Friday, July 25, 2008

Meet The Manatees

If fat and cute is your thing, you can't get find anything fatter and cuter than these creatures. Even if fat and cute isn't your thing you will be enchanted the first time you meet the rotund and graceful West Indian Manatee. Want to see them in person? You can find them in many areas of the Southern U.S. during the warm months and it's fun to swim, snorkel and kayak around them (in a respectful manner - remember, this is their home) in Crystal River and other areas on the Nature Coast of Florida. If you are a pleasure boater and your boat has a motor, you know to be careful when making your way through manatee country. These gentle, slow moving giants have no way to protect themselves from your boat propeller and every year manatees sustain horrible injuries and die from encounters with boat motors.

When John and I started our gypsy adventure-ing in our caravan I took it upon myself to introduce him to all the joys and oddities of the Southern United States, of which the manatee is definitely one. He's full blooded Native American from the high desert of New Mexico so he'd never seen a manatee. I knew just where to go to make the introduction. One of the very best places to view and learn about the manatee is at Homosassa Springs Wildlife Park in Homossassa, Florida. Another great place is Mote Marine Lab in Sarasota. Outside the USA, West Indian manatees can also be found in the coastal and inland waterways of Central America and along the northern coast of South America.

They are big - very big (you will be surprised how big) - friendly, curious, slow, quite adorable and one of Florida's (and the world's) most unusual wild animal treasures. The manatee's closest land relatives are the elephant and the hyrax, a small, gopher-sized mammal. Don't ask me how that happened. They breathe air, and must come to the surface to do so, making them visible to onlookers, which is the fun part, but which also puts them in the path of several serious dangers such as the aforementioned boat propellers and entanglement in fishing lines or hooks (also a huge problem for dolphins and sea turtles.)

While John and I were at the Homosassa Springs Wildlife Park we ran across a happy park volunteer and zealous manatee advocate named Joyce, who at the end of the day was helping the rangers give the resident manatees a "spa treatment" - a rub down with sea salt to keep their skin in shape and, I suspect, also because the animals seemed to really groove on it. Joyce loves manatees. I love that Joyce loves manatees. She is committed to them, their care and their survival in a very real way and her total commitment is love in action. I love knowing there are people who care deeply and will devote so much to these funny-looking, totally engaging creatures and will help them in the ways they need to be helped if they are to survive in this modern world we have created. Because it’s not a world that is set up to be kind to them. So let’s applaud Joyce and all those out there like her. They are doing the work that a lot of us should be doing.

Manatees are an endangered species, protected under the federal Endangered Species and Marine Mammal Protection Acts and the Florida Manatee Sanctuary Act. It is up to us humans to show a little hu-manatee, if you will, and make the effort to protect these gentle giants.

Joyce giving "the girls" their spa-treatment/skin rub. They love it.



Homosassa Springs Wildlife Park

Tampa's Lowry Park Zoo :


Join the Club!

Jimmy Buffett says :

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

It Was A Dark and Stormy Night...

Last night we had one of those fierce thunderstorms that seem to come out of nowhere. It was violent and sudden and the wind that came up was considerable. I can’t stress enough that you really have to watch the weather when you are RVing. In that way, it’s much like boating – ignore the weather at your peril. The sweet sunny day you enjoyed when you left your RV to go visit friends or a local sight might not be the same weather you return home to. A bit of precaution can save a lot of cussing, I’ve found. And can save your wallet as well.

One of the best and most utilitarian things about your RV or camper – which can be very costly to replace – is your awning/s. Especially if you are at the beach where winds whip up as a matter of course, do not ever go off for a few hours and leave your awning down. We secure ours with tie-downs and we still had to sit inside during a gusty thunderstorm (one that formed over our area so we didn’t see it coming on the weather radar) and watch it rip on one side as very suddenly the winds brushed up to 40 mph. We don’t have replace it, thank goodness, we just need to mend it but I’ve seen too many awnings just tear up like they were a paper bag and turn inside out like an umbrella. Our neighbors in this park just sold their house to go RVing for a few fun years. They were visiting their daughter when the storm blew up. The awning on their new deluxe pop-up camper now needs to be replaced. It's a common mistake that people make when they start RVing and we were lucky enough to have someone tell on our first day out: take down your awning when you leave.

We still made the funny but not fatal mistake of leaving our porch swing out on a nice weekend once when we were staying in northern Alabama and left to visit Atlanta. We came home in the dark to find it across the street, courtesy of a spring rainstorm that was packing some winds. This was not a small piece of lawn furniture, either. We also found our flagpole and New Mexico flag halfway down the road. The park we were in at the time was sparsely populated and we were glad none of our flying debris had damaged any other RVs, cars or people. We noticed the RVers down a few rows must have been out of town too. Their entire outdoor set up was down at the bottom of the hill.

So keep in mind, intrepid fellow travelers, that grills, furniture, windchimes, toys, bikes,trashcans and satellite dishes can go from being a part of your peaceful personal camping environment to gone with the wind in a matter of no time flat. Get out the kites when the wind comes and put your awning safely away.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

When is a lost key a good thing? When it's in Florida

It's hot outside today, almost 100 degrees, and that has me thinking of cooler times to come.
Let me tell you about autumn on the Gulf Coast, a glorious time to be in a glorious place. Let me tell you specifically about Perdido Key ("The Lost Key") in Florida. This gem of a beach town is directly over the state line from another great beach area, Orange Beach, Alabama. It offers gorgeous sand and water, nice hotels, good food, some state parks directly on the water and all manner of beach sports and fishing along with some unlikely nightlife. We could only find one RV park in Perdido Key proper, Playa del Rio RV Resort, and we moved in for a week last October. It was a very small and tightly packed RV park with only a single road in or out and is located fetchingly close to the beach (right across the street) while the rear of the tiny park is directly on an inland bay with a beautiful view of the water. The friendly folks here allow pets in the park. We left the Jeep behind and took only our bikes with us as transport. We planned to relax in a large way and this was just the place for it.

Now, let me tell you about a VERY popular hang out, bar, eatery, music venue, package store, lounge and architectural freakshow called the Flora-Bama. Any attire is appropriate here and the ambiance just screams "Come one! Come all! Wash your hands if you touch anything!" The Legendary Flora-Bama is on the Florida-Alabama state line and is supposedly one bar in both states. In reality it’s a series of rooms, indoor and out, upstairs and down, and looks like it was designed by a blind monkey and put together by a group of angry clowns. It’s little more than a series of lean-tos and areas made of various building or building-like materials. The room I came to call “the big warm room” is actually a circus tent. Graffiti covers every available area of the bar/s ( in both states) and some places it shouldn’t. I puzzled over the graffiti a good 25 feet off the floor in the circus room. How did it get up there? ( Then I remembered the incredible powers of drunk college students. Ah, yes. Where there's a will and enough beer...) There were bras hanging on ropes ( think clotheslines) across the room. The ladies room was patched together out of cement block and wood, held together by more graffiti. The outdoor bars offer a grand view of the ocean. There's several stages for musical events and a boardwalk that leads onto the beach. Some young thing, male or female, wrote “ Taylor Hicks is f****** hot, but I’m a Clay fan!” on one bar. I had to wonder how much alcohol fueled that particular declaration of love. Now, before you inform me you would never set foot in such a place - not even to attend their annual world famous Interstate Mullet Toss held every April - let me tell you this: Oh sure you will. Everyone from lawyers to laborers goes to the famous Flora-Bama. This place attracts all ages, professions and incomes from miles around. It opens for lunch and the food is really good. John had a shrimp po-boy with waffle fries and I had the spicy, very tasty gumbo, with plenty of crab claws in it.

“Suck a crab claw?” I offered John. He looked at me for a moment. He's from the New Mexico desert where people don't usually say such things and if they do, it's probably an insult, but he catches on fast. He took it.

Further down the beach on the main road (Perdido Key Drive ) is The Crab Trap restaurant. Wonderful food – overpriced for sure, but a good restaurant with a super-beachy feel. I once had some gumbo here that wasn't very good, but I've been several times since and always been happy and full when I left. This time I had a crabmeat and shrimp salad which was well put together and full of flavor, John had a fried oyster plate with cole slaw and fries and some nifty tasty hush puppies. Hush puppies are something most restaurants do badly. Many otherwise good eateries make hush puppies that taste like dense camel spit and I avoid them but the Crab Trap makes them so right: round, tasty morsels of fried cornbread and spices. We walked on the beach to get to the restaurant and then back on the beach highway, where as night fell we were greeted by a moon so bright it cast our shadow as we walked. We started to sing the Cat Stevens song "Moonshadow".

This is a great area to ride bikes and we did. It's mostly flat and there's much to enjoy as you pedal along the sparkling coast. After a long sunny bike ride one afternoon we went to the homey Simply Southern to eat, also very close to the RV park. There was a tiny iridescent beatle on my knife (bugs are everywhere in Florida and especially at the beach) and a hair – not my own – on the side of my plate, but these were minor annoyances to be brushed away. To be honest I was so hungry they could have served my food on the floor. The smoked pulled pork was absolutely perfect, some of the best I’ve ever had and the potato salad was served still warm and it melted in my mouth. The cole slaw was just okay but we were very happy.

Having the bikes as our only mode of transport forced us to slow down, think about things and pay attention to our environment. It was a very interesting experiment for a couple who like to go, go, go and try new things. This might be Florida but the nights were cool in October and we slept under the blanket my Aunt Dee made for us for Christmas last year. The first day we were there it was cloudy and rainy, but I loved it. Every other day included bright sun and temps in the 70s. It felt like a real vacation.


The Flora-Bama

Lose Yourself In Perdido Key