Goin’ Coastal – A recap of our Florida winter sojourn

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After three months of meandering along the extensive coastlines of Florida, we were eager to finally point Betsy west.  In early December we began our winter sojourn along the Atlantic Ocean, exiting on the shoreline of the Gulf of Mexico in March.  This was our second winter in the Sunshine State, and we visited about half of its coastal regions, exploring many natural settings and strolling an array of fabulous beaches – all while being entertained by wildlife unique to the area.  An added bonus was the great time we spent visiting with friends old and new.

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What Hurricane Michael Left Behind – The Forgotten Coast, FL

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We continued our travels along Florida’s gulf coast, heading northwest through what’s known as the “Forgotten Coast”.  Driving along a quiet and relatively undeveloped section of coastline between St. Marks and Mexico Beach, we paused at the small towns of Eastpoint, Apalachicola (to hang out with friends), Port St. Joe, St. George Island, Cape San Blas and Mexico Beach (ground zero for hurricane Michael). Continue reading

A place for “Real Florida” fun – Nature Coast, FL

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We cut short our stay in Naples, leaving behind that big snowbird city with its commercial developments and traffic noise.  We were eager to re-visit the “Nature Coast” along the inside curve of the state’s panhandle, remembering how much we’d enjoyed this area on our last visit five years ago.  We had reservations at Crystal River and Perry, plus two nights we snagged at Hillsborough River State Park.  This part of Florida is known for being a nature lover’s paradise where folks can experience “the real Florida” in laid-back fashion.  We’re all over that! Continue reading

Good Times and Tan Lines – Naples, FL

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The first month of 2019 whizzed by, with our winter downtime in southwestern Florida drawing to a close.  The weather during our stay was mostly on the cool side, sometimes wet and drab, but with several beautiful warm days in the middle.  The humidity wasn’t too bad and we got nary a bug bite during our stay – yay! Continue reading

Looking back, looking forward…

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Is it just me, or are the first days of 2019 marching by super-fast?  Maybe my perception of time flying by is due to the fact that I haven’t yet flipped over the last pages of our 2018 travels?

So, one last look at 2018 before I close out a banner year for Lowe’s Travels! Continue reading

Wrapping up our winter sojourn in Florida

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Navarre Beach

From the pure solitude and remoteness of Ochlockonee River SP, we drifted back toward civilization.  Our last two weeks in Florida had been a mix of touristy activities, hiking, canoeing and family visits, complemented by a variety of weather ranging from sunny skies to thunderstorms with pouring rain.  That’s Florida for you!

Destin, Florida

Navarre Beach Campground

I hope Steve doesn’t get sunburned!

Along the Florida panhandle is a 24-mile stretch of sugary white sand and emerald waters facing the Gulf of Mexico.  The sand was created of pure Appalachian quartz, giving the water its trademark emerald green color as it reflects sunlight, hence the moniker Emerald Coast.  Had we stopped at this stretch of beach last year, it would have easily made our list of favorites.  But alas, we drove right by it on our way toward Perdido Key.  We’re glad we took the opportunity to check out this beautiful area between Pensacola and Destin this time through.

Navarre Beach

The gorgeous Navarre Beach

It was at the Harbor Village in Destin that Steve saw a water activity that really got his attention.  I knew that look in his eyes when he realized they were renting water jetpacks here – he HAD to try it.  So he signed up for the mid-level “flight” experience, and off we went on their boat to the training area.

There’s only so much you can learn in 30 minutes, but after a couple of “crash and burns” into the water as he figured out how to balance and turn correctly, he was up and flying along.  The photo below shows him “walking on water”, which he got pretty good at.  He also did the “submarine” several times, which is where you dive under water and then the jetpack pops you back up in the air when you surface.  Although the jetpack will levitate folks up to 30 feet in the air, he was limited to only about 5 feet during his first lesson.  You can probably tell he enjoyed it!

JetPack, Destin

JetPack, Destin

Here's how the pros do it!

Steve’s instructor flying high – here’s how the pros do it!

On one of the cooler days when we couldn’t hang out at the beach, we drove along the far-western Florida coast from Destin to Pensacola.  On this drive I enjoyed all of the colorful water towers…

…and these strange little rental homes along the beach:

Our final Florida home base, and the only other state park for which we were able to get a reservation, was Blackwater River State Park (Steve’s review is here).  Like Ochlockonee River SP, we camped under a canopy of longleaf pines in a very spacious site.  But unlike Ochlockonee, our solitude here was unfortunately interrupted by heavy helicopter traffic during the day on several weekdays.  We later learned that the helicopters were from a nearby military base and were doing training exercises in the area.  Bummer!

Site 26, Blackwater River State Park

Site #26 at Blackwater River State Park

The dark tannic water that gives the river its name is a sharp contrast to its sandy bottom, white beaches and large sandbars.  This was very evident as we leisurely paddled and floated along one day in a rented canoe.  The snow white sand bars here are very similar in appearance to the white beaches of the Emerald Coast.  We learned that Blackwater River is the only sand-bottomed river left in the United States, and it averages only 2.5 feet in depth.  Too shallow for boats, but perfect for canoes and kayaks!

We were happy that our longest hike in Florida finally happened here.  Our GPS showed that we covered 12 miles, and there were some elevation changes that gave us more of a challenge.  We encountered three snakes on this trail, but not much other wildlife.

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Finally some hills – we’re going to feel that in the morning!

This guy got our attention!

This guy got our attention!

Winter wrap up –

Well, four months of exploring and wintering in Florida zoomed by quickly.  We discovered that the state has much more to offer than we had imagined.  So many things we discovered – the beaches, fresh-squeezed juice, thousands of birds and other critters, the Everglades and the Keys – did not fail to impress us.  But what was more impressive was experiencing the “Real Florida”, which we were previously oblivious to. Our exposure to wildlife and enjoyment of the havens of beauty at the preserves, refuges, pristine rivers and springs were amazing and unforgettable.  And most importantly to me, the birding experience was superb!

This map shows our coverage of Florida during our 4-month stay here.  We ran up just over 1,500 miles during our 12 stops, and feel like we covered most of the state fairly well.

Meeting new friends and reconnecting with old ones put the icing on the cake, and completed the whole experience for us.

What we won’t miss are the humidity and the “no-see-um” bugs that bit us and made my life miserable for several days – apparently I’m allergic to them.

Blackwater River

Our last pose in Florida at a beach on the Blackwater River

Well, that wraps up our winter in Florida.  We hope you enjoyed riding along, and that our stories gave you a few ideas in case you come this way someday.

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…and hello Alabama!

 

Next up:  A detour back to one of our favorite places so far – Dauphin Island, AL


Our last days of nature-tripping at St. Marks NWR

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Great Blue HeronWe are now on our last few days of nature tripping, wildlife viewing and generally just gawking at the beauty of Florida.  We are savoring every minute as much as we can, for we know it will be a long time before we head this way again.  With the little time we had while at Ochlockonee River State Park, we ventured a bit further and visited St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge.

But let me first show you some neat off-road vendors who were selling the freshest shrimp, tastiest sandwiches and Tupelo honey (all-natural and 100% raw). There are no big-box stores here, and patronizing the local small business folks is fun and guarantees excellent products!

It was a gorgeous day when we visited St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge.  On our way there, beautiful cloud formations caught my eye and as we entered the area they became a great backdrop for the open areas of the refuge.

Headquarters Pond, ST Marks NWR

This unique refuge was established in 1931 to provide wintering habitat for migratory birds.  Wildlife abounds at St. Marks NWR, due to the wide diversity of habitats – from wilderness saltmarshes to rolling longleaf pine forests – with freshwater swamps, lakes, and palm/oak hammocks in between.  It’s one of the oldest refuges in the National Wildlife Refuge System. Encompassing 68,000 acres, it is a well known natural Florida habitat for wildlife, especially birds.  Indeed, on this day we saw several birders and nature lovers armed with binoculars and long-range cameras.

St Marks National Wildlife Refuge

Driving along Lighthouse Road, we immediately experienced vistas of wide-open blue skies contrast with amber brown and green landscapes of diverse natural habitats.  This seems to be a place that doesn’t get too busy, and we enjoyed the relaxing drive and quiet of the area.

American Coots

Hundreds of American Coots on the pond

St Marks National Wildlife Refuge

Steve and I had a hard time deciding where to begin and which trail to follow, as there are several of them to enjoy.  We began by driving from the Visitor Center to the old historic St. Marks Lighthouse all the way at the other end, which covered about 6.8 miles of the wildlife drive.  From there we walked the Lighthouse Levee Trail, a short path that focused on coastal plants.

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Lighthouse Levee trail, ST Marks NWR

Lighthouse Levee trail

We saw all kinds of birds from up on the observation tower. The bald eagle sat on top of the tree majestically, while the ducks and coots were busy feeding below. It was a delight to just watch and hear them sing their own tunes!

Wildflowers were realizing spring was upon us, and starting to perk up and color the grounds:

Next we drove back and followed the Tower Pond Trail, which winds through slash pine forest, oak and salt marsh.  Hundreds of American Coots could be seen on the lake. About half a mile into the trail we came across a pond where we saw a variety of migrant wading birds.  I tried to identify them from up in the photo blind, but they were too far away. We just sat there for a few moments and observed them.

Photo blind at Tower Pond Nature Trail

Photo blind at Tower Pond Nature Trail

Great Egret

The Great Egret stands tall among the Snowy Egrets.

Willets or Plovers

Wading birds huddling together

Tower Pond Trail

St Marks Lighthouse viewed from Tower Pond Trail

We walked up to an observation deck at the Headquarters Pond Trail, across from the Tower Pond trailhead.  The moorhens, ducks, egrets, coots and baby alligators all seemed to be getting along well together.

Headquarters Pond Trail

View from the observation platform at Headquarters Pond

Baby Alligator

Baby Alligator

Moorhen

A pair of Moorhens

The refuge was an exceptional place to enjoy nature and wildlife at its best and you don’t have to be a birder to be here.   Each inlet or body of water was full of different species of birds – migrants and/or the local residents. St. Marks NWR is truly one of Florida’s many hidden treasures, and we found ourselves in a moment of peace as we explored this pristine area.  Our visit was a great ending to what we’ve been experiencing, classic Florida wildlife preserve.

 

Next up:  Wrapping up our winter sojourn


 

The haunting beauty of Wakulla Springs and River

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Manatee

VulturesThere was an added bonus in meeting Laurel and Eric of Raven and Chickadee.  Since they had spent so much time in northwestern Florida and have family there, they know the area very well.  They advised us that a trip to Wakulla Springs State Park for one of their river boat tours was not to be missed.  Wakulla springs is located just south of Tallahassee and is one of the largest and deepest freshwater springs in the world.  The world?  Yep, thats right.  We learned that this spring discharges an average of 260 million gallons of beautiful, fresh water every day.

Wakulla Spring

Wakulla Spring – Some of the old Tarzan episodes were filmed here.  Today, the abundance of wildlife are fortunate to enjoy the beauty of the area.

Here are some fun facts about freshwater springs in Florida:wpid23297-2014-03-09-FL-1320158.jpg

  • Florida has the largest concentration of freshwater springs on earth more than 600 in all.
  • Most of the springs are found in north and north-central Florida.
  • Water coming from the springs flows through the Aquifer and is the source of over 90% of the state’s drinking water.

With no rain in the forecast for the next few days, we scheduled our continuing exploration of the “Real Florida”.  The spring is the heart of Wakulla Springs State Park.  It is the origin of the Wakulla River, which flows southwest and finally dumps into the Gulf of Mexico at Apalachee Bay. We came here for the main attraction of the river tour, but the park itself is beautiful with many picnic tables and walking paths that make it a great place to spend a day.

After paying the $8 per person fee, we took the first ranger-guided boat tour at 9:00am. For 45 minutes we were treated to close-up sightings of what we have recently grown to appreciate and love, classic Florida river scenery and wildlife.  Unlike other rivers we have traveled, Wakulla River is bordered by tall Spanish Moss-draped Bald Cypress trees.

Bald Cypress along Wakulla River

Seeing vultures hanging out in the treetops induced a kind of “haunted house” feeling, like something you might see in an old horror movie.

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The tour covers the first three miles of the river, which is  protected as a wildlife sanctuary within the Wakulla Springs State Park.

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As we cruised along, several of these gorgeous little guys paid no attention to us:

Male Hooded Merganser

Male Hooded Merganser

Hooded Merganser

Female Hooded Mergansers, no doubt rushing off to the beauty salon.

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One of the areas where Tarzan swung through the trees.  Pristine and gorgeous!

Anhinga

Anhinga working on his tan

River Boats at Wakulla Springs State Park

River boat dock at Wakulla Springs State Park

There was an abundance of wildlife that our knowledgeable park ranger pointed out to us.  She told us that since only the park’s tour boats are allowed here, the wildlife has become accustomed to them.  That’s why we were ignored and got such an up-close look at them.  Even the normally skittish turtles didn’t jump into the river as we passed!

Here are a few more of the beautiful creatures that posed for us:

Pied-billed Grebe

Pied-billed Grebe

Turtle

Hey, you looking at me?

But the highlight on this day was witnessing some tender moments between a couple of manatees.  We have typically seen them just slowly cruising along, occasionally coming up for a gulp of air.

Manatee

A happy manatee acting like an otter.

Well, this time we witnessed two manatees actually hugging and obviously enjoying each other’s company – amazing!  Click the link below to see a short clip of what we saw (sorry it’s a bit shaky, I was so excited!).

One last shot…

Mating Manatees

Next up:  Our exploration of the Real Florida continues…

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