Tarpon Springs Sponge Docks

At the top of Pinellas County sits Tarpon Springs.  Originally settled in 1876, it wasn’t until 1905, when John Corcoris recruited sponge divers from Greece to move here that the sponge industry took off and the town became the largest Greek community in the US.

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Still a thriving area for sponge harvesting, you can’t walk 10 feet without seeing something for sale that has to do with Greek heritage or sponges.

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There are also several boat tours you can catch from Tarpon Springs, ranging from dolphin excursions, shell diving and even some sponge diving.  There’s something for every water lover.

 

The stores we walked into were filled with Greek music and friendly shop keepers.  This time of year is a slow season, between summer breaks and ‘snowbird’ season, so we practically had the shops to ourselves.  There was also the smell of Greek food wafting down the street from different vendors.  And if you ask shop keeper the best place to go to eat, they’ll know.  The shop keeper at Lori’s Soaps and Sponges, recommended Mama’s.  We were more on the look out for beach cover up and soaps with sponges embedded in them.  Which we were able to stock up on easily.

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You’ll also notice that while it is a Florida town, there’s plenty of Greek influence to be seen.

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Tarpon Springs is a lovely little town on the Florida West Coast and is worth a day’s visit.

Delightful Downtown Dunedin

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Today, Mom and I decided to enjoy some time in downtown Dunedin.  Originally settled in 1852, the name Dunedin is from the Scots Gaelic for Edinburgh, Dùn Èideann.  It is pronounced ‘Done Eden’.  There is a heavy note of Scottish pride in this Florida town.  Just last weekend, the Pipe Band (Bagpipes) of Dunedin took 4th place in the world in the World Pipe Band Championship.  There’s even a few kilt shops in town.

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Dunedin is often listed in the top 10 small towns in Florida to visit.  It is the spring training home of the Toronto Blue Jays.  And being situated just north of Clearwater and St. Petersburg, its the perfect place to call a home base when in the area.

Running right down the middle of town is the Pinellas Trail, a 38 mile biking and walking trail that runs from Tarpon Springs to the north all the way down to St. Petersburg, on the tip of the Pinellas peninsula.  There’s any number of things to do in this delightfully off-beat town.

Since we were in the area, we opted to have lunch at Casa Tina’s, an authentic Mexican restaurant in the heart of downtown.

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On our way in, the sandwich board outside caught Mom’s eye.

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As some of you may know, I have an allergy to all things onion.  So you may be asking yourself, “Shiloh, what in the world could you eat in a Mexican restaurant except for the tortilla chips?”  The answer is a cheeseburger.

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I know that might seem sacrilegious to some people, but when you have food allergies, you have to be flexible.  But do not worry, since Mom more than made up for my food issues with her lunch.

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Casa Tina’s is family owned and operated, run by a husband and wife team of Javier and Tina (hence the name).  Even their kids have worked there.  The daughter has been known to perform on the silks in the dining room on the weekends.  The decor is based around the skeletons and sugar skulls that are associated with Dias de los Muertos.  The food is made fresh daily and is delicious.  Everyone is always friendly and accommodating and we’ve yet to have a bad meal there.

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After lunch, Mom decided she wanted to do a little shopping.  As you might guess, she did partake of the margarita special.

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Honeymoon Island State Park

This morning, we had to take Red Rover in for a check up.  Okay, it was an oil change and a tire rotation, but we’re happy to report, he’s back on the road and feeling frisky.  We opted to head over to Honeymoon Island State Park, just across the bridge.  You can take a ferry from Honeymoon over to Caladesi Island, voted one of the best beaches in America, but we opted to stay on Honeymoon today.

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Honeymoon Island is a state park and the fees are reasonable.  A single driver in a car is only $4, but you can have up to 8 people in the vehicle and it would only cost $8.  There are interior paths on the island that can be walked or biked.

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You can encounter plenty of Florida wildlife, though you should stick to the paths because Florida does have rattlesnakes.  I’ve never encountered one, but the park has signs warning about what to look for or do should you encounter one.  If you’re going for a nature walk, don’t wear flip flops.

For the most part, you’ll find plenty of palms and pine trees as well as scrub brush along the trails, but you might encounter trees like these.  The one on the right was actually struck by lightning, but only one half of the tree was burned.  It was an interesting sight.  Also in the trees you might spot osprey, owls or even bald eagles, who are known to make their homes on the island.

Once you’re done with the interior, there’s some good beaches around too.  IMG_0091

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As is always the case in Florida in the summer, rain happens.  Normally, if you wait 15 minutes, it will blow by and you can go back out and enjoy the beach.  From one of the beaches of Honeymoon Island, you can see down to Clearwater.

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A great place for an easy afternoon, a nice nature walk, or some off-road biking.  I would recommend a visit here next time you’re in Dunedin.

My Hometown Through Visitor Eyes

This week, Mom and I are back in our hometown of Dunedin, Florida.  We’re still staying in an AirBnB at the Beso Del Sol resort, right up the road from where we used to live.

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Dunedin is a delightful little town, sitting right next to Clearwater and Clearwater Beach and only a handful of minutes from St. Petersburg and Tampa.  We’ve lived in this area for 14 years and as residents, barely saw some of it.  We made it over to Caladesi Island once and went to Clearwater to see the beach when we first moved down, but there is so much we haven’t seen.  It will be interesting to see the sights that the locals know about, but don’t always enjoy.

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We’re only here for a week, then it is back on the road, since we’ve decided we enjoy the nomadic life and will keep it up as long as we can.

Lunch on the Rainbow River

After taking a ride around the area, Mom and I decided to stop at the restaurant our AirBnB’s host, Jim, recommended to us when we arrived.  Swampy’s Bar and Grille is situated right on the bank of the Rainbow River in downtown Dunnellon, Florida.

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We opted for the outside seating next to the river.  And what a view we had.

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The water is so clear, you could see the bottom.  What looks like silt in this picture is actually the clear bottom of the river.  The way Swampy’s is situated, pontoon boats, kayaks and paddleboards can pull up to the dock, tie up, and get out to have some tasty food.

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Since we’re on the river, we had to have something water related, so Mom had the fish and chips while I went with their surf and turf.  Mom’s fish was lightly battered and flaky.  She said it was delicious.  My steak was seasoned with blackening seasoning and my shrimp were grilled and both had wonderful flavor and the steak was nice and moist.

As we were eating, we watched several boats go by, though with the first one we were nervous, since there is a bridge over the water next to the restaurant.

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We’re happy to report it is high enough for the boaters to get through easily.  And even though we were right next to the road, it was peaceful enough to have a conversation.  The waitstaff was quick and efficient.  I never had to wait around for my iced tea to be refilled because as soon as I was close to the bottom of my glass, a new tea appeared.  This is a great little restaurant, with good food, good atmosphere and great views.  I would recommend this place to anyone.

Happy Acres Ranch

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Set in the horse country of Central Florida, about an hour and a half northwest of Orlando and less than a hour from the West Coast of Florida, the ranch is spread out over 50+ acres and has 2 barns, the main house and several fields that are normally dotted with horses, chickens or guinea fowl at any given moment.

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Our current AirBnB is an apartment in Barn B at Happy Acres Ranch, known as Happy Trails Lodge. From a door in our kitchen, we can walk into the stables and see the horses who call Happy Acres home.

During the day and sometimes at night, you can hear a horse neigh or whiny softly.  You can also hear the guinea fowl cackling during the evening.

The apartment is a one bedroom, one bath, though there is a second king bed separated off from the living room by a desk and shelving.  A large flat screen tv faces the couch, which is also a sleeper sofa.  Only the two windows in the apartment, but they let in plenty of light and face out at the paddocks.  Full kitchen with washer and dryer complete the apartment.

They give trail rides and lessons.

Dunnellon is close to Ocala, another major city in Florida, and close to the coast, giving us plenty to do while we’re here.

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Homosassa Springs State Park-Home of Manatees

Over on the west coast of Central Florida lies the Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife Park.  Part of the 174 Florida State Parks, this attraction was once one of the many roadside attractions that were on US Hwy 19 down the coast, along with nearby Crystal River and Weeki Wachee Springs.  Homosassa River is a constant home to 3 manatees and visited during winter months or heavy storms in the Gulf of Mexico by other wild manatees.

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We parked at the main entrance and took the tram to get back to the main park area.  You purchase your tickets there ($13.00 for adults and $5 for anyone 6 years old through 12).  After departing from the ticket area/concession stand/gift shop building, you are met with a delightful fountain and an option to head towards the manatees or the zoo section.  We opted for manatees.

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We lucked into a feeding show for the manatees, who slowly travel down the river when they hear the splash of the romaine lettuce hit the crystal clear waters.

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While they are huge, manatees are gentle giants and don’t even get fussy when little fish friends decided to snack on their lunch.

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The manatees who live year round in the Homosassa Springs park are too injured to fend for themselves in the wild.  While they have been taken off the endangered species list, manatees are still in danger from the many watersports enthusiasts and their propellered watercraft.

Of course, the Momma-tee has no fear of such problems.

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On the other side of the ‘Fishbowl’ is the underwater platform.  There was some cloudiness to the glass (likely due to humidity from above mixing with the cool temperatures below), but this guy was nice enough to peek in the windows at the strange animals lurking in his world.

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From above, its easy to see just how clear these waters are.

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We walked around for a bit more, checking out the other animals native to Florida and Lu, the hippo, who didn’t opt to come out of the water on this typical Florida summer day.  There were plenty of manatee statues to be found around the park, but this guy looked like he was having the most fun.

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To go back to where we parked Red Rover, we decided to take the boat back.  IMG_3713

We had our choice of seats, as you can see.  The boats can hold up to 45 adults at a time.  Then, we were off down Pepper Creek, a 1.2 mile trek back to the main gate.

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We came upon another boat headed our way and it made us happy we were headed downstream.

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We encountered some of Florida’s wildlife, seeing an alligator hanging out in the shade up on the creek bank and then this big guy, who perhaps was dreaming he was flying?

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Before the park was purchased by the state of Florida, it was privately owned and used to be attached by a bridge to the hotel next door.

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Less than an hour outside of Dunnellon and close to many other attractions, Homosassa Springs State Park is worth a visit.  A great place for young and old.

Rainy Day Drivers

Yesterday, during our drive from Fort Walton Beach to Dunnellon, FL, we ended up in quite a bit of rain.  At some points it was merely a scattering of raindrops, but at other times, it was almost blinding in the deluge.  Having traveled many a mile in rainy weather over our 3+ months on the road, I have noted there tends to be primarily 2 types of rain drivers.  The uber cautious and the uber reckless.

The uber cautious driver drops down to 20+ miles per hour below the speed limit and turns on his flashers (aka emergency lights).  He doesn’t necessarily move out of the fast lane if he was there when the deluge starts.  I can understand that, as having the solid yellow line as a guide is much easier to follow than the broken white lines separating lanes, plus (here in the States) it is always on the driver’s side.  Sometimes, they even pull off to the side of the road with their flashers on.

Allow me to add that you aren’t supposed to turn your emergency lights on unless you actually have an emergency.  As we drove along I-10 yesterday, almost all of the overhead highway notification signs stated that you need to turn on your headlights, not the flashers.

Then, you have the uber reckless.  These are the people who go 20+ mph over the speed limit in a deluge.  If you’re lucky, they might have their headlights on, though, for the most part, they don’t.  They will ride back bumpers and zip through any opening (real or imagined) to get to their destination faster, as though to outrun the weather.  I’m always amazed when I DON’T see them sitting in a ditch up ahead.

This isn’t a jab at Florida drivers.  I have witness this behavior in every state we have driven through with rain.  These drivers are everywhere.

I admit to being somewhere in the middle.  I do prefer to ride out heavy rain, but if I have to be out in it, yes, I prefer the fast lane because of the solid yellow line.  I also prefer to have someone in front of me, who’s tail lights I can see clearly.  A semi is best, but they kick up a lot of spray.  All in all, I just want to get from point A to point B alive.  So, next time you’re whipping down the highway during a downpour, turn on your lights and don’t hotdog it.  Please.

 

GPS: Friend and Foe

Last year, when Mom and I were on our whirlwind 12,000 miles in 50 days trip around the country, we relied on our US atlas and instructions written out from Mapquest (since we didn’t have a printer with us).  This year, before we began our adventure, Mom insisted we find a way to navigate that didn’t require her trying to read my chicken scratch handwriting.  So, I did a little research and we ended up buying a TomTom GPS for Red Rover.  It has been a godsend and demon possessed machine so far.

For the most part, Direction Dude (the voice we chose for our directions) gets us from point A to point B without issue.  We find where we’re going easily and without all the panicy  “Left or right?  Which way?” questions hurled back and forth.  Major interstate intersections no longer have me straining forward against the steering wheel to try and see a couple miles ahead to the exit ramp signs to guess which lane I need to be in.

But then there are the other times…

Driving from North Carolina to West Virginia, DD (Direction Dude) decided we needed a more scenic route, so it had me leaving the highway and taking our little Kia Soul up the side of a mountain on a gravel, one lane road with twists and turns that would make a car commercial envious.  Another time, it did something similar, though with steep cliffs on one side of the one lane road.  Sure, it might be 30 seconds faster, but my poor heart can’t handle the stress of glancing out the side window to check the mirror and seeing a straight drop down.  Mom’s constant screaming and death grip on the door didn’t help either.

So, we are using a combo of atlas and GPS in our more rural, mountainous trips.  Mom keeps an eye on the map (using her new sunglasses/cheaters) while I keep one eye on DD.  If it looks like he’s sending us into an area where you hear the opening strains of Dueling Banjos from Deliverance, Mom looks for an alternative and we keep driving until he agrees with our new route.

So, will I rely only on GPS?  Nope.  Sure, it’s an invaluable tool and has made this adventure much easier when it comes to getting to most places.  But, it is still a computer and they do make errors, so we’ll stick with our combo of old school and new technology to continue on our travels around the country.

Indian Temple Mound

While the sun was shining, we decided to head just down the street from our hotel to the Indian Temple Mound and Museum here in the heart of Downtown Fort Walton Beach.

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Built by the Pensacola people around 805 AD, the mound was named a National Historic Site in 1964.  Even after all these centuries, it still stand 12 feet high and 223 feet around at the base.  The price of admission for the mound, the museum and the historical buildings surrounding it was only $5 per person.

After paying your admission, you go into the museum, which is laid out chronologically, starting with prehistoric time to the settling of Fort Walton by the Europeans.

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Perhaps the original angry bird?

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Not a neck piece that an arachnophobe would wear.  But look at the intricate design.

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The craftsmanship is amazing.

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Human effigies.  Hmm, anyone else think the one on the left was done by a disgruntled son-in-law?

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Proof you always need to carry water when in Florida.  No matter what century you’re in.

Once we finished with the museum, we went outside and climbed the stairs to the top of the Temple Mound.

We made our way back down the stairs and went to see the other historical buildings next to the Mound.

It was amazing to see so much history in one place that is surrounded by commercial buildings on all sides.  A definite must see in Fort Walton Beach, for people of all ages.  There are some hand’s on exhibits for children and more in-depth history of the settling of the area for adults.