Thursday, May 30 – Friday, May 31 – Prelude

 

 

Kai and I packed on Thursday, and left for Lincoln around 4 pm. We met up with Mark just before 6 pm, and he and I went out to have dinner at Noodles and bring Kai some food back to the apartment. The weather was very stormy and we had buckets full of rain, which Mark and I watched from under the awning at the Centerstone building, while cars were being dinged by hail and people got sopping wet during a drenching 20-minute downpour. 

We finished packing Friday morning and got the car serviced (it was due at 5,000 miles, which we just hit on Thursday). Kai and I also ran a few errands, and in the afternoon, we met up with the Neddermans and their friend/my former student Nicole Wells, since they were in town, and later went for a little walk with Kai. At night, we all went to the wedding of two former students, now in graduate school at Indiana (this is also why the Neddermans and Nicole were in town). The reception was in a snazzy faux log-cabin country club and a lot of fun. The Babcocks and the Amyots were there, as well as a bunch of students I hadn’t seen in forever (Lane and Jen, the newlyweds, graduated in 2007). There was also dancing, and Mark and I had a wonderful time with that – eventually, even Kai, who had said he would absolutely not dance, got on the dance floor with Emily Amyot and Carl Babcock. We were not home until 11:30! 

 

Saturday, June 1, Sunday, June 2, and Monday June 3: Lakeland, FL

This was the beginning of the trip, but not quite the beginning of our vacation – 1,500 miles in three long segments (600, 650, and 250, approximately), with a very full car and Kai in the backseat, playing his DS pretty much the entire time, but overall very cooperative). The first day, we took off from Lincoln around 9, had Subway somewhere on the road, and then had dinner at a Denny’s, which gave Kai the opportunity to discover that there are restaurants that serve breakfast all day long. He had pancakes, and then pancakes again twice the next day! We stayed overnight in Southern Illinois, and discovered that our route the next day would go right by Clarksville, TN, where our friend Jay lives. 

So we got in touch with him and met up with him at a Cracker Barrel near the Interstate for a brunch (more pancakes for Kai, plus a wooden robot for Mark). It was great to see Jay after almost a year and a half, and catch up for an hour. We then drove pretty much all day, and because it was Sunday and we wouldn’t have to deal with weekday traffic, made it without a hitch through Atlanta. We did drive through a fairly nasty stretch of downpours afterwards, but that wasn’t too bad, either. We had dinner around 5 pm at another Denny’s somewhere in Georgia, and stayed overnight in Tifton, GA, in a hotel with a pool, so Kai would actually be able to move around a little after sitting in the car all day. The highlight of the 650+ miles was the 100-mile stretch after Atlanta where we repeatedly saw a DeLorean that was driving either just behind or just ahead of us.

We took off around 8 am the next morning after free continental breakfast at the hotel, and drove first the I-75 and then the backroads through the Green Swamp to Lakeland. We got there at about 1 pm, found Bruce’s house without problems, and then went out to lunch together, since we were all starving. Then Bruce showed us the Florida Southern College campus, both outside and (a little bit) inside. It is truly a beautiful and extraordinary campus, having been designed in large part by Frank Lloyd Wright (the FLW parts were my favorites, especially the former library, where they now have their faculty meetings, in a circular auditorium with curved desks that terrace down to the center! The location of the whole campus on the lake is really idyllic, and Kati’s future dorm is right on the lakefront like a darn hotel! After the tour, which we did partly in the rain, we drove around the lake and then back to Bruce’s house, hung out a bit, and then had dinner. Mark and I went for a nice long walk around sunset, 3 miles around the “college lake” (Lake Hollingsworth), and saw tons of interesting waterfowl, including completely unbaffleable Great Blue Herons that stand 10 feet from you without getting nervous. It was rather humid, but the sky was clearing and the sunset was beautiful. 

Tuesday, June 4: Day 1: Sanibel – Captiva – Fort Myers Beach

 

We got up and ready between 8 and 9 after a relatively restful night in the attic room that is usually Kati’s. Then Bruce came home from his radio show, we said goodbye and took off for the ocean. The immediate goal were Sanibel and Captiva Islands, and then Fort Myers Beach for overnight. So while we were driving the fairly unexciting Interstate stretch between Lakeland and where we had to branch off for Port Charlotte, I booked us a motel or the night (and then also one much more expensive one for two nights on Key West). We stopped near Port Charlotte for Subway, then made our way to Sanibel Island. We found public beach access parking about midway through the island, and although it had been drizzling off and on, it quite just for our pleasure, although it remained overcast—which meant that there weren’t hordes on the beach and it was nice and cool, for FL in the summer. We had a great time walking up and down the beach looking for shells, which is what Sanibell is famous for, after all. I also got in the water for a bit, but it was too shallow for swimming, even though the temperature was perfect. We didn’t go see the lighthouse or the animal / wildlife preserve (it was too late in the day), but we did drive on to Captiva Island and parked in the lot at the very end of the publicly accessible part of the island. We walked around some more and looked for more shells. The ocean makes me happy! 

We drove back around 5 pm (having spent the afternoon on the islands) and then crossed another bridge to Fort Myers Beach. The motel I booked us was a bit off the beaten track, i.e. at the southern tip of the island FMB is on, but it was very cute and clean and run by a German who gave us a “rainy day upgrade” to a king size bed. We drove back to the busier end of town for some dinner, and found a good casual beach front restaurant/bar with a burger for Mark and a fish wrap for me. We bought ice cream at the 7-11 for dessert and took it to the beach. Fine dining could not have been better than this! We briefly checked out the beach access near the hotel just because a review had claimed it was “a mile away” (500 feet tops, with beautiful clear water ahead of this little sand bank that kept the sand clouds in the water at bay). Then we took showers and went to bed. What a great first day for us! 

Wednesday, June 5: Day 2 : From Fort Myers Beach to Key West

Since it was drizzling when we got up, we took off fairly early from Fort Myers Beach (where the nice German motel owner/manager was actually flying not just one of the German flags we’ve seen here, to signal to the many German tourists that German IS spoken, but actually a Lower Saxony flag, since he is from Braunschweig), and after a stop at a McDonald’s since there was no Starbucks to be found, drove pretty much straight across Florida on the Tamiami Trail. We stopped at a visitor center about halfway through Great Cypress National Forest to look at the alligators that were swimming around there, and we had a very nice, simple Mexican meal in Homestead, on the way South to Highway 1, which leads across the Keys to Key West. It does take quite a bit of time to get there, but of course it is a beautiful drive, and we actually had no more precip after about noon, even though it stayed overcast. The most interesting parts of the trip were of course the bridges from one key to the next, and it was nice to see less urban blight / fast food and big trashy stores like Home Depot etc. as we went along. The seven-mile-bridge was fun, and seeing the old bridges on its side was also interesting—some of the old Seven-Mile bridge to Pigeon Island, and some of the even older railway bridge on the other side were clearly decaying pretty rapidly. We found our hotel, the Albury Court hotel, without much of a problem, and because it’s been gray and rainy (par for the course for the rainy season in June, I guess), we even found a street parking spot right in front of our entry way. We were thrilled. The hotel is nice and the room just right and pretty nicely renovated; the hotel is really a small group of homes on two opposite street corners that I suspect were once vacation rentals. 

We dropped of our stuff and went exploring—we really did pick pretty well (pickings were a bit slim even at $ 150 / night; the reviews for cheaper hotels sounded abysmal, so we’re spending a bit more than we’d normally spend), because within five minutes, we were at the board/pier walk and walked along a long line of boats of all kinds on the right and bars and restaurants on the right. We curved all the way around until we got to the start of Duval street, and then walked down it—it’s just the kind of tourist-trap shop-next-to-shop you would expect, but many of them are in cute old Victorians which apparently all survived the big Hurricane of 1935 as well as the couple of more recent ones that did a little damage here. Some of the more palatial Victorians with lots of balconies and gingerbread trim are very pretty, some are very over the top, with pink shutters and the works. Lots of shops, restaurants and B&Bs fly the rainbow flag to signal that they are either GLBT-friendly or GLBT-only, which is fun to see. There was even a GLBT-only boat rental, the Blue Q. 

We had a good time walking down Duval street—it helped that it wasn’t super crowded, and although it was overcast, it never rained and was very pleasant, at 82 degrees, the humidity brought down by a nice breeze, while we were walking around for about 3 hours. Then we found ourselves a nice restaurant at the pier, looking out on the boats from an open, covered deck, and I had lovely ceviche with yellowtail snapper and onions and sweet corn, while Mark had a chicken salad sandwich that looked really tasty as well. But after dinner, we were tired and it started spitting again, so we went back to the hotel and turned in for the night. We’ll get heavy rain as part of a storm system (Andrea) that will probably pass to the northwest of us. 

Thursday, June 6. Day 3: Key West

 

This day was completely awesome! All the rain that was forecast actually happened overnight, and by 8 am, when we got up, there was just a bit of wet and some puddles, but it was dry and light. We had breakfast at the hotel pool, where they put together quite a nice continental breakfast with croissants and cereal and so on, and then we went off on our day of exploring Key West on foot. We didn’t have the GPS on Mark’s phone on, so it’s anyone’s guess how much we walked, but I’m sure it was around 10 miles total in the course of the day! This will be a long entry because we packed so much into the day! 

We started by walking to the Hemingway house, and took the tour. It was a nice little refresher (I’m not much of an aficionado when it comes to Hemingway) and despite the truly awful Hemingway portrait paintings on various walls, the house itself and the little writer’s annex where he did his writing in the morning before he started drinking at “Sloppy Joe’s” (a bar which still exists in some form) was really nice. There were some very cool Spanish majolica tiles in the anteroom to the kitchen, and some nice tile designs in the bathrooms as well. The garden was fun to walk around in, too, as are all the green spaces here, since everything just grows without much help from anyone. But of course the best part were the “Hemingway Cats” – who cares whether they are all descendants of the original polydactyl cat that Hemingway owned? They were just fun to watch since they really were all over, and very friendly. One sat on my lap when I was sitting on a bench, and others were very pettable. Those cats actually get the treatment all cats expect; they own the place and have full-time staff feeding them and grooming them around the clock. They look fat and happy and like they are enjoying all the attention. 

After the Hemingway house, we went across the street to the Key West Light House, and climbed up there for the fabulous all-around view of the whole island. By this time, it was actually sunny, and the water was doing all the aqua/light green / bright blue stuff you would expect from the tropics. We could see the buildings we’d been walking by and the huge cruise ship that had anchored to dump its cruise guests for the day, as well as some of the tiny Keys further off of Key West. 

We then hit Tourist Spot # 3, walking to Fort Zachary State park at the end of the island. We checked out the fort, and it was interesting, but given that it actually never saw much action of any sort in any of the wars and given that I’m not much into military history, it didn’t hold our attention long; the view from the older parapet (I’m sure that’s not the right term) onto the ocean was very pretty, though. We also briefly checked out the state park’s beach, with the idea that we might come back to swim for a little. 

By the time we left the area, we were getting hungry and walked back to Duval Street. We settled for “cubano” style paninis at a gelateria (they were so-so) because we really wanted gelato for dessert—and that was really delicious. We then walked back to the hotel, since the sun made it rather hot and humid and we were ready for a break from walking in an air-conditioned room! We took about an hour to rest our feet and cool down a bit, and then put our swimsuits on and took off again, although it was getting overcast (still none of the forecast precipitation). 

We did take a brief look at the “Southernmost Point” where all the tourists take pictures, but we already knew from the Internet that it was neither the most Southern point in the continental US NOR 90 miles from Cuba (it’s 94 miles or something), so we were not sad to be without a camera. Since the public beach in the vicinity was basically postage-stamp size, squeezed in between two big resorts, we did walk back to Fort Zach and spent some time on that beach, swimming and walking despite a rather rocky, pebbly surface and quite a bit of seaweed and shredded palm leaves in the water that got stuck on us. It wasn’t the greatest swimming experience, but I could not NOT go swimming in tropical waters, and Mark was a good sport about it. 

We were pretty damp when we got out, but walked back to Duval Street and then to the Marina on the gulf side. The clouds were getting rather dark now on the gulf side, and a storm was clearly coming, but we had spotted a little diner (Harpoon Harry’s) a little bit off the Marina and about 3 blocks from the hotel, and went in there about 5 minutes before it started to pour buckets. It turned out to be a really fun place with a super friendly owner who called us “baby” and “honey,” and mostly local customers; we had simple but lovely specials (grouper with rice and spinach for me, chicken quesadillas for Mark) and shared a piece of chocolate cake with icecream while watching sheets of rain pelt the streets. It felt like the perfect end to a day without a drop of rain that had been forecast to be rain all day! When it lightened up a little bit, we walked back to the hotel (we did have an umbrella), past a power line that was down because of a tree coming down in the storm. We took lovely hot showers, hung up our clothes to dry, and were determined to stay indoors for the rest of the night, with more stormy weather moving through the area. A perfect one-day Key West visit! 

Friday, June 7. Day 4: Key West to Cape Canaveral/Cocoa Beach

 

We got up around 8 and had breakfast by the hotel pool again, and then left Key West (with one little bit of backtracking, because we had left Mark’s all-important hat behind at our breakfast table). We checked out Higgs Beach on our way out of Key West, but we were glad we didn’t try to walk there yesterday (it would have been quite the hike, and the beach was just full of bark and algae for miles, presumably from the recent storm, so it wouldn’t have been fun to walk). 

We then drove the 100+ miles off the Keys, had lunch about an hour after we hit the mainland (at a Panda Express, nothing special), and then headed straight North on the Florida Turnpike for another 4 hours or so, headed for Cocoa Beach. We had no traffic issues whatsoever, but drove through a couple of downpours before we left the last bit of the storm system behind. It was still a mix of clouds and sun with temperatures in the mid-80s, but very nice. We got to Cocoa Beach via the fun Causeway across Merritt Island and to Cocoa Beach around 4 pm; the hotel is a large and anonymous Comfort Inn at the North end, and I was all ready to be a bit disappointed because it looked pretty blah and like it was last renovated in the early 80s, but a) we have this enormous two-room suite with view of the ocean, and b) we are really just half a block from the beach, which is all soft sand for miles in both directions, with a nice cool breeze and a mild but wonderful Atlantic surf all along. We settled in, then walked down to check out the beach, and decided to go eat something and then return to the beach for a quick dip into the water. For dinner, we had piled-high focaccia pizza at this New York pizza place that also served enormous 26-inch pizzas at a couple of tables. It was good but not fabulous, but we might go back for a salad, since it’s right across the street and we are here for three nights. We also stopped by the famous (obnoxiously famous—there were billboards ever since we crossed the Georgia border five days ago) Ron Jon Surf shop, which is right down the street from us, to buy a little waterproof container for a driver’s license, a few dollar bills and a hotel key. 

Then we went to the beach and splashed in the surf for quite a while (the water is very shallow and we couldn’t go out far enough to swim; I don’t quite trust myself to swim through crashing waves), and then walked along the beach, watching sun and clouds go by. We went back to the room to clean ourselves up and walked around some more, finding some very nice frozen yogurt and walking back on a wooden board walk above the beach, watching the waves crashing on our left (east) as the sun was going down on the Western side, with this ridiculously color-coordinated sky, pink clouds on baby blue, to match several of the buildings around here. We were back around 8:30 and decided to call it a day – it was a lot of driving for Mark, and true to form, we didn’t last far into the evening. But it was a wonderful first half-day here, and we like the beach here a lot! 

 

Saturday, June 8: Day 5: Kennedy Space Center

 

 

We woke up fairly early this morning, had fairly decent hotel breakfast around 7 am, and went for a 45-minute walk up and down the beach, since sunrise had been rather nice and now the sun was peeking out from in between the clouds. Then we drove to the Kennedy Space Center, which turned out to be as nearby as promised, although our Apple-maps app was completely confused and would have sent us way out of our way by trying to get us to the middle of the launch pad rather than to the Visitor Center!

At the Kennedy Space Center, we did almost everything that they had to offer except the stuff for kids, and a lot of it was really interesting. We went to the “early space exploration” exhibit, walked through the rocket garden, saw the Imax movie on being inside the space station (somewhat older), and went into a couple of the kid exhibits But the best part was the so-called “Mega Tour” we took that included a lot more than the regular tour, specifically one of the major launch pads for the Apollo and Space Shuttle launches and the so-called VAB—the 500+ foot high “vehicle assembly building” for the various rockets and the shuttle. The bus tour had a very competent and enthusiastic guide and took about 2 ½ hours, with various stops and photo ops, and it ended at the most interesting final exhibit. That is where they simulate the launch of Apollo 8, complete with a view of the old command center, and with vibrating seats (a little hokey but fun nonetheless), and where you walk around an enormous actual Saturn 5 rocket that was never used for the Apollo program. They also have a film/slide/replica-based account of the nail-biter manual landing of the lunar lander on the first moon mission. 

The displays and films and presentations and what not were of course geared toward a general audience, and so I’m not sure how much Mark enjoyed the somewhat pedestrian pace, and he did typically supply me with extra information whenever I was curious about something. It was a sort of space equipment petting zoo, but only “sort of” because there was so much we couldn’t touch / climb / get near too. But overall it was a lot of fun, and Mark clearly found it very intriguing (more than I did) to actually see and photograph the tech stuff and the massive machinery. I am always most intrigued by the early days of the space program, not the more recent shuttle stuff, but there was plenty of information and I had a good time. It helped that it was not the least bit crowded. We had no waiting lines (although the center is clearly equipped for that) and no probably seeing everything we wanted to. We stayed until about 4:30, when it got dark and stormy enough (after a nice sunny day) that they issued a couple of warnings over the loudspeaker. But we were on our way out anyway and even got back to the hotel before it started raining. 

We braved the rain to go out and have Thai food across the street (pretty decent curry and “drunken noodles”), then spent some time looking for a few things at Ron Jon’s Surf Shop (I ended up buying a sarong cloth rather than a beach dress as intended; at least we can sit on that if I can’t figure out how to tie it into a dress!). We also went in search for UV-resistant shirts for Mark (for Madagascar), but both Ron Jon’s and the second surf shop next door had only hideous styles to offer. We wrapped up the evening with some frozen yogurt (from the same place as yesterday), and then retired to our lovely, quiet rooms for the night. 

 

Sunday, June 9, 2013: Day 6: Cocoa Beach

 

This was our fabulous Atlantic Coast beach day! We started out by sleeping in a little and having another round of continental breakfast in the hotel lobby. Then we took off for a morning walk to the (rather sleepy Sunday morning) downtown of Cocoa Beach, all the way along the beach for about 3 miles, and then 3 miles back. It was really a fabulous walk; we were alternately entertained by the waves, the clouds (we got sprinkled on a couple of times, but managed to keep the camera dry), the tiny shells in the sand, and the people. We even saw the tracks of a sea turtle toward a newly created nest! (The rangers mark these here with caution tape; this one was not marked yet, but the tracks were very clear!) We then had iced coffee/ soda pop in Cocoa Beach but were back by about 11:30. By that time, the clouds had been blown inland, and it was quite hot, although the ocean breeze kept it manageable. We went in search of lunch, and ended up having pretty decent fast food at the nearby Taco Bell (fancy, I know) before heading back to the room for a little bit of a break from the heat. We also dealt with the laundry, and I skyped with Kati in Germany, since we finally could get the times roughly synched, so that was fun. 

Then we went back to the beach, this time without cameras, iphones, or, in my case, sandals, but instead in swim suits, and jumped around in the waves just after the turn of the tide (from low tide at 3:30 pm). It was so much fun! We walked ourselves dry by walking about a mile the other direction, toward a pier full of restaurants etc. The beach was pretty busy, but mostly where the life guards were, and in between there were pleasantly quiet stretches. We played on the beach until shortly after 5 pm, took very refreshing showers, and had pizza slices and a huge Italian salads at the pizza place across the street (plus mini blizzards at DQ’s, but we are not discussing that further). Sitting there, we also figured out that despite all our sun goop precautions, we actually did get a little burned—Mark around the neck and between his sandal straps, and I in a few more places, since I keep wearing tank tops and bathing suits without a t-shirt over them. I may have to give up on this—I keep underestimating the power of the Florida sun. We stayed in the rooms for quite a while and didn’t go out to the beach again until it was after 8, and no longer sunny. But we couldn’t NOT go back to check on the beach one more time. We’re leaving tomorrow and decided to take a no-beach, less-UV-ridden day tomorrow. 

 

Monday, June 10, 13. Day 7: Cocoa Beach to Homosassa on the Gulf Coast

 

I woke up earlier than legally permissible, at about 5 am or so, and although I entertained myself by reading the news and browsing around on Facebook, I realized I couldn’t go back to sleep, and when I saw the first clouds illuminated by sunshine on the beach, I decided to go down and watch the sun rise. I was going to be nice and let Mark sleep, but the view was so fabulous once I got to the beach that I texted him to come join me with the camera. It was a beautiful pink sunrise, although the clouds ultimately got in the way of us seeing all of it—what a nice goodbye from Cocoa Beach! We then had breakfast, got ourselves packed (always a very smooth process – we are a good team), and let the GPS guide us from one Florida Coast to the other—we were headed to Homosassa Springs State Park, about midway up the gulf coast, and it took us about 2 hours to get there. The area there is mostly salt marshes near a couple of cold springs that feed two rivers that empty into the gulf after just a few miles—the Homosassa and Crystal River, and clearly, people come here to fish, boat, and see the manatees. I wanted to come here because I’d been to the State Park, which is really a little native-species zoo, because I’d been here with the kids 7 years ago and liked it a lot. It is an unpretentious area, and the tourism is pretty low key; as almost everywhere in Florida, June is NOT the high season, but the season to avoid, because it gets too hot and too rainy, not to mention very humid. We are not the biggest fans of that, either, but I am liking it that not everything is overrun and packed with people!

We were able to check into the hotel before 11 am in the morning right after our arrival in Homosassa, which was nice, and it turned out that we could walk to the State Park, right next door to the hotel, right away. From this entry point into the park, we got to take a pontoon boat down the Little Pepper River for about 20 minutes until we got to the park entrance, so we got to see turtles and alligators and an osprey’s nest before we even got to the park. In the park, we were pretty lucky in terms of seeing almost all the animals—no one was hiding, and we had fun with the giant alligators, the cougar and the bobcats, the many native birds, and so on. (Flamingos really DO look like someone “flamingoed” the lawn, just even pinker than the plastic flamingos.) There were some owls we saw up close, but of course the most spectacular part were the manatees. The park sports an underwater “dry tank” in the big manatee area, which is right over the spring that brings the 72/74-degree water the manatees need up from the Florida Aquifer. The manatees are very obliging and swim right around that tank so you are practically face to face with them. Mark took some wonderful pictures of one that even did a flip turn. We also watched them being fed huge bunches of lettuce, and we could see that their noses work like a super short elephant’s trunk. It was really a lot of fun, although quite hot and humid, 

We had eaten wraps for an early lunch before we even started on the tour of the park, so when we got done with looking at everything, we were hot and tired but at least not hungry. We headed back to the hotel around 2:30, took a nice cool nap in the air-conditioned hotel room, and then had an early dinner in the hotel’s bar/restaurant (not great but ok). We then took a little drive around; first to “Old Homosassa” and the boat docking area there (very quiet and with not much to see except the remains of an old sugar mill from the Civil War era), and then to the Fort Island State Beach, furthest out from the town of Crystal River. I briefly went swimming there, and then we took a walk around the beach area, to the fishing pier and the boating dock. It was very nice out there and almost (but not quite) felt like open water, and we decided to stay the extra hour or so until sunset, which we watched from the pier. Like the sunrise this morning on the OTHER coast, it wasn’t a perfect sunset because of the clouds, but still very pretty. There were quite a few people on the pier, including drunk and slightly obnoxious teenagers, but it wasn’t crowded, so that was nice. (We also had a not-so-beautiful view of the nearby power plant, which was not so nice, but we were good tourists and ignored it—it was a bit of a relief to find out from the internet the next morning that the nuclear power plant among the five plants that make up the complex we saw had actually been shut off permanently. Then we went home, with a little detour for a shake and a malt at the nearby Sonic, but then we went back to the hotel for showers and an early bedtime! 

 

Tuesday, June 11, 2013. Day 8: Homosassa Springs to Gainesville

 

Today was very eventful and varied! We slept until after 7, which was quite impressive for us, and had a less-than-impressive hotel breakfast (the worst so far, but probably only by a few degrees) before we took off and hit a number of different stops we had thought would look interesting on the way to Gainesville. First of all, we stopped a few miles up north from Homosassa in Crystal River’s archaeological state park—right on the Crystal River, there are some paleo-Indian burial mounds and a big temple mound. The site really just looks like a few hills, but there ARE no hills in that area, which is why early 20th-century archeologists started digging there. It was a very tranquil and (at 9 in the morning) practically empty site, but the cool thing was that an archeologist from Florida Southern University and his students were actually working on a dig there and showed us a few primitive tools made out of shells that they had found among the debris. 

After this stop, we went to Cedar Key, which is a set of little islands with a tiny settlement that is just tourism nowadays, but was once a port and then a place for oyster fishing. The tiny state park (with a closed museum) didn’t yield much, but we went to the pier/dock area (basically one fairly short street) and had lunch at the “Pickled Pelican” overlooking the gulf and the little islands that dot the estuary. As we left, we passed by an osprey’s nest and actually backed up because Mark had spotted a bird landing there. We actually got really good photos of the two young in the nest, even though it was very high up in a tree. 

We took the back roads from Cedar Key to one of the many natural springs in Northern Florida, Manatee Springs, and this turned out to be the highlight of the day. Not only was the spring gorgeous, with the classic clear blue water going deep, deep down where the spring wells up out of the Florida Aquifer through the porous limestone. We did go for a swim there (cold only on first impact, at 72 degrees year round), and a woman who had been snorkeling let us use her goggles to look down into the depth of the spring, and watch the fish swimming merrily among the people. There were quite a lot of people swimming and so it was a bit of a ruckus, but there was also a very tranquil trail / boardwalk going to where the spring flows into the Suwanee River. That was really beautiful. 

We left Manatee Springs about 3 pm and headed for Gainesville, where we were going to visit Susy, my ex-husband Bruce’s sister, and her husband, Kevin. I hadn’t seen them in a good long time—the last time I’d seen them in Florida was when I came down with the kids in 2006, I think! We got there about 4 or so, and found Kevin and Susy’s house without a problem. We hung out for a bit and then went for a hike with Kevin out to a part of the Paynes Prairie State Park, where we went over the main part of the Alachua Spring and along the water that flows from the prairie into the local river. We were looking for alligators and other wildlife, and hiked out about 3 miles into the prairie (there is a very beautiful trail out there). We didn’t see many alligators, but there were some wild horses in the distance, and of course a bunch of beautiful Florida birds, including more herons, egrets, etc. It was a very nice hike, and by the time we were headed back, it had cooled down a bit so we weren’t quite dripping anymore – and yet, we somehow dodged the rain that was threatening to fall. By the time we got home, Susy had come home, and we all had crockpot chili and cornbread for dinner, with chocolate ice cream and strawberries. I really have missed homemade food! It was wonderful. We chatted for a bit longer, but by 9:30, we were ready to go to bed. The day was packed but so much fun. I am excited about how much wildlife we’ve been seeing!