, quiet, comfortable. We walked to the breakfast area near the registration desk and found the choices to be disappointing with only three sugar cereals, a little fruit, toast and little muffins to offer. There wasn’t even butter, jelly or peanut butter. We had tea, cereal and a banana before returning to the room.

We got in the car to drive toward the Flamingo area of Everglades National Park. We passed Robert is Here fruit stand but didn’t stop, planning to visit on our way out of the Everglades this afternoon. We entered the park and stopped at the Ernest Coe Visitor Center for information and to visit the displays. I purchased another annual senior pass at the entrance gate. I will probably turn my two expired annual passes next year for a $40 price reduction on a lifetime senior pass.

We stopped at the Royal Palm Visitor Center to walk around the Anhinga Trail and Gumbo Limbo Trail.
 No one was in the ranger station when we arrived.  We covered the rental car to prevent the numerous black vultures in the parking lot from destroying the windshield wipers and rubber gaskets on the car. We saw vultures pulling at tarps covering other cars in an attempt to peck at window and door seals or anything made of rubber.

Because of the cold snap, no alligators were visible along the Anhinga Trail, which is very unusual. We also saw very few birds, perhaps because of the cold wind. We did watch a few turtles and fish swimming before we moved on to other trails in the Everglades.
Tree snails

We walked a lot of the trails including the .5 mile Pinelands Trail and the Mahogany Hammock Trail, where we enjoyed finding the tree snails on the cypress trees. The snails are only active during the wet season (spring and summer), but Mary is quite skilled at locating the dormant snails on the trunks of small trees in the hammocks. We were walking on a short trail to a hammock when we heard a young couple hooting like they were looking for an owl. After they started on the path back to the parking lot, I made an owl call that brought the two of them back to the hammock looking for the owl. I was laughing, but Cindy was scolding me to stop. The two looked and looked for the owl and eventually gave up and got about half way to their car, when I called again which brought them running back to the hammock again. We left the area and moved on to visit other areas of the park.
Swamp lily
We went to the Flamingo Visitor Center for lunch. Mary got her National Park Passport stamped for the Flamingo site as well as the southernmost point of mainland US. Because of storm damage, the visitor center is still housed in a temporary facility while the building is being repaired. We had our lunch of peanut butter and crackers near the marina, where a manatee played among the boat slips and an osprey flew with a fish in talons overhead. The osprey nest nearby had young hatchlings awaiting the meal. The usual crocodiles that can be seen at the marina were not there because of the cool and overcast weather.

We walked along the 1 mile Guy Bradley Trail from the marina into the Everglades. We saw a hawk and an osprey very near the trail. We also found several plants that we couldn’t identify so we took snapshots and planned to look them up soon.

On the way back out of the park we stopped at the Eco Pond Trail, a half mile loop around a freshwater pond then on to the Snake Bight Trail that leads to the Florida Bay. We thought that this trail was 0.5 mile each way, but it turned out to be about 1.8 miles each way. Although the walk took longer than we expected, it was a nice walk to an observation platform overlooking coastal mudflats. We saw a number of wading birds feeding, although at a distance since the tide was out.

It was time to leave the park by the time we got back to the car. We drove back to the Travelodge in Homestead cleaned up, met Mark’s sister, Jodie, and his brother-in-law, Grant, for dinner. Because we had such an excellent meal there the night before, we went back to Mario’s Cuban Diner. We all had great meals and enjoyed the conversation. We visited back at the motel, packed to leave for the Keys in the morning, and then turned in for the night.

Saturday, January 22, 2022

Big Cypress National Park Loop Road

Like every other day, I awoke at 5:30 so I started water for tea and got the oatmeal ready. We enjoyed the rental house in Naples for the last morning as we packed up and prepared to leave for the Atlantic coast.

Great egret and turtle on Loop Road
We headed east on US 41 (the Tamiami Highway), stopping at the Kirby Storter Rest Area. We walked the short boardwalk through the cypress, where we saw many species of birds including egrets, herons, rosette spoonbills and storks. We spotted an owl but were unable to determine which species.

Hawk on Loop Road
Once back on the Tamiami, we went to the Ochopee Post Office, the nation’s smallest post office, to mail a few postcards. We took the Loop Road for 24 miles through the Everglades. This gravel road goes by many small streams and water holes where alligators and birds can be spotted. We drove along at a slow pace and enjoyed watching for wildlife.

Cuban Tree Frog at Biscayne National Park

We got back on the Tamiami, arriving at the Florida City Travelodge by 3 pm. We remembered the owner, Sunny Patel, from a previous stay at this hotel and was pleased that the motel was clean and updated. Only one of the two rooms was clean and ready, so we piled everything into Mark and Cindy’s room then left for Biscayne National Park, a short distance away. 

The majority of the park is underwater, but the volunteers at the visitor center were very helpful. Mary got a stamp in her National Park Passport, but I was unable to purchase an annual senior pass since the park does not have an entrance fee. We looked through the displays at the visitor center, walked around the property, and then started for dinner.

We had eaten at Mario’s Cuban Diner many times before and had always enjoyed excellent meals there. Mario’s is not far from our motel, so it was an obvious choice. We parked easily and got a seat immediately on arrival. Mark had a Cuban style strip steak (Churrasco), Cindy had the mojito pork (Masas de Cerdo), Mary had thin sliced pork with onions (Lechon asado), I had the Vaca frita, shredded beef with Cuban seasoning. We had tostones, Congri (black beans and white rice), plantains and other sides to share. We exchanged bits of each other’s meals and were all happy with our choices, leaving the restaurant full.

We returned to the Florida City Travelodge, checked in to our room and went for a short walk around the motel. We made mojitos back at the room and watched the end of a NFL playoff game seeing the Bengals narrowly defeat the Titans.

Friday, January 21, 2022

Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary

As usual, we were up between 5:30 and 6 am, had tea and did our German lessons before a breakfast of oatmeal with raisins, walnuts, blueberries and some brown sugar that we brought back for The Fish House. While we ate, we explored options for the day and later in the trip.

Great Egret
We left for Audubon Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary a little before 9 am arriving before 10 am. When we arrived, we saw a sign announcing that admission was by reservation and that walk-ins would not be accepted. We had not seen anything like this in visits here on previous visits, so Mary donned her mask and went inside to ask. As expected, this is a Covid-19 policy to assure that there would not be large groups congregating in the area. She was able to pay the $17 per person admission and get us in.

Barred Owl

As we walked along the boardwalk in the nature preserve, we noticed that we were seeing far fewer birds than we recalled seeing when we were here in 2016 and 2019. Perhaps it is just our perception, but we have heard that bird populations in many areas of the country have declined in the past few years. Several friendly volunteers from the local chapter of the National Audubon Society were along the boardwalk, pointing out things of interest and identifying birds. In two of the areas holding standing water, we saw alligators although none were very large. We had been hearing an owl for much of the day as we walked through the park, and Cindy was determined to spot the bird. I blew across my thumbs to make a hooting sound. Of course, the owl didn’t reply, so I made an owl call by cupping my hands. 

We saw several types of woodpeckers, warblers, nuthatches, anhingas and other birds. Mark used his Merlin app to help identify many of them. We also refreshed our memories with many of the native plants in the area. While we learn to identify several of Florida’s common plants every year, we forget most by the time we return the next January. 

About midway around the boardwalk, we were stopped by a volunteer who told us that a barred owl was sitting on a branch near the boardwalk ahead. Another volunteer further up the trail pointed to the owl posing on a branch. We all enjoyed seeing the owl, but it made Cindy’s day. The volunteer told us that the barred owl had been in that spot for over an hour and had called several times. She said that another owl had responded to the call and pointed to the direction where we had been when I made the owl call. Mary and Cindy shot me a look and ushered me out of the area while tried to not laugh.

Cuban Anole displaying dewlap
After returning to the visitor center, it was nearly 3 o’clock which was closing time for the park. We stopped by the gift shop then found a picnic table outside for our lunch of peanut butter, crackers, nuts, apples and trail mix. We left the park around 4 pm and drove back stopping at CVS for more sunscreen. We made it back to the rental house before 5 pm.

It was nice to have a less active day. We cycled 15 miles on Wednesday then kayaked 5 miles on Thursday in addition to walking a lot both days, so we were glad to have some time to kick back. Mary and Cindy sat in the lawn chairs in the back yard and read, while Mark and I occupied the sofas in the living room. We ate leftover chicken and seafood from earlier in the week along with a bagged salad mix. It was very good and filling. We plugged a USB stick into the television and watched Daddy and Them as while we ate, followed by mojitos or Larceny bourbon on the rocks. Unlike other evenings this week, we managed to stay awake until 10 pm before going back to our bedrooms.

Tomorrow we would pack up and move to the east coast of Florida. 

Thursday, January 20, 2022

Kayaking the Estuary at Lover's Key State Park

Mary and I were up by 5:30 and got the tea and oatmeal ready. Mary was a little congested and didn’t sleep especially well, but the house is very quiet and our room is plenty dark for sound sleeping. After breakfast we loaded up to go back to the Lover’s Key State Park in Ft. Myers. We had hiked here on Monday and enjoyed it.

A line of cars was waiting to pay the $8 day use fee when we arrived, but it moved quickly. To our surprise, the park was not crowded, although it was busy. We rented two double sea kayaks at the visitor center for $63 each. The friendly lady at the counter gave us information about the kayak routes through the mangrove estuary and places where manatees and other wildlife have been sighted recently.

Mark, Cindy & Mark prepare the kayaks
I suppose we were comical boarding double kayaks while trying to not flip over, but we launched successfully with no one getting more than their feet wet. The park placed buoys along the five mile route every ¼ mile, making it easier to stay on course. There were a number of additional places to kayak into coves and side channels, but we always returned to the marked route.

Steve & Mary paddling in the estuary
We went up one channel under a footbridge where the kayak rental lady mentioned and saw at least four manatees, two large adults and two smaller juveniles. The two adults surfaced within a few feet of our kayaks and stayed around us as we drifted in the slack water. We headed back toward the main path and saw two kayaks watching something in the water. We paddled nearer and saw two large manatees playing in the water, so we stopped to watch. They were within ten feet of us when they submerged, then surfaced directly under our kayak! I can imagine the expression on our faces as our boat was lifted several inches above the water, nearly tipping over. Mark and Cindy were nearby laughing and wishing that the had been taking photos.

Mark & Cindy kayaking
We continued on the route, stopping near the midway point to get out and stretch before returning to the boat livery to return the kayaks, pfds and seats around 2 pm. Although we didn’t see any birds or wildlife on the trip that we hadn’t already seen, we were able to get close to many birds while on the water. There were lots of herons, egrets and ospreys that didn’t seem threatened by us in the kayaks.

We had a late lunch at the picnic area near the nature center with the peanut butter and crackers, dried and fresh fruit and nuts. Many people were leaving the park as we were having lunch so we decided to walk over to the beach area. Because the tide was lower, we were able to walk along the beach in both directions and past the point where we had to turn around on Monday. Lots of shells were exposed, many of them intact. The beach isn’t very wide on this key, but a fair number of people were sunbathing, reading, wading or fishing as we walked. It felt good to be walking around after sitting in a kayak for so long.

We had a restaurant recommendation from a local for The Fish House in Bonita Springs. We were looking for a place with good seafood but a relaxed atmosphere since we were still in beach attire. We had no trouble finding The Fish House, but the main the parking lot was full. However, the overflow lot just 100 yards away had plenty of spaces available. We were able to get seated quickly and ordered our meals. Mark had coconut shrimp, Cindy had crab cakes, Mary did the broiled, stuffed grouper, and I had the seafood platter with oysters, shrimp, clams and cod. Everyone enjoyed the meal.

We returned to the rental house and had mojitos as we relaxed. Mary and Cindy played a few games of cribbage, but I turned in around 9 o’clock.

Wednesday, January 19, 2022

Bicycling Shark Valley Loop

Mary and I woke around 5:30, so we did our German lessons, read the news feed and responded to a few emails. I made oatmeal for breakfast again with raisins and walnuts along with hot tea. We left the house around 8 am to drive to the Shark Valley area of Everglades National Park. We rented bicycles as soon as we arrived to ride out to the observation tower. The fee was $22 per bicycle, and the rental lasted until 6 pm. The bikes were not the extreme fat tire types that are becoming more common at beaches but were like the bicycles of a generation ago. They did not have hand brakes but rather the old coaster brakes. They were perfect for the flat 15 mile round trip ride to the observation tower and back.

We had walked out the trail at Shark Valley many times but never more than about five miles. Usually we walked only two or three miles along the Everglades stream. On this trip we planned to cycle all the way out to the observation tower then back on a trail through grassy marshland to the visitor center. While at the visitor center, Mary got her National Park Passport stamped.

Once on the bikes we rode south slowly, stopping for alligators, birds, turtles, fish and any other wildlife. As usual, we saw a number of alligators but didn’t see the variety’s of birds that we recalled seeing in years past. It could have been the weather or any number of reasons, but we saw several heron and egret species as well as gallinules, hawks and crows. When we made it to the end of the trail we climbed the observation tower for photos and a water break. After spending about 20 minutes at the tower, we continued our ride back to the visitor center. This part goes through a grassy wetland where we saw far less wildlife than on the trail to the tower. However, we saw several alligators including at least a couple of females on nests with baby alligators. The sun was very bright and the temperature was about 80, so we were getting very tired and got off to walk the bicycles in order to stretch.

We got back to the visitor center around 2:30, returned the bicycles and found a picnic table for lunch of our usual Ritz crackers with peanut butter and apples. After eating, Mary bought some postcards from the visitor center gift shop. We got back in the rental car to drive back toward our rental house in Naples. We stopped at the Oasis Visitor Center since we like the boardwalk overlooking the stream there that is usually teeming with alligators, fish and turtles. We found a helpful ranger who answered our questions and pointed out some of the larger alligators in that stream. Mary got the National Park passport stamps for Big Cypress National Preserve and the Florida Nature Trail there.

We drove west, stopping briefly at the H. P. Williams Roadside Park, where there were a few alligators and birds but nothing notable. We were tired and ready for dinner so we returned to our rental house.

We found the Peruvian restaurant, Lima, not far away and decided to give it a try. We arrived to a much more elegant restaurant than we expected, but they were happy to receive us. We chose a table outside since the evening was so nice. We all started with a drink. Mary had a ginger lemonade, Mark had a Peruvian beer, Cindy had a cocktail made with Picso, a Peruvian brandy. I had a shot of the Pisco which was very floral and nice to sip. We all had popular Peruvian entrees for dinner. Mary and Cindy had shrimp tacu tacu with aji amarillo sauce which is a mild yellow pepper sauce. The shrimp were served with tacu tacu, a beans and rice side. Mark had the Seco de Cordero, lamb shank with rice and vegetables, and I had pan seared grouper with roasted potatoes and a spring mix salad. Everyone enjoyed the meal and was pleased with the experience at a Peruvian restaurant. Our waitress was very pleasant, helpful and attentive, so we came away with a very positive attitude about the restaurant.

We were very tired from the day, so we didn’t do much back at the house. Mark and I read while Mary and Cindy dealt with technology issues on Cindy’s Surface tablet. We got our kitchen cabinets ordered from RTAcabinets that should be delivered in late February or early March.

We all went to bed early since we planned to kayak on Thursday, which would make another long day.

Tuesday, January 18, 2022

Everglades City

I was up first after sleeping until 6 am. It was nice to sleep in a bit and get up in time to start getting breakfast ready. I got water started for tea and oatmeal. We had raisins and walnuts to add in to the oats. Of course it took me longer since I was not familiar with the operation of the appliances and didn’t know where things are stored in the kitchen. Mary and I did a couple of quick German lessons before Mark and Cindy woke. We enjoyed the oats and tea then planned our day.

We decided to stick close to our lodging today, and Mary suggested Collier Seminole State Park nearby. The drive on the Tamiami Trail (Rt. 41) was easy. When we entered the park, the volunteer working the entrance told us that the area we were in had a short 1 mile trail and a 5 mile trail that was partially in water. Another park entrance had a 3.5 mile trail that was through the state park. We opted to walk the one mile trail but not the 5 mile one through thick mud. As we were exiting that part of the park, we picked up a trail pass for visitors. The $8 entrance fee to the park covered both areas.

The 3.5 mile hike was very beautiful through mangrove, palmetto and pine brush. We saw a few alligators, several snakes, many anoles and lots of birds of all types.

We returned our trail pass to the visitor center then sat on a bench overlooking the water with a few manatees. Our lunch was the usual peanut butter and crackers with the bottles of water that we picked up the night before.

After finishing lunch we drove to Everglades City stopping at the ranger station to pickup a map. We walked another short trail of less than a mile, but it had good signs pointing out local native plants. After our walk we drove to the historic 1906 Smallwood Store but didn’t stay there long.

We continued east on US 41 to the Big Cypress National Preserve visitor center. We walked behind the visitor center to the deck overlooking the water. A few alligators were there but no manatees that we saw. A ranger came out and told us that she was waiting for another ranger who had been out freeing an anhinga from a snarl of fishing line. We didn’t stay at the visitor center long and headed back toward the house. 

We stopped at a Publix for groceries and picked up fruit and a few other things for meals. We bought a rotisserie chicken and salad makings as well as precooked corn fritters and potato wedges. We went to the Publix Liquor Store and picked up a bottle of Bacardi rum for mojitos and Larceny bourbon for sipping at the house.

When we got back to the house we ate about half of the chicken along with the potatoes and corn. Everything was very good. We crashed and enjoyed a glass of the bourbon while Mary and Cindy played cribbage.