Sunken Gardens

In 1903, four acres of land were purchased by George Turner Sr, a plumber by trade but a gardener by heart.  He drained a shallow lake, which turned out to be an ancient sinkhole.  It dropped 15 feet below street level and provided a wonderful soil perfect for growing fruit and tropical exotic plants.  By 1924, he was charging admission ($.25 per person) to let people see his amazing garden.  In the 1950s, they started adding exotic wildlife as well.

Then, in 1967, he opened the World’s Largest Giftshop, which is now home to the main entrance to the gardens.  Fully restored to its natural beauty after being purchased by the City of St. Petersburg, this location provided a spot of quiet serenity in a bustling coastal town.

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Upon entering, you’re greeted with a natural looking green space.  I’ll admit, I forgot how close I actually was to a major roadway until right before I left.  The trees, multiple varieties of palms, pines, oaks and more, tower overhead, keeping the area cooler in the Florida summer.

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Tucked up among the trees and flowers are quiet little oasis where you can sit and just enjoy nature.

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There were several areas with animals, including one set aside for birds.  There was one parrot who had obviously heard many a crying toddler, because she sounded just like one.  I kept looking for a kid who had wandered away from their parents, but there was just a parrot.

Of course, my favorite bird there were the flamingos.IMG_7941

Sounding like a traffic jam, they honked loudly and would knock their beaks together if someone cut them off while moving around.

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Water plays a big part in the design of the gardens.  With water falls and burbling streams, they also have a koi pond to sit by and relax.

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A lovely respite from the busy beaches that stay well occupied at this time of year in Florida.  The price is $10 for adults, $8 for seniors (62+) and $4 for children (2-11).  Right next door is the Great Explorations Children’s Museum.  They do have combined tickets if you decide to do both.

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Fort De Soto Park

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Just off the coast of St. Petersburg, Florida likes 5 keys (islands) that make up Fort De Soto Park.  Part of the Pinellas County park system, it covers over 1,100 acres.  The 5 keys are Madelaine Key, St. Jean Key, St. Christopher Key, Bonne Fortune Key and the main island, Mullet Key and are connected by bridges or causeways.  In order to reach the park, you have to take the Pinellas Byway, a toll road that costs $1 and then another toll of $0.75 and parking of $5 per car for the day.  There are camping facilities for those interested.

Around the time of the Civil War and into the Spanish-American War, these islands were believed to be good military outposts to protect Tampa Bay and in 1898, the actual building of Fort De Soto commenced.  After World War II, however, the islands weren’t considered necessary for national defense and sold back to Pinellas County, who in turn made the islands a county park.

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Since this is a typical summer’s day in Tampa Bay, I opted to make a quick run down to the park before the afternoon rain storms hit.  Yes, the Sunshine State often gets quick rain showers during the summer months.  But don’t worry.  Just wait 15 minutes and then you can head back outside to enjoy the beaches.

Speaking of beaches, there are several to chose from along the park.

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There is a shorebirds nesting site on the North Beach that is off limits to humans, but there’s still plenty of space for beach fun.

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There’s also fishing available from the piers.

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And if that wasn’t enough, you can purchase tickets on ferries to either Edgemont National Wildlife Refuge or Shell Island.  Also, you can rent paddleboards, kayaks and bike to ride around the islands.

With beaches and activities galore, Fort De Soto County Park is a sight that needs to be seen and experienced to be believed.

Tampa’s Lowry Park Zoo

As summer looms in Florida, when temperatures and humidity work against outdoor enjoyment, I decided to head out to Tampa’s Lowry Park Zoo.

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Since I  live nearby, I opted for their “Buy a Day, visit for a year” promotion.  From now until the end of the year, I have access to the park with minimal black out dates (primarily their highest attendance dates).  That works just fine for me.

I opted to ask one of the employees the best place to start the day off.  He suggested starting with the primates, as they tend to be most active in the morning. And he was right.  The howler monkeys were serenading the park guests

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Other primates were hanging out, including some orangutans who were proudly supporting Tampa’s ice hockey team, the Lightning, in their bid for the Stanley Cup.

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From the primate area, I headed over towards their African animal section.  I was delighted to see one of my favorite animals, the penguins.

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I could have stayed here all day, but there was still more zoo to see, so off I continued, taking in the Safari Africa section, with both an open cart ride and walking trails.

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The ground hornbill followed along the fence by the carts, keeping a keen eye on the passengers.

The walking trails show some of the same animals that you see on the cart ride, but you can get a closer look.

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I will admit that I might have gotten a slight bit anxious when it looked like the rhino was giving me side-eye, but it was still amazing to get so close to such a rare animal.

One of the newest animals on exhibit are the African Painted Dog.  While similar to your pet dog, this animal is actually in a separate genus, separated from domesticated dogs by having fewer toes and teeth that are hypercarnivorous (more than 70% of their diet is meat).  They are also considered endangered, as there are only about 8,000 adults in existence.

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I couldn’t resist stopping by the meerkat enclosure as well.  Obviously, these guys know how to pose for the camera.

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From there, I crossed over to the aviary.  The large enclosure has separate sections, with hanging chains that help keep the birds from one section out of the others.  I guess they’re trying to keep birds of a feather flocking together.

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As we neared noon, the animals in the Asian Gardens section were all taking naps, so I opted to check out the Florida Wildlife portion of the park.  Native and not so native species were on display.  The park is currently upgrading several sections and the manatees were not available.  But others were.

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The regular admission for Lowry Park Zoo is $34.95 for adults and $25.95 for children aged 3-11.  There are several other packages you can purchase tickets with, including the TampaBay CityPass or reservations with hotel stays.  There are also several other activities you can participate in within the park, including behind the scenes tours and animal feedings.  With several areas to buy food and snacks, you could easily make a full day of it.

The Florida Aquarium

This morning, after purchasing a ticket through Groupon yesterday, I packed up Rover and drove over into Downtown Tampa to check out The Florida Aquarium.  Even having lived here for 15 years, I hadn’t taken the time to drive into downtown.  I probably should have done it earlier, as it is closing in on the end of the school year here and there were several school groups on field trips.  But it was great to see all the excitement that these young children had for the creatures who inhabit our Gulf and oceans.

I started off walking through the Wetlands exhibit, which replicate a typical mangrove forest in Florida.

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It is amazing the array of life that teams in these forests.

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It wasn’t just the underwater inhabitants that drew excitement from visitors.

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As well as the usual suspects who roam the waters of Florida.

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Up a set of stairs, I found the exhibit about creatures of Madagascar.  It was really popular with the school kids, but I was able to get one family portrait.

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There were many other exhibits throughout the aquarium, giving us glimpses of the denizens of the deep.

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Tiger sharks are known to live in and around the beaches of Florida, but they’re most active at dusk and don’t often head into the shallows.

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Lion fish are an invasive species in the Caribbean and Gulf waters.

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If only the tiger sharks would eat them…

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If you’re visiting with little ones, the Florida Aquarium has a splash park by Ray Cafe, out by the water, which will give them an outlet for excess energy before you head over to the 4D duck theater, which presents shows that are designed for both kids and adults.  Other, interactive presentations happen throughout the day.

Regular price for adults (13-59) is $28.95, seniors (60+) is $26.95, children (3-11) is $23.95 and free for those under 3.  There are add-ons available as well, including a dolphin cruise into the bay, dive experiences and behind the scenes tours.

Jolley Trolley

After living in the Tampa Bay area for the last 15 years, I finally took the time and rode the Jolley Trolley.  I mentioned the Trolley in my last post, when I finally made it over to Clearwater Beach.  I was going to try it yesterday, but the timing didn’t pan out, so I drove up to Dunedin to catch it, since Dunedin lies in the approximate middle of the Coastal Route.

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I decided to try and start on the Northbound route, which took me up to Tarpon Springs, which Mom and I visited when we came home for my doctor’s appointment in August.  Since it was one of the first runs of the morning, the trolley was pretty empty.  That gave me my choice of seats (so I snagged a window).  Then, we were off to Tarpon Springs.

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Since I’ve already talked about Tarpon Springs, I won’t go into details, but it was nice to be able to get off and stretch my legs.  I walked around for a little bit, but my main goal today was to ride the Trolley all the way, so I hopped back on and headed south to Clearwater.

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Also already talked about, but once again, Florida was showing off her beauty, so I had to snap a few shots as the Trolley rolled from North Clearwater Beach to South, over a causeway.

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I snapped one more shot before deciding to call it a day, though I could have easily kept on the trolley for hours.

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For $5, you can ride all day and get off and on as many times as you wanted.  You can stop for lunch on the beach, head back up to Tarpon Springs for dinner and still be able to ride until the last Trolley goes to bed.  I’m glad I was finally able to get to do this Clearwater staple and highly recommend it for anyone who wants to see these areas without having to shell out for gas.

Shell Collecting

It was a beautiful Florida winter day, so I decided to grab my camera and head over to Indian Rocks Beach on the Gulf Coast.  The wind was blowing off the Gulf, making it a pleasant walk as I did my version of shell collecting.  I like to leave them for everyone to enjoy, so I just take pictures to carry them with me.

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While the perfect ones are pretty, its the ones that are slightly broken that I really like, because they still have beauty in their imperfections.

I don’t want you to think I ignored the water.  I let the soothing shushing sound act as background noise.

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And no trip to the beach is ever complete without the presence of those loud, squawking beach combers, seagulls.

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I parked at the 17th street public park, where parking is $2 for 2 hours.  Plenty of time to soak up the sun and let stress slip away for a bit.  A trip to Indian Rocks Beach should be on your list if you’re visiting the Clearwater/St. Petersburg area.

Our Medical Saga cont.

So, how did we end up sitting in a hospital outside Orlando for over 2 weeks?  Well, after leaving Crystal River, Florida, we headed inland towards Ocoee, a suburb of Orlando, to stay in a boat house on Starke Lake for the holidays.  Set up like a studio apartment, the view was stunning, right on the water.  We spent Christmas watching bits of the fireworks from Walt Disney World and just relaxing.  It wasn’t until we closed in on New Year that things took a turn.

The evening of the 28th, we had done some grocery shopping and had pre-made items from the local Publix.  Mom suddenly became sick, but we looked up the symptoms and found food poisoning.  We went with that hypothesis because by morning, Mom was feeling a bit better, but not perfect.  In the middle of the night, though, things turned again.  She was having trouble breathing and feeling anxious and some chest tightness.  She’d fall asleep sitting up but then wake up an hour or so later unable to breathe.  Finally, we called 911.

They had to off-road to get to the boat house, but they got Mom out and on to a stretcher, then loaded her into the ambulance.  Then, I hopped in Red Rover to follow.  There were a few moments of panic because they turned on the sirens and lights and blew through a light.  Since the Kia Soul does not come with such a light and sound package, I had to wait at the light until it turned. Luckily, I was able to use the GPS to find my way.

No one seemed especially worried when I got in, but about half an hour in, a young ER doctor popped in, casually announced Mom was in the middle of a heart attack and that they were taking her up to the heart cath lab to get checked out.  He made it sound almost routine.  So, I was escorted up to the waiting area and told someone would be out to talk to me once they were done.

Two hours later and several paniced text between my brothers and myself,  the cardiologist came out and informed me it was a significant heart attack and laid out exactly what happened.  She had one artery that was completely unusable.  A second was blocked at 70% and they blew the clot out.  The third artery they had to put a stent in.  Because of the blown out clot, they inserted a balloon pump to act as a way to keep the clot from settling somewhere else.  It was a temporary measure and only in for a little over a day.

Because of the damage the heart had sustained from the attack, some of her other organs got into disarray and began acting up.  Fluid started filling her lungs.  Her kidneys didn’t want to do their job.  Even her liver seemed to be throwing a minor temper tantrum.  The heart was fixed, but then all these other issues kept popping up, making her recovery time longer.

So, at the end of the day, we’re still waiting on her release from the hospital, but she has heart failure and will have to wear an external defibrillator, of which I am familiar as I wore one after my own heart failure hospital stay.  She’ll also have to have some physical therapy and our diet is going to take a big change.  More ‘home cooked’ food, less pre-processed.  Moderating our sugar and salt intake will also be on the agenda.  We’re still hopeful that her health will improve enough to travel again.  She’s a strong woman and I have full faith in her full recovery.

So, we might not be posting as often and it will likely focus on Florida for the next while, but we’re still planning on getting out and seeing things.  Hey, Florida is a big state and there’s more to see in Central Florida than just Disney and Universal.  So our adventures will be slightly closer to home for now.

Why We’ve Been Quiet Lately

Some of you may have wondered why we haven’t posted since our stay in Crystal River last month.  Part of it was due to the holidays. Being home with family can take up quite a bit of time.  But, for the most part, we’ve been quiet because Mom suffered a heart attack on December 30th.

Which brings us to our topic of this particular post, what happens when you have a medical emergency while traveling.  We can’t speak to traveling in a foreign country, only here in the US for US citizens.  For that, I would suggest to check with that country before traveling.

Before you travel, check to see that your health insurance will travel with you.  If you have an HMO, contact your insurance provider to see what their policy is if you get sick when out of your home area.  If you’re the proud owner of a PPO, you’re pretty safe, though you’ll be paying more out of pocket than you would back home.

Find out where the nearest medical facility is.  Even if it is just a ‘doc-in-a-box’, aka Urgent Care Clinic, know where it is and how to get there.  It is better to be over-prepared in a medical emergency situation than under prepared.

Make sure your wishes are known.  Even if it is just a card in your wallet, have something prepared that let’s the medical personnel know if you want to be resuscitated or intubated or who your medical proxy might be.  If you have a traveling companion, make sure they know what your wishes would be in this instance as well.  There were some times when I had to be called on to make decisions for Mom while she was not able to make them on her own.

Trust local medical professionals.  When the ambulance came to get Mom from the AirBnB we were staying in, they asked where she wanted to be taken.  She asked for the best one and they made the decision based on their experiences.  And I can honestly admit that she has had the best care.

No matter what, you can’t plan for everything.  There are just too many variables that could take all your careful plans and flush them down the toilet.

More to come tomorrow.

Weeki Wachee Springs-Home of Florida’s Mermaids

This morning, we headed down the road about half an hour from Crystal River, to Weeki Wachee Springs State Park.  Weeki Wachee is a Seminole phrase for Winding River and is an appropriate name.  The river winds down into the Gulf of Mexico from a deep spring that remains a constant 74 degrees year round and is 99.8% pure water.  The attraction was established in 1947 by former frogman Newt Perry, who took his Navy diving knowledge and taught young women how to use hoses to breathe underwater, becoming mermaids.  It was a privately owned attraction until the state of Florida took over operations in 2008, turning it into a state park.

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With the holiday season upon us, we opted to get there early so we could see the early show of the mermaids.  There is also a water park attached to the main attraction, which is included with your admission.

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Mom thinks she missed her calling and should have been a mermaid herself.

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But it was time to watch the professional mermaids make breathing underwater look easy.

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It can take quite a bit of time to learn how to swim in the mermaid fins and breathe through the hose, as well as learning how to go up, down, sideways and all the other tricks they perform underwater in front of a theater that can hold up to 500 people.

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After being thoroughly impressed with the performance of the mermaids, we decided to take the 25 minute boat trip up the river that feeds out from the springs where the mermaids perform.

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Florida state law prohibits the touching or feeding of manatees and Weeki Wachee made sure to reinforce that information in the nicest way possible.

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No manatees were in the Weeki Wachee today, but the ride was still nice and we got to view some Florida flora.

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Upon disembarking, we ran into the other creature that Weeki Wachee is known for: their wild peacocks.  One decided to go on full display.

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Then he decided we needed to see what the back of the feathers looked like.

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The admission is very reasonable, at $13 per adult, children ages 6-12 are $8 and anyone under 6 is free.  The ticket includes all the shows as well as admission to the water park, Buccaneer’s Bay.  The mermaid shows do change and can be cancelled due to weather.  This is Florida, after all.  This state park is a good glimpse back at ‘Old Florida’.  It really is some place that should be experienced if you’re ever on Florida’s Nature Coast.

Scenic River Cruise to King’s Bay

On our holiday trek back to Florida, we’re spending the next few days at The Plantation on Crystal River, in Crystal River, FL.  One of its many offerings is an hour long cruise on King’s Bay, the outlet of Crystal River before spilling into the Gulf of Mexico.  One of the things Crystal River is known for is being one of the wintering spots for manatees.  When the Gulf gets cooler, manatees head up the rivers on Florida’s Nature Coast, gathering in large pods to keep warm.

There was only another couple on the boat with us, so it was easy to move around.  The captain, Brian, and his one person crew, pulled us out of the berth and out into the open water.  It was in the upper 70’s, a perfect Florida winter day.  The wildlife were definitely out.

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The first picture of two trees shows an island that once held a house.  The second is another abandoned house sitting on its own island.  Both were made uninhabitable by hurricanes.  Then, we found manatees.

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Some sped on by while another manatee just cruised along with our boat until stopping for a snack.  As we cruised along, looking for others, we spotted dolphins.  The dolphins find a school of fish, circle around them, and then dive in to snatch up a fish or two.  They did this a couple times as we watched.

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Once they were done, they opted to cruise along the bow of the boat for a bit.

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At only $15 per person for adults and $10 for children under 12, this is a wonderful way to spend an hour on the water.  You don’t have to be staying at The Plantation on Crystal River to partake of the tour.  Because the manatees and dolphins are wild animals, no guarantee of sightings can be made, but the captain will do all they can to make the trip as enjoyable as possible.