West Side, Best Side?

So after our two weeks over by Fort Lauderdale, Palm Beach, Miami we’ve retreated back to the Gulf Shore part of Florida; first a week down by Bonita Springs, then up to Crystal River…where the manatee winter.

Before we get to the latest on the west side. A bit of a view on the east part of the state of Florida. Top line review; from Miami up the coast to Palm Beach, not our cup of tea. Southeast Florida has all the amenities of a big, big, city. If that’s what you like, have at it. That means it also has all the drawbacks of a big city. Basically; we found it hot, too crowded, has terrible traffic, flat as a pancake, lacking in bicycling amenities (in fact it’s dangerous to ride a bicycle in many places), and basically not our style. If we had a boat here it might be better, but I suspect I’d just be prepping the boat to escape over to the Bahamas.

Sure, we liked Butterfly World, riding on a few trails near the beaches, riding the rail transit to Miami for the big Boat Show and using this stop as a base to jump off and see the Everglades, which are very cool. I liked being able to get good bagels. Unless we have a specific reason to be in that area, I suspect we’ll avoid it in the future.

But as I said, Butterfly World was pretty neat.

We were able to find a few bike rides among the rich houses in Palm Beach with views of the beaches.

Our best ride was in Shark Valley in the Everglades National Park. There’s a long paved trail that leads out 8 miles to a raised observation tower. All along the route you’re near the water, and that also means you’re near the gators. We saw a lot of them. The only one that looked dangerous was a mother with two foot long babies. If you stopped and looked like you might walk near the babies.

We were in the area long enough to get a little work done on the RAM truck that pulls our home. In addition to normal oil and filter work, we needed some front end adjustment.

Then we were off again, back to the West side and Bonita Springs. It was funny to notice how as we got back West, where there are fewer people and less development, that we began to relax more.

We were able to pull the canoe off the roof in Koreshan State Park and drift downstream on the Estero River. There were tons of fish to see in the river. Then we went out to the Lovers Key, the barrier to the Gulf of Mexico, where we found the most friendly manatee. You’re supposed to keep away from them, but it’s hard when they keep coming back to you and diving under your canoe.

After a week we headed north to Crystal Springs, stopping along the way to spend a quiet night at a goat farm. Let’s just say we now know how to milk.

The area North of Tampa is dotted with dozens of natural springs, many of which used to be Florida highway tourist stops back in the last century. Families driving down would stop for ice cream, to dip in the springs, or to see the crazy, kitchy, shows. After the 70’s opening of Disney World started to suck away all the tourists, many of these little places started to fail and go out of business. Good news though as the state has taken over many of the springs and turned them into small state parks.

We stopped at Dripping Springs state park as a jumping off point for bicycling the trail across the Suwanee River. Yes, this is THE Suwanee River from Old Folks at Home by Stephen Foster, Florida’s State Song. And yes, I was singing the song as I rode across….though not the original racist lyrics. I go with the new improved standard version without all the racist stuff. You can look it up on Wikipedia if you’re interested.

Then we stopped at Homosassas Springs State Wildlife Park. This used to be an odd little zoo but when the state took over they got rid of the rag tag collection of zoo animals (except the little hippo, everyone loves him; though I suspect he’ll not be replaced). Now the State Park uses the renovated enclosures to show off Florida native wildlife that are injured in some way, and can’t be released. Here you can see native Panther, Bear, Fox, Birds and fish in the spring. They also have a full Manatee rehabilitation program to take care of those when they are injured. Very cool.

Finally, it was time for the pilgrimage to see the mermaids at Weeki Wachee State Park. Since 1947 the mermaids have been doing their dance in the springs for the audience behind the glass. It could all have gone away when these small attractions started failing, but now with State Parks Department management and investment you can see they are keeping this iconic piece of Florida alive.

Is it a bit kitchy and tacky? You bet! Proudly so. And your mother and grandmother may have come for the same show. And if you want to know why it needs to keep going just bring a 4 year old girl who loves The Little Mermaid, and watch her eyes as the curtain raises and the bubble screen drops, and there’s a real live mermaid floating just a few feet away, smiling, waving and blowing kisses at her.

Mermaids are real

And it’s not all about mermaids. The state parks department has added more programs around native Florida wildlife and about the importance of all the springs to the Florida’s environment. You know, the good stuff you need to know, and that you expect from your State Parks. (But lets not kid ourselves; its still really about the mermaids).

Next up we’ll be crossing again to the East Coast, but this time we’ll be way North of the crowds, heading for historic Saint Augustine.

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